Focus On This Podcast

56. Time to Step Away: Boost Productivity With Better Breaks



You want to accomplish demanding work. But some days, you hit a wall. When you buckle down and push through, you end up burnt out. When you try to relax by scrolling on social media or doing downhill work, you feel stressed because you’re not making any progress. Either way, you wind up exhausted. There has to be a better way.

We know the frustration of feeling stuck alternating between willpower and distraction. But we’ve cracked the code. The key is taking breaks that boost your productivity, not undermine it. Today, we’ll teach you three criteria for doing just that.

You can finally stop ending your workday feeling stressed out and frustrated. Better breaks will help you stay refreshed while empowering you to do your best work.

In this episode, you’ll discover—

  • Why breaks matter for your productivity.
  • What your brain is really up to while it’s wandering.
  • Suggestions for breaks that leave you refreshed.
  • How to effectively build breaks into your day.
  • Then, we’ll help a caller answer the question, “How do I adapt my ideal week to the new realities of my life and work?”

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Episode Transcript

Verbs: Welcome to another episode of Focus on This, the most productive podcast on the Internet, so you can banish distractions, get the right stuff done, and finally start loving Mondays, with your hosts Courtney Baker and Blake Stratton.

Blake: Excellent. Thank you so much, fake Verbs. Courtney, how are you?

Courtney: Wait. I don’t think you’re supposed to tell the people that was fake Verbs.

Blake: Well, it’s real Verbs. He’s just not here with us right now. It’s just me, it’s you, it’s Zoom, and our producer Nick is also standing by just in case we really go off the rails.

Courtney: Yeah, in case we break some things. We are talking about how to take better breaks and how breaks impact our productivity. Honestly, this is such a good episode for me to hear right now. Do you ever feel like that, Blake? Sometimes these episodes are really for us, like, we need to hear this again?

Blake: Yeah, I really do feel like these episodes are for you and for Nick, oftentimes. Yeah.

Courtney: I see how it goes. I said a couple of weeks ago on the podcast that I was pregnant. I think especially now, I can forget that I can’t do exactly the same things I used to do, and then being completely exhausted. It’s kind of a different level of this, but I think we all experience this.

Especially if you’re a high achiever, you have that drive to get it done and just do whatever it takes to push through so that you achieve whatever you’re trying to get done, whatever you’re trying to check off the list. We think that’s the best way to do that, but actually, ultimately, over time, we totally destroy our energy. We totally deplete what’s there in the bank. It’s just not a great system. It’s not a great way to approach life.

Blake: I think it’s a way we can give ourselves this excuse that we’re doing a good job. “Well, if I’m exhausted, that means I’ve done a good job. That means I got a lot of important stuff done and I’m an important person.” The truth is that if it’s actually about what you’re getting done and what you’re able to accomplish and getting the right stuff done, then we recognize we have to have breaks. Our brains are wired to need that rest and rejuvenation.

For me, my struggle is not necessarily “Should I take a break?” It’s letting a break turn into a 20-minute scroll down social media lane where I’m actually just procrastinating getting the right stuff done. Has that ever happened to you?

Courtney: Yeah. I think being intentional… Well, frankly, if I’m struggling…

Blake: You’re looking at your phone right now. You’re scrolling. You didn’t even pay attention.

Courtney: Yeah. What did you just say? For me, it’s more taking the break. I have a hard time actually getting there. I do want to comment on one thing you said about our brains. I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit, especially for people who work behind a computer all day, of how many calories… Our brain burns more calories than any other part of our body. That’s why you can be sitting all day at a conference and feel exhausted, like you’ve run a marathon, but you haven’t moved your body very much at all. That’s because our brains use so many calories.

Blake: And add that on top of your power lifting routine, and you really can burn out at the end of the day.

Courtney: Exactly.

