During long days of rigorous work, we’re often overcome with the urge to stop and let our minds take a break.  But how necessary are these breaks actually?  They are only as necessary as you believe them to be according to a new study conducted by Stanford University.  After running several experiments, researchers have concluded that people who consider their willpower to be unlimited are better at completing multiple tasks than people who feel their brains deserve periodic breaks.

Researchers recruited 60 college students to complete a lengthy survey.  In order not to tip off the subjects to the experiment at hand, the psychologists buried questions about whether the subjects believed people were capable of pushing through strenuous periods of effort or needed to take a break to refuel.  Afterward, the subjects completed consecutive mentally grueling tasks.  Once the data was examined, researchers determined that the students who believed that the mind was strong enough to persevere performed much better at the subsequent tasks.

Next, the researchers wondered whether people’s perceptions toward willpower could be manipulated.  Slightly altering the first study, the researchers recruited new students and gave them surveys packed with leading questions so that half the subjects were made to agree that “Working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel tired such that you need a break before accomplishing a new task,” while the other half was led to believe that “Working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel energized for further challenging activities.”  The power of these suggestions was strong: on a series of tasks, the people who thought they could achieve once again outperformed the people who felt entitled to a mind break.

In order to triple check their findings and take this study out of a laboratory, researchers enlisted 100 additional students during a period of high anxiety: final exams week.  Students self-monitored their activities and though all of them were busy, the students who believed their willpower was limited snacked, watched TV and napped significantly more than the students who thought their minds were up to the challenge.

These findings show that our brains do just fine at working hard for a sustained period of time, so long as we have a little faith.  In the words of the researchers, “it is important that people understand that their own beliefs about willpower as a limited or unlimited resource can affect their self-regulation.”  The next time you’re overwhelmed with work and feel too burned out to finish, just remember that that urge to procrastinate is all in your head.

Comments

  1. CaitlinDataParker says:

    Did it occur to them that maybe people who think they have better willpower to stay on task may just performed better because those tasks are easier for them; and that the various groups of people in experiments 1 and 3 just had a realistic view of their own performance (and subsequent individual needs for breaking)? For example, if someone does poorly at math, it can be mentally exhausting, and they will believe they need breaks, but that doesn’t mean their taking breaks is the cause for them performing poorly at it. Similarly a person who doesn’t believe she needs a break studying math may feel so because it’s easy for her.

    Saying these findings (even for exp. 2) are evidence that performance is governed by self-belief is premature and unethical, and it’s not at all what the researchers actually stated in their study. It’s not impossible that this relationship exists, but we can’t make that judgment yet. Yes, priming people to think they need fewer breaks probably can affect their performance positively; but that doesn’t mean the need for rest is all in your head. People have different brains. You should put out an article with this headline when more research (and hopefully a meta-analysis) has been done instead of taking one very small-scale study out of context and saying people who space themselves are all just self-defeating bozos.

  2. CaitlinDataParker says:

    Did it occur to them that maybe people who think they have better willpower to stay on task may just have performed better because those tasks are easier for them; and that the various groups of people in experiments 1 and 3 just had a realistic view of their performance in the subjects (and subsequent individual needs for breaking)? For example, if someone has a short attention span, school can be mentally exhausting, and he or she will quite logically believe they need breaks because it’s more difficult for them to process. Similarly, a person who doesn’t believe she needs a break studying math, for example, may feel so because it’s already easy for her; her sense of willpower may come from competence, and not the other way around.
    Saying these findings (even for exp. 2) are evidence that performance is governed by self-belief is premature. It’s not impossible that it’s the case, but we can’t make that judgment yet. Yes, priming people to think they need fewer breaks probably can affect their performance positively; but that doesn’t mean the need for rest is all in your head (especially since attention spans and basal arousal levels differ so highly between individuals).
    Word of advice from someone in the field: You should put out an article with this headline when more research (and hopefully a meta-analysis) has been done, instead of taking one small scale study and implying (accidentally, I hope) that people who think they need more breaks and processing time are all just self-defeating bozos.

    1. CheeserBoy says:

      @CaitlinDataParker Considering the researchers are highly educated, I’m pretty sure they accounted for those possibilities and set up controls in the experiment to correct the data.

