Taking breaks can be very useful. Breaks aren’t only helpful before sending an angry e-mail, they can also:
- Help us to retain information longer
- Allow for re-focusing, and renewing our pool of willpower
- Help to keep us productive over longer periods of time
- Motivate us
- Allow for distance and clarity of thought
- Provide opportunities for increased physical activity
By taking breaks (not too often) at appropriate intervals, we can “work smarter” longer and be more productive.
The idea of spaced repetition is where you have a break (some interval of time) between periods of focus during which you attempt to “learn” something. This method is often used when learning vocabulary (with flashcards). See the diagram.
This method is not only used for learning vocabulary, but can also be adapted to learn a physical skill and “muscle memory” for example, when a golfer is working on his/her stroke. They will repeat the stroke many times, then rest and repeat again.
Better Long-Term retention
Spaced Repetition is a great way to learn some knowledge or skill and transfer it to your long-term memory. Language learning Apps (like Memrise) also use this pattern, with longer break intervals the more times you answer correctly.
In today’s modern world, there are a seemingly a million distractions a minute. As humans, we have only a limited amount of willpower. We use willpower to do anything, focus on a task, decide what to have for breakfast and remember if we made an appointment for next week. Everything we do uses a portion of our willpower. Depending on where you look, you’ll see that there are several different numbers for how long people can focus. I’ve seen anywhere from 10 minutes to 30 minutes of intense focus. Many sources also say that if something is very interesting or engaging (like a great blockbuster film) you’ll be able to focus on it for a longer stretch of time. Further research has shown that our decision-making process also suffer when we are fatigued and have low “reserves” of willpower. In the chart, you can see that the ruling results of parole judges changes as they become fatigued. By taking breaks, we can rest and refill our willpower “reserves,” renew our focus, be more efficient and productive.
Motivation (little rewards)
We’ve all heard of the “carrot and the stick” approach to motivation. I’m sure that many of us have even used some tricks like this before. Saying to yourself “If I finish writing this report in 30 minutes, then I’ll go to Starbucks across the street for a break and a victory coffee.” In this way, we can take a break to reward ourselves for a job well done (or at least partly done).
Opportunity for mental “review”
If we’ve been working on something for a while (whether it’s a mental task, like writing a report, or a physical task, like improving the mechanics of a golf swing) taking a break can help us improve.
For mental tasks (or if we have a problem) once we’ve been thinking about it for a while, and take a break, it’s quite likely that our subconscious mind will continue working on the problem (or task). We all know that humans don’t use 100% of our brains, but in this way, we can rest ourselves while still getting the benefit of our subconscious mind.
Our minds are incredible things. When we remember things we mentally access the part of our brain where that information is stored. The more we remember something, the stronger that neural link becomes and the more likely that information will be accessible for a long time. However, studies have shown that memory is not infallible. Also, the more we remember something (especially if it’s a complex memory, with many parts and details) there is a chance that by trying to remember it, we accidentally change the memory in small ways.
Taking a break can have physical benefits as well:
- By taking a break and walking around, we can get a little more physical exercise in our daily life. (Who wouldn’t like to increase their step-count a bit?)
- We know our body needs blood to operate. So does our brain. A short walk or physical activity can get our blood pumping again; give us a little jolt of energy and more thinking power! (among other things)
Vice President – Instructional Methodologies
If you need a break, come check out how Instructional Methodologies can help you achieve your goals.