Blake: The pregnancy plan of power lifting that you’re on. Well, let’s talk about it then. So, how can we take better breaks? How can we shift from, “Well, I’m just going to hustle and power through” or “I’m going to take a break and, like Blake, get distracted, and then I’m not as productive as I need to be…” How do we take really good breaks where we aren’t feeling guilty but we’re instead feeling rejuvenated and ultimately more productive, more fulfilled?

Courtney: The first thing you need to do to have better breaks is to disconnect. You kind of already mentioned that, Blake. You take a break, but then you get stuck doing something that’s actually not helpful. It actually makes it where you didn’t take a break. Your brain has two modes, basically. You have a focus mode and a diffuse mode.

Basically, diffuse mode is where your brain goes when your mind is wandering. I kind of think about this as when I’m lying in bed, but I haven’t fallen asleep, and my brain is just doing whatever it does. This is what’s mind-blowing about this. Your brain activity actually increases when it’s in that diffuse mode. You’d think it would be the opposite, but it’s actually not.

Blake: This is the shower principle from Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock. Did you ever see that episode?

Courtney: No, but I was pretending like I had.

Blake: For all four of the listeners who have seen that episode, they’re like, “Yeah! That’s it.” Basically, he’s trying to solve this big problem, and he relies on the shower principle. Meaning, he always thinks of the solution when he’s not trying to think of the solution.




Jack Donaghy: The shower principle is a term scientists use to describe moments of inspiration that occur when the brain is distracted from the problem at hand. For example, when you’re showering. If the cerebral cortex is distracted by showering or putting, then another part of the brain, the anterior superior temporal gyrus, is activated. This is the site of sudden cognitive inspiration.

Liz Lemon: Nerd alert!


[End of video]


Courtney: Yeah. It’s like your brain is subconsciously problem-solving for you, which is an incredible thing our brains do. It’s connecting ideas, it’s retrieving memories, but all of that is a lot of brain calories that we don’t usually give our brain any credit for. We think that’s our brain playing, but actually, our brain is working really hard.

Blake: So, you need to break from the big important stuff you’re trying to do. That’s the key. Talking to a coworker about the business… I’ve done this before. I’ve walked down the hall. I’ve talked to a coworker. We’ll be like, “Yeah,” and then we just start talking about one of our programs or something, just because it’s small talk and we’re both concerned with it, but my brain is still thinking about the problem. Then I’ll go back to work, and I don’t feel like I’ve necessarily taken a break.

You have to disconnect mentally from the problem, which, for me, means I have to probably do something else. Otherwise, my mind just wants to think about the thing I’m trying to work on. What do you do to disconnect?

Courtney: This is something Michael Hyatt taught me. We were on an all-team retreat, and I’d always… Michael is a big proponent of taking naps, and we’ve talked about naps on this show before. I told Michael, “I just can’t take a nap. It doesn’t matter what I do. I can’t take a nap.” He was like, “You can take a nap. You need to just make it something you have to achieve.”

From some of the other research I had done and read about, it was important for me to set a 20-minute time limit for my nap. The reason I really didn’t like it was because I would wake up and feel super groggy, just terrible. It was better not to take a nap. Now that I’ve done that 20-minute nap thing for a while, that has been great for me. There’s no better way to totally shut off your brain than literally shutting off your brain, and especially this year it has been a great…

Blake: Checks out.

Courtney: Seems legit.

Blake: The logic is sound.

Courtney: So, that really helps for me. The other thing I really enjoy is just going outside and going for a walk. I do have to catch myself if sometimes I’m always trying to entertain myself. We probably culturally do that. We’re always trying to, like you said with social media, you know, entertain ourselves. I always have to have a podcast going or something going. So, trying to have those moments of mindfulness, turning on my Headspace app and doing some kind of walking meditation, something that just gets me totally out of the thinking zone.

Blake: So, your breaks need to be disconnected from your work. They also need to be truly restful. That’s the second piece of advice we have for you with breaks. Distractions will numb you. I’ve taken a break and just scrolled social media before, and then I feel more tired than before I took a break. A good break is actually going to be restful. I actually did this experiment. This came out in a Weekly Preview I did.

