Taking breaks is essential to being productive, creative and energetic at work. But is one type of break better than another? I asked our go-to local psychologist about the best kind of breaks for our brains.
Last week, we discussed being extremely productive by reviewing the book Extreme Productivity by Robert Pozen. One of the mandates that Pozen had for extreme productivity was taking breaks throughout the day. A recent study from Science Daily suggests that taking even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one's ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods. And ‘recent’ is the key word here since taking breaks to boost productivity flies in the face of decades-old theories that stated the longer one could concentrate on a task without a break, the more it benefitted their focus and attention to detail on that task. So now that we know that breaks are necessary to make us perform at our optimal levels, the question then becomes…what’s the right break to take?
Break, not broke
“Taking a break at work can mean many things to employees,” said Dr. Natosha K. Monroe, a psychologist and cognitive behavioral therapist with offices in Fort Worth and Southlake. “The key is properly identifying the need and then the type of break that will truly help.” When taking a break in an office situation, many of us just want to decompress by logging onto social media, or talking to a colleague, or simply walking around the office to stretch our legs. But Monroe suggests that in order to really charge ourselves up for the next round of work, the break needs to include some essentials while staying clear of negative things. “Longer breaks and frequent short breaks seem to be more effective than infrequent short breaks. Be careful of how time is spent; what may feel good on the surface does not always help. An example of this would be “venting” to a co-worker about work which could result in increasing internal anxiety or creating an unprofessional reputation. People often make the mistake of thinking venting will help calm them down when it typically ends up creating more energy, wasting time, and thus not decreasing stress. Be deliberate in choosing what to do with that time. If your job is tense, do something to truly relax,” Monroe said.
Breaks can also be a great chance during the day to focus on us – even for a few minutes – to examine how our work is affecting us physically. “It’s important to remember the very real mind-body connection,” said Monroe. “As I tell my clients in my private practice, you can’t deny your stress forever—your body will eventually signal to you that you aren’t processing it adequately with your mind. This can end up being anything from tight shoulder muscles to a “bad back” to “panic attacks” to “sleep problems.” I put these in quotation marks because many times they are 100 percent preventable by simply being more self-aware and taking care of yourself.”
Beyond the daily breaks
Breaks don’t just mean the few minutes here and there throughout the workday. Vacations are also essential for us to recharge and regroup. And while Americans are still lagging the rest of the world in taking vacation time, Monroe has some good advice about how much our mindset affects whether a vacation does the trick or not. “I adamantly recommend people take vacations and travel outside their day-to-day lives. Unfortunately taking a vacation is not a magical remedy for work or personal problems. The person’s mindset on the vacation is the real key to its effect,” Monroe said. “In general, vacations are actually among the top stress-inducing experiences a person can have due to the biological anchors of our internal systems. Much of our body’s energy—more than any other animal on the planet—is devoted to our brain. And so on a vacation, the brain feels an obligation to be on point, constantly surveying new surroundings, interpreting new stimuli, and making rarely- to never-before made decisions. That being said, a vacation can be a very effective way for a person to rejuvenate or regroup if approached strategically. For example: Choosing a trip that is compatible with a person’s idea of relaxation is vital; making plans in advance reduces the amount of decisions that must be made later; packing appropriately helps to be more comfortable on the trip. The most relaxing vacation by the beach can be stressful and the loudest, energy-filled road trip with the kids can be joyful depending upon how a person interprets it…or chooses to interpret it.”
Taking two or three weeks off to many of us seems impossible. Other times, a long weekend may not seem like enough time at all. The best choice could be to size the break to the situation. “A person must accurately assess what is needed for the vacation to do the trick,” said Monroe. “In general, vacations shorter than one week will be enjoyable without having too many negative residuals like work tasks or life responsibilities piling up while away. A major life or career transition, however, might warrant a longer vacation which can be used as a time to plan the next moves and to hit a representative reset button.”
The take away for me from talking to Monroe was, as I tell my kids all the time, perception is reality. In other words, it’s all about our attitude, whether talking about breaks, vacations, or anything in life for that matter. “The resulting and/or chosen interpretation of the vacation or work break experience is the real solution or antagonist to stress. Our purposeful thoughts do indeed possess the power to positively or negatively affect our moods and our interpretations of situations,” Monroe said.
Dr. Natosha K. Monroe’s expertise has been utilized by the FBI Training Academy and the American Counseling Association. She currently enjoys helping clients with career development and anxiety-related challenges. You can find out more information about her at www.psychologytoday.com.