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10 ways to spend your 10-minute microbreak to stay productive at work

Thoughtful woman standing against blue wall
“Microbreaks” are designed to help workers recover and replenish energy.
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By now you probably know the importance of taking breaks during work, especially when working remotely. But how long should that break last and what should you do to maximize it? Those answers haven’t always been so clear. Until now. 

According to new research from West University of Timisoara in Romania, the ideal work break may be shorter than you think—no longer than 10 minutes, to be exact. These “microbreaks” are designed to help workers recover and replenish energy. They’re also proven to be beneficial for your well-being and job performance, the study says.

“It’s widely thought that the average adult’s focused attention span is between 90 and 120 minutes and peaks at about 45 minutes,” says Tanya Tarr, behavioral scientist and president of Cultivated Insights. (She was not involved in the study). “Taking a 10-minute break between a working interval of up to 90 minutes can help reset your attention span and keep cognitive momentum going for another focused 90-minute work interval. You have to pace yourself and let your brain catch its figurative breath.”

The concept of microbreaks is nothing new. The Pomodoro Technique, a popular time-management method invented by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, utilizes timed intervals to help people work more effectively. For every 25 minutes of focused work, you enjoy a five-minute break. After four 25-minute intervals, called pomodoros (Italian for “tomato”), you can take a longer 15- to 30-minute break.

Taking several microbreaks during your workday can be especially beneficial if you’re in back-to-back virtual meetings. Not only is excessive videoconferencing a strain on your vision, it can strain your brain as well. That’s where microbreaks come in.

Wondering how to spend your next microbreak? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Walk through a doorway

“My favorite microbreak is to get up and walk through two doors in my home, or go out to my backyard and stand in the sunlight for a few minutes,” says Tarr, referencing the “doorway effect,” which can help reset our short-term memory, thus alleviating cognitive strain. 

2. Prepare a healthy snack

A new study shows that swapping out your favorite bag of chips for a bowl of fruit can support your overall well-being. Nutrient-rich foods have also been found to boost brain health. 

3. Watch a funny video

It’s true what they say: Laughter really is the best medicine. Laughing out loud has been shown to decrease stress levels, improve your short-term memory, and help alleviate pain. So go ahead and pull up your favorite TikTok or YouTube videos, just be sure to set an alarm so you don’t lose track of time.  

4. Phone (or text) a friend

As it turns out, this small act of kindness has benefits for both you and the person on the other end of the line. A new study shows that quick check-ins are associated with positive psychological outcomes, such as “increased social and emotional well-being, protection from stressful events and anxiety, personal growth, and increased cognitive functioning.”

5. Water your plants

Being surrounded by greenery and caring for houseplants has been shown to lower anxiety and stress while increasing productivity. A win-win, if we do say so ourselves.

6. Listen to a guided meditation

Sitting in silence may not be your cup of tea, but tuning in to a guided meditation can help reduce stress and increase your sense of calm. Not sure how to start? Check out a meditation app like Calm, Headspace, or Insight Timer.

7. Do a quick stretch or yoga sequence

“Doing two to three simple stretches or holding in a plank position for a 30-second interval can help keep your neck, spine, and back muscles healthy and work your core,” says Tarr. “This also may alleviate tension headaches, which tend to happen when we shallow breathe and not breathe using our core and diaphragmatic muscles.”

8. Take a shower

Yes, bathing is good for your personal hygiene, but there are psychological benefits as well. Cold showers can boost your energy, while warm showers help relieve tension. Plus, being alone with your thoughts (and away from a computer screen) can encourage creativity—in case you’ve ever wondered why you get your best ideas in the shower.  

9. Doodle at your desk

Turns out the activity you may have gotten in trouble for in middle school can help you lower your stress and improve your memory. “It is the type of low-stakes activity that can be done or even interrupted with no downside,” says Tarr. 

10. Read a book

In addition to increasing your vocabulary and comprehension, reading has been found to lower your heart rate, improve brain connectivity, and prevent cognitive decline.

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