Your Guide on How to Take Effective Breaks and Build Better Habits

With finals season underway, you may find yourself starting to feel overwhelmed and begin to procrastinate on projects or studying because you aren’t sure where to start. When there’s so much on your plate, it can be difficult to find a balance between productivity and rest, but with a little planning and persistence, your to-do list will seem a lot more manageable!

In this blog, we’ll give you some tips for taking effective breaks (the key word here being effective – you can tell yourself that you’ve earned that hour scrolling on TikTok after five minutes of studying, but we both know that’s not an effective break). We’ll also cover some ways you can start to develop better habits, which will make it easier for you to get started on the things you need to do.

Take Effective Breaks

A common misconception when it comes to working on anything is that you should power through until the task is finished. Sometimes, that might work out, but you’ll likely find yourself exhausted by the end, and if you repeat this often, you’ll eventually burn out. However, if you estimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task and give yourself proper breaks, it will be a lot more sustainable in the long run. 

Here are our top tips for taking effective breaks:

  1. Try the Pomodoro technique

If you struggle with how often to take breaks and how long of a break to take, try out the Pomodoro technique, where you alternate focused periods of work with short breaks. Using a timer, you’ll work for 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break. After four of these cycles, you take a longer 15-20 minute break, then repeat.

This works because instead of focusing on the potential hours of work ahead of you, it’s broken down into manageable chunks – you only have to think about the next 25 minutes at a time. 

Fun fact: The Pomodoro Technique was developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, who was struggling to focus and complete assignments. He made a goal to commit to just 10 minutes of focused study time, so he found a tomato (pomodoro in Italian) shaped kitchen timer, and the Pomodoro technique was born. (Source:

  1. Change your scenery

Take your break entirely away from your workstation so that you can feel completely refreshed when you go back to it. Set a timer to make sure you stick to your break! 

Here are some ideas:

  • Do some stretches
  • Go for a quick walk
  • Get up and look out the window
  • Listen to music
  • Do some doodling
  • Have a snack (Need snack ideas? Check out our last blog!)

Here are some things that you should avoid doing when taking a break:

  • Mood-disrupting activities (such as social media, reading news, gossiping)
  • Making decisions (like online shopping or making your class schedule)
  • Getting sucked into your phone or computer (watching videos, playing games, scrolling through social media)
  1.  Make use of SAMRU’s programs and spaces!
  • Need a quick nap break? Head to the Nap Room on the third floor of Wyckham House. 
  • If you’re looking for an activity to refresh your mind, attend one of the programs at the Cultural Inclusion Centre in room Z203 or Pride Centre in room Z211, with events going on throughout Stress Less week! 
  • Socialize with friends during your break at West Gate Social ($7.25 meals make for some good fuel when you get back to studying)!

Develop Better Habits

We talked about a few ways to take breaks and what you can do to make those breaks effective, but part of maintaining effective breaks is developing the habit of consistently sticking to them. Developing better habits can serve you well in other areas of your life as well – such as eating healthier, going to the gym, getting more sleep, etc.

For this section, we’re going to expand on a few ideas from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear (if you have the time, we recommend reading the whole book). But for now, let’s break down some key points:

  1. Understand how habits are formed

Clear divides the process of building a habit into four steps: cue, craving, response, and reward. If any of these stages are missing, then your behaviour will not become a habit.

Cue: The piece of information that predicts the reward
Craving: The motivational force behind the habit
Response: The actual habit you perform
Reward: The end goal of every habit

Habits can work for you or against you. Clear states: “If you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse every day for a year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero.” So what might seem like something small on a daily basis becomes a lot more over time.

  1. Focus on your systems, not your goal

Clear asserts that, “Goals are good for setting direction, but systems are best for making progress.” Focusing on implementing a system of small improvements will be what ultimately helps you reach your goal, and realizing what you need to improve on starts with being aware of your current systems and habits. Once you become aware of what you may be doing that you’d like to change, it becomes easier to change it.

  1. Stack your habits

To implement a new habit, try pairing it with a current habit. For example, if you sit down to have a coffee every morning (something you want to do), pair it with reading five pages of your textbook chapter (something you have to do), or a similarly manageable task. 

To make it even easier, place your textbook on the table where you have your coffee ahead of time so that when you sit down in the morning, the textbook is already right in front of you.

  1. Track your habits

There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing where you started vs where you are now. Marking an X on your calendar or putting a star in your agenda for each day you stuck to a habit is a great way to create visual cues that make you want to continue the streak (if you miss a day, try to get back on track as quickly as possible). 

Clear writes, “Habit tracking also keeps you honest…When the evidence is right in front of you, you’re less likely to lie to yourself.”

While university is known to be stressful, if you’re feeling overwhelmed on a daily basis and unable to manage your workload, please reach out. 

If you find yourself in need of additional support when it comes to managing schoolwork and stress, get in touch with the Student Advocacy and Resource Centre (SARC), where our Advocacy Resource & Support Coordinator can assist you with making a wellness plan. Additionally, if you’re experiencing any other situation that’s affecting your post-secondary success, SARC can provide you with the support and resources you need to help you advocate for yourself. 

MRU Wellness Services also provides a variety of services and resources, both in person and online