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Give your brain a breather

A break can boost productivity.

If you have a job that requires a great deal of physical work, you know about the importance of taking breaks. The body requires a moment to rest and recuperate before starting again. The same can be said of mental work. Taking breaks is necessary to help your brain recover, recharge and get back to the task at hand.

In our task-driven culture, however, it can be hard to recognize when the brain needs a break. We are programmed, in some ways, to continue working despite mental exhaustion. Breaks are considered indulgent. Yet our non-stop work doesn’t necessarily translate to greater productivity.

Effective breaks can boost, not reduce, your momentum

Studies show that even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on a task for prolonged periods.

There are many ways to help your brain recharge:

  • Take a walk. Being sedentary is hard on our bodies and our minds. Get up and walk for a few minutes. If you can, take a walk around the block, enough to get your blood pumping and more oxygen to the brain.
  • Avert your eyes. Staring at a computer screen for more than 20 minutes is hard on our eyes and mentally taxing. Use 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.
  • Consider a lunchtime workout. A moderate level of cardio activity can boost creativity and productivity and give you a healthy break from the office.
  • Go outside; see some nature. On a nice day, take your break outdoors. Spending time outdoors is good for your immune system and has been shown to improve focus and relieve stress.
  • Enjoy some tea. The process of making and drinking a cup of tea can give you a much-needed pause. You’ll also get a healthy dose of antioxidants, and of course, a bit of caffeine.
  • Eat a healthy snack. Take a moment to refuel with a handful of nuts or seeds, a piece of fruit or dark chocolate. It might be all it takes to help you power through.
  • Work in short bursts. If you’re working on a mentally taxing project, try timed working methods. Set a timer for 25 minutes, and when it goes off, take a short break for 5 minutes. Some people prefer 90-minute working intervals, or the “52-17” method (52 minutes of work, then 17 minutes of downtime). Several apps are available that might be helpful if you want to try a timed technique.

Recharging at home

  • Add “mini breaks” to your at-home to-do list. Simply taking a bath, going for a run or brisk walk, reading a book, or listening to music are all great ways to quiet the mind and de-stress.
  • Midday naps are also an effective way to recharge, and more realistic at home than at most workplaces. Studies show that a 10-minute nap can improve cognitive function and decrease overall fatigue and sleepiness.
  • Meditation may be the most powerful way to de-stress and quiet the mind. Through deep breathing, quiet contemplation, and narrowing of focus, just 20 minutes of daily meditation can be effective at reducing overall stress levels. Research suggests meditation may help reduce blood pressure, lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, and ease anxiety and depression, among other health benefits. 

"Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body."

essayist Tim Kreider