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Mind and Matter

Clarity . Connection . Comfort

Breaks to Boost Your Productivity and Creativity

A “break” is a brief cessation of work, physical exertion, or activity. One, essentially, gives the task at hand a rest with the intention of getting back to it within a reasonable amount of time. Breaks that enhance productivity and creativity typically impact the prefrontal cortex (PFC); the thinking part of our brains responsible for goal-oriented work, concentration, logical thinking, executive function, and using willpower to override impulses.

Science writer Ferris Jabr summarizes the benefits of breaks in an article for Scientific American where he writes, “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life … moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”

When Not to Take a Break

There are times when it makes no sense to take a break. One of those times is when you are in a state of “flow.” Flow is characterized by complete absorption in the task, seemingly effortless concentration, and pleasure in the task itself. Simply enjoying what you are doing may be a sign that you still have plenty of energy for your current activity.

Good Breaks

The activities below have a special power to refresh and recharge your mind and body because they use brain regions other than the prefrontal cortex.

  1. Walk or exercise. Stanford researchers have studied the link between walking and creativity. They discovered that walking breaks lead to more creative ideas than sitting breaks. Creativity afterglow lingers even after subjects returned to their desks.
  2. Connect with nature... or a streetscape. Do you need calm or excitement in your day? Describing a study from Scotland, PT blogger Linda Wasmer Andrews writes that “walking on a nature path induced a calm state of mind, while walking along city streets amped up engagement.” Know what state of mind you are aiming for when you take breaks.
  3. Change your environment. Briefly leaving your work environment and going to another area will serve to help your brain rest and switch gears.
  4. Have lunch or a healthy snack. Why not recharge the mind and body at the same time?
  5. Take a “power nap”— if it won’t get you fired. For some, short power naps have amazing health, productivity, and relaxation benefits. Studies suggest that you can make yourself more alert, reduce stress, and improve cognitive functioning with a nap.
  6. Take a few deep breaths. Deliberately taking slow, deep breaths and focusing on your breathing just for 30 seconds is a “mini-meditation” that can settle your mind and body.
  7. Meditate. Mindfulness meditation offers a temporary respite from goal achievement.
  8. Daydream. Daydreaming gives the prefrontal cortex a break, taking you on a brief journey to your unconscious mind where chaos and creativity reign.
  9. Get creative. If your work requires you to use your logical, linguistic left-brain, deliberately choose a break activity that will activate your creative and visual right-brain—like drawing or just doodling.
  10. Drink coffee (or tea). Every day there’s a new piece of research touting the health benefits of drinking coffee in moderation. Sipping coffee (or tea) can be a mindful pleasure. Just don’t drink too much. As with any drug, the effects become less potent when you develop tolerance. For some, caffeine may serve to stimulate anxiety.

When You Can't Take a Break

If you can’t take a break, consider switching work tasks. Changing your focus—say from writing an essay to choosing photos for a presentation—can often feel like a break because you are using a slightly different part of your brain. You could also switch from solitary work to consulting with a colleague. When you return to the original task, you’ll experience some of the break’s benefits.

Monitor Yourself and Learn

As you take breaks, be mindful of the results. Which kind of breaks seem to help you become more creative, motivated, and productive? Which kind of breaks just seem disruptive to your work? Notice what works and what doesn’t. Research on breaks is a generalization; only you can decide which strategies will work best for you.

Source: Selig, Meg (2017, April 18). How Do Work Breaks Help Your Brain? 5 Surprising Answers, Psychology Today.


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