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.