How Breaks Actually Make You More Productive


Are you feeling stressed? Are your neck and back muscles tight? Are you furrowing your brow? Feeling frustrated? Are you stuck? These are all signs it is time to take a break.

I know you don’t want to take a break right now. Why? Because you’re too busy. You’re going to push through and get stuff done.

Sometimes we know there’s a better way to do things, but we’re just so busy we don’t even think we have the time to find it—so we keep going like we always have.

When I started taking breaks they made me happier, more focused and more productive—and I bet they can do the same for you, whether you’re in the office or studying for a test.

Discover the science of why we need breaks at work, home and school and what to do on your hard earned break.

3 scientific reasons to prioritize breaks

1. Breaks keep us from getting bored and unfocused.

The ideas are flowing and you feel great, you’re really in the groove. But it doesn’t last forever—stretch yourself just a bit beyond that productivity zone and you might feel unfocused, zoned out or even irritable. What changes?

Basically, the human brain just wasn’t built for the extended focus we ask of it these days. Our brains evolved to detect tons of different changes for our own survival.

Focusing so hard on one thing for a long time isn’t something we’re ever going to be great at, because it was originally thought we had on average 2 minutes of focused attention for every year we’re alive. Sadly, in today’s classrooms they are finding it is only 1 minute of focused attention for every year we’re alive for a lot of students.

The good news is that the fix for this unfocused condition is simple—all we need is a brief interruption, or a break to get back on track. University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras explains:

“…Deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” he said. “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!”

2. Breaks help us make connections to help us retain information

Our brains have two modes:

The “focused mode,” which we use when we’re doing things like learning something new, writing or working and

The “diffuse mode,” which is our more relaxed, day-dreamy mode when we’re not thinking so hard.

Balancing these 2 modes is the key to optimizing your productivity.

Our brains were once thought to go dormant when we daydreamed, studies have shown that activity in many brain regions increases when our minds wander.

Some studies have shown that the mind solves its stickiest problems while daydreaming—something you may have experienced while driving or taking a shower. Breakthroughs that seem to come out of nowhere are often the product of diffuse mode thinking.

That’s because the relaxation associated with daydream mode “can allow the brain to hook up and return valuable insights,” engineering professor Barbara Oakley explained to Mother Jones.

“When you’re focusing, you’re actually blocking your access to the diffuse mode. And the diffuse mode, it turns out, is what you often need to be able to solve a very difficult, new problem.”

3. Breaks help us see if we’re on track with our goal or if we need to redirect our action

The Harvard Business Review examines another prime benefit of breaks: they allow us to take a step back and make sure we’re accomplishing the right things in the right way.

When you work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. In contrast, following a brief intermission, picking up where you left off forces you to take a few seconds to think globally about what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. It’s a practice that encourages us to stay mindful of our objectives…

Try This: Take a Brain Break

Set a timer (I love the Timed Timer) or download a free online program or phone app to remind you to take a brain break. Listen to your brain. What does it need? If it needs shorter breaks more frequently, do it. If it needs fewer but longer breaks of say 20 minutes, do it. Make a schedule of your project or study time with breaks built in. Then try one of these at break time:

Go outside and see some nature. During your break–and try to find more natural and less urban settings. Really take in the sights, sounds, and smells. Describe the sky using as many adjectives as you can (fluffy, serene, wispy). How many birds can you count? What do you smell? Spending time in nature is good for your immune system and has been shown to improve focus and relieve stress.

Get minty. Studies suggest peppermint makes you more alert mentally and physically. Enjoy peppermint candy or gum, take a whiff of peppermint oil, or even take a brain break to brush your teeth.

Listen to music. Focusing on music can significantly improve our motor and reasoning skills, and it has a variety of health benefits as well. Specifically listening to classical or reggae music (no lyrics) at 60 beats per minute has shown to increase focus and attention.

Eat. Replenish your brain with a snack–here’s a look at some brain- and productivity-nourishing foods to grab.

Take a walk. A 20-minute stroll can increase blood flow to the brain, which can boost creative thought. Regular walks can enhance the connectivity of important brain circuits, combat age-related declines in brain function and improve memory and cognitive performance.

Be mindful. Meditation clears your thoughts and helps you focus your mind. It’s easy: Sit or lie down in a quiet location away from your project. Breathe deeply and slowly through your nose. Focus your attention on a specific object (a pillow), image (a secluded beach), or mantra (a word like “calm” or “peace”). Keep at it until you feel relaxed and centered.

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