TAKE A BREAK
Have you ever gotten stumped by a problem, decided to take a break, and then later found that the answer magically came to you in a burst of inspiration? If so, you know the power of strategic breaks to refresh your brain and help you see a situation in a new way.
A “break” is a brief cessation of work, physical exertion, or activity. You decide to give it a rest with the intention of getting back to your task within a reasonable amount of time.
Now you know that breaks can help you keep your goals in the spotlight. But research shows that there are numerous other benefits of downtime. Of course, as everyone knows, breaks can bring you fun, relaxation, conversation, and entertainment, but we’ll focus on evidence that links periods of rest with greater work productivity. Then we’ll reveal the best ideas for work breaks.
As always, consider which of the ideas below fits you—your personal work preferences, job rules, energy level, priorities, goals, and values. If your work habits already work for you, no need to change!
Why Take Breaks?
Here is a summary of recent research and thinking on the value of taking breaks:
- “Movement breaks” are essential for your physical and emotional health. The benefits of taking brief movement breaks have been well-researched. Constant sitting—whether at your desk, the TV, or the lecture hall—puts you at higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity. Getting up from your chair to walk, stretch, do yoga, or whatever activity you prefer can reduce the negative health effects from too much sitting. Just a 5-minute walk every hour can improve your health and well-being.
- Breaks can prevent “decision fatigue.”– Need to make frequent decisions throughout your day can wear down your willpower and reasoning ability. Decision fatigue can lead to simplistic decision making and procrastination.
- Breaks restore motivation, especially for long-term goals. According to experts “When we work, our prefrontal cortex makes every effort to help us execute our goals. But for a challenging task that requires our sustained attention, research shows briefly taking our minds off the goal can renew and strengthen motivation later on.”
A small study summarized here even suggests that prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance. “We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” psychologists says – “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”
- Breaks increase productivity and creativity- Working for long stretches without breaks leads to stress and exhaustion. Taking breaks refreshes the mind, replenishes your mental resources, and helps you become more creative. “Aha moments” came more often to those who took breaks, according to research. Other evidence suggests also that taking regular breaks raises workers’ level of engagement which, in turn, is highly correlated with productivity.
- “Waking rest” helps consolidate memories and improve learning. Scientists have known for some time that one purpose of sleep is to consolidate memories. However, there is also evidence that resting while awake likewise improves memory formation. During a rest period, it appears that the brain reviews and ingrains what it previously learned.
Experts summarizes the benefits of breaks – “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life … moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”
Those last two possible benefits are intriguing. Could it be that mental fatigue affects our ability to make ethical decisions because we’re too tired to remember who we are and what we value?
When Not to Take a Break
There are times when it makes no sense to take a break. One of those times is when you are in a state of “flow.” Flow is characterized by complete absorption in the task, seemingly effortless concentration, and pleasure in the task itself. Simply enjoying what you are doing may be a sign that you still have plenty of energy for your current activity.
In short, if it ain’t broke, don’t “break” it.
The activities below have a special power to refresh and recharge your mind and body because they use brain effectively:
- Walk or exercise – It was discovered that a walking / exercise break led to more creative ideas than a sitting break. The creativity afterglow lingered even after the subjects returned to their desks.
- Connect with nature… or a streetscape – Do you need calm or excitement in your day? Describing a study “that walking on a nature path induced a calm state of mind, while walking along city streets amped up engagement.” Know what state of mind you are aiming for when you take breaks.
- Change your environment.- Briefly leaving your work environment and going to another area will serve to help your brain rest and switch gears.
- Have lunch or a healthy snack- Why not recharge the mind and body at the same time? A twofer.
- Take a “power nap”—if it won’t get you fired. Although I am not fond of napping myself, short power naps have amazing health, productivity, and relaxation benefits. Studies suggest that you can make yourself more alert, reduce stress, and improve cognitive functioning with a nap.
- Take a few deep breaths- They don’t call a rest “taking a breather” for nothing. Deliberately taking slow, deep breaths and focusing on your breathing just for 30 seconds is a mini-meditation that can relax your mind and body.
- Meditate- Meditation offers a temporary respite from goal achievement.
- Daydream- Daydreaming gives the prefrontal cortex a break, taking you on a brief journey to your unconscious mind where chaos and creativity reign.
- Get creative- If your work requires you to use your logical, linguistic left-brain, deliberately choose a break activity that will activate your creative and visual right-brain —like drawing or just doodling.
- Drink coffee (or tea). Every day there’s a new piece of research touting the health benefits of coffee-drinking in moderation. Sipping coffee can be a mindful pleasure in itself. And for productivity purposes, coffee is unparalleled. When the coffee kicks in, you’ll realize there’s no task you can’t conquer. (Just don’t drink too much. As with any drug, the effects become less potent when you develop tolerance.)
When You Can’t Take a Break
If you can’t take a break, consider switching work tasks. Changing your focus—say from writing an essay to choosing photos for a presentation—can often feel like a break because you are using a slightly different part of your brain. You could also switch from solitary work to consulting with a colleague. When you return to the original task, you’ll experience some of the break benefits.
Monitor Yourself and Learn
As you take breaks, be mindful of the results. Which kind of breaks seem to help you become more creative, motivated, and productive? Which kind of breaks just seem disruptive to your work? Notice what works and what doesn’t. Research on breaks is a generalization; only you can decide what particular strategies work best for you.
Meanwhile, give it a rest!
LIVE IN PEACE, NOT IN PIECES
Certified NLP Practitioner & Life Coach
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