The pace of life today is hectic. We all need to get a lot done, we are pulled in different directions, and for most of us, taking care of ourselves usually is the first to (temporarily) be sacrificed. We tell ourselves that just as soon as things slow down, and we have more time, we will make time to eat healthier, and get enough exercise and sleep. For now, it’s a steady diet of chips and caffeine and late nights.
Research shows us that counter-intuitively, taking the time to replenish ourselves actually helps us work at peak capacity, and make the best use of our study time. We need to take good care of our mind and body - because it impacts how we learn.
The brain needs energy to work on, and it also needs breaks to work efficiently. If we don’t give ourselves a break, it’s like a phone running on low battery - it will keep warning us that it is running low, and suddenly switch off, often at the worst possible moment. The same thing can happen with our minds. As we push ourselves, we get tired and cranky, and what was taking us 20 minutes before will take an hour. We stare at the page or the screen, but we are unable to focus properly. And we end up taking a break to do something like check emails or Facebook, because we are not able to focus properly.
This becomes a cycle - taking breaks and procrastinating, feeling guiltier about how little we got done, and telling ourselves that now we have to catch up. We see time linearly - there is so much work to do, so we need to spend a lot of time working. We see all time as equal.
But in actuality - when you're tired you can waste time by being much slower, not being able to focus. You can also get stressed out, which impacts your work further, causing more stress – a vicious cycle. We can try to pick ourselves up with caffeine or sugary snacks, but that's a short-term fix and doesn’t always do the trick. Taking breaks to play a videogame or surf online doesn’t help either because it’s not a real break, just a time filler, a lot like empty calories for the mind. I’m not suggesting you can never do those things, but they can’t substitute real renewal, like a bag of chips can't really substitute a healthy meal.
The Science Behind Breaks
Even though it seems counter-intuitive, even when and especially when, you're really busy and have a lot to get through, research shows that taking proper breaks and taking good care of our body and mind actually makes us far more productive.
When we put our attention to a problem or a chapter that we are reading, and try to understand it without getting distracted, we are focusing intently on the task. This is crucial to learning, and is the basis of most of the studying we do - writing up homework assignments, learning for a test. The more we focus, the more we imprint the material we are studying in our mind.
However, this mode uses up a lot of energy, and we can’t focus for long periods of time without a break. In many instances, we also find that we get stuck in the same thought processes, and continuing to focus on the task doesn’t really make a difference. Insights, like a different way to approach a physics problem or structure your paper, usually come when your mind is wandering, when you’re doing something completely unrelated to the task.
Taking Strategic Breaks
Switching from one task to the other can help to generate ideas, and so can taking a break - doing something completely different, maybe going for a walk, playing sports or even taking a nap. When our minds are doing something completely unrelated to the task that we need to get done, often we can get an insight into how all the pieces fit together, or we can understand something we were struggling with just before.
That's why when you're stuck on a problem, taking a break and doing something else, maybe working on some other subject, and then getting back to what you were doing - you may suddenly find it easier to tackle. Your brain has made some progress on the problem even while you were doing something else, and not consciously thought about it.
This is when you might need to take more and better quality breaks, do something that is going to really de-stress you (for me it is reading fiction by my favorite authors), and then you can get back to your work re-charged. It could be a short nap, or going for a walk, or a quick game of basketball with friends. Maybe going out with some friends to eat a healthy meal. Schedule some time for fun things that you love to do, that you can look forward to.
You might be thinking - but won’t all these breaks cut into my work? Not if you are strategic and a little disciplined about it. Put in some focused work while you are feeling fresh (whenever in your day that happens to be) and schedule your breaks for when you get tired. Start by working on difficult assignments like problem sets when you're feeling rested, and when you're tired or ready for a break, do the more mundane jobs like organizing your notes, or picking up books from the library. And strategically sprinkle your breaks in between your work sessions.
An old saying goes - "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". I’m not suggesting that you be a slacker, but don’t push yourself endlessly without quality breaks. Trust me, your mind and your work will thank you.
This is an edited excerpt from my book "Anyone Can Get An A+: How To Beat Procrastination, Reduce Stress and Improve Your Grades". It makes the perfect back-to-school purchase or gift. Click here to buy this book from your preferred retailer: books2read.com/anyonecangetana