Monotony can make our performance dip. Short breaks during work can boost concentration and improve performance.
Now, a new study has overturned a decades-old theory about the nature of attention and showed that even brief breaks could improve our focus on that task for a longer period.
"You start performing poorly on a task because you've stopped paying attention to it," said University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, who led the study.
"But you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem," he added.
Lleras had noticed that a similar phenomenon occurs in sensory perception.
The brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time.
"Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness," he said.
"So I thought, well, if there's some kind of analogy about the ways the brain fundamentally processes information, things that are true for sensations ought to be true for thoughts. If sustained attention to a sensation makes that sensation vanish from our awareness, sustained attention to a thought should also lead to that thought's disappearance from our mind!" he added.
In the study, Lleras and postdoctoral fellow Atsunori Ariga tested participants' ability to focus on a repetitive computerized task for about an hour under various conditions.
The 84 study subjects were divided into four groups and asked to perform the task.
Three groups had to do the work without any break for 50 minutes. Only one group got a brief break from the work.
As expected, most participants' performance declined significantly over the course of a task. But simply having them take two brief breaks from their main task allowed them to stay focused during the entire experiment.
The study is consistent with the idea that the brain is built to detect and respond to change, Lleras said, and suggests that prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance.
"We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused," he said.
"From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!"
The study appears in the journal Cognition.