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Need a break? Don't reach for your phone

A woman sits on a bench looking at her cellphone.

Sept. 20, 2019—You're working on a mentally challenging task and decide to take a break. So you pick up your cellphone, check for messages, review the latest news and do whatever else you usually do with your phone. After about 10 or 15 minutes, you go back to your task.

According to a new study in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, you might as well have not taken a break at all. Cell phones are so cognitively demanding that they deplete your brain's energy, the study argues. When you return to your task, you'll perform worse than you did before you took your phone break.

In the study, 414 college students were given a series of anagrams to solve. Anagrams are a set of jumbled letters that can be rearranged to form one or more English words. The students were assigned into four groups:

  • One group took a break using paper.
  • One group took a break on a computer.
  • One group took a break using their cellphone.
  • One group took no break.

The group with the cellphone break resumed their anagram task at a slower pace than other the groups. They also solved fewer puzzles.

Taking a break should recharge a person's cognitive energy, the authors argued. It should provide a true mental break from the work at hand. Using a cellphone during a break doesn't provide that relief.

Take a break without your phone

Why does it matter? Human brains are not built for sustained attention, the authors say. Periodic breaks are one way we keep our brains from becoming exhausted. If our cellphones aren't delivering the mental relief we need, we should be aware of that and look elsewhere to provide our brain superior downtime.

Are you in need of mental relief? Go here to learn how to put the reins on stress.

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