January 30, 2023

Take a Break

For optimal brain functioning, we need both focus and unfocus.

Peter N. Landless & Zeno L. Charles-Marcel

Q: I am a writer/graphic designer and telework three days a week. My supervisor projects her “workaholism” on us. I feel apologetic when I take a break or request vacation time. At my company, breaks and vacations seem to be tolerated because it’s the law. Are vacations and breaks healthy or shirking responsibility? 

A: Taking a break, legitimately, is not “idleness” or “a waste of time”; nor is it shirking responsibility. Taking a break from time to time appears to be an essential component of brain health and hygiene. This is part of self-care, yet many people in the United States leave their vacation time unused.1

It’s impossible to avoid some people with lazy habits and those who lack integrity and take advantage of working from home, using it as an extended staycation. Research showed, however, that early in the pandemic lockdowns, business productivity actually increased by 47 percent. This increase was attributed to working from home.2 

Many managers and workers alike see this increased work-related productivity in themselves and their peers as being a result of fewer distractions and more autonomy in creating a feasible work schedule. Nonetheless, in another survey in 2022, employees expressed missing out on office socialization and peer interaction, other significant factors in brain health.3 

When we take a break, the brain does not go into “park” or “idle”; rather, it enhances activity in a special “unfocus network,” or “default mode network” (DMN). Some scientists reapplied the initials to stand for “Do Mostly Nothing.” The DMN, however, uses 20 percent of the body’s energy while we’re at rest! Intense focus increases energy usage by only another 5 percent. 

When we turn our focus brain “off” and take a break, the DMN takes over and retrieves memories, organizes and rehearses what you are going to say in an upcoming important conversation, or creates links among previously unassociated ideas. It also processes previous actions and interactions and compares them with our “ideals,” and so it’s involved in helping us understand and represent the self. Moreover, the DMN helps us understand how others are thinking and how to model their minds; it even improves our perception and discernment—essential components for good planning and forecasting. 

Here Are Some Ways to Take a Break and Activate the DMN:

  • A 10-minute nap sharpens thinking.
  • A 90-minute nap increases innovation and productivity.
  • Physical exercise activates DMN function and decreases brain atrophy.
  • Walking (especially outdoors) improves fluency, flexibility, and novelty of thinking.
  • Positive Constructive Daydreaming (e.g., enjoying the warmth and beauty of the day) increases creativity. 

Training the mind to focus on tasks or problem-solving is important for navigating life; yet, for optimal brain function, we need both focus and unfocus. So, without apology, let’s follow Jesus’ advice to His disciples: “Come apart and rest awhile” (see Mark 6:31, KJV). Let’s build unfocus times into our days, weeks, months, and years for our brains’ sake. 

1 Workers’ access to and use of leave from their jobs in 2017-2018, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/leave.pdf. 

2 https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20200519005295/en/

3 Frontiers in Psychology, Nov. 17, 2022, 13:1034454.