Taking Breaks—You're Doing It Wrong

All work and no rest doesn't only make you dull, it also makes you less effective at your job. But your brain doesn't think that checking Facebook counts as downtime. Here's why.

Imagine this: you're a power lifter, one of those big dudes at the Olympics that lifts very big things. You lift the big heavy thing, put it down. Crowd cheers. Do you immediately lift it again? Or do you rest for a few minutes?

You rest—if you want to be able to replenish the energy-boosting organic compounds in your muscles. So why not do the same thing in your workday?

"There is a reason why power lifters take five to six minutes to rest between sets, the energetic system takes that long to replenish properly," says 4-Hour Body author Tim Ferriss. "You have to have an awareness of the fact that just because you're not moving your body doesn't mean that you aren't working."

In other words, that mental work, like the kind you do toiling away at a desk all day, is in fact physical work, since your brain is physically firing neurotransmitters around as you make a thousand small decisions a day. And the brain gets exhausted—which leads to wandering attention and bad decisions.

So the thing to do is to structure breaks within the long hard hustle of the work week, so that you're getting a rhythm of rest and deep work.

Daniel Goleman, the psychologist who popularized the notion of "emotional intelligence," uses the Iditarod, that ridiculously epic dogsledding race, as an example:

The Iditarod dog sled race covers 1,100 miles of Arctic ice and takes more than a week. The standard strategy for mushers had been to run twelve hours at a stretch, then rest for twelve. That all changed because of Susan Butcher, a veterinarian’s assistant keenly aware of the biological limits of her dogs. She trained them to run in four-to-six hour spurts, and then rest for the same length of time, racing at that rhythm both night and day. She and her dogs won the race four times.

Even badass Alaskan huskies work best in bursts. This has been found in other studies of top performers: Anders Ericcson at the University of Florida has found that master violinists, chess players, and athletes practice deliberately for about four hours a day and then rest—and that is enough to become world class. And to not rest leads to worse performance.

"Top performance requires full focus, and sustaining focused attention consumes energy—more technically, your brain exhausts its fuel, glucose," Goleman says. "Without rest, our brains grow more depleted. The signs of a brain running on empty include, for instance, distractedness, irritability, fatigue, and finding yourself checking Facebook when you should be doing your work."

So how do we prevent Facebook checking, midday wandering?

Give your brain the fuel it needs to function at its highest level with the right food, the right rest, and the right direction of attention.

So if you're going to add a break to your day, it needs to be an actual lack of stimulation. Staring at your inbox isn't rest, neither is BuzzFeed. What we need to do is learn how to actually relax—so neurons can get nourished, allowing us to spend our attention on getting the best work done. Which probably doesn't involve checking Facebook.

[Weights: V. J. Matthew via Shutterstock]

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9 Comments

  • Not a bad article. I appreciate your sourcing but I think you could have included a little more of those resources in the article itself, especially near the end. What IS a lack of stimulation? Naps?

  • Annette Dombrowski

    I found this article informative in that rest must be "unstimulated". Often we turn off the tv, shut off phones and just sit with the dogs on the swing outside.
    I agree that Facebook is not a way to mentally decompress.

  • Allen Valse

    Power lifting and olympic lifting are two completely different sports... You're pretty much doing the same thing as calling a figure skater a hockey player....

  • Stewart Lacey

    Am I supposed to concentrate 4 hours and relax 4 hours, the article wasnt clear. Or maybe it was and I was just distracted

  • Annette Dombrowski

    I would say it depends on the level of work. This article defiantly did not give clear examples of how long to relax.
    there is more to research for sure.