4 Ways to Take Better Breaks at Work


Your aching back or burning eyes may tell you that taking a break from your work is a good idea, but there’s very little research to suggest when, how often, or how long you should break for maximum benefit. To fill this gap in knowledge, two associate professors of management at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business set out to investigate what exactly constituted a “good” work break.  Emily Hunter and Cindy Wu surveyed 95 employees (ages 22 to 67) over a five-day week, and analyzed 959 break surveys. Their results were published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. “Everyone knows breaks are helpful, but there’s surprisingly little research on what makes the best break,” Hunter says.

Hunter and Wu defined breaks as “any period of time, formal or informal, during the workday in which work-relevant tasks are not required or expected, including but not limited to a break for lunch, coffee, personal email or socializing with co-workers, not including bathroom breaks.”


Hunter and Wu were surprised by the counterintuitive finding that afternoon is not the ideal time for a break. “We found that workers should take a break mid-morning, before lunch," Hunter tells mental_floss. "Morning breaks were the most effective at restoring resources of all breaks across the day.”

The research says that mental resources like energy, concentration, and motivation are highest in the first half of the day. Rather than waiting until lunch, when you’ve already burned through most of your brain fuel, take a short break mid-morning. Hunter and Wu found that this break brought employees back to their desks refreshed and energized, and with greater ability to endure the rest of the day.

“Your mental resources decline throughout the day,” Hunter says. “So when taking a mid-morning break you’re replenishing a small amount of lost resources better as opposed to afternoon, when it’s harder to get back to your pre-break state.”


Hunter and Wu’s results also turned up an important finding for managers. Structured breaks, or prescribed breaks—in which employees must follow someone else’s rules or expectations—are not as effective as breaks initiated by the employees themselves.

“We tested a number of assumptions, including going outside or doing something of low effort, not using a lot of physical effort, or doing something not work-related,” Hunter says. “None of those things mattered. The only two characteristics of break to replenish energy and reduce symptoms were taking break earlier in the day and doing something you prefer.” They found that the content of the break didn’t matter—whether it was exercise, eating, or simply walking away from one’s desk; what mattered was that it was “something you enjoy and choose to do.” They concluded that managers might see greater productivity and morale if they allowed their employees to take their own breaks. 


The one finding that did not surprise either researcher was the confirmation that breaks are helpful. “They did replenish energy, concentration, and motivation. They decreased symptoms of headaches, eye strain, lower back pain and so on,” Hunter says. They determined that people who took these smaller breaks had higher job satisfaction, more citizenship behavior (helping others, going above and beyond in the workplace), and lower burnout—all important criteria for employers. Hunter feels this is crucial information for managers: “There hasn’t been a lot of research about the effects of breaks besides ergonomics that confirms the notion that they are effective.”


While a lunch break is always a good idea, and there is no magic rule for the perfect number of minutes, Hunter says they did find that “what matters is how many you’re taking.” The study pointed to more frequent short breaks as being most effective at reducing negative effects and boosting mental resources. They also found that those people who take an earlier mid-morning break are more likely to take more breaks in general.

Ultimately, the study suggests that managers institute more flexibility in scheduling breaks, and allow more autonomy to employees to listen to their own cues and break when they need to. For the employee, it might just mean that at the first sign of weariness in the morning, instead of reaching for that second cup of coffee, you just need to step away from your work. 

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Why Our Brains Love Plot Twists
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From the father-son reveal in The Empire Strikes Back to the shocking realization at the end of The Sixth Sense, everyone loves a good plot twist. It's not the element of surprise that makes them so enjoyable, though. It's largely the set-up, according to cognitive scientist Vera Tobin.

Tobin, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, writes for The Conversationthat one of the most enjoyable moments of a film or novel comes after the big reveal, when we get to go back and look at the clues we may have missed. "The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before," Tobin writes. "This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage."

The curse of knowledge, Tobin explains, refers to a psychological effect in which knowledge affects our perception and "trips us up in a lot of ways." For instance, a puzzle always seems easier than it really is after we've learned how to solve it, and once we know which team won a baseball game, we tend to overestimate how likely that particular outcome was.

Good writers know this intuitively and use it to their advantage to craft narratives that will make audiences want to review key points of the story. The end of The Sixth Sense, for example, replays earlier scenes of the movie to clue viewers in to the fact that Bruce Willis's character has been dead the whole time—a fact which seems all too obvious in hindsight, thanks to the curse of knowledge.

This is also why writers often incorporate red herrings—or false clues—into their works. In light of this evidence, movie spoilers don't seem so terrible after all. According to one study, even when the plot twist is known in advance, viewers still experience suspense. Indeed, several studies have shown that spoilers can even enhance enjoyment because they improve "fluency," or a viewer's ability to process and understand the story.

Still, spoilers are pretty universally hated—the Russo brothers even distributed fake drafts of Avengers: Infinity War to prevent key plot points from being leaked—so it's probably best not to go shouting the end of this summer's big blockbuster before your friends have seen it.

[h/t The Conversation]

People Are More Likely to BS When There Are No Consequences

Bullsh*t isn't hard to sniff out: It proliferates on college campuses, political debate stages, and online dating profiles. Now, Poynter reports that researchers are closer to identifying what motivates people to bullsh*t in the first place.

In a new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Wake Forest University psychologist John V. Petrocelli defines BS as "communications that result from little to no concern for truth, evidence and/or established semantic, logical, systemic, or empirical knowledge." To assess what makes people engage in such behaviors, he conducted two experiments. For the first one, participants were asked to fill out a survey. One had a disclosure saying they weren't required to list their thoughts, and one lacked the disclosure. Petrocelli found that subjects who felt like they had to come up with answers were more likely to make stuff up, suggesting that BS is often the result of societal pressure.

For the second experiment, undergraduate psychology students were asked to complete a similar survey. This time, participants were either given free rein to write what they wanted or told their responses would be recorded and assessed by an expert. Once again, the participants who were given the questions with no conditions were more likely to let the BS flow uninhibited.

To Petrocelli, this indicates that bullsh*tting is something people tend to do more when there's no one around to call them out on their bullsh*t. He writes in the paper, "When receiving a social pass for bullsh*tting is not expected to be easy—when people are held accountable or when they expect to justify their positions to people who disagree with their attitudes—people appear to refrain from bullsh*tting.”

These findings provide some hope for people who still value honest, transparent discourse. Bullsh*t isn't inevitable: It only flourishes under the right conditions. The best shield against BS is an ability to recognize it and hold people accountable for it. Unfortunately most people aren't great at recognizing nonsense when it's passed off as something profound.

[h/t Poynter]


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