Take a break, even if you only have two minutes

There is a famous piece of research, conducted in Israel in 2011, where Judges heading parole boards make decisions about whether to grant parole, release prisoners and free them from tracking devices. Most of us view Judges as fair and just, however they are also human and experience the same daily rhythms, sleep pattern issues, work overload and stresses as everyone else. The researchers found that judges were more likely to issue a favourable ruling in the morning than in the afternoon, granting in favour of prisoners 65% of the time earlier in the day. As the morning elapsed the rate of favourable rulings fell. A prisoner was far more likely to be released on parole at 9am than at 11.30am. Interestingly, immediately after the first break for lunch they became more lenient and then began to sink into a more tough decision-making pattern after a couple of hours. A mid-afternoon break similarly resulted in more favourable rulings immediately afterwards. The researchers cannot be sure of a single specific causal reason for this pattern. Blood sugar levels could be replenished through snacks, mood could improve through moving and changing space - particularly if the judge took a walk outside - it could also be due to improving fatigue if they were able to rest for 20 - 30 minutes. Whatever the reason, whether and when the judge took a break was significant in deciding whether the prisoner was granted parole or not1.

The power of breaks is becoming more understood, yet we are a long way in the traditional corporate world of work from supporting the idea of regular downtime, or even in recognising its contribution to productivity. Fortunately, there is an increasing body of evidence to show that with regular breaks, everyone wins - not just at an individual level, but also teams and the wider organisation.

When we work, particularly with "thinking" tasks that require logic, analysis, evaluations, judgements and decisions, it is the prefrontal cortex supporting us to achieve our goals. The prefrontal cortex orchestrates attention, working memory, and other cognitive resources in order to help us get what we want. But for a challenging task that requires sustained attention, shifting our minds from the goal for a short time can renew and strengthen motivation later on. Taking a break, or doing activities that rely on different brain regions and give the prefrontal cortex a rest, is the best way to renew focus throughout the working day.

In 2011, researchers Lleras and Ariga at the University of Illinois performed experiments on people to assess their mental performance under different circumstances. In one experiment, people were asked to perform a particular task requiring concentration over a sustained period of time, in the other they performed the same task but were allowed to take periodic breaks. What they found was that people performed better when taking occasional breaks, despite the fact that their breaks broke their concentration. Lleras and Ariga attributed their findings to a condition they termed "vigilance decrement".

It is known that human brains have a limited cognitive capacity - they can't concentrate on very many things at the same time. To overcome this limitation, our brains tend to memorise and automate tasks, so that you can do them without thinking. For example, when you were young you had to learn how to walk, swim and ride a bicycle, yet when you are older you can do these complicated things without even thinking about it. Lleras and Ariga concept of "vigilance decrement" suggests that even our cognitive capacity to concentrate operates in a very similar way - if we try to do it for sustained periods, our brain instinctively attempts to habituate the process, thereby allowing our mind to wander and our concentration to be broken. Taking a break therefore appears to improve our performance by keeping it fresh and preventing our brain from getting bored.

"Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness," Lleras said. "So I thought, well, if there's some kind of analogy about the ways the brain fundamentally processes information, things that are true for sensations ought to be true for thoughts. If sustained attention to a sensation makes that sensation vanish from our awareness, then sustained attention to a thought should also lead to that thought's disappearance from our mind!"2.

A well-researched area on breaks involves moving outdoors, "smelling the roses" and getting back to nature. A 2014 study by Oppezzo and Schwartz at Stanford University3 found that more than 80% of the participants produced more creative ideas while walking rather than sitting. Interestingly, the researchers were also able to show by comparing walking outside, or treadmill walking inside, sitting inside or being rolled outside in a wheelchair, that it was the activity of walking (indoors or out) that elicited more creative responses. There appears to be something about the act of walking that helped the flow of creative juices.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2012 (volume 49, issue 4) reported on a study researching walking in different types of areas and the effect on the brain4. The researchers used a mobile EEG (electroencephalography) recorder where small sensors are attached to the scalp to pick up the electrical signals produced when brain cells send messages to each other. Participants took part in a 25 minute walk through three different areas of Edinburgh, Scotland. The areas were; an urban shopping street, a path through green space or a street in a busy commercial district. The equipment provided continuous data from five channels: short term excitement, frustration, engagement, long term excitement (or arousal) and meditation. The research also factored in some subjective ratings for pleasure-displeasure, calm-excitement, attractiveness and willingness to visit the scene.

