When you are working hard to hit a deadline, have a tough challenge or face with long list of tasks to complete in your busy day, forcing yourself to focus and get on with it can be seen as the only choice.
Even though your mind may be overwhelmed and unable to focus or think clearly and your body tensing up in response, forcing their natural boundaries consistently and repeatedly can be an important factor for burnout.
Trust me. I speak out from my personal experience of burnout as I suffered an extreme case, which caused me to temporarily lose my ability to speak and move.
Many studies have demonstrated the direct positive correlation between taking regular breaks and optimal function of our cognitive functions such as learning, memory, ability to focus and creativity.
For example, a study in 2011 found that the human brain’s attentional resources drop significantly after a long period of focusing on a task, impairing performance. Researchers concluded that
“When faced with long tasks, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task”.
Our brain, just like the other muscles in our body, need downtime to rest and recover to perform at its best.
Science-backed benefits of taking regular breaks
Here, I have summarised three scientifically proven reasons to help you prioritise breaks during your busy daily life and workday.
- Breaks keep us from getting bored and unfocused
When you are in the flow, you are full focussed and generating ideas. Unfortunately, it does not last forever and you might feel unfocussed. But why?
In a nutshell, our brains are not built for the prolonged focus we demand of ourselves in our modern lives. Because, our brains were evolved to be alert, constantly scanning our environment detecting minute changes to ensure our very survival. Therefore, focusing hard on one thing for a long time is not something our brains are equipped with.
Taking regular breaks and thereby providing brief interruptions, provide simple yet highly effective hack to get your mind back on track.
- Breaks help us retain information and be creative
Our brains have two operational modes:
- ‘focused mode’, which we use when we engage our cognitive faculties such as learning something new, writing or working, and
- ‘diffuse mode’, which is our more relaxed and ‘daydream’ type state when we are alert yet not thinking so hard.
You might think that the focused mode is the one optimising productivity and diffuse mode is a waste of valuable work time. But in fact, diffuse mode plays a very important role too.
Studies have shown that activity in many brain regions increases in diffuse mode and the mind solves new and trickiest problems we face.
Breakthroughs that seem to come out of nowhere are often the product of diffuse mode thinking. Because the relaxation associated with diffuse mode allow brain to retrieve and connect valuable information and insights.
Next time you are faced with a difficult problem, try taking a break, and letting your brain wander and find its own solution.
- Breaks help us to see the big picture and re-evaluate our goals
When you work on a task continuously, it is easy to lose focus and get lost in detail.
Taking breaks and then picking up where you left off forces you to take few seconds to think globally, reassess your goals and priorities to make sure that you are giving your attention to the right areas.
Taking a break is truly essential for efficiency, productivity, concentration and creativity. So, how do you take a break? How often?
How often and long to take breaks?
There is no one universal rule, as the frequency and length of breaks can change depending on so many different variables including the activity and its demand on our body and mind.
However, one thing is certain. The average person’s attention span is really short, with some measurements put it as low as 8 seconds. To manage such a short attention span, taking regular breaks is key.
If you are ready to try breaks, you can use time-blocked workday methods. To help you get started, I summarised three methods to check out.
- 90 minute intervals
Working in 90 minute work blocks followed by 20 minute intervals have been a popular method of maximising productivity as it works with our bodies’ natural ultradian rhythm.
In fact, this is a favourite method for me and many of my clients.
A research with elite performers like violinists, athletes and chess players, demonstrated that the best performers practiced in focussed sessions of no more than 90 minutes.
The researcher concluded that
“to maximize gains from long-term practice, individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”
- Pomodoro method
This method proposes working in a short burst – 25 minute work, followed by a 5 minute short break to get up, move around or may be drink some water. After four Pomodoro sessions, one longer break of 30 minutes is advised.
Proponents of this method point out to benefits of working in such compact time periods in reducing distractions and therefore being able to focus more intently.
- The 52-17 method
This method proposes working in sprints of 52 minutes, followed by 17 minute breaks. It was created by the Draugiem Group, a collection of companies based in Latvia. Using time tracking and productivity apps, the group studied the habits of their most productive employees.
“the reason the most productive 10% of our users are able to get the most done during the comparatively short periods of working time is that their working times are treated as sprints.
They make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest up to be ready for the next burst. In other words, they work with purpose.”
However, if time-blocking does not appeal to you or not suit your work, consider taking regular breaks that works for you the best.
Break should be anything but work
A break is not just about stop working, but also doing something different. This is key to engage a different area of the brain, rather than force the limits of our short attention span to the breaking point.
This means, being away from your computer screen, taking a walk, listening to music.
If you heavily use your connected devices during your work, it can also mean taking a break from them too.
turbocharge the positive impact of your breaks
To increase their effectiveness, I recommend incorporating short mindfulness and breathwork practices, which can last for a few seconds to few minutes.
These science-backed practices can help downregulate elevated levels of ‘fight or flight’ response of the nervous system. This is key to create a calmer headspace with mental clarity and allow your body to relax reliving tension.
Try these two tried and tested practices:
- 1 minute calming breathwork exercise
- Find a comfortable seated position with your back straight
- Fell your feet firmly on the ground
- Breathe in through the nose the to count of 4 (Inhale, 2, 3, 4)
- Breathe out through the pursed lips to the count of 6 (exhale, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
- Repeat for 6 rounds or as needed.
Tip: For pursed lips, imagine cooling a hot drink.
- 1 minute Mindful breathing exercise
Let’s start by finding a comfortable position, sitting up straight.
Take a few moments to observe your breath – inhale and exhale. Feeling the journey of air moving in and out of your body.
You might also like to choose one area where you can feel your breath, such as your nose, throat, chest or belly, and maintain your attention there.
To conclude, let’s remember that without downtime to refresh and recharge, we are less efficient, make more mistakes and become less engaged with what we are doing.
Taking regular, well-timed breaks is essential to feel and perform at the best level.