We all know that taking restorative breaks is essential for high performance. When we feel well-rested and energised, we also have different ideas and different conversations compared to when we’re exhausted and stressed. Not only our wellbeing and productivity are at stake, but also our innovative thinking and culture. Yet, this topic doesn’t get nearly enough attention in organisations. Perhaps even without noticing, many of us routinely exhaust ourselves while trying to recharge. In my previous article we looked into the timing of effective breaks. In this piece we’ll explore what activities are most restorative, what obstacles we’re all facing and how we can overcome them.
When you take a break from work during the day, whether for 5 minutes or an hour, what do you usually do?
If you’re anything like me, you’re inclined to do something useful. Perhaps you try to tick off some easy items on your to-do list – send a few quick emails, catch up on admin, or read a few articles from your ever growing ‘to read later’ library. Or maybe you have a quick chat with a colleague, and talk about – guess what? – yes, you talk about your work and about colleagues.
Okay, so when you actually stop working, how do you spend your time?
For example, my weaknesses are online logic puzzles and word games, and I also love tuning into insightful interviews and talks on YouTube. I actually enjoy playing games and watching videos simultaneously. Until I learned what I’m about to discuss, that’s how I often spent my breaks.
The reality is that most of us in the first world routinely seek stimulation and entertainment online. We can spend hours in a day checking our personal emails, reading the news, dipping into social media, or playing addictive games.
This is understandable. It’s fair to claim that you earn your breaks through hard work. They are your reward, therefore you deserve to spend them whichever way you feel. After a focussed session of analysing data, solving problems and writing reports you naturally want some excitement, pleasure and fun. And this is exactly what the online world promises: little surprises, unexpected news and messages, beautiful pictures, funny stories, and a cocktail of interesting ideas, opinions, and snippets of wisdom.
But how effective are these breaks? Well, let’s see what science says about true restoration.
What makes a break restorative
In order to give your brain the chance to recover from the mental workout your job requires, you need to stop challenging yourself the same way your work does. This makes perfect sense. How could you possibly restore your inner resources while draining them at the same time? You don’t see athletes running around in between training sessions.
This means that you shouldn’t do any work, including easy tasks or light work, while on a break, or discus work-related issues with your colleagues. You shouldn’t answer emails, even personal ones, or run any errands that might be mentally demanding, stressful or tiring.
It’s advised that you also refrain from experiences and platforms which may scatter your attention, bombard you with information, or prompt you to solve problems or make lots of decisions. You already have to deal with these kinds of mental demands while doing your job.
Put simply, you need to allow your brain to relax.
How can you achieve this? Take a clear break from work, in every possible sense. As a starting point, get out of your chair and walk away from your desk. If possible, leave your phone behind – you need to get your eyes off the screen. Find a space, either in your office our outside, that looks and feels different from your usual work environment. Do something that will take your focus away from work and help you be present.
To sum up the outcomes of extensive research:
- You recover better if you can tune out of work completely, rather than keeping one eye on your duties.
- You gain more from going off-line, as opposed to staying plugged in.
- Breaks are often more restorative when you move your body, compared to when you sit or stand.
- When you get the chance, it’s better to spend your break outside, in a natural environment.
- You likely benefit more from a social activity – and here I’m talking about meeting others in person, not virtually – than passing time by yourself.
What you can do
When it comes to choosing what to do in your free time, your options are abundant. You could catch up with your colleagues or mates, play a fun game or have a relaxed chat. A lively conversation or a good laugh can be truly energising. You could also practice a hobby you enjoy, or listen to uplifting music.
Or you may find a peaceful spot and simply allow your mind to wander. When you daydream or contemplate, your brain is in a different mode compared to when you’re focusing on your work and approaching problems consciously and rationally. This is an incredibly creative state. You’ve probably noticed that brilliant insights and solutions to tricky challenges often come to the surface when you let your mind roam free.
However, when you consider their restorative power, four activities stand out: napping, meditation, walking and exercise. The benefits are impressive and all-encompassing.
Evidence shows that each of these four activities can:
- Improve your brain function and cognitive flexibility
- Improve your memory and your ability to learn
- Increase your focus and alertness
- Help you work more productively
- Boost your creativity
- Help you find better solutions to problems
- Help you make smarter decisions
- Lower your stress
- Improve your mood
- Help you feel energised
- Strengthen your immune system
With the possible exception of napping, they can also help you sleep better at night.
What you need to know
You don’t need to sleep for a long time to feel refreshed; a 10-20-minute nap can be very effective. In fact, you don’t want to nap longer than 20 minutes, otherwise you could wake up feeling groggy, due to a phenomenon called sleep inertia. It’s best to take a nap at a time of the day when you naturally feel a bit drowsy, which is probably at around 2 or 3pm. You’ll find it easier to nap if you make it a habit and have a regular nap time.
Some productivity experts passionately promote the idea of the so-called nappuccino, which combines the power of napping and caffeine. Now, I’d personally never turn to caffeine – or any other substance – as a performance booster, but you might choose to give it a go. The idea is that you have a coffee just before taking a nap. The caffeine will take about 25 minutes to fully kick in, so when you wake up you’ll feel fully awake and energised.
Similar to napping, even very short meditation or mindfulness sessions can alter your state of mind. If you can practice for just 5 minutes, that’s a great start. Regular meditation can change your brain, making and strengthening connections and increasing the density of your grey cells. With regular practice, you’ll be able to better manage your attention and emotions. You’ll increase your self-awareness, resilience and self-control – the very qualities you need in order to meet the challenges of today’s work.
My favourite pastime … Again, even a brief, 5-minute walk could leave you refreshed. If you’re pressed for time, or your options are limited, just stroll around in the building you work in. Perhaps walk to the cafe or say hello to a colleague who sits in a distant corner. The key is that you move your body. However, when possible, have a walk outside, ideally in a natural, green space. As we all know, nature has an incredible restorative power.
