Take breaks for mental performance
How to sustain attention
Want to be more creative, focused and productive?
They old way is to stay glued to the task, hour after hour. The new way, according to a growing body of evidence, is to take regular short breaks.
Taking short regular breaks from mental tasks improves both productivity and attention. Conversely, sustained concentration can lead to stress and exhaustion.
This seems to apply in different timescales. Think of how you feel refreshed after an annual holiday, or a quarterly weekend away. The studies below look at taking breaks within a day's work, and within an hour-long task.
Within day work breaks
Mental concentration is similar to using a muscle, according to John P. Trougakos (2). "It becomes fatigued after sustained use and needs a rest period before it can recover - much as a weight lifter needs rest before doing a second round of repetitions at the gym."
Trougakos suggests that employees need to take a break from their mental work, and also get out of their work space a few times each day. This lets them detach from their mental and physical environment and to recharge. Options include a short walk, a lunch or tea break, or visiting, reading or doing something different in another room. He maintains that it is short-sighted for managers not to allow employees this time. Of course there is a happy medium, as too many breaks can hinder the workflow. But mostly workers don't take enough breaks - especially breaks involving body movement.
This also applies if you are studying, or engaged in other mental tasks.
Try working in intense 15 minute cycles, and take short breaks throughout the day.
"The thought process is not designed to be continuous," he says. "Long hours don't mean good work - highly efficient, productive work is more valuable."
Sustained one hour task
Another study confirms that brief diversions vastly improve your focus (1). It showed that even a short diversion from a task can dramatically improve your ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.
Over a long period, your ability to pay attention to a particular task declines. Alejandro Lleras, who led this study, describes this as a vigilance decrement. "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. But you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem."
Lleras describes how a similar phenomenon occurs in sensory perception. The brain gradually stops registering sights, sounds, tastes smells or feelings that remain constant over time. For example, most people are not aware of the sensation of clothing touching their skin. The body becomes "habituated" to the feeling and the stimulus no longer registers in one's attention.
In previous studies, Lleras examined the limits of visual perception over time. A phenomenon called Troxler Fading is when you try to pay continual attention to a stationary object in your peripheral vision, but it eventually completely disappears from view.
"Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness," Lleras said. "So I thought, well, if there's some kind of analogy about the ways the brain fundamentally processes information, things that are true for sensations ought to be true for thoughts. If sustained attention to a sensation makes that sensation vanish from our awareness, sustained attention to a thought should also lead to that thought's disappearance from our mind!"
In the study, 84 participants were divided into four groups, and they focused on an hour-long computer-based task under various conditions.
- Group A (the control) worked without breaks or diversions.
- Groups B and C memorised four digits prior to performing the task. They were told to respond if they saw one of the digits on the screen during the task. Group B was shown the digits twice during the task. Group C was not shown it.
- Group D was shown the same digits presented to group B during the task, but was told to ignore them.
The performance of groups A, C and D declined significantly over the course of the task. But most critically, those in group B saw no drop in their performance. Simply having them take two micro-breaks to respond to the digits allowed them to stay focused during the entire experiment.
"It was amazing that performance seemed to be unimpaired by time, while for the other groups performance was so clearly dropping off," Lleras said.
"We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused," he said. "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!"
The key point that I get from this second study is that the breaks don't need to be long. Over an hour long task, two breaks each lasting only a few seconds allowed the participants to stay focused with no drop in performance.
1. Atsunori Ariga, Alejandro Lleras.
Brief and rare mental 'breaks' keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements.
J. Cognition, 2011; DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007.
2. Trougakos John P., Hideg. I. Momentary Work Recovery: The Role of Within-Day Work Breaks. Research in Occupational Stress and Well-Being, 7, 2009, 37-84.