One Simple Thing that Makes You a Star

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from my article in the Huffington Post

There is one very simple thing you can start doing right away that will sustain you at the top of your game, day-in, day-out. It will also provide you with higher energy and the steady flow of creative insights that solve problems and inspire you with new ideas. And if that weren’t enough, they tell you that this very simple thing is an essential step in achieving mastery in your chosen profession.

It’s taking a 20-minute break every 90 minutes.  It’s simply stepping away from your computer, leaving your smart phone behind, and going for a peaceful walk; preferably outside amongst the birds and trees and sky, allowing your mind to relax and your brain to refuel (I’ll explain the refueling part in a moment.)

The science that has established this fact is not theoretical; it’s definitive. Yet when I lay out the science for people in corporate seminars about the powerful benefits achieved by taking a break every 90 minutes, many of them say, “I can’t possibly stop every 90 minutes.” Moreover, they can’t imagine that a 20-minute break is actually the key to becoming a star performer.

It’s all about the brain and a biological cycle called the basic rest-activity cycle (BRAC,) [1] which recycles every 90 minutes. During the first phase of BRAC, brain waves oscillate at a fast rate making you feel wide-awake and able to focus your attention. Your mind is humming. Ideas flow more easily and faster. The ideas your brain produces during this phase of BRAC are usually better, and you tend to have more of them. Your memory is also better and your brain generates what is called “memory consolidation,” which is essential for envisioning something novel or learning something new.

But in the second phase of the cycle, brain waves gradually start to slow down until, in the last few minutes of BRAC, you begin to feel tired and somewhat fuzzy.[2]  The ideas dry up and it’s harder for you to connect the dots.  You start to experience minor but annoying memory lapses, such as looking for something and momentarily forgetting what it was you were looking for. These are telltale signs of brain waves slowing down.

During the fast brain wave phase, brain cells use sodium and potassium ions to generate electrical signals. These fast brain waves burn through these ions, which means your brain requires a period of rest to recharge with new ions. The restoration process requires twenty minutes of rest, after which your brain has the fuel to run fast brain waves once again.

Related research also found that the 90/20 cycle was how musicians achieved mastery. This research focused on young violinists who had mastered the instrument. It was discovered that these virtuosos universally limited the rigors of practice to ninety-minute sessions, systematically distributed over the day, followed by a leisurely break, and sometimes even an afternoon nap.[3]

People don’t take breaks partly because of guilt, partly because they are afraid it will cause them to fall behind, but mainly it’s because we’ve been conditioned to keep our nose to the grindstone.

It’s time we change our mindset and embrace fifty years of research which shows that working non-stop is an unproductive way of getting things done, and a hopeless approach to excelling, innovating, or achieving mastery.

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So, monitor your mental energy and before it hits bottom, take a break (usually around 90 minutes of sustained effort). Here’s how to do it; it couldn’t be simpler:

  • Step away from your work. Leave your smart phone behind.
  •  Go for a stroll outside or simply look out a window. Gaze at the sky. Watch the wind blow. Smell the roses.  Look at the people you pass with non-judgmental eyes.
  • Let your mind and brain relax completely.
  • While on a break, keep your mind open just enough to catch a creative insight that might emerge.

 If you can’t imagine taking a break every 90 minutes, start out with a break mid-morning and another mid-afternoon. Do this for a couple of weeks and the tangible increase in brain function you’ll experience will motivate you to add more breaks to your day.

Notes

[1] “Basic Rest and Activity Cycles,” Polyphasic Society, http://www.polyphasic society.com/polyphasic-sleep/science/brac/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Psychological Review 100, no. 3 (1993): 363–406.