Microbreaks: the Surprising Value of Tiny Pauses

microbreaks title

Modern human life is busy. We pack our schedules to the max and then spend our days rushing from one activity to the next. Our brains, unfortunately, didn’t evolve in such a fast-paced environment, so it’s difficult to handle. Modern life can be hectic, even frantic.

Not surprisingly, the go-go lifestyle creates a lot of stress. But stress, as long as we make time for rest and recovery, is not bad for us.1,2 Stress can even be good for us, since it makes us tougher1 and encourages us to form social bonds.2

The brain is like a bunch of muscles that get stronger when challenged, but get tired without rest. Recovery is a vital component of both physical health and brain health.                                                                                    

Take a Breather

The obvious solution is to take breaks, get enough sleep, and enjoy the occasional vacation. This, of course, is easier said than done. We often don’t have enough time for such things, and yet we need rest. So, in lieu of getting a larger amount of rest, we should take microbreaks.

A microbreak is a moment of calm serenity that you create in the middle of an otherwise busy day. All you have to do is mentally step back from what’s happening, close your eyes (if it’s safe to do so), and take three deep breaths. Because of self-perception, this calm action sends a signal to the brain to calm down.1 Deep breaths also feel good and get more oxygen to the brain.

Please take a moment to try it right now. Seriously, stop reading, close your eyes, and take three deep breaths.

That felt pretty good, right? And it didn’t take very long. Do it regularly and you’ll discover that you’re able to handle the challenges of your busy lifestyle with additional grace.

Getting exhausted can sneak up on you, so it’s wise to heed the advice of Dale Carnegie, who recommends that you “rest before you get tired.”3 Doing so prevents anxiety, frustration, and anger. It helps us persist longer on challenging tasks. And it can help us overcome obstacles more easily.

Academic Value

Students will benefit from incorporating microbreaks into their studies. Reading, writing, doing homework, practicing math, and studying are all activities that put strain on the brain. Students will find that they can sustain longer, more focused study sessions if they take microbreaks.

These moments not only give the brain a chance to rest, they also give the brain time to absorb and understand what’s being learned. When a student pauses to process in the middle of studying, he taps into the power of spaced repetition, through which he gains a deeper understanding of the material and forms stronger long-term memories.4

Make Recovery a Habit

You can lead by example for your children by developing the habit of taking microbreaks throughout the day. There are many small moments of downtime in most days:

  • Waiting for a webpage to load? Microbreak.
  • 40 seconds left on the microwave? Microbreak.
  • Waiting for your car to warm up? Microbreak.
  • Commercial break during a TV show? Mute the TV and take a microbreak.

Microbreaks don’t actually require closing your eyes, it’s just preferable to do so if you can. This opens the door to many other opportunities for microbreaks:

  • Washing your hands? Three deep breaths.
  • Stopped at a red light? Three deep breaths.1
  • Waiting in line? Three deep breaths.
  • Have a few spare moments between tasks? Instead of checking your smartphone, take three deep breaths.

Many of the examples I just gave demonstrate how a microbreak can reframe a negative as a positive. A microbreak can transform a delay that would normally be annoying into an opportunity for rest and recovery. A microbreak can turn an inconvenience into a chance to practice patience and a chance to help yourself feel a little better.

Microbreaks are a wonderful example of the principle that everything counts. Lacking the time to take a full break, we mistakenly think we can take no break at all. In reality however, every deep breath has a positive impact. Many microbreaks sprinkled throughout the day can have a powerful effect.1 Our lives can become more peaceful, and we can become more effective, one deep breath at a time.

Works Cited

1 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.

2 McGonigal, Kelly. “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” TEDGlobal 2013.

3 Carnegie, Dale. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Pocket Books, 1990.

4 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.

Image Credit

Parpais, Leo. “Arts and Works #4.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.

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