You’ve been at work for five hours straight. Your mind is wandering, your shoulders are slumped, and your eyelids are heavy. You know you need to get back on track. Surprisingly, your best strategy might be to slack off.
“If you run and don’t fuel your body, you eventually collapse,” says Karen Turner, the CEO of Calgary-based Turner Efficiency Coaching, a company that helps businesses improve employee productivity. “The same thing happens with work. If you don’t rest, you’ll crash.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but taking a break from the task at hand can jump-start your brain, boost your motivation and improve your focus. And as recent research shows, more inane distractions can have especially positive effects on your powers of concentration.
Take a nap
Most of us ditched our daily naps after preschool, but recent experiments suggest that was likely a mistake. Having a snooze—even one as short as 10 minutes—can improve alertness, memory and cognitive performance.
It might also help you organize your thoughts. In a study presented at a 2012 neuroscience conference, researchers at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., observed 15 people at rest. While subjects dozed, the right hemispheres of their brains—the area associated with creativity—were more active than the left hemispheres. Andrei Medvedev, a scientist involved with the study, speculates that this activity might indicate that the brain is doing some useful housecleaning during its downtime, like classifying data and consolidating memories.
Experts say that between noon and 4 p.m. is the ideal time for napping. Some recommend taking a “caffeine nap”—drinking a cup of coffee, then snoozing for 15 minutes or less. The combo can boost energy and leave you feeling sharper.
The power of cute
Scrolling through galleries of baby animals is good for the soul, but it might benefit your performance, too. In a 2012 study conducted at Japan’s Hiroshima University, subjects were asked to play a version of the board game Operation, which involves precise motor skills. During a short break, one group was shown photos of puppies and kittens, while the other viewed pictures of older animals.
When the groups resumed the game, participants who had viewed snaps of younger animals improved their scores by 34 per cent. Their counterparts showed only a nine per cent improvement. So the next time you encounter a slide show of the “15 Cutest Piglets Wearing Boots” online, consider clicking through as an investment in your mental acuity.
The funny article your friend posted on Facebook may seem like a waste of time, but taking a few minutes to check your social media feeds can help you focus. In 2009, researchers at Australia’s University of Melbourne found that workers who spent up to 20 per cent of their time during the day surfing the Internet were nine per cent more productive than peers who avoided cyberloafing altogether. However, this approach has its limits: productivity levels were shown to dip when subjects spent more than 20 per cent of their day online.
To maximize the effectiveness of mini browsing breaks, Brent Coker, the study’s lead researcher, suggests workers visit the sites that make them the happiest. “The more enjoyable the break, the better it was in terms of boosting productivity,” he says.
Coker also advises dividing your time into chunks. “After about 40 to 60 minutes, people’s attention starts to wane,” he says. “Work for that stretch, then set aside five to 10 minutes for a break.”
Let your mind wander
Because all brain activity burns glucose, even something as simple as multi-tasking can take a toll on your mental energy. You can help replenish those stores by taking a few moments to “reset” your brain. Daydreaming is one method—when you let your mind wander, you’re allowing it to cool down.
“You’re detaching from the cognitive demands of constantly switching between tasks,” says Vinod Menon, a professor at California’s Stanford University who discovered a brain network involved in daydreaming. Moderation is key. While daydreaming can be a great restorative tool, Menon says, it should be kept in check. Nevertheless, whether you’re planning dinner or musing about your next trip, it pays to temporarily have your head in the clouds.