The feelings of dread or anxiety that go along with an upcoming due date for a school assignment or a work project are all too familiar. These feelings can be especially noticeable if there are too many tasks to get done and not enough time. Additionally, we’re not always taught how to effectively prioritize tasks and manage our time in a way that can help us to maintain our sense of well-being. Luckily, the changes that you can make to maximize productivity and well-being are quick and simple!

Implementing short breaks while studying or working on a project is important because they help to improve attention and raise performance on attention tasks. While breaks are helpful for improving attention, it’s important to note that not all breaks are made equal.

First, the breaks you take should serve to improve your mood. Examples include taking a couple of minutes to make your favorite tea, watch a video of puppies playing, or simply sit quietly and reflect on a happy memory. Mood boosts are associated with higher performance.

Second, the breaks you take should be relaxing. Going for a nature walk is commonly perceived as being most relaxing, however, it turns out that we’re not the best at discerning which types breaks are best for relaxing. While nature walks definitely have many benefits for our bodies and minds, studies have shown that practicing a relaxation technique during a work or study break is more strongly associated with relaxation than nature walks are.

Here are three examples of relaxation techniques recommended by the Mayo Clinic:

1. Progressive muscle relaxation

In this technique, the aim is to tense and then release your muscles, one muscle group at time, until you’ve worked your way through your whole body. This process helps raise awareness to the difference between tensed and relaxed muscles. It also helps by leaving your muscles in a more relaxed state after you complete this technique. You can start by tensing your feet for 5 seconds and then relaxing them for 30 seconds, gradually moving up your muscle groups until you reach your neck. You can also start at the neck and repeat this method until you reach your feet.

2. Visualization

For this technique, you can begin by finding a comfortable sitting position and gently closing your eyes. Visualize yourself in a calming setting and try to include as many senses as possible. For example, if you are sitting on the top of a beautiful mountain, you can imagine the feeling of the crisp, clean air and the warmth of the sun all around you. Maybe you can even hear the soft sounds of nature, such as the birds chirping, or the wind blowing through the trees.

3. Deep breathing

A very common deep breathing technique is to inhale for 3 seconds, fully filling your lungs with air, and then exhale for 3 seconds. The length of time you repeat this breathing technique for is fully up to you and your level of comfort and relaxation.

An effective technique for implementing breaks into your study or work routine is called the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique recommends that you set a timer for 25 minutes. During those 25 minutes, you focus your attention solely on the task you are choosing to work on. After the timer goes off, you can take a 3-5 minute break. Once you’ve completed 4 rounds of working for 25 minutes and taking a 3-5 minute break, you can take a longer, 15-30 minute break. After taking a 15-30 minute break, you go back to repetitions of working for 25 minutes and taking 3-5 minute breaks until you complete another 4 rounds. Ideally, this technique is to be repeated until you are done studying or working for the day.

The goals of this technique include:

  • Boosting focus by decreasing distractions
  • Increasing and maintaining motivation
  • Improving your work or study process
  • Increasing productivity

The Pomodoro Technique also suggests creating a list of the tasks you wish to complete at the start of the day and organizing them according to their levels of priority. For example, if you have an exam tomorrow, and homework due the following week, studying for the exam would be a higher priority and would therefore be higher on your list of tasks to work on for the day.

All in all, study breaks are important not only for maximizing learning and productivity, but also for your well-being and mental health in general. Finding an optimal work-life balance can prove to be difficult, which further accentuates the importance of implementing techniques in your life that can help achieve this balance while also offering a multitude of benefits.

Blog post by Logan Hedberg, Volunteer