Experience Life Magazine

Take a Break

Random moments of “unproductive” time don’t just make you healthier, happier and more resilient. They help you work smarter, too.

Mar13_take-a-break

At Google, goofing off is the way to go. In fact, it’s encouraged. Engineers at the tech powerhouse’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters are told to spend 20 percent of their work hours — whether a couple of hours a day, or a full day a week — doing exactly what they please. They can sit and stare into space, take a nap, or wander the corporate campus and let their minds roam free.

At first glance, this looks like a clever (though potentially costly) ploy to retain finicky employees. But Google’s 80/20 concept taps some of the most reliable research on employee productivity. Wide-ranging studies show that taking time out at work or at home to rest, daydream, be silly and pursue amusements of various kinds has physiological and psychological benefits that can bolster well-being, improve concentration, boost problem-solving capability and enhance creativity.

Google’s approach has given rise to some amazing innovations. Gmail, Google News and Mars — an add-on map of the Red Planet’s terrain in Google Earth — are just three of the successful products employees have created during their “free” time. Software engineer Michael Weiss-Malik, who created Mars, says the time his employer allows him to just have fun with ideas is crucial to the creative process.

“I got to stretch my wings and do something out of the ordinary that also happens to benefit the public’s understanding of science,” says Weiss-Malik. “And because these are ‘side projects’ that don’t always benefit initially from full-support resources, you’re forced to get creative and scrappy, which means you sometimes come up with solutions you wouldn’t have thought of before, but that in hindsight wind up being superior to what you probably would have done had it been a ‘real’ project.”

Of course, most of us don’t work for companies quite as forward thinking (or as richly resourced) as Google. But it’s not just corporate policy that prevents us from taking breaks and goofing off. It’s our own mistaken notions about the best ways to wring the most from our busy days and our addled brains.

For the most part, we think of off-task idleness and play as indulgences or distractions from what we “should” be doing. These apparently low-productivity pursuits can yield surprisingly pragmatic benefits, though, helping us become more effective thinkers, more productive workers, and healthier, happier, more resilient individuals. All of which means that pursuing random moments of “unproductive” time might be a lot more productive than you think.

Making Space for Monkey Business

Even for those of us who really enjoy what we do for a living, our jobs are first and foremost about getting work done — and done well. That’s why we often relegate what we see as less productive pursuits (say, staring out the window, sharing laughs with a coworker or showing around pictures of our kids in their Halloween costumes) to the back burner.

Even at home, it seems we’re forever on a mission — to stay on top of the laundry, the kids’ extracurricular activities, the bills. It can keep a person running 24/7, making it feel nearly impossible to find time for purely enjoyable or relaxing engagements.

“Lots of individuals have that sense of eternal responsibility. They feel bound to the demands of work and the pressure to pay for their mortgage, their car, their kids in college,” says Stuart Brown, MD, a psychiatrist in Carmel Valley, Calif., and coauthor of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (Avery Trade, 2010). “The American way — starting with the dualism of good and bad in Judeo-Christian tradition, the survival demands of a frontier society, the grinding workload fostered by the industrial revolution — has not always prioritized the experience of playfulness. And that’s a huge loss.”

It’s a loss, in part, because of the key ways in which downtime and self-renewing activities can help us upgrade our overall levels of happiness, creativity and mental clarity. It’s a loss, too, because when emphasis on productivity is unrelenting, we experience diminishing returns that truly diminish us: Accumulated stress spills over into all areas of our lives, lowering our overall happiness, robbing us of pleasure, and adversely diminishing both our health and personal effectiveness.

It’s for this reason that Stephen Covey, the late author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press, 2004), dedicated the seventh of his famed Seven Habits to “sharpening the saw,” insisting that only a consistent, continuous dedication to self-renewal (rest, play, exercise, personal exploration) can empower an individual to maintain the sharp mental and physical edge necessary to properly execute the other six habits.

“Without this renewal,” wrote Covey, “the body becomes weak, the mind mechanical, the emotions raw, the spirit insensitive, and the person selfish.” You can renew and better yourself through appropriate rest and relaxation, he notes, “or you can totally burn yourself out by overdoing everything.”

