Mastering Purposeful Breaks

Humzah Khan - Mar. 17, 2024 - 4 min read - #Culture

When immersed in the challenges of academic life, it’s common for students to convince themselves that there's no time for breaks, and a ‘ploughing’ mindset through their crucial study years is needed. In contrast, research strongly advocates for the contrary - taking strategic breaks, understanding the fine line between procrastination and purposeful gaps, can help boost not only academics but also student’s mental health.


Varying forms of breaks, from micro-breaks to a few days, have been proven to establish a positive correlation in well-being and productivity1. Breaks play a crucial role in stress reduction, sustaining performance and mitigating for extensive recovery at the end of the day2.


A frightening possible consequence of not taking calculated breaks is burnout. Being defined as ‘a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from a chronic (workplace) stress that has not been successfully managed’ 3. The key phrase in the later half of the definition implies that an action must be undertaken to prevent burnout - one possibility being to take a break. Burnout can cause a loss of meaning in your work and displeasure in life4 - something detrimental not only for a student’s mental health but also their studies. Physically not being able to put in the work is harmful in pivotal moments in their lives and can potentially obstruct one's journey to their goals - as seen where studies4 reveal how burnout causes a decrease in expected production. Though, naturally, signs of fatigue arise after studying for prolonged periods during term-time; being able to counter these effects is important.


Longer breaks can concern students that they are missing opportunities to learn/improve. Perhaps however the overwhelmingly positive effects of taking breaks argue against. Allowing yourself to disconnect from the strenuous environment of studies offers a breather - one where your mind can dissociate from its worries, and is then energised, prepared and focussed thereafter. The efficacy of breaks in a school day mirrors this, where students are offered time away from studies to re-energize and more importantly a change in environment. One being a focussed, demanding setting and the other being a space for students to use their time as they wish. Incentivising breaks is a great way to use them to push yourself as well as reward yourself. For example, knowing that you will take two days off studies after an intensive mock exam period is a great way to motivate yourself for an immediate reward (which is looked at more deeply later).


Differentiating between purposeful breaks and procrastination is a key hurdle to master. Procrastination, being delaying important tasks5, can blur the borders of productivity as they both offer time for yourself away from studies which may be strenuous or demanding. However, while purposeful breaks can be helpful, procrastination can lead to a spiral of time wasting, anxiety, poor mental health and a missed opportunity to improve your studies.

Distinguishing between procrastination and purposeful breaks hinges on the spontaneity and planning associated with each. Procrastination tends to be impulsive, driven by a momentary desire for a break. On the other hand, productive breaks are premeditated, often contemplated days or even weeks in advance - whether explicitly marked on a calendar or (what is more commonly) a mental note.


Imagine the scenario of facing a two-week period of exams. By pre-deciding mentally that a relaxing break lasting the weekend follows this intense period of study, you create a structured plan. The relaxation weekend serves as an immediate reward for the hard work invested in those two weeks. In contrast, the long-term outcomes of your efforts during the exam period may seem somewhat nebulous and distant. However, the prospect of the upcoming weekend relaxation serves as a tangible and gratifying goal, fueling motivation and a heightened desire to excel during that time period. This setup not only provides a clearer understanding of the concept but also emphasises the psychological impact of planned breaks on motivation and productivity. The timing and frequency of breaks is also crucial, as having too many can cause a dependency on breaks to focus.Therefore keeping them as a reward after particular periods of hard work is the best way to maximise your productivity and mental health.


The best way to spend your extended break is by doing what you love. The point of these gaps is to be a rewarding period where you can do things you don't usually get to do - treat yourself! Watching that film from the list, going out with friends or just spending the day relaxing - there are myriad fantastic ways to make the most of this time. Leverage it as an opportunity to unwind, steering clear of stress, particularly if it follows a demanding exam period. This break is your personal sanctuary for rejuvenation and personal enjoyment.


In summary, taking breaks is more than just free time – it's about finding a balance between work and relaxation. It's common for students to think they need to study all the time, but research suggests the opposite. Strategic breaks, whether short or long, can actually improve your well-being and help you do better in your studies. These breaks aren't just about avoiding burnout; they're about feeling better and doing better. It's a way to stay motivated and focused. Breaks come in all shapes and sizes, and they're not about being lazy. They're a chance to recharge your mind, reduce stress, and perform better overall. Steering clear of the blurry line between rewarding breaks and procrastination is key, and paves a way to take care of yourself all while making your study journey more enjoyable.