Six ways to break off and boost your focus

Article3 mins16 February 2021By Amy Cooper

It’s all too easy to stay chained to your desk, but research shows that frequent mindful breaks make you more productive. Here’s how to build them into your day.

When did you last take a break from your desk? If you can’t quite remember, you’re not alone. Hours of uninterrupted work can easily stack up.

But while you might feel more productive by keeping your head down, a growing body of research has found the opposite is true. 

Taking regular ‘micro-breaks’, as little as 40 seconds long can raise your productivity and increase your overall wellbeing.

Studies in various countries and industries have consistently demonstrated the benefits of micro-breaks. A recent study of Finnish office workers found that taking regular breaks throughout the working day decreased exhaustion and increased energy - not just immediately, but also over the long term.

Research also reveals another key insight about taking short breaks: you have to really put your mind to it.

“We’re not designed for long-term focus. It consumes far too much of our brain’s precious mental energy.”

Dr Jenny Brockis Brain health specialist

A recent study of South Korean telemarketers found that micro-breaks were most restorative when participants disengaged completely from their work and focussed fully on something else, such as chatting, watching video clips, or walking outside.

Neuroscientists call this ‘psychological detachment’, and it’s essential to your brain’s optimal functioning. 

“Uncoupling from your focused work with a short break allows the mind to subconsciously consolidate all the information you’ve been working with,” says brain health specialist Dr Jenny Brockis. 

“We’re not designed for long-term focus,” she adds. “It consumes far too much of our brain’s precious mental energy.”

Even when resting, our grey cells consume a hefty 20 per cent of the body’s total energy, says Dr Brockis, so it’s no wonder we feel entirely drained after a long day’s cognitively demanding work. 

“The good news is that taking even a short break will restore attention, so you can continue your focused work better for longer,” she says.

Here are some ways to add mindful micro-breaks to your working day.

1. A green view

A University of Melbourne study showed that 40-second micro-breaks looking at photos of greenery boosted participants’ overall attention levels. Real-life green is even better, says Dr Brockis.

“Attention fatigue can be overcome in 40 seconds by looking out of the window onto a green vista. Having an office with greenery helps you manage your attention, increase creativity and problem solving, and simply feel better.”

2. Mini movements

Dr Brockis says getting outside for a short walk, to a park, or along a tree-lined street, will achieve the same thing. 

“This reduces cortisol so you’re less stressed, enhancing your mood and ability to concentrate.”

Movement helps deliver more nutrients to your brain, she adds, “so walk around the office, up and down stairs; go and grab a drink or snack. 

“If your work is mostly sedentary, even just standing up will get your muscles working.”

3. Just breathe

“This is about noticing how what you’re doing and experiencing is impacting your state of being,” says Dr Brockis. 

“If you’re aware of being very tense, this is the perfect time to do some gentle breathing exercises.”

She recommends ‘square breathing’ to slow your heart rate and brain activity: Breathe in slowly through your nose to the count of four, hold for four, exhale (though the mouth) for four and rest for four. Repeat. 

4. Make it mindful

“Mindfulness can be an informal practice,” says Dr Brockis. She advocates ‘mindful eating,’ where you focus all your senses on fully appreciating each mouthful. 

Even if you can't leave your desk for lunch, enjoying your food mindfully helps you switch focus from work.

Says Dr Brockis: “I’ve heard of workplaces with areas in the staff lunchroom for those who wish to have a mindful lunch break, savouring their food slowly.”

Equally, she says, a mindful walk, conversation or simply taking a moment to be fully present wherever you are can all provide that essential complete break.

5. Active listening

Chats to colleagues are one of the pleasures of office life – and everyone can reap the mindfulness benefits by actively listening.

“Zip the lip to speak less and listen more attentively,” says Dr Brockis. “It prevents verbal ping pong and allows us to assimilate what we’re being told, and to understand more fully. 

“And being comfortable with silence gives those with a quieter voice - the introverts and the deep thinkers - the space to speak up when ready.”

6. Make friends with meditation 

Brief meditation sessions can work major mindfulness magic. As little as three minutes can make a difference, says Dr Brockis.

“Sit quietly where you won’t be disturbed and focus on your breathing with your eyes closed. 

“It calms the mind, enhances mental clarity, hones attention, boosts that sense of wellbeing and helps you sleep better.”

She adds: “Some people like to sit in silence. Others prefer a guided meditation using an app such as Headspace or Calm. 

“It’s about what works for you.” 

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