Improve your focus by taking more breaks every day

Whether you need to be merely reminded our outright forced to take breaks, we have advice for you.
A woman sipping from a teacup while taking a break.
Just chill a bit. Parker Johnson / Unsplash

When’s the last time you looked away from your computer? If you’re anything like me, it’s been a while, which might be slowing both of us down. 

Taking regular breaks can vastly improve your focus, according to a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign study published in March 2011, and that means you and I should really be stepping away from our screens more than we are. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working or in the middle of a gaming session—breaks will help you perform better. The problem: it’s hard to remember to take some time to regroup, so you may have to force the issue.

Schedule your breaks into your day

If you, like me, live by your calendar, this tip is so important. Don’t assume you’ll remember to take breaks throughout the day—schedule those breaks and stick to them. Add the breaks to whatever calendar application you use and, if possible, turn on notifications so you don’t miss any. Treat your breaks the same way you would a meeting or any other appointment you don’t want to forget about. If that doesn’t work, consider setting up recurring alarms on your phone. The key is to plan breaks ahead of time and follow through on those plans. 

This advice will be even easier to follow if you make a habit out of it. You could take a walk every day at 10 a.m., or make yourself a cup of tea every afternoon at 2 p.m., and those are just two of countless examples I could list here. Build these breaks into a routine and you’ll find it’s easier to stick to. 

Try the Pomodoro Technique

Pomodoro, as you might know, is the Italian word for tomato. The Pomodoro Technique gets its name from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer used by its creator Francesco Cirillo when he started scheduling breaks into his day. The method is simple: decide on a task you want to accomplish, set a timer for 25 minutes, and get to work. When time’s up, take a five-minute break. After four such sessions, take a longer break, generally a half-hour or so. Then start over. A lot of people swear by this technique, which combines periods of intense focus with regular breaks—exactly why we mentioned it in our guide to overcoming procrastination.

You can use a regular kitchen timer for this, if you want, but most people today rely on apps. I recommend Pomodor for anyone who is curious. This simple application runs entirely within a web browser, meaning you won’t need to install anything. Hit the play button to start focusing on a task, then take a break when you get a notification to stop.

The Pomodor browser interface, a Pomodoro Technique app.
Taking breaks shouldn’t be complicated, and neither is Pomodor’s interface. Justin Pot

Use a dedicated app to force the issue

The methods above rely on you to stop working when it’s time to stop, which isn’t an approach that will work for everyone. If you’re someone who struggles to take breaks even when you know you should, I recommend installing an application that will actually force you to take breaks: Stretchly. This application is free and open-source, meaning it doesn’t have any ads and can generally be considered trustworthy. It runs on Windows, macOS, and Linux, so if you have a computer, you can use it.

The reason I like Stretchly is that it pops up over whatever you’re doing, effectively forcing you to stop. Each time, the application also offers a suggestion for how to spend your break, like turning your head toward natural light or doing some basic stretching

The interface of Stretchly, an app that helps you take breaks.
Just chill. Justin Pot

There are two kinds of Stretchly breaks: “mini breaks,” which last 20 seconds and happen every 10 minutes, and “long breaks,” which last for 5 minutes and happen every half-hour. Those are the default times, but you can configure how long and how frequent both types of breaks are. Each time you take a breather, you’ll also see a button to dismiss the break, but you can enable “Strict Mode” to eliminate that option. To do so, open the settings, click Schedule, and check one or both boxes under Strict Mode to let the app know not to give you a way out.

It’s a flexible, customizable application, and one that can make a big difference in your workday. I recommend installing it and seeing how it fits into your life. It’s free, after all, so there’s nothing to lose.