Have you ever taken a short break right on the cusp of a dreading task, and when you came back from the break, the one idea you needed to breakthrough came to you? It seems as if it just clicked. Why is that? It turns out that our brains have a high capacity to focus for long periods on a task, but the longer it takes, the less effective it becomes. Eventually, you lose the ability to apply your energy to that one project or activity, and your mind drifts away. A quick short break is what your brain needs to refocus. A spontaneous disengagement from the task at hand gives your brain the ability to process what has happened behind the scenes and create new connections. When you return to the job, the brain is not only able to restart from a place of higher energy; it now has a better understanding of what to do next.
Why Your Mind Needs Breaks
Our brains are one of the most complex organs that we know of in the universe. Over millions of years, our gray matter has evolved and has grown in size and capacity many times over.
If you do some research into the different brain areas, you’ll find yourself scrolling many pages over, which will only scratch the surface. Forget about getting into details for each of them. People have spent their entire lives just researching an area of a few square inches.
But today, we know that the prefrontal cortex is one area of the brain involved in personality expression, planning, memory, decision-making, various aspects of language, and learning. The prefrontal cortex allows us to distinguish between good and evil, understand the consequences of our actions, work toward our goals, and understand social behavior.
That’s no surprise then that this brain area is often referred to as our thinking brain. This brain area allows us to focus and concentrate on a task and understand how that task adds up to a goal that we’ve set ahead of time.
Much like any other organ, our thinking brains are not immune to fatigue. Imagine that your thinking brain must perform all the functions it does typically and process an immense amount of information while still keeping you focused on a primary activity.
When we use our thinking brains for prolonged periods in high concentration situations, we feel as though our minds get a little foggy. Concentration seems to slip away briefly.
That’s the signal that your brain needs to take a break.
Why Your Body Needs Breaks
On the same token, our mind has developed several ways to let us know when we become tired because we can’t feel our brain’s fatigue directly. You may get a sudden headache, or maybe even something more severe such as a migraine. Other times, our brains push through and don’t signal anything, or if they do, we ignore it.
Separate from that, an activity where you must focus and concentrate usually requires your body to be in a static or otherwise repetitive position.
Most people who work a desk job know this. You sit in your chair, turn on your computer and start chugging away at a project that’s due. A couple of hours later, you remember to take a sip of water and, as you extend your hand, you feel a sharp pain in your back, or neck, or even your shin.
That’s a signal that your body has been in that position for too long. Although our bodies are adapted enough to withstand such terrible treatment, it doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing that you should abuse.
Many studies have shown a direct and strong correlation between movement and reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and depression.
When you sit or stand and don’t move, you create a situation where your body is static for long periods, thus increasing the possibility of opening you up for the risks mentioned above.
An extensive scientific study has shown that “high levels of moderate-intensity physical activity (i.e., about 60-75 min per day) seem to eliminate the increased risk of death associated with high sitting time.”
Maybe you don’t have 60-75 minutes every day to allocate to moderate exercise. But what if you could use 10 minutes every hour for five hours and then top it off at the end of the day?
It turns out that stacking short breaks throughout your day has a similar effect of resting your body and providing the much-needed movement medicine.
How Can Short Breaks Help Recharge You?
It’s apparent now that both our minds and bodies require rest and recharge, so the question becomes: are short breaks needed, or could you go by with breaking for longer at the end of the day?
Why would you break for ten minutes every hour instead of simply taking an hour to disengage at the end of your 8-hours of work?
Here are some reasons why taking short breaks throughout the day is beneficial and superior to taking one or two longer breaks.
1) Judgment fatigue
One of the most used features of your brain is making decisions. You might not realize it, but you make thousands of small choices every day. Decision-making itself is an art, and having good judgment is paramount to performing your job correctly.
The more decisions you make, the better your judgment will be over more extended periods, such as years or even a lifetime. But over short periods, decision fatigue will start posing problems. As you make more and more decisions throughout the day, your ability to make good ones will slowly slip away.
In a 2010 study, researchers analyzed the correlation between fatigue and the ability of judges to grant parole to inmates. The study showed that judges tended to say no more simply when decision fatigue set in because it was the easier choice. But, when they involved breaks throughout the day, the percentage of parole grants increased.
So, resting your brain for a short period and then jumping back into the activity ensures that you “reset” your decision-making processes.
2) Motivation fatigue
A study from 2011 asserted that the longer you focus on a task related to a goal, your vigilance toward that goal decreases. But when you temporarily disconnect, either by taking a break or switching to a different task, you restart that vigilance and can continue working toward that goal productively.
The lack of such a break causes the vigilance performance to decline over time steeply.
In other words, the more you work on something without interruption, the less you’ll want to work on it. This phenomenon is also known as goal habituation.
Habituation, in general, is a decrease in response to a stimulus after repeated presentations of that stimulus. In other words, when you focus on a goal for too long, the motivation behind that goal slowly vanishes and, with it, your productivity.
When you deliberately disengage for a short period and focus your mind on something else, once again, you hit the reset button and prevent goal habituation from happening.
3) Creativity fatigue
Much like a songwriter rarely writes ten number one songs in a row, all creativity requires a respite. Creativity is your brain thinking outside of the box and making connections that weren’t there before. To do that effectively, your mind needs to step in and out of that creative state.
You need to get into a specific mood to produce something or move your tasks forward, but there comes the point where it seems like it all stops.
Sometimes, a simple walk to get a cup of coffee is enough. During that time, your brain continues to work by classifying information, storing long-term memories, and connecting the dots. Those connections are now there when you return to your work, and imagination and creativity can take over.
