For Optimal Performance, Take a Break

When a deadline looms, it can be hard to take your foot off the gas pedal. The dominant paradigm is that we have to work harder and longer to do our best work. But neuroscience suggests that this approach is misguided.

Downtime helps the brain do its best work. Your brain prefers interval training to marathon work sessions. During breaks, your brain is working almost as hard behind the scenes as when your mind focuses on the task at hand. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang engagingly summarizes this research in his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.

Try these downtime options to access your most productive and creative work.

Pause Before You’ve Run Out of Ideas: Don’t wait until you hit the wall to take your break. Knowing where you will pick up again makes it easier to come back to your task. By shifting gears to some other action, your brain puts your project on the back burner to simmer, and new ideas are generated even when you’re not directly thinking about it.

Take a Walk: By engaging in regular physical movement, like walking or more vigorous exercise, you enable your brain to function at its best. Exercise bathes the brain in nerve growth factor, which protects existing brain cells, fosters their connection, and even stimulates the growth of new brain cells.

Engage in a Hobby: By shifting gears to a different type of task all together, your brain lets go of your work and becomes fully engaged in a new activity. During this period of redirection, the brain can relax and loosen up to develop new ideas on your work project.

Take a Nap: Did you know that Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson all routinely broke up their long workdays with a nap? Since these men paused during wartime for a snooze, you can afford to take a break too. During sleep, the brain sorts, files, and makes new connections about what it has taken in while awake. A good night’s sleep and a midday nap refresh your mind and get you ready to do your most creative work.

For more information about other great ways to rest, check out Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.

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