Breaks for better productivity? Sounds counter-intuitive, right?
But according to neuroscience, brain-friendly breaks are absolutely necessary for faster learning, perfect recall, and greater productivity!
Your brain is simply not capable of focusing on one thing for an extended period.
It toggles between two modes.
There’s the default mode, where your mind wanders, and you’re reliving past experiences or even imagining or rehearsing future events.
Then there’s the mode where your brain and body zoom in on something specific, while filtering out unnecessary, distracting information.
This latter mode is the one you want to be in to focus for better learning and productivity.
It would be amazing if you could switch this latter mode on and leave it on, right?
But science shows that not only does the brain switch between these two modes, this switch is good for learning.
How Do Breaks Help You Learn Better?
When you’re focusing on learning something in real-time, you use your working memory.
This is a type of temporary memory that holds just a handful of items of information at any given time.
Ever heard a date, a phone number, or a name, and a couple of seconds later forgotten it?
You’d probably have to remember the item, or write it down, to make it stick longer, right?
This is because of the limited capacity of your working memory.
In fact, have you ever zoned out during a class or meeting despite paying attention in the beginning? It’s because your working memory is overfull.
When this happens, you might feel overwhelmed – your brain just refuses to absorb any more information, and your focus strays.
Your working memory basically acts as a waiting room for your learning to transfer to your long-term memory.
What you’re learning goes into your hippocampus, waiting to link up to what you already know. It’s through creating such associations that your brain creates long-term memory.
And when do these associations occur? When your brain is on a break.
In the default mode, when your brain isn’t utilizing all its resources to narrow your focus down on to something specific, it wanders.
It can more freely evaluate the new information in the context of what you already know. You review it through the lens of past experiences and to project or hypothesize future events.
And this is necessary to let what you learned stick longer! Taking a break allows what you’re learning to transfer from working memory to longer-lasting memory.
And it also recharges your working memory to full capacity!
Just 5 minutes in your default mode after 20-25 minutes of focused learning is enough to recharge your working memory!
Note, though, that these breaks are only effective when they’re brain-friendly.
Spending several minutes on your phone, for example, doesn’t count as a brain-friendly break.
So, what should you do (or not do) for your brain-friendly breaks?
Table of Contents
1. Focus Your Breathing
2. Get Some Rest
3. Rest Your Eyes
4. Manage Your Coffee Breaks
4 Ways to Take Brain-Friendly Breaks
1. Focus Your Breathing
This is one of the biggest tools in your arsenal to regulate your levels of alertness and calm.
Breathing is a bit like a master key that helps you do both.
Your lungs are part of two circuits – the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
And they’re the part of these circuits you can consciously and voluntarily control, to influence other parts of your body.
For example, say that you’re feeling too anxious and stressed to focus on learning.
You can flip this situation around by using your breathing!
One of the most direct ways you can do this is by using physiological sighs.
You might associate sighs with expressions of relief or exhaustion. But you’re unconsciously sighing several times throughout the day – it’s an involuntary and necessary mechanism.
You can also voluntarily use this mechanism to offload the carbon dioxide building up in your system when you’re stressed!
This carbon dioxide builds up in your blood stream when the little air sacs in your lungs, your alveoli, collapse.
A physiological sigh, which consists of two inhales through the nose – one long one, followed by a short top-up breath – and one long exhale through the mouth – pops those alveoli back open!
Doing this for a couple of cycles resets you into a calm state of mind, helping you literally destress!
You can use breathing for the opposite reason too.
If you’re struggling to get into focus, are too relaxed to work, you can use super oxygenated breathing to boost your alertness!
Note – do not do this if you experience anxiety. Since super-oxygenated breathing induces a low degree of stress to boost your alertness and focus, it may trigger anxiety attacks in those who already struggle with the condition.
For super oxygenated breathing, you can want to speed your heartrate up a little. You want to be mildly agitated, so your adrenaline and acetylcholine levels hike up.
These neuromodulators help ready your brain and body for action and sharpen your focus!
Now, you can’t control your heartrate directly, but – you guessed it – you can through breathing.
When you breathe in, and your lungs expand, your diaphragm shifts downward. This gives your heart a bit more room to pump, and the volume of blood it can hold increases.
As a result, your blood circulation slows down. Think of it like a pipe. If the mouth of the pipe is wider, the water would flow with less force than if it was narrow, right?
When your blood flow slows down, neurons send off signals to your brain to alert it of the change.
And your brain fires signals back to get your heart beating faster!
This sets off the chain reaction causing you to become more alert and slightly stressed. And sometimes this might be what you need to force yourself into focus mode!
So, when you’re taking a break, you can do a couple of breathing exercises!
Knowing how to activate your stress response for productivity, or calm your stress response when you’re too activated, helps you take better control of your learning!
2. Get Some Rest
It would be great if you could spend your day in 20-minute learning sessions separated by 5 minute breaks.
But again, that’s not the brain-friendly way of learning.
Your brain and body operate in cycles. There’s your circadian rhythms, which govern your 24-hour cycle of wakefulness and sleep.
