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What Charles Darwin can teach us about taking a break…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the official newsletter of Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules. Each week, you’ll receive one story from the past, one study from the present, and one strategy for your future.

My goal: to give you—in the time it takes to finish on the toilet—one piece of practical career wisdom you can apply today, no matter if you’re a student or a seasoned professional.

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Did You Know? You can do more by slowing down!

A story from the past

Biologist Charles Darwin was curious: Why do creatures change over time? Darwin’s interest was piqued during his 1835 travels through South America, where he observed the same “types” of birds having different beak sizes.

Darwin hoped to answer this mystery when he returned home to England. But, rather than hunch over his desk, he went for a walk—actually, he went for several. At least three times per day, Darwin looped around his “sandwalk,” a quarter-mile trail around his home, to think.

After each lap, he would knock a stone off the top of a pile to document how many stones it would eventually take to get to an answer. Stone by stone, Darwin slowly realized: Creatures evolve through natural selection, passing survival traits—like wider beaks for cracking seeds—down to offspring.

Darwin’s “thinking path” at his former English residence (Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Fast forward, and in 1859, Darwin’s book on natural selection was published. Challenging predominant religious thought for the first time, On the Origin of Species sold out immediately, fundamentally shifting how we see ourselves—and the world around us. 

So, the next time you find yourself wanting to power through a problem, pause! Then, remember Darwin, who worked harder by w̶a̶l̶k̶i̶n̶g̶ working slower.

A study of the present

Darwin or not, taking a walk is a great way to refresh your mind—and sharpen your thinking. In fact, new research published in Nature shows that…

  • “High levels of moderate and vigorous physical activity lead to improved cognitive functioning.”

And new research in the Journal of Physiology shows that…

  • People who do either a 90-minute, slow bike ride or a 6-minute exercise routine consisting of 40-second high-intensity intervals also see a boost in a brain-enhancing, protective substance researchers call “Miracle-Gro.”

What does this mean? “Exercise is one of the best things you can do” to protect your brain, says researcher Matthieu Boisgontier. While intense exercise like 40-second intervals is best, even “slow” exercise like the longer 90-minute bike ride can help your thinking.

So what? The next time you’re confronting a very challenging task or project, try some push-ups: Pushing up might just help you push forward.

A strategy for your future

84% of you said that you take a break only after you've lost your focus or can't push forwards. My challenge to the 84%? Try these options:

A. Each time you finish a task (e.g., a meeting, an email, a portion of an assignment), take a lap around the perimeter of wherever you work (e.g., your office floor or even your apartment).

B. Google for “High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)” or the “7 minute workout” and pick a routine that works for you. (Have an injury or disability? You still have options!).

C. Packed schedule? Switching tasks could help! Try setting a timer for 5 minutes for a rapid brainstorm and then moving to something else when it goes off. Or, set a timer for 25 minutes—and get to work. Then, take a 5-minute break before setting another 25-minute timer.

Remember: If we don’t make the decision to pause, then our body might do it for us.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: I always pulled late nights—and even all-nighters in school. That was until I realized that the illusion of productivity was exactly that: An illusion. Now, if I’m tired, I stop. 

Take a break!