Looking back the few years since I started getting interested in how to change human behavior, how to be productive, and in general how our brains work, I can confidently say that I have gotten the most done when I have used a method of working in focused and uninterrupted blocks of time. At first I experimented with working for 50 minutes at a time, followed by a 10 minute break, and a longer 30 minute break every 2 hours. Lately I’ve found the Pomodoro technique with its shorter 25 minute bursts of work, followed by 5 minute breaks, quite efficient. Especially when having to do something that is difficult to get started with.
However, one major difficulty with this kind of periodization is how to really detach yourself from the task at hand when it’s time for a break. How to, e.g., take your mind off cognitive work and do something else. I have tried listening to music, doing a few push-ups, a bit of housecleaning etc., but these activities tend to require so little attention that most of the time work creeps into consciousness anyway. This is not good, as it effectively diminishes the restorative power of the break.
Another issue is that 5-10 minutes is too short a time to really do much. Go to the toilet and drink a glass of water and the time’s pretty much up.
Luckily, I think I have found the solution to really improve the potential for recovery during those breaks, and it’s called Angry Birds*. Here’s why:
1) Angry Birds takes your mind off work
Brain is like a muscle. When extorted it gets fatigued. As with self-control and the ability to make decisions, there are limitations to the capacity to do demanding cognitive processing. Like a car using fuel to run, you also have limited resources that become depleted during intense concentration and thinking. (1, 3)
One way to ensure that you won’t run out of steam in the middle of a workday is to track your use of time, and within steady intervals switch from work-mode to recovery-mode. The most important thing in successfully doing this is to push all work and task-related thoughts away.
The beauty of Angry Birds is that even if you only have 5 minutes for a break, it’s enough to finish couple levels. More importantly, Angry Birds, Bad Piggies, Where’s My Water, Cut the Rope, and other similar mobile games, are quick to start and require just the right amount of thinking to take your conscious thoughts away from work, but not so much that they become a further drain to your limited mental resources.
2) Short breaks are equally, or more important for recovery, than long ones
There is some rather interesting evidence showing that even short breaks have significant positive effects when used in a way that takes your mind off the task at hand and make you feel good and, dare I say, happier.
Doctors who were primed to feel positive emotions showed almost 3 times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state. They also made accurate diagnoses 19 percent faster. (2)
In another study students were primed to feel stress by giving them a task to make a difficult speech under time-pressure, and told that the speech would be videotaped and evaluated by their peers. The subjects were then shown one of three short films; a neutral, sad, or a positive film. Those who were shown the positive film for just couple minutes recovered from the physiological effects of stress 3 times faster than those who saw the sad film, and 2 times faster than those in the neural condition. (3)
One more argument in support of short breaks is the finding that if a resource becomes severely depleted, it falls to a so-called “Burnout Range.” When that happens, otherwise reliable restorative sources tend to provide significantly less restorative effect, and otherwise insignificant sources of depletion will cause significant resource losses. So take your short breaks now so you don’t end up completely non-functional in the long run. (4)
3) Your subconscious mind will not stop working
An article in Harvard Business Review reported couple weeks ago about a study where participants had to make a complex decision. There were four cars from which to choose from. Each was described by 12 different attributes, and participants had to pick one that was the best match for multiple specified wants and needs. Only one of the fours cars was the “right” choice, having twice as many positive than negative attributes.
As stated in the article: “One group had to make a choice immediately. These people didn’t do very well at optimizing their decision. A second group had time to try to consciously solve the problem. Their choices weren’t much better. A third group were told the problem, then given a distracter task to do first — something that lightly held their conscious attention but allowed their non-conscious to do more work. This group did significantly better than either of the other groups at selecting the optimum car for their overall needs.”
The real kicker was that the distracter task was no longer than two minutes, but it seems that even two minutes is enough to significantly boost your problem-solving skills.
There you go! Don’t worry about time wasted, but squeeze in a few minutes of Angry Birds once an hour and you’ll not only keep your cognitive performance at a higher level throughout the day, but also feel happier and more energized for it.
(1) Muraven, M., Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Self-Control as Limited Resource: Regulatory Depletion Patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 74, No. 3, 774-789.
Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Twenge, J. M., Nelson, N. M., & Tice, D. M. (2008). Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-Control: A Limited-Resource Account of Decision Making, Self-Regulation, and Active Initiative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 94, No. 5, 883-898.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 74, No. 5, 1252– 1265.
(2) Achor, Shawn (2011). The Happiness Advantage. [Kindle Edition] Virgin Digital.
(3) Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, Vol. 2, No. 3, 300-319.
(4) Greenblatt, Edy (2002). Work/Life Balance: Wisdom or Whining. Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 31, No. 2, 177-193.
* None of the links in this article are affiliated. These referrals are my own recommendations, and I do not get any compensation for making them.