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Study Breaks: How to Rest Productively

So, let’s get this straight. You’ve made a detailed plan for the week, and you know what, when, and where you’re going to study. You may even have an excellent grasp of how long it will take you to do it. But have you accounted for your study breaks in your plans? Organising your break times is equally important for a productive study session. Today you’re in for a talk on how to use your study breaks productively.

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The Importance of Taking Breaks While Studying

Studying, revisions, homework, tests, and exams – we talk about these aspects of student life all the time. But somehow, study breaks tend to be overlooked. A productive study session is all about keeping yourself going, and lemme tell you, sheer willpower will only get you so far.

Studies show that people generally cannot do more than 90 minutes of sustained intellectual work like studying (there are, of course, exceptions, and if you’re one of them, more power to you). By this, I mean actually being focused and immersed in your work, actively learning and revising (not scrolling on your phone every ten minutes, grabbing a coffee or snacks, or suddenly getting the urge to clean your flat).

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To get the most out of your study session, you should work hard during your assigned learning time and play hard during breaks.

Study breaks can range in their length, productivity, focus, and organisation, but they all share the same benefits:

  • They energise you. Study breaks are a chance to get away from your desk and do something else. Getting some movement, fresh air, and a change of scenery is refreshing and helps you be more productive when you get back to your work.
  • They reduce stress. While it may seem that the world is about to swallow you up if you don’t study for hours on end, the fact is, putting so much pressure on yourself is even more harmful. Taking regular breaks allows you to reset and ground yourself and return to work more relaxed.
  • They boost your cognitive prowess. Taking an active break, such as walking or a short workout, reconfigures your brain, improving memory and stimulating a better response to new information.
  • They help your social skills. If you’re studying in a library or at your university, taking a break with peers gives you a chance to catch up and supports your social needs. Being cooped up in your room is not always the best way to go, and regular chatting sessions with friends can be just as energising as a good cup of coffee.
  • They increase your comprehension of the subject. You know how you get those moments of clarity about things, popping like little lightbulbs above your head? Have you noticed they tend to light up when you least expect it? Taking breaks from your subjects allows the brain to connect and consolidate the knowledge base and provide you with that ‘a-ha!’ moment.

Finding the Best Study-to-Break Ratio

We humans simply love numbers. We always try to calculate and measure things, and study breaks have become just as much of a numbers game as anything else. Of course, this is because the world is so vast and complex that we need to categorise everything to make it make sense (spoiler alert: it probably doesn’t). Still, when it comes to study breaks, there are differing opinions:

Some believe that 90:15 is the most optimistic take. By that, I mean study for 90 minutes and rest 15 to 20 before coming back to work. This scenario is possible only if you are bent on having no distractions around you, ideally in a study hall, library, or other solitary space.

There are various other options like 60:15 or 45:10, which depend solely on what kind of work you’re doing and how much intellectual labour it requires. For instance, if you’re writing your dissertation, an hour of sustained effort can be much more draining than two hours of practising the same type of mathematical equation or simply copying notes.

Ever Heard of a Study Timer with Breaks?

Some breakthrough in productivity science (oh yes, that’s a thing!) has shown that the oddly specific ratio of 52 minutes of work followed by 17 minutes of rest yields the best results. To do so, you’d have to use a timer and set your study and break times to exactly 52 and 17 minutes (I suggest the Interval Timer app).

The Pomodoro Technique is another learning trick that relies on the timer. Pomodoro suggests setting a timer to 25 minutes (work) and taking a five-minute break as soon as it goes off. Depending on how easily you focus, you can extend work times and breaks accordingly.

Ultimately, you are the one who has to decide what study-to-break ratio works for you. Yes, I know, an exasperating answer, but we all run on different fuels, need different breaks, and have different degrees of concentration for different subjects. What I might do for hours could be terribly difficult and draining to you. On the other hand, what you breeze through, I might struggle with. It’s a trial-and-error calculation, but I recommend taking those breaks to reap their benefits.

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Productive Study Breaks

‘Oh gosh!’ you must be thinking, ‘this person wants me to study AND make my breaks productive?!’

Let me preface this by saying that a) yes, study breaks can be highly productive, and b) we need to redefine what productivity actually means.

When we say productive (in our always-on-the-go world), we imagine studying for 25 hours a day with no breaks and coming to work early and leaving late (preferably meeting yourself at the door cause you’re already back) while simultaneously eating healthy, doing sports, following fashion trends, and pursuing hobbies. Sure. I’ll be right back with all of that.

I beg to differ, though. Productivity is not about HOW MUCH you work; it’s about the accomplishment you reach while working. So, if it takes you 25 minutes to do something, it doesn’t make you any less productive than the person who has been working on it for two hours. Similarly, resting is also productive, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about taking time off to recuperate and get back to work stronger and more motivated.