And there’s also your ultradian rhythms, which break up your 24 hour day into shorter roughly 90 minute cycles.
Mapping these ultradian rhythms shows that your attention naturally waxes and wanes over cycles of roughly 1.5 hours.
This means that you have periods of peak performance when you’re at your most focused.
It also means there are slumps when no matter what, you just can’t absorb information or pay attention.
During those slumps, why not take a nap?
Getting some sleep in between learning isn’t just an opportunity to get some rest.
It’s a necessary component of learning!
Your brain continues the work it carries out during your 5-minute breaks, by reviewing what you learned and incorporating it into long-term memory as you sleep.
In fact, studies show people who sleep well or even take naps perform better at work and in school.
Sleep helps what you learn stick in your long-term memory.
Your brain gets the chance to unplug from constantly scanning and filtering information from your environment.
Instead, it can focus on processing what you learned and making sense of it through what you already know.
You’re much more likely to remember what you learned and be better able to focus after a quick 20-30 minute nap!
You’ll be more likely to wake up in a calm and clear-headed, better receptive to learning. You might even wake up in a better state for creativity!
3. Rest Your Eyes
Like millions of others, the work you do might involve peering into a screen for long hours at a time.
And also like millions others, you might experience Digital Eye Strain (DES) as a result.
If you’re experiencing headaches, brain fog, irritable, dry or tired eyes after some time on a screen, this is DES.
And it happens because your eyes are not equipped to deal with the artificial blue light emanating from your screens.
Blue light that’s naturally occurring is mixed in with other light wavelengths in natural sunlight. This type of blue light exposure is actually good for you. During the day it suppresses the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and keeps you alert and awake.
However, your eyes struggle to focus with artificial blue light, since it scatters the most out of the light wavelengths.
What this means is, your eyes are working overtime to make out things on your screen by picking up contrast.
And this manifests in headaches, brain fog and might even accumulate in long-term damage to your eyes.
Since your eyes are an extension of your brain, and a crucial feedback source of information, they’re critical for learning.
Along with blue blockers to filter out excess blue light, resting your eyes is a great 5-minute break exercise.
An easy way to do this is through palming.
As the name suggests, you cup the palms of your hands over your eyes. Don’t press down on your eyelids – leave some space between your hands and eyes.
The goal is to block out the light from your eyes for a few minutes. This way you’re giving all the nerves and muscles around the area a chance to decompress and unwind.
As you rest your eyes you can also do some physiological sighs to access a state of calm!
4. Manage Your Coffee Breaks
For some of you, a break is synonymous with grabbing a cup of coffee.
But this is probably working against you in more ways than you know.
To know how to time your coffee break, you need to know how caffeine works.
You probably rely on one or more cups a day to give you a boost of alertness and energy.
Caffeine does this by blocking the work of the molecule adenosine, which makes you drowsy.
By binding with adenosine receptors, caffeine keeps you alert for a stretch of time.
You also get a dopamine boost from caffeine, about as high as 30%. Dopamine regulates your motivation, creating an anticipation for and drive toward a goal or reward.
This is why, you might feel ready to take on the day after a cup of coffee!
If you look at just these effects, caffeine seems like a great learning solution, right?
But as you know by now, it’s not as simple as that.
For starters, if you’re a devout coffee drinker you know all about the caffeine crash.
As the caffeine passes out of your system, all that built-up adenosine binds with its receptors. And you’re left feeling suddenly exhausted, sluggish, demotivated, moody, etc.
Dopamine is also a double-edged sword, since a spike of dopamine is followed by a sensation of pain. This pain manifests in the form of craving more of what gave you that spike, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
Sharp dopamine spikes correspond to sharp spikes of pain, and each subsequent spike has less dopamine and more pain.
So, you can see why it’s not only easy to become overly reliant on caffeine, it’s harmful for you too.
The more you try to satiate your dopamine cravings with more coffee, the more severe your withdrawal symptoms. You might experience brain fog, sharp declines in alertness, focus and motivation.
And if you drink too much caffeine, the stress it induces can tip over from being helpful to harmful. They can damage your dopamine pathways, and make you too jittery and anxious.
This is why it’s important to time your caffeine intake, and moderate how much you drink.
Here’s something you might not know. It’s better to have your first cup of coffee or tea 2 hours or so after you wake up, instead of first thing in the morning.
This is because your adenosine levels are at their lowest right after you wake up. If you drink coffee then, there’s not much for the caffeine to do.
And this means the caffeine crash sets in earlier since it’s already passing out of your system by the time adenosine builds up.
Delaying that first cup gives your attention and alertness a natural boost to carry you through more of the day.
And holding off on drinking caffeine later in the day helps keep your dopamine pathways intact, and maintain your sleep.
You don’t just need to take more breaks for better learning – you need to take the right kinds of breaks!
With these brain science-based tips, you can boost your learning, recall and productivity!
Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com, HowtoLearn.Teachable.com, best selling author and an internationally noted brain and learning coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.
Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. 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™.
She is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!
Contact Pat to find out more about the Brain 2.0 Brain Advantage Learning and Career Assessment and customized faster learning programs for professionals and students.