How long can you focus on your work? Researching this question was rough. Headlines like “You have a shorter attention span than a goldfish!” filled whole Google search pages, playing on the myth that goldfish have a short memory. The headlines are reporting on a survey, but it’s not very scientific or reliable, and besides, short term attention span is not what I’m interested in.
The fact is that we often reach the end of an 8 hour day feeling drained and not productive. Whenever I try to work on a project without taking a break, I wind up wanting to quit after about an hour, and then struggle to get back to the task at hand. I always feel like I can’t move or think, and feel like my eyelids weigh 25 pounds each.
I’ve heard about the idea of taking frequent breaks anecdotally, but it turns out there is research to back it up. Science Daily reported back in 2011 that “brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one's ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.” The article notes that a brain starts to tune out work when it’s all that we focus on, similar to how your brain filters out the touch sensation of your clothes on your body or ambient noise in your office. It’s always present, so, your brain concludes, it’s something it should ignore. I’m a big fan of this idea. It makes so much sense that part of why I feel so drained and achey at the end of a long day is because of a brain that is forced to focus on something it desperately wants to filter out.
It seems science has spoken: We need to break up our day. In a similar vein to last weeks blog about Backing Up Your Memory, personally, I need something external to force me to take a break. I’ve read about using timers in order to outsource time management, so recently I’ve been setting a timer for 20 minutes and forcing myself to take a 5-10 minute break every time it beeps. I think the amount of time you work can be any amount of time, by the way, I just picked 20 minutes out of the blue, but for me, it must be under an hour. I usually try to do something physical, like actually getting up from my desk and walking around or doing a few pushups. This is similar to the reminders programmed into the Apple Watch to remind you to stand up, but this is specifically to remind me not to work so hard.
I’ve even found accidental success breaking up my day by doing having something in the background that requires my attention every half an hour or so. Cooking accomplishes that. Baking chicken requires me to flip it every 20 minutes, and same with soups and noodle and slow cooker recipes. Listening to records works too. I can listen to one side of a record and take a quick 5 minute break when I have to flip to side 2. I like this strategy because I actually have a task to do every 20-30 minutes.
Our brains weren’t designed for 8 hours of productivity. It doesn’t matter how good you are at your job; at some point you’re going to have to stand up and take a breather. Try breaking up the day with different strategies. I picked 20 minutes and a timer because I need something forcing me to take a break, but for you it could be 40 minutes and a mandatory coffee break or a walk. Try a few different strategies and see what works for you!
Even after just a week of using timers to specify break times, I feel a lot more productive and mentally present. How do you break up your day? How often do you take a break? What do you do on break time? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter! We love to hear what you Professional Geeks are up to!