The human brain can manage complex processing for short periods. Then it starts to slow down, degrading both focus and performance. Integrating regular breaks into a deskwork routine yields many benefits. First, it works the brain at peak power. When the brain tires, work stops to recharge. Second, walking breaks gives the body opportunities to move. That wards off the dangers of sedentary behavior. Third, break time gives the brain a chance to digest the previous chunk of work completed.
The brain isn’t designed for extended focus on one thing. It regards constant stimulation as unimportant, so it erases such from awareness. For instance, most people aren’t aware of the sensation of clothing touching the skin. As the body becomes habituated, the stimulus stops registering in the brain.
Benefits of frequent work breaks
When you start to lose focus at your desk, the easy solution is to take a break. Here are five benefits of taking regular breaks for desk workers.
Improved info processing and retention
The brain is a voracious energy drain that is never idle. It functions in two operating modes: focused, and ‘diffused’. In diffused mode, it demands 20% of all energy the body produces. In focused mode, power demands only go up by 5-10%.
The diffused mode puts the brain is in a more relaxed, dreamlike state. This mode swivels powers of reflection away from the external world toward the self. Mental downtime is when the brain can process information.
Next time you stumble with a challenging problem, put this to the test. Take a break, wander around, and let your brain find a solution in its diffused state. It works!
Matthew Walker is a UC Berkeley psychologist and sleep researcher. His studies show that fact-based memories are first stored in the hippocampus. During downtime, that information goes to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which has more storage space.
Dr. Walker likens the process to an email system. When the email inbox in your hippocampus is full, the brain needs downtime to clear out the mails. Until then, new information will bounce when trying to enter the hippocampus.
In the work-from-home era, adding daytime naps is also a potent option. Studies show that daytime naps can sharpen concentration and accelerate processing.
TCM expert Nan Lu, OMD also endorses the power of daytime naps. As the body relaxes, so will the mind. When the mind relaxes, Qi (internal energy) can flow.
Movement boosts well-being
Taking breaks lets your brain shift gears and also yields physical benefits. Constant sitting raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.
There’s plenty of scientific evidence out there about the benefits of movement breaks. Getting up from your desk to walk around stimulates muscles and improves circulation. It also puts the brain into a dreamy, diffused state. After a few minutes, expect to feel fresh and ready to crack out another short burst of work.
Breaks restore focus on long-term goals
The average goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds. In the smarthpone era, the average human has an attention span of eight seconds. That shows that the brain isn’t designed for extended focus on one thing.
On top of that, everything you do through each a day subtracts from your cognitive resources. In fact, the brain regards constant stimulation as unimportant, so it erases such from awareness. For instance, most people aren’t aware of the sensation of clothing touching the skin. As the body becomes habituated, the stimulus stops registering in the brain.
When you start to lose focus at your desk, consider it a sign to take a brief mental break. Doing so will boost your focus and energy levels. Disengaging also gives a better sense of the big picture. Disengaged from the minutiae of a complex task, it becomes easier to see a broader view.
For example, a Stanford study looked at people facing mental challenges needing imagination to solve. It found that walking yielded more creative solutions than sitting.
In summary, another benefit of taking breaks is that it lets you disengage from an immediate task. That gives your brain time to process information. It also puts your mind in a diffused state that yields a clearer view of big-picture goals.
Modern methods of taking breaks
Here are two mainstream break-taking methods to consider:
One of the most popular methods is the super-simple Pomodoro method. One 25-minute work session plus a 5-minute break equals one Pomodoro.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes.
- When the timer goes off, take a 5-minute break.
- After four sessions, take a longer 30-minute break.
Working in 90-minute intervals syncs with our bodies’ natural rhythms.
Fifty years ago, pioneering sleep researcher Nathan Kleitman documented the “basic rest-activity cycle“. This describes 90-minute periods at night where humans move through five stages of sleep.
Kleitman found that our bodies operate by the same 90-minute rhythms during the day. During waking hours, stages shift from higher to lower alertness. Other researchers call this our “ultradian rhythm.”
The gist is to work in 90-minute blocks and then take a break. An alternative is to break when signs of fatigue emerge. When we need rest, our bodies show symptoms. These include hunger, drowsiness, fidgeting, and a loss of focus.
To override these symptoms, many people use caffeine or sugary foods. Some even rely on stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin to “power through”. Using the 90-minute solution provides a healthier option that yields more effective results.
Peak performance in 90-minute blocks
A famous 1993 study of young violinists backs up the 90-minute method. It found that the best violinists all practiced the same way. Each worked in three increments of no more than 90 minutes each.
The study found similar patterns among high-performing musicians, writers, chess players, and athletes.
