The Benefits of Taking Breaks

You’ve been at work for five hours straight. Your mind is wandering, your shoulders are slumped, and your eyelids are heavy. You know you need to get back on track. Surprisingly, your best strategy might be to slack off.

“If you run and don’t fuel your body, you eventually collapse,” says Karen Turner, the CEO of Turner Efficiency Coaching, a company that helps businesses improve employee productivity. “The same thing happens with work. If you don’t rest, you’ll crash.”

It may seem counterintuitive, but taking a break from the task at hand can jump-start your brain, boost motivation and improve your focus. And as research shows, more inane distractions can have especially positive effects on your powers of concentration.

Take a Nap

Most of us ditched our daily naps after preschool, but scientific experiments suggest that was likely a mistake. Having a snooze – even one as short as ten minutes – can improve alertness, memory and cognitive performance.

It might also help you organise your thoughts. In a study presented at a 2012 neuroscience conference, researchers at Georgetown University in the US observed 15 people at rest. While subjects dozed, the right hemispheres of their brains – the area associated with creativity – were more active than the left hemispheres. Andrei Medvedev, a scientist involved with the study, speculates that this activity might indicate that the brain “could be doing some useful housecleaning during its down time, like classifying data and consolidating memories.”

Experts say that between noon and 4pm is the ideal time for napping. Some recommend taking a “caffeine nap” – drinking a cup of coffee, then snoozing for 15 minutes or less. The combo can boost energy and leave you feeling sharper.

The Power of Cute

Scrolling through galleries of baby animals is good for the soul, but it might benefit your performance, too. In a 2012 Japanese study, participants were asked to play a version of the board game Operation, which involves precise motor skills. During a short break, one group was shown photos of puppies and kittens, while the other viewed pictures of older animals.

When the groups resumed the game, participants who had viewed snaps of younger animals improved their scores by 34%. Their counterparts showed only a 9% improvement. The researchers suggested that “cuteness” may tap into human nuturing instincts to care for infants, which induces an added degree of diligence and carefulness in behaviour. So the next time you encounter a slide show of the “15 Cutest Piglets Wearing Boots” online, consider clicking through as an investment in your mental acuity.

Just Browsing

The funny article your friend posted on Facebook may seem like a waste of time, but taking a few minutes to check your social media feeds can help you focus. In 2009, Australian researchers found that workers who spent up to 20% of their time during the day surfing the internet were 9% more productive than peers who avoided cyberloafing altogether. However, this approach has its limits: productivity levels were shown to dip when subjects spent more than 20% of their day online.

To maximise the effectiveness of mini browsing breaks, Brent Coker, the study’s lead researcher, suggests workers visit the sites that make them the happiest. “The more enjoyable the break, the better it was in terms of boosting productivity,” he says.

Dr Coker also advises dividing your time into chunks. “After about 40 to 60 minutes, people’s attention starts to wane,” he says. “Work for that stretch, then set aside five to ten minutes for a break.”

Let Your Mind Wander

Because all brain activity burns glucose, even something as simple as multi-tasking can take a toll on your mental energy. You can help replenish those stores by taking a few moments to “reset” your brain. Daydreaming is one method – when you let your mind wander, you’re allowing it to cool down.

“You’re detaching from the cognitive demands of constantly switching between tasks,” says Vinod Menon, a professor at California’s Stanford University who discovered a brain network involved in daydreaming. Moderation is key, however.

So whether you’re planning dinner or your next trip, it pays to temporarily have your head in the clouds.

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