Do you ever set aside a whole day to get one task done only to find, at the end of the day, that you haven’t done it? Where did all of that time go? Well our brains like ticking off tasks. It gives us a little boost of pleasure to say ‘finished that!’ which makes it more rewarding to do lots of small tasks than one big one. Most of us are accosted with emails and phone calls throughout the day. By attending to each one that comes in we get a little boost of pleasure at ticking off a task but the big task we aimed to get done gets put off. So how can we get big tasks done? Surprisingly, the answer may be in the breaks we take.
The human brain has difficulty focusing attention for a long time. When we have a big project we may set aside hours to do it but our brain can only maintain attention for a short period of that time. Imagine your attention is like a wind-up car, you can wind it up and watch it speed across the floor but after a few seconds it will slow down and you will need to wind it up again. Our attention lasts for longer than a few seconds but the idea is the same, we need to reboot by taking a break and then re-engaging . So what should you do to reboot your attention? Try setting a timer to go off after 25-30 minutes of solid work. After this time take a 5 minute break before returning to the task for another 25-30 minutes. After a series of these blocks of work take a longer break.
In your short breaks try stepping away from your workspace for a few minutes, making a cup of tea or stretching. During a longer break give your mind and body a rest. In our blog last week we discussed how exercising during the work day can improve productivity (link to blog on exercising during the workday). Exercise can improve creativity for up to 2 hours afterwards . Working with breaks will not only help you to complete that big task but will likely also put you in a better mood. Generally people are less happy when their minds are wandering than when engaged in a task . So give your attention a boost with regular breaks and you’ll finally be able to say ‘finished that!’ on that big task you’ve been putting off for too long.
1. Ariga, A. and A. Lleras, Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition, 2011. 118(3): p. 439-443.
2. Blanchette, D.M., et al., Aerobic exercise and creative potential: Immediate and residual effects. Creativity Research Journal, 2005. 17(2-3): p. 257-264.
3. Killingsworth, M.A. and D.T. Gilbert, A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 2010. 330(6006): p. 932-932.