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Take a break: why time out matters

Working hard at a project and giving it your all feels good. It can be a great way to achieve the basic human need of making progress.

Hard work can be a positive but as with everything healthy living related, just because something is good, does not mean that more of the same is better.

In fact, working harder and harder at one single task can lead to diminishing returns. Interval training for the brain Evidence tells us that the human mind, just like the human body, works best in bursts of focused activity rather than effort sustained across periods of time that last too long.

Physically we can pace ourselves for running different distances from sprinting 100m to sustaining a slower pace for a marathon but, as the distances become greater, there will be a need to slow right down and at some point to stop moving entirely to allow for recovery.

Task and time The same is true for our mental output. We achieve the most when we manage the time periods for which we're channeling our efforts in relation to the demands of the tasks we’re taking on.

Generally, the more demanding the task, the shorter period for which we retain full focus and the more regularly we should take breaks.

Engaging full brainpower Taking breaks enables you to utilise all elements of your brain to achieve your best results.

When you’re fully focused on a task your conscious mind is making most of the effort. When you take a break your unconscious mind begins running checks and balances on the quality of what you’ve been working on.

Stepping away from a task allows you to review your output in a way that’s difficult when you’re fully absorbed in it. The beauty of taking a break is that by switching your attention, you can often tap into insights and ideas that don’t occur to you when you’re overly consumed by a single task.

So, rather than plugging away at your desk to come up with solutions to problems, step away and allow creativity and inspiration to take over.

Use breaks to do something different or even do nothing.

You’ll be amazed at the results.

What stops people taking breaks? Usually one of two things…

1. Not having enough evidence or practice to know that it’s a strategy that works.

Some people have a belief that, ‘if I take breaks I won't get as much done’.

To explore this, it’s a good idea to run a simple test.

For a few days, take no breaks and review your progress and how you feel at the end of the morning and the afternoon.

Then for a few days build in some breaks through the day, run the same review process and make a decision on which approach works best for you. 2. Not making a proactive decision on what to do while you take a break.

In the absence of anything else to do, many people typically drift back to filling time with familiar, habitual, but not always successful, ways of working.

Why does all this matter in relation to living a healthy life?

In his book Triggers: sparking positive change and making it last, Marshall Goldsmith talks of a concept called ego depletion or decision making fatigue. Put simply, if we overwork our brain, we compromise our ability to make good decisions. If, for example, we spend too much time plugging away at work without stopping to rest, we risk no longer having sufficient resources to make a positive choice on a healthy evening meal so we might resort to what’s quickest, easiest or most familiar. Or we may no longer have the mental capacity to contemplate how to get ourselves to the gym. Or to organise our evening to get to bed on time. So we take the easy route and fall back into old habits. Taking breaks allows you to manage your energy better across the day. In fact, there is a double benefit in that during breaks you can be making healthy choices that boost your energy, not just for that moment but also for the rest of the day. Suggestions for what to do when taking a break

  • Check your posture

  • Breathe

  • Eat a healthy snack

  • Get some water

  • Move

  • Get some fresh air

  • Meditate

  • Read

  • Listen to music or a podcast

  • Talk to a colleague or friend

Get creative with your breaks

You can work up a list of as many activities for breaks that you can imagine. Ideally they should occupy different amounts of time from a 30-second micro break to distractions lasting 2-5 minutes and diversions that last up to an hour.

Plan your down time

Schedule a time out every 60-90 minutes during work days. Remember also to schedule longer breaks during evenings and weekends too!



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