Taking breaks is a part of nature. Consider agriculture: any good farmer knows that you sometimes need to leave land fallow for a period of time so the soil nutrients, biota, and wildlife can re-establish themselves for future harvests. Think of studying like working a field: you’re sowing seeds of knowledge, cultivating them to grow deep roots in your memory. That means you need to give yourself breaks to stay sharp.
Here’s why study breaks are important and how you can make the most of them.
Studies show that we can lose up to 90% of everything we learn IMMEDIATELY after we learn it. “In one ear, out the other” is a very real problem when it comes to learning something new. Our brain is constantly processing information, and a part of that process is forgetting what we already know to make room for new inputs. In order to really retain something, we have to reinforce it, contemplate it, and return to it. That’s where breaks come in.
Research suggests that “spaced learning” is how we best retain information. Taking short rests every hour you’re reading or studying gives your mind a moment to reflect and process what it’s absorbed. Think of it like an engine that’s starting to run hot and needs a moment to cool off. Taking breaks to go for a walk, grab a snack, and hydrate can improve your concentration and strengthen your memory.
Less Is More When It Comes To Productivity
The temptation to grind it out and work long hours to get something done is strong, especially if you’ve procrastinated and need to study for an upcoming test. The truth is we tend to run out of intellectual gas pretty quickly. The average worker, for example, works 8-hour days when research has shown that people stop operating efficiently and start making dumb mistakes after 4-5 hours of concerted effort.
While most students aren’t going to put in a whole work day to study, even doing a couple of consecutive hours of studying can be too much. It’s why experts recommend taking a 15-20 minute break after 52 minutes of sustained study or activity. This “golden quarter hour” gives your mind and body time to recharge. Breaks energize us by reducing our stress levels and also by alleviating decision fatigue, which is when we get mentally overtaxed by having to make too many choices in a short period of time.
How To Take A Break
Just as it’s important to use your time wisely while studying, you want to be smart about how you break. Certain activities can get your gears turning while others might sap your energy and make it harder for you to get back in the study flow.
Good ways to break include:
- Go for a walk
- Phone a friend
- Experience nature
- Tidy up your home or run a quick errand
- Meditate and/or concentrate on your breathing
- Eat a light, healthy snack
- Do some low-impact exercises
- Do something creative with your hands like doodle, color, or play an instrument
- Take a cold shower
That last item might surprise you but a quick cold shower can be very energizing. Studies have shown that cold showers can increase your alertness and give you energy because the cold water drops your melatonin levels when it decreases your body temperature. Melatonin is the sleep hormone, which is why when it goes down we feel “up.” The cold also increases your heart rate and circulation, making you feel more active.
A hot shower, on the other hand, can make you feel sleepy because the hot water has the opposite effect on your melatonin levels. Avoid a hot shower if you’re planning to hop back into your studies, and also avoid doing any of the following if you can:
- Taking a nap
- Eating junk food
- Screen time (TV/web/video games)
- Over-indulging caffeinated beverages
- Having a big meal
When To Take A Break
When we’re deeply immersed in our work it can be hard to notice the warning signs of burn-out. The time to take a break is BEFORE you start experiencing any of these symptoms.
- Fidgeting, restless energy
- Hard time concentrating
- Feeling sleepy or lethargic
- Bloodshot/strained eyes
- Hand cramping
The biggest canary in the coal mine is comprehension. If you find yourself reading the same sentence over and over and the meaning of it keeps slipping through your fingers like water, you NEED a break.
Interested in more tips on studying? Check out these stories:
- 3 Tips To Improve Your Note Taking
- Study Smarter By Improving Your Memory
- Learn To Study Without Stress
Article by Austin Brietta