Increase your productivity: ‘Take a break!’

(image credit: author: A. A. Milne / illustrator E.H. Shepard)

From The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), the following conversation took place between Winnie the Pooh (Pooh) and Christopher Robin (C.R.):

C.R.: Pooh, what’s your favorite thing in the whole world?

Pooh: My favorite thing is me coming to visit you, and then you ask, “How about a small smackeral of honey?”

C.R.: I like that, too. But what I like most of all is just doing nothing.

Pooh: How do you do just nothing?

C.R.: Well, when grown-ups ask, “What are you going to do?” and you say, “Nothing,” and then you go and do it.

Brilliantly said, Christopher. Unfortunately, most of us feel guilty when we do nothing. In fact, we feel the compulsion to explain that we are not just doing nothing when we are — “What did I do? Well, I didn’t, really, do much. But you know, I read and cooked and did laundry… so you know, not like nothing nothing.”

The good news is that a study published in Cognition (2011) showed that productivity is improved by taking short breaks:

diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged period.

According to the study, after focusing on a task for a long time, we start to lose our focus and our performance declines. Nevertheless, contrary to the notion that our attention — viewed as a limited resource — gets used up over time, the research argues that our attention, instead of apparent ‘decrease,’ actually remains the same but just shifted to something else.

In ScienceDaily, Alejandro Lleras, a psychology professor at Illinois University who led the research, said that “Attention is not the problem.” The problem, according to Lleras, was that “you are always paying attention to something.” If we are exposed to a particular sensory stimulus, such as a sight, sound, or touch for a long time, our brain will gradually stop registering them. For example, you might be struck by the initial heavenly softness of a high-quality cashmere scarf, but as you continue to wear it, you stop noticing the ‘feel’ of it.

In the experiment, Lleras and postdoctoral fellow Astunori Ariga tested participants’ ability to focus on repetitive computerized task. Participants were asked to memorize four digits prior to performing the task, then asked to report if they saw one of the digits on the screen during the task. The task lasts 50 minutes.

Most participants’ performance declined significantly over the course of the ask. But the switch group, who took breaks, saw no decline in their performance.

The takeaway? Constant stimulation is not always a good thing and the brain learns best with brief mental breaks.

I think I will take a break now.

(image credit: Randy Glasbergen)




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