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Want to increase your productivity? Take a break

Image: Getty
Image: Getty

By now, it should be self-evident that putting in long hours at a desk definitely doesn’t mean higher levels of productivity.

In fact, according to University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, spending time away from a project helps us to reconnect with it in a stronger way when we return to the task at hand.

While we’ve believed for decades that our attention is something like a limited resource that just saps over time, this is incorrect, he explained in ScienceDaily.

Rather, “you start performing poorly on a task because you’ve stopped paying attention to it.”

The reason why we experience this is because our minds get used to the thought or task at hand – you need to reconnect with it in a fresh way to stay focused.


“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!”

With that in mind, here’s the best way to take your breaks to work smart, not hard:

1. Checking Facebook is not a ‘break’

That’s called distraction, and it’s also called procrastination. You’ll probably feel more muddled when you come back to the task you were working on after a social media break.

What you want is to recharge, not to waste precious time.

When you take a break, take it properly and remove your mind entirely off work. Go for a walk outside; studies show walking helps free up your brain’s attention resources for complex cognitive tasks.

Or you could eat (to replenish your glucose levels, which your brain needs).

And if you can, nap. An afternoon siesta actually maps onto our natural circadian rhythm, and studies have shown a nap in the afternoon can be more effective than coffee).

2. Work for an hour, break for 15-20

If the nature of your work allows for it, break it up into chunks. Break up your time into chunks, too: in particular, 60 to 90 minute chunks. This is because of something called the ‘ultradian cycle’, Inc. reports, which involves periods of high-frequency brain activity (typically 90 minutes) followed by lower-frequency brain activity (20 minutes, also known as an ‘ultradian dip’). Don’t ignore these rhythms, either – when we try to work through it, we become more stressed and jittery and our performance drops.

If the 90/20 doesn’t work for you, employee productivity tracking software Desktime isolated their 10 per cent most productive workers and found that they worked for 52-minute bursts and broke for 17 minutes.

If 52 minutes is too much for you, try something called the Pomodoro technique (so-called because its pioneer, Francesco Cirillo, used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer), where you dedicate yourself to one task for 25 minutes and then take a five minute break.

3. Head to a cafe – and keep working

There’s several reasons why working from a cafe can boost productivity. Sometimes, all your brain need is a change of scenery in order to get you into a groove or break past your mental block – your brain’s neuroplasticity is being exercised.

Changing where you work signals a break in habits both physical and mental, and just the right degree of low-level background noise has been scientifically proven to actually help you get into the zone.

Now you know – more hours worked definitely doesn’t mean more work done. Go on, give yourself a break.

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