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A short, enjoyable break at work can boost your mood and improve your focus. Luis Alvarez/Getty Images
  • A new study finds that taking a positive work break, like watching a funny video, can recharge you.
  • Exerting constant self-control depletes you of internal resources.
  • Positive emotions help us recover from negative emotions.
  • Taking a work break on your phone is less recharging than using a computer.

Imagine the following scenario.

Your big project is due today, and you’re still not finished. You’ve been working all morning, but the task is so complex, and you’re so overwhelmed that it’s taking all your self-control just to stay focused.

You suddenly notice a funny cat video in your inbox sent by your co-worker. Should you take the time to watch it? Or will it distract you and set you further behind?

A new study conducted by an international team of researchers says to go for it — that watching a brief funny video will actually be good for you and help you reset.

The findings, published in the journal Work & Stress, suggest that taking brief, positive breaks in situations that demand high levels of self-control can help replenish your internal resources. In other words, it can help refuel your creativity, motivation, and engagement with your work and others.

Think of it like putting some gas in your brain tank.

We exert self-control at work and other places where we’re forced to respond in a way that’s different from how we’d spontaneously feel, think, or behave.

“Self-control demands are all job demands that require you to inhibit, override, or adapt your urges or automatic responses in order to adequately complete your work,” said Vera Schweitzer, a doctoral student from WHU—Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany, who led the study.

Examples of self-control demands might include:

  • controlling your temper when dealing with an unfriendly customer or co-worker
  • working on a difficult task
  • working on a boring or annoying task

“What is so particularly draining about this is that the exertion of self-control (e.g., when you try to control your temper or overcome inner resistances) is a strongly effortful process that depletes and diminishes employees’ personal resources,” said Schweitzer.

These internal resources, also called “regulatory resources,” are required for employees to feel motivated and engaged in their jobs, to think outside the box, or to help other employees, said Schweitzer.

When you have to face constant self-control demands without a boost of positivity, it’s actually harmful to your regulatory resources and your overall effectiveness at work.

Experiencing a little dose of positivity — that is, feeling a positive emotion like happiness — helps restore your internal resources.

“This is rooted in a psychological effect called the ‘undoing effect’ of positive emotions, which states that positive emotions enable individuals to detach and recover from previous negative experiences, such as self-control demands,” said Schweitzer.

For instance, if you watch a funny video right after several hours of intensive work, the positive emotions will help you restore your regulatory resources without requiring you to actively do anything.

When we’re under pressure — say, working under a tight deadline — it can be tempting to skip little breaks to “save time.” But short breaks are actually necessary to keep your brain working optimally.

“Cognitively speaking, we aren’t built for sustained attention for long periods of time,” Terri Kurtzberg, PhD, a professor of management and global business at Rutgers Business School, Newark and New Brunswick, told Healthline.

“We run out of juice, so to speak, and need to detach to let the mind rest before re-engaging.”

“There’s research that shows that taking breaks is good for technical tasks and improves accuracy and speed, but also that it lowers stress, restores motivation, and even promotes creativity.”

“Think about the classic ‘solving the problem while not thinking about it at all, when on a walk or in the shower’ moments. Stepping away allows your mind to see things from new perspectives and to continue to process information even without your conscious thought,” she said.

Your positivity break doesn’t necessarily have to be a funny video. It can be anything that makes you happy like a short story or a song — but it does need to be brief and keep you energized.

“A favorite song may also be a good alternative – however, the song should really make you feel happy and energetic but not, for example, too melancholic and calm,” said Schweitzer.

She adds that “you should always keep in mind not to drift off into hours of binge-watching videos or chatting to your colleagues, but rather limit the positivity boost to around 3 to 5 minutes so that you do not completely detach from your actual work.”

In addition, positivity isn’t the only way to overcome self-control demands, said Schweitzer. Improving your sleep or engaging in self-reflection also work, but they do take more effort. Whereas a little positivity break, like a funny video, is a quick, effortless way to replenish these resources.

It might be a good idea to watch that funny video on your computer rather than on your cell phone.

Kurtzberg took part in a 2019 study where she found that taking a break by looking at your phone does not provide the same “recharging” effect as taking other kinds of breaks.

“In our experiment, we had people take a break in the middle of solving a set of complicated word problems,” she said. For the break, participants chose items from a hypothetical shopping list on either a computer, cell phone, or a paper document. One group had no break at all.

Interestingly, breaks on the computer or on paper allowed people to recharge, and when they returned to their original task, they solved more problems and did so in less time than those who took no break at all.

But participants who used their cell phones performed poorly in the second half — they were no better off than those who didn’t take a break.

“Our phones have become this giant sinkhole for our attention — once we have them in hand, we’re engaged with all kinds of notifications and thoughts and end up diving down multiple different cognitive and emotional rabbit holes,” said Kurtzberg.

“This doesn’t seem to give our minds the rest it needs to be at full strength for returning to work, possibly because we then have a harder time disengaging from the phone to return to work with full attention. “