It’s 3 pm. Your child, we’ll call him or her Avery, just got home from school and is exhausted. The school day is long. Avery’s got homework. Avery likes to spend free time snapchatting. However, there is a no cell phone until homework is done policy in your house. So Avery does one of two things.
The first option: Avery, mentally fried, starts working on homework and powers through it until it is done. Unfortunately, according to neurologists, powering through is not actually a thing. Instead, you’ll end up hitting a mental wall, feeling overwhelmed, or stressing out your brain. Not good for your brain’s overall health say neurologists from the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Okay, so the second option: Avery, mentally fried, convinces you that a break is absolutely necessary and gets 30 minutes of screen time – be that a phone, iPad, computer, or TV screen. Unfortunately, not all breaks are created equal. A social media break is not actually a good break for your brain. Your brain is actually not rejuvenated after breaking to check out Facebook, SnapChat, or email. Even working on a puzzle or reading a book, your brain is putting in effort, which is a “no no” if it’s going to be a true brain break.
As Stacy Vernon from the Center for Brain Health writes, you need to “take frequent brain breaks to ‘recharge’ your mental energy. It is critical to cognitive health to build in short stretches of time throughout your day where you are not actively engaged in a task. Pushing yourself beyond the point of mental exhaustion stresses the brain. Building in brain down-time every day helps alleviate the stress that builds up throughout the day and can result in a feeling of mental exhaustion and low-level anxiety. Consider the 5 x 5 method” she continues, “taking 5 minutes of down time 5 times throughout the day. This down time for the brain allows it to recharge its cognitive reserve so that you feel less mentally fatigued and more clear-headed. As a result, your mental energy is replenished throughout the day, which reduces the feeling of burnout. Spend these times doing something that is relaxing to you – taking a walk outside, meditating, taking a short nap, stretching, or simply sitting in a quiet room and letting your mind wander. These brain breaks are meant to be times of zero effort thought – not zero thought at all.”
So what should Avery do? A break is certainly needed. Well, the best type of break for Avery’s brain that is going to help the brain manage stress, reduce burnout, consolidate and synthesize information, and be a healthy brain in general, is one where Avery goes for a walk, runs stretches, or just sits peacefully somewhere being present in the moment. This break is going to make Avery’s time working more productive because Avery’s brain will have time to reboot.
The Center for BrainHealth also recommends “interval training” for the brain, where you “practice strategically attending to a high-intensity, core mental task for 15 to 20 minutes without interruptions, followed by a shorter interval devoted to a low-intensity mental task. As the length of time you are able to focus increases, begin to increase this interval by five-minute increments up to one hour of focused work.”
As I spoke with Stacy on the phone, because yes I did my own brain health assessment from the Center for BrainHealth, she suggested even combining the two methods – the 5 x 5 and the interval training.
So you start with 15 minutes of work, followed by 5 minutes of a brain break, followed by 15 minutes of work, and so on.
So, after Avery’s 5 minute brain break after school, though, let’s be a bit nicer and give her like 30 minutes of a break after school to do one of those activities that don’t require brain effort because she just finished an entire day of school… Then Avery can start 15 minutes of work.
If Avery’s having trouble starting work, this is a great strategy because 15 minutes isn’t that long. (If it’s too long for your kids because they are quite young, start with 5 minutes). This short time period dedicated to work helps with task initiation issues. It’s only 15 minutes, Avery thinks, I’ll just start working on something and even if it’s hard, I can stop soon because I only have to work for 15 minutes. 15 minutes later, Avery is surprised that so much work has gotten done and that it’s already time for a break. This is great and reinforcing of the process.
So Avery takes a 5 minute break. For my 5 minutes, now that it’s warm out, I’ve been grabbing a sparkling water from the fridge, my sunglasses, and my dog (Lily), and I’ve been sitting outside on my porch enjoying the warmth, the breeze, the greenery, and my dog’s company. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the day. And it works. When it’s over, I’m ready to get back to work. As Sandra Bond Chapman, the founder of the Center for BrainHealth explains, “Your brain can reboot after a few minutes of rest. Quieting your mind helps improve decision-making, problem solving, and productivity.”
I’m not perfect – just like Avery won’t be perfect. Sometimes I spend the entire 5 minutes thinking about what I will do next and trying to refocus on the rustling leaves in the trees. But that’s okay. I’ll get better with practice.
And sometimes, when the alarm goes off while I’m working, I’m actually super dedicated to what I’m doing and I take a few more minutes to finish.
When that starts to happen, you can increase your work time to 20, or 25 minutes, all the way up to 1 hour, but experts suggest never going over 1 hour without a brain break to keep you most efficient.
Then, once homework is done, and hopefully it’s done early because Avery’s been so productive and efficient, there is plenty of time for social media. What a great afternoon.