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The Science of Breaks at Work: Change Your Thinking About Downtime

Breaks help us reevaluate our goals

When you work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. In contrast, following a brief intermission, picking up where you left off forces you to take a few seconds to think globally about what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. 

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The Science of Breaks at Work: Change Your Thinking About Downtime

The Science of Breaks at Work: Change Your Thinking About Downtime

https://open.buffer.com/science-taking-breaks-at-work/

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Key Ideas

Breaks keep us from getting bored

The human brain just wasn’t built for the extended focus we ask of it these days.

The fix for this unfocused condition is simple—all we need is a brief interruption (aka a break) to get back on track.

Breaks and brain connections

Our brains have two modes:

  • focused mode, which we use when we’re doing things like learning something new, writing or working) and 
  • diffuse mode, which is our more relaxed, daydreamy mode when we’re not thinking so hard.

The mind solves its stickiest problems while daydreaming—something you may have experienced while driving or taking a shower.

Stop feeling guilty about breaks

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is indispensable to the brain. It is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

The Pomodoro technique

Work in small bursts to help you get rid of distractions and focus more intently.

Just set a timer for 25 minutes, and when it goes off, take a short break for 5 minutes. Stretch your legs, grab a drink, or just sit back and relax. After you’ve done four Pomodoro sessions, take a longer break of 30 minutes or so.

90-minute work blocks

Working in 90-minute intervals for maximizing productivity means working with our bodies’ natural rhythms.

When studies were conducted on elite performers like violinists, athletes, actors and chess players, the results showed that the best performers practised in focused sessions of no more than 90 minutes.

The 52-17 method

Most productive people work for 52 minutes at a time, then take a break for 17 minutes before getting back to it. 

They make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest up to be ready for the next burst. In other words, they work with purpose.

Two 15-minute breaks per day

Blocking out two planned, 15-minute intermissions in your day—one in the mid-morning and the other in the mid-afternoon. 

Around 3 p.m. is the least productive time of day, so definitely don’t skip that break.

Productivity-boosting activities for breaks

  • Take a walk. 
  • Daydream. It leads to creativity.
  • Eat to replenish your brain.
  • Read a (non-work) book.
  • Get a coffee. 
  • Doodle. It can stimulate new ideas and help us stay focused.

  • Listen to music.

  • Nap.

  • Exercise.

  • Talk to friends or co-workers.

  • Go outside and see some nature.

  • Exercise your eyes with the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take a break for at least 20 seconds and look at objects that are 20 feet away from you.

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Setting healthy boundaries

Set your personal boundaries, so you have dedicated time to take care of yourself, your family or household, and your professional responsibilities. You won't be any good to your family if you regularly jump up to respond to work.

The key to success is deciding on expectations, then communicating those to others. You need to get clear in your mind what hours you will be attending to your work. Perhaps dedicate a space in your home as the "office," letting everyone know that you need privacy. Decide when you are "on" and when you are "off."

Technology and productivity

We all have tools in our pockets to help us.

  • For example, consider using your phone's built-in alarm for taking breaks, or giving yourself a reminder to eat lunch, or taking a screen break to reduce eyestrain.
  • If you find it challenging to work, consider a productivity method like the Pomodoro technique, where you work deeply for about 25 minutes, then take a short break. Repeat four of the cycles, then take a 30-minute break before starting again. There are many Pomodoro apps to help you.
  • Don't forget to use the same technology to turn off notifications and distractions while you're working.

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After analyzing 5.5 million daily records of how office workers are using their computer (based on what the user self-identified as “productive” work), they found that the top 10% of productive workers all worked an average of 52 minutes before taking a 17 minute break.

Distract Yourself To Recharge Your Focus

Intense focus actually makes us less focused in the long run. Instead of thinking about the problem without stop, we need to create distractions that take our attention away from the task at hand so we can come back at it with a fresh mind.

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Myth #5: You Should Never Work At Home
Myth #5: You Should Never Work At Home

Some people working from home have a higher efficiency on time spent working and performance per minute. The employees surveyed also reported they were happier working at home. 

Myth #4: Pushing To Get Things Done

Willpower is a limited resource, one that we deplete through hard, focused work. We need to take regular breaks to restore our flagging willpower and keep our productivity in the long run.

Take a break and do something different for a few minutes every half-hour or so to give your brain a break and replenish your mental resources. 

Myth #3: The Internet Is A Distraction

The Internet distracts but we use it for researching items and retaining information. If you build up your searching skills and ignore distractions, like social networks, it becomes just a tool.

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