Take breaks or you make mistakes (2/28/11)
How Can You Keep Your Concentration Sharp?
Pay attention! We hear that phrase when we’re very young, but does acknowledging those two words really make focus us better? Probably yes – if they’re a diversion from boredom or mental wandering. People are not machines, no matter how hard we, our parents or our employers try to make us act like machines. Computers don’t mind doing the same thing over and over. We don’t do that very well – we lose attention. Yet the state of research on how the brain adjusts to repetitive mental effort literally varies state by state. So here are differing results from the Midwest and the West Coast:
Research – The State of Illinois
The overall state of Illinois is not doing too well. There are blizzards, jailed governors demanding payments for senate seats, massively unfunded pension obligations, Chicago mayoral candidates who can’t stay on the ballot because they worked for an Illinois president, and high unemployment. The state of research in Illinois is doing somewhat better. Alejandro Lleras decided to test the state of attention in 84 University of Illinois undergraduates. They got to – Look at a bunch of flashing numbers on a screen (let’s hope they got paid enough) One group saw – the same group of numbers flashing on a screen which they were asked to memorize while Another group saw – the same flashing numbers, but at times the numbers would pop up! The first group could not keep their attention going for more than 20 minutes. The group with the “pop-up” numbers diverting then from the same old numbers were still pretty sharp after an hour. So, professor Lleras concluded, unless diverted, people lose interest in boring tasks. True. This is a lesson most people learn for themselves. Especially with deeply repetitive tasks, take breaks or you will make mistakes. It’s a rule well known in the military, which regards shifting tasks as necessary to keep their forces ever alert. But what about tasks that aren’t terminally boring?
Research – The State of California
California has its problems, too. Though the Guvernator may be gone he’s not forgotten, and Jerry Brown will have to work hard to maintain as much media attention as his predecessor (Jerry would have an easier time competing with the previous-previous governor, the truly gray Gray Davis.) Besides earthquakes, near-record unemployment, a dysfunctional legislature and a $25 billion dollar state budget deficit, California is the home of Apple, Google, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and would rank the eighth largest economy in the world if it were a country. They study diversions a bit differently, too. Gloria Marks of University of California, Irvine, has been studying what happens to people when they’re working. Marks’ subjects were not students by people laboring in an office, writing reports. And they were not interrupted by pop-up numbers on the screen, but by email messages to which they needed to respond. And there’s the rub. When diverted from their tasks, Marks’ subjects did not do well – not at all. In most cases it took them 20-25 minutes to get back to speed in getting their work done. Frequent email is not good for work productivity. So what is preferable?
Rest-Recovery-Renewal- Some Idiosyncratic Rules of Thumb You Can Use on the Job
- People can’t do boring things indefinitely. Brief interruptions of a few seconds can revive attention at least as well as caffeine if you’re engaged in stuff you don’t like to do. Active rest techniques like paradoxical relaxation or simply visualization can also keep attention sharp.
- When doing boring tasks, it pays to gamify. You try to take dull tasks and turn them into virtuoso games. For example, some assembly line workers, like those on the line in Detroit, will do their tasks at different tempos; to different music; in opposite physical directions; under differing, self-competitive time constraints. Making the boring interesting takes creativity, but is often well worth the extra effort.
- If people like what they’re doing, they generally don’t want to stop – but should. Sitting for too long, even when writing historic articles and fabulous novels, is a risk factor for increased mortality. Steven King said, before his injuries, that he would sit and write uninterruptedly for 12 hours, but most folks like to take breaks every 60-90 minutes or so. Active rest techniques like calling up a colleague for a brief chat or a short bout of simple yoga, can push up people’s productivity to a surprising degree.
- Few active breaks work as well as walking, especially going outside with work colleagues or friends. “Work” can still continue (you can have very interesting staff meetings while in motion), but with newly energized brains and bodies.
Remember – rest is active, not passive. You are learning all the time you are alive, rewiring body and brain. You will perform those tasks better aided by active rest. Greater productivity and pleasure is just a side benefit of renewing your body effectively.
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