Earlier this month the New York Times website ran an article titled Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain, by Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University. Levitin paints the picture of a balanced brain, with one neural network for focus and one for daydreaming. The two parts are designed to complement each other, with periods of intense focus interspersed with bouts of daydreaming throughout the day.
That’s right – we humans are meant to daydream. It’s why our great “eureka moments” come when we let our minds wander: on long walks, in those moments right before we fall asleep, and, iconically, when we step like Archimedes into our showers and bathtubs.
Levitin and his colleagues have identified a part of the brain called the insula that effectively allows us to switch between periods of focused attention and daydreaming – but the constant distracted bombardment of our daily lives sometimes has us switching focus too quickly. As Levitin writes, “[If the insula] is called upon to switch too often, we feel tired and a bit dizzy, as though we were seesawing too rapidly.”
Research shows that we focus best when we take regular breaks – but try telling yourself that when you’re staring down the throat of an impending deadline. Those times when we feel like we don’t have a minute to come up for breath are the times we most need to take a break.
Building breaks in to your schedule doesn’t just keep you feeling sane, however, it’s actually a necessary part of getting your work done.
1. Set a timer
Long periods of sitting at your desk aren’t just harmful to your health, they’re bad for your brain, too – particularly if those hours you’re sitting are unfocused and fragmented. Build in regular breaks (and help maintain your focus) by setting a timer. Some people swear by the 25-minute-focus, 5-minute-break Pomodoro technique, while I find that a longer ratio of focus to break time works best for my personal rhythm (35-40 minutes on, 10 minutes for a break).
Whatever time chunk you choose, dedicate it to the task at hand and delay any procrastination-type tasks until the timer is up. Feel the urge to check your email, or hop over to Facebook? Go ahead and do it…in 12 minutes when your timer dings.
But don’t just squander your break on email or social media – actually use your break to get up and walk around, stretch, or chat with a coworker. Once your brain has had time to rest, get back to work.
2. Take your lunch
If you’ve ever wondered why you were starving only to look up and see that you’ve worked well past lunch without meaning to, you know how easy it can be to get wrapped up in meeting a deadline. While such dedication may be admirable to your boss, working through your lunch generally won’t end up helping. In fact chaining yourself to your desk can make the rest of your work day unproductive and inefficient.
Taking the time to think about something other than work can help offset that energy lull many workers feel in the afternoon. As Levitin points out: “You don’t want your airline pilot or air traffic controller to [zone out] while they’re on the job, but you do want them to have opportunities to reset – this is why air traffic control and other high-attention jobs typically require frequent breaks.”
Even if you’re not piloting jetliners, working overtime hours without taking breaks will lead to a point of diminishing productivity in the end.
3. Experience beauty
“Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode,” writes Levitin. “This acts as a neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you’re doing.”
In other words, our brains are programmed to be reset when we experience the sublime – in nature, in art, in music, or in any medium that lets your mind wander. Go for a jog or a walk at lunch in a beautiful park. Go for a hike or a bike ride on the weekend to see lovely scenery. Put on a favorite record and just lay back to listen. Visit an art museum, aquarium, or nature reserve.
You don’t need a ton of time to experience beauty. If you’re starting to lose energy in the middle of the afternoon, grab a pair of headphones and listen to a piece of amazing music for a moment. See if you don’t get back to the task at hand refreshed.
4. Take an actual vacation
How many times did you check your email when you went on your last vacation? (I’ll fess up first – I checked mine at least once every other hour while I was at our family reunion.)
Sure, some of us really do need to be plugged in, but my bet is that most of us are less vital than we think. Tie up loose ends before heading out of town, and then disconnect yourself for real.
If you’re like my mom and can’t relax for 10 minutes with a book on the beach to save your life, take your vacation time to indulge in your personal projects. Write the Great American Novel, remodel your kitchen, get that ’57 Chevy back up and running – but whatever you do, stay unplugged from your job. Taking an actual vacation hits your brain’s refresh button, so when you get back into the office you’ll be able to hit the ground running.