Personal Growth

The Secret to Effective Practice? Taking Breaks — Even Short Ones

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Learning to master a new skill takes a tremendous amount of practice and, subsequently, time (though not necessarily 10,000 hours worth of practice like Malcolm Gladwell told you). But the most important part of your practice time may be surprising: A recent report in the journal Current Biology suggests that the breaks you take during your practice session may be just as important as the practice itself. It suggests that our brains solidify what we've learned much sooner than previously believed.

Breaks Lead to Breakthroughs

Obviously, learning a new skill, particularly a motor skill, takes practice. But you can't just practice nonstop; breaks are good for maintaining motivation and creativity, and previous research has established that the time between practice sessions is when your brain consolidates the memories and skills it's learned. But how much time does that really take? That is, how short of a break do you need in order to start the consolidation process? The researchers behind this study sought to find out.

The team began by having 27 people practice typing a sequence of keystrokes, a motor task often used to study the formation of procedural memory — that is, memory of skills and procedures rather than events and people. Participants practiced the skill in bursts: They spent 10 seconds typing the keystroke series as quickly and accurately as possible, then 10 seconds resting. They repeated this rotation 36 times, which took about 12 minutes.

Scientists measured the participants' keystroke speed at the beginning and end of every practice period, paying particular attention to the difference in speed at the beginning and end of one practice period and at the end of one practice period and the beginning of another. What they found was surprising: People were faster after a 10-second break than they were just before the break. All performance improvements developed during the rest periods, not during the practice periods.

The researchers also monitored participants' brain activity while they practiced, and that further supported their findings. Beta waves got smaller during the 10-second rest periods, which the team says reflects a state of sensorimotor engagement. It's possible that this pattern of activity during rest periods results from the brain replaying memories of the practice periods, like a basketball player envisioning their next jump shot.

When participants returned for a second round of testing the next day, the team found something even more surprising: The sum of the participants' improvement over all of the trials on the first day was four times greater than their overnight improvement from the first day to the second. When it comes to the brain encoding new memories over a longer period of time, the researchers say, it appears there's a different process at work.

Less Is More

Scientists have studied memory consolidation over various lengths of time, and they've traditionally accepted that the process takes at least a few hours, if not a few days. But what this team found is that the process of memory consolidation may begin within seconds — much sooner and faster than previously believed. The optimal length of rest periods vs. practice periods remains to be seen, but the potential is exciting. The revelation that our brains begin the process of memory consolidation the moment they're not engaged in learning illustrates yet again how constantly active they are.

So, if you're reading this article as a break from learning something else (or you needed to take breaks while reading through this article), consider it justified! You're giving your brain a chance to begin the consolidation process, which will make you learn even better in the long run.

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Written by Steffie Drucker June 10, 2019

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