Give your brain a break!
Have you noticed that you are having trouble concentrating, that you have headaches after a day’s work or that you feel exhausted during your free time? Your brain might be telling you to take a break.
Expert, creative, independent work requires concentration, self-regulation, and recovery. All of these are tools in the self-leadership toolkit, especially needed during remote work.
In previous posts, I’ve written about what virtual and remote work does to our wellbeing and productivity. Although we are returning to the office or to campus, virtual work is here to stay and working remotely will be part of the schedule even after the pandemic.
New era, better routines?
We got used to working in a certain way before the pandemic. During the pandemic, all our routines were challenged and we needed to find a new way to be effective and productive – often at the cost of wellbeing. Recovery and breaks were all of a sudden a luxury that we couldn’t afford – or so we thought.
Now, that we are entering into a new era of working, we need to make sure we’re not repeating the same mistakes as before. It’s therefore more important than ever to build new healthy working routines – especially routines that promote brain wellbeing. The easiest way to take care of your brain during work is to remember to take breaks.
Why do we need to take breaks?
Many people see breaks as a necessary evil. As an opposite or an obstacle to productivity. The following are common comments I hear:
“I can’t take a break, I have so much to do”
“I need to just sit and write and the words will form themselves, no matter how long it takes”
Well, we do need breaks. Why? Because directly after a break, our performance increases, the number of mistakes decrease, and our solutions are more creative than before the break. Doesn’t this sound like the opposite of the quotes above?
If we think of our brain as an engine or as a computer, it’s like stopping the car or closing the computer when it overheats. This analogy isn’t perfect – the brain is so complex and complicated that it cannot actually be compared with an engine or a computer – but it helps to grasp the big picture.
When we take a break, our brain does something called consolidation, in which the recent memories stabilize and sometimes even reorganize. So the brain is definitely not idle during breaks! This means, that when we take a break, we might actually get ideas and be more innovative than if we just keep on going.
5 reasons to take breaks
If you’re not already convinced, here are 5 reasons you should take more breaks.
- Not taking breaks makes us tired and increases somatic problems like headaches and muscoloskeletal disorders. Breaks, especially breaks that include some form of exercise (like just standing up or walking), increase energy levels and vitality (e.g. Sianoja et al., 2016), which help us concentrate and reduce the physical toll of sedentary work.
- Breaks are needed to maintain concentration. Research shows, that after only 40 minutes performance decreases on tasks that require concentration (Ariga & Lleras, 2011).
- When our concentration is fleeting because our energy-levels are decreasing, we tend to start multitasking, for example during a meeting or a lecture (Cao et al., 2021). Multitasking is bad for your brain and for your productivity. Why? Because it makes work heavy, slow and prone to mistakes. And it is very heavy on your brain, causing headaches and fatigue after (or during) the work day.
- Breaks also affect your decision-making skills (Danziger, Levav & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011). After a break you might notice that your brain has consolidated information, which allows you to make better – or at least better informed – decisions.
- Breaks actually increase creativity and innovation (e.g. Breslin, 2018). Sometimes it’s a good idea not to interrupt the creative process. But there is a limit to everything. Good self-knowledge helps you to understand when you need to take breaks and when you need to go with the flow!
Viva la break culture!
So, how could organizations build a healthy and supportive break culture?
First, we need to give people the freedom to design their work and their breaks so that it supports their performance and wellbeing. Providing opportunity and support for recovery during the work day is integral.
Second, a healthy break culture also requires break rooms or break spaces for people to meet and get their mind of work for a while.
Third, we need to redefine what breaks actually contain. Breaks are not just about ‘doing nothing’, they are about doing everything! For the brain, it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something that helps you to regain energy and concentration. Exercise, meditation, talking with others, relaxation, napping, reading, watching Netflix, listening to music/audio books, knitting, cooking, singing, whatever floats your boat! But remember that some people wish to talk about work on their break, while others prefer not to. Build a safe environment where those who want to vent, get to do that and those who don’t want to hear it, don’t have to.
Fourth, meeting culture goes hand in hand with break culture: schedule enough time between meetings and make sure the meetings aren’t too long, or at least have a break in between. Virtual work and virtual meetings require more breaks!
How to get better at taking breaks?
There is a lot you can do to become better at taking breaks. First evaluate the situation, then decide on a plan, and then do what is needed.
Think about your work schedule and how you are feeling at the moment, and try to notice where breaks would be needed. Evaluate how many breaks and what kind of breaks you need in your day. What could help you to take enough breaks?
Take control of your wellbeing and of your schedule. Put boundaries and learn to stand up for yourself. Saying no to extra tasks often means saying yes to your wellbeing. What do you need in order for you to take enough breaks?
In the beginning you might need to put your breaks in your schedule and perhaps also put alarms in your phone to remind you of taking breaks. Use the Pomodoro technique to be productive, but also to remember the breaks. What other techniques could you use?
Just start somewhere, you’ll do great.
This blog post was inspired by the book Aivosi tarvitsevat tauon by Minna Huotilainen (Tuuma, 2021)
Ariga, A., & Lleras, A. (2011). Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition, 118(3), 439-443. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007
Breslin, D. (2018) Enhancing and managing individual and group creativity through off-task breaks. In: Kapranos, P., (ed.) The Interdisciplinary Future of Engineering Education: Breaking Through Boundaries in Teaching and Learning. Routledge, pp. 177-190. ISBN 9781138481213
Cao, H., Lee, C. J., Iqbal, S., Czerwinski, M., Wong, P. N., Rintel, S., … & Yang, L. (2021, May). Large scale analysis of multitasking behavior during remote meetings. In Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-13).
Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17), 6889-6892. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1018033108
Sianoja, M., Kinnunen, U., de Bloom, J., Korpela, K. and Geurts, S., 2016. Recovery during Lunch Breaks: Testing Long-Term Relations with Energy Levels at Work. Scandinavian Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 1(1), p.7. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16993/sjwop.13