How seriously do you and your coworkers take their 10 minute breaks? For most people, their breaks are just a formality, a chance to waste time and run down the clock until it’s time to punch back in and go back to work. What many people don’t realize, however, is that how employees spend those 10 minutes can have a profound effect on work performance and overall worksite wellness .
Directed vs. Involuntary Attention
According to researchers, people’s attention spans can be separated into two different classifications: directed attention and involuntary attention. Directed attention is when we consciously focus on a task and choose to spend mental energy on it; involuntary attention is when our brains subconsciously become engaged by something we’ve observed.
When we’re at work, we use most of our mental capacity on paying directed attention to the tasks at hand. Unlike involuntary attention, directed attention is a finite resource that can be depleted; when that happens, mental fatigue sets in, leading to a dramatic drop in memory, energy, and an ability to get work done.
How Breaks Recharge Directed Attention
You’ve probably noticed that after relaxing for even a short period of time, your brain feels recharged immediately afterward. Activities like relaxing, going for a nature walk, or even just looking at pictures of nature all stimulate our involuntary attention, rather than using up directed attention. According to Dr. Marc Berman of the Rotman Research Institute of Toronto, stimulating indirect attention has been shown to also recharge directed attention, increasing working memory by up to 20%.[i]
With this in mind, Berman suggests that workers spend even their 10 minute breaks taking a “true” break – not browsing the internet or chatting with coworkers, but instead taking the time to relax, go for a walk, or perform other activities that stimulate indirect attention, and thus recharge directed attention as well.