I’ll take a break, and I’ll check Instagram. I won’t look at my phone when I’m doing focused work, so it’s sort of like, “Oh, it’s a little treat. I’ll just check Instagram and see all that stuff.” I noticed from my Weekly Preview I’m still really tired, and then I feel kind of edgy at the end of the day. That’s my version of when I’m too tired, I’ve been overworked. I’m just a little bit not fun to be around, short patience, that sort of thing.

I just said, “Well, why don’t I set a timer…?” Because sometimes in the morning I’ll do a meditation thing. Why don’t I just set a timer for five minutes and literally just sit there and close my eyes for five minutes. Not anything crazy, not doing any special meditation, just literally sit there for five minutes and close my eyes. It is the most restful thing.

So, instead of five minutes on Instagram, five minutes just resting my eyes, just letting my brain have a rest. I sometimes, like we discovered in the previous principle, would think of a good idea about something, and other times nothing would happen, but I would just open my eyes when the ding sounds and feel better.

Courtney: I love that. It’s going to be different from person to person. I will say right now, as many of us are working from home… Previously, before this year, I got a lot of my restful breaks by being around other people in the office. You know, Blake, I would run into you, and we would laugh about how shiny the coffee beans were in the office. People are going to think I made that up. That’s legit.

Blake: We have pretty wild times at Michael Hyatt & Company, as you can tell.

Courtney: Right. But connecting with colleagues can kind of reset and enhance your productivity if you’re really shooting the breeze and not discussing a problem or an issue you’re trying to solve. I think now that many of us are working from home… You can still get that in some ways. Something we’ve done this year at Michael Hyatt & Company is to do Zoom lunches. You just get some people and jump on Zoom, eat your lunch, chat about what’s going on. It provides another way to still get that connection, if that’s what works for you to reset and take a break. You can be creative about how you can still get that even if you’re working from home.

Blake: Getting into nature is also really good for this. There’s something called the attention restoration theory. You can pull over the car right now and Google it. We’ve all probably experienced it. Being outside is great for this. Do what my daughter does and just be in awe of all of the trees and grab a leaf off of one and crunch it. It’s really helpful, I’ve found. At least it is for her, so it probably applies to the rest of us too. What’s next?

Courtney: The next one is to schedule your breaks. This one is for me. I’m speaking to the choir here. You have to have your breaks on your calendar. Lunch break is important, although I think a lot of people now are just squeezing in lunch too. You’re just grabbing something really quickly and heading to the next meeting. But if you do have a lunch break, this is still different than that even, although that is really important.

If you can schedule a 15-minute or 20-minute meeting for yourself, that’s going to be huge. We say this over and over again on this podcast, but what gets scheduled gets done. If you can reframe breaks as actually helping your productivity, it is well worth the initiative to get it scheduled on your calendar.

Blake: I should try this, because to me, when I read that, I thought, “Oh, yeah. I already do this,” but I don’t really do it. It doesn’t ever end up on my calendar, per se. I’ll just have a session of time where I’m going to work on something, and sometimes I’ll set a timer. “Okay. I’m going to force myself to stand up and stop looking at the computer.” I’ll just set a timer on my phone, but that’s a little bit different. I think that’s helpful, at least it is for me, to remember to take a break, but this kind of ups the ante.

I think this is helpful not even necessarily to think of it as, “Hey, I have a break that is scheduled, so I’ll definitely take a break.” For me, it almost is incentive to have deeper focus time. I’ve found that if I don’t know when I’m going to take a break, I don’t know how much I need to be conserving my energy. I’ll let myself get distracted by little things, little messages coming in or stuff like that, and there are almost little breaks in my attention because I don’t have anything scheduled. So, I’m sort of mitigating that and overall having a lower quality focus time.

Courtney: That’s a really good insight. What’s probably shocking for most people is that there’s a lot of research that actually says you should have a break every 50 to 90 minutes. That’s kind of alarming, because I think most of us are doing good to eat our lunch. The idea that you should get a break… I will say, for all of you out there who lead a team, most likely the people on your team are not going to feel the freedom to take a break until you display it for them.