So how does one begin to build more self-renewing breaks and amusements into everyday life? And what benefits can one expect from investing a little more energy in simply powering down, chilling out, and even goofing around now and then? The answers are nestled right between your ears.

In Praise of Idleness

Most of us have been led to believe that the off-task brain is a little like an idling engine — puttering along at rest until given a specific task to accomplish or a problem to focus on. But research involving the use of PET and MRI imaging technologies suggests that, in fact, our brains maintain an almost constant level of activity, even when we appear to be doing nothing.

According to Marcus Raichle, MD, a neurologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, a number of interconnecting brain regions kick into a sort of neurological and metabolic hyperdrive whenever given a break from tasks that require more-directed, highly focused attention. You can see it on a PET scan: The same areas of the brain that light up when subjects allow their minds to wander from a problem or focused task promptly dim whenever they are asked to actively concentrate on something. And when those mind-wandering areas are active, they gobble glucose at an astonishing rate.

Based on the fact that the brain diverts attention from its demanding “downtime” activities only when called upon to divert blood, oxygen and glucose for more urgent purposes, Raichle and other brain researchers are concluding that whatever the brain is doing while apparently doing nothing may actually be profoundly important.

In a 2001 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Raichle and his colleague Gordon Shulman, PhD, identified the cluster of regions in which this activity occurred, including the medial prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and posterior cingulate, which represent an arch through the midline of the brain. They dubbed these areas the “default network” and have continued to focus research efforts on precisely how the network operates — and for what purpose — ever since.

What’s clear so far is that the default network utilizes strong connections with the parts of our brains that process executive (decision-making) functions, memories, and content we deem to be of emotional significance or significant to our self-interest. And when active, parts of the network devour 30 percent more caloric energy (in the form of glucose) than nearly any other parts of the brain, suggesting that when it’s working, it’s working very hard indeed.

Precisely what it’s working on is the subject of ongoing research. Raichle and many of his fellow researchers hypothesize that the default network is responsible for processing the memories, observations and other random unsorted bits of material we’ve got floating around in our knowledge banks at any given time, potentially for the purposes of linking them or assessing their potential significance to our present and future circumstances
and decisions.

It may be that the default network is burning though glucose, in part, to create the amino acids and neurotransmitters it requires to build and maintain new synaptic circuits.

The act of daydreaming, in particular, seems to send the default network into action, and researchers now suspect this much-maligned activity may be one of the prime tools the brain employs in sorting and making sense of the chaotic bits and bytes we take in daily. In other words, giving your conscious mind a break now and then — not keeping it constantly focused on important matters — may be among the best ways to invite insights, ideas and solutions.

The Eureka Factor

You’ve probably heard plenty of people acknowledge that they get their best ideas in the shower. And you’ve no doubt heard the rumored story of Archimedes, who shouted his now-legendary “Eureka!” when he stepped into the bath, saw his bathwater rise and suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he’d submerged, abruptly intuiting the answer to what had previously been an intractable mathematical problem.

There’s a reason so much genius has occurred in bathrooms, according to cognitive neuroscientist Mark Jung-Beeman, PhD, and it’s the same reason we often get great ideas while puttering in the garden, getting a facial, taking a walk or just waking up from a nap: Because these are precisely the types of circumstances in which we’re not trying to come up with genius ideas, or really any ideas at all. The body is relatively relaxed; the brain is being allowed to do whatever it likes, its circuits freed up for whatever associations and information-shuttling activities it deems worthwhile. And it’s those random associations that seem key both to large-scale breakthroughs and handy “aha!” moments.

Jung-Beeman, a researcher at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., has made a career of mapping the brain circuits involved in moments of spontaneous insight. And he has found that while the brain lays much of the groundwork for insight by expending focused attention on a particular problem, certain parts of the brain must actually relax and be allowed to wander a bit for the necessary connections and associations (most of which are churned up by the more loosely organized right hemisphere) to be made.

