30 August 2011

Willpower Versus Taking a Coffee Break

You’ve been working for a long time, thoroughly focused on the task at hand, and you need a break. The thought of an aromatic cup of coffee comes naturally to mind. As it turns out, this type of break may not be a good one, especially if you plan to go back to work.

Our brains need rest, much like our muscles do, after sustained periods of use. Concentrating for a long time or working at a monotonous or repetitive task will induce fatigue. If you’ve edited a manuscript or studied for an exam recently, I’m sure you can relate.

Studies have looked into the activities that are best for resting and refreshing the brain so that it quickly returns to peak function. One of the best activities for taking a break is taking a walk in nature, the proverbial walk in the park. Enjoying the sight and sounds of nature is the most refreshing and perhaps the most effective way to take a break according to researchers. Taking a walk on a busy city street provides no cognitive boost. You read that right, none. Apparently, walking down a busy city street involves paying quite a bit of attention. Even being in a quiet room listening to the sounds of nature and viewing pictures is more helpful than a walk in a city street.

Drinking coffee does provide an energy boost, but it does not help us perform tasks better. In one study, those who had access to unlimited coffee during breaks ended up feeling stressed. Researchers also found that men working in group activities performed worse when they drank more coffee than usual. Coffee also exacerbates feelings of stress if you are already in a stressful situation.

Your level of performance can also be maintained if you find a creative way to motivate yourself. Individuals who believe they have an unlimited amount of willpower are able to work longer at focused tasks. Subjects in laboratory experiments who receive subtle suggestions that their stamina could be replenished performed for longer periods. Surprisingly, the level of performance remains high. Similar research is being conducted on whether, based on willpower, people can make lasting changes to their lives.

Adapted from Shirley S. Wang, "Coffee Break? Walk in the Park? Why Unwinding Is Hard," Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2011

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