Breaks get a bad wrap. Whether it’s the never quit mentality instilled in our kids through sports or the workaholic tendencies of many seemingly admirable pop culture figures, many kids view breaks with disdain. Still, it’s worth mentioning that many students abuse breaks, as well. They see breaks as an oasis from the seemingly endless desert of academic boredom. Yes, breaks are very misunderstood. Whether they are underutilized or overutilized, we’d like to set the record straight because breaks might just be the most important tool for staving off academic burnout, reducing procrastination , and boosting productivity.
Many people assume that breaks inhibit productivity. However, modern research demonstrates the opposite – breaks enhance productivity just as much or more than caffeine, exercise, and the upper echelon of lifehacks. How can this be true? Spending time away from work means less progress, which means less productivity, right? Wrong.
There a few ways to explain this puzzling paradox. My favorite is the gardening analogy. Let’s say you are trying to grow hydrangeas in your backyard. You get the potting soil, the seeds, a watering can, and some gloves. Then, the work begins. On day one, you roll up your sleeves and start digging. The sooner you plant, the sooner they’ll grow, right? Next, we’re on to day two, they hydrangeas have been planted. Now what? Do you go out there everyday and water them mercilessly. Do you buy a sun-mimicking lamp to stimulate growth? Do you consider your gardening goal a failure if you don’t see progress after twenty-four hours?
No one in their right mind gardens this way. I know little to nothing about gardening, but I can tell you that the so-called gardener above will not have hydrangeas without patience. The parable of the gardener above illustrates a key point about learning and a key factor of the new break-time research: our brains are driven by work and nourished by rest.
In gardening, exercising, learning, and just about any other goal-oriented pursuit, the waiting is often where we see progress. A garden thrives when the gardener sleeps. A marathon runner sees the best gains when she increases the recovery time along with the distance. A writer has his best insights when he steps away from the petulant blinking of the cursor on his laptop screen. It’s quite simple really. Rest breeds growth. Therefore, breaks provide a small respite from fatigue, allowing us to recharge our batteries and perform at our peak potential once again.
For those who want a mathematical formula for this theory, consider the following scenarios. Student A works for sixty minutes on his English paper. Student B follow suit. Both students are working at the same rate for the full hour. In fact, they’re firing on all cylinders because they are fresh and focused. The work continues for both students for another thirty minutes. At ninety minutes of total work time, Student A notices himself giving in to minor distractions that didn’t bother him for the first hour, so he decides to take a fifteen-minute break. Student B observes the same distractions but decides to push on with his paper.
At the ninety-minute mark, both students are working at roughly 80% capacity. They’re a little fatigued, but it’s not enough to derail their session. However, while student A is stretching his legs and enjoying the revitalizing fresh air, student B grinds away on the paper. He finishes a mere three sentences in the fifteen-minute period when his compatriot is on break. That’s a huge decrease compared to his first hour of writing.
At the one-hundred-minute mark, Student A is writing once again. He’s recharged, back to near 100% focus. Student B, on the other hand, is struggling. Without the break, the distractions seem to increase. He’s spending much more time trying to re-focus than he is working on the paper. He’s typed the same sentence two or three time, just to delete it again. To make matters worse, he has no idea where he is going with this paragraph. Nothing is coming to him. He’s hit a wall.
Student A had a stroke of genius on his break, though. He thought of the perfect textual quote to solidify his second body paragraph. Now he knows exactly how to link the second paragraph to the third, and the conclusion should be a sinch with the cogent argument he has put together.
Student A wraps up his paper in a total of two hours and fifteen minutes. Student B writes for almost three and a half hours, but he knows that he should come back tomorrow to edit and revise. It wasn’t his best work.
So, what are the benefits of breaks and how do they enhance productivity?
Breaks Prevent “Decision Fatigue”
Decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. For instance, students trying to make the right decisions to avoid distractions or the right decision on which direction they should go with their paper might suffer decision fatigue after an hour or two of work.
As this famous study on the decision-making capabilities of Israeli judges suggests, it can lead to simplistic decision-making and procrastination. The study found that the judges were more likely to grant paroles to prisoners after coming back from food-breaks, as compared to when they’d been working for hours at a stretch. As decision fatigue set in after long hours of work, the rate of granting paroles gradually dropped to near 0%. This was explained as the judges resorting to the option that required them to put in the least amount of thought— just say no.
When you’re tired from a day of working hard and upholding constant self-motivation, your brain might feel exhausted. This can lead to students procrastinating on major projects they might have planned for the end of their study session. Instead, encourage students to take a break.
Breaks Restore Motivation for Long-term Goals
Breaks help restore motivation by injecting context into the picture. Too often, when we work on a project without stopping, we lose interest – we burn out. A 2011 study suggests that prolonged attention to a single task can hinder performance. “Deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras says. “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task.”
Procrastination stems from prolonged work blocks. Students who harness the power of breaks stoke the fire of internal motivation, allowing them to achieve more in less time compared to their non-break-taking counterparts.
Breaks Improve Creativity
Time away often leads to our best ideas because the mind works on problems in the background. That’s why Student A had a breakthrough when he stepped away from the essay. Taking breaks refreshes the mind and eases the stress and exhaustion arising from working for long stretches. According to research, the “Aha moments” come more often to those who take regular breaks. Taking walking breaks in between work has proven to improve creativity. A study from Stanford University showed that when people tackled mental tasks that required imagination, walking led to more creative thinking than sitting did.
We understand that succeeding in school (and in life) is about much more than a student’s willpower. Our four pillars of Executive Function (organization, time management, learning skills, and impression management) can help any student thrive. The best part is all of these skills are teachable and transcend the walls of the classroom.