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Take a Break for Better Decisions

27 February 2018

Janie read When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, by Daniel Pink and enjoyed learning more about the science behind timing.

Tags: dan pink, janie read, time management and prioritization

We’re big fans of Daniel Pink’s work at Allison Partners, and have blogged about his work many times before. When I heard about his newest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, I was particularly excited to read his research on timing. The book is filled with practical hints about the right time for focusing on analytical vs. creative work, the best time of day to exercise (hint: it depends a bit on your primary goal for the exercise), and the best type and timing of breaks. I gleaned a lot of new and interesting information from this book, but Pink’s research around breaks has convinced me that I need to make a deliberate effort to take short restorative breaks throughout my day.

Pink shares several research studies that demonstrate that the effects of a break are extremely powerful. One that I found particularly interesting used data from two parole boards in Israel. These parole boards are headed up by individual judges who are responsible for hearing prisoners’ cases one after another and making decisions about their fate. In 2011, three social scientists examined the judges’ decision-making in search of any patterns to their rulings. Their research found that, in general, judges granted more favorable decisions in the morning than in the afternoon, ruling in favor of the prisoners 65% more often early in the morning than in the afternoon, regardless of the facts of the case. After recognizing this pattern, the scientists decided to see what happened after the judges took a break. They found that immediately after taking a break, the judges’ decisions tended to be more favorable, giving prisoners the same probability of a favorable ruling as those cases heard in the morning.

I thought this was fascinating and it made me really think about my own break taking habits. While my job doesn’t involve critical decisions like determining whether a prisoner is granted parole, it is important that my work is focused and as free of mistakes as possible. I’ve often felt that taking a break takes me away from the work I need to be doing and isn’t worth the time, but after reading Pink’s research, I’ve changed my mind. 

Pink shares that a replenishing break doesn’t have to be very long to be effective.  “…even breaks that last a minute or less—what researchers call ‘micro-breaks’ can pay dividends.” He has several suggestions of ways to take a “micro-break.” My favorite is “Wiggle your body to reset your mind…Stand up for sixty seconds, shake your arms and legs, flex your muscles, rotate your core, sit back down.”

I have been working to add this “micro-break” to my day every day and have noticed a definite increase in my focus and concentration immediately afterwards. Aside from my results, the other reason I love this method is that it reminds me of my older son’s first year of preschool. His wonderful preschool teacher always had the kids stand up and “shake their willies out” before moving from one activity to another. This habit worked wonders on the behavior of the young children and they had fun while they were doing it. I’ve found that this memory of Charlie in preschool makes me smile and the activity itself restores my focus. What are your habits for restoring your focus during the day? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.


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