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Inevitably, it comes for all of us: Sometime during your fifth Zoom meeting of the day, or the third, or even the first, the brain fuzz sets in. Someone’s talking, but you have no idea what they’re saying. “Does anyone have questions?” comes through your speaker. Of course you don’t. You can almost hear yourself hitting a wall.
This kind of short-term burnout may be ubiquitous, but it’s also preventable. In fact, if you’re deliberate about it, just a few minutes can make a world of difference.
When it comes to focused attention, your mind has a mind of its own.
Even the most productive people in the world don’t have an endless attention span. “There is a measurable limit to how long people can sit still and listen,” says Beatrice Briggs, director of the International Institute for Facilitation and Change, a meetings-focused consulting firm. And when you hit that limit, your brain will zone out whether or not you’ve given it permission.
“People often think, ‘I don’t have time to take a break,’” Briggs says. “But no, you don’t have time not to take a break.”
That’s because the longer you go without one, “the more depleted your cognitive capacity becomes,” explains Priti Shah, professor of cognition and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Michigan. “You actually lose the ability to focus and concentrate. Your mind wanders, and it just gets worse and worse.”
Eventually, if you keep hopping straight from one thing to another without taking a breather in between, “you start to get something called proactive interference,” Shah says. “Things that were in your head earlier are coming back to mind. Whatever you were thinking about five minutes ago will interfere with what you’re doing next. You can’t really stop thinking about something and start on the next thing. Taking breaks can reduce that and actually help you switch gears.”
Which brings us to the ultimate gear-switching tool: the two-minute psychological buffer zone, a quick but powerful mental reset to give yourself before moving from one thing to the next.
We’re conditioned to think of interruptions as the enemy of productivity. You’ve probably heard of “flow,” the state of being so immersed in your work that time flies by. Flow depends on the ability to avoid distractions, which carry a significant mental cost; one study found that it can take more than 20 minutes to get back into a groove after your focus is temporarily pulled away.
But interruptions between tasks, as opposed to within them, are vital to your overall functioning. Research has shown that even brief diversions improve focus; taking a break, even a quick one, right before a meeting can make it much more productive. The key is to use those interruptions wisely — and that’s just not something you can do by spending two minutes scrolling TikTok.
“First thing’s first: Get out of the chair,” Briggs says. “Step away from your desk and go get a physical change of location. Go downstairs and get a glass of water. Pet your dog. It’s important that you walk away from the computer.”
It can also be beneficial — in more ways than one — to spend the two minutes moving your body. Do a few jumping jacks or stretches or whatever your favorite exercise happens to be. “Physical exercise is incredibly helpful for restoring those cognitive resources,” Shah says. One study, published in August, found that two minutes of physical activity improved memory and learning ability in young adults for the following two hours.
If that’s not your thing, the opposite of exercise can also be helpful. “There’s some evidence of the benefits of wakeful resting,” Shah says. “It’s sitting and not doing anything at all.” To try wakeful resting, spend the two minutes sitting quietly, not reading or listening to anything, and just let your mind relax and empty.
Bonus points, Shah says, if you can do it outside, or at least in front of a window. “Being in nature has a huge impact on resetting the cognitive system and restoring attentional resources,” she says. “Even looking at pictures of nature while you take a break is helpful.”
If your job makes a schedule jam-packed with meetings a necessary evil, Briggs suggests getting creative to carve out those precious minutes. If it’s within your power, “make it a policy to schedule meetings that aren’t on the hour or aren’t quite an hour long,” she says. “So, have a meeting from 10:10 to 11, or end your 10:00 at 10:55 instead of at 11. It’d mean built-in breathing time, because the back-to-back meetings are the ones that kill.”
However you choose to spend your two minutes, don’t blow them off. What may seem at first like just one more thing to fit into your schedule can actually make whole days and weeks run much more smoothly.
“Being forced, or forcing yourself, to take a break is not a limitation,” Briggs says. “It’s an opportunity.” It’s also a tiny time investment with a massive payoff.