Get Better at Deep Breaks

deep breaks
By Yvonne Milosevic

Productivity hacks are our jam at the Blacklight, as seen herehere, and here. Today we’ve got two new ones on the agenda: deep work and deep breaks. These practices go together like PB&J, milk and cookies, and, if it’s after 5 o’clock, gin and tonic. But first, let’s start with some definitions.

Deep work, a term coined by best-selling author and Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport, is the ability to focus intently without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. That simply means you’re working on something hard, and you’re thinking hard about it. This isn’t like the much-lauded flow state, where you’re so absorbed that you lose all sense of time and space. With deep work, you give your undivided attention to the task for around 50 minutes. Then, it’s time for a 10–15-minute break. 

Unfortunately, many of us have yet to access the magical productivity levels created by deep work. We’re constantly distracted because we can’t shake the siren call of our phonesFor example, which of these activities do you engage in when taking a break from work?

  • Scroll through Instagram/TikTok/Facebook
  • Play Candy Crush or similar
  • Doomsurf the news
  • Watch YouTube
  • Shop online

Distractions like these create context shifts, where we turn our attention focus from one cognitive context to another. This is a huge no-no when you’re doing deep work. Honestly, spending your break time on those kinds of activities is like junk food for your productivity regimen.

Context shifts significantly degrade your cognitive effectiveness. —Cal Newport

Professor Sophie Leroy of the Bothell School of Business created the term attention residue to describe what happens in our brains when we constantly shift focus. “My research reveals that, as we switch between tasks (…) part of our attention often stays with the prior task (…) instead of fully transferring to the next one,” Leroy notes. 

deep breaks

As Newport explains on his blog, “When you turn your attention from one target to another, the original target leaves a ‘residue’ that reduces cognitive performance” and fractures your focus. But, he adds, deep breaks give your mind a “chance to regroup and recharge without impeding your ability to quickly ramp back up your concentration.” 

Do This Instead on Your Deep Breaks

You can set yourself up for deep work success by spending your mental breather in more beneficial ways. Some ideas include:

  • Going for a short walk
  • Preparing a snack, coffee, or tea
  • Chatting with a friend or colleague
  • Reading a magazine article or book chapter unrelated to your deep work subject
  • Completing an easy chore or errand
  • Doing a mental recap of your deep work activities
  • Staring out the window and daydreaming

Newport cautions against using your break time to work on something related to your deep work task. And don’t introduce anything stressful, complex, or time-consuming either. 

The Power Nap-Puccino

Finally, we leave you with this brilliant suggestion for an effective break championed by author Daniel Pink. Take a nappuccino—also known as a coffee nap. Caffeine takes about 20-25 minutes to circulate through your system, so the idea is to down a cup of coffee and then head straight to bed (or wherever you can safely snooze). Set your alarm for 25 minutes, and, just as you’re waking up, that caffeine jolt will provide an extra rush that leaves you feeling refreshed and energized. 

“Naps are Zambonis for our brains,” says Pink. “They smooth out the nicks, scuffs, and scratches a typical day leaves on our mental ice.”

Deep breaks are the secret sauce for maintaining peak productive performance. So, if you’re looking to up your output and summon your inner deep worker, you can start by rethinking your rest.