Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

On Deep Breaks

September 14th, 2016 · 34 comments

sittingonrock-640px

A Break to Discuss Breaks

After last week’s post on attention residue, multiple readers have asked about taking breaks during deep work sessions. These questions highlight an apparent tension.

On the one hand, in my book on the topic and here on Study Hacks I often extol the productive virtue of spending multiple hours (and sometimes even days) in a state of distraction-free deep work. As I emphasized last week, these sessions need to be truly free of distraction — even quick glances at your inbox, for example, are enough to significantly reduce your cognitive capacity.

On the other hand, in my Straight-A book (published, if you can believe it, almost exactly a decade before Deep Work), I recommend students study in 50 minute chunks followed by 10 minute breaks. I cite some relevant cognitive science to back up this timing. Similar recommendations are also made by adherents to the pomodoro technique, which suggests short timed bursts of concentration partitioned by breaks.

Which idea is right?

Deep Breaks

The short answer to the above question: both.

Deep work requires you to focus intensely on a demanding task. But few can maintain peak cognitive intensity for more than an hour or so without some sort of relief.

This relief is necessary. But it’s also dangerous.

Most types of breaks you might take in this situation will wrench your attention away from the task at hand and leave you with a thick slather of attention residue.

If you’re careful, however, it’s possible to take a so-called deep break which will allow your mind a chance to regroup and recharge without impeding your ability to quickly ramp back up your concentration.

Anyone who regularly succeeds in long deep work sessions is almost certainly someone skilled at deploying deep breaks to keep the session going without burning out or losing focus.

There’s no single description of what constitutes a deep break, but here are some useful heuristics from my own experience:

  • Deep breaks should not turn your attention to a target that might generate a professional or social obligation that you cannot completely fulfill during the break (e.g., glancing at an email inbox or social media feed).
  • Deep breaks should not turn your attention to a target that your mind associates with time-consuming distraction rituals (e.g., many people have a set “cycle” of distracting web sites they visit when they surf that has become so ingrained that looking at one site sends their mind the message it’s time to look at them all).
  • Deep breaks should not turn your attention to a related, but not quite the same, professional task (e.g., if you’re trying to write a report, and you turn your attention to quickly editing an unrelated report).
  • Deep breaks should not turn your attention to a topic that is complicated, stressful and/or something that will sometime soon need a lot of your attention.
  • Deep breaks should not usually last more than 10 – 15 minutes, with some exceptions, such as for meals.

Breaks that avoid the above warnings should probably be okay. For example, here are some of my standard deep break activities:

  • Taking a short walk to get more water or coffee while trying to just observe my surroundings.
  • Day dreaming about the good things that could come from succeeding with the deep work task at hand (e.g., when working on a proof, I might day dream about how I would describe the result if I ended up publishing it).
  • Summarizing to myself what I already know about the task at hand and what I’m trying to accomplish.
  • Reading a book chapter or magazine article that has nothing to do with the deep task at hand.
  • If I’m working at home, doing something fun with my boys (who, fortunately for me, rarely bring up distributed algorithm theory when we play).
  • Complete a household task or short errand.

I don’t want to be too rigid in my description of these breaks. The key message is that when it comes to deep work, you shouldn’t feel like you’re required to maintain peak concentration for hours on end. (If you try to, you’ll fail.) On the other hand, be mindful about how you take your cognitive breathers as they play a key role in whether the deep work session as a whole will succeed.

#####

Thank you to the 200 – 300 people who showed up last night to listen to Scott and me discuss learning strategies. I enjoyed the discussion and your questions. If you missed the webinar, but want to learn more about Scott’s new rapid learning course (which was the inspiration for the event), you can visit the course website

(Photo by Ghislain Mary)

34 thoughts on “On Deep Breaks

  1. Barry says:

    Some clarification on how reading a book chapter or magazine article does not leave a cognitive residual. Are you requiring the piece read to be of fiction in nature?

    I have previously found reading non-fiction leaves me thinking about it, on some level, when I move onto something else. Or is this just a habit I need to break?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Fiction or narrative non-fiction. I would avoid “actionable” non-fiction (e.g., non-fiction about things that matter to your life and might therefore demand consideration).

  2. Martin says:

    “Reading a book chapter or magazine article that has nothing to do with the deep task at hand.”

    Do you talk about novels, poems, etc, right? What do you read if I may ask?

