Welp, a New Study Just Proved We're All Taking Breaks Wrong
It’s a familiar feeling: That spreadsheet you’re looking at is starting to blur—so you grab your phone and swipe through Instagram instead.
Or, maybe you’re sick of dealing with customers—so you steal a few minutes to catch up on Tik Tok.
Your hands might even reach for your phone involuntarily, as if pulled by a gravitational force.
Our phones seem ready-made for taking breaks, the perfect means to disengage and recharge your brain for a moment or two. But, as it turns out, reaching for your phone may do just the opposite.
A recent study performed at Rutgers Business School found that using a smartphone to take a break did not effectively allow a person’s brain to recharge in the same way a non-smartphone break did.
Participants in the study were given a series of word puzzles, and those who took a phone break halfway through took longer to complete the puzzles and solved fewer problems compared to participants who took a phone-free break.
“We assume it’s no different from any other break—but the phone may carry increasing levels of distraction that make it difficult to return focused attention to work tasks," one of the study's co-authors, Terri Kurtzberg, Ph.D., told the university.
One reason she thinks why: "Cellphones may have this effect because even just seeing your phone activates thoughts of checking messages, connecting with people, access to ever-refilling information, and more, in ways that are different than how we use other screens like computers and laptops,” she says.
Anyone who's taken a "quick" work break to check the weather—and ended up deep in a cousin's ex's best friend's wife's Instagram account—can relate.
What this all means for you, according to the study's authors: It's time to find another way to give your brain a break when you're at work on a task—especially one that's challenging.
Here’s how to find your best break—one that doesn't involve a phone.
Step 1: Acknowledge that you need a break in the first place.
It’s easy to get caught up in a task, convinced that we can or even should work for hours on end.
“We feel like if we’re not doing something more, or not doing something important, then we’re failing at that task,” relationship coach Cheryln Chong tells Shine. “The task isn’t done until we are (completely) satisfied with it, and this behavior is so ingrained in us that it actually feels very uncomfortable if we’re not actively doing something.”
That’s one reason why phone use can be such an alluring way to take a break—scrolling through Twitter to catch up on the news can feel purposeful, while taking a few moments to close your eyes and breath can seem like a waste of time, or even uncomfortable.
In reality, Chong says, the constant motion that comes with phone use can take a toll.
“Bit by bit, this erodes at our brain’s ability to perform, until we exhaust ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally,” she says. “We can’t perform at our best if we’re constantly forcing ourselves to move forward without recharging our minds and bodies.”
Step 2: Decide what type of break you’re craving.
If you’ve been trapped in a fluorescent box all day and need to reconnect, you might want to opt for a quick moment in nature.
Chong often has her clients place bare feet on the ground for a few minutes. “This might seem unusual, but it's a real, research-backed technique called 'grounding,' or 'earthing,'” she says. “Reconnecting with nature and looking down at your feet can help to stabilize you when you feel like it’s all too much. It reminds you that your feet can still hold you up and keeps you in the present moment.”
Can’t make it to a clean patch of grass? Find a nearby tree, bush, or flower bed and take a moment or two to admire nature—as seen IRL, and not through an IG filter.
If you feel physically tired, you might go old-school and take a “play” break. “There’s lots of evidence that anxiety and depression can be the result of a ‘play deficit,’” Chong says. “Having pure, unadulterated fun shapes the brain and promotes efficiency, happiness, and productivity. The joy of indulging in guilt-free play without the need to impress anyone helps us adapt to change and stay creative.”
If you have the time, you might organize a workplace-wide yoga class or kickball game. Only have a few minutes between tasks? “Simply schedule regular walks outdoors into the fresh air and sunshine, and get your body moving,” suggests Chong. “You'll come to work noticing that your stress has been significantly reduced, with the mental clarity and energy to take on the day.”
Overwhelmed? It’s time for a breath break. Chong likes a format called Ziva meditation, a combination of mindfulness, meditation, and manifestation in which meditators focus on a mantra for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. “The meditation is designed to be done anywhere, even with noise, so it is a great de-stressing tool for the busy high-achiever,” she says. (Psst... the Shine app is packed with mid-day break meditations, too!)
Once you’ve separated your phone from your hand for long enough, you might realize you’re in need of a real, honest-to-god extended break. (Aren’t we all?) Opt for a digital detox in the form of trying something new. Chong likes to head to a body of water and listen to the sound of the flow, but your long break could be as simple as taking on a scrapbooking project or meeting a friend at a restaurant in a new part of town.
“Disconnect from your regular environment and immerse yourself into a new one,” Chong says. “You don’t have to go outdoors; you just have to find a task that you truly enjoy.”
Read next: 'Niksen' Is the Dutch Solution for a Guilt-Free Break