Frequent breaks help recharge our batteries at work, and while screen-free respites are usually best, sometimes you just can’t get away from your devices–and sometimes you just don’t want to. But the good news is that tech-based or -enhanced breaks can give you some of the same benefits as the offscreen variety, if you are able to include some combination of physical movement, social interaction, and brain stimulation. So take a few minutes to sing karaoke along with your favorite YouTube video, feel guilt-free about firing up a video game, or set aside time to chat with friends in the middle of the day.
Whether you’re facing back-to-back video calls or just a non-stop flurry of email, work can leave you in a screen haze unless you make a point of taking periodic, regenerative breaks. As a 2015 article in the Journal of Applied Psychology put it, our professional “energy, motivation and concentration…are like batteries that periodically need recharging.”
While you can and should take breaks by stepping away from your devices and screens, you may not always have the time or the autonomy to do so. (In our forthcoming book, Remote, Inc., Robert C. Pozen and I take aim at the 8-hour workday in part because it inhibits remote workers from taking the breaks they need to stay healthy and productive.) But if you choose the right screen-based breaks, they can provide you with similar benefits as the offline variety and help you take more breaks throughout the day. And sometimes technology can also augment a largely screen-free respite. So don’t get caught in the trap of what one research team termed “screen guilt”: the idea that a break doesn’t really count unless you step away from your devices.
I’m not saying that you should just start doomscrolling through your social media app of choice, though. That won’t give your brain or your body the break from work it needs. Instead, choose breaks that do one or more of the following:
Get your body moving.
Researchers have found that regular movement breaks, which can be as short as a two-minute walk, have a significant impact on workers’ physical energy levels and comfort, without reducing productivity.
Connect you with other humans.
Yes, this works even over screens! If you’re working remotely or social distancing, the feelings of isolation can be acute. But a study of university lecturers working remotely during the pandemic found that an online “huddle” had a significant impact on feelings of isolation, which is consistent with past research showing that online networking can reduce feelings of loneliness.
Challenge your brain with something different.
A little non-work-related mental stimulation can prime your brain to tackle work challenges more effectively. For example, a meta-study of research on the cognitive and emotional impact of video gaming found that games can improve mental processing speed, reaction times and working memory. And an experimental study of 12- and 13-year-old students found that playing mental puzzles improved their problem-solving abilities.
Take a Better Break
Here are some examples of tech-based breaks that meet these criteria. Consider these alongside your yoga sessions and coffee runs for breaks that put the time between meetings to good use, so that you actually feel refreshed and restored when the next one begins.
Get an on-screen workout.
Combine gaming with movement and you have a double-duty stress buster. So take a few minutes to play a physically active game like Beat Saber or Wii Sports, or if you prefer to get outside, chasing down a new Pokémon in the mobile game Pokémon Go.
Sing out, Louise!
Physical activity doesn’t necessarily mean a workout. A growing range of studies have investigated the physiological mechanisms that make music such a powerful stress reducer, as well as the particular benefits of group singing when it comes to creating a sense of wellbeing and “social flow.” Since there is evidence that in-person group singing can spread Covid-19, I recommend a solitary alternative: YouTube karaoke! No matter whether your tastes run to pop or Broadway, you will find YouTube tracks ready for an intra-meeting solo. So fire up the music, close the door if you’re self-conscious about being heard, and belt your heart out for a few minutes.
Take a story break.
Fire up your favorite audiobook app and pick up your knitting, do the dishes, or go for a quick stroll—all while listening to a short story or novel. No, don’t try to pack in a little more work time by listening to a business book: The whole point of this break is to combat the emotional disconnection that can set in when you’re working remotely. There’s nothing like fiction to fire up your empathy—but only if you’re so engrossed that you’re “emotionally transported into the story,” according to one experimental study. So use this break to re-awaken your heart, and return to your desk newly able to reconnect with your coworkers.
Take a conversation break.
It’s not an accident that audio-only social networks like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces have taken off at a moment when we’re cut off from the casual chit-chat of the office. As Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks observed in an HBR article on the way to foster spontaneous, constructive interactions in the physical office, these kinds of impromptu conversations can be a great way to foster innovation and creativity. Dropping in on an audio social network can give you little bit of that spontaneity: Whether you listen into a panel conversation that inspires you with fresh ideas, or jump into a smaller room for a little bit of chit-chat, an infusion of other humans can leave you re-energized, and may even give you a new angle on a project or problem.
Beat the clutter.
Research has shown that household clutter can make people depressed and overwhelmed—and if you’re working from home, you don’t get a daily 8-hour break from its impact. So pick a small decluttering project somewhere in your home, like that messy drawer in your kitchen or the pile of papers on your desk, and take ten minutes to whip it into shape. (Combine this with an audiobook, singing session or Clubhouse to get a double-duty break.) My favorite part of any organizing project is when I fire up the label maker and use my phone to quickly type up a few labels, which is why even this largely analog ritual is still a tech project to me.
Tune up your brain.
A 2014 study of cognitive activities that can mitigate the risk of Alzheimer’s suggested that any kind of cognitive play — cards, crosswords, checkers — is associated with better cognitive performance. Other research also suggests that casual video gaming during a work break can reduce perceptions of stress. So yes, you can refresh and sharpen your brain with a little midday Words with Friends, or better yet, combine that gaming with some physical movement by using a home assistant like the Amazon Echo to game out loud: Try Jeopardy, Memory Match or Song Quiz while you stretch, walk or tidy up.
Of course, there’s no rule saying you have to include your gadget in the breaks you take as a remote worker. But in those moments when stepping away is difficult — or if (like me) you really don’t want to necessarily switch off and unplug — don’t let that stop you from recharging your body and brain throughout the workday, just as diligently as you recharge your gadgets.