  3. Thanks Cal – great article.
    One important problem with the way we work (deeply or otherwise) is the long periods of holding a static posture (usually sitting). This can be helped with a dynamic workstation (which could just be moving your laptop to a high surface to stand and a low surface to sit on the floor for periods of time), and regular breaks to stretch and move (and relax the eyes by looking into the distance).
    I think the best break activity is qigong – it’s basically a practice that combines postural work, stretching, deep breathing and mindfulness. Unlike other practices with similar benefits (like yoga and tai chi), it’s easier to learn the basics and doesn’t require much space or a change of clothes.
    Of course, you might not do this during every break, but it’s certainly an efficient way of getting the benefits of a mental break, stretching, movement and other health benefits in a short period of time.

  4. Renata says:

    My first thought on this was that it is not a break if you do another work….like your suggestions on the alternatives!

  5. Newbie says:

    How does listening to music and/or background music integrate with this, in each phase (Deep Work, Deep Break)?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Music can help during deep work if you have trained yourself to get used to working with the noise (at which point it acts like a distraction blocker and can ritualize your concentration). Music is immediately helpful in deep breaks, even without practice, as it can help occupy and soothe your mind in a now residue-generating manner.

  6. Marvin Towler says:

    Cal, I devoured “Deep Work” and then went back and read “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” I work with Jay Papasan a best-selling author (The ONE Thing) like yourself. There is a synergy in both of your work. Jay would love to have you as a guest on his webinar. We know that you are serious about “Deep Work” and don’t often do this but the message is so important. Would love to discuss further with you. Thanks for all the great work.

    Marvin

  7. Valentin says:

    Thanks for clarifying this important issue. I think examples for this kind of issues helps a lot. I can see how you behave in certain cases and this makes me understand your approach deeper.

  8. Nitin Puranik says:

    Great post, Cal.

    I however wouldn’t prefer reading a book or a magazine for my deep breaks. As a couple other readers have pointed out, that leaves an attention residue when you switch back to deep work.

    My rule of thumb would be that a deep break should not involve information consumption of any kind, be it books or music. Letting your brain cool down by not channeling any more information into it helps, in my view.

  9. Hi Cal, I don’t usually point out grammatical errors (I don’t want to be THAT person) but there’s a mistake I think you’ll want to fix. You say, “Thank you to the 200 – 300 people who showed up last night to listen to Scott and I discuss learning strategies.” What you mean, is “Scott and me.” This is the kind of error that can lead people to assume that you’re not as smart as I know you really are. (You can tell it’s an error because if you deleted the word Scott, the sentence would obviously be wrong. You’d never say: “who showed up to listen to I.”)

    1. Gary C says:

      You don’t want to be THAT PERSON?!?

    2. Study Hacks says:

      Fixed. I never mind hearing about errors. I often have to write these posts fast and don’t have time for serious copy editing.

  10. I have a 55-pound kettlebell in my office that is perfect for Deep Work breaks. I can work for hours upon hours on end with Bulletproof Coffee, the kettlebell, and a standing desk. 50 minutes on, 10 minutes of kettlebell swings….repeat x 10.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Yes! Exercise is great. I should deploy this more…if only I could get a pull-up bar installed in my office. (Is that hard to do?)

  11. JD says:

    Cal – Another good post. Thanks.

    Daphne – Seriously?

    1. Dave Small says:

      Sorry JD – I have to side with Daphne on this one. We all make mistakes, but I prefer to have someone correct my grammar.

  12. Thank you for highlighting those things. It means a lot to us especially the millennials to handle our breaks and works seriously without any distractions. Thank you for sharing!

  13. Anne says:

    I like this idea and have experimented with different timeframes for work vs. breaks. I take a walk or do a mindfulness exercise. I also like Tony Schwartz’s 90 minute ultradian rhythm technique for high priority work at https://hbr.org/2011/01/the-most-important-practice-i.html

    Attention and focus peak for a lot of people around lunchtime and around 6 pm according to circadian rhythms.

  14. ziqd says:

    Hi Cal,

    Can you please elaborate how this compares with the research on:
    interleaved vs. massed/blocked sessions.

    I believe interleaving introduces what researchers call desirable difficulty, where the extra effort required after attention has switched, is helpful.
    (It’s like a mini spacing effect within the session itself).

    Would appreciate your comments. Thanks.