      Also, keep in mind that headlines are a journalistic tool, not a scientific one. So, no, you’re not in the industry and really shouldn’t be giving advice on how to write news and feature articles.

    2. Narco says:

      @CheeserBoy @CaitlinDataParker Caitlin is analyzing facts and questioning assumptions and conclusions made in the posting. Sounds a bit like a peer review in a journal. A bit like a… method of sorts. I encourage that response. We need more critical analysis of bold conclusions like this. There are a bit more subjective comments in it than are necessary, but the bulk of it sounds intelligent and backed by claims, unlike your argument that makes many unsupported assumptions.

    3. SourdoughJosh says:

      @CheeserBoy “Considering the researchers are highly educated, I’m pretty sure they accounted for those possibilities and set up controls in the experiment to correct the data.”

      … and this idiotic statement sums up the mentality that prevents most people from understanding the actual significance (or lack thereof) of research findings…

    4. CheeserBoy says:

      @Narco @CaitlinDataParker This is a journalistic article… sort of NOT like a peer-reviewed journal. There is a method for journalism, it’s not a Popperian method, but it’s a method.

      This has gone through the same editorial methods as most other news articles. The article itself doesn’t draw conclusions, it reports the conclusions of the source article. Like I said, it’s journalism, not science. To apply scientific principles to it suggests that science should govern every word we write, censor every whim, and decide what’s right for us to say. I think that’s contrary to both freedom of the press, and of the goals of science itself.

    5. CheeserBoy says:

      @SourdoughJosh I’m just saying that I’m sure their method is pretty thorough considering the source article is coming from a university with a pretty good track record in psychological research.

    6. victor_ says:

      @CheeserBoy @SourdoughJosh
      …. the same university that performed the Stanford Prison Experiment. Let her criticize; she has grounds to do it.

  3. Mabe it’s just me, but I feel that when I take short breaks I’m able to come right back into my work feeling refreshed.

  4. Maybe it’s just me. However I feel that I’m more refreshed and able to work clearer when I take a break.

  5. LisaChen says:

    This doesn’t apply universally. Factors that increase perseverance: not having been challenged in a long time and welcoming a nice mental workout, liking the subject of the challenge, being in a good physiologic state (well fed, alert). If say a medical student who is pimped on cases all day is given yet another case when he/she has not had sleep or food, he/she will definitely need breaks to do well. Too many factors not clarified in this study.

  6. LisaChen says:

    Factors that increase perseverance: not having been challenged in a long time and welcoming a nice mental workout, deadline upcoming, liking the subject of the challenge, being in a good physiologic state (well fed, alert). Too many factors not controlled in this study.

  7. JCyclist says:

    I don’t see how this is valid. As a software developer, I am required to keep many, many things in my head at once and basically predict the outcome before even starting the task. Many times, I have walked away from a task only to have a clear solution with in 5-10minutes. This has happened to me countless times. These tasks must not be that mentally intense.

  8. testertje says:

    Test comment

  9. Desteysus says:

    This may have been proven, but I feel like I can push myself to work a lot more attentively after taking a break. It may not be needed, but it provides a “Boost”.

  10. digger1234567 says:

    Great way to end procrastination or find affirmations, or generate willpower – is hypnotherapy! Here’s one http://www.jenniferehman.com

  11. abcde says:

    @CaitlinDataParker In the article on which this piece is based there is a footnote which addresses your concern:

    “A possible alternative explanation is that people with a nonlimited- resource theory have better self-control than people with a limited- resource theory. However, a pilot study (N = 65) did not find a negative relationship between a limited-resource theory and trait self-control (Schwarzer, Diehl, & Schmitz, 1999), r = .17, p > .20.”

    And it seems to me that experiment 2 avoids this objection anyway by actively manipulating the subjects’ beliefs about willpower.

    But you are right to deny the claim made above that rest breaks “are only as necessary as you believe them to be”; the original article makes no such bold claim:

    ” We do not question that biological resources contribute to successful self-control (Gailliot & Baumeister, 2007; Gailliot et al., 2007). But these resources may be less limited than is commonly supposed.”

  12. wrje0201 says:

    work can sometimes equal stress and lots of stress leads to headaches and exhaustion. Did I just create another excuse for my procrastination? :p

  13. When procrastination is your problem. You should learn time and goals management.

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