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Let Your Mind Wander at Work!

Research: How we take breaks can impact performance at work.
Published on
12 September 2017

How we take breaks can impact performance at work. Cyril Couffe, who holds a PhD in cognitive psychology and neuropsychology, is an associate researcher at the Talent of the Digital Transformation Chair. He shares with us the results of two recent studies.

To better understand concentration, Cyril carried out two studies in collaboration with Caroline Cuny, a researcher and professor at Grenoble Ecole de Management. “We can observe cognitive activity during break time and understand how this impacts concentration,” explains Cyril. The studies examined factors that influence concentration in work environments. The goal is to create a guide for good habits that can help improve concentration.

Putting mind-wandering to good use

“Scientific literature clearly identifies the mental processes linked to cognitive networks. The idea was to explore how to activate a network when doing nothing,” says Cyril. The researchers explored how to efficiently activate this network during break time at work. Mind-wandering was identified as a key tool for this task.

In other words, the idea is to let your thoughts, emotions and feelings roam freely. This is much like the beginning of a meditation exercise.   “Mind-wandering is the opposite of our usual cognitive activity. The idea is to stop constraining our concentration and accept the idea of letting go. The goal is to release our inhibitions.”

A strict study protocol

The first study was carried out with students at GEM and the second study was carried out with 60 working professionals. The goal was to measure the positive effects of mind-wandering on participants.

“The first study used three groups who were asked to carry out a relatively complex planning task for 45 minutes (various schedules, locations, activities, etc.). The control group was given no breaks during the 45 minutes. The two other groups were given 60 second breaks every 15 minutes, during which they listened to a text. The difference between these two groups was that one could listen freely while the other group had to precisely memorize the contents of the text. The concentration required to memorize the text eliminated any possibility of mind-wandering,” explains Cyril.

Improving concentration and performance

The control group and the group required to memorize a text demonstrated the same levels of performance.

[...] the group that was allowed to mind-wander demonstrated increased performance [...]

“Over the course of 45 minutes, these two groups slowly and continuously decreased their performance. However, the group that was allowed to mind-wander demonstrated increased performance at the end of the exercise! This can only be explained by an improvement in concentration or at least a longer time of efficient concentration. In the end, the mind-wandering group scored 10% higher than the two other groups,” highlights Cyril.

Mind-wandering in the work environment

The second study, which was carried out with 60 employees from a variety of companies, was built around a 45 minute work session (checking emails and exchanging with colleagues) without breaks and a 45 minute work session with 60 second breaks every 15 minutes. The breaks included listening to audio playback without the requirement to memorize the content.

After the work session, participants were administered a neuropsychological test to measure concentration. “This test is a good way to measure concentration. There was a clear difference between the work sessions with breaks and those without. Mind-wandering is therefore a technique we can easily and spontaneously implement with good results. It helps improve concentration, energy and availability. It also helps remove mental blocks when carrying out complex tasks at work,” concludes Cyril.

These results also demonstrate that breaks taken to read emails, check text messages or discuss another project are not as efficient because they don’t allow for mind-wandering.

To learn more about concentration, read the Chair’s guide in French on the subject of digital oversollicitation at work.

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