  15. Katie says:

    Hi Cal,

    This is off-topic from your post, but I’m curious if you’ve heard about bullet journals and what your thoughts are on them. They seem to be the next big pseudo-productivity craze, endorsed by Vogue and WSJ and Marie Kondo of “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” As someone who’s been using your techniques for nearly ten years, the bullet journal method seems needlessly complicated. I can only imagine the *hours* spent on all the designs and colors and layout planning, but I wonder how much is actually being translated into productive output and goal accomplishing. It seems like a topic that’d be right up your alley to explore in a future blog post.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      It feels a little lightweight to me. The idea that you can capture everything relevant to running your life in a single notebook curated with special symbols is optimistic. Also, as you know, I am fan of time blocking and so will be somewhat wary about any task-centered approach to managing your day.

  16. Peter says:

    Hi Cal, it is suggested in your book Deep Work that you time block every minute of your day, including breaks. In the book it is suggested that these time blocks should be no shorter than 30 minutes unlike the 15 minutes suggested here for breaks? In the book David DeWayne is also referenced suggesting 90 minute deep work sessions followed by a 90 minute break. I am a huge fan of your work and it has made a big difference to my life, I would appreciate it if you could clear this up for me. Would it better to try and reach the 4 hour mark with one hour deep work sessions and 15 minute breaks all at the start of a day, or should I be spreading the work out more evenly throughout the day or does this all just depend on my personal preference and what works best for me? Thanks

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Deep breaks are implicit in scheduled deep work sessions. That is, if you block out four hours for deep work, that is four hours that will be punctuated, as needed, by deep breaks. You don’t have to actually schedule the latter.

  17. Roneil Sivanandan says:

    @JAKE SHELLENBERGER – interesting approach!

    @Cal – I think meditation could be a great break activity.

  18. Anon Ehhs says:

    Hi Cal, I’m a college student studying computer science, and I was wondering what your thought on caffeine is.
    Do you think drinking coffee is conducive to deep work?

    I was not a fan of caffeine for boosting productivity because it felt like an illusion of focus and jitteriness seemed to distract deep work. But recently, I’m trying to take the optimum amount that would strike the right balance.

    Do you drink coffee at all?
    If you do, which time(s) of the day and how much do you drink?

    1. Newbie says:

      You might want to look up videos and forums discussing the Überman (sleep) adaptation challenges. I recall one guy mentioning he really got to notice the effect of caffeine, and that he could feel the effects up over the next 24 hours, cognitively speaking. It wouldn’t surprise me if, deep down, we’re all affected in this way (regular users, myself included, will deny this at first, understably).

    2. Study Hacks says:

      I drink lots of caffeine. Probably five or six mugs or so a day at least. My simple rule is to stop drinking caffeine at lunch (so it doesn’t impact my sleep).

      I don’t think it’s a necessary for deep work in the abstract. I’m likely addicted so if I went cold turkey I’d probably be worse at deep work for a while.

  19. Dave Small says:

    Great post Cal with practical tips on how to take a break.

    There seems to be three things here: (1) Deep Work (2) Deep Breaks (3) And the ability to develop the skills of “Deep Work” and “Deep Breaks”.

    My question: Is practicing “Deep Work” the best way to develop the concentration for “Deep Work” or do you get there through another path like meditation, breathing, practicing mindfulness, etc.?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Embracing boredom can be good training for building tolerance for a lack of distraction. Exercises meant only to stretch your concentration are also helpful, and this covers many different things — from skilled sports, to card games, to music, etc.

  20. MaryAnn Brown says:

    Hi Cal. I really enjoyed reading this post. You write that in your book, Straight-A, you recommend that students study in 50 minute chunks of time, followed by a 10 minute break.
    I am a psychotherapist. I was trained to do 50 minute therapy sessions, followed by a 10 minute break. When I do several sessions in a row, I always follow these time frames. Some therapists do 45 minute sessions, especially psychoanalysts. I was in psychoanalysis for a few years as part of some training I did. It was very valuable both emotionally and professionally. That said, 45 minutes never felt long enough to me!

  21. Sarah Bray says:

    We’ve been talking about this concept, as well as the whole Deep Work book this week in an online co-working space that I host. It has been really helpful for many of us (especially me, who officially quit social media last week and am now looking for more intentional ways to find community).

    Anyway, thanks so much for putting this body of work out there. It’s really encouraging to find new distraction-free ways of being, interacting, and working.

  22. At what age should this practice begin? Is there a way to slowly build this practice up in elementary age children and increase the time spent working as they age and mature?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Regular and frequent exposure to boredom (in the sense of lack of easily digestible novel stimuli) lays a great foundation. So does music and/or sports training once they move past an introductory level. This all starts young.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *