When planning a workshop I start with the stops. Once I know the duration of the workshop I begin by plotting out the breaks before thinking about activities. It gives me a framework to help participants to stay attentive and engaged.

Post-it® notes, either paper or digital, are the perfect tool for workshop planning. Tactile and easily moveable. Small enough to keep your words concise. Visual to give a spatial representation of your session. My approach is to work horizontally to give myself a timeline for the session, add in the breaks, and only then fit the activities into the gaps.

A horizontal row of Post-it® notes in between timed activities is one with ‘time for a 15 minute break’ written on it.

How many breaks and how long?

We can look for guidance from other people who ask for time and attention.

There’s an adage in the theatre referred to as the Broadway Bladder. It states audiences have a need to urinate every 75 minutes. It’s a rule of thumb used by playwrights for the placement of intermissions.

Alfred Hitchcock kept his movies concise. He advised fellow directors “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”.

The Pomodoro technique for productive time management developed by Francesco Cirillo splits tasks into repeated periods of 25-minutes of focussed activity followed by a 5-minute break.

I have a simple scale as my starting point for workshop breaks.

  • Don’t go more than an hour in a workshop without having a break.

  • For a 90 minute workshop I’d have at least one 15 minute break.

  • For a three hour workshop I’d have a half-time stop for 20 minutes and at least a couple of 10 minute breaks.

  • For a day-long workshop I’d start with lunch for at least 45 minutes, then have a 15 minute break in the morning and a couple of 15 minute stops through the afternoon.

Now these timings are a guide. They are compounded by context. The time of day, the day of the week, what else attendees have on that week; all have an impact on how you design your session. If you have to host a workshop last thing on a Friday afternoon, and who doesn’t love hosting or attending a project-critical session at this time, then you may wish to either make the session shorter, or make the breaks more generous.

Let people know when the breaks will be coming. Set expectations at the start of the session and as you approach each break. They shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The longer the workshop, the more I’d also look at varying the cadence, format and duration of activities. Variety definitely helps to keep attendees fresh and focussed.

Does it change if you are running the sessions remotely?

Being on screen requires more stamina from your attendees. Staring into the glowing screen for extended periods of time is hard work. Some people make it even harder on themselves by getting distracted with pop-up notifications and the need to reply to that oh-so urgent message (and yes, as a facilitator we can tell).

How much time do you need for a short break? To find out, go time yourself. Start your stopwatch and go boil the kettle and make a cuppa or brew an aeropress of coffee. Then fit in a trip to the toilet. Now add in a quick check on messages. If your planned breaks are under the time on your stopwatch then you aren’t allowing your attendees the time to comfortably take a break.

When designing your workshop plan for movement and getting away from the screen.

For online workshops I like to get attendees to take a photo of what refreshments they’re drinking and add them to the workshop whiteboard. The gallery of uploaded images provides both a collective talking point and a subtle nudge to step away from the screen.

Likewise for longer workshops, especially if they span a lunch break, ask attendees to take and share a photo of something outside. Keep it simple, something in their neighbourhood or even the clouds where they are. Being outdoors and looking at scenes of nature is the basis of attention restoration theory. Even when done for a short moment you’ll find your participants’ concentration will increase.

Breaks get you better results

As a facilitator and workshop host your aim is to get the most from the time you have with your participants. You are looking to create a positive experience where people feel energised rather than exhausted.

Successful workshops help participants to focus. They are purposefully designed to give attendees the space to explore, debate and create.

Make the most of the time you have with workshop attendees by starting with the breaks.