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Give your brain a break

So we head into autumn. Summer holidays are a distant memory and Zoom Doom Looms! Tempting though it is to work through time we used to commute, chat or get to meetings, we thought we’d do a Jennifer Anniston and share ‘the science bit’ behind taking a break.

As more people are dying globally through work-related illnesses than malaria, if we continue to glorify long hours, we will struggle to keep ourselves and our organisations at optimum performance. Many of my clients leave one meeting just to jump on to another these days. That never would have happened before the pandemic without a stop at the coffee machine or a walk to another office, and our brains need a break!

But what constitutes taking a break? Simply put, it is doing nothing that engages the prefrontal cortex. This means not looking at social media or engaging in another task (a distinction many fail to make). When a person takes a break, they are disengaging their prefrontal cortex. The PFC is generally accepted to control higher cognitive functions including impulses, attention, logical thinking, and decision making. As the PFC is fully engaged for longer periods of time, these functions can deteriorate. For example, decision fatigue- as identified in a study by Shai Danziger et al- found that judges were more lenient with granting parole when they had just taken a break. Looking at over 1000 rulings, they found that the likelihood of a favourable ruling peaked at the beginning of the day, with a steady decline over the day from a probability of about 65% to nearly zero, before spiking back up to about 65% after a break. A key study to remember if you are having back-to-back meetings or interviews.

Sometimes, we consider admin and online networking as a non-work activity and therefore find checking emails or social media during a break acceptable. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that whilst continuing to use IT your PFC is still engaged and as the functions deteriorate, so will your performance.

Ultradian Rhythm image from www.accurateexpressions.com.au

“Power through” is a message we all hear from time to time but studies have shown that our bodies have a type of clock, known as The Ultradian Rhythm. We have heard of sleep cycles and this is very similar, continuing through the day also. Meetings that endure for longer than 90 minutes without a break and back to back Zoom meetings go against our body’s natural need to heal. If we take notice of our cycles we can get optimum performance without burnout!
Working from home has meant it is far easier to take a break without worrying about what you are doing in it. If you must fold washing or undertake a household task, do it mindfully and without I.T interference. I often nip upstairs or to my hammock and take 10 minutes (setting my alarm is a must!) to close my eyes and let my body completely shut down for a while. It makes such a difference to my productivity afterwards.

It’s old news that we are replacing daily commutes with extra hours of work and much of the time it may feel like we don’t have a choice. We always have a choice.

An example of my own brain breaks!

Making sure that you or those who can access your diary, ensure you get breaks in between sessions will make such a difference to your performance. Would you want coaching from someone who hadn’t had a break?