Research Reveals How to Take a Better Break
Research suggests there are good ways, and not-so-good ways, to take a break.
Posted September 9, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- Taking regular breaks is important for focus and productivity.
- Spending time on social media during breaks can make people more susceptible to boredom.
- Restorative activities for breaks include spending time in nature, exercise, daydreaming, and laughter.
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 felt relief checking the news, Facebook, or Instagram.
However, new research suggests there are good ways and not-so-good ways to spend our break time. While some breaks can leave us refreshed and reenergized, others tend to leave us 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 good breaks can reduce mental fatigue, boost brain function, and keep us on task for longer periods. But Gazzaley and Rosen forewarn that taking the wrong sort of breaks might make us more susceptible to boredom and may actually backfire by making us want to take breaks more often.
From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World: “…technology may be decreasing the time associated with the onset of boredom when single tasking as a result of our ever-escalating exposure to pervasive, high-frequency feedback…”
In other words, repeatedly checking our phones when we get a tad bored can train us to check more often throughout the day.
“From decades of research on learning and behavior, we know that the shorter the time between reinforcements (rewards), the stronger the drive to complete that behavior and gain the reward.”
The rapid rewards we get from skimming our newsfeeds alleviate boredom for a few moments, but they also teach our brains to seek out blips of joy the next time we feel a twinge of fatigue, Gazzaley and Rosen explain, “[…] the next time we are bored, our past experiences, having gained reinforcement from our smartphone, will drive us to self-interrupt…”
So by reaching for our phones when we want a break, we may be training ourselves to do it again and again. In order to resist the onset of boredom and self-interruption at work, Gazzaley and Rosen suggest we avoid our smartphones and instead take breaks that restore the part of the brain we use to keep focused on our goals.
Located right behind the forehead, the prefrontal cortex is considered the most evolved portion of the human brain. Although it has many functions, goal management is its main business. The prefrontal cortex orchestrates 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 tonight, my prefrontal cortex will help coordinate my brain functions to guide me through the actions needed to complete the meal like navigating the grocery store, following a recipe, and cooking the meal, all while making sure I don’t get sidetracked.
When we work, our prefrontal cortex makes every effort to help us execute our goals. But for a challenging task that requires our sustained attention, research shows briefly taking our minds off the goal can renew and strengthen motivation later on. Doing activities that don’t rely heavily on prefrontal cortex function but rely on different brain regions instead, is the best way to renew focus throughout the work day.
1. Go Natural
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 environment.
From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World: “Natural environments capture our attention in a bottom-up fashion because natural stimuli are so inherently compelling to us (presumably owing to evolutionary factors). They draw us in but generate minimal [prefrontal cortex] responses.”
Work in a city? You don’t have to go far to benefit from nature. Just noticing the sights and sounds of natural features around you can help you recharge.
Find plants, fresh air, a fish tank, or a fountain. Sit down, take a deep breath, and notice the details of nature. Point out as many as possible: “The left leaf is smaller,” or “There’s a bruise on the third petal,” or “It’s off center in the planter box,” or “I wonder how many bugs are on it?”
If you are stuck indoors, look at some pictures of nature instead, as research shows they work too. Or try tuning into nature videos on your computer for a few minutes; like a tropical beach or a mountain creek.
2. Doodle and Daydream
Having a moment with ‘nothing to do’ is rare these days. We dodge even the briefest moments of potential boredom with just a few swipes.
However, according to Gazzaley and Rosen, avoiding occasional periods of ‘nothing to do’ downtime may have some unintended effects.
From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World: “This leaves little time for reflection, deep thinking, or even just simply sitting back and letting our random thoughts drive us places we might not have gone while immersed in directed thinking.”
When we let our minds wander without focusing on a certain goal, the brain’s default mode network takes over. Daydreaming and doodling tap into default mode network activity and may give some prefrontal cortex functions a rest.
Sit alone, set an alarm for 10 minutes, take a deep breath and be patient. If you need a little help, try the website Do Nothing for 2 Minutes for a quick session.
You can also practice mind wandering in your daily life by keeping your phone in your pocket and letting your mind drift while you wait at a crosswalk, a train station, or in an elevator lobby.
3. Exercise Your Eyes
Our eyes bear the burden of our tech-charged lives. Fortunately, doing 20-20-20 eye breaks is a straightforward way to alleviate eye strain and fatigue.
Every 20 minutes, stare at something 20 feet away, for 20 seconds. Gazzaley and Rosen explain the reason why this is beneficial is that it “…requires blood flow to brain areas that are not related to sustained attention.” The shift in blood flow across certain brain regions may be the reason why eye exercises are restorative.
Laughter packs a punch. It increases heart rate, respiration, and it gets our blood pumping as our upper body muscles are recruited into the action. Although evidence of long-term benefits of laughter is debated, short-term effects show some improvements on memory tests.
From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World: “ … older adults who watched a funny video scored better on memory tests and showed reduced cortisol and increased endorphins and dopamine, meaning less stress and more energy and positive feelings.”
Listen to a comedy podcast or a stream a comedy radio station. Read the comics section in the newspaper in the breakroom. Or keep a funny book at the office to help you get through the next afternoon slump.
We all know regular exercise benefits the body and the brain. The good news is that even short bursts of exercise are helpful for cognition. Just 10 minutes of physical activity can boost attention and memory performance.
Find a secluded space to do a 7-minute workout, do some pushups or planks, or just take a brisk walk around the block. A little physical activity is a great way to rev up your brain without breaking a sweat in your work clothes.
The bottom line is that breaks should make you feel better by providing a renewed sense of focus and concentration.
As digital detoxes and tech-free zones rise in popularity, we are beginning to value the benefits of removing technology every now and then. Taking better breaks can encourage creativity and increase focus by relieving the prefrontal cortex of some goal management duties for a while.
From The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World: “Whatever relaxes you and takes you away from your over stimulating technological environment will help you re-engage with greater arousal, more capacity for attention, and less susceptibility to being interrupted.”
The next time you need to take a break at work, ignore your smartphone and skip the newsfeeds. Choose an activity that is restorative so you feel refreshed and more prepared to tackle the rest of your day.