We all know that in order to be productive, you need to eliminate distractions, keep your head down, and power through until the project is done… right? Well, not really. While many people assume that more breaks equal less productivity, research has actually shown the opposite may be true.
It won’t come as a shock to anyone that sometimes while studying or working, you can feel frustrated or bored and want a break. What may surprise you is just how helpful taking regular breaks can be to your overall productivity. Studies show taking regular breaks (instead of just working until exhaustion) can boost your productivity significantly.
The simplest reason why study breaks are good for you is that there is a limit to how long your brain can remain focused on a single topic. Exactly how long that is can change from person to person, but everyone will eventually hit what in business would be called “the point of diminishing returns.” As time goes on, it takes more and more effort to stay focused, until your productivity no longer reflects the amount of work you do.
The reason this happens is the human brain is attuned to keeping us safe from danger by maintaining constant awareness of our surroundings. The longer we stay focused on a single task, the more our brain feels the need to scan the surroundings for danger.
The way to prevent this from happening is to simply address this need. Taking even just a few moments to take your mind off of what you are doing can help reset your brain, so you can get back to a state of high productivity.
Another reason that breaks are beneficial is that they give your brain a chance to assimilate and retain the information you’re studying. In order for your brain to be able to retain information, it needs to be able to switch from being focused and alert to a more relaxed state. Brain scans show that when we allow our minds to unwind and wander, activity actually increases in certain parts of the brain. Studies have also shown that it is in this diffuse phase that the function of information retention takes place. If you don’t take breaks, you never allow your brain to switch modes, thus limiting the amount of information you retain for future use.
Breaks are also helpful from a tactical standpoint. They give you a chance to step back and make sure you’re accomplishing what you need to get done. When you are deeply involved in a task like working or studying, sometimes you can lose sight of your goals and get bogged down focusing on less important things. Breaks offer perspective on how your actions influence your goals. In other words, using breaks effectively keeps you working on the right things, instead of toiling away in unproductive pursuits.
There are different schools of thought on the optimal timing for breaks. We’ll talk about a few of the most common approaches here, but as always, it’s important to experiment and find what method works best for you.
One common method people use for scheduling breaks is the Pomodoro Technique, which has been around since the 1980s. In this system, you set a timer for 25 minutes and study until it goes off. When the alarm sounds, take a 5-minute break, and then reset it for another 25 minutes. This cycle repeats, with a longer, half-hour break every fourth round. Some people find this to be extra productive because the relatively short working periods make it easier to stay on task and allow for attainable short-term goals.
While the Pomodoro Technique may be great for some people, others find such short blocks of time ineffective. Other methods for scheduling breaks include working in intervals as long as 90-minutes, or somewhere in between, such as the 52-17 method, which is exactly what it sounds like.
No matter which method you choose, there are productivity apps such as DeskTime or Focus Booster that can help you keep track of your time to ensure efficiency and productivity. Desktop visual timers such as the Time Timer are also fantastic because it offers a visual representation of time elapsing.
Aside from the frequency and duration of your breaks, what you do during your breaks can make a big difference, too. That said, just like with timing your breaks, there is no one correct answer for what you should do. Some activities, like taking a walk outside or doing some simple exercise, have been shown to have extra benefits, like increasing blood flow to your brain and stimulating cognitive performance. Other options, such as listening to music or meditating have also been shown to both lower stress levels and boost motor and reasoning skills.
Not every break has to be especially productive on its own, though. As we mentioned earlier, letting your brain wander can be productive in its own right. Letting yourself doodle or daydream can be especially helpful because it does not consciously engage your mind, creating the space for your mind to wander and begin the crucial information retention process.
Regardless of the specifics of how you rest, the most important thing to remember is taking breaks won’t get in the way of your studying or schoolwork (as long as you don’t abuse them); they can actually make you work more efficiently. Sometimes, there is more to being productive than the sheer amount of time spent on a project.