Give Your Brain a Break

Most of us carry around the stress of problems that are bigger than we are — whether it’s related to your family, your work or both — we’ve come to accept that stress is the new norm. Unfortunately, stress makes it harder to concentrate over time and more difficult to feel satisfied and consistently engaged in your work.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. He looked at all the recent research about how the human brain actually remembers things — and a lot of it is surprising.

It turns out that the brain actually absorbs information far better when that information is spaced out over time, rather than all at once. It also helps to change where you study occasionally and to take short breaks (say, to catch up on Facebook or play a few rounds of Candy Crush).

Because of the way the brain’s neurological network builds connections, each of these things helps our memories grow stronger. Giving our brains a break, it seems, is actually one of the best things we can do.

This is especially true at work. Say you’ve been tasked with watching a four-hour online course on a job-related topic. Some employees will set aside half a day and plow through everything at once. Others will spend an hour here and there, getting through the content over several days. You may think that it doesn’t matter which method you take, but it turns out that it has a far bigger impact if you do the latter. If you space the learning out and complete the course an hour at a time over four days, you’ll remember the course material better than your coworkers who “crammed.”

Mindfulness and Mimosas

Another approach to clearing your head and regaining focus is “mindfulness,” a technique to tune out everyday noise and pay attention to what’s important. It’s proven remarkably effective at improving employee engagement.

According to recent research, even short trainings in mindfulness and compassion can measurably reduce stress and increase cooperation and team building. In other words, focus, well-being, happiness, and compassion are skills that can be learned, practiced, and mastered.

Supporting these notions are three key neuroscience principles, each exploring the relationship between our bodies and minds:

  • Neuroplasticity. Our brains are actually adaptable, or “plastic,” and respond to our experiences. Richard Davidson at the UW-Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds published findings that “we can intentionally shape the social brain through systematic training, such as meditation.”
  • Epigenetics. Picture all of your genes with little volume controls that turn the “sound,” or genetic activity, up or down. Epigenetics looks at what causes these shifts and the impact of environment and experiences.
  • Bi-directional influence of mind/brain and body. Neuroscientists are still figuring out exactly how, but multiple studies, including these from UW-Madison, consistently show that our bodies benefit when we re-wire our brains (and vice versa).

And here’s the thing: Prioritizing brain breaks throughout the day and regaining focus through mindfulness is simple. You can start by paying extra attention to one seemingly mundane task a day, such as at the start of your day before other people’s demands take over, like while you are pouring your first cup of coffee. Simply listen to the noises created by your movements and watching each task you do.

And let’s not forget the classic way to take a break and clear your head: You and your friends or loved ones lying on a beach somewhere, fruity drink in hand and mobile phone hopefully left in the hotel room (if not at home). But as we all know, Americans take less time off than our counterparts in other Western economies. A recent Harris Interactive study found that workers are leaving an average of four days unused, treating vacations like a luxury, not a right.

It’s not just that there’s no legal mandate in the U.S. dictating vacation time; even in companies with generous leave policies, many employees remain glued to their desks. So it’s not surprising that one of the latest waves of corporate innovation to gain attention is vacation policy. Whether it’s taking a company-wide summer break, offering new employees “pre-cations” before they start work, or adopting a mantra of “unlimited vacations,” smart companies are recognizing that giving their staff time to recharge is good for business.

I realize that it’s not always easy to change the way we think about how engaged we are at work or at home, how we deal with the stress of the job and life and whether there are better ways to do it. It definitely helps to frame the conversation around small achievable goals and tangible benefits to your well-being and your productivity at work.

You’ve invested a lot in developing the brain that you have, and in keeping it sharp at work, after all. Give your brain the time it needs so that you can be at your best.

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