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Take a break

At my first job I used to take a break every time I got stuck on a problem until one day my boss caught me looking out of the window.

He didn’t say anything the first time he saw me, but when he saw me in the same position some 15 min later he yelled “At least sit by your desk and have your laptop open so that I think you are working instead of slacking off”.

As I switched jobs, I learned that “at least make it look like you are working” is a prevalent philosophy in most offices. So I adapted and started scrolling through Reddit while on break to seem busy. But this didn’t work out as my boss had hoped for - I started taking more breaks because I couldn’t focus more often.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to work in an office for the last 4 years so I was able to return to my old routine. But why was this method so much more effective than scrolling Reddit for 15min?

Rachel and Stephen Kaplan developed a theory that might explain why - Attention Restoration Theory or ART for short. ART differentiates two kinds of attention humans can give - direct attention and effortless attention.

We use direct attention when we focus on something - like trying to solve a problem, searching for something, following rules… When giving direct attention we consciously block out most distractions.

Direct attention is a finite resource - if you use it too much you will run out of it and won’t be able to focus anymore - but it replenishes if it’s not used for a while. You can think of it as a muscle - if you use it too much it becomes sore and weak, but if you give it some rest it can work for much longer.

When you run out of direct attention you start suffering from attention fatigue - a state in which you are easily irritable, tired and stressed out.

In contrast, effortless attention is… well… effortless.

The Kaplans tell us that nature is full of fascinating things to experience and give our effortless attention to - like the shapes of clouds, the wind on your skin, rustling of leaves, the sun breaking through the treetops, the chirps of birds, the sound of water rushing in a creek... So by looking at or being in nature we can replenish our direct attention because we will mostly use effortless attention to process it.

The reason I took more breaks while scrolling Reddit was over use of direct attention. Reading through posts and commenting takes direct attention to do, therefore it doesn’t replenish during the break and I couldn’t focus as well when I started working again.

But there is another compounding problem - attention residue.

Attention residue is an effect that prevents humans from switching their attention between tasks effortlessly. When you switch tasks your mind will still pay attention to the previous task for a while and prevent you from fully focusing on the new task.

Whatever posts I read on Reddit during my break would linger in my mind and steal attention away from the problem I was trying to solve when I started working again. And when I took a break any problem I was working on before would still invade my thoughts and steal attention from what I was doing during my break.

The problem with scrolling through Reddit while on break was that my attention was depleted before the break, it couldn’t replenish during the break, and then it was split between Reddit and work after the break.

To be clear, Reddit isn’t the problem here - being unnecessarily busy is. I would have probably felt the same way if I read the news, a book, scrolled through Twitter, solved a Sudoku or played chess.

Today, when I feel like I’m having a hard time focusing, I go out for a 15min walk if the weather is nice. If the weather doesn’t play along I make myself a cup of tea, look out of the window and enjoy the birds, the clouds passing by, the falling snow, or the sound of wind and rain.

A proper 15 min break can keep you happy, focused and rested for hours.

The sun shining through the tree tops in a forest
The sun shining through the tree tops in a forest

P.S. Many thanks to Marko I. for reviewing drafts of this article.

My inspiration for this article was a conversation I had with a co-worker who didn’t want to take a break when he was stressed out, after which I started encouraging all my co-workers to take a break when they start to feel attention fatigue. This is a cautionary tale for them.

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