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5-minute breaks can restore concentration: study

Photo: mizar_21984/iStockphoto

Sydney — Need to reset your attention during a complex work task? A five-minute break is all it takes.

So says a research team at the University of Sydney, which asked 72 college students to complete a difficult mathematics pre-test under “speeded testing conditions” for about 20 minutes.

Afterward, students in a control group (no rest) immediately went on to study a short lesson on mentally multiplying two-digit numbers. Another group was first given an unstructured five-minute rest break before studying the lesson, while a third group watched a video of an Australian rainforest beforehand. 

All of the students then completed a short survey that asked about distractions they experienced during the mental mathematics lesson, before finally taking a 20-question, problem-solving test on applying the math strategy.

The researchers compared the three groups and found that the students who were given the unstructured rest break had higher average levels of directed attention than those in the no-rest group. The rest break and rainforest video groups also outperformed the control group on the problem-solving test.

Integrating rest breaks into skills that require cognitive attention can help improve concentration and lead to more effective learning, the researchers say. They suggest building in a five-minute break after every 20 minutes of complex cognitive work. This can apply to a classroom setting or a variety of workplaces.

“You need to be doing something different for five minutes,” Paul Ginns, an associate professor and an educational psychology expert at the university, said in a press release. “Move away from your computer or device, do some breathing, or just sit quietly to rest your brain from the task. Scrolling through social media does not count as rest.”

The study was published online in the journal Educational and Developmental Psychologist.

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