We all know the feeling: Late on a weekday evening, you are hunched over your desk, fingers furiously clacking across a keyboard in a desperate bid to finish your homework. As you cram mathematical formulas and German vocabulary into your brain, you begin to grow dizzy, and you feel yourself struggling to maintain focus.
There is, however, a strategy that could help: taking breaks. As counterintuitive as it may seem, research has shown that periodic breaks increase our productivity. To better understand how this works, I reached out to Alejandro Lleras, a professor of psychology and the Assistant Head for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2011, in conjunction with a team of researchers, Lleras published a groundbreaking study that revolutionized modern psychology’s understanding of attention.
To Lleras, his findings indicate that a loss of focus stems from habituation, which, in his own words, is “simply the fact that your brain is poor at maintaining the same activity over prolonged periods of time.” For example, after slipping on your clothes, you will barely notice them for the rest of the day. According to Lleras, a similar phenomenon occurs with our commitment to goals: keeping one thought in mind for prolonged amounts of time will cause it to fade and become weaker than an alternative goal.
Lleras believes that breaks reset our level of commitment to a goal by refreshing the train of thought associated with a current task. When you switch activities, your mind is cleared of your current goal. Re-engaging in your original task reactivates that goal, and you experience a newfound rush of dedication. So, it’s no coincidence that you do better on your math homework after a snack break.
As a rule of thumb, Lleras recommends the Pomodoro technique, which involves 25-minute work blocks each followed by a five-minute break, with longer breaks at the end of four or five work blocks. However, Lleras urges basing breaks off of a number of external factors, chief of which is your motivation. “If there are really important things happening in your life, those [thoughts] will likely be more difficult to quiet down, [especially if you’re working on] a mundane task, like doing homework on a topic you don’t like,” he says. On the other hand, if your life is relatively quiet at the time, it should be much easier to focus on that homework.
Ultimately, excessive interruptions will disrupt your working effectiveness. But if you ever begin to feel burned out, it might just be a good idea to do some mindful yoga or go on a walk.