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Glued to Your Phone on Your Lunch Break? Do This Instead.

A new study suggests using your phone doesn't let your brain recharge.

by Gretchen Brown
October 18, 2019 | Health

It’s the same every day.

Right around when the clock hits noon, I log out of my computer and make my way to the office lunchroom to heat up some soup.

Then I settle down for a relaxing 30 minutes of... scrolling through my phone.

I’ve been doing this since I first started working at age 16. It’s tempting to want to catch up on social media.

Breaks are short and work is long; it’s nice to feel like you have a life outside those walls.

But a new study says all those breaks are hardly breaks at all.

Researchers at Rutgers University found that using a cellphone during a break doesn't allow your brain to recharge between tasks.

Phone break = no break

The study gave 414 college students sets of anagrams — a type of word puzzle — to complete.

People stand looking at their phones in an addictive way. Rewire PBS Work Phone
Most adults use cellphones frequently. Research suggests phones may be so distracting, they make it difficult to return focused attention to work tasks.

Some were given a break halfway through, either on a cellphone, a computer screen or a piece of paper.

Then, they were given more anagrams.

Among those with breaks, the students on cellphones took 19 percent longer to complete the subsequent word puzzles.

They also solved 22 percent fewer word puzzles.

“Cellphone breaks resulted in the same levels of cognitive depletion as not taking any break at all,” the researchers wrote.

“As our society increasingly grapples with cellphone addiction… it is even significant to understand how these actions may negatively affect our cognitive skills.”

[Read: Holding Your Smartphone Makes It Harder to Think]

Recovery is important

It’s pretty easy to understand why breaks are good for you, especially if you’ve ever gone without one. You feel all foggy and unfocused.

There’s science behind that.

Breaks are vital recovery time, even in the middle of a work day. While workplace demands put stress on your brain, a break can help it return to its pre-stressor state.

“Human brains are not built for sustained attention and hence people must learn to work efficiently within their cognitive limits,” the Rutgers researchers wrote. “One way that people help to protect their cognitive resources from becoming exhausted is to take periodic breaks from tasks that require focused attention.”

One Finnish study found that successful recovery during lunch breaks leads to less exhaustion a year down the road.

That sort of thing seems obvious. But research about what kinds of breaks are effective is sort of new.

So, looking at your phone isn't ideal. There are much better ways to spend your break time effectively:

Leave the office

The Finnish study found that total detachment from work led to the best recovery. That included longer lunch breaks and lunch breaks spent outside the office.

While it might be tempting to eat at your desk, you’re going to feel more refreshed if you don’t.

“Changing your environment, even for 10 to 15 minutes, can help re-energize you,” said Ajita Robinson, a Maryland-based licensed clinical professional counselor.

Robinson recommends taking a walk if you can — indoors or outdoors, though outdoors is better.

“Getting up and moving can help with energy, circulation and fatigue,” she said.

Studies do suggest that your memory improves after just 10 minutes of exercise, and that regular aerobic exercise helps with memory and learning over the long-term.

Get in the right headspace

A break should be a total reset. You can make that happen through meditation, or even napping.

“If you can’t close the door to your office, find a conference room or use your car,” Los Angeles-based licensed marriage and family therapist David Strah said. “There are a plethora of meditation apps to help you, and don’t worry about if you are meditating in the right or wrong way.”

Strah recommends meditation apps like Insight Timer and Headspace, because they have a bunch of different options, with meditations anywhere from two minutes to two hours long.

“Even a two-minute meditation can lower our cortisol levels, helping us de-stress and relax, leading to good feelings and better productivity," he said.

If meditation isn’t your thing, try deep-breathing exercises. Strah recommends a 4-7-8 technique: inhale for four seconds, hold for seven and exhale for 8.

Deep breathing works because it brings in more oxygen. That can slow your heartbeat and lower or normalize your blood pressure.

At its best, it can invoke a relaxation response — a state of “profound rest,” according to Harvard Medical School, sort of the opposite of the fight-or-flight “stress response.”

There are apps for this too, like the Breathe app on Apple watches, if you need help. Or, do your own yoga workout or stretching.

[ICYMI: Overwhelmed? These Apps Will Calm You Down]

Uniquely addictive

Interestingly, the Rutgers study suggested that there was a difference between looking at a computer screen and looking at a phone screen.

The students who looked at a computer during break were better off than those who looked at their phones.

In other words, while looking at a computer on your break isn’t ideal, looking at your phone is even worse.

We touch our phones, on average, more than 2,000 times a day. About 30 percent of men and 37 percent of women never stop touching their phones, even when they’re not using them.

“Cellphones, because of their addictive nature and high levels of involvement in daily life, may now carry additional levels of magnetism and distraction that make it difficult to return focused attention to work tasks,” the Rutgers researchers noted.

“This finding supports the developing theory that people are more cognitively and emotionally attached to their phones than they are to other devices, including other electronic tools such as computers.”

That might be reason enough to ditch your phone all day — not just on break.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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