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Are your breaks working?

Learn the best things to do when you hit the pause button whilst at work

In a previous post, I shared how taking a break can lead to creative breakthroughs, help us make sense of something and improve decision-making. However, it isn’t just taking a break that is important but what you do when you press the pause button. It all comes down to knowing which part of your brain needs a break and what activities restore it.

When you are doing work that requires analysis, concentration and reasoning, you are using the thinking part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC). As well as cognitive processing, the PFC also keeps you on task by continually checking you’re focused on your goal and ignoring distractions.

When you take a break, it is this part of your brain you need to rest.

Give the thinking part of the brain a rest

This means what you choose to do should be something that does not involve the PFC. In other words something that does not require too much attention.

Helpfully we are so designed that if we do something repeatedly, eventually we can do it with little conscious effort. At such times other regions of the brain are switched on, collectively termed the default mode network (DMN) and the PFC takes a back seat.

How to give the brain a break

Think back to those Aha! moments you’ve had, those times when answers appeared to come from nowhere. They are likely to have occurred when you were effectively operating on autopilot, doing something that required minimum conscious input. At such times the mind is “off task”.

If you are at home such activities might be showering, cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, washing up, eating, gardening etc.

Granted if you are at your place of work your options are more limited but there are still activities you can do that are proven to give the PFC a restorative break and so boost brain function.

Here are my top three recommendations:

1. Go for a walk

Going for a walk is something we may be naturally inclined to do when we are dwelling on something or stuck on how to solve an issue. Doing so engages the DMN, as once we have mastered walking we no longer need to concentrate to do it.

A recognised benefit from walking is that it improves creative thinking. A Stanford study (1) found that when people tackled mental tasks that required imagination rather than rational thought, walking led to more creative thinking than sitting did. In fact, across four experiments, 81% - 100% of participants produced more creative ideas while walking, as compared to sitting.

What’s more, when those who had walked sat down afterward, the creativity boost lingered.

But take your time and certainly don’t take the issue with you as both come at a cost. A study by the University of Illinois (2) found that the brain prioritises complex cognitive tasks requiring greater attention and processing over walking. This means bringing that tricky problem with you is likely to leave you standing, cancelling out the any of the benefits associated with walking.

And let’s not forget that office workers tend to be desk bound (even if it’s at a standing one). Walking is good for heart-health too.

2. Spend time in nature

Many of us feel that spending time in nature is good for our well-being. Whilst speculation continues as to why this is so, eco-psychology studies (3,4) continue to demonstrate that spending time in natural environments restores our cognitive functioning in ways that urban environments don’t, confirming our suspicions.

The assault on the senses of the city (traffic noise, neon signs, crowds) together with needing to pay attention to cross roads means we don’t get to give our cognitive function a break.

Although natural environments are also filled with stimuli we can choose to engage or not. This allows the DMN to switch on giving our focusing and thinking abilities a chance to recharge.

If you want another reason for going to the park or other quiet place on your break, the Stanford study mentioned earlier (1) found that walking outside produced the most novel and highest quality creative thinking.

3. Leave your smartphone alone

With 75% of adults in advanced economies owning one (5), the smartphone is becoming our new best friend. It accompanies us in everything we do as seen in the viral I forgot my phone video.

As well as using it for practical reasons such as finding our way, taking photos or storing contact numbers, we are also turning to it for emotional support such as when we feel alone, bored or nervous (6,7).  However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that having one comes at a cost beyond that of the purchase.

As smart as it may be, allowing us to browse the Internet and run any number of personally selected apps, it is causing us to be less able to sustain attention (8), to remember things and dare I say, to become addicted to it (9) – even when we aren’t touching it (10)!

Not to mention distracted when one goes off in our vicinity (11) and the associated 10 IQ point cost to our IQ even if we ignore a notification (the same is true with emails) (12).

In short, smartphones are known to be having an impact on the brain’s structure, development and functioning (13).

Luckily for us, the issue is self-made which means we can change its effects.

Leaving it alone during your break is a step in the right direction.


When under pressure we tend to view self-care activities as luxury indulgences, preferring to save them as a reward for getting the job done.  

Yet it is precisely at times when we are battling to deliver something that we benefit most from taking a break.

Take care of you.


1. Oppezzo M and Schwartz DL. (2014) Give your ideas some legs: the positive effect of walking on creative thinking. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2014 Jul;40(4):1142-52.

2. Patel et al. (2013) Effect of type of cognitive task and walking speed on cognitive-motor interference during dual-task walking. Journal of Neuroscience. 2014 Feb 28;260:140-8.

3. Berman et al. (2009). The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature. Psychological science. 19. 1207-12.

6. Pielot et al., When attention is not scarce - detecting boredom from mobile phone usage UbiComp '15 Proceedings of the 2015 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing Pages 10.1145/2750858.2804252

7. Matic et al., Boredom-computer interaction: boredom proneness and the use of smartphone. UbiComp '15 Proceedings of the 2015 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing 10.1145/2750858.2807530

8. Thornton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., & Rollins, E. (2014). The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting: Implications for attention and task performance. Social Psychology, 45(6), 479-488.

9. Oulasvirta, A., Rattenbury, T., Ma, L. et al. (2012). Habits make smartphone use more pervasive Pers Ubiquit Comput (2012) 16:105.

10. Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos (2017) Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity

Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2017 2:2, 140-154

11. Stothart, Cary, Mitchum, Ainsley and Courtney Yehnert. (2015) The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2015 Aug; 41(4):893-897.

12. New Scientist. (2005) Info-mania dents iq more than marijuana. New Scientist, London

13. Firth, J. , Torous, J. , Stubbs, B. , Firth, J. A., Steiner, G. Z., Smith, L. , Alvarez‐Jimenez, M. , Gleeson, J. , Vancampfort, D. , Armitage, C. J. and Sarris, J. (2019), The “online brain”: how the Internet may be changing our cognition. World Psychiatry, 18: 119-129.


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