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When A Cuppa Will Do You Good: Brief Breaks & Productivity

When A Cuppa Will Do You Good: Brief Breaks & Productivity

    There are points when the only thing you can do — despite desperately wanting to be productive — is to step back for a few minutes. And while conventional productivity wisdom seems to dictate that you should use those few minutes to get a small task done or get a bit ahead on a future project, there are often situations when the best thing you can do is to sit down for a nice cup of tea (or the relaxing activity of your choice). I picked up the habit a while back and taking those little breaks have actually increased my productivity. Try stopping for a few minutes when…

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    …You’re Frustrated

    If a given project is about to drive you over the edge, you need to step back. Try to get some distance or some insight. But switching over to a new task when you’re already wound up and frustrated just means that your irritation is going to be transferred to your new task. Sure, you may get that little bit of work done and out of the way, but you’re going to continue to be frustrated through that task and on to the next one. Taking even a few minutes can help you decide just why you’re frustrated and what you can do about it — you may even get a side order of inspiration with your cup of tea and think up a new approach to your problem.

    …You’re Feeling Poorly

    Trying to push on through your daily tasks when you’re feeling sick can be worth less than you think. If you over exert yourself when you are already tired or sick, you may just wind up needing to redo tasks, rather than getting ahead on what you need to do. If you’re like me, though, the idea of taking a day off or going back to bed just doesn’t seem like an option. But slowing down can make sure that I actually do get things done on a day when I feel pretty bad. Sure, I may not get some smaller tasks done while I’m sipping on my tea, but I can probably work through my most important tasks.

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    …You’ve Been At It Too Long

    We all have different breaking points, but each of us have that point where, if we don’t go and do something different, we’ll go a bit nutty. I learned during the good old days in college that if I wanted to pull an all-nighter, I had to plan to get up and take a walk every hour or so, or I’d get so flat out bored and tired of my project that I would fall asleep on my keyboard. Getting up to make a cup of tea, get a drink or take a quick walk around the office not only gives your brain a chance to refresh itself; it also gives you a chance to stretch and maybe avoid that case of carpal tunnel you’ve been working towards.

    …You Have A Short Wait

    In any given project, odds are pretty good that you’ll have a short wait here and there: waiting for a graphic to render or an email to arrive or whatever. As a general rule, if I expect that wait to be under five minutes, I refuse to start anything new. Sure, I might need a short break away from the project, but I don’t necessarily want to derail my train of thought to the point that working on something entirely different would entail. Getting up to get a cuppa will keep me from getting overly distracted during those five minutes, but won’t cause me to lose the focus I need to keep working on a project.

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    …You Reach A Set Interval

    After you’ve been working for long enough, you just have to get up and move around a bit. I actually set a timer to go off every twenty minutes to remind me to just stretch. While I don’t think that getting up every twenty minutes just for a cup of tea — or getting up at all that often — is ideal, getting up out of your chair on a regular basis is a good idea. You might set a timer for once every few hours or so. Of course, this sort of break is easy to ignore when you hit your stride. I often work through my timer when I’m on a roll. But after working through that timer a time or two, I find that I absolutely have to get up and move. It’s up to you to find an interval that works, as well as a reason to get up — after all, there are only so many cups of tea a person can drink in a given day. But there are plenty of options: exercise, snacks, even set activities like walking down to pick up your mail can be enough to provide you with a short break.

    …You’re Thirsty

    Even if you’re almost done with a project, it can be worth it to take care of those nagging bodily needs. You may think you can ignore it just a little bit longer, but any distraction can be enough to decrease the quality of work. It’s rare that you’re so close to done and so close to deadline that you can’t afford a few minutes to get a drink or whatever else needs doing. While I’m all for suffering for one’s art, I don’t think being thirsty quite qualifies.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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