4) Physical fatigue
Mind over body is a great mantra to have. Your mind is indeed strong enough to push through physical discomfort, even pain, and many times that is what you need to go through a severe, intense challenge.
On the other hand, nobody runs a marathon every day (although some do). Sometimes, it’s okay to go the other way.
Much like your mind can help you overcome physical limitations, using your body to heal your mind is just as effective.
Movement medicine means that you move your body to rest your brain. Movement helps your blood flow and mobilizes your lymphatic system. It promotes the secretion of the synovial fluid in your joints which is like oil, helping your joints move better.
So, just like you can use your mind over body, you can use the power of your body to help your mind rest.
The Flow Exception
The Flow is a specific state of mind. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Mihaly describes the state of Flow as one of complete concentration where the activity entirely absorbs the person.
This state happens when the challenge level of the activity is high, and the skill level is equally high. In other words, it meets at the intersection of you loving to solve or do something with you knowing how to do that well.
Here’s a quick diagram of how this looks:
I know that you’d like to be in a state of Flow all the time, but, as you might imagine, that’s not how it works. The state of Flow is a precious commodity, and you’ll strike it every so often. When you do, it’s best to hang on to it. You’ll produce your best work when you are in Flow, and the way you feel will be long-lived.
During these times of Flow, it’s best not to break, or you might break your Flow, too.
When you feel like you are in a state of Flow, keep going. When you complete the task or slip out of the flow state naturally, you’ll need a more extensive break.
Create Your Short Break Strategy
Whenever you are thoughtful and have a plan, you’re always better prepared than leaving it all to chance or how you feel.
This idea applies perfectly to your break and resets strategies. If you let it go until you feel tired, you’re already too late. You need to plan your breaks strategically throughout the day, so they are as effective as they can be.
That means that you could, for example, decide on a five or 10-minute break every hour, regardless of activity, except for the Flow mentioned above.
If you work on multiple tasks throughout the day and they take less than an hour, then your strategy could be a break at the end of each task or every two tasks.
Whatever it is, set it up ahead of time and keep true to it. Use a reminder system such as your phone alarm or other notification tools.
One great idea is to use a Pomodoro timer to create your work sessions, followed by the short break sessions. However you set it up, please don’t leave it to chance, or it will not do its job.
Best Ways To Take Breaks And Disengage
Although everybody’s setup is different, there are some practical ways to break and disengage from your focused work. You can apply these techniques for brief breaks of one to five minutes, but they also work for longer ones, such as 10, 15, or even 20 minutes.
Some of these techniques can also be stacked. For instance, you can walk and chat simultaneously, or you can eat a snack and read. Use them as you see fit and depending on how they work in your particular environment.
Quick meditation or breathing
There are so many guided meditation apps that this one is a no-brainer. If you can’t do it at your desk because your colleagues might look at you funny, find another place (even your car!) Fire up the app and follow the prompts for a quick 5-minute session. If you are not into meditation yet, do a deep-focused breathing session with a similar effect.
Getting a coffee, water, or a snack is a great reason to leave your work and come back energized. Just make sure that you don’t over-snack during the day and curate your snacks to be the healthy kind. Use the snack or the drink as a distraction and a reason to move around.
Take A Walk
Walking is a great way to get your body moving and your blood flowing. Since most of us work in a building, there’s always a place to go outside and take a walk, even if it’s as simple as a circle around the block. What you do at that moment is changing the scenery and allow your brain to look at and think of something else.
Chat With Friends or Colleagues
Engaging in a short conversation is a great way to get yourself away from work and engage with a different subject if you work with other people. The great thing is that you can combine your break with others and add a walk or a snack together, which will make it that much more enjoyable.
Listen To Music / Podcast
Music is a great way to transport your mind somewhere else. Pop the headphones in your ears and turn on to your favorite song or podcast. With podcasts, though, be aware not to let yourself dragged in too deep and find yourself listening to that for an hour. Limit it to the break length, and enjoy the audio as your brain rests.
Read A Book / Listen to An Audiobook
Reading or listening to audiobooks is another excellent way to disengage and rest. I highly recommend not listening to complex non-fiction books because they tend to force you to think more and perhaps not allow your brain to rest. The best way is to read fiction and immerse yourself in the story and the world the book presents.
Declutter Your Space
Last but not least, you can use your five-minute break to reorganize your desk or clean around yourself. Of course, if you’re neat, you won’t always have that available, but when you do, decluttering is a great way not only to clear your mind but also to provide a better environment for when you return to your work.
Short Breaks Will Boost Your Productivity
You know I’m an avid adept of “eating that frog,” as Brian Tracy teaches us. That means to do the most challenging, most annoying thing first thing in the week or day and get it over with. Sometimes that is also something fundamental that requires concentration and focus.
Often, we all fall into the trap of wanting to get it all done at once and get it over with. We forget to take breaks during those times, and as time goes by, our attention space and our ability to focus reduce significantly.
When you learn how to use short breaks throughout your day, you’ll not only become more productive, but even after a long day of focused work, you won’t feel drained, and you’ll be ready to do something else.
Try to practice taking those short breaks, but don’t let them linger for too long. They’re short for a reason. Once you reset, jump back into your focused work and watch your productivity explode.
Other Resources On Short Breaks to Increase Productivity
- How Do Work Breaks Help Your Brain? 5 Surprising Answers
- The Science of Taking Breaks at Work to Help Boost Your Productivity
- For the Most Productive Workday, Science Says Make Sure to Do This
- The tiny breaks that ease your body and reboot your brain
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- Do you find yourself often in a state of Flow? How do you recognize it?
- Do you typically work in short bursts or keep on the same project for many hours?
- What are your preferred ways to spend your short breaks throughout the day?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!