How to concentrate, according to science: Take a break

Google ‘how to be productive’ and you’ll get more articles than you’d ever possibly have time to read. From ‘Top Ten Tips’ posts to ‘This works’ testimonials the advice is catch-all and endless.

So what are you supposed to do when you want to sit down and focus? You’ve got a deadline. You want to revise. Or you’re just facing a busy day. What actually works?

At doppel everything we design is science-led, and the approach we take to our work is always grounded in research. So, when thinking about how to concentrate best whilst in the office, we’re not prepared to take ‘This works’ as a given until we’ve seen the science behind it.

This week we’re exploring the research around the generally agreed principle that taking a break is good for your levels of concentration.

Why take a break?

Regain focus

Anyone who’s spent a whole day on one project, or even a day stuck at their desk will know that after a while you lose focus. Recent research from the University of Illinois dispels the previously upheld theory that your attention span is finite and decreases over time. Commenting on his work, Professor of Psychology Alejandro Lleras agrees that “you start performing poorly on a task because you've stopped paying attention to it" but he goes on to say that "you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem."

In previous work Lleras had noticed that a similar phenomenon occurs in sensory perception: The brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. For example, most people are not aware of the sensation of clothing touching their skin. The body becomes "habituated" to the feeling and the stimulus no longer registers in any meaningful way in the brain.

Find new inspiration

This may seem like common sense but a quick conversation with a friend or reading an interesting article can give us new ideas. It can be hard to see things from a new perspective or find new insights when you’re working on your own.

What kind of breaks are best?

A cup of tea or coffee away from your workspace

Tea and coffee is a popular choice when it comes to giving yourself a boost because it contains caffeine, a chemical which makes us feel more awake. It also should be said that the process of making and drinking a cup of tea or coffee forces us to get up from our desks (unless you’ve taken the positioning of your coffee machine to new extremes).

Exercise

Research published in the Creativity Research Journal have shown that a moderate level of cardio activity can increase creativity and productivity for two hours afterwards. 

Another task

Unfortunately Dr Lleras’s study also shows that your break doesn’t have to fun. Just switching task provides the brain with the stimulation it needs. You can start another task and then go back to your first job after a short while.

Conclusion

Next time you’re faced with an unending or repetitive task, take a break. It will help you stay focused on your task and you’ll finish sooner. And not because we say so, because science says so.