On Fire or Fried? Making Mental Breaks Work for You

When I was living near Chicago, working full-time during the day and pursuing graduate studies at night, I learned the importance of taking breaks. Diverting my attention away from mental work, even for 10 to 20 minutes, made the difference in whether I was on fire or fried.

Only you know when it’s time to give your brain a rest. You can recognize your own signs. Perhaps, you’re struggling to write a single sentence. Maybe you’ve not had a complete thought in the last half hour. For many of us, accomplishing the simplest task becomes difficult when our energy is low.

Burnt Cheese ToastFor me, the unmistakable sign that my brain was fried was when I would burn cheese toast. Rather symbolic, isn’t it? Cheese toast was my go-to-food when I needed to eat, but I didn’t want to spend more than five minutes in the kitchen. Most of the time, I could complete this easy task with the efficiency of a short-order cook. However, when I was exhausted and yet still trying to do multiple things at once, the cheese toast suffered the consequences!

Thankfully, around the time I was burning a lot of toast (and occasionally brewing coffee without the coffee), I was on a research team studying positive energy. Much of the literature revealed that breaks boost energy and foster creativity. I decided to pay more attention to my energy levels and see what mental breaks could do for me.

I experimented with different frequencies, durations and types of breaks. You can try this, too. See what re-energizes you. A really simple break is standing up and stretching. Stopping to eat some nuts or an energy bar can help, too. If you need to clear your head, consider taking a brief walk. That was the type of break that consistently worked for me. When my thoughts felt jumbled, I’d go outside, walk five blocks to Lake Michigan, gaze at the water for two minutes and walk back. (There’s lots of compelling research on the restorative value of natural environments.) By trying a variety of breaks, I was able to develop a sense for what I needed to refuel and regain my ability to focus.

Starting is easy. Develop a sense of your own needs by noticing the signs that point to energy depletion. Pay attention to the quality of your work. Are you getting things done or spinning your wheels? Note how you feel physically, mentally and emotionally. These are all clues. Learn to recognize which signs indicate low energy and make mental breaks a part of your self-care.

Be on fire, not fried.

Closing notes: If you are interested in learning more about energy management, I’d recommend following Tony Schwartz and The Energy Project. I also invite you to contact me for further conversation about how to develop your strategic capability through learning.