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How to Take a Better Break

With work intruding on home life more than ever, people are struggling to find respite. As research discovers more proof of the benefits of proper breaks, it’s also pointing to new and better ways to make time for yourself at home, at work, or at school.

April Soetarman, used with permission, Ed Levine
April Soetarman, used with permission, Ed Levine

The pandemic has radically changed almost everything about work—where we do it, when we do it, even what the “workday” means. One thing hasn’t changed, though—the need to take a break from it.

The National Bureau of Economic Research reports that Americans are working, on average, 48 minutes more per day now than they did before the pandemic. But there’s no evidence that they are taking any more breaks.

There’s been a lot of debate about what’s driving “The Great Resignation”—the record rate of employees walking away from their jobs—but many experts cite the underacknowledged role of burnout: Recent surveys of workers find that half feel burned out and two-thirds believe their feelings of burnout have worsened. Such workers are less efficient, even if they spend more time at their desks, but a culture that historically has made people feel guilty for taking any time off remains a deterrent.

Respite shouldn’t be so hard to find: Some experts embrace methods such as the Pomodoro technique, named after the tomato-shape timer its creator used to stay focused on a task for 25 consecutive minutes—and no more. Work stops when the buzzer goes off, and an equally focused short break follows.

A midday break for reading, painting, listening to a podcast, or completing a puzzle can be similarly restorative, especially if we can avoid thinking of such acts as “unproductive.” Research shows that a half hour engaged with a compelling story, a practice known as “narrative transport,” increases positive emotions and decreases pain. Creative activity, time spent looking at nature, and short bursts of physical activity or exercise can all be mentally regenerative as well.

The need for breaks is not limited to the career-building years. Teens whose time in high school was upended by the pandemic are exploring gap years in unprecedented numbers. But whatever one’s situation, the first step toward embracing breaks of any length is allowing oneself to commit to them wholeheartedly.

April Soetarman, used with permission, Ed Levine
April Soetarman, used with permission, Ed Levine

A Break Is Never a Waste of Time

If we feel guilty indulging in leisure, then it won’t help us.

By Lynn Zubernis, Ph.D.

Since so many jobs have shifted into the home, finding an escape from work may be more vital now than ever. Unfortunately, while many people find some real benefits in working from home, they also report feeling increased pressure to be busy and purposeful at their makeshift workstations, leading them to feel selfish or guilty when they pursue even a few moments of leisure. New research, though, finds that devaluing leisure time can be detrimental for us, our work, and our relationships.

In a recent analysis of four studies with over 1,300 participants in four different countries, a team led by Gabriela Tonietto of the University of Rutgers Business School found that people who felt that leisure activities were a waste of time had higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress than those who placed a higher value on those pursuits. Even when people who believed such activities are wasteful allowed themselves some leisure time, they were less able to enjoy themselves—and so, less able to experience the benefits. Believing that leisure is unproductive undermined their enjoyment of whatever activity they pursued but especially if the activity was undertaken as an end in itself without any specific instrumental goal.

The Benefits of Leisure

Far from wastes of time, leisure and recreational activities have been found to deliver significant benefits. Taking time to nurture the self, whether it’s enjoying a candlelit bath, taking a brisk walk in the park, or watching a favorite TV show, helps us manage pressure, provides a sense of balance, and bolsters self-esteem. The physical and psychological benefits include reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression; improved mood; and higher levels of positive emotion. Engaging in recreational activities can also lower cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate.

Psychologists have long recognized the link between leisure and well-being. Albert Bandura believed that leisure experiences were essential for healthy social development, and Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs included leisure as a core component of self-actualization. Pursuing an activity that is not considered traditionally productive but is instead “just for me” can provide someone a sense of control and choice they may not feel in other aspects of their life.

Living through a pandemic reduced people’s sense of control, research has found, leading to greater feelings of helplessness and depression. Engaging in a leisure activity just for the pleasure of it can be a powerful antidote, as research finds that people who engage in such activities report greater satisfaction with their lives overall.

With more people working from home and online, there is ever-increasing pressure to be constantly productive, but working without true breaks actually tends to reduce productivity; taking some leisure time can lead to renewed energy and cognitive efficiency, as well as a more positive mood when work resumes.

