Why Taking Work Breaks Makes You More Productive

man sleeping at work

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The daily grind can be utterly exhausting. Staring at a computer screen for eight hours a day seems like a modern business practice. It’s also a common belief that you’re more likely to complete your tasks if you keep your backside planted in your desk chair all day. But that mindset is incorrect. In fact, taking breaks regularly throughout your work day can increase your productivity and creativity as it helps to keep the mental juices flowing.

A new study in the journal Cognition overturns a decades-old theory about the nature of attention and shows that brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve ones’s ability to focus on that task for a longer period of time. The study gets to the crux of what so many of us experience when doing the same task for a prolonged period of time; after a while you begin to lose your focus and your ability to perform the task well.

Basically, if you don’t take small breaks during the day, you’re likely to suffer from exhaustion and won’t complete your task to the utmost of your ability. University of Illinois psychology professor and leader of the study, Alejandro Lleras, believes that what’s called a “vigilance decrement” is the result of a drop in one’s “attentional resources.”

As for what was previously thought about taking breaks, “For 40 or 50 years, most papers published on the vigilance decrement treated attention as a limited resource that would get used up over time, and I believe that to be wrong. You start performing poorly on a task because you’ve stopped paying attention to it,” Lleras explains. Attention doesn’t seem to be the problem because all of us, even if we’ve zoned out, are always paying attention to something.

In addition, new research shows that your brain can be trained and developed like a muscle. Mental concentration is part of that training, John P. Trougakos, an assistant management professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management, told the New York Times. Just as your muscles become fatigued after a workout, so does your brain. It needs to rest in between reps, so to speak, to enable it to recover and move on — giving credence to the frequently uttered phrase: “My brain hurts.”

So, what can you do if you feel guilty about taking a break during the workday? Remember that taking breaks is a good, necessary thing. It’s especially true when we’re at work because it’s “this little oasis of personal time that we get while we’re selling ourselves to someone else,” says Trougakos. We’re trying to prove ourselves and our worth to the company, which is what makes us think that taking breaks is counterproductive, when in fact it’s not. It’s necessary to do your best work.

He also says that employees need to detach a little bit from their work in order to refuel or recharge their internal resources. He recommends going for a walk, reading a book away from your desk, or taking the lunch break that you’re entitled to as an employee — something Trougakos says is essential in providing both a nutritional and cognitive recharge. Take advantage of it, and make sure to take a break before you hit the bottom of your mental barrel.

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