So I think it’s really important for you to schedule these and to take them, maybe even let them know, “Hey, I’m going to take a 10-minute walk outside.” Actually, Megan Miller did this early on in the COVID season. She was like, “I’m taking some time each day to go outside and walk.” I thought, “Oh, that’s really great.” Because she was doing it, it also gave the freedom for me to be like, “Okay. If it’s important to her, it can also be important to me to go outside and take a little break.”

Blake: That’s huge. You’re exactly right. Awesome. Well, we actually have a phone call from a Full Focus Planner user, so let’s go to that now.

We have a special guest with us. Brian is joining us. Brian, how are you?

Brian: I’m great. How are you guys today?

Courtney: Wait, Blake. I’m sorry. You’re acting like he’s just joining… He’s actually on video with us.

Blake: I know.

Courtney: We’ve invited Brian. He’s getting the inside look at my closet.

Blake: Yeah. He had some feedback for me, actually. He sent me a note. He was like, “I think she should have gone with the striped shirt today.”

Courtney: Oh, yeah. Okay. He can vouch, though, for my color-coordinated closet.

Brian: Absolutely. Light to dark, left to right.

Courtney: Brian, I heard you have a question for us, and we don’t know what it is, so we’re really excited to hear what you have.

Brian: By way of context, I’ve been using the Full Focus Planner diligently for just about a year and a half now, and I would say it has almost become my Bible. So much so that I have my daily rituals down to the minute. I have my Ideal Week all charted out in beautiful colors and great lines and super detailed. I felt like I was finally getting my act together over the last few quarters, even having a little time away to get set up for the next quarter, and I guess I’m really struggling to have any day at all look like my Ideal Week.

With the onset of Zoom calls and team meetings and everything else, it’s like everybody has lost all context of time. I can get a Zoom call early a.m. I can get a Zoom call after hours. Nobody even pays attention to when lunchtime is anymore. I guess my question is…Is that an expectation I should be pushing back on or is it just something made up in my mind that I have to have some kind of new paradigm, new caveat?

I just feel like I’m on all the time. In the past, I felt like I had a better work-life balance pre-pandemic, and I feel like now all bets are off. I felt like, “Maybe three months into this it’ll get better; four months into it it’ll get better.” Now it just feels like everybody else has control of my day and my time. I don’t know if you guys can relate.

Courtney: Yes. I feel like everybody listening is like, “100 percent.” It’s like the further we get into this, the more we’re having to reckon with “Oh, this feels like it’s going to be normal.” At least I early on was like, “Oh, this will go away quickly.” Now it’s like, “Oh, no, this is kind of here for the long run.” Can I ask a clarifying question out of the gate? Could you tell us a little bit about what you do?

Brian: I lead a sales team in advertising. I heard you guys say you use Yeti microphones. Logitech is one of our customers, and we help promote Yeti microphones out in the marketplace. So, we’re working at retail to help them push them to folks like yourselves, everyday customers, and things of that sort. We work in consumer electronics. We work in CPGs. We work in personal care.

I head up a sales team that is east coast-based, so we’ve always used Zoom as part of our technology because we’re not in the same office, but having everybody at every level at every phase of a project be on Zoom is something that is very daunting, because, again, the green light goes on or that bell goes off or the ringing of the phone, and it’s almost like you’re a puppy dog to a treat. “Oh, I’ve got to answer. I’ve got to answer. I’ve got to answer.” I’ve taken my everyday tasks, which have felt real in this virtual world, but now layered on a whole bunch of other virtual responsibilities on top of it.

Courtney: That’s really good.

Blake: Brian, I’ll start here, and I think this will apply for those listening as well. When I find that I’m missing my Ideal Week again and again, the first thing I will look at is the second step of the Weekly Preview, the after-action review. In there are some clues for what’s going wrong. So, my first question to you is…Have you been doing a Weekly Preview, and what kinds of things are showing up? Are there things that show up every week or has it just been chaos? What are some themes or some lessons or some commonalities you’re finding in the after-action review?