Fandom as “Serious Leisure”

One underappreciated aspect of leisure is the range of activities that fall under the umbrella of fandom. Fans who participate in creating fiction or art about favorite films, TV series, books, bands, sports teams, or other cultural touchstones, or who travel to conventions, concerts, competitions, or games, engage in what’s known as “serious leisure.” This concept is based on the idea of involvement, a psychological trait defined as a state of motivation, arousal, or interest toward a recreational activity or associated product. The level of involvement takes into account the pleasure a person derives from the activity, how often they engage in it and for how long, and how important it is to them.

Fans, like others, can struggle with feelings of guilt about devoting time and energy to something not widely seen as productive, but those who can look past those concerns and let themselves fully engage in their activities should reap such benefits as self-expression, a sense of belonging, and the experience of joy.

Any type of leisure activity can have a positive impact on your quality of life. However you use that time, try not to let feelings of guilt interfere with the joy those experiences can bring. Far from being a waste of time, these moments can bring us relief when we need it most.

Lynn Zubernis, Ph.D., is a professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and the author of There’ll Be Peace When You Are Done.

April Soetarman, used with permission, Ed Levine
April Soetarman, used with permission, Ed Levine

How to Take a Better Break

Research suggests there are good and not-so-good ways to seek respite.

By Nir Eyal and Chelsea Robertson, Ph.D.

Until recently, when I needed a break, I’d grab my phone. Whether I was bored, mentally fatigued, or just wanting a pick-me-up, I found relief by checking the news, Facebook, or Instagram. However, research suggests I could’ve done better: While some breaks can leave us refreshed and reenergized, others (like mine) are more likely to make us feel depleted and drained.

In their book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry Rosen explain that the right breaks can reduce mental fatigue, boost brain function, and help us stay on task for longer periods. But the wrong sort of break can actually leave us more susceptible to boredom—and then backfire by making us want to take breaks more often. Specifically, turning to a phone whenever we’re bored can train us to check it more often throughout the day, driving a cycle of unproductivity. It would be better, they suggest, to take breaks that restore the part of the brain we use to keep focused on our goals.

Located behind the forehead, the prefrontal cortex has many functions, but its main business is goal management—orchestrating attention, working memory, and other cognitive resources in order to help us get what we want. For example, if my goal is to cook dinner, my prefrontal cortex will help coordinate my brain functions to guide me through the necessary steps while making sure I don’t get sidetracked.

When we work, the prefrontal cortex makes every effort to help us execute our goals. But for a challenging task that requires sustained attention, research shows, briefly taking our minds off the goal can renew and strengthen motivation later on. Breaking for activities that rely on brain regions other than the prefrontal cortex is the best way to renew focus throughout the work day.

The rapid rewards we get from skimming our newsfeeds, Gazzaley and Rosen explain, alleviate boredom for a few moments, but also train our brains to seek out similarly stimulating blips of joy every time we feel a twinge of fatigue, so “the next time we are bored, our past experiences, having gained reinforcement from our smartphone, will drive us to self-interrupt.”

Fortunately, there are better ways to take restorative breaks and return refreshed to your essential tasks:

1. Seek Nature. Research shows that nature exposure is restorative for the mind. One study reported better working memory scores after a walk in a natural environment, but not in an urban setting. “Natural environments capture our attention in a bottom-up fashion,” Gazzaley and Rosen write, “because natural stimuli are so inherently compelling to us (presumably owing to evolutionary factors). They draw us in but generate minimal [prefrontal cortex] responses.” Even if you work in a city, just noticing the sights and sounds of natural features around you—plants, fresh air, a fish tank, or a fountain—can help you recharge. Sit down, take a deep breath, and notice as many details as possible. If you are stuck indoors, research shows that just looking at some photos of nature can help, too.

