Why Leaders Need to Embrace Downtime: The Science Behind Work Breaks

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If you’re in a position of leadership, you’re no stranger to the high demands and expectations that often come with the role. But did you know that your ability to sustain focus and productivity might actually improve if you take regular breaks? Yes, you heard that right—embracing downtime can be a game-changer. Let’s dive in.

Why You Should Care About Breaks

The first question is, why should you care? K. Anders Ericsson’s study on elite performers—from musicians to athletes—suggests that top performers practice in focused sessions lasting no longer than 90 minutes and take frequent breaks to avoid exhaustion (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993). The idea here isn’t just about staving off burnout; it’s also about maximizing productivity and performance. Short, focused bursts of work interspersed with meaningful rest can help sustain high levels of energy and attention throughout the day.

But don’t just take Ericsson’s word for it. A classic study on ultradian rhythms shows our bodies naturally work in cycles of high and low energy, typically lasting around 90 minutes (Kleitman & Kleitman, 1953). You can read more about ultradian rhythms on bluezones.com. This research mirrors Ericsson’s observations and supports the idea that aligning work sessions with our natural rhythms can optimize performance. Additionally, Matthew Walker’s research on sleep has shown that adequate rest is essential for cognitive function, creativity, and problem-solving (Walker, 2017). So, even a quick power nap can recharge your mental batteries and make you a more effective leader.

Learning and Development (L&D) research also lends credence to the concept of taking breaks for optimized learning and performance. Techniques like spaced repetition and microlearning endorse the benefits of short, focused learning periods (Thalheimer, 2006; Hug, 2017). If you’re managing a team, incorporating these L&D techniques can lead to a more effective and engaged workforce.

Science Snapshot

  1. Deliberate Practice and Expert Performance: K. Anders Ericsson found that elite performers engage in focused practice sessions lasting no longer than 90 minutes and take breaks to recover and avoid burnout (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993).
  2. Ultradian Rhythms: Research shows our bodies have natural cycles of high and low energy, roughly lasting 90 minutes, making it beneficial to align work sessions with these cycles (Kleitman & Kleitman, 1953).
  3. Sleep and Cognitive Function: Adequate sleep, even in the form of short naps, is essential for cognitive functions like memory, problem-solving, and creativity (Walker, 2017).
  4. Active Learning: Techniques like spaced repetition and microlearning in Learning and Development research also advocate for short, focused learning sessions for better retention and performance (Thalheimer, 2006; Hug, 2017).
  5. Flow State: Achieving a state of flow, or complete immersion in a task, is more likely to occur during periods of high focus and engagement, suggesting the importance of breaks to reach this state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
  6. Occupational Burnout: Research indicates that lack of downtime can lead to occupational burnout, affecting both well-being and performance (Maslach & Leiter, 2008).
  7. Mental Rejuvenation: Mindfulness and meditation studies reveal that brief mental breaks can increase focus and reduce stress, improving overall performance (Tang, Hölzel & Posner, 2015).
  8. Promotes Creativity: Periods of mind-wandering have been shown to foster creativity and problem-solving, suggesting the importance of taking breaks to “let the mind roam” (Schooler et al., 2012).

Practical Tips for Managers

  1. Set a Timer: Use the Pomodoro Technique as a guide. Work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. It’s as simple as that.
  2. Encourage Team Breaks: Promote a culture where taking a break isn’t seen as slacking off but as an essential part of sustaining high performance.
  3. Lead by Example: Don’t just talk the talk. Make sure you’re also taking breaks to recharge and refocus.

Final Thoughts

As a manager or leader, it’s your responsibility not just to ensure productivity but also well-being. A well-rested team is a happy and productive team, and staying in the ideal polyvagal states helps maintain that sense of balance and focus. Frequent breaks can assist in keeping the nervous system in a state of social engagement and safety, optimizing performance and interaction within your team.

So go ahead, schedule that coffee break, take a quick walk around the block, or engage in some mindfulness exercises. Doing so could bring everyone, including yourself, closer to those ideal polyvagal states. Your future self—and your team—will thank you for it.


  • Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363.
  • Kleitman, N., & Kleitman, E. (1953). Basic rest-activity cycle—22 years later. Sleep Research, 2, 69.
  • Walker, M. (2017). Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Scribner.
  • Thalheimer, W. (2006). Spaced Learning Over Time. Work-Learning Research, 1-16.
  • Hug, T. (2017). Microlearning: A new, old approach to course development. eLearn Magazine, (11).