Brian: It’s interesting that you said that, because the after-action review… If I’m honest, I’ve been missing my Big 3. I’ve been letting the daily tasks of the weeds get in the way of the Big 3, ultimately, overall, and that’s when I go, “Oh, darn. You missed it here. You didn’t even go back and look at what you were supposed to accomplish this week. You let yourself now fill up a whole page of other tasks and start checking those off one by one by one instead of getting that accomplished.”

So, that has been very enlightening to me. It’s almost like now I’m taking my Big 3 and putting them into my week coming up. So I say, “Hey, by this date, you have to have it done,” and I’m putting extra stars next to it to say, “Hey, this is one of your Big 3 that you wrote about on the weekend.”

Courtney: That’s a really great pro tip. I actually watched another planner user who does that same thing. Because it is easy during your Weekly Preview… You lay out what your Weekly Big 3 are, but then you flip the page to your Monday, and it’s easy to forget what your Weekly Big 3 were for the week. That may be even something like just writing it on a Post-it note and moving it every day so you have more visibility into what your Weekly Big 3 are. Another question for you would be…Have you redone your Ideal Week since the pandemic started?

Brian: Yes. I took a stab at that at the beginning of the quarter, but I have not adjusted sort of midway through the quarter. I’ve tried to say, “Darn it! I’m going to get back to that thing I wrote about at the beginning of the quarter as ideal and try to flex my muscle to wedge myself into it.” So, that’s probably an area that I could take a blank sheet of paper and overlay it to what I had before and rewrite it a little bit.

Courtney: For everybody out there who may be thinking along the same lines, like, “I’m midway through, and maybe I haven’t done the really hard work of evaluating that,” or you’ve been holding on to some things pre-pandemic, now is a great time to download the Ideal Week tool. You can get that in the printable section of You can do it on a scrap sheet of paper and then move it into your planner if you want to. Frankly, a lot of things have changed. I think a lot of us are having to come to terms with “This may be here for a little bit longer.”

Blake: Yeah. In April I redid my Ideal Week three times. I’m not kidding. Part of my Weekly Preview with my spouse was going, “Oh, this doesn’t work, so let’s try this next week. Oh, no, that doesn’t work either.” It sounds like, for you, the loss of “I’m not coming close to my Ideal Week ever” is feeling exhausted and like you don’t… I think you used the phrase “I’m always on.” So, a follow-up question is…In your Ideal Week, how much buffer time do you have in there?

Brian: That’s actually a good question. I have kind of laid it out as backstage items, front-stage items, offstage items, and some of the things that, I would say, are more driven toward me as flex time that I want. I’ve put them into my calendar that all of the rest of my teams can see as tentative. So, when they see “tentative” on there, they say, “Oh, that means I can schedule over top of what Brian has there because it says ‘tentative,’” even though it’s in my calendar blocked off.

I probably need to move some of those things to hard calendar items, and then people will start to work around them. So, where I had that buffer time and I had that flex and I had that wiggle room, it has been eaten up because people just step all over it.

Blake: You just gave me another important clue, which is that people can create calendar events on your calendar. I have the same situation. I’m in a sales role as well, at least that’s part of what I do, and people can schedule time on my calendar. So I have to, I’ve found, schedule…

I have blocks for my workday shutdown every single day. I recognize that might be one sales call less today, but what I get in return is clarity, delivery… My integrity gets to stay in shape because I’m making sure things aren’t slipping through the cracks all the time. My team gets to benefit. Our current clients get to benefit. My wife and my daughter get to benefit. The benefits are so huge.

