Be more productive. Take a break.

Last week two wonderful women both revealed something to me that made me look at them with shock and horror. Shock and horror brought upon by concern and worry. They disclosed that they weren’t taking lunch breaks at work.

One of these ladies was planning to rectify this misdemeanour and was looking for some encouragement. Over the course of the week we liaised via the sms text messaging service and we both engaged in loads of congratulating when she did well.

The other lady seemed a bit less concerned about eating her sandwich at her desk. So I suppose this blog post is an attempt to convince her that if she took a break in the middle of the day her life is going to improve one million trillion per cent.  

I’m no lunch-break-taking saint. Occasionally I’ll have one of those exhilarating days where my focus is clear and I’m ticking the boxes on my to-do list and nailing accomplishment and I just want to keep on going. When I’m in the zone or racing at 100km an hour, the last thing I will want to do is slow down. It can seem a bit unnatural even. I might lose momentum. Will I ever regain this level of competency and efficiency ever again?

But the reality and the evidence of it is that if we really want to perform at our most optimum capacity, we’d be doing ourselves a massive disservice if we didn’t take breaks from time to time. Here’s why.

  1. The brain does not stop working when we take a break. In fact, it does some of its most important work.
To put it really, really simply our brains have two modes: the “focused mode,” which we use when we’re doing things like learning something new, writing or working; and, the “default mode,” which is our more relaxed, daydreamy mode when we’re not thinking so hard. We might be forgiven for thinking that the focused mode is the one to optimise for more productivity, but our default mode plays a massive role too.
In a recent review of research on the default mode, Immordino-Yang and her colleagues argue that the default mode is essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behaviour and instil an internal code of ethics. Turns out, downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to bring to the surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself. When we are idle we might replay conversations we had earlier that day (yes!), rewriting our verbal blunders as a way of learning to avoid them in the future (always!). We craft fictional dialogue to practice standing up to someone who intimidates us (tick!) or to reap the satisfaction of an imaginary harangue against someone who wronged us (my favourite pastime!). We shuffle through all those neglected mental post-it notes listing half-finished projects and we mull over the aspects of our lives with which we are most dissatisfied, searching for solutions. We sink into scenes from childhood and catapult ourselves into different hypothetical futures (fun!). And we subject ourselves to a kind of moral performance review, questioning how we have treated others lately (I may indulge in this too much?). These moments of introspection are also one way we form a sense of self, which is essentially a story we continually tell ourselves. When it has a moment to itself, the mind dips its quill into our memories, sensory experiences, disappointments and desires so that it may continue writing this ongoing first-person narrative of life. One could argue that without the default mode, we would struggle to know who we were.
During a lunch break, we’re also given the opportunity to consolidate all the important information we learnt during the first part of the day. In the default mode, the brain consolidates recently accumulated data, memorising the most salient information, and essentially rehearses recently learned skills, etching them into its tissue. Most of us have observed how, after a good night’s sleep, the vocab words we struggled to remember the previous day suddenly leap into our minds or that technically challenging piano song is much easier to play. Dozens of studies have confirmed that memory depends on sleep.
But you don’t have to sleep during your lunch break! More recently, scientists have documented what may well be physical evidence of such memory consolidation in animals that are awake but resting. When exploring a new environment—say, a maze—a rat’s brain crackles with a particular pattern of electrical activity. A little while later, when that rat is sitting around, its brain sometimes re-creates a nearly identical pattern of electrical impulses zipping between the same set of neurons. The more those neurons communicate with one another, the stronger their connections become; meanwhile neglected and irrelevant neural pathways wither. Many studies indicate that in such moments—known as sharp-wave ripples—the rat is forming a memory. So, if you want to remember that really important article you read/boring presentation you just sat through/meeting you attended you’d be wise to take a break!
  1. The ‘exceptional’ among us don’t perform a 9-5.
That learning and memory depend on both sleep and waking rest may partially explain why some of the most exceptional artists and athletes among us fall into a daily routine of intense practice punctuated by breaks and followed by a lengthy period of recuperation.
Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of The Florida State University has spent more than 30 years studying how people achieve the highest levels of expertise. Based on his own work and a thorough review of the relevant research, Ericsson has concluded that most people can engage in deliberate practice—which means pushing oneself beyond current limits—for only an hour without rest. The extremely talented people amongst us, across many different disciplines—music, sports, writing—rarely practice more than four hours each day on average.  And most of these experts prefer to begin training early in the morning when mental and physical energy is readily available. “Unless the daily levels of practice are restricted, such that subsequent rest and night time sleep allow the individuals to restore their equilibrium,” Ericsson wrote, “individuals often encounter overtraining injuries and, eventually, incapacitating ‘burnout.’”
  1. Stopping for a while will help us keep going
Ahhh, prevention. Everything is really about prevention these days.
Turns out if we take a break – or multiple breaks – when we’re at work it will prevent us from getting bored, becoming unfocused or being unproductive. Sound counterintuitive?
When we’re really in the groove of a task or project and the ideas are flowing, we can feel great. But it will never last forever—stretch ourself just a bit beyond that productivity zone and we might feel unfocused, zoned out or even irritable. What changes?
Basically, the human brain just wasn’t built for the extended focus we ask of it these days. Our brains are vigilant all the time because they evolved to detect tons of different changes to ensure our very survival. Focusing so hard on one thing for a long time isn’t something we’re ever going to be great at (at least for a few more centuries).
The good news is that the fix for this unfocused condition is simple—all we need is a brief interruption (aka a break) to get back on track.
4. Having a lunch break assists with our goals.
Again, who would have thunk it? Sporadic breaks can reactivate our goals.
As shown in a 2011 study published in Cognition, when we work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the forest. In contrast, following a brief intermission, picking up where we left off forces us to take a few seconds to think globally about what we’re ultimately trying to achieve. It’s a practice that encourages us to stay mindful of our objectives, and, as the authors of this study report, reliably contributes to better performance.
University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras explains:
“…Deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” he said. “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”

I understand the challenge of finding the time to step away for 15 minutes, or—even when we have the time—getting good at dragging ourselves away from our computers preemptively, before we’re depleted. But given the evidence, aren’t we doing ourselves, our brains and our goals a disservice by not stepping away from our work from time to time? 

Maybe if this feels like a dereliction of duty, we might need to remind ourselves that our brains were not built for extended focus. For most of evolutionary history, heightened concentration was needed in short bursts, not daylong marathons. Our minds evolved to snap to attention when we encountered a predator, keeping us vigilant just long enough to ensure our survival. Yet today, we expect far more from ourselves than centuries of evolution have designed us to do.

Ultimately, the question we should be asking is not whether breaks are worth taking – we know they are – but how we can better ensure that they actually take place.

Enjoy your lunch!

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