I hear different views about when it’s the best time to exercise. With a morning workout, you’ll start your day strong. If you exercise at lunch time, you’ll reap the benefits all afternoon. And if you exercise in the late afternoon, you’ll sleep better at night. To boost your grey matter, moderate intensity cardio is the best – anything that makes you sweat but allows you to speak normally, like walking briskly or riding a bike. Activities that are mentally challenging or require coordination are especially potent, like ball games, dancing, yoga or pilates (which I’ve lately become hooked on).
Beyond the health benefits, physical exercise has amazing psychological effects. A strong, flexible and balanced body provides the perfect home for a strong, flexible and balanced mind.
Are you ready? Or not quite?
Well, all this may sound convincing … But in all honesty, many of these restorative activities are a bit unexciting. So if you haven’t already learned to enjoy, for example, napping, meditation, walking, exercise, or even just unplugging – despite the well-known benefits – it’s unlikely that a few logical arguments will suddenly persuade you to change your habits.
If you’re genuinely committed to improving your performance and wellbeing by taking smarter breaks, you might need to trick your brain.
Why you find something exciting or boring
We’re naturally gravitated towards activities that make us feel good. However, the human brain especially loves experiences that offer frequent random rewards. This is why it can be so difficult to resist checking the news, engaging with social media, or browsing your favourite video channels whenever you get the chance.
These activities release unusually large amounts of dopamine in your brain. This hormone creates immediate pleasure and also regulates your cravings for further experiences. Regardless if an activity is good for you, if it gives you momentary pleasure, or even just the promise of instant rewards, you can quickly develop an appetite for it.
Just think about this … When you visit your favourite online platform, how often do you find disconcerting news, atrocious attitudes, and updates that fill you with anger, regret or self-doubt? All this negativity can leave you agitated and exhausted. However, there’s always that promise of pleasure and surprise, and therefore the temptation to revisit this place over and over again.
Scientists often compare our search for constant stimulation to playing slot machines all day long. Once you’re hooked it’s difficult to stop, even when you’re losing, because you know you might be about to win.
When you indulge in these activities excessively, your brain eventually gets used to the unnaturally high dopamine levels. It gets desensitised, and you essentially develop an addiction for constant stimulation. Subsequently, you lose interest in activities that offer less excitement and immediate reward – and thus a smaller dopamine hit to the brain – such as doing hard work and pursuing your goals. In this state of mind, you certainly feel no desire for true relaxation either, like napping, meditating, walking or exercising.
This is a vicious cycle. Every moment you spend with highly stimulating, high-dopamine activities increases your unhealthy cravings while simultaneously reducing your motivation for staying present and getting things done.
The effects are both short and long term. For example, if you spend too much time with feel-good activities in the morning or during the day, you could find it more difficult to focus on your work later on, or to enjoy what you do. In the long term, if you allow your cravings to take over, you could develop some physical and mental health issues. Your social skills could suffer, along with your relationships. You can probably see some sad examples of this in your own circles.
How you can rise above
The good news is that even very simple experiences can release some dopamine, like listening to birds chirping or feeling the breeze on your skin. So with a bit of effort, you could learn to enjoy many of those activities that you currently find a bit dull. One of the strategies experts recommend is called ‘dopamine detox’. The idea is that if you can refrain from highly stimulating activities for a period of time, say for a day, a week or a month, your brain will adjust and you’ll soon be able to find pleasure in activities where you previously couldn’t.
It’s important to note that not only online activities contribute to this issue, but any routines or habits you may fall into when you’re hungry to engage your senses and instantly fill any void in your life. These could include, for example, listening to music, watching TV, gambling, comfort food, and other physical pleasures. So if you want to restore a healthier balance in your brain – and your life – you need to be able to say no to any of these temptations at certain times, and make friends with the present moment.
You can always exercise, go for a walk, meditate, have a nap, have a healthy snack, catch up with your mates (without your phone), or allow your mind to wander … You get the idea. These activities are not only restorative but could reduce your desire for unproductive, unhealthy, and potentially addictive habits. The more you do them the more you’ll love them, and the pull towards escaping the here and now will wane.
How you think about breaks
You might also want to sort out your beliefs around breaks. Do you see them as some kinds of benefit or compensation – and is this helping?
Let me share my experience. When I noticed that my old views fuelled several counterproductive habits, I decided to turn my thinking around. I stopped seeing my recovery time as a reward. I don’t believe anymore that I deserve a few moments of easy entertainment for my hard work. What I actually deserve is the opportunity to nurture my body and mind, and to allow myself to excel. I deserve the chance to make work easier for myself and the people I work with, not harder.
(I still watch entertaining videos and play my favourite games, but I now do these much less, and usually at the end of the work day.)
If you’re prepared to change your thinking, you’ll see rewards, without doubt. You’ll find it easier to get into your ’groove’, and quite likely surprise yourself what you can achieve. And few things are more gratifying than making progress towards a meaningful goal and seeing the difference you create.
It’s of course up to you to decide where you look for rewards. Do you opt for fleeting pleasures that can eventually exhaust and demotivate you? Or do you get a high from becoming the best version of yourself and kicking goals?
Workplace designers and change managers tell me how difficult it is to get people to move away from their desks. The benefits of frequently walking around or moving between different settings in the office are sound and clear. However, most workers seem to be glued to their desks for hours, if not for the whole day. What could be the underlying issue? Most people know a lot about productive work; however, their habits around taking breaks seem to weigh them down.
Once you start taking effective, restorative breaks, your work habits will inevitably transform. You’ll also become more switched on, motivated, energised and agile. Could this be the missing piece of your productivity puzzle?