How Do Work Breaks Help Your Brain? 5 Surprising Answers
For productivity and creativity, take one of these 10 relaxing breaks.
Posted Apr 18, 2017
Have you ever gotten stumped by a problem, decided to take a break, and then later found that the answer magically came to you in a burst of inspiration? If so, you know the power of strategic breaks to refresh your brain and help you see a situation in a new way.
A “break” is a brief cessation of work, physical exertion, or activity. You decide to give it a rest with the intention of getting back to your task within a reasonable amount of time. But when you give it a rest, what part of your brain actually needs that break?
For “think-work,” it’s the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the thinking part of your brain. When you are doing goal-oriented work that requires concentration, the PFC keeps you focused on your goals. The PFC is also responsible for logical thinking, executive functioning, and using willpower to override impulses. That’s a lot of responsibility—no wonder it needs a break!
Now you know that breaks can help you keep your goals in the spotlight. But research shows that there are numerous other benefits of downtime. Of course, as everyone knows, breaks can bring you fun, relaxation, conversation, and entertainment, but we’ll focus on evidence that links periods of rest with greater work productivity. Then we’ll reveal the best ideas for work breaks.
As always, consider which of the ideas below fits you—your personal work preferences, job rules, energy level, priorities, goals, and values. If your work habits already work for you, no need to change!
Why Take Breaks?
Here is a summary of recent research and thinking on the value of taking breaks:
1. “Movement breaks” are essential for your physical and emotional health. The benefits of taking brief movement breaks have been well-researched. Constant sitting—whether at your desk, the TV, or the lecture hall—puts you at higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity. Getting up from your chair to walk, stretch, do yoga, or whatever activity you prefer can reduce the negative health effects from too much sitting. Just a 5-minute walk every hour can improve your health and well-being. (Details here.)
2. Breaks can prevent “decision fatigue.” Author S.J. Scott points out that the need to make frequent decisions throughout your day can wear down your willpower and reasoning ability. Citing a famous study, Scott notes that Israeli judges were more likely to grant paroles to prisoners after their two daily breaks than after they had been working for a while. As decision fatigue set in, the rate of granting paroles gradually dropped to near 0% because judges resorted to the easiest and safest option—just say no. Decision fatigue can lead to simplistic decision-making and procrastination.
3. Breaks restore motivation, especially for long-term goals. According to author Nir Eyal, “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.”
A small study summarized here even suggests that prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance. "We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused," psychology professor Alejandro Lleras says. "From a practical standpoint, 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. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!"
4. Breaks increase productivity and creativity. Working for long stretches without breaks leads to stress and exhaustion. Taking breaks refreshes the mind, replenishes your mental resources, and helps you become more creative. “Aha moments” came more often to those who took breaks, according to research. Other evidence suggests also that taking regular breaks raises workers’ level of engagement which, in turn, is highly correlated with productivity.
5. “Waking rest” helps consolidate memories and improve learning. Scientists have known for some time that one purpose of sleep is to consolidate memories. However, there is also evidence that resting while awake likewise improves memory formation. During a rest period, it appears that the brain reviews and ingrains what it previously learned.
Science writer Ferris Jabr summarizes the benefits of breaks in this Scientific American article: “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life … moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”
Those last two possible benefits are intriguing. Could it be that mental fatigue affects our ability to make ethical decisions because we're too tired to remember who we are and what we value?
When Not to Take a Break
There are times when it makes no sense to take a break. One of those times is when you are in a state of “flow.” Flow is characterized by complete absorption in the task, seemingly effortless concentration, and pleasure in the task itself. Simply enjoying what you are doing may be a sign that you still have plenty of energy for your current activity.
In short, if it ain’t broke, don’t “break” it.
A good break will give that goal-oriented PFC of yours a rest by switching brain activity to another area. Eyal explains it this way: “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.” The activities below have a special power to refresh and recharge your mind and body because they use brain regions other than the PFC.
1. Walk or exercise. Many famous writers were also famous for their walking prowess, as described in this blog by PT blogger Linda Wasmer Andrews. Andrews cites work by Stanford researchers who studied the link between walking and creativity. They discovered that a walking break led to more creative ideas than a sitting break. The creativity afterglow lingered even after the subjects returned to their desks.
2. Connect with nature... or a streetscape. Do you need calm or excitement in your day? Describing a study from Scotland, Wasmer writes that “that walking on a nature path induced a calm state of mind, while walking along city streets amped up engagement.” Know what state of mind you are aiming for when you take breaks.
3. Change your environment. Briefly leaving your work environment and going to another area will serve to help your brain rest and switch gears.
4. Have lunch or a healthy snack. Why not recharge the mind and body at the same time? A twofer.
5. Take a “power nap”—if it won’t get you fired. Although I am not fond of napping myself, this article by Elizabeth Scott offers evidence that short power naps have amazing health, productivity, and relaxation benefits. Studies suggest that you can make yourself more alert, reduce stress, and improve cognitive functioning with a nap.
6. Take a few deep breaths. They don’t call a rest “taking a breather” for nothing. Deliberately taking slow, deep breaths and focusing on your breathing just for 30 seconds is a mini-meditation that can relax your mind and body. (For more mini-meditations, see here.)
7. Meditate. Mindfulness meditation offers a temporary respite from goal achievement. Ferris Jabr offers an interesting perspective here: “For many people, mindfulness is about paying close attention to whatever the mind does on its own, as opposed to directing one’s mind to accomplish this or that.”
8. Daydream. Daydreaming gives the prefrontal cortex a break, taking you on a brief journey to your unconscious mind where chaos and creativity reign.
9. Get creative. If your work requires you to use your logical, linguistic left-brain, deliberately choose a break activity that will activate your creative and visual right-brain—like drawing or just doodling.
10. Drink coffee (or tea). Every day there’s a new piece of research touting the health benefits of coffee-drinking in moderation. Sipping coffee can be a mindful pleasure in itself. And for productivity purposes, coffee is unparalleled. When the caffeine kicks in, you’ll realize there’s no task you can’t conquer. (Just don’t drink too much. As with any drug, the effects become less potent when you develop tolerance.)
When You Can't Take a Break
If you can’t take a break, consider switching work tasks. Changing your focus—say from writing an essay to choosing photos for a presentation—can often feel like a break because you are using a slightly different part of your brain. You could also switch from solitary work to consulting with a colleague. When you return to the original task, you’ll experience some of the break benefits.
Monitor Yourself and Learn
As you take breaks, be mindful of the results. Which kind of breaks seem to help you become more creative, motivated, and productive? Which kind of breaks just seem disruptive to your work? Notice what works and what doesn’t. Research on breaks is a generalization; only you can decide what particular strategies work best for you.
Meanwhile, give it a rest!
© Meg Selig, 2017. All rights reserved.
Andrews, L.W. "To Become a Better Writer, Be a Frequent Walker"
Jabr, F. "Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime"
Eyal, N. and Robertson, C., “5 Research-Backed Ways to Take Better Breaks to Improve Your Work"
Korkki, P. "To Stay on Schedule, Take a Break"