A Simple 5-Minute Break Can Boost Productivity

According to new research, taking long breaks to restore concentration might be unnecessary. Instead, scientists suggest there's an easier way to refresh, reboot, and increase productivity during complex cognitive tasks.

Finding the right productivity hack to restore concentration during mentally tedious tasks can be challenging. While some people believe taking a long walk will refresh the mind, others swear by strategies such as the Pomodoro technique, which involves taking a five-minute break every 25 minutes.

Moreover, some research has found that listening to music may help increase productivity, depending on an individual's preferences.

But which technique is best for boosting productivity or restoring attention and focus?

To help answer that question, researchers from the University of Sydney, Australia, investigated whether no rest, a five-minute "do nothing" break, or a five-minute break watching a nature scene restored attention in university students.

They found that taking a five-minute break is all that's needed to restore concentration during a mentally challenging task.

To conduct the study, published on June 18 in Educational and Developmental Psychologist, researchers asked 72 Australian university students to complete a difficult mathematical pre-test under a 20-minute time constraint.

Then, before moving on to a lesson about how to multiply two-digit numbers in their head — one group of students took a five-minute unstructured break while another group took a "nature-based" rest watching a five-minute video depicting a walk in an Australian rainforest. A third group did not take a break. Instead, they jumped right into the lesson.

After the participant completed the pre-test and the lesson, the researchers had them fill out a survey to determine how distracted they were during the lesson phase.

When comparing the students' survey results, the researchers found that participants who took an unstructured break doing nothing reported higher levels of directed attention than students who didn't take a break.

Then, the students took a 20-question test to identify if they could apply what they learned during the lesson. The scientists found that students in the unstructured break and nature-based rest groups performed better on the 20-question test than those without rest.

They also found that students in the nature-based rest group solved more problems on the test than those in the unstructured break group. However, the differences were not statistically significant.

Because of these results, the research team suggests that a simple five-minute break might be all a person needs to recharge and refocus during complex mental tasks.

"The Pomodoro Technique method – where people work for 25 minutes and then break for five minutes – is a popular life hack and we may have just found the first evidence for it working," says study author Paul Ginns, an associate professor in educational psychology at the University of Sydney, in a news release.

However, the study authors say it's best to avoid computer screens and other devices during that five-minute rest time.

"If you want your work or study to be more productive, you need to build in simple five-minute breaks of doing nothing," Ginns explains. "You need to be doing something different for five minutes. Move away from your computer or device, do some breathing or just sit quietly to rest your brain from the task. Scrolling through social media does not count as rest – you need to take a break from devices."

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