How Breaks Change Our Brain for the Better


When I was in 5th grade, I was determined to break the Haude Elementary school record in the mile. I knew I had to train to do it. So I set out to train by doing the only thing that made logical sense to my 10-year-old brain: run an all-out mile every day. Predictably, my attempt to follow that training regime failed miserably. After a single day of running an all-out mile, I decided that training was extremely painful and not that much fun. The school record would not be broken. I’d go back to playing soccer.

What I didn’t know at the time was something that is obvious to just about anyone: you don’t train by going all out every day. You split things up: add in some rest, breaking the work into interval; all so that you can sustain the quality needed to adapt and grow.

We accept this principle in our athletic lives. We resist it in our intellectual ones. As Brad and I outlined in Peak Performance, rest is an integral part of growth. As we collectively spent the last year sitting through Zoom meeting after meeting, it’s easy to brush off the need for rest during the day. After all, you are staring at a computer screen. But fatigue is real, as anyone who has found their mind wandering and unable to pay attention to whatever virtual person is talking about can tell you. A recent study by the Microsoft Factors Lab adds some intriguing science to explain what’s going on and why breaks are a necessary part of the day, even when it comes to combating “zoom fatigue.”

On two separate Mondays, Microsoft had individuals attend four different 30-minute video meetings. On one day, they occurred back to back with minimal transition time in between. On the other, they got a 10-minute break between each, in which they were instructed to use the mindfulness app Headspace. All the while, they were wearing an EEG cap to measure the electrical signals jumping around in their brain.

When the workers had back-to-back meetings, the brain waves associated with stress (beta waves) steadily increased from beginning to end. Not only were they feeling more stressed as the workday went along, the brain areas related to focus and engagement (frontal alpha) plummeted. Over the course of the four meetings, they were losing steam.

Like the athlete who tries to run all out all the time without any breaks, fatigue was winning the day.

When the workers had a brief 10-minute break between meetings, however, their brains changed. The stressful beta waves remained at a relatively low level throughout the experiment, thanks in large part to the break period. It acted as a sort of reset, bringing the brain’s stress levels back down to baseline before going into the next working session. In addition, the participants frontal alpha levels increased thanks to the mindfulness breaks. They were able to sustain their focus, being engaged in whatever work they were doing.

They were like the athletes performing interval training. Only in this case, instead of waiting for physical restoration, they were performing better because of mental restoration. The breaks allow for a mental reset, decreasing stress and increasing our ability to focus.

Too often in the workplace, we see breaks as negative. Something that pulls us away from doing the work and being productive. But that’s akin to the mindset that 10-year-old me took to training for the mile. At some point, we realize that there are much better and more efficient ways to get the job done. In athletics, you learn this lesson pretty quickly. In work life, we are a bit more stubborn. Breaks are a good thing, embrace them.

— Steve

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