Breaks: 3 surprising reasons why you shouldn’t take study breaks

Strengthen your ways of taking breaks.

By Nuzhah Miah

Featured 19 Mar 2021

Breaks don’t always work. Learn how to how to stay motivated and work more (without getting burnout).

If you grew up with study tube (or study if you’re OG), then you will have come across videos or posts of people studying for more than 10 plus hours.

Study Breaks

While it’s easy to say they’re clickbait, it’s hard to ignore that there are indeed students out there who can spend their whole day studying without ever really taking time out in between to watch their current TV series or scroll through Instagram. While on the surface it may seem draconian, re-thinking how you take breaks can benefit your overall productivity.

The Sawyer Effect

The first thing to recognize is the breaks most of us take when we are working. Often when we finish one of the tasks out of a long list of many for that day, we may watch an episode on Netflix, go on social media, or maybe talk to our friends. These breaks are based on their enjoyment, which is important especially when we are working a lot and in need of short-term motivation.

However, what these types of breaks reinforce to us mentally is that we are working and not enjoying ourselves when studying which can have negative effects on our long term motivation which is the key driver for success.

This is what is known as The Sawyer Effect. In Mark Twain’s The Adventure of Tom Sawyer, Tom is given the dreary task of whitewashing his Aunt’s fence. His friend Huckleberry Finn taunts him for having to whitewash this fence, however, Sawyer convinces his friend that he is having lots of fun whitewashing this fence and that it is a form of play and manages to get Huckleberry Finn to help him.

‘Work’ has negative associations, whereas ‘play’ has positive associations. So when we take breaks like going on social media as study breaks when studying, we are emphasizing that social media consumption is ‘play’ and solidify that studying is ‘work.’ Since we naturally think ‘play’ is better than work, we distance ourselves mentally from wanting to work and instead, wanting to indulge in play.

Sharpen your axe

The type of breaks we should be taking is ‘productive’ breaks which may seem like an oxymoron but can be best presented through the famous analogy of woodcutters chopping down trees. As a woodcutter, you can spend hours cutting away with your axe, but if it’s blunt, the tree will take longer to come down. However, if you take a few moments to step back and sharpen your axe you will be more efficient when you return to your task and the tree will come down faster.

This is how you should view your breaks, not as a reward or form of play, but as a way to refuel the mind and body so it’s benefiting us when we return to continue studying. Moreover, you should only take these breaks when you need them in the same way you wouldn’t take the time out to sharpen your axe if it isn’t blunt.

Scheduled breaks can often interrupt our flow of work or take us out of what Cal Newport calls ‘deep work.’ It is arguably unnecessary for us to take time out when we are in the zone of studying and we often find ourselves coming back to the task struggling to get back into that state of flow. The state of flow is the most enjoyable part of hustling, second to only perhaps achieving the long term goal we are striving for.

So how should we use breaks?

Breaks, therefore, shouldn’t be about enjoyment but instead fulfilment. Determine how the break you are going to take is going to help you when you return to your tasks. How is it going to sharpen your axe? Examples of productive breaks are getting food or tea, exercising and getting fresh air.

However, there are times when we need to take a longer break. It is important in these times to do things in these breaks that won’t leave us in a slump when we return to work (this is often around noon for me). In the “Motivation Myth”, Jeff Haden outlines the benefits of having a break where your brain is still active instead of passively consuming material like watching Netflix.

Examples of things you can do in longer breaks: reading books. I now keep my Kindle nearby as a replacement for when I’d usually go on my phone), journaling, reading the news or reviewing your long term goals and writing them out. I would recommend keeping note of all the things when “sharpen your axe” so when you feel the need to take a break you’re not tempted to take the previous conventional breaks that I discussed earlier and instead keep doing the things that refresh and keep your brain active.

Once you are finally done with everything you have wanted to complete for that day, you can go ahead and do something recreational without any guilt. This makes it much more enjoyable than if you were not to delay it till after you were had truly finished studying. This also fights procrastination as you are making the most of your free time instead of constantly measuring how long a task will take and instead just completing it in almost one go.

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