Busyness Can be Counterproductive. Schedule Breaks on Purpose

Great thinkers, writers, innovators and creative people schedule breaks on purpose. It makes perfect sense that our attention spans and concentration need to be rebooted, at several points throughout the day.

Many of us confuse being “busy” with being effective, or productive. You can only do your best work if you schedule breaks on purpose. And science backs it up, too.

A study from Stanford University has shown that people are much more creative when they are walking around as opposed to when they are sitting still.

When you’re constantly fixated on getting stuff done, what to write next, going for meetings or collaborating with colleagues, it’s tough to make room for the “diffused” state of mind.

Diffused” mode happens when you let your mind wander freely, making connections at random.

When you are solving a problem, getting work done, your brain assumes the “focus” state. “Focus” mode is the attentive state of mind where the brain uses its best concentration abilities in the prefrontal cortex to ignore all extraneous information.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who has studied the relationship between attention and work, describes this state of mind as “flow”.

“Flow tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable.” says Mihaly in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Being in one mode seems to limit your access to the other mode. You need to maximise both to reach peak performance in your work.

Alternating between focused and diffuse thinking is the best way to master a subject or solve a difficult problem.

Many incredibly busy and effective people schedule time to think. They take breaks from meetings, phone calls or emails to think, explore new ideas and allow existing ideas to make meaningful connections.

Generating good ideas, being productive and doing quality work requires something all too rare in modern life: quiet.

Charles Darwin took long walks around London.

Dickens wrote his novels between the hours of 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. After that, he would go out for a long walk. He once said, “If I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish.”

Steve Jobs was famous for long walks too, which he used for exercise, contemplation, problem-solving, and even meetings.

David Leonhardt recently wrote about George Shultz’s moments of reflections in The New York Times. David writes:

When George Shultz was secretary of state in the 1980s, he liked to carve out one hour each week for quiet reflection. He sat down in his office with a pad of paper and pen, closed the door and told his secretary to interrupt him only if one of two people called:
“My wife or the president,” Shultz recalled.
Shultz, who’s now 96, told me that his hour of solitude was the only way he could find time to think about the strategic aspects of his job. Otherwise, he would be constantly pulled into moment-to-moment tactical issues, never able to focus on larger questions of the national interest. And the only way to do great work, in any field, is to find time to consider the larger questions.

Idleness is not a vice, it is indispensable for making those unexpected connections in the brain you crave and necessary to getting great work done.

Reset your brain for peak performance

Studies are showing that taking time for silence restores the nervous system, helps sustain energy, and conditions our minds to be more adaptive and responsive.

It pays to go on a media fast. Turn off your email for a few hours or even a full day if you can, or try “fasting” from news, entertainment and all distractions that prevent you from taking advantage of regular breaks.

It’s only when you come to appreciate and accept the ebbs and flows of your body that you can really start to deliver maximum results.

The world is getting louder. Distractions are inevitable. But silence is still accessible if you plan for it and stick to it.

Take a break for greater concentration. All the little tasks and decisions you have to make every day as you work gradually deplete your psychological resources.

Taking a break (even for 15 to 20 minutes) is a proven way to sustain concentration and energy levels throughout the day.

Taking breaks is biologically restorative.

Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University once wrote about the importance or reseting your brain every now and then. “If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods” says Daniel.

He explains:

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s a reason: The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited. This is a result of how the brain’s attentional system evolved. Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network (they’re called networks because they comprise distributed networks of neurons, like electrical circuits within the brain).
The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted; neuroscientists have taken to calling it the central executive. The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not.

The human brain just wasn’t built for the extended focus we ask of it these days. The good news is that there is a fix to get back on track–all you need is a brief interruption (aka a break) to get back on track.

Harvard Business Review examines another important benefit of scheduling breaks on purpose. They allow you to reset and refocus on the right things

When you work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. In contrast, following a brief intermission, picking up where you left off forces you to take a few seconds to think globally about what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. It’s a practice that encourages us to stay mindful of our objectives…

Short breaks will reduce your stress and re-energize your up time, increasing your creativity, productivity and enthusiasm.

Breaks give you the much needed time to rest your eyes, move around, stretch your stiff muscles, get more blood and oxygen flowing to your brain, to refresh and obtain a fresh outlook on problems that need fresh perspecive.

Before you go…

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