On adrenaline-charged days, when you’re completely focused, tearing through your to-do list and racking up accomplishments, the last thing you want to do is slow down. You might even worry that if you take a break, you’ll lose momentum and won’t regain your stride. But, research tells us otherwise.
Studies show that we have a limited capacity to concentrate over extended time periods, and though we may not recognize the symptoms of fatigue, they unavoidably derail our work. No matter how engaged we are in an activity, our brain inevitably tires. And when it does, the symptoms may not necessarily be obvious. We don’t always yawn or find ourselves nodding-off. Instead, we become vulnerable to distractions.
Consider what happens over the course of a typical day at office. Early morning hours are when most of us are at our sharpest, but as the day wears on, we inevitably lose steam. And it’s at this point that we become easily seduced by the lure of viral videos, celebrity gossip, and social media.
While tiring over the course of a workday can’t be prevented, it can surely be mitigated. Studies show that sporadic breaks replenish our energy, improve self-control & decision-making, and fuel productivity. Breaks can heighten our attention and make us more creative, depending on how we choose to spend them.
A 2011 study, published in Cognition, highlights another upside to sporadic breaks that we rarely consider: goal reactivation. When we work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. Breaks help us move away from the rut and bring the mind back to our goal that we had set out to achieve.
The challenge, of course, is finding the time to step away for 15 minutes, or even when we do have the time, getting good at dragging ourselves away from the computer, pre-emptively, before we’re depleted. One approach that can help – block out planned 15-minute intermissions on your calendar, say one in mid-morning and another in mid-afternoon.
Next, find something ‘active’ that you can do during this break and put it on your calendar viz. ‘take a walk’, ‘stretch while listening to a song’, or ‘go out with a coworker for snacks’. If these activities strike you as too passive, use the time to run an errand. The critical thing is to step away from your computer so that your focus is relaxed and your mind drifts. So no, checking Facebook won’t count.
Finally, note your energy levels when you return. You are bound to feel invigorated, both because you’ve allowed your brain some rest and because the physical movement will elevate your heart rate.
If this feels like dereliction of duty, remind yourself that the human brain was not built for extended focus. Through much of our evolutionary history, heightened concentration was needed in short bursts, not daylong marathons. Our minds evolved to snap-up to attention when encountering a predator, keeping us vigilant just long enough to ensure our survival. Yet today, we expect far more from ourselves than what centuries of evolution has designed us to do.
The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes that short breaks are essential. It’s a practice that encourages us to stay mindful of our objectives and enables better performance. It helps to distance ourselves from work and relax, only to pick up better from where we left. This also forces us to take a few seconds and think globally about what we’re ultimately trying to achieve. Hence, the question we should be asking is not whether breaks are worth taking, but how can we ensure that these actually take place.