When Staples surveyed more than 200 office workers in the US and Canada about their work breaks, the results weren’t encouraging.
Despite 90% of employers surveyed saying they encourage breaks, and most employees admitting breaks would improve their performance and their happiness, more than a quarter of workers surveyed said lunch was the only break they took all day.
With more than half of these employees working more than eight hours every day, a single break at lunch isn’t nearly enough.
That’s because, when you don’t take enough breaks, it can hurt work performance, mood, and even lead to complete burnout.
Why Breaks Are so Important
What exactly is it about breaks that make them so important?
Studies show taking breaks can help us refocus and pay better attention to our work. According to Dr. Alejandro Lleras, psychology professor at the University of Illinois, most of us suffer from vigilance decrement. That is, after doing the same thing for a long period of time, we lose focus on it. But Lleras says we’re thinking about vigilance decrement all wrong:
For 40 or 50 years, most papers published on the vigilance decrement treated attention as a limited resource that would get used up over time, and I believe that to be wrong. You start performing poorly on a task because you’ve stopped paying attention to it.
Lleras led a study that explored how breaks can affect our ability to continue paying attention to the same thing for long periods.
Eighty-four subjects participated in the study, which required 50 minutes of working on a repetitive computerized task. Some participants completed the 50-minute period with no breaks. Others were asked to memorize four digits before beginning the task. Of those who memorized the four digits, some were interrupted by those digits twice during the 50-minute task and were told to stop working when they appeared. Others were told to ignore the digits entirely.
The researchers found most participants performed worse over time. One group, however, didn’t see a drop in performance at all. That was the group that stopped to respond to the digits that interrupted their task.
Lleras says our brains are built to detect change. When something stays consistent over time, our brains stop paying attention to it. The feeling of your clothes on your skin, for instance, or the hum of colleagues chatting in your office. Once you acclimatize to those sounds, your brain stops drawing your attention to them.
It works the same, unfortunately, with tasks that take a long time. If what you’re working on stays consistent for long enough, your brain will stop paying attention to it. In the study, participants who stopped working when interrupted were able to reset their focus and continue paying attention throughout the rest of the 50-minute task:
It was amazing that performance seemed to be unimpaired by time, while for the other groups, performance was so clearly dropping off.
This study suggests breaking away from tasks that take a long time could be helpful in maintaining attention and performing at your best.
… 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.
How to Take Better Breaks
Even if you are taking regular breaks, you might not be giving yourself the best chance to refresh your focus. Follow these tips to make sure your breaks are truly restful.
Switch off from work
It might be tempting to spend your break responding to emails or updating your to-do list, but you’d be better off switching off from work completely.
According to Barbara Oakley, author of A Mind for Numbers, our brains have two modes for thinking: focus mode and diffuse mode. When we’re focused, we’re stopping our brains from using diffuse mode, which is the kind of relaxed, unfocused thinking we fall into when we’re daydreaming or doing activities that don’t require lots of attention.
… the diffuse mode, it turns out, is what you often need to be able to solve a very difficult, new problem.
But constantly staying in work mode means we never let our brains fall into diffuse mode. We need to take breaks that let us completely switch off from work if our brains are going to work to the best of their capacity.
Diffuse mode is important. If you’ve ever come up with a great idea in the shower or the answer to a problem while washing dishes, you’ll know how well your brain works when you’re not forcing it to focus.
Do Something Social and Relaxing
So how do you switch off from work during breaks? A study of almost 100 Korean office workers explored how they spent their breaks and how fatigued they felt at the end of their workdays.
The study broke up break activities into four categories:
- Relaxing (daydreaming, stretching)
- Nutrition-based (coffee, snacks)
- Social (chatting with colleagues)
- Cognitive (reading emails or the newspaper)
The researchers found relaxing and social break activities protected workers against end-of-day fatigue. Cognitive breaks, on the other hand, actually made end-of-day fatigue worse.
In another study, workers who spent their breaks using their phones were more emotionally exhausted at the end of the day than those who’d spent their breaks chatting with friends. The phone users, however, felt that they’d switched off from work during their breaks as much as those who spent breaks with friends.
So even if you think you’re switching off, try spending your breaks on relaxing and social activities to truly recover your attention and energy.
Spend Time in Nature
If you’re looking for more ideas on how to get away from work and refresh your energy during breaks, look for ways to spend time in nature.
Research shows walking in forest areas can reduce stress, hostility, and symptoms of depression, as well as improving mood and sleep.
A study at Stanford tested the effects of nature by separating participants into two groups. One group went for a walk in a lush, green area of campus, while the other group walked alongside heavy traffic for the same period of time.
Afterward, participants in the group that walked in nature were both happier and more attentive.
Other studies have found that walking in natural environments, even in the dead of winter when it’s not such a pleasant activity, can still boost cognitive performance. It’s not about doing something enjoyable, but specifically spending time surrounded by nature.
Finally, if you can’t get outside to walk through a park or tree-lined street, try storing up some photos of greenery to look at during breaks. One study tested performance of participants who worked on a menial task requiring their concentration, with a 40-second break to look at a photo of a rooftop before returning to the task.
Some participants looked at a plain concrete rooftop while others saw a rooftop covered in a flowering meadow. Those who looked at the meadow showed improved accuracy and concentration when returning to the task.
So just an image of nature could be enough to boost your performance and increase your focus.
Various studies on the effects of breaks all agree on one thing: Humans really struggle to focus on the same task over a long period of time, and breaks help.
Taking breaks that are truly restful and get us into that diffuse mode of thinking can refresh our ability to concentrate and help us perform better when we return to work.
While it might seem counterintuitive, your work will actually benefit if you spend a little less time doing it.
What about you, dear readers? How we spend our breaks can be a very personal decision, so what do you do to unwind and recharge? Chime in below!