How doing nothing can help you reach your academic goals.
As a student, professor, or researcher it’s a given that you need to work hard. There’s always another paper to write, another grant proposal to finish, new results to analyze. And as you progress in your academic career, the responsibilities accumulate more and more. Teaching, advising students, and serving on committees all leave little time for writing.
If you’re a professor or graduate student who has fallen behind on your personal projects, it can be tempting to decide that you’ll use some of your upcoming time off during the semester break to catch up. Or during the semester you might decide to use your evenings and weekends for writing.
As I’m sure you already know, this isn’t the way you should operate long-term. Constantly working without breaks is a recipe for burnout, and it can harm your relationships and health. But even if that doesn’t convince you, maybe this will: there is a growing body of evidence that shows that taking breaks can actually improve your academic work: breaks can improve your thinking and lead to Eureka moments and they can improve your long-term retention of material. In this blog post, we’ll look at all the different ways breaks can help, the science behind them, and how you can use them most effectively.
Breaks for increasing focus
We’ve written about focus before in a previous blog post. For those of us that are easily distracted by our smartphones, one thing that can help to build focus is to use the Pomodoro® method in which you alternate between short periods of intense focus on the task at hand and short breaks. After a series of four of these sessions, you can then take a longer break. One of the reasons the method is so successful is precisely because of the breaks that are built in. If you try to stay focused for a long period of time, for example, while cramming for a test, you’ll often find that your mind will start to wander. If you instead make time for quick breaks, this will give your brain a chance to recharge and then you can give renewed attention to your next task.
Working in Citavi? Use our TomatoTimer add-on to remind you when it’s time to take a break.
Pomodoros are great if you’re trying to get started on a task or gain some momentum, but to get a lot of work done and get into a flow state, large blocks of time are best. Here too, breaks are key to success. Many promotors of this method, recommend scheduling sessions of 90 minutes followed by a longer break. The reason? Our days are naturally made up of rest-activity cycles of 90 minutes.
Breaks for long-term learning – spaced repetition
If you’ve ever successfully crammed for a test, you know that the intense review the day before can cause the material to be fresh in your mind the next day. However, what about if you still need to know the material a couple weeks later? Research shows that cramming is not a good learning strategy for long-term retention of information. For the brain to make strong connections, it needs information to be recalled many different times, ideally on different days. This is why one effective learning strategy, especially for any type of information you need to memorize, such as foreign language vocabulary or dates, is spaced repetition. With spaced repetition, you review material over many different days in short sessions. Spaced repetition software, such as Anki, uses algorithms to show you material right as you might be on the verge of forgetting it.
In addition to breaks between study sessions, your brain also needs extended breaks at night to create long-term memories. During deep REM sleep the brain clears out toxins and processes and stores new information. So, if you pull too many all-nighters in a row, your brain won’t be functioning at its best and you also will be less likely to retain information long term.
Breaks for new ideas
Most of us know that we can’t always think ourselves out of a difficult problem. There comes a point where getting up from your desk is the best option. In fact, getting away from the problem for a while often leads to new insights. There are countless stories of great thinkers, like Archimedes who had their Eureka moment in the bathtub or out on a walk.
Why is it so often the case that flashes of insight come when we’re busy doing something else? Well, many researchers think that it comes down to the way our brains work while we’re intensely focused on a problem. In this convergent thinking mode, your brain works in a linear way and is intent on solving the problem at hand. When you are busy doing something else that doesn’t require as much attention, your brain is in the divergent thinking mode or default mode. It’s more likely to jump from one thought to the next and connect disparate ideas. Your brain isn’t rigidly trying to find the “right” answer, so ideas you never would have thought of otherwise can arise.
How can you get yourself into this state? Any activity in which your mind can wander and there is not too much external stimuli is good. Cleaning, going for a walk in nature, gardening, taking a shower, doing exercise, all can help. Other ways to prompt divergent thinking in a way in which your brain is more active is by playing a game or using certain creativity techniques such as the Oblique Strategies technique we wrote about in this previous blog post.
Exercise breaks for healthier brains
Many studies show that exercise brings great benefits to the brain. For starters, exercise changes the structure of our brains, and people who exercise can even build new brain cells and have a more elastic brain than they would otherwise – welcome news for those of us who are no longer in our twenties. Exercise also helps with memory, energy, and mood. You don’t have to train for a marathon to reap the benefits, either; even short movement breaks once every thirty minutes can counteract the harmful effects of too much sitting.
Longer breaks for recharging
There have been many studies done on the link between workers taking vacation and increased productivity and performance. For example, one study of Ernst and Young employees found that those who took more vacations performed better than their peers. Even longer breaks, such as a sabbatical, have also shown to increase rejuvenation.
Longer breaks offer many more benefits as well: better health, stress reduction, and perhaps even better sleep. If you need some tips on how to ensure your vacations stay work-free, the blog post Don’t Spend Your Holiday Break Writing in the Chronicle can help.
Breaks for avoiding burnout
As a graduate student, I remember never having the feeling of being truly «off». There was always another reading I could be doing, another draft I could be starting, and I worked in the evenings and on the weekends to get everything done. When I did something fun in the evening, I often felt guilty that I wasn’t back at home working.
My first semester was the worst. I had signed up for four online summer courses, and since I didn’t know anyone yet in the city I had just moved to, I was working all the time. Luckily, I later made some friends and started socializing more, but looking back, it really seems like I was in the early stages of a burnout.
How do you recognize that you’re on the path to a burnout? The signs will be different for different people, but in general, if you on a long-term basis begin to cut out more and more of the rejuvenating activities from your life, such as socializing with friends or exercising, this is a big warning sign. When your mood then starts to change and you feel irritated by even small things, it’s time to act. The solution? Make more time for the things that balance you out and relieve stress (and yes, I know this isn’t always easy when there are deadlines looming or during a pandemic when socializing is more difficult). If you’re already further down in the burnout funnel, seek out help from a professional.
We hope that these tips will help convince you of the importance of breaks, and we wish you some well-deserved restful and fun time off this holiday season