Brian, this would be my recommendation for you, as well as if you’re listening. Make sure if people can create events on your calendar without your approval before they’re on there and you just show up to them, because maybe they’re income-producing events, or whatever…

First of all, I would make sure the only people who have keys to that kingdom are income-producing events. I would not do that for internal meetings…that’s just my experience…unless you can quickly veto those or if you have an assistant who’s sort of a barrier vetting that. Courtney can speak to that, because I know I try to meet with Courtney, and Elizabeth is like, “Oh, no, you don’t.”

But if people are scheduling it, make sure it’s not just the Ideal Week on paper. Make sure there are blocks of time that are reserved. If it’s hard to do that, I think it’s great to come back to the why. Why is it important that you have your life back, to some degree? Why is it important to have a workday shutdown? Why is it important to have a block of time that’s for deep work? Because in the long run, I’m going to be more satisfied, be more resilient, make more money, whatever.

I’m sure I’ve lost sales, deals, in the immediate short-term because I’ve blocked off things, but I’m also sure that I’m way more… I’m in it for the long haul for our clients, for our mission, for my own career, and for my marriage. That’s the value of making sure you have things blocked so that no one can touch it.

Brian: Really helpful.

Courtney: One thing I would add, too… As Blake was listing those things, that you’re in it for the long game, I think asking yourself why it is important for you to hit your Weekly Big 3… If you are continually missing your Weekly Big 3, what are the long-term effects of that? I wonder if maybe a hack to this would be once you do your Weekly Preview and you’ve decided, “Okay, this is my Weekly Big 3…”

You had the idea of putting it in your planner, but what if you also went into your calendar and changed those flex times you have allocated over to actual meetings for one of your Weekly Big 3 or two of your Weekly Big 3 so that you’ve also made it clear, “This is actually off-limits time. It’s not just weekly held time. There’s real strategic initiative happening during this time.”

Brian: Yeah, I could relate to what Blake said, because if someone else dumps something in that’s internal, that makes me then run to the next thing instead of preparing properly, and when it’s revenue producing, I may not be as fully prepared as I need to be because I’m running from thing to thing to thing, and then that has implications, because customers, prospects, whatever, see that. It’s evident.

Courtney: Exactly.

Blake: How long have you been rolling with the Ideal Week in the planner? Did you say that, Brian?

Brian: Just about a year and a half now.

Blake: Okay. It is an instrument. It’s a musical instrument, and it takes a while. I didn’t really use the Ideal Week for the first year I used the planner at all. I didn’t even try it. I had a rough sense. I used the Weekly Preview. That was key. But it does take time. If you’re struggling and you’re listening, especially nowadays, it is a challenge. It does take practice.

But, yeah, I think Courtney brought up a great point. That’s a great activity. We have an episode, if you want to go back to some of our pro tips from our staff… It aired a few weeks ago. I think it was Annette who gave this great tip, which was calculating how long (this is for her Daily Big 3) she thinks those will take, and then making sure that’s justified given her daily agenda.

That’s good on a Daily Big 3 basis, but to Courtney’s point, you could apply that to your Weekly Big 3, going, “How much me time, how much head down, deep work time is this going to require of me? Do I have that real estate on the calendar? What are the threats to that real estate on my calendar? And does this really belong as a Weekly Big 3?”

Brian: That’s great. Thanks.

Courtney: Well, thanks so much for joining us today. Hopefully that was helpful. Thanks for being our first guest on video.

Brian: It was great. Like you said, I got to see your closet. I got to see what the realness to the podcast that we’ve heard all about for the last two months looks like. So thank you.

Courtney: Thanks, Brian.

Blake: Yeah, thanks, Brian.

Brian: Take care.

Blake: Great. Thank you everybody for joining us again on Focus on This.

Courtney: This is the most productive podcast on the Internet.

Blake: Say it with conviction, Courtney. Come on. “It is the most productive podcast on the Internet!”

Courtney: Yes, like that. Speaking of being that, I think it’s almost time for you and me to go take a break. Right?

Blake: That sounds like a great idea.

Courtney: We’ll be back here next week with another great episode.

Blake: Until then…

Courtney & Blake: Stay focused!