In studies of subjects attempting to solve complex puzzles, psychologist Joy Bhattacharya, PhD, a researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London, has been able to use electroencephalography (EEG) to successfully predict moments of insight up to eight seconds before the insights occur. He’s found that one key predictive indicator of an upcoming “aha!” is the presence of alpha waves (a brain-wave pattern associated with relaxation) emanating from the right hemisphere of the brain. Such activity makes the mind more receptive to new and unusual ideas, Bhattacharya suggests.

This explains, perhaps, why big-idea guys like Albert Einstein and mathematician Henri Poincaré have credited their best insights to the unconscious work their minds did while they were taking a break from what they ostensibly did best.

The upshot? Beyond a certain point, sitting for hours at your desk and working harder and longer to solve that problem or come up with that big idea may actually work against you. And that “certain point” may be mere minutes from now.

Respect Your Ultradian Rhythms 

Just as your body keeps pace with circadian rhythms (patterns related to 24-hour, night-and-day cycles), it also responds to ultradian rhythms — patterns that occur many times throughout the day. One of the most important of those rhythms regulates natural fluctuations of activity and rest, exertion and recovery.

According to psychobiology researcher Ernest Rossi, PhD, a leading expert on ultradian rhythms and how they affect human biology, people are programmed to want to take a 20-minute break after every 90 minutes of intense focus or activity. And it’s not just that we want a break, says Rossi, we actually need one if we hope to operate at peak effectiveness and efficiency.

This is true right down to the cellular level. During an active phase, a cell extracts energy from adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, changing it to adenosine diphosphate, or ADP. During rest, the cell uses oxygen and blood glucose to change the ADP back to ATP — the stuff our bodies use for energy.

During periods of focused mental or physical activity, explains Rossi, the body gradually runs through its available stores of a variety of the energetic and chemical compounds that allow us to think clearly. It then starts accumulating stress-related chemicals and byproducts that increasingly interfere with our physical coordination and thought processes. Typically, this buildup occurs over the course of 90 to 120 minutes, and may manifest as brain fog, distractibility, irritability or fatigue.

Take a 20-minute break when you begin to feel your energy or mood fading, suggests Rossi, and your body will automatically use the downtime to clear away metabolic wastes and replenish energetic stores, allowing you to quickly reclaim peak energy and effectiveness levels. You can return to your work refreshed and enjoy another 90- to 120-minute period of mental quickness and clarity.

Keep on taking breaks every hour and a half or so, and you’ll continue to enjoy these peak cycles of creativity, energy and insight. If, on the contrary, you avoid breaks and continue slogging along in your depleted state, you’re likely to become increasingly ineffective, frustrated and stressed out.

Ignore your ultradian rhythms long enough, and you’ll be well on your way to what Rossi calls Ultradian Stress Syndrome, which can lower your immunity and seriously diminish your ability to accomplish anything at all.

In his book The 20 Minute Break (Tarcher, 1991), Rossi describes the resting process as a “stress conversion” opportunity, noting that, far from being just a feel-good indulgence, it’s the most important thing you can do to make optimal use of the energy and attention you’re putting in throughout the day.

When we resist nature’s calls to take breaks, Rossi warns, we miss out on one of the best return-on-investment opportunities our bodies and minds have to offer. We also set ourselves up for greater disease and depression risks.

Professional effectiveness expert Jim Loehr, PhD, coauthor of The Power of Full Engagement (Free Press, 2004), agrees. “The shifts of energy we experience are tied to the ultradian rhythms that regulate physiological markers of alertness at 90- to 120-minute intervals,” he writes. “Unfortunately, many of us override these naturally occurring rhythms to the point that they no longer even penetrate conscious awareness. The demands of our everyday lives are so intense and so consuming that they distract our attention from the subtler internal signals telling us that we need recovery.”

Loehr, like Rossi, strongly advocates for naps, healthy snacks, exercise breaks, mind shifts, social time and rejuvenating amusements throughout the day, all of which can help us make the best of our bodies’ and brains’ natural patterns and fluctuations.

