I’m sure most of us have heard about the importance of taking breaks during the work day. After all, we can only sit and stare at our screens trying to focus on the same task for so long before our attention starts to wander off. Right? But realistically, how often do we take a real break? And when I say a real break, I mean intentionally choosing to do more than some distracted, guilty scrolling through Twitter.
Despite knowing the supposed benefits of breaks (improved focus, creativity and productivity), few of us find the time to effectively incorporate them into our day. Perhaps you’re just too busy. Or you feel guilty about time away from your desk, a sense that idle time is lazy. Or maybe it’s the belief that more is more. More time spent on a task means more productivity. Whatever the reason, taking a break at work can be hard. So perhaps it’s worth understanding the science behind why taking intentional breaks during the day can be so valuable, and how they make your day more productive.
Why take a break?
Our work repetitively uses the same region of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for concentration, decision making and problem solving. Just as repeatedly overloading the same muscle leads to fatigue, the same occurs with our mental energy, as our energy is depleted we become less effective and efficient.
In 2014, John Trougakos and his colleagues from the University of Toronto argued that “our brains have a limited pool of psychological energy”, meaning that we need some respite and a break from the demands of work in order to recharge our energy levels.1Trougaskos, J. P., Hideg, I., Cheng, B. H., & Beal, D. J. (2014). Lunch Breaks Unpacked: The Role of Autonomy as a Moderator of Recovery During Lunch. Academy of Management Journal, 57(2), 405-421. doi:10.5465/amj.2011.1072
Similar research has been conducted into attention showed that a brief break away from a task actually improves an individual’s ability to focus on it. Psychology professor Alejandro Lleras of the University of Illinois noted that “you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem. You start performing poorly on a task because you’ve stopped paying attention to it”.2Ariga, A. & Lleras, A. (2011). Brief and Rare Mental “Breaks” Keep you Focused: Deactivation and Reactivation of Task Goals Preempt Vigilance Decrements. Cognition, 118(3), 439-443. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007 In other words, over time we become habituated to events and sensory information, so we need time away from a task in order to come back and see it through fresh eyes, improving our decision making, creativity and motivation for a task.
So how can you make better use of your day?
Science has shown that the eight hour work day simply isn’t an effective model. It was introduced during the industrial revolution to reduce the number of hours workers spent in factories. At the time, it was humane and revolutionary. Today, it’s antiquated, and yet somehow it persists. However, researchers have recommended a number of ways we can optimally structure our day to make the most out of the time we have.
By studying employees, researchers with the Draugiem Group and DeskTime found that individuals with the highest productivity didn’t put in the longest hours but instead they took regular breaks. Specifically, 17 minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work.3DeskTime. (2018). The Secret of the 10% Most Productive People? Breaking! Retrieved from: https://desktime.com/blog/17-52-ratio-most-productive-people/ These employees also took their breaks away from the computer – moving, talking with co-workers, going for a walk, or reading a book. This taps into the brain’s natural ebbs and flows of energy, which is a one hour period of high energy, followed by a period of low energy for 15 to 20 minutes. Alternately if that strategy doesn’t work for you, you could try the Pomodoro Technique, which breaks the day into 30 minute intervals, working for 25 minutes and then breaking for 5 minutes.4Cirillo, F. (2006). The Pomodoro Technique. Retrieved from: http://baomee.info/pdf/technique/1.pdf
Whichever method you choose, planning your day around intervals of work and rest can help you to break up the tasks you need to accomplish into more manageable pieces. During your work interval aim to stay focussed and on task (don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by texts or social media), and then take an intentional, restful break. Utilising periods of work and rest helps us get through the day more productively and can help you build your own routine to optimise your efficiency. Suggestions aside, if you find yourself in a state of flow, fully immersed in and enjoying what you’re doing, that is probably a sign that you still have enough energy for the task, and if that’s the case, there’s no point in interrupting yourself. You’re probably already working in your optimal state.
Optimise your breaks
It’s one thing to take a break, it’s another to make it intentional and productive. Activities that continue to use the same mental resources as our work do not recharge our energy levels as well as those that allow us to completely separate from it.5Palmer, A. (2018). Happiness Hacks: 100% Scientific! Curiously Effective! The Experiment, LLC., New York The study conducted by John Trougakos highlighted the importance of having the power to choose how you spend a break, and using it to engage in an activity that you find enjoyable or relaxing.6Trougaskos, J. P., Hideg, I., Cheng, B. H., & Beal, D. J. (2014). Lunch Breaks Unpacked: The Role of Autonomy as a Moderator of Recovery During Lunch. Academy of Management Journal, 57(2), 405-421. doi:10.5465/amj.2011.1072
So before you completely lose your concentration, take some time to replenish your energy. Go outside, get some fresh air and soak up some greenery. It can be an easy way to mentally reset. Chat to a colleague. Read. Move! Get up from your desk, take a walk, or rebalance. Moving has the added benefit of re-oxygenating the body leaving you feeling energised. However you choose to spend your time, try to leave behind any feelings of guilt. Sometimes less is more, and a mindful break, is time well spent.