The Smartest People Take a Break

Addie Labor DayMy second grader’s “Happy Labor Day” sign from the weekend with the “no working” illustration left no grey area as to what the expectations of the Labor Day holiday weekend were. While the idea is alluring, actually turning off the electronics and being fully present is a gift not many of us allow ourselves. We should. Despite what our culture values, scientific findings validate our true human need to “catch a break,” and not just on the weekends or holidays, but throughout our day to include:

Go to Lunch

In many industries, lunch breaks or any kind of respite are getting shorter and shorter, or even nonexistent. These days, only one in five office workers reports taking an actual lunch break away from their desk, according to a survey by workplace consulting group, Right Management, recently published in Fast Company. Yet taking a break, even for 15 to 20 minutes, is a proven way to sustain concentration and energy levels throughout the day.

Respecting our natural attention spans will help us perform at our best. According to natural ultradian rhythms, on average, our brains are only able to focus for 90 minutes and need at least 20 minutes rest between those focused blocks of time. “Never taking a break from very careful thought work actually reduces your ability to be creative,” says Kimberly Elsbach, a management professor at UC-Davis who studies the psychology of the workplace. It sort of exhausts your cognitive capacity and you’re not able to make the creative connections you can if your brain is more rested. If you’re skipping lunch to continue to push forward in a very intense cognitive capacity, then you’re probably not doing yourself any favors.”

Meditate (or at least rest your brain)

A little bit of mindfulness goes a long way. Meditative breaks throughout the day have proven to improve productivity vs. socializing. A study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that assigning call-center workers 20-minute “progressive relaxation” breaks, in which they participated in meditation-like activities, reduced their stress in the afternoon, compared to another group of workers who engaged in small talk with co-workers for 20 minutes. The relaxation technique had a positive impact on blood pressure, sleep quality and more.

Take a Nap
When your eye lids become very heavy at 2 p.m., it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not getting enough sleep or you’re bored with your work, it’s just your body’s natural circadian rhythm. You will have a dip in energy levels in the early afternoon because we’re actually designed to have two sleeps per day, according to Loughborough University Professor, Jim Horne. Our bodies are made to sleep for a long period overnight and a shorter stint during the day, which is why our energy levels drop and we feel sluggish or sleepy in the afternoon. Research has shown that naps lead to improvement in cognitive function, creative thinking and memory performance. In particular, napping benefits the learning process, helping us take in and retain information better.
The improved learning process comes from naps actually helping our brain to solidify memories. Research indicates that when memory is first recorded in the brain—in the hippocampus, to be specific—it’s still “fragile” and easily forgotten, especially if the brain is asked to memorize more things. Napping, it seems, pushes memories to the neocortex, the brain’s “more permanent storage,” preventing them from being “overwritten.” One study into memory found that participants did remarkably better on a test following a nap than those who didn’t sleep at all. (Wish I had known that in college.)
Naps should be limited to 20 minutes though to avoid sleep inertia, that post-sleep grogginess that can make you feel more tired than before the nap the rest of the day. Sleeping helps clear out the holding area of any information picked up during the day. As a result, their studies found that after you nap you’ll have more room in your working memory for new information. While a lot of it gets tossed out, anything important gets moved to long-term memory, so your memory performance should also improve after a nap.
Leave the Office
Studies have shown that a walk in a quiet park is sufficient to refresh our attention span so we can return to work with renewed focus. (A walk down a city street, on the other hand, was found to require so much attention to complete that it didn’t let the brain relax fully.) If you’re lucky enough to work close to green, natural spaces, and have the freedom to do that, it’s worth your time. If not, you can replicate that experience as best as you can with nature screen saver scenes.
Changing your work location also renews your sense of focus. The ambient sound of a café has been shown to be the most beneficial sound level for creativity. Moderate noise levels, unlike silence or a noisy environment, increase processing difficulty just enough to push us out of our comfort zones and into more creative thinking. If you are limited to working in the same space every day, you can imagine to be somewhere else with audio apps to replicate more creative environments right at your desk. MacLife has some options titled Coffee Corner, Restaurant Kitchen or Nature Space.
If you work in a more traditional work space where you are expected to appear to be working constantly, I would challenge you to go ahead and take a break. Pretend to become a smoker if you have to so you can step outside and relax your mind several times throughout the day. It may not “appear” that you are getting as much done, but in time you will prove that you are more productive than most because of it. Happy Labor Day week from all us at Gerard Marketing Group!