Spring break is upon us and as many children and their families head off for vacation it is also a time when many of us think “man, I wish I still had a spring break” or “kids have it so good.” Now for most of us who agree with the playful phrase “adulting is hard”, we often find ourselves starting our work day early, working late, feeling busy from sun up to sun down and often wishing work or life would act like a kit-kat commercial and give us a break. The truth is, taking scheduled time off of work is necessary and beneficial but there are also benefits to finding ways to take a break throughout your workday and work week.
The University of Illinois- Urbana Champaign published a study exploring the need and benefit for what the study refers to as “cognitive diversion.” This study found that without a break, our brain and attention to our task at hand can begin to go unnoticed by our minds in the same way we become used to the sensation of our clothes and no longer consciously feel what we are wearing. How frustrating to think that we push ourselves to work long days and not become distracted by moving away from our desks only to realize this “keep going” mentality begins filtering our work as unimportant or unnoticeable. I’m sure that you can recall a time or two at work when you feel like the same project took twice as long, you had to read a document multiple times or despite your best efforts it felt as though you just could not make progress toward your goals. Research like the study done by the University of Illinois shows that this can potentially occur because breaks are necessary and without them our attempts at attention will fall flat.
Although we may like the thought of taking weeks off at a time, the reality is that you can work these breaks into your daily routine to improve self-care and ramp up your efforts at work to be more productive and less frustrated. Here are 5 ways to begin incorporating breaks into your everyday life.
- Carve out calm time. Find 5-10 minutes at the beginning or end of your days for an activity that you enjoy. If you feel as though you hit the ground running and work until you fall asleep, it is important to start or end your day with a positive, transitional activity. This can be 5-10 minutes of yoga, sitting down while you drink your morning coffee, reading a book before bed or the activity of your choice that provides some down time in your brain before transitioning to work or to help you transition to restful sleep.
- Don’t sit still. Intentionally seek out ways to move, change location or get up from your desk every couple of hours. Take a walk around the building, stretch your legs, do squats or yoga in your office, grab a cup of coffee or any other activity that requires you to stop focusing on your current task at hand as well as get some physical input in your muscles. Now, this isn’t a constant break or it becomes just as ineffective as working straight through without breaks. You are looking for balance and short breaks to help retain focus in your work.
- Eat lunch away from your desk. First, this encourages you to eat lunch rather than pushing to finish that project or task before you eat. Hunger is a distraction and healthy nutrition is important for all of us. Second, taking time to eat away from your desk means a break from your work but also from emails and other things that can overwhelm your brain and create distractions from being your most productive self.
- Work differently. If you find yourself feeling ineffective because your phone keeps ringing, your email notifications won’t stop or people swing by your office for a 5 (or 30) minute chat you can explore ways to limit distractions, increase the productivity in your working time to allow additional time for breaks. Closing your email and only responding at set intervals is one way to help you focus on the task at hand without the constant interruption of email notifications. Although multi-tasking can be necessary at times, limiting it allows for you to give your full attention to your current goal or task. You can also close your door if possible, find a quiet space in the office or set your voicemail message to state that you will return calls at a certain time in order to maximize your efforts.
- Plan fun and enjoyable activities for your non-working time. It is important to remember the work hard, play hard mentality and maximizing your efforts toward fun just as much as you focus on being efficient at work. Get outside on a pretty day, see that new movie, plan a short weekend trip when possible. Make your out of office time relaxing and an escape from your busy work schedule. It is easier to focus on your work life when you have balance in your non-work life.
These simple strategies are a good way to start, but feel free to explore other ways that work for your individual circumstances. The important step is to recognize that prioritizing breaks is not an escape from work and responsibilities but rather a way to be your best self in what you do and a way to maximize your focus. Small steps toward this will reduce stress and work toward balance which is an ever evolving journey. Best of luck as you take steps toward finding your own balance and begin prioritizing breaks. They are a beautiful thing.
- Atsunori Ariga, 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