On the Value of Breaks

Posted on Aug 9, 2021 4:29 PM


My mother once told me something her undergraduate thesis adviser had said to her: “You do a lot of writing when you’re not writing.”

For the past year and change, millions of Americans have struggled to adjust to the unique demands of remote work. As has become abundantly clear, a home environment, for all its comforts, presents a host of obstacles to productivity. 

Fortunately, we have not lacked for advice about how to deal with these obstacles. Search for “remote work focus tips” and you’ll find dozens of articles full of valuable insights about the importance of scheduling, routine, physical wellness, and organization. But if you’re like me, there’s one particular suggestion that, no matter how often it comes up, seems uniquely difficult to internalize: the importance of taking regular breaks from work.

A September 2020 national survey by OnePoll found that since March of that year:

  • 70% of respondents struggled to maintain a healthy work-life balance
  • 65% were working longer hours, and
  • 56% felt more work-related stress

Protecting our off-hours is one of the biggest challenges of remote work. When we’re working from home, many of us naturally feel pressure to do more work rather than less. For that reason, many of us find it counterintuitive to think that taking a break is a good thing. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of imagining that effective workers must maintain absolute focus on a chosen task for as long as it takes, giving it their all until it’s finished.

Science shows us how unrealistic this ideal is. Writing in Quartz, Dr. Travis Bradberry points out that the human brain has a natural rhythm of focus: a burst of high activity that lasts about an hour will be followed by a period of rest where activity drops. 

A 2011 study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides another perspective. “The brain is literally built to detect and respond to change,” they write. In our evolutionary past, the ability to focus on changing stimuli while filtering out the familiar helped our ancestors survive in a dangerous world, allowing them to detect and focus on approaching threats. Eons later, our brains are still wired that way.

What does this mean for us? Simple: when we try to force our brains to work in ways they aren’t meant to, they stop cooperating. As the University of Illinois researchers explain, “prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance”; spend too long trying to focus on the same set of unchanging stimuli, and you’re likely to find yourself simply tuning out, accomplishing nothing but wasting time. But stepping away for even a few minutes gives the brain a chance to reboot—to recharge by focusing on something else, and then come back to the task at hand with full clarity.

Importantly, however, research shows that it’s not just taking breaks that matters—it’s taking them at the right times and in the right ways. Bradberry cites a study which found that the most productive workers followed a schedule of roughly 52 minutes of work, followed by a 17-minute break. Another popular method of break scheduling is the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo. This system prescribes 25 minutes of uninterrupted work, then a five-minute break, with every fourth work session followed by a longer break of about 15 minutes. 

Crucial to virtually every scheduling system is the idea that whatever you’re doing, either working or resting, you must give it your complete attention for the entire time. While working, you maintain exclusive focus on your task; then, during your break, you disconnect completely, ideally stepping away from your physical workspace and doing something wholly unrelated.

What’s the best way to spend break time? An article in Medium offers some tips:

  • Avoid checking your email or surfing the web during breaks. Staying in contact with your devices creates the temptation to check in on work.
  • When talking with colleagues in the office, don’t discuss work. Instead, find unrelated topics of shared interest that help you relax.
  • Be physically active: stand up, stretch, go for a walk outside if the weather allows.
  • If you can, get out in nature. As Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen say in 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 top-down responses.”

The recent months have been stressful for all of us in more ways than even we know. Under the circumstances, we all deserve to be a little gentler with ourselves—and if that helps us be more productive in our work, so much the better. So the next time you feel yourself flagging after a long spell of focusing on professional tasks, don’t try to force yourself back on track. Take a step back, breathe, and give your brain the rest it needs. Then you’ll be able to come back stronger than before.

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Topics: Career Tips, Remote Work, Breaks

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