A Cheat Sheet On How To Take Effective Brain Breaks

By: Eszter C.

We think of productivity as the hacks, hints, and secret ways to cram 17-item to-do lists into three short hours of work. But really, productivity is saying no to things that don't matter and directing your limited focus to the things that bring you closer to your goals. It seems counterintuitive, but the most effective way to execute better is by taking a break.

Yes, you read that right. To increase your brain power, you don't want to exhaust it; you want to reset it. Breaks are beneficial for two main reasons:

  1. You can reset your mental energy and work at higher brain power
  2. You can make connections you wouldn't have before

Willpower is a limited resource. We spend it on meaningless tasks that make us feel productive, but really, they distract us from responsibilities that are hard but vital to do. Breaks allow us to reset our focus and come prepared and refreshed, ready to take on the challenge. A study by DeskTime concluded the top 10% of the most productive people worked for 52 minutes and took a break for 17 minutes. Instead of running at 50% the entire day, they stopped when their mental energy was depreciating and came back realigned, ready to operate at 100%. It's easier to intensely work when you know there is a break coming up. Likewise, Olympic-level athletes also prioritize rest and recovery. If they asked their body to perform the way it does in competitions all the time, it would wear out in days. Planned restoration reduces fatigue while enhancing performance, allowing them to recover physically and psychologically.

Second, you can't delegate thinking to computers, checklists, or frameworks. They fail to excel in what the human brain is excellent at; making decisions, creating solutions, and connecting ideas. These actions require a loose mental filter, so the brain can widen its scope and make unique links between thoughts. The best combinations come from switching the mind from concentration to relaxation mode. The brain releases its tight grip on logical reasoning and beings to wander and make associations between radically different concepts. Think tanks and artistic geniuses, like Beethoven, Aristotle, and Charles Dickens, took long walks. Their long, solitary strolls allowed them to separate creation from execution. A Stanford study confirmed that walking does improve creativity.

So, you're thinking that if productivity masters, competitive athletes, and creative geniuses take breaks, it cannot hurt to spend a few minutes checking social media.

Not so fast.

Taking breaks is as much of a science as organic chemistry.

Luckily, science has also helped us determine what breaks fuel the brain, and what types of resting can make it scattered, fuzzy, and unfocused.

In general, avoid highly addictive and stimulating activities, like scrolling social media, online shopping, and eating junk (food). Here are some easy, science-backed ways you can increase your productivity instead:

Go on a walk.

  1. What should you do?
  • Take a short stroll around the neighborhood or around the office.
  1. What is it good for?
  • Reflecting
  • Thinking
  • Creative thinking

Eat for your brain.

  1. What should you do?
  • On half an avocado, pour extra-virgin olive oil over the top, sprinkle on sea salt, black pepper, turmeric, cayenne pepper, and freshly squeezed lime juice.
  • On some plain yogurt, sprinkle flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds. Mix in blueberries, cinnamon, and vanilla extract.
  • Bake kale chips (tastier than they sound) with avocado oil, sea salt, and flaxseeds
  1. What is it good for?

Take a nap.

  1. What should you do?
  • Take a 10-20 minute nap and drink a coffee before you dose off.
  1. What is it good for?
  • A short nap can improve your mood, alertness, and performance. It helps you feel alert and reenergized without leaving you groggy or lying awake at night.
  • Coffee paired with sleep can improve your wakefulness. After a nap, rest and caffeine work together to increase the availability of adenosine receptors in your brain. It takes about 20 minutes for your body to feel the effects of caffeine, so a short nap is perfect.

Sit and do nothing.

  1. What should you do?
  • Do nothing for 2 minutes with this website, daydream about future goals, or do a quick meditation session.
  1. What is it good for?
  • When you repeatedly stretch a rubber band, it breaks. Similarly, extending your focus and attention might cause your brain to snap. A minute or two of rest restores it to its natural state, and you can begin refreshed and renewed!

Breaks aren't for the lazy. They are used by people who value their time, energy, and body. Your brain isn't a machine. It's an organ that needs rest and recovery to perform at its best. Give it that support, and it will reward you with better memory, quick thinking, and brilliant ideas. Try the methods listed above and see what works for you!

Recipes from Ben Greenfield.

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