Taking a Break
The need for breaks hardly needs to be explained with frequent headlines about school-related stress. Just polling our classmates, most people rated themselves as sleep-deprived, stressed, and agreed with the statement that they “work excessively not because [they] enjoy it, but because [they] feel that [they] have to”. This led us to speculate that there was a culture of workaholism (van Beek, Hu, Schaufeli, Taris & Schreurs, 2012) in SOSS.
From our own experiences and observations, we hypothesized that SOSS students do not take mindful and effective breaks, leading to sub-optimal resource recovery and defeating the purpose of break-taking. Henceforth, we set out to investigate this hypothesis.
Regular Breaks vs. Mindful Breaks
Discerning between mindful breaks and regular breaks is important as the former draws much higher focus to the goals of breaks. These include increased work engagement and absorption rate (Kuhnel et al, 2016), reduced wind wandering (Smallwood and Schooler, 2015) and better heart rate variability. (Shearer et al, 2016).
The effort recovery model (Fig. 1), is a cohesive framework that enables better understanding of the importance of breaks at a workplace. The group retrospectively applied this to our various internship experiences last summer.
We all had job demands in the form of daily tasks given by our reporting managers when walking into the office. As we approached lunchtime, load effects began to increase in the form of piling submissions. By the end of the work day, uncompleted work which had to be brought over to the next day resulted in a load consequence, compounding into more job demands.
The intensity of the job loads is determined by recovery opportunities through the day. The consensus of the group is that taking short mindful breaks in terms of meditation or going for a walk would have caused job loads to decrease and allowed for higher work engagement.
For us to understand the study and break habits of SMU Social Science students and to better tailor our solutions to help them, the team ran an online survey with 73 student participants. There were 3 objectives, namely to find out the student demographic, details of the breaks that they normally take and the common locations that they study at.
For the demographic mix, almost half (42%) of the participants have business-related second major. Thus, we have to take into account business-related work as well. Also, 87% of the participants spent an average of more than 2 hours in school studying.
Concerning the breaks that participants take, more than 60% of participants take their break every 2 hours or less of study. In terms of what they do during breaks, there seems to be a huge variation of what they do.
For location-wise, the 2 most common study locations are the school library and school of social science building. Again, the solutions will be curated to suit these locations. Lastly, the main reason why participants study in school is because of better concentration.
Based on our research and survey, our group came up with several recommendations targeting at addressing the 3 objectives namely: 1) Stopping the mind from wandering during breaks, 2) maintaining a physical distance from work and 3) taking more frequent and shorter breaks.
Characteristics of a Mindful Break
1) Awareness and presence of the moment
By engaging our automatic cognitive processing, preference-consistent activities help our recovery process (Dhar & Gorlin, 2013). This helps us mentally detach from work, which also helps in recovery. Interestingly, mental detachment and recovery share a curvilinear relationship (Fritz et al, 2013). However, moderation is key.
2) Physically distant from work
Physical distance helps in mentally detaching from work. Study breaks in green spaces are the most effective in improving wellbeing and cognitive performance. According to the Attention Restoration Theory (ART) (Lee et al, 2015), nature engages all 4 properties of directed attention, allowing us to immerse more fully in the present.
3) Frequent and short
Students with higher academic standings took shorter breaks more often (Strongman & Burt, 2000). Infrequent and short breaks might be insufficient to recuperate resources, while frequent and long breaks might be an excuse to escape from difficult tasks.
Our first set of recommendations includes getting students to employ mindful reminders such as regular alarms or wearing a band around the wrist (Shonin et al, 2014). Sound and visual cues remind them to take a mindful break. Another suggestion is for them to adopt mindful postures when taking a break, including conducive meditative postures or being in a resting posture.
Our second set of recommendations focuses on encouraging students to take a break at a location with significant greenery that is away from their work space. We also came up with a list of GSRs that face greenery, as well as places closer to nature such as Fort Canning Park and Campus Green.
I implemented our groups recommendations and found it to be really helpful. For example, even though I was very tempted to continue studying in the law library on one of the days I studied, as I felt that I could get more work done, I left and took a short walk at fort canning and listened to calming music. Usually, I will feel tired and sleepy and have to take a nap which will leave me even more tired. Being disciplined to take breaks away from my work spaces was counter intuitive, but I find myself looking forward to the breaks and more rejuvenated to do work.
I actually booked the green GSRs from the list we compiled and found that the scenes of nature did make a difference in helping me to take a mindful break. Although the old wives’ tale that looking at trees helps to reduce myopia cannot be proven, I found that the presence of greenery did prompt me to take more frequent breaks, where I became conscious of the tension on my posture, eye strain, and need to hydrate.
Personally, I like recommendation 2 (Creating the distance) more than the other two as it gives me a break from my hectic schedule, and I feel refreshed after a short walk in nature.
I applied the effort recovery model using the proposed solution of the green GSRs in order to reduce my load effects. This helped me tremendously as the environment of being surrounded by greenery and nature served as a reminder and an easy access to take breaks while studying and more importantly when I suddenly get more tasks to complete.
I found that when I set a strict break-taking schedule, I was a lot more focused during the periods that I was actually studying, as compared to taking a break whenever I ‘feel’ like it. Studying in an open room with large windows overlooking some greenery made me less stressed while studying because I did not feel ‘boxed’ in.
Our group hopes these insights will help SOSS students as we navigate stressful periods. Each individual is unique, so we encourage you to adapt our recommendations to your personal experiences. Let this be a springboard as you dive into your own reflections and increased self-awareness.
By Lee Duan Yi Zoey, Chen Yaoguang, Lee You, Sabrina Lee Yanqi, and Sharhind Singh