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Boost Productivity with More Breaks

Decision fatigue is a phenomenon in which the need to make frequent decisions throughout your day makes it harder and harder to maintain your reasoning ability. If you’ve ever felt too exhausted to choose between two dinner options after a long day at work, you may have been experiencing decision fatigue.1

Decision fatigue is common and entirely avoidable. Small breaks throughout the day will let your brain relax and recharge. This will not only help you avoid indecision; it will also help you make better decisions—something your boss and family will thank you for.

Breaks also help with another cognitive issue faced when working on the same project too long. If you’ve ever found yourself slowly having a more difficult time when doing the same task over and over again, you’re not alone. In a phenomenon similar to decision fatigue, repeatedly performing the same task causes us to lose focus, which in turns reduces performance.

Researchers have dubbed this phenomenon “vigilance decrement,” which is a fancy way of saying losing your attention to detail. However, the issue isn’t your attention span, rather it’s your brain telling you that it needs a break. It doesn’t take long for your brain to recharge itself.

A quick trip to the watercooler, a walk around the office, or a visit to the restroom is often all it takes to bring your attention and productivity back where you want it.2

There are lots of ways to take a break. None of them are right or wrong as long as the activity allows you to disengage from the task at hand and take a few much-needed breaks away from the problem.

When you find yourself unable to overcome a challenge at work or to think creatively enough to solve a problem, take a break and go for a walk. Researchers have found that walking boosts creativity. The effect lasts longer than the walk itself.3 You may find yourself stumbling upon the perfect solution to a problem when you take a quick walk around the block or through the park. Because the effects continue, once you are back at your desk, you may find that the ideas keep flowing.

What works for you may not work for your coworkers. There are certain activities, however, that can be especially beneficial during break time.

Choosing where to walk can also affect the way your answers come. A separate study looking at the ways we are affected by our environments discovered that our brains act differently depending on where we choose to walk. Going for a stroll in nature tends to produce a calming effect on the mind. Walking along city streets tends to wake the brain up and spur engagement.4 Both are valid ways to take a break when you need to clear your head. Being mindful of what you may experience can help you decide the place for that break.

Breaks can be long or short. Longer breaks such as vacations are just as important as short breaks. Unfortunately, many people feel too stressed to use all their vacation time because they don’t realize how important it is to get away—really away, without checking emails or calling in. Vacations where workers completely shut off communication with the office help people replenish their psychological resources that are depleted during long office hours. Energy, mood, cognitive function—these all come back better when you are able to take actual vacations.5

Productivity pitfalls don’t just happen in the workplace. Keeping up with chores at home and family duties often presents the same problems. Often, we feel as though we have to keep charging ahead at home in order to make the most out of the time we have with our families. But it’s possible that by not taking care of yourself, you are not making the most out of that time together. Think quality over quantity

For some people, especially for those who work at home where it’s easy to do, a short power nap during some part of the day when fatigue is noticeable can be a healthier and more effective pick-me-up than reaching for a cup of coffee.

Even five to 15 minutes—if it’s easy for you to fall asleep and wake up— can make a tremendous difference to your productivity, your health, and your happiness.

It’s not selfish to take a few small breaks for yourself throughout the day. Just like in the office situations, the breaks don’t have to be long. Although there are certainly benefits to long, indulgent breaks from life where you cater to yourself, a few minutes alone with a good book or a relaxing cup of tea in a quiet corner of the house can leave you feeling refreshed and ready for anything life brings you.

1 Danziger, Shai, Jonathan Levav, Liora Avnaim-Pesso. “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Apr. 2011, 108 (17) 6889-6892; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1018033108.
2 Ariga, Atsunori, and Alejandro Lleras. “Brief and Rare Mental ‘Breaks’ Keep You Focused: Deactivation and Reactivation of Task Goals Preempt Vigilance Decrements.” Cognition, 2011; DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007.
3 Oppezzo, Marily, and Daniel L. Schwartz. “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 40, no. 4 (2014): 1142-152. doi:10.1037/a0036577.
4 Aspinall P., Mavros P., Coyne R., et al. “The Urban Brain: Analysing Outdoor Physical Activity with Mobile EEG” Br J Sports Med 2015;49:272-276.
5 Fritz, C., Ellis, A. M., Demsky, C. A., Lin, B. C., & Guros, F. (2013). “Embracing Work Breaks: Recovering from Work Stress.” Organizational Dynamics, 42(4), 274-280.

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