Is taking a break beneficial for creativity and productivity? OptiMe recently explored the impact of breaks on individual performance and wellbeing, and what it means for the workplace.
Many people feel uncomfortable about taking a break at work. They worry that it sends out a signal that they’re not fully engaged with their task or their job. This issue has become progressively worse for some people during COVID-19. Working from home has made some feel as though they need to be in reach of their laptop at all times of the day. A recent study found more than a quarter of office workers didn’t take any breaks from work other than to have lunch. The commonest reason given, unsurprisingly, was guilt.
A common misconception.
There’s a common misconception among employees that if you take breaks you’ll get less done. Breaking from tasks can be seen as ‘lost time’ and it’s assumed that productivity will suffer. For some employees, there is a notion that for their career to progress, they must appear to be working all of the time.
But this is a mistake and a damaging notion at that, both for employees and for businesses. In fact, science tells us that there is no loss in productivity when people take a break – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Stopping what you’re doing and taking a break isn’t being self-indulgent or lazy. New York Times writer, Tim Kreider, suggests that if we’re deprived of breaks, we suffer a mental affliction that’s as disfiguring as rickets, and that taking a break is as vital to the brain as vitamin D is to the body. Periodic rests, it turns out, are critical to achieving anything of high quality, whatever field of work we’re engaged in.
The impact of rest breaks.
Much of what we know about the importance of breaks comes from research carried out by neuroscience. Scientists have discovered that the part of the brain responsible for complex thought is the pre-frontal cortex. When we’re involved in work that requires our concentration, the pre-frontal cortex keeps us focused. It’s the part of the brain responsible for logical thinking, decision-making, and giving us willpower to resist distractions. That’s a lot of activity and, like any other organ, the brain, needs a break from time to time!
The pre-frontal cortex.
The pre-frontal cortex is also the area of the brain that ensures we remain focused on tasks. This is difficult for humans as our brains aren’t designed for extended periods of focus. For most of our evolution, our brains were constantly scanning the landscape around us, which was vital, as we lived in a complex environment full of risks and threats. Concentrating on a single task wasn’t what enabled us to survive. So, for modern humans, focusing for a long period of time, doesn’t come naturally and our brains can struggle. What the research tells us is, taking regular breaks helps us to regain focus.
Another important recent development has caused us to re-evaluate how the brain works when we engage with tasks. It was discovered that neuroscientists’ historic view of energy use in the brain was misplaced. Rather than being economic with its use of energy, the brain is very hungry indeed. In fact, it requires 20% of all the energy the body produces and it needs 5 -10% more energy than usual when we’re dealing with a difficult task like solving a complex mathematical problem.
It was also found that a specific set of brain regions that were quiet when a person focused on a mental challenge, burst into life when they were lying in an MRI scanner – just letting their thoughts wander. This complex brain circuit that came to life when people were daydreaming became known as the default mode network (DMN).
Default mode network.
This alternative mode of brain activity works very differently to the focused mode we utilise when we’re concentrating. With all of the complex demands life places on us, you’d expect that the focused mode would need to be on maximum most of the time, but actually the default mode has a really important role to play, especially in relation to creative thinking.
A number of studies have shown that the brain resolves some of our trickiest problems whilst in default mode, when people are daydreaming, driving or in a dozy state during the night. Most of us have experienced this at some point – where the answer to some thorny problem unexpectedly pops into our brain and we suddenly have the answer to a question that has troubled us for weeks.
So this default mode of the brain actually improves creativity and focus. If you have thought long and hard about a problem, the act of doing something completely different, like going for a walk or taking a shower can turn into a kind of incubation process for your ideas. Essentially, the subconscious mind will have been chewing away at the problem, and when the mind wanders, it can bring those solutions to the surface and into consciousness. This sounds a bit like what has been called the ‘eureka moment’; Archimedes solving a problem in his bath or Newton getting his gravity insight from watching an apple fall.
In conclusion: breaks are essential.
And that is why taking a break is so important. It gives the brain what it needs to be more creative. Breaks prevent a tired, pre-frontal cortex from becoming jaded. It explains why relentlessly ploughing on with a task ultimately produces a deterioration in work quality, and hinders productivity.
A short break, at the right time, refreshes the brain; enables it to slip into a different mode, and allows us to return to work in a truly productive way.
For more employee wellbeing support and guidance visit OptiMe.
We all know how important it is to keep active for long-term health and fitness. However, it’s not just a physical thing. Stress is at an all-time high, and exercise is a great way to calm the mind and relieve stress.
So, what can you do to help stay fit and healthy whilst social distancing? Well, here’s what the the team at Nuvo Wellbeing have been doing.
Spend a few minutes stretching each morning.
Whether you’ve only got five minutes, or twenty, spending a few minutes first thing in the morning stretching out and working the joints and muscles can be very beneficial for both the mind and body.
Spend time outdoors each day.
Spend some time, even if only a few minutes, outdoors every day. If you have a garden or a park, that’s great. Don’t have either, or maybe the weather is terrible, at least open a window. Breathe some fresh air. Feel nature on your face and skin, whether that be sun, wind, or rain.
There’s something calming about connecting to nature, even more so during times of uncertainty and stress. Find a local field or a secluded woodland area (so that you can keep to social distancing rules), turn off your smartphone notifications and getting to know the space well. If you like gardening, that’s the perfect excuse to get outdoors and get moving!
Walking is one of the greatest exercises you can do, because it’s easy to scale it up or down depending on your fitness, and doesn’t cost anything.
Walking can also be a really great way to relieve stress. Pop some earphones in, put on some music, an audio book or a podcast and put one foot in front of the other. It works great even during times of self-isolation because most of us will know places we can go that are relatively quiet.
Can’t go outside? Go for a walk indoors. Sounds crazy, but you can get a good walk, especially if you have stairs!
Get up out of your chair every hour.
Move more. Most smartwatches and fitness trackers have a feature that reminds you to move every hour if you’ve been still. Use it! Don’t sit for many hours on end hunched over a keyboard. It’s not a viable option in the long term.
Get up, stretch, have a drink, go look out of a window for a few minutes.
Spend time with your pets.
Dogs need walking, cats need playing with, other pets could do with some attention. Spend some time with your pets. They’ll enjoy it and you will feel much better.
Try online classes.
Classes are out, but there’s a lot of great ones online, either in the form of live classes or pre-recorded sessions. We especially recommend practices that put a lot of focus on the breath, as it’s a brilliant stress-buster.
Nuvo Wellbeing have a range of online dance classes for mixed abilities – view timetable.
and two monthly memberships for those looking to get back into fitness or starting out on their fitness journey – view memberships.
When we laugh we instantly feel uplifted, helping to reduce stress and improve low mood. Laughter can also help improve long-term physical wellness too, including our immune system, nervous system, cardiovascular system and brain function to name a few. When we laugh muscle tension starts to release and we immediately feel more relaxed.
It’s amazing really – as the body doesn’t recognise the difference between real and fake laughter, even a fake laugh can have a great impact. Scientists have also found that laughter isn’t always about humour but about relationships, as a natural communication tool that enhances our relationships with the people around us.
Here are several ways you could incorporate more laughter in your daily routine:
Watch something that makes you smile or laugh.
This could be your favourite comedy or short comical clips from YouTube or Social Media. Looking through happy photos and videos of fun memories with family and friends can also do the trick. Share these with friends and family to spread the joy.
Listen to a comedy podcast.
There are a number of comedy podcasts available to chose from – find one that suits your humour and listen along when carrying out your daily activities or whilst taking time out to relax.
Call a friend.
Pick up the phone to your most positive, upbeat friend and share some funny stories from the day.
Try a laughter yoga exercise.
This may feel a little strange at first but also great fun. One example to try with friends or family is ‘Remote Control Laughter’ – it’s a great one to try with the kids! Choose someone in your group to have the the ‘remote control’. When they press ON everyone must laugh and when they switch OFF everyone must stop. Try playing with ‘volume’ too!
During lockdown, ActivCare launched an online Level 1 Seated Laughter Yoga course to train care professionals to become leaders in Seated Laughter Yoga. To celebrate the launch we ran a competition to win a free place on the course by sending a video if residents laughing.
The winners were picked at random but the entries were phenomenal, a lot of contagious loather was spread across the ActivCare team that day.
If you would like to find out more about the Level 1 Seated Laughter Yoga training visit https://www.activcarecourse.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Overwhelm happens when we start to believe a stressor such as COVID-19, is too great for us to manage. It can manifest itself through our thoughts including worry or helplessness for example, or through an intense emotion such as anxiety or irritability.
I have put together six steps to help manage overwhelm;
1. Accept how you are feeling.
Rather than fighting feelings or emotions begin by accepting them. At a time when there is uncertainty and so much unfamiliarity it’s likely that many people can relate. Try speaking with friends and colleagues to start building a support network.
2. Remember this too shall pass.
It’s important to try and take control of your thoughts. Unhelpful and unreasonable thoughts are likely to spark negative emotions. Pay close attention to what your thoughts are telling you and begin to create new ones that are more positive and helpful. Remind yourself, this period will pass.
3. Be present.
Worrying about what may or may not happen in the future will consume time and is likely to be unhelpful. Instead, try being present in the moment, do things you enjoy, practice gratitude and schedule time for productive future planning where necessary.
4. Remember you are not alone.
With social events cancelled, social distancing put in place and many of us working from home, the sudden change can be a shock to the system. Remember social wellbeing is essential. Find new ways to continue interacting such as reconnecting with old friends on social media, having video calls with loved ones and regular conference calls with colleagues.
5. Make a plan.
Many people will be experiencing some change to their normal routine. It’s important to find a ‘new’ routine that helps you to be as productive as possible, whilst also quelling overwhelm. When you’re not working, remember to engage in activities that you enjoy such as listening to music or being creative. Perhaps there’s something that you’ve been wanting to do for a while but have struggled to find the time, such as writing a book or a blog.
6. Give back where you can.
Giving back to those less fortunate can offer a new perspective, create a sense of purpose and be incredibly rewarding. There are many charities desperately seeking support for those most vulnerable. If you’re not in a position to donate funds, consider donating time.
Gratitude helps shift your focus from what you feel is missing in your life, to appreciating what is already present. Ghandi summed this up perfectly in the following quote:
“I was sad because I had no shoes and then I saw a man with no feet” Mahatma Ghandi.
Psychologists, Michael McCollough of Southern Methodist University and Robert Emmons of the University of California carried out an experiment on gratitude and its impact on well-being. Within the study hundreds of people were split into three groups and asked to write about their daily experiences. Group one wrote down things they were grateful for that day such as family and waking up on a morning. Group two wrote down things that had bothered them such as finances depleting fast and a friend not appreciating a kind gesture. Group three wrote about any experiences from the day.
The results of the study indicated that practicing daily gratitude resulted in greater energy, optimism and life satisfaction. The group that practiced gratitude were also 25% happier than those that had not.
When you practice gratitude regularly you tap into neuroplasticity which strengthens positive new brain cell connections. Why not try implementing gratitude into your daily routine?
Keeping a gratitude journal is one method – each day writing a list of three to five things you are grateful for. The best way to do this is to think about the smaller things in life – waking up to the sun shining, a smile from a stranger or quickly finding a parking space. Over the next 21 days try to write down or think about three things you are grateful for and see what benefits you experience.