LA0 058: Want More Productivity? Take a Break!

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My mum would often tell me “all will be well in the morning.” For her, it was just experience and age-old wisdom.

All will be well in the morning

And things always were better in the morning.

Somehow, all the clutter and stress and worry, while, not gone altogether, was, at least more manageable.

As I slept, my brain was free to sort through the problem, process it entirely and put it in a suitable place close to a similar experience in memory. I had learned how to resolve whatever the issue was. More often than not, it didn't even need addressing anyway.

How taking a break improves future learning

It's akin to my mum's advice to “sleep on the problem” so that your memories can be reprocessed, consolidate and shaped for better (faster) retrieval. Taking a learning break gives your brain time and space to reprocess.

And now there's compelling new evidence from the University of Texas at Austin, recently published in the National Academy of Sciences
that supports the idea that study breaks improve later learning (or as I prefer to say: not completing learning 100%)

But how much is the right amount for studying and how long for a break?

I've been researching this for some time now and unsurprisingly; the results are inconclusive. However, there does appear to be a general reduction in the active learning time for younger people.

  • Typically, I have found that Baby Boomers study well and learn well over a 25 minute period of almost continuous study. That is; they needed a learning consolidation break at 25 minutes. Needing a 15-minute break.
  • Gen X'ers around 20 minutes. Needing an average 13-minute break)
  • Gen Y drops to about 12 minutes with a 6-minute break and then:
  • Gen iY (the iPad generation) around 4 minutes (yeap, just four minutes) with a 2-minute break.

All of this in non-academic learning situations, by the way. Tested for learning retention 24 hours after the learning event and 21 days later.

But within every group there was a range, and it would change for an individual dependent on the mode of learning. That is, was the learning in a form that they preferred (reading, video, audio, kinesthetic, etc.). Sadly (from an academic point of view) even so-called learning preferences wasn't a statistically significant factor.

Our brain needs a break

Keeping your heart beating, lungs filling, bowels emptying, brain working, feet moving, eyes open... it's exhausting. And then you want me to do something else?Keeping your heart beating, lungs filling, bowels emptying, brain working, feet moving, eyes open? it's exhausting. And then you want me to do something else?

When we take a break from learning, our brain can process all the information.

When we are learning anything, our pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is burning a lot of energy as we evaluate the information, process it and check it against working memory. Then the new information is processed, consolidated, and linked to appropriate other memories and emotions? but for this to be held in longer term memory, it appears that the PFC needs to be less active. Perhaps because the PFC is such an energy hog, and we simply need to switch our energy resources to consolidate memories (learn).

So can't we just take a pill and learn better and faster?

To a certain extent, we can!

  • Glucose and oxygen ? the fuel we need to burn to learn. (Caffeine can assist as well if recent research is correct.)

So taking a moment, munching on candy, taking deep breaths and sipping that cup of coffee all help us learn? oh, I've just described a break

And it's not just about learning

All this stuff about taking a break to improve learning is tremendously interesting, John, but I have a job to do that isn't learning.

And that's where we need to realise that our wonderful brains are continuously working hard and burning energy. For such a small part of our body, the brain weighing about 1.5kg, consumes 20-25% of our energy. I wish I could get my gut to burn that much and consume its own fat resources, but my brain is doing this just because I am awake.

A 10 minute break will make your next half an hour more productive. (Coffee optional)A 10 minute break will make your next half an hour more productive. (Coffee optional)

In fact, your brain, when you are not actively or consciously learning is still processing vast amounts of data. Most of that data is irrelevant to you in the moment and is filtered from coming near conscious processing. So just like most of your learning in school then :-)

Useful or not, data is being processed by your brain from everything that you see, smell, taste, touch, feel, and hear. Everything outside your body and inside it.

When you are busy and fully occupied, in the brain, this is conscious activity. that is, you are aware that you are busy. If you had to consciously think about breathing or digesting your breakfast as well, you would face immediate cognitive overload.

So give yourself a break. Whether you use a pomodoro technique or something else. Taking short breaks and allowing your brain to cool down for a moment will improve your productivity.

And those days when you are super stressed and really busy with so many demands, that is the time to choose to be at cause for how you live and work

Better still, as my dear mum would say, “sleep on it, all will be better in the morning.”

Check out this episode!

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