Study Shows Breaks are Better

taking a break Next time your boss -- or your mother -- tells you to "Stay focused!" you can cite the results of a recent survey that says breaks are not only helpful, but essential in keeping you productive and on task. The study, covered in the journal Cognition, overturns a decades-old theory about the nature of attention and shows that even brief diversions can dramatically improve your ability to focus on a task for prolonged periods.

Loss of focus

The study zeroes in on a phenomenon known to anyone who's ever had trouble doing the same task for a long time: After a bout of intense focus and concentration on a specific task, you begin to lose your focus and your performance declines.

According to University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, who led the study, "You start performing poorly on a task because you've stopped paying attention to it." "But you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem."

Lleras had noticed that a similar phenomenon occurs in sensory perception: The brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. For example, most people are not aware of the sensation of clothing touching their skin. The body becomes "habituated" to the feeling and the stimulus no longer registers in any meaningful way in the brain.

"Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness," Lleras said. "So I thought, well, if there's some kind of analogy about the ways the brain fundamentally processes information, things that are true for sensations ought to be true for thoughts. If sustained attention to a sensation makes that sensation vanish from our awareness, sustained attention to a thought should also lead to that thought's disappearance from our mind!"

The benefit of change

In the study, Lleras and postdoctoral fellow Atsunori Ariga tested participants' ability to focus on a repetitive computerized task for about an hour under various conditions. Some were given very brief distractions, and others were told to focus without a break.

As expected, most participants' performance declined significantly over the course of a task. But simply having them take two brief breaks from their main task allowed them to stay focused during the entire experiment.

This study is consistent with the idea that the brain is built to detect and respond to change, Lleras said, and suggests that prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance.

"We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused," he said. "From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!"

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