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Focusing

A Science-Backed Guide to Taking Truly Restful Breaks  

We know, this sounds made up. But stick with us, because not just any kind of break will do.


When deadlines are looming, the phone keeps ringing, and your inbox is overflowing, the idea of taking a break seems faintly ludicrous. The only option, you tell yourself, is just to plough on. Understandable, but shortsighted – you’ll end up paying a heavy price in the long term.

Just as you need to refuel your car and recharge the batteries in your cell phone, it’s important to give yourself the chance to recoup your energy levels throughout the workday. In fact, the more demanding your day, and the less time you feel like you have to take any breaks, the more crucial it is that you make sure you do take regular breaks to prevent yourself from becoming exhausted.

But not just any kind of break will do. Psychologists and business scholars have recently started studying the most effective ways to relax during a workday – they call them “micro breaks” – and their latest findings point to some simple rules of thumb to sustain and optimize your energy levels through a grueling nine to five. We’ve crunched the data into the following three-step process to reach peak restfulness.   

Step 1: Fully switch off

It’s extremely tempting, especially when we’re tired, to spend breaks doing things that are convenient, but aren’t truly restful. This might be internet shopping, browsing the latest news, or skimming an industry magazine. However, studies show that brief work breaks are only genuinely rejuvenating when they give you the chance to fully switch off. By contrast, any kind of activity that involves willpower or concentration, even if it’s not in a work context, is only going to add to your fatigue levels.

Consider a study published this year by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and George Mason University that involved nearly a hundred Korean office workers keeping a diary for ten work days, in which they noted how much work pressure they had after lunch and what they did during any work breaks. Each participant ultimately noted how fatigued they felt at the end of the day. The researchers coded the work break activities as relaxing (such as daydreaming or stretching), as nutrition-based (grabbing a coffee), social (chatting with colleagues), or cognitive (reading newspapers or checking emails).

Reading websites taxes many of the same mental processes that we use when we’re working.

As you’d expect, feeling that work demands were more intense around lunch time went hand in hand with feeling more end-of-day fatigue. Crucially, the right kind of break provided a protective buffer against this link between work demands and fatigue. Which kind of break was this? Only relaxation and social break activities had any benefit. Cognitive activities during work breaks actually made fatigue worse, likely because reading websites or checking emails taxes many of the same mental processes that we use when we’re working.

Workers who spent lunch break using their smart phone, as opposed to chatting with friends, felt more emotionally exhausted in the afternoon.

Another related study, published this year by a pair of researchers at Ajou University in South Korea and the Korea Institute for Research in the Behavioral Sciences, found that workers who spent their lunch break using their smart phone, as opposed to chatting with friends, felt like they’d enjoyed as much distraction from work as the sociable folk, but they actually ended up feeling more emotionally exhausted in the afternoon.

There’s a popular theory in psychology that says our concentration and willpower levels are like fuel in a car – the more you use them in one activity, the less you have left over for other tasks. The theory has recently come under criticism for being overly simplistic, but if nothing else, it provides a useful analogy to make sense of the new research findings on workday breaks: As your energy reserves get gradually depleted through the day, you’re only going to allow these reserves to replenish if you genuinely relax in your break times.

Step 2: Take short breaks early and often

A key insight from the research is that it makes a difference when you take breaks. Most of us feel more energetic in the morning than in the afternoon, and it can be tempting to wait until we’re flagging later in the day before allowing ourselves a short break. However, findings suggest that we actually respond better to breaks in the morning – it seems you need to have some fuel in the tank to benefit from a re-fill.

This was one of the main findings to come out of a study of 95 employees at Baylor University across five days, in which they filled out brief surveys about how they were feeling after each break they took. Breaks taken in the morning were much more beneficial, in terms of the improvements in how the workers said they felt afterwards physically and mentally.

If you deprive yourself of many breaks, when you do finally take one, it’s going to be need to be longer to have any beneficial effect.

A related detail from this study was that if you take frequent breaks, then they don’t need to be as long to be beneficial – a couple of minutes might be enough. On the other hand, if you deprive yourself of many breaks, then when you do take one, it’s going to be need to be longer to have any beneficial effect.

Of course, when you’re embroiled in a complicated creative project, the idea of breaking off for 30 minutes or an hour can seem unappealing and impractical and so you end up wading on, meaning your performance is likely to suffer. Crucially, if you remember and have the self-discipline to take breaks early and often, you won’t be faced with this dilemma later in the day – you will be less fatigued, and any breaks you take at this later juncture needn’t be as long and disruptive.

Step 3: Get out of the office

For creatives who work in a large office building, it’s easy to find yourself spending whole days indoors – you might take breaks to the water cooler or the staff canteen, but nothing beats getting outside and away from the work environment. One problem with staying in the office, is that even if you take a decent lunch break and chat with colleagues, there’s still that pressure to maintain a good impression and you often end up talking shop.

Staff who did any work-related activities at lunch were rated as more fatigued by their colleagues at the end of the day.

When researchers led by John P. Trougakos at the University of Toronto recently studied the effect of different lunch break activities among nearly a hundred university workers, they found that staff who socialized at lunch or did any work-related activities at lunch were rated as more fatigued by their colleagues at the end of the day. This was especially the case if the socializing was imposed by management – something to bear in mind for bosses who try too hard to foster camaraderie in the work place.

If you can get outside, even if it’s just a five minute walk around the block, you potentially – depending on where you’re located – also get to benefit from a rejuvenating dose of nature. Countless studies have shown how a green environment gives us a mental recharge, and what’s really encouraging is that recent work has shown that this doesn’t have to be a tropical rainforest. A modest urban park is all it takes. 

Coda

There’s a work zeitgeist today that says you have to be constantly busy to succeed. If you’ve got time to go for a short walk, you’re obviously not consumed by drive and ambition, so the mistaken ethos goes. The psychological reality is that your mental and physical reserves are limited and it is only by taking frequent short breaks of a truly restful nature that you will fulfil your true potential.

A final thought – you might have the view that you’ll push yourself relentlessly during the day, squeezing every minute for what it’s worth, and then completely flake out after dark. This strategy of extremes might work for a robot, but not a human. Psychology research from the University of Konstanz in German and Portland State University shows that over-exhaustion at the end of the day makes it even more difficult to recuperate after work hours. In other words allowing yourself proper breaks during the day will make your out-of-hours recovery more effective, ultimately boosting your productivity and creativity in the weeks and months ahead.

Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor and creator of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog, a columnist on personality for BBC Future, and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. He’s currently working on his next book, PersonologyOn Twitter @Psych_Writer.

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