As a University student, I have vivid memories of cramming for tests while watching my peers spend hours on end studying for finals. This would often lead to a burning out sensation feeling as if a patch of fog is surrounding your brain. This can happen during long study sessions, work projects, or anything that requires hours of focus. I’m sure you can relate. However, preventing this dreaded brain fog is possible if you approach your studying or work in a smart manner.
The Old Approach
For decades the entire field of psychology was convinced that your attention span was limited. Newer research is turning this theory upside down. Ph.D. researcher Alejandro Lleras believes that psychology spent over four decades taking the wrong approach to studying our attention span. The core belief that our attention span was a limited resource may have inhibited us from discovering more about the way we focus. By the same token, this belief prohibits us from optimizing focus. One of the first steps in optimizing your focus is learning that it doesn’t run out. It just needs variety.
“For 40 or 50 years, most papers published on the vigilance decrement treated attention as a limited resource that would get used up over time, and I believe that to be wrong. You start performing poorly on a task because you’ve stopped paying attention to it,” he said. “But you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem,” States researcher Alejandro Lleras.
Dr. Lleras and postdoctoral fellow Atsunori Ariga organized a study to test his hypothesis on attention span. They tested the participants’ ability to focus on a repetitive computerized task for about an hour. The 84 subjects were divided into four different groups:
- A control group that performed the 50-minute task with no breaks.
- A “switch” group as well as a “no-switch” group that memorized four digits before performing the task and were directed to respond if they saw one of the digits on the screen during the task. Only the switch group was actually presented with the digits (twice) during the 50-minute long task.
- A “digit-ignored” group who were shown the same digits as the switch group but directed to ignore them.
Most participants experienced a drop off in their performance and focus over the course of the task. But amazingly, Lleras notes, those in the switch group saw no drop in their performance over time. By taking two simple yet brief breaks during the task responding to the digits the participants in the switch group were able to stay focused throughout the entire task.
DeskTime Logs Breakthrough
Another study that highlights the importance of taking short breaks used 5.5 million logs of employee productivity data. The app DeskTime is designed to allow employers insight on whether their employees are working or wasting time on Facebook. After analyzing 5.5 million logs, DeskTime looked into the top 10% most productive workers, and how they spend their time during the day.
Interestingly enough, the most productive workers engage in tasks related to the job for 52 minutes then take a 17-minute break. “That 15-to-20-minute window is productivity’s “golden hour” (or quarter-hour, as the case may be). It’s long enough for your brain to disengage and leave you feeling refreshed, but not so long that you lose focus and derail momentum on what you were doing”.
It seems like being able to engage yourself in the work comes easier when you know there’s a specified time to disengage. The key is to do your work in a dedicated manner, getting work done, and making progress. However, during the break, you’re resting and completely disengaged from any job-related tasks. For example, if you work at a computer this would suggest getting off the computer entirely, maybe stretch, grab a snack or talk with a coworker about non-work related ideas, but doesn’t include browsing YouTube or social media.
If you find yourself needing to prolong your focus then implementing break phases is highly recommended. When studying or focusing in general, it’s also recommended to avoid social media, turn off the T.V. and putting yourself in a comfortable environment of course. Doing this will set yourself up for success while engaging in your studies or work! Have a happy and healthy week!
Have you ever experimented with your optimal on/off time for studying, learning, or working?
Ariga, A., & Lleras, A. (2011). Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition,118(3), 439-443. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007
The secret of the 10% most productive people? Breaking! (2018, February 15). Retrieved from https://desktime.com/blog/17-52-ratio-most-productive-people/