Deep work requires deep breaks

Written on 
January 9, 2020

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We’ve hammered the point pretty hard by now – deep work is the key to unlocking your peak productive performance. But anyone who’s tried it will know that deep work gets pretty intense. Focusing for hours at a time on a cognitively complex task without relief is a sure route to burnout. And yet, the wrong approach to rest can return us to our work with new stresses and tasks playing on our mind. Enter deep breaks: short, productive bursts of rest which enable us to sustain deep work for whole days at a time.

The danger of powering through

As beneficial as deep work undoubtedly is, our attention is a limited capacity resource. We can only concentrate on a task for a finite amount of time (usually an hour or two at most) before we exhaust it. So to get the most out of deep work, we need to take cognitive breathers.

When we don’t take breaks, our brains stutter. They simply can’t process the information we receive – and in fact, a study involving 1,700 office workers found that half of all people surveyed admitted to reaching a point every day where they just couldn’t deal with any more information. But taking breaks when you’re in the midst of deep work sounds counterproductive – like a distraction in disguise. Isn’t the whole point of deep work to enter and reamin in an uninterrupted flow state for a prolonged stretch of time?

New studies suggest that short breaks can actually sustain deep work sessions in the long-run. Taking cognitive breathers for just a couple of minutes at a time can help ease your body and reboot your brain. A 2017 study found that surgeons who took two minute ‘microbreaks’ to stretch showed improved performance; and another study found that these microbreaks improved the focus of assembly line workers.

But there’s a catch – and it requires us to rethink how we approach rest itself.

What are deep breaks?

Put bluntly, not all breaks are created equal. Quickly checking the news can introduce a ton of attention residue that fractures your focus. Replying to an email can leave you stressed or anxious – especially if it refers to new tasks awaiting you. Checking social media can leave you annoyed. None of these breaks are helpful for getting back to work.

Deep breaks are a direct response to that – the practice of mentally disengaging with work in a way that prepares you to dive straight back into it. It gives your brain a chance to recharge without introducing stresses or new tasks which divert your attention away from your work.

A few deep break examples include:
  • Taking a short walk and focusing on your surroundings;
  • Taking motivational recaps to process what you’ve done, why you’re doing it and what you’ll do once you’ve finished;
  • Reading a short article of something unrelated to your deep work task;
  • Doing something practical you can contain, like completing a small chore or life admin.

Stanford University suggests regular toilet breaks, stretching, stopping to make a tea or coffee, or just simply strolling around your office. While these breaks might seem inconsequential, they can have an extremely positive productive impact. Aside from just improving psychological health, they can help improve physical health by reducing the injuries and soreness that comes from sitting at a desk all day.

How to take deep breaks

There isn’t a single description for what constitutes a deep break, and as with most things, one size rarely fits all. A minute’s break might be enough for you, while another person may need ten. There are only two ‘rules’ regarding these types of breaks, according to Sooyeol Kim, a doctoral student from the University of Illinois and an expert on microbreaks: they should always be short, and they should always be voluntary.

Georgetown professor and author of Deep work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport, has developed a more explicit framework for taking deep breaks. He believes deep breaks:

  • Should not turn your attention to something you can’t fulfil during your break
  • Should not involve anything that triggers self-distraction rituals (like cycling through a certain sequence of apps or websites)
  • Should not involve working on a task loosely related to your deep work task
  • Should not introduce anything that is stressful, complex or time consuming

He also cautions against taking deep breaks for longer than 15 minutes, unless it’s a “meal break” (a break you should never skip!). Luckily, if you’re someone who’s nailed the art of deep work and has no problem getting into the flow, then you’ll probably find it pretty easy to figure out what type of break is right for you. Within reason you can do whatever you want, as long as your break doesn’t result in you burning out or losing focus.

The best way to find out what deep break works best for you is simply to experiment. So have a play around! Get up and get active, tidy your desk or try practicing mindful meditation – whatever helps you recharge and pick up straight where you left off.

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