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A defence of study breaks

Daniel Bil

Next time you sit down for a study session, try out this little experiment.

Take a look at your watch just before you start. Note the time, and start studying. When you find yourself starting to reread material because it didn’t really register the first time – it happens to the best of us – check your watch again. How much time has passed? Is it more or less than you expected?

The truth about our concentration spans.

A study from the University of Michigan found that the average human concentration span is around 25-30 minutes. And, according to new data from Microsoft, attention spans are actually falling from year to year.

Therefore, it is highly likely that if you study for any longer than half an hour, the effectiveness of your study drops off fast. Graphically, it might look something like this:

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This data may come as an unpleasant surprise. We like to think we can focus effectively for an hour-long class, or a three hour study session, or an all-night cram. But the graph above shows, clearly, that we have our limits: after 25-30 minutes, our brain starts looking for something else. That’s not your fault - it’s only human.

To combat this, our advice is to to take a study break. That is, a 5-10 minute break where you do something you enjoy that’s completely unrelated to study, along the lines of listening to some music, texting a friend, or having a quick snack. Let your mind rest, and return to your desk focused and ready for another 25-30 minutes of quality learning.

Benefits of taking short, frequent study breaks.

1. Recharge your batteries

When you return to your desk from a refreshing ten minutes of you-time, your concentration will be reset, and you’ll be ready to tackle another 25-30 minutes of learning at full capacity. At Connect, we’ve learned from experience that your brain absorbs more with half an hour of quality study than three hours of distracted misery.

2. Give yourself a reward

Any psychology student will tell you our habits are based largely on reinforcement and punishment: if we’re rewarded for doing something, we tend to do more of it, and if we’re punished, we do it less. So think about study breaks this way: you could either punish yourself by forcing yourself to study more when you’re already exhausted, or you could reward yourself for your hard work with a break. The second option is by far the more effective way to both be more efficient and enjoy yourself whilst doing so.

3. Avoid burnout

The dreaded combination of sore eyes and a dull, pounding headache – your body and mind’s way of letting you know that you’ve simply reached your studying limit for the day – can often strike at unfortunate times (for example, right in the middle of the last, most difficult maths question in the exercise).

If you give your brain something relaxing and refreshing to do for even just five or ten minutes, it will thank you by helping you work more efficiently for longer. You can return to your desk with more stamina and, just as importantly, a more positive outlook on the work ahead.

Choosing the right study break for you.

The nature of that 5-10 minute break can vary greatly from person to person. However, you should try your best to make your break purposeful. Whatever your ‘break activity’ may be, be mindful that it fulfills the following requirements:

  • It doesn’t tempt you to extend your break. Being overly optimistic about your levels of self control can easily turn your ‘short break’ into a procrastination session. Be aware of the amount of temptation you can handle, and make sure your ‘break activity’ isn’t engrossing enough to actually take you away from studying all together. Instead of convincing yourself that you’ll ‘only watch the first ten minutes’ of your favourite hour-long show, satisfy yourself with a shorter YouTube video instead.
  • It doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re trying to study. The goal here is to use a different part of your thinking brain, giving the part you were using to study a much-needed break. To take this a step further, you might even try doing your ‘break activity’ in a different environment than your desk. Perhaps do a short yoga sequence in the living room, or pop outdoors for a walk around the block (which always seems like too much work, but always pays off).

Summary.

When your to-do list seems unending and you have assessment after assessment lined up in the foreseeable future, losing your concentration when you really need to knuckle down on study can be extremely irritating. However, if you implement study breaks into your routine, your levels of focus during your study session might go from a steep decline to looking a little more like this:

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These graphs speak for themselves. Don’t study more. Study smart. And take a break, for your own sake.

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