Combined, the WorkstationFX editorial team has over 30 years of experience sitting full-time for a living. Over long media production and marketing careers, Chief Editor Anil Ramsey has his own formula to share.
The first three elements establish a strong working foundation. Regular breaks ties the whole formula together.
Establish good feng shui
Feng shui is a 3000-year-old Chinese art that means “wind water”. Feng shui design is arrangement of indoor spaces to achieve harmony and balance. Doing so maximizes the flow of positive energy into a space. That increases positive energy in a room and ultimately makes users happier.
For purists, there are thousands of details to consider. For desk workers seeking a productivity edge, stock with the simple basics.
- Clean your office thoroughly before and after work.
- Keep your desk clear of clutter.
- Your desk should face towards the room’s main entrance.
- Working directly in front of or behind a window will drain your energy.
- Keep windows open to ensure that fresh air flows into the room. Add plants for more air cleaning power.
- If outside noises are a distraction, override them with white noise or nature sounds.
- Assemble furnishings that achieve a balance of fire, earth, metal, water, and wood elements.
Following these steps will ensure a clean, welcoming room flowing with positive energy. TO learn more, check out our detailed guide:
Adopt healthy sitting habits
Sitting with poor posture stresses the spine and forces muscles to work harder. From a cognitive perspective, sitting in a powerless, crouched position stimulates hopelessness. It also makes the brain more likely to recall depressive thoughts.
Harvard Prof. Amy Cuddy says this has biological roots tracing back to the animal kingdom. Among all species, body language reflects submission or dominance.
When the body curls into a submissive pose, cognitive performance also degrades. Good posture makes people more alert and engaged. In contrast, sitting with poor posture can amplify symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Maintain pro-quality computing hardware
A good-quality pro computing setup needs a strong foundation. That starts with a good layout of your desk in a clean room with a good circulation of fresh air. Add to that foundation with a good ergonomic chair and healthy sitting habits.
That puts you in a prime position to crack out several chunks of high-quality work every single day. To make sure that happens, you need a basic level of pro computing hardware. Using a slower computer that lags will waste your prime working time.
As gamers demand the latest and the greatest, non-gaming computer users can benefit. These days, high-end CPUs and GPUs offer a lot more power than non-gaming pros need. For multitasking, HD video editing, and even AAA gaming, using hardware a generation older works well. It saves money and still delivers more power than you will need for most pro tasks.
Unless you are are a CAD user, 3D rendering artist, or 4K video editor, $1500 will give non-gamers the power of a god. Check out 2020 standards for high-end processors, graphics cards, ports, and storage:
Take regular breaks
One component of an effective break is psychological detachment. That means mentally disengaging from work thoughts. Another key is to embrace positive thoughts while disengaged. That reverses the negative effects of work tasks. It also increases blood flow to the areas of the brain that we use for focus.
His work is complex. It involves a mix of design, programming, writing, editing, and collaboration. To fully disengage, he avoids using timers. “Whenever I feel the need, I step away from the computer and go for a walk.” Here is a summary of his method:
- Break complex works down into chunks. Each completed chunk should make the following chunk easier to finish. An average chunk usually takes between 15 to 20 minutes.
- Take a break when you have completed one chunk of work. You can also take a break whenever you start feeling tired or struggle to concentrate.
- Disengage from your work and all technologies. Leave your phone at your desk. Walk with a purpose towards a drink or fresh air.
- Try to completely forget about work and focus on positive, healthy sensations. For example, listen to birds chirping, or watch wind blow through trees.
- Reward yourself after each completed chunk or work with something special during a well-deserved break.
His method packs built-in motivation. First, by stepping away and disengaging, he maintains a clear view of the big-picture goals. “I enjoy seeing the pieces of a well-organized project coming together.” Seeing that motivates him to complete more pieces faster.
At the same time, pleasant breaks are also a big motivator. “When I sit down to a difficult task, looking forward to the next break. It’s very easy to visualize myself enjoying that break with the task done and the project moved further.”
One of his favorite rewards is a longer break. “I get my heaviest piece of work done each day in the morning. My reward is a 3-hour break for a workout and lunch.”
In the work-from-home era, the concept of taking many breaks through a workday makes sense. With discipline, arranging your work into chunks can yield incredible results. For one thing, working in short bursts with a primed brain will deliver more efficient production. For another, regular disengagement from the details helps you to see a project from micro and macro perspectives. As well, regular movement will keep your body and mind feeling vibrant, focused and alert.
Good feng shui, healthy sitting habits, and pro hardware is the foundation. Regular breaks provides the structure.
Combined, these form a system that delivers two key benefits for desk workers. Those are peak productivity, plus plenty of time to enjoy a healthy work-life balance.