2. Daydream or Doodle. Moments with nothing to do are increasingly rare, and too many of us dodge even the briefest hints of boredom with phone swipes. Avoiding those idle moments, though, can have unintended negative effects, denying ourselves time for deep thought or reflection or, as Gazzaley and Rosen put it, “letting our random thoughts drive us places we might not have gone while immersed in directed thinking.” Daydreaming and doodling, on the other hand, give some prefrontal cortex functions a rest. Try sitting alone, with your alarm set for 10 minutes, taking deep breaths, and being patient with yourself. You can practice with shorter durations by letting your mind drift while you wait at a crosswalk, a train station, or an elevator lobby.

3. Exercise Your Eyes. Our eyes bear the burden of our tech-charged lives, so try “20-20-20” eye breaks to alleviate their strain and fatigue. Here’s how it works: Every 20 minutes, stare at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This type of break is restorative, Gazzaley and Rosen explain, because it “requires blood flow to brain areas that are not related to sustained attention.”

4. Laugh. Laughter increases heart rate and respiration and gets our blood pumping. While the long-term benefits of laughter remain a matter of debate, research on short-term effects finds that bouts of giggling reduce cortisol and increase dopamine, lessening stress and, for older adults, fostering improvements on memory tests. Take a break for a comedy podcast or a standup’s stream or keep a funny book at the office to help you get through your afternoon slump and still meet your deadlines.

5. Exercise. We all know by now that regular extended exercise benefits the body and the brain, but research shows that even seven- to 10-minute bursts of activity can boost attention and memory performance. So find a secluded space for a brief workout, maybe of push-ups and planking, or just climb some stairs or take a brisk walk around the block.

Nir Eyal is the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Chelsea Robertson, Ph.D., is a product scientist at 23andMe.

April Soetarman, used with permission, Ed Levine
April Soetarman, used with permission, Ed Levine

Too Much Free Time Can Be as Much of a Problem as Too Little

Finding your Goldilocks zone.

By Christopher Bergland

“I’ve got nothing to do and all day to do it. I’d go out cruising, but I’ve no place to go and all night to get there. Is it any wonder I’m not a criminal? Is it any wonder I’m not in jail? Is it any wonder I’ve got too much time on my hands?” —“Too Much Time on My Hands” by Styx (1981)

Asked to imagine a Utopian world, many of us might fantasize about a hedonic existence with endless amounts of free time to do whatever we felt like, every hour of every day. When our daily grind involves being constantly overscheduled and overworked, it’s easy to imagine that the opposite—having nothing on the calendar and infinite discretionary time—would fill us with eudaimonia and lead to higher levels of subjective well-being. But new research suggests that we should be careful what we wish for.

The study, by a trio of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, found that too much free time is almost as detrimental to our subjective well-being as too little. The researchers—Marissa Sharif, Cassie Mogilner, and Hal Hershfield—found that there’s a “Goldilocks zone” of discretionary time that appears to be just right: about three and a half hours per day. In their research, both very low amounts of discretionary time (less than 30 minutes) and very high amounts (more than seven hours) were associated with lower subjective well-being scores. Entire days of blank schedules and empty to-do lists, the team concluded, may actually leave people feeling unhappy. They encourage us instead to try to arrange moderate amounts of free time.

Productivity and Purpose

The team’s analysis of data from the American Time Use Survey, conducted between 2012 and 2013, found that, for the 21,736 American respondents who gave a detailed account of what they’d done in the previous 24 hours, more free time was associated with higher subjective well-being up to about two hours, but started to decline if people had more than five hours of daily free time on their hands.

To pinpoint how much productive vs. unproductive discretionary time was truly just right, the researchers conducted two online experiments. In the first, they asked 2,550 participants to imagine having various amounts of discretionary time at their disposal every day for six months: low (15 minutes per day), moderate (three and a half hours per day), or high (seven hours per day). The participants were randomly assigned different imaginary free-time allotments and asked to mentally simulate to what extent they’d envision feeling happiness, satisfaction, and enjoyment. Notably, participants in the high and low discretionary time groups imagined that they’d feel worse than people in the moderate (three-and-a-half hours) time group.

In the second online study, the researchers asked 5,001 participants to imagine having different amounts of free time each day after being given a definition of discretionary time as “time spent on activities that are pleasurable or meaningful to you.” The researchers aimed to prompt participants to imagine and describe what it would be like to have a given amount of free time—what they would do each day, and how they’d feel about it. Their survey showed that when people were engaged in activities that felt unproductive, too much discretionary time was linked to lower levels of subjective well-being, but when they were engaged in productive activities that increased their sense of purpose, even abundant free time had less of a negative impact on their subjective well-being scores.

