Breaks Are the Food of Life

Photo by ThorstenF at pixabay.com

If you remember from my social media blackout, I discovered that what I craved the most was the connection with friends, family and acquaintances. The unusual thing about me craving socialization is that it’s not common for me. I’m an introvert through and through. I don’t dislike other people; I just find solace in my solitude.  

As an introvert, I often feel misunderstood. Whenever I’ve shared, for example, that I’ve spent Thanksgiving alone eating pizza and binge-watching TV, I usually get a sad, pitying response. I, on the other hand, see that memory as an enjoyable one. It was during senior year of college. My dorm was empty and for the first time in the months since I’d started work on my thesis project, I didn’t have pressing work to be done. I leisurely hogged the shower for almost an hour. I enjoyed the decadence of washing every load of my laundry at once in the vacant row of washers in our laundry room. I even danced around my suite to the Spice Girls unencumbered. Basically, I did everything I love to do when I’m alone. It was freeing and refreshing. I found great value in this experience, but I don’t think our society in general would say the same. 

We underestimate the importance of taking breaks from our hamster wheels to do nothing. I shouldn’t describe this use of time as being for nothing, because that’s only the perception of our productivity focused culture. We are taught to view activities that are not directly in service to progress as useless. This judgement couldn’t be farther from the truth. Activities such as dancing, self-pampering or just general hermiting serve an important purpose. “Decades of work from multiple different subfields within psychology all point towards the conclusion that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work” (Newport, 2016, p. 154). 

If you’re an introvert like me then you’re more likely to inherently understand and embrace these benefits. Researchers believe introverted and extraverted behaviors may be symptoms of how sensitive a person’s brain is to chemical rewards. The human brain sees socialization as evolutionarily advantageous. Our ability to survive and thrive as a species owes a great deal to our social capabilities. As a results, our brains have evolved to give rewards, such as dopamine, in relation to social behavior (Kauffman, 2014). 

This explains why we often make the mistake of assuming introverts don’t like people and extraverts do.  It’s not that introverts have an aversion to others, but that our brains are not as sensitive as extraverts’ brains are to the chemical rewards related to being around other people (Kauffman, 2014). 

Extraverts walk away from social situations energized from the dopamine boost, but introverts end up feeling drained.  This response is why introverts tend to take breaks away from others and extraverts keep coming back for more. However, in our highly connected world extraverts would be wise to learn the value of taking breaks as well. 

The prevalent integration of the smartphone into our lives means the opportunity to connect with others is now ever present. “What keeps us twitching at our screens, more even than the satisfaction of any practical need, is the continuously renewed opportunity to bathe in the primal rush of communion” (Greenfield, 2017 pp. 68). Our phones may be cutting edge technology, but they are, more often than not, convincing us to participate in a process of psychological motivation as old as our species.

Every email, text and social media notification you receive is an opportunity to get the same type of rewards-based boost of dopamine in your brain as socialization offers (Lewis, 2017). If you’re an extravert, you might be conditioned to be attracted more to this incentive than an introvert. I’m okay leaving a message unread because sometimes just the thought of responding in that moment is mentally exhausting to me, but I also have friends who just can’t resist the pull to engage. Even if the ability to constantly connect is energizing for you, it may also be making you spend your time focused on short-term gains rather than long-term ones. 

As I discussed in my first blog, working deeply can offer significant professional and personal benefits. Always answering the call for a short-term dopamine boost from a notification on your phone, could mean you are wasting valuable resources. Not only are these types of activities distractions that hinder deep work, but, as a human, you have a finite amount of willpower in a day to focus deeply. Even the most well-trained brain tops out around four hours of concentration before running out of willpower to sustain it (Newport, 2016). Ask yourself which kind of activity do you want to use your daily allotment of willpower on: moment to moment social and technological interactions that provide a temporary high or deep work that builds towards your professional and personal goals? Your evolutionary predisposition may be working against you. 

Know, though, that I am not saying all socialization or even all use of technology is without benefit. What you do when you take a break is as important as deciding to take one in the first place.  

Laugh 
If you find yourself watching videos on social media a lot, know you can use this to your advantage rather than distraction. Scientist have found older adults who watch a funny video have lowered cortisol levels and increased dopamine (Gazzaley & Rosen, 2018). So, it’s alright when you’ve hit a wall to take a short break and find something funny on YouTube as a way to get refreshed. Just don’t fall in the trap of auto-play and lose yourself in a hole of distraction. Don’t like videos? Find something funny to read. Simply taking a break to laugh can help you refresh. 

Talk 
If you’re a social butterfly you can also use this to your benefit. Take a break by talking to someone. Don’t just text your friends or family, though. Speak with them in-person or on the phone. Research shows this type of human connection can help you relax and do better work (Gazzaley & Rosen, 2018).  
 
Exercise 
Leave your desk and take a walk or plan a lunchtime work out. If you’re feeling stressed, the endorphins from exercise can help you restore your willpower for when you need it most. If you can do your exercise in nature, even better. Being in nature can help improve your brain function as well (Gazzaley & Rosen, 2018). Exercising doesn’t have to be a solo activity either. Take your kids along or invite a close coworker. Maybe you’ll find yourself talking and walking and laughing all at the same time. Talk about a considerable way to restore your mental energy and focus. 
 
For the introverts reading this post, the suggestion to take breaks is a no-brainer. We, of course, know the restorative powers of being alone. For those of you who’ve never experienced them, I challenge you to try. You know that Spotify playlist you love, and your friends hate? Guess what? When you’re alone you can turn it up to eleven. Alone time provides the quiet to get immersed in the world of a good book or to take a really good nap, both of which are reenergizing (Gazzaley & Rosen, 2018).

The next time you find yourself alone, don’t just reach for your phone to fill the void. Discover how this time can help energize you in a different way. 


References

Gazzaley, A., & Rosen, L. (2018, January 8). Remedies for the distracted mind. Behavioral Scientist. Retrieved from https://behavioralscientist.org/remedies-distracted-mind/

Greenfield, A. (2017, June). A sociology of the smartphone. Longreads. Retrieved from https://longreads.com/2017/06/13/a-sociology-of-the-smartphone/

Kauffman, S. B. (2014, June 9). Will the real introverts please stand up?  [Blog Post] Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/will-the-real-introverts-please-stand-up/ 

Lewis, P. (2017, October 6). ‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopia
 
Newport, C. (2016). Rule 1: work deeply. In Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world (pp. 95-154). New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing. 
 

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