The science behind taking better breaks

A person lays in a hammock in the forest with their golden retriever
Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

We’ve all heard it. Taking breaks from working is essential for recharging and restoring our mental energy, focus, and motivation levels. As a designer, it’s important for me to plan and take deliberate breaks to stay creative and productive and to avoid burnout. But not all breaks are created equal.

I’m definitely guilty of thinking that an adequate break from my laptop simply means pulling out my phone to scroll through a newsfeed. But this kind of habit may actually be training your brain to want to check your phone more often and cause you to become even more distracted and fatigued.

So what can you do to ensure that you’re taking effective breaks that are restorative and beneficial for your mind?

To answer this, it’s important to understand how our brains function at the anatomical level. Thanks to the most evolved region of our brains, the prefrontal cortex, which is tucked right behind your forehead, you’re able to set, execute, and manage your goals. The prefrontal cortex regulates attention, working memory, and other cognitive processes in order to help you accomplish the things that you want to do.

Illustration of the brain, showing the structure and location of the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus
Source: The Scientist

When it comes to completing a challenging task that demands prolonged attention, research shows that taking our minds off the goal can renew and enhance motivation later on. So the key to taking restorative and effective breaks is to allow yourself to fully switch off or switch over to doing something else that primarily utilizes different regions of your brain.

View of the Rocky Mountains overlooking a lake
View of the Rocky Mountains overlooking a lake
“I’m tired of looking at these mountains” — No one ever

One activity that does just that is spending time with nature. In addition to creating a relaxing effect, a recent study from the University of Michigan found that taking walks in nature actually helps improve memory and attention span. This cognitive improvement is due partly to nature having an effect on our involuntary attention. Voluntary attention, on the other hand, is the kind of mental energy that is draining but required for important work or meetings. Things that capture our attention involuntarily, such as nature or a painting, offers your brain relief from these demands.

Interestingly, in the study, the performance boost happened even in the winter, when the walks weren’t exactly comfortable in the frigid weather. It turns out you don’t necessarily have to enjoy your time in nature for it to be beneficial to your mental performance and well-being. Who knew! Either way, I’ll remember to feel less guilty next time I decide to take an extended nature walk during a busy work day.

Product designer based in LA 🌞 Tweeting @amyyang0110