The analysis showed evidence of lower frustration, engagement and arousal but higher meditation when moving into the green space zone, and higher engagement when moving out of it. They concluded that the study had implications for promoting urban green space as a mood enhancing environment for walking or for other forms of physical, creative or reflective activity.

At MyBrain International, we have long been fans of Dan Pink, celebrated TED Talks speaker and ex speech writer for Al Gore, since he published his seminal book "A Whole New Mind, Why Right Brainers Will Rule The Future" in 2005. I recently saw Pink speak in London on the topic of "The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing", in which he spoke passionately about the power of taking breaks at work amongst other topics. Pink is the master of pulling together empirical research in his topic arena and summarising it back to the reader in its most useful and thought-provoking form. He describes the afternoon trough as the "Bermuda Triangle" of the traditional working day, representing a danger zone for productivity, ethical decisions and health. Even just taking a few minutes time out to re-focus and ground yourself, moving to a different space, can make a difference.

At Duke Medical Centre, more than 90,000 anaesthetised surgeries were analysed in a pivotal piece of research in 20065. They reported that "anaesthetic adverse effects" (mistakes the anaesthesiologists made, or harm caused to patients, or both), were more frequent for cases commenced between 3pm and 4pm, rising to a 4.2% probability from 1% at 9am. Looking specifically at patient harm, at 8am the probability was 0.3%, however by 3pm this had risen threefold, to 1%. The researcher concluded that afternoon circadian lows impair vigilance. The research is not meant to make patients refuse afternoon surgical slots, rather to act as a wake-up call for doctors working in an overloaded day. Pink describes a deliberate "time out" performed by surgical teams in the Michigan Medical School's department of anaesthesiology, where prior to each procedure, each medical team member physically steps away from the patient bed and introduces him/herself and studies a pre-verification checklist - a "pre-incision time out". In the time since these vigilance breaks have been introduced, the quality of care has risen, complications have declined and both doctors and patients are more at ease. This has greatly aided the "afternoon trough".

The world of Neuro Linguistic Programming calls this stepping away a "pattern interrupt", which moves us away from habitual working and operating on autopilot - when we tune out our conscious minds. In the afternoon trough during surgery, the Michigan medical team's vigilance breaks are a deliberate pattern interrupt to force a re-focus away from the habit of conducting "just another surgical procedure". In so doing, they are re-energised and act on a fresh start, with a new patient, focusing their attention on the new set of potential medical challenges. It's like switching gears when the road ahead changes.

Pink offers five guiding principles for breaks which fit in with much of the research already discussed above:

1: Something beats nothing - even one-minute breaks for a stretch or deep breathing can be helpful

2: Moving beats stationary - engage in "microbursts" of activity

3: Social beats solo - where you can choose the company, talking about something other than work are effective stress busters

4: Outside beats inside - even looking out of a window at the outside world is better than looking at your cubicle divider

5: Fully detached beats semidetached - true breaks rather than multi-tasking breaks, still partially attached to the work agenda are the best

No article on breaks can go without mentioning our attachment to technology, devices and social media. In their book "The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World", Adam Gazzaley (Professor of Neurology, Physiology and Psychiatry at UCSF) and Larry Rosen (Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University) forewarn that taking the wrong sort of breaks may actually backfire. The rapid rewards we get from skimming our favourite newsfeeds may alleviate boredom or satiate our fear of missing out for a few moments, but they also teach our brains to seek out more "blips of joy" next time we feel a twinge of fatigue, they explain in their book saying:

"...the next time we are bored, our past experiences, having gained reinforcement from our smartphone, will drive us to self-interrupt..."

So by automatically reaching for our smartphones when we are going for a break, we are unwittingly training ourselves to do it again and again and again - and again.

As I constantly say to my teenagers, ditch the phone and take proper break! And it is now time to stop reading this article and take a walk outside!

1 Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions, Danziger, Levav, Avnaim-Pesso, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 108, No 17, 2011

2 Brief and rare mental 'breaks' keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements, Atsunori Ariga, Alejandro Lleras, Cognition, Volume 118, issue 3 March 2011.

3 Give Your Ideas Some Legs: the Positive Effects of Walking on Creative Thinking, Oppezzo and Schwartz, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2014, Vol. 40, No. 4, 1142-1152

4 The Urban Brain: Analysing Outdoor Physical Activity With Mobile EEG, Aspinall, Mavros, Coyne and Roe, Br J Sports Med. 2015 Feb;49(4):272-6.

5 Time of Day Effects on the Incidence of Anaesthetic Adverse Events, Quality and Safety in Health Care, 2006, 258

Published February 2018

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