Structured distraction: how to make the most of your breaks at work

If you went to a traditional school, chances are you were told to avoid distractions at all cost: keep your eyes on the teacher, take copious notes, don’t fidget on your chair, and don’t let your mind wander.

As adults, we have internalised this mantra and seek to be hyperfocused on our work. But our brains were not designed to sustain attention for long periods of time. We need to alternate between focus and distractions. Instead of forcing ourselves to work through fatigue and demotivation, we may as well take productive breaks.

Taking productive breaks may sound antithetic. Many people consider breaks as the opposite of work. However, we need breaks to be our most productive and creative. And, instead of waiting until our energy levels are too low, we can schedule these breaks to refuel our body and our mind: that’s the power of structured distraction.

Designed for distraction

Researchers from Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley conducted a study of spatial attention in primates. While you may imagine attention as a state that is sustained for a long time, and which may be interrupted by distraction, their findings show a different mechanism.

The scientists found that we constantly alternate between short bursts of attention and periods of distraction, during which we unconsciously pause and scan the environment to see whether there is something outside our primary focus of attention that may be more important.

For instance, you may have the feeling of continuously focusing on reading this article. But in reality, your attention is constantly zooming in and out, up to four times per second. While they may not be as crucial in our modern world, these attentional pulses have been key to our survival as a species.

“Think about when life was more dangerous. You would have to constantly be on the lookout, you would want to always be aware if there was something around you with bigger teeth,” explains Ian Fiebelkorn, one of the authors of the research paper.

The problem is that today’s environment is actually full of stimuli which may grab our attention during those periods of scanning our immediate surroundings. Next time you blame yourself for letting your mind wander or clicking on a notification while trying to do focused work, remember that it’s just your brain doing what it is supposed to do: be on the lookout for potential danger.

Knowing that being distracted is a natural state for our brain, how can we bring some structure to this natural rhythm?

The importance of taking breaks

When we are trying to get work done, it’s easy to convince ourselves that there is no time for breaks. Pushing through and staying in front of our laptop may in fact give us the illusion of productivity.

But research shows that taking breaks helps maintain performance during the day, and reduces the need for a long recovery at the end of the day. That’s because detaching from work helps maintain our energy levels and decreases the risk for exhaustion.

There are many additional benefits to taking breaks at work:

  • Restore motivation. It can be hard to stay motivated when working on a time-consuming task. Research suggests that even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve our ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods. “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 (…), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task,” explains Professor Alejandro Lleras.
  • Prevent decision fatigue. A famous study found that Israeli judges were more likely to grant parole to prisoners after a break than after they had been working for a long time. Decision fatigue may lead to simplistic reasoning and failing to consider the second-order consequences of our choices
  • Consolidate memories. As our brain uses breaks to ingrain what we previously learned, taking breaks can help us learn better. Research on structured distraction shows that mental downtime—not only sleep—helps consolidate memories.
  • Increase creativity. Have you ever noticed how we often have “Eureka” moments when doing something unrelated to a specific task? That’s why we call these “shower thoughts.” A research study from Stanford University showed that taking a break and going for a walk led to more creative thinking than sitting when people tried to tackle mental tasks that required imagination.
  • Improve well-being. Finally, taking breaks is good for your mental and physical health. Constant sitting is unhealthy; our bodies need to move. According to a study, standing up and walking around for five minutes every hour during the workday could lift your mood, reduce hunger pangs, and combat lethargy.

So what exactly can you do during your break, beyond the usual tea or coffee break? Good news: there are many options depending on how long of a break you need to take.

Activities for micro-breaks to longer breaks

Most people have one scheduled break every day: their lunch break. And many even skip that one, eating a sandwich at their desk. As a result, they feel tired during the afternoon. Instead of structured distraction, they fall prey to disruptive interferences. It doesn’t have to be this way.

How many breaks do we need a day?

There are lots of contradictory findings out there. In general, it seems that we need to take short breaks (5 to 10 minutes) every hour or so, and longer breaks (at least 30 minutes) every two to four hours. Which shows a lot of variance.

Structured distraction does not mean you should have a fixed schedule. Ultimately, you will have to experiment and track your energy levels to figure out what schedule works for you.

Whether you take a micro-break or a longer break, there are many activities you can do that will help refuel your energy stores.

Structured Distraction - The 5 types of breaks
  1. Movement breaks. Get up and move your body. If you have time, go for a walk. You could even go for a run, or use your break for a gym session. If you don’t have a lot of time, getting up and stretching your body or doing some jumping jacks. Short, intense exercise has been proven to have a very positive impact on both attention and short-term memory formation.
  2. Mental breaks. Do a short meditation or deep breathing session. Or just let your mind wander: scientists have found that daydreaming has a positive impact on cognition.
  3. Social breaks. We are social animals. Social breaks, such as chatting with your peers, show a positive association with feeling recovered after the break. Schedule some social breaks with a colleague or a friend.
  4. Nature breaks. Go outside to get some sunlight. If there’s a park nearby, even better. Studies show that nature has a positive impact on our mental health. You could also pet a dog if you have one handy. Research has shown that our oxytocin levels increase when gazing in a pet’s eyes. Oxytocin is often called the “cuddle drug” because it is released when two people are bonding emotionally. It’s an easy way to feel happy.
  5. Creative breaks. Draw, doodle, listen to some music. Listening to classical music in particular has been shown to help with relaxation. If you can’t leave your desk, creative breaks are an easy way to take your mind off work for a little while.

Whatever breaks you find most beneficial for your productivity, creativity, and mental health, the most important part is to schedule them: structured distraction is about not waiting until you are too tired to take a productive break.

Choose a couple of breaks—for instance, a micro-break every hour, and two larger breaks during the day—and put them in your calendar. For some of them, invite a colleague or a friend so you can use the time to catch up, brainstorm, and support each other.

If you need some inspiration for your breaks, download the Teeny Breaks extension, which features evidence-based activities to make the most of your breaks in each new browser tab.

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