By Adam Caton
Every college student is familiar with feeling fatigued and losing focus while working on homework or studying. Cognitive psychologists refer to the inevitable decrease in concentration while continuously engaging in an activity that requires sustained attention as “vigilance decrement.” The body of research on vigilance decrement shows that taking short breaks can increase concentration and reduce stress and fatigue (Ariga & Lleras, 2011). That being said, not all breaks provide the same benefits; how a break is spent influences its effectiveness.
In a 2011 study by Ariga and Lleras, participants were split into four groups: control, no-switch, switch, and digit-ignored, all of which performed a task requiring sustained attention for 40 minutes. Performance worsened over time for all groups other than the switch group, who intermittently took two-second breaks to identify whether a number was one of several they had memorized before starting the task. As a result, researchers concluded that briefly switching attention away from a task mitigates the loss of focus over time that they observed in the other groups. While a two-second break doesn’t have much practical application, these results suggest that short breaks from studying can help students regain focus.
So how does what we do during a study break influence our ability to focus when we get back to work? Helton and Russell (2016) theorized that break activities that use different “processing resources” than the primary task would offer more benefit than activities that used some of the same resources. They tested this theory by comparing continuous visuospatial task performance, rest breaks, and breaks to perform letter detection, spatial memory, or verbal memory tasks. Only the rest breaks resulted in statistically significant improvements in accuracy and reaction time. However, the verbal memory breaks, which were the most dissimilar from the primary task, did yield increased accuracy compared to the letter detection and spatial memory tasks, and the verbal memory group had a “nearly significant” decrease in reaction time. The takeaway is that there may be some benefit to, for example, switching from writing an essay to doing a jigsaw puzzle, but ultimately, activities that require concentration make breaks less effective at restoring focus.
We’ve looked at how breaks can improve focus through objective measures of performance on vigilance task, but breaks can also improve our mood and make us feel more energized. Bennett, Gabriel, and Calderwood (2019) examined the impact that different “micro-break” durations and activities have on subjective perceptions of fatigue, vigor, and attention; they also looked at the effect of duration and break activity on “psychological detachment” from work, relaxation, and enjoyment during the break. The researchers categorized break activities as work-related, relaxing, or detaching. Work-related activities include switching to a different work task or making a to-do list. Relaxing activities include meditation and relaxation exercises; and detaching activities are those “in which one mentally disengages from the work task.” Participants performed a work simulation twice with a break in between that lasted for one, five, or nine minutes, during which they either watched Saturday Night Live clips, watched a guided meditation video, or performed a color-word conflict test, which are detaching, relaxing, and work-related break activities, respectively.
In general, the results of this study indicate that detaching breaks of all lengths were most beneficial for reducing fatigue and increasing vigor; they also more effectively allowed for mental disengagement from work and were more relaxing and enjoyable than the other breaks. Interestingly, one-minute work breaks reduced participants’ fatigue back to baseline levels just as effectively as detaching breaks of all durations. Relaxing break activities also improved vigor, allowed for mental disengagement, and were relaxing, though not to the same extent as detaching work breaks. The researchers did not determine whether nine-minute detaching breaks were more effective than shorter detaching breaks, but they noted that “micro-breaks” in the workplace are generally about ten minutes long. Researchers also found that five minutes is the “sweet spot” for relaxing breaks, as participants only reported higher levels of enjoyment for five-minute relaxing breaks compared to work-related breaks of the same length (Bennett et al. 2019). Clearly, study breaks should include detaching break activities, which are those that take one’s mind off of work.
It may seem like browsing the web and social media would be an effective detaching break activity, but, according to a study discussed in a 2016 Association for Psychological Science article, workers who spent their lunch breaks on their smart phones reported higher levels of emotional exhaustion in the second half of their workday compared to those who went for walks or spoke to coworkers. Additionally, workers who didn’t use smartphones on their breaks reported that their mood improved afterwards. Because smartphone use often involves extensive multi-tasking, such as reading an article while responding to messages while receiving social media notifications, “using a smartphone during a break might be just as cognitively demanding as work itself.” (Association for Psychological Science, 2016).
Overall, the research suggests that the best study breaks, both for improving focus and for increasing energy and well-being, involve activities that distract from thoughts of schoolwork but that do not require concentration or multi-tasking. These “detaching” study breaks should be about ten minutes long, which is the typical length of “micro-breaks” in the workplace (Bennett et al. 2019). Five-minute long relaxation exercises are also an effective study break activity, as are very short work-related activities, such as making a to-do list. Students should take care to avoid spending more than a couple of minutes on work-related activities during a study break and should avoid smartphone use, both of which may actually make them feel more fatigued than before their break.
Ariga, A., & Lleras, A. (2011). Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition, 118(3), 439–443. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007
Association for Psychological Science. (2016, October 13). Why you should break up with your smartphone during lunch breaks. Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/minds-business/why-you-should-break-up-with-your-smartphone-during-lunch-breaks.html
Bennett, A. A., Gabriel, A. S., & Calderwood, C. (2019). Examining the interplay of micro-break durations and activities for employee recovery: A mixed-methods investigation. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi-org.db24.linccweb.org/10.1037/ocp0000168
Helton, W. S., & Russell, P. N. (2015). Rest is best: The role of rest and task interruptions on vigilance. Cognition, 134, 165–173. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2014.10.001
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