“The grind never stops,” as the old(ish) adage goes. With the value of productivity drilled into us, it’s hard to take a step back from it all. We fall into the trap of “working longer equals working better,” and feel guilty whenever we take a break. And with timetables filled to bursting with revision and classes, finding some time for ourselves feels pretty impossible.

We want to talk about getting the most out of your breaks. While there’s no ‘right way’ to take a time-out, there are things you can do to reduce stress and make sure your brain is getting the rest it needs.

These tips and tricks aim to put your mental health first; while it’s true that taking good breaks improves your productivity, this isn’t the only reason you deserve to take a time-out. Don’t use breaks with the goal of squeezing as much work out of your brain as possible. Taking meaningful breaks is the foundation for a happy and healthy brain: look after yourself, and the grades will follow.

1. Plan your breaks

Planning your breaks makes you more likely to take them. If you’ve completed your revision timetable, then you should already have free time scheduled in!

Set alarms or timers to let you know when to stop and restart working − then you won’t need to stress about losing track of time.

You’ll find endless articles about the ideal length of a study session, all quoting a different magic number. Use these for guidance, but ultimately, you need to find how long you can comfortably concentrate for. Ideally, you should work up until the point your focus starts to wander. This will take some trial and error, so try out different timers until you find one that works. Need a starting point? Try using the length of your classes and work from there.

2. Keep work and leisure separate

Avoid relaxing in the same place that you work. Not only does it make it harder to return to work, but it stops us from feeling like we’ve had any rest at all. We are creatures of habit and our brains respond to environmental triggers; if you work while sitting in bed, your mind won’t easily flip the off-switch come bedtime.

We can use this to our advantage, though. Include moving from one room in the house to another, or even from your bed to your desk, as part of your study routine. Your brain will come to associate this change of scenery with studying and it will enter revision mode automatically. You’ll find it easier to focus as your mind is already prepared.

Young girl studying at home sitting at a desk.

3. Tidy up

When you’re changing topic or task, spend time tidying away the previous notes / flashcards / textbooks and preparing for the next study session. Physically putting the topic aside will help you mentally move on so the next task gets your full focus.

At the end of your work day, be sure to tidy away as much of your study material as possible so it’s out of sight. This is particularly important if you study in your bedroom. You don’t want to see stressful reminders when you’re trying to relax!

4. Take unscheduled ‘micro-breaks’

‘Micro-breaks’ are the super short pauses from work that crop up during the day, such as making a quick cuppa or nipping to the loo. Studies show that these brief diversions are enough to keep us focused over the work day. Our brains are built to detect change; if something remains the same for too long, our brains get “used to” it and stop registering it.

If your body starts nagging you for something, listen to it. These bodily cues come with free concentration boosts. Don’t force yourself to only take breaks when you planned for them; this will just lead you to feel miserable, out of control, and possibly desperate for the toilet!

5. Use planned breaks to manage your basic needs

When stressed or engrossed in a task, we often neglect our physical needs. As you’re already reminding yourself to take a break, use this time to check in with yourself. Are you hungry or thirsty? Do you need the loo?

Let your body relax: stand up, do some stretching, or correct your posture. Make sure you give your eyes a break from screens. Maybe do some doodling or go and make yourself a quick snack. If it’s getting dark, put some lights on.

Make an effort to leave your desk and don’t spend the whole break on your phone. You won’t feel like you’ve had time off if you’re sitting in the same position, swapping one screen for another.

Female student pouring a cup of coffee whilst taking a revision break.

6. Get some fresh air

The invigorating powers of nature can’t be overstated. Especially useful to do if you’re stuck on a topic or fatigued, the new scenery and fresh air will give you an energy boost, lift your mood, and help you focus − for the next 2-3 hours, no less!

When we exercise, our brains release chemicals that help our memory, concentration, and mental sharpness. Regular exercise also improves our impulse control, so you’ll find it easier to resist the call of social media when you should be studying.