Taking frequent breaks prevents the brain from burning out too quickly and resets cognitive functions, increasing motor skills, retaining information, and being more able to spot patterns and draw conclusions. Making your study breaks productive is a fireproof way of achieving just that.

study break - studysmarter magazine

Productive Study Break Ideas

First things first, get away from your work. And I mean physically as well as mentally. Take this chance to step away from your books and do something completely different.

  • Take a brisk walk. Walking allows your mind to wander too, and it will drift to its own most pressing or most approximate things, be that the film you’ve seen recently, the newest gossip, or ‘Oh, look, a puppy!’ Letting your mind roam during your break will help you rest productively and get back to work refreshed.
  • Do a short workout. A short cardio progression, a bit of jump rope, and some relaxing stretches are great accomplices in your study breaks because they wake your body up just as much as your mind, raising your alertness to new input for an extended amount of time.
  • Sure, do some cleaning. When I was doing my bachelor’s degree, I had a kitchenette in my dorm room and found it oddly relaxing to take a few minutes to scrub it thoroughly. Now, hang on, Cinderella, don’t even think about bringing out the whole gear for your study break. Plan what you want to clean and go only for that bit of the flat. For example, only do the dishes, wash the mirror in the bathroom, or take out the rubbish. Just don’t get lost in it.
  • Do something you’ve been putting off. I know that sounds discouraging – you need a break from studying only to run into some other unpleasant task. But, guess what, while you’re venting about it to yourself, you’ll be able to cross the thing off the mental list and stop dreading dealing with it later.
  • Get your creative juices flowing. Play a song on your guitar, sketch something, make an origami figure, or write some poetic thoughts down. There’s no better way to unwind than to let yourself get carried away in art (and no, you don’t have to paint the miniature Sistine Chapel in your room – it’s not about being a prodigy, it’s about resting).

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Ever Thought of Finding Games to Play During Study Breaks?

It seems that as we grow up and get swamped under all sorts of chores and responsibilities, we forget how to play. Study breaks could be a way of bringing some of that childlike joy back into your life.

Now, don’t get me wrong, short study breaks are not the time to start your spaceship computer with multiple screens – leave that for your time off. But, there are small and easy games you can turn to to get some decent rest.

  • Crossword puzzles. Crosswords are always fun – and I take the word fun a bit liberally here. They are highly stimulating and informative, and your brain gets to use a variety of linguistic and spatial competencies while solving them – talk about oiling those mental gears properly!
  • Jigsaw puzzles. What could be more satisfying than finally putting that mysterious piece in its spot? However, just like crosswords, doing this activates different parts of your brain than those you use for studying and freshens you up.
  • Try playing Reigns: Her Majesty. This cell phone game is about a newly-crowned queen who has to manage her staff, finances, import, export, and her people. While that sounds a bit complicated, it’s all about swiping left and right. Your choices affect the development of the kingdom, so you have to think it through, but it’s a game easy enough to put down when it’s time to go back to work.
  • Ring Fit Adventure. This quest-based game requires you to do some full-body cardio moves. While this title is meant for those who have Nintendo Switch, you don’t need to spend too much money on it – simply go on YouTube, pick a playthrough, and mimic the motions.
  • Just Dance. This used to be one of my and my roommate’s favourite break activities. It’s another Nintendo title where you dance to a wide range of songs, mimicking the figure in the video. Let me tell you, neither of us ever spent a penny on it because YouTube provided all the songs we needed. Props to you when you do the Rasputin squat dance!

    Fun fact: Music boosts your concentration

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Best Things to do During Study Breaks – The Takeaway

To summarise this long-winded rant – study breaks are essential for a productive study session. They energise you and boost your mood, motivating you to work hard when you return to your books.

Stepping away from your work and doing something different is the best way to rest from your studying sessions. There’s a whole range of things you can do, including:

  • Short workouts to wake your body and mind.
  • Being creative with music, drawing, or crafting.
  • Cleaning up your place in quick bouts.
  • Playing games on your phone.
  • Solving puzzles and riddles.

All these activities elevate your concentration because they stimulate different cognitive faculties, allowing you to rest and consolidate what you’ve learnt so far. After all, some of our brains’ best work is done at rest, so do enjoy it!

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How can you take breaks while studying?

To take breaks while studying, you need to get some distance from what you’re doing and find something completely different to occupy yourself with. Don’t get lost in social media –try going for a quick walk, do a short workout, or play a quick game to freshen yourself up instead.

How often should you take a break while studying?

Overall, it is suggested that you take at least one 15-minute break every 90 minutes. You can, however, take shorter breaks every 45 or 30 minutes.

How does taking breaks help studying?

Taking breaks helps studying because they allow your brain to rest from studying. Breaks energise you and boost your mood, help you wake up physically and mentally, and stimulate your concentration when you get back to your books.