You might be thinking – “But aren’t more breaks counter-intuitive to being productive?”
The answer is – no.
In fact, numerous brain studies show that taking more breaks at work, or even during study, can definitively improve your productivity at work.
Here’s How More Breaks Increase Your Productivity at Work.
When you’re actively learning something, you’re using your working memory.
This is what you’re using when you are concentrating on reports, emails, brainstorming or researching for a new project, etc.
And if you’ve noticed that the longer you spend at a work task, the harder it becomes to concentrate or the more difficult the task feels, it’s because your working memory is limited.
Imagine your working memory is a glass of water, and your long-term memory is a giant tank.
In order to commit what you’re learning to your long-term memory, you need to take your full glass of water, pour it into the tank, and then wait again to fill up the glass.
On the contrary, if you just kept pouring and pouring water into the glass without taking that break to add on to your long-term memory, the glass will just overflow and spill information it’s unable to hold.
According to John Sweller, a leading neuroscience researcher, only limited amounts of working memory can be processed in a go in order to conserve it in your limitless long-term memory.
He adds, “We can’t hold information for more than about 20 seconds without repeating it to ourselves.”
If you’re wondering why, after reading an entire multi-page report, you can’t recall any of it, this is exactly why – your working memory grew overwhelmed, and therefore ineffective.
But the solution for this is simple – multiple studies and a long growing body of scientific literature continue to demonstrate how “spaced repetition” and “spaced learning” improves working memory.
By working for 20 to 30 minutes, and then taking a 5-minute break, you allow your worn-out working memory to recharge again.
There are multiple ways you can do this, and in fact boost your working memory performance!
Let’s take a look at 5 ways to improve productivity at work with more breaks!
5 Ways to Improve Productivity at Work with More Breaks
1. Take Time Off to Meditate or Breathe Deeply for a Few Minutes
When you meditate, and consciously focus inward, you are removing yourself from your external environment.
This helps switch your brain into its default mode, where the mind is more relaxed and able to wander.
And although you are relaxing, your brain is still active – it’s in this default mode that the brain reviews all the information you’ve been inputting and makes associations with what you already know.
This is essential for building long-term memory.
Because your brain isn’t occupied with its working memory, it has the time to make sense of what you were doing and therefore lead to enhanced cognitive performance.
Allowing your brain to switch to default mode also helps you improve creativity, because your brain gets the opportunity to come up with new ideas and problem-solve existing ones!
Meditation also helps prime you for your next work session.
Controlling your breathing, slowing it down and focusing on it is a core practice within meditation.
It helps stimulate the longest nerve in your brain, the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
When you breathe slowly and deeply, it sends signals to parts of your body regulated by this system; it slows down your heartbeat, stabilizes your blood pressure, releases tension in your muscles, etc.
It also puts your brain in one of the four brain wave states, the alpha wave state.
When your brain is in this state, it’s calm but alert and active – the ideal state for learning and cognitive activity.
Not only does this state therefore help commit your working memory to your long-term memory during your break, it also puts you in a relaxed but alert and productive state of mind when you go back to work.
2. Take Time Out to Rest Your Eyes
Your eyes form a direct connection to your brain; it’s one of the primary and prominent sources of feedback inputting your work-related information into your brain.
Eye fatigue can reduce your productivity since you are overworking your vision, and this reduces the quality and efficacy of information you’re feeding your brain.
Tired or overworked eyes can also lead to headaches, blurred vision and other types of discomfort which impact your working memory’s efficiency.
So, after a work session, to give your eyes some time off and give the muscles and nerves around these vital organs a chance to relax and rejuvenate, you can do a simple exercise called palming.
Like the name suggests, this involves covering your eyes with your palms for a couple of minutes.
Don’t press your hands or rub your palms over your eyes – this can worsen the tension around the area and damage your eyes and the mechanisms around it.
Instead, leaving a little space between your palm and your eyelids, cup your hands over your eyes and make sure no light gets through.
Do this for around 3 or so minutes – you can even do this while meditating, slowing your breathing down and relaxing your whole body, mind, and of course, your eyes!
3. Get Some Light Exercise
A brisk walk around your office, some light stretches, etc. can work wonders for not just your working memory but also your attention, mood, cognitive functioning and more.
When you engage in physical activity, your body pumps more oxygenated blood to your brain.
All your cells need oxygen to function – this includes your brain cells or neurons.
When more oxygen-rich blood reaches your brain, it’s better able to create neural connections, which is how your brain creates and stores memory.
It also helps boost neuron growth in your hippocampus – this is the part of your brain’s temporal lobe where your short-term or working memory forms and is stored temporarily.
Essentially, exercise can actually help you alter the structure of your brain and boost brain growth.
So, naturally, exercising helps improve your working memory, along with your cognitive functioning – so you’ll find you’re more alert, and better able to focus!
Moreover, when you are active, your body experiences increased activity of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins, which sharpen your concentration, motivation and mood!
When you come back to work after getting all these chemical messengers going, your working memory hasn’t only been recharged, but overtime gets enhanced, too!
4. Feel the Music
Music has the power to brighten your mood up, move you to tears, get you energised and excited.
Music also has the science-backed ability to help relax you and put you in the best mood to learn and be productive!
Remember the alpha waves you read about earlier?
Listening to music at a hertz range of 60 beats per minute – a melodic and relaxing type of music, with no lyrics – helps put you in that alpha state!
The great thing about this is that you can not only spend time relaxing listening to comforting tunes during your break but can listen to this type of instrumental music while working too.
Neuroscience also continues to prove how listening to music can boost your dopamine levels, which plays a big role in focus and productivity.
Dopamine is also known as the motivation molecule – it’s a chemical messenger which helps you experience a sense of reward and satisfaction.
Because your brain enjoys this pleasurable sensation so much, it wants to experience it again, circulating more dopamine in anticipation of a reward.
This makes you feel motivated, focused, and therefore helps you boost your productivity and enhance your working memory!
And speaking of dopamine –
5. Break Tasks Down for More Dopamine
One of the best ways to increase dopamine naturally is to chunk your tasks down.
Imagine you are sitting for hours on end at your desk trying to get as much of a project done in one sitting as you can.
Does that feel good to you? Do you imagine yourself staying motivated through the whole thing, and not getting tired or losing focus, maintaining the same degree of performance the entire time?
Now, imagine if you took your task, and broke it down into several mini tasks.
You spend 20 to 30 minutes on each task and take a short break afterwards.
Tallying it up, you can get through multiple mini tasks in a regular workday, if you stick to the routine!
Doesn’t that make you feel motivated?
When you complete a smaller task – say, for example, updating your planner, or checking your emails in the morning – your brain experiences a sense of accomplishment and reward.
As a result, your brain’s mesolimbic or reward pathway activates, stimulating your dopamine levels.
The pleasure you derive from this sense of accomplishment makes you want to experience it again, and you feel motivated when you return to your next short work session after your break.
At the end of the day, if you look at how many steps you completed, rather than setting unrealistic goals to complete everything and then feeling discouraged when you can’t, you remain more productive!
As you already know, keeping your work sessions shorter also improves the efficiency of your working memory, and gives it more time to recover when you take a break.
So essentially, you’ll find that adding all of that up will result in your being a lot more productive than if you were taking fewer breaks!
Now that you’ve learned about all the brain-based ways to improve your productivity at work with more breaks, are you going to be trying these tips out yourself?
Do write in, I’d love to hear from you!
Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com and an internationally noted brain coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, including Total Recall Learning™.
Her superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. Pat is the best-selling author of more than 15 books and is also a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!