It doesn’t have to be anything intense, as long as it’s aerobic exercise (i.e. it gets your blood pumping). You could go for a walk while listening to music or a fun podcast.

7. Cut down on phone time

When we go on our phones, a constant stream of information comes our way. Our brains have to sort through all of it, deciding what’s useful and what’s not, while having our senses overwhelmed. Therefore, your brain won’t actually be able to rest if you spend all your downtime scrolling. In fact, research shows our brains so strongly associate phones with information overload that just seeing our phones is enough to knock our focus off course.

Spending a break on your phone isn’t a bad thing, but always ask yourself why you’re reaching for it. Are you a fidgeter? Some of us might scroll on our phones while sitting in front of the TV just so we have something to do with our hands. But social media does a lot more than keep our hands busy: it leaves us craving more and doesn’t give our brains a break. Try a replacement that satisfies the urge to fidget, such as crochet, doodling, or a simple fidget toy.

Student putting their phone down. Don't spend all of your revision breaks on your phone.

8. Outsource your self-restraint

Our self-restraint, or our ability to resist temptation, is a finite resource. We use it up over the course of the day. As self-restraint is a big part of our ability to stay on-task, we don’t exactly have buckets to spare. Therefore, instead of relying on your own self-discipline to get off your phone or only watch one episode of Netflix, use an app or browser extension that does it for you.

This software allows you to restrict what sites you can access and how long you spend on them. Make an executive decision for yourself on behalf of the times when you find it harder to resist temptation.

9. Trick yourself into feeling productive

We can’t spend all our breaks doing chores or being active. Sometimes, we just need to sit down and watch TV. Unfortunately, for some people, doing nothing can make them feel guilty, restless, or depressed.

If this is you, there are things you can do to ensure you unwind properly. If you spend your breaks stressing about things you still need to do, write them down. This way, you’ll be able to let go because you feel like you’ve acted on the worry, and you won’t need to stress about forgetting it because you’ve made yourself a handy to-do list.

If you hate doing nothing, find a hobby that’s relaxing but produces something substantial at the end. Crafts are just engaging enough to appease our brain, while being mindless and repetitive enough that we can still focus on whatever we’re watching. For example, you could try to sew, crochet, knit, or doodle. You don’t need to be artsy; there are plenty of tutorials and patterns online for free. All you need to do is follow the instructions. Chances are you won’t feel lazy watching TV if you’ve made a hat at the same time!

Woman knitting on her couch.

10. Read for pleasure

When you’ve spent all day reading notes, the last thing you want to do is pick up another book. But reading is a great way to escape the stresses of revision while training your brain to focus on one thing at a time. Reading before bed helps you unwind and stops the blue light of your phone screen from keeping you awake.

The key here is for pleasure. If you’re not enjoying a book, don’t bother finishing it! Your casual reading doesn’t have to be fancy or literary; it doesn’t even have to be a book. Whatever it is you enjoy, it counts.

Set yourself a small goal to get into the habit, like reading a chapter a day. To get motivated, you could organise buddy reads with your friends, or use challenges like Storygraph’s January Page Challenge.

Don’t read in every break you take: your eyes need a rest, too!

11. Mix it up

Don’t do the same thing in every break, and don’t do the same types of break every day. Some days, you might be up for getting some chores done in your down time; others, you’ll want nothing more than to scroll on TikTok for half an hour. It’s good to cater your breaks to how you feel − is this a brain break or a mental health break?

Breaks are meant to be enjoyable, after all, so don’t make them feel like another chore.

12. Everyone is different

Remember that what one person swears by will sound horrible to someone else. It’s great to take suggestions from your friends and peers, but don’t be dismayed if they don’t work for you. There will be something out there that helps you, so don’t stop looking!

The main takeaway here is that revision breaks are about much more than sitting on your phone, at your desk, between tasks. You’ll feel a lot better if you take your breaks purposefully and with direction. Switch things up and make a show of checking in with yourself. Your brain will thank you for it.