High-achieving students (and their parents) can develop a bad habit of working nonstop. Sometimes this means putting forth continuous effort for a week or month, especially in the face of a deadline.
Other times, students fall into a dangerous cycle of working intensively and then crashing, perhaps sleeping for two days straight or falling into a depression. The pervasiveness of this pattern is due in part to increased pressure and ever-higher demands on students, in part to a societal idea that rest is a sign of weakness, and in part to the internet, which causes us to be constantly “plugged in.”
In truth, working nonstop is highly unnatural. Look around you. The visible world is made up of cycles and contrasts: day and night, high tide and low tide, etc.. In a single day, we are active while we are awake, and then we, and every other animal, sleep to replenish our energy. Over the course of a year, the vibrant energy of summer is contrasted with the passivity of winter, when many animals quite literally hibernate.
Human beings, despite what we may like to believe, are part of the natural world, and require the same kind of balance. In fact, over-achievers take note: resting makes us more productive, and helps us get more done in less time!
So let’s talk about breaks!
What is a break?
A break is time to disengage. That might mean pausing one activity and not doing anything at all —staring at the clouds, say. It also might mean engaging in a new activity that acts as a pattern interrupt from what you were doing before, like going for a walk around the block. The activity chosen for a break needs to be thoughtfully selected. In general, single-focus activities are much more effective during breaks (as well as during work sessions!) because they engage and hold your full attention.
A quick note on digital breaks: All of us—parents, students, and even the folks at Signet—are prone to using our smartphones to fill the short spaces between activities. While this is natural, it’s not the most effective way to rest. The activities we choose online often prevent us from disengaging; in fact, they can create more stress. While it is possible to use an internet connection to disengage, it’s often not the most helpful choice.
Why Take a Break?
Despite what current cultural norms indicate, taking breaks is a natural part of the process of living. Breaks allow our bodies and minds the rest they need to continue operating at their highest levels.
Breaks can and should be intentional and meaningful. They offer time for recreation, for processing knowledge and experiences, and for thinking deeply and reflecting on the bigger questions. Whether it’s in a single study session or an entire year, taking breaks is part of the natural rhythm of how we grow.
If taking breaks is so great, why isn’t everybody doing it? The reason is that our society embraces an “if a little is good, a lot must be better” mentality. But when it comes to hard work, that simply isn’t true.
If you aren’t convinced by the deeper philosophical ideas behind taking breaks, here are some tangible, practical reasons to consider:
- Breaks improve efficiency. If you want to get more done, research shows you should be taking at minimum one quick break per hour in order to maximize your productivity.
- Breaks foster creativity. When you top working on that essay to take a walk around the block, your subconscious mind fires up and starts running in the background. It’s from our subconscious that we get our best ideas and our most creative solutions, which is why those ideas come to us in unusual places, like on a walk or in the shower.
- Breaks help course-correct. Students who work without rest often get trapped down a rabbit hole, devoting too much attention and time to one particular element of an assignment. By taking a break, you not only return to your work refreshed, but with new perspective, allowing you to climb out of the rabbit hole and move on to something else.
Not only does taking breaks help students reach their fullest potential; in the long run, not taking breaks can have serious consequences for physical and mental health. Breaks are an opportunity to step off the treadmill of life and check in with ourselves. Sure, it might feel easier to stay on the treadmill, but ultimately, a life lived at constant breakneck speed is less fulfilling.
We hope that by the end of this post, you’ll be convinced that the value of taking breaks extends well beyond performance optimization. But if that’s what motivates you to start taking breaks, that’s okay too. We’re confident that once you begin taking breaks on a regular basis, those larger, more abstract benefits will make themselves apparent.
How often should you take breaks?
We recommend building in breaks at every level of time. This means hourly, daily, weekly, throughout the semester, and yearly—we’ll even discuss how “breaks” work on a lifelong scale!
Hourly: Students can rarely focus intently for more than 30-60 minutes at a time. Taking short but regular breaks allows you to extend the total amount of time you’re able to focus. You will also retain the material better and actually enjoy what you’re doing. Check out our blog post on the Pomodoro Technique for our favorite work/break structure. Physically moving the body during a study session can be a great way to take a break: stretch, stand up from the desk, walk over to look out the window, etc..
Daily: Students should be seeking a balance between academics, extracurriculars, time for themselves, time for family and friends, and ample sleep. If we could recommend just one time in the day to disconnect, it would be before bed. Consciously put away the textbooks and devices, and spend time with friends or family, play an instrument, or read a book for fun.
Weekly: We strongly recommend students allocate some portion of the week as time away from obligations or engagements. This could be all or part of the weekend, but however much time is spent, it’s important to deliberately hold that space open on the calendar. You might go on a family day trip, check out a new movie in theaters, or simply hang out with friends.
Monthly/Semester-Long: Students should use vacations, holidays, or even just weeks that are light on work as chances to relax. A change of scenery is always helpful, whether that’s a trip to visit family or going somewhere local but new. Even vegging out and sleeping in can be valuable pursuits for a couple of days, although during longer breaks you should avoid becoming a total couch potato. We also encourage you to use this time to reflect (at least twice a year). We created a Semester Reflection resource to help you continually refine your goals and strategies.
Yearly: It’s currently en vogue for students to continue working at the breakneck academic-year pace throughout the summer. We strongly caution against this. Summers should be useful, certainly, but they should not be a grind, or feel like a third semester of school. Summer break (it’s right there in the name!) is designed to help you regenerate and recuperate, and should be taken as such. You might work a job, sign up for an internship, do volunteer work, or take a vacation, but the overall pace of activity should slow down considerably during these precious months.
Lifelong: Students who build breaks into the fabric of their lives now will find that they maintain the habit as they grow older, even as they transition from school to a career path. Question the idea of a nonstop trajectory from high school through college and onto the corporate ladder, in order to ensure you’re making the choices that are best for you. Some students may benefit from a gap year before enrolling in college, or a year to work before entering graduate studies. The average working career is 40+ years, and in such a long timeframe it’s vital to take time out to reflect, to make sure you’re being guided by what matters most.
It’s easy to talk about taking breaks, but much more challenging to actually build them into the routine of our lives. And as with so many things, the people who have the hardest time taking breaks are the ones who need them the most.
One of the biggest drivers of incessant activity is “the to-do list,” which stems from our society’s desire for busyness. If you feel you can’t take breaks because you haven’t made it through your to-do list, you may need help prioritizing. (Remember that taking breaks actually helps you work more efficiently!)
It might be helpful to talk with your parents about what on your to-do list is actually important. Discerning the crucial stuff from the minutiae is key to being able to take breaks in an unburdened way. Learning to focus on what really matters will not only help you academically, it will give you a broader perspective on life.
Although it may not always feel like it, prioritizing breaks requires courage: the confidence to do something different from what everybody else is doing. Ultimately, to take a break is to prioritize being human. And when you begin to prioritize your humanity, your worldview shifts in tremendous ways.