“The number of hours in a day is fixed,” he points out, “but the quantity and quality of energy available to us is not. This fundamental insight has the power to revolutionize the way you live.”

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Time-Out Tips

Now that you know how important idleness, relaxation and moments of enjoyment are to your personal effectiveness, here are some proven ways to build more of all of the above into your life.

Cut Yourself Some Slack
Rather than always trying to pack more into your days, start projects early and generously enough that you can afford to schedule ample downtime between focused work sessions. If you are given to procrastination, try scheduling some mini “get-started” sessions that last only 30 minutes or so, rather than repeatedly telling yourself you’ll start later and then attempt to finish a big job in one marathon session. Studies suggest that after 90 minutes of focused effort, your ability to think clearly diminishes, and you become far more likely to become distracted or make mistakes.

Shift Gears, Don’t Grind Them
When you notice your attention drifting or your energy waning, instead of seeing it as a problem and fighting it, consider it an opportunity and invitation to capture some high-value restorative and brain-ordering synaptic activity. By putting your work down for 15 to 20 minutes — whether you choose to stare out the window, play ping pong, sort vacation photos or engage in some water-cooler joshing around — you’ll be giving your body and brain a chance to complete essential behind-the-scenes activities that prepare you to return to work with more capacity, creativity and gusto. Even switching work tasks (from writing a report to doing your filing or making some phone calls, for example), may provide enough mental relief to let you return to your more challenging task somewhat refreshed.

Seize the Moment
There’s some real wisdom in the age-old advice to “stop and smell the roses.” Pleasure triggers a “go” signal in the body, activating reward centers in our brains and releasing feel-good chemicals into our bloodstream that can make us more energized and effective. (For more on that, search for “A Real Pleasure.") The trick is to notice pleasure, enjoyment and fun as it’s happening. Hear your favorite song on the radio? Turn it up and dance. Hear a group of coworkers laughing in the hallway? Go join them. Tuning in to and actively basking in enjoyment that just happens — even if it means taking a break from some more “productive” task — is the best way to experience it more profoundly, and more often. Savoring such small infusions of pleasure helps bolster creativity and productivity, suggests social psychologist Sonya Lyubomirsky, PhD. So make a point of actively seeking out and experiencing some moments of pleasure every day.

Reach Out
Performing random acts of kindness is a great way to shift your energy, experience a surge of pleasure — and harvest the biochemical benefits. Studies done at the University of Michigan provide evidence for a phenomenon known as the “helpers’ high,” in which your body releases a variety of feel-good endorphins into your bloodstream and brain, bringing on mild euphoria, relieving stress and pain, boosting immunity, and possibly even helping to lower blood pressure.

So hold doors open for people, allow merging traffic to merge, offer to help someone with a heavy box — even if it slows you down a little. Just taking the time to pay someone an authentic compliment or express appreciation can give you a day-boosting surge of enjoyment and energy.

Get High on Exercise
Building bouts of activity into your day is a great way to keep your energy high. Even moderate exercise has been linked to production of the neurotransmitters involved in an upbeat mood and emotional balance: dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. “As we exercise, brain cells are pushed to release more neurotransmitters — so they act like Prozac and Ritalin at just the right dose,” explains Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, MD, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown and Company, 2008).

The latest documented benefit of exercise is what Ratey calls the marijuana factor. “Physical exertion stimulates endocannabinoids, our body’s own internal marijuana,” he says. “One of the areas marijuana attaches to is the reward and pleasure centers — and our natural version is released whenever we stretch and strain.” With the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, these natural pleasure molecules are released into the brain itself. New studies, says Ratey, also show that exercise stimulates brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF, a synapse-building protein that he describes as being “like Miracle-Gro for the brain.”

So consider taking regular breaks during your workday to walk briskly outside, run a few flights of stairs, or do a set or two of pushups in your office. (For more tips on incorporating movement into your daily schedule, search for “Workday Workouts.") Or schedule a massage, a facial or bodywork during your midafternoon slump. Your body will repay you with high-value energy that might otherwise have been frittered away.

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