“In cases when people do find themselves with excessive amounts of discretionary time, such as retirement or having left a job,” Sharif wrote, “our results suggest these individuals would benefit from spending their newfound time with purpose.”

Christopher Bergland is a retired ultra-endurance athlete turned science writer and public health advocate.

April Soetarman, used with permission, Ed Levine
April Soetarman, used with permission, Ed Levine

4 Reasons to Consider a Gap Year

Families should talk about four factors when deciding whether their teens should take a break before college.

By Marcia Morris, M.D.

“Do you want to take a gap year?” is a question I never asked my children when they were applying to college. But today I recommend that all families consider the option as they contemplate life after high school.

Taking time off before starting college is not a new phenomenon, of course. Some countries have long encouraged or required a year or two of national service after high school. When my father had a difficult time as a 17-year-old college freshman, he left school to join the Navy for two years, gaining life skills that allowed him to flourish when he returned to campus. “Some elite colleges have long encouraged gap years in the same breath as offering admission,” college admissions counselor Joni Burstein reports. “They recognize that a break filled with purposeful activity can do a child good and make for a more focused and refreshed freshman.”

Today, gap years may be more widely accepted and encouraged by schools than they have been in decades, and counselors like Burstein say the gap-year question is being raised by more parents, and earlier in the college search process, than ever before. In recent years, 2 to 3 percent of graduating high school seniors in the U.S. typically took a year off before college—to work, perform public service, travel, or learn a new language. That compared with 15 percent of Australian students and over 50 percent of those in countries like Norway, Denmark, and Turkey.

The number of kids taking a gap year soared for the high school class of 2020 as campuses across the country shut their dormitories during the peak of the pandemic and kids opted out rather than take college classes in their childhood bedrooms. At some top universities, as many as 20 percent of incoming first-year students stayed away. It remains to be seen if the numbers will remain close to those levels in the years ahead, but even before the pandemic, an increasing number of schools had taken steps to make deferrals easier; some major universities now offer scholarships to make gap years available to students of more diverse backgrounds.

April Soetarman, used with permission, Ed Levine
April Soetarman, used with permission, Ed Levine

I recommend that parents consider four factors when deciding if a gap year would be a net gain for their child’s future success and, equally important, his or her mental health and wellness:

1. Academic. Is your child somewhat underachieving and unmotivated? Or are they a high achiever who is feeling burned out? Young people in both groups may benefit from a gap year. Feeling a need for personal growth and maturity and recovering from burnout are among the top reasons students seek a gap year, according to surveys by the Gap Year Association, and other research suggests that a gap year can lead to improved college performance and a higher GPA, especially for previously underachieving students.

2. Financial. For some, a year off is necessary to work and save money for college. Having savings on hand to meet expenses is strongly linked to one’s ability to finish college; among those who drop out, two of the most-cited reasons are being unable to afford school tuition and the need to work full time.

3. Social. Gap years can promote social growth and development and ease the adjustment to college life, if approached properly. According to one recent survey of students who took a year off, 81 percent said they would recommend it, citing benefits like being in a new environment and building new connections with peers.

4. Emotional. Positive mental health benefits of a gap year include increases in sense of purpose, resiliency, perspective, and motivation. If a child is dealing with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD, a gap year could be particularly beneficial. Assess your child’s ability to cope with stress and challenges. If there are valid questions about their ability to manage the pressures of the college years, sit down with them and their guidance counselor or mental health provider to evaluate their readiness. A year of additional therapy, focused on coping skills, while a child works or volunteers in the community and gains greater levels of independence, can be beneficial.

“Why should we live with such hurry?” Henry David Thoreau asked. It’s a question well worth asking today. A gap year may help students grow socially and emotionally, gain maturity, or get a stronger academic footing so they can achieve greater success in the college years and beyond.

Marcia Morris, M.D., a psychiatrist at the University of Florida, is the author of The Campus Cure: A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students.

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