Build a Brain Break That Works

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By Devin Morrissey

Studies on focus and productivity have proven the merit of taking brain breaks to bolster both productivity and creativity. Time and time again, these studies have demonstrated that we cannot achieve a full day of non-stop creative output; it’s not just not how we’re built. Specifically, research says we can absorb information for 45 minutes before our brains lose their full capacity to do so, and from there it’s a downward spiral.

But taking a break in the midst of a school day that helps and doesn’t hinder is actually a lot easier said than done. Ineffective breaks usually fall into one of two categories – they either don’t actually help you feel refreshed, or they last so long that they derail your focus and cripple your overall productivity for the day.

Thus, the key to harnessing the power of a brain break is in proactively approaching it just as you do any other task during your day. When you understand what components a successful break is made of you can better ensure that when you need a break, you take one that will allow you to go back to work feeling refreshed and ready to tackle what lies ahead.

The truth is that a good break isn’t just taken, it’s built.

Procrastinators Don’t Get to Take Breaks

A conversation about breaks has to begin by acknowledging that breaks are a privilege only allotted to the organized. Procrastinators who wait until the very last second have no choice but to push through. Often you’ll hear serial procrastinators justify their work model by claiming it’s the only way they get any work done, or they’ll go so far as to say it’s how they get their very best work done.

Again, though, science has proved the opposite is true. What’s far more likely is that if you’re struggling to get work done anytime before the last minute, it’s not in the interest of doing good work, but rather of failing to organize and stick to a schedule.

If you procrastinate, not only are you forced to work without the helpfulness of breaks, you’re also forced to commit to finished products you aren’t actually proud of, because you have no other choice.

Education experts at Arizona State University point out the key to breaking procrastination cycles is prioritizing work, and then organizing your schedule around those priorities. They write, “The plan won’t help you at all if you don’t execute it. Your successes ultimately depend on how much you want them and the effort you are willing to put into assignments.”

Procrastination might work sometimes, but it often comes at the price of stress and not producing the best finished product you can. Implement a method that works for you so that you are prompted to organize your weeks and days in a manner that provides the scheduling freedom you need to take the breaks that will allow you to produce your best work.

The Best Breaks Are Short and Sweet

Okay, you planned out your entire semester down to the most minute detail (… only kidding a little bit). Now you’ve got to think about when and how long you’re going to take a breather. Half of what gives a break the power to be beneficial, is that it exists in the right section of your schedule.

Consider when in your day they make sense: Most of us go through our studies in at least somewhat of a similar pattern. Think through how breaks would best work within that pattern. For example, right after you begin or before you finish a subject likely won’t be most helpful. Instead, placing them in between subjects, or mid-way through an especially challenging topic will probably work best.

Regulate their length: This small point is one of the most important within this article. If you’re taking the kinds of breaks that distract you from your main work, it’ll be really easy to let time get away from you to the point where the break is crippling your day’s productivity potential, instead of helping it.

In an overview of how students can bolster focus, the University of Cincinnati noted, “There is a task management technique called the Pomodoro method. What it entails is setting a timer for 25 minutes and focusing on one task until the timer goes off. You then take a five minute break and then another 25 minute session.”

Regardless of the fine details in terms of exactly how long you work and how long you break, the point is that you take full control of how long they are. You don’t let them control how much of your day you spend breaking or working. You make a plan, and you stick to it.

Use Breaks to Change Things Up

Breaks work best when they give your mind a chance to work a different section of your brain, in order to better refocus when the primary task is resumed. Brain health in general is maintained largely by introducing new and varied things.

Biomedical scientist Dan Chaiet writes for Steroidal, if you become entrenched enough in a routine, your brain will essentially begin to operate as if those specific parts of your routine are all it is capable of doing. Which of course, is not conducive to learning.

The best breaks have been proven to incorporate:

  • Getting into nature
  • Drawing and daydreaming
  • Exercising your eyes (especially helpful if you stare at screens a lot)
  • Finding ways to laugh
  • Exercising

Additionally, research has also shown that the breaks that are most helpful, incorporate activities participants enjoy. So, doing something just because it aligns with a suggestion on the above list probably won’t be much help. What will help is using the list as a springboard to consider what things you can do to shake up your day, and get your mind and your body moving in the right direction.

A good brain break is always going to be the marriage of a schedule that’s laid out with breaks in mind and activities that give you the opportunity to recalibrate. It’s easy to think about them as something that just happens. You want a break, you take a break.

Thinking through the specifics of when and what your breaks will look like will save you from wasting time and burning out. Good break taking is one of those things that once you try it and experience the difference, you’ll have a hard going back to basic breaks.

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