I read an article in Psychology Today that really got me thinking about how I approach my day.
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Americans on average are working 48 minutes more per day now than they did before the pandemic. But the question is are they taking any more breaks?
If you were looking for a recipe for burnout, you wouldn’t have to look much farther than how we typically view taking time off. If you are part of the “breaks are unproductive and a waste of time” camp, you might find yourself feeling depleted and worn to a frazzled end.
Understand that a break is not going to help us if we feel guilty about indulging when we should be working. If you do “allow” yourself some leisure time, you could find yourself less able to enjoy and experience the benefits. So as the article said, “devaluing leisure time can be detrimental to you, your work, and your relationships.”
Leisure time and respite have significant benefits that will actually increase our output rather than decrease it. Physical and psychological benefits include reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression as well as improved mood, higher levels of positive emotion, and greater self-regulation. An added benefit is the sense of control and choice we feel as we are able to pursue something that is “just for me”.
There is such a range of leisure activities to enjoy but we might assume we should choose from the “regular” list of activities that others see as leisure rather than choose what really gives us pleasure. The term “serious leisure” is defined as “a state of motivation, arousal, or interest toward a recreational activity or associated product and takes into account the pleasure a person derives from the activity and how important it is to them.” These folks might be participating in creating fiction or art about favorite films, books, and sports teams and they might even travel to conventions, concerts, or games. What a great way to express yourself and have a sense of belonging with others who are of the same mind.
Maybe your break would be more toward time for disengaging from work and reading, painting, or listening to a podcast. Other ways to mentally regenerate might be some time out in nature or short bursts of physical activity like riding a bike or taking a leisurely stroll.
Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley explained in his book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, that the right breaks can reduce mental fatigue, boost brain function, and help us stay on task for longer periods. But the wrong sort of break can actually leave us more susceptible to boredom which can then backfire by making us want to take breaks more often. Specifically, he talks about turning to a phone whenever we are bored can train us to check it more often throughout the day, triggering a cycle of unproductivity.
So the better option is to take breaks that actually restore the part of the brain that is doing all the hard work. That part of the brain is our prefrontal cortex and it is making every effort to stay focused and execute tasks. When we take a break and rely on other areas of the brain for those activities, we are giving our prefrontal cortex time to rest and renew before our next sprint. The article recommended some activities that are restorative and don’t rely on skimming newsfeeds or social media to alleviate boredom.
The top suggestion for restorative breaks was to “seek nature” because natural stimuli are compelling and it draws us in without much prefrontal cortex involvement. And if you can’t get out of the office, find photos or videos of nature that are relaxing. I find my best natural landscapes on YouTube and it is like taking a small vacation where I can travel to a relaxing beach getaway or stunning waterfall in the woods.
The next suggestion was to daydream or doodle. We tend to have very few moments of just doing nothing because we avoid boredom (hence grabbing our phones). Nevertheless, we need random thoughts for reflection and to take us places we would not have gone in our directed thinking. Plus, this activity is not dependent on the prefrontal cortex’s hard work, which is a nice little break.
Another idea was to “exercise your eyes” and it suggested 20-20-20 eye breaks to alleviate strain on your eyes. Here’s what you do: every 20 minutes, stare at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Adam Gazzaley explained that this break is restorative because it requires blood flow to brain areas that are not related to sustained attention (an energy-consuming task for the prefrontal cortex).
Laughter is a fabulous idea for a restorative break. Laughter increases heart rate and respiration and increases blood flow. It also reduces cortisol (stress) and increases dopamine. Find a comedy podcast or a comedian’s standup stream or just watch funny animal videos to help you get through that afternoon downswing.
To that end, viewing breaks as luxury items to be used only when you have finished all your work is not feasible because guess what, you are never going to be finished. Instead, recognize that breaks and leisure are part of a healthy and well-balanced lifestyle that supports our well-being and leads to renewed energy and better cognitive efficiency.
Owner, Founder | ADHD & Executive Functions Coach