Do you ever find yourself studying for hours on end but not getting much done? Do you feel like you don’t have time for a break but end up scrolling on your phone anyway? Contrary to popular belief, taking breaks—if they are the right kind—can actually increase productivity rather than decrease it. This guide discusses when to take breaks, what kind of breaks to take, and how to incorporate breaks into your day depending on how much time you have, what you need to get from your break, and how you feel.
When you are working or studying hard, your brain has to resist distractions in order to focus on the task at hand. Your prefrontal cortex is mostly responsible for this kind of “think-work” as it plays a major role in your ability to concentrate, think logically, and resist uimpulses. This level of concentration gets harder by the minute as your brain expends energy! At some point, you will need to recharge in order to replenish after working so hard.
For this reason, while it may seem counterintuitive, taking regular breaks can actually help you be more productive than working without stopping. Effective breaks can help to reduce your stress levels so that you’re ready to re-focus when you return to your work. Taking breaks while studying can even improve recall! If you find yourself growing increasingly frustrated or stalled on a certain task despite your efforts, this may be a sign that it’s time to rest your brain and take a break.
Unfortunately, instead of leaving you feeling replenished, some breaks may have the opposite effect and leave you feeling further depleted. In particular, scrolling on your phone or surfing the internet can overload your prefrontal cortex with decision-making (Which link should I click on? Which photo do I pause over?) and can become addictive. Consequently, these types of breaks can make you feel less in control and cause you to experience negative emotions. If you are unsure, check in with yourself the next time you are on a device. (How do I feel at this moment? Does ____ activity make me happy? Do I feel like I have agency over this experience, or is it something that is just happening to me?)
For example, consider this list of common but generally less-effective study breaks:
If you’ve been working on a screened device, remember that screens can tire your eyes due to the close range in which you engage with them and their emittance of blue light. So it’s common to need to take a break from screens in general. Especially if you are taking classes remotely and already have a lot of mandatory screen time every day, take a break that helps you unplug to give your eyes and brain time to relax and recharge. For more information on how to unplug, check out the digital distractions guide.
After reading the section above, you might be thinking, “Well, what kind of break is effective?”
In general, effective breaks help you distance yourself from work-related thoughts and facilitate an experience that will leave you feeling more refreshed. It can help to start by asking yourself, “What do I want out of my break?”
Effective breaks tend to require intrinsic motivation. In other words, a good break will likely incorporate something you want to do. To evaluate your motivation, consider what benefits you glean from the task. Does it help you relax? Does it excite you because you’re trying something new or challenging yourself? Does performing the activity help you exercise control?
Here is a chart of a few different kinds of breaks that may help you to feel refreshed when you return to working:
|Type of Break
|Creative activities have a variety of potential benefits. They can help you exercise your right brain, give your prefrontal cortex a break, improve your memory, and help your brain produce dopamine.
|Any kind of movement is a great way to take a break; it increases your executive functioning and also improves your alertness, attention, and motivation. Even a simple change in location, inside or outside, can produce calming effects or help you fight off boredom. Moving around and completing a small task may even provide a sense of accomplishment that can help build your productivity and motivation.
|Nourish your body and mind
|Taking a step back to take care of your body and mind can help you reduce stress and feel more rested, productive, and attentive when you return to your work.
|When you engage with others, you experience a feeling of social connectedness, which can create a positive emotional state.
You may be wondering how long a break needs to be in order to reap the benefits. Building in regular, short breaks can help you stay motivated. It can also be helpful to reward yourself every once in a while with a longer break. Many people find it helpful to use the Pomodoro technique, in which you work for twenty-five minutes, and then take a five-minute break. After four twenty-five minute work sessions, give yourself a longer, twenty- or thirty-minute break. You might consider starting with this strategy and adjusting your breaks to fit your needs. Even breaks as short as a minute, if they fulfill all the criteria of an effective break, can improve your performance and productivity when you return to work. Remember that next time you think you “just don’t have time.”
“Okay, okay, but what if I really don’t have time for a break?”
If you really cannot find time to take a break, try switching tasks (also known as interleaving)! Some studies have shown that by interleaving, you can get some of the same benefits that a break would provide. If you are feeling burned out on studying biology, you might consider switching to reading for your literature class or revising a paper—or doing something totally different like your laundry or dishes. But think of this as a short-term strategy until you can work more time into your schedule.
Everyone is different, so what might be a great break for your friend may not be the best kind of break for you. The best thing you can do is self-monitor and learn by keeping a record of how different kinds of breaks make you feel. You also might ask yourself questions such as “What do I want to get out of this break?” and “How do I want to feel?”
If you want to feel more motivated, you might consider a break that includes movement, whereas if you want to feel more productive, you could consider a break that will engage a different part of your brain by setting a goal or learning something new. For a break that will leave you feeling more creative, consider changing your environment and going outside.
You might even consider making a “break menu” of activities that meet one or more of the criteria above. That way, instead of instinctively pulling out your phone to check social media, you already have a premade list of activities that you can choose from. It can even be helpful to have an accountability buddy when taking a break. You can share break strategies and help each other avoid the temptation to let a thirty-minute break stretch into three hours! Ultimately, it is up to you!
Need some help managing your breaks? Technology can help you remember to take breaks:
Mantua, Janna, and Rebecca M. C. Spencer. 2017. “Exploring the Nap Paradox: Are Mid-Day Sleep Bouts a Friend or Foe?” Sleep Medicine 37, (September): 88–97. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleep.2017.01.019.
McGuire, Saundra Y. 2016. Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate in Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation. Sterling: Stylus Publishing.
Oakley, Barbara. 2014. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra). New York: Penguin Group.
Sonnentag, Sabine, Laura Venz, and Anne Casper. 2017. “Advances in Recovery Research: What Have We Learned? What Should Be Done Next?” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 22, no. 3 (March): 365–80. https://doi.org/10.1037/ocp0000079.
Developed and shared by The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.