How to Know When to Take a Break

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How do you know when to relax?  There are two typical answers to this question, and I’m here to say that both are wrong.  If you thought the question was silly and the answer was obvious, you probably picked one of the two.

The two common answers are:

  1. When you’ve finished your work.
  2. When you’re tired.

Why the “Rest When Finished” Approach Fails…

This is the more macho, self-disciplined approach to work through fatigue.  It works great, assuming you have a light to medium workload.  It’s the approach I use built into my Weekly/Daily Goals system, because it’s simple and most of the time it does it’s job.

Where this approach fails, however, is when you have a really intense schedule.  When the amount of work you have to do is nearing or currently exceeding your “burnout” threshold, this formula is dangerous.  When “working until you’re finished” means working non-stop for 72 hours, you will run out of energy far before you pass out from exhaustion.

Energy management is the principle that the energy and focus you can bring to your work matters more than the time put in.  And when your schedule is threatening to kill you, strategic breaking can help you survive.  Not only that, but it can boost your energy so you actually accomplish more in a smaller amount of time.

Where the “Rest When Finished” Works

If you have:

  • A light to medium schedule.  (Definition: you’re able to get 8 hours of sleep, and you aren’t skipping meals to do work…)
  • An intense schedule, but for less than three days.  (If you can collapse and sleep for an entire weekend once you meet your big deadline, just endure the insanity.)

…then the “rest when finished” approach is a good rule of thumb.

Why the “Rest When I Feel Like It” Approach Sucks…

The alternate strategy of resting when I feel like it works great when:

  • You have so much passion/enthusiasm for what you’re doing you are likely to become a workaholic.
  • You never have problems with procrastination or laziness.

If you’re a regular person, like me, those two above probably don’t apply to you.  I’m passionate about what I do, but I still need to focus myself in order to work.  I also have bouts of laziness and procrastination like the rest of us.  If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t be very good at writing articles for overcoming those problems.

The “rest when tired” approach fails because it is hard to separate genuine resting with procrastination.  You might be tired, and an energy boost could improve performance.  Or you might just be lying to yourself in order to put off work.  It’s a thin line.

Strategic Resting for Improved Performance

The above two approaches can work as a rule of thumb.  But they both have their weaknesses, and times when they break down.  Strategic resting works better when the “rest when finished” approach is driving you insane, but the “rest when tired” approach just means procrastination.

On a short time span, there are really only two kinds of breaks you can take:

  1. Short breaks to rest during the day.
  2. Breaks that finish a day and begin the next morning.

When to Take a Short Break

Here’s my rule for taking short breaks:

Whenever I hit a roadblock in my energy and can’t accomplish anything, I set myself a timer for 15-30 minutes.  My goal is to keep working throughout this time.  Once the timer is done, I see if I’ve made any progress.  If I haven’t, I know it’s time to take a break.

This rule helps because it prevents you from quitting whenever you hit a small obstacle.  However, it also gives you permission to take a break when you’ve hit a huge wall and can’t push through it from your current direction.  In those cases, a small break can give you some space to figure out the problem.

When to Quit for the Day

Quitting for the day is the best rest you can get.  However, it’s costly, so don’t use it when:

  1. Your deadline is tomorrow (or tonight).
  2. You’re still early in the day.  (Take a short break instead)
  3. You can rework your daily to-do list.

The last point deserves mention.  Sometimes you can burn yourself out by setting your goals too high for what you want to accomplish.  If your to-do list is impossible, that will kill your motivation and energy.

When that happens, it’s best to rework your to-do list.  Make it achievable by the end of the day.  Don’t remove items off your to-do list until you’ve given serious effort towards it.  However, if you’ve misjudged what you can do in one day, it’s better to change your list than give up.

If it’s later in the day, you’ve taken short breaks and still can’t recover your energy and your deadline isn’t for a few days, that’s a better time to call it quits.

Don’t Waste Day-Ending Breaks

If you’re going to quit for the day, rest fully.  Set a big to-do list for the next day and plan to start early again.  You’ve postponed work to rest strategically.  That will only be successful if you actually regain your energy.  Here are a few tips:

  1. Go to sleep early.
  2. Be in a relaxing environment.  Don’t just sit in a state of passive stress.
  3. Spend time outlining your plan of attack for tomorrow.  Planning your next day gives you better odds you’ll have energy to accomplish it.

Strategic resting is the plan to use when simpler rules fail.  When those simple rules for productivity fail, a more well-thought approach to breaking can save you.

  • Chris (from Lifestyle Project)

    “The “rest when tired” approach fails because it is hard to separate genuine resting with procrastination. ” – I hear this Scott.

    Oh, by the way, no matter how hard I try I always end up reworking my todo list! That’s too much procrastinating I think.

    Nice post.

  • Joseph Garza

    Scotty great stuff. I’m new to your blog but so far im loving it. I’m all about energy, although confused on how to utilize it at times, and thanks to your blog you have helped clarify some ideas that have been floating around in my head for a while.

  • Scott Young


    I could have gone into an even more detailed system of off-hand rules for preventing to-do list changing, but that would have bloated up the article too much.

    The truth is, it’s a fine line. You need to figure out what your productivity weaknesses are, and discipline yourself to avoid them. So if you chronically rework your to-do list, commit yourself to not touch your to-do list once formed until the day is complete.

    I usually estimate my productivity for the day fairly accurately, so to-do list reworking is unnecessary. Adjustments are only necessary when something unexpectedly takes far longer than it should and I’m left with no time to finish but I don’t want to give up completely.


  • Adam


    I was just wondering how much work (in terms of hours of intensive thinking/problem solving) do you do each day? Personally I do few (2/3) hours a day of that kind of work but I’m not tired and it seems to me that I could do much more every day… and I achieve a lot right now, so it’s strange, I’m going to work more and see what’s my threshold so that by the end of the day I can actually say that I’m tired!

  • J.D. Meier / Sources of Insigh

    Time’s a great way to set boundaries and keep momentum. In my “how to study in college” class we learned to take five minute breaks for every half hour of work. This helped us learn to work in short, efficient spurts and stay motivated. I later learned how quickly you can burnout your prefrontal cortex during sustained thinking, which explains why the short breaks every 30 minutes were so effective.

  • LifeMadeGreat – Juliet

    Hi there

    I like your ideas and suggestions.
    I wish that companies were more aware of the individual “break needs” of employees. If the company culture was more flexible and you didn’t “have” to work “continuously” or for certain hours I think there would be a great deal more productivity.


  • Andreea

    Hey there,
    I’m a strong believer of the short break system, it works perfect for me. I think that the key of being active it not pushing your limits, if possible. As far as I am concerned, this makes you perform better in whatever you do.
    Very nice post.

  • Chris (from Lifestyle Project)

    Scott, thanks for the follow up advice. I think my rearranging my to-do list is part of my work environment and my lack of interest in work!

  • Scott Young


    The goal isn’t to be tired. It’s to get work done you actually care about.