Take a Break

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I returned home yesterday following a week-long holiday in Barbados. It’s a beautiful island, but more importantly having a week off work gave my brain, and the rest of me, a chance to rest and recuperate.

Most of us accept, on an intellectual level at least, that taking time off is a good thing. However our behaviour often tells a different story.

Programmers are notoriously bad at taking time off. In one previous job, a member of the HR department told me that they frequently had to persuade programmers to take advantage of their annual leave allowance. I once asked my recruitment agent how much time off contractors typically take, and he informed me that many go for years without taking a day off. A 2008 New York Times article reported that significant portions of the American, British and French workforces do not use their holiday entitlements.

Yet there is a stack of evidence that supports the belief that vacations from work are an important ingredient of a healthy and balanced life.

Results from the Framingham Heart Study for example, suggest a link between regular vacations and a longer lifespan, and a 2009 study by Joudrey and Wallace indicates that vacations can help to prevent depression.

Motivational speaker Brian Tracy provides food for thought with his advice:

First of all, work only five or six days per week, and rest completely on the seventh day. Every single study in this area shows that you will be far more productive in the five or six days that you work if you take one or two days off completely than you ever would be if you worked straight through for seven days.

Second, take one three-day vacation every three months, and during that time, refrain from doing any work. Do not attempt to catch up on even a few small things. If you do, you keep your mental gears in motion, and you end up neither resting nor properly doing work of any quality.

Third, take at least two full weeks off each year during which you do nothing that is work-related. You can either work or relax; you cannot do both. If you attempt to do a little work while you are on vacation, you never give your mental and emotional batteries a chance to recharge. You’ll come back from your vacation just as tired as you were when you left.

I try to follow this advice, by ensuring I have at least one day off every quarter (in the UK, bank holidays help us achieve this), a week off in the summer, and a week off at Christmas.

But arguably the more important type of breaks for our health and productivity, are the short breaks we should be taking throughout our working day.

The Pomodoro Technique has been a noteworthy success since it was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique consists of a number of practices which when followed promise higher levels of productivity, and a reduction in stress. Its practices include estimating work in terms of ‘pomodoros’, where each pomodoro represents 25 minutes of focussed work. In addition it advises us to record interruptions, track the actual number of pomodoros taken to complete a task, and to maintain two lists – a ‘To Do Today’ list and an ‘Activity Inventory’.

I have experimented with the Pomodoro Technique over the last few years, and of all its practices only one has really stuck.

I have found myself almost religiously working in pomodoros throughout the day, that is, stopping every 25 minutes (I use the focus booster timer) for a break of 3-5 minutes. This is more challenging than it sounds, as often you feel like soldiering on with whatever you are doing rather than stopping. However with practice it becomes easier and you begin to feel the difference.

But what are the benefits of working this way?

The Pomodoro Technique book lists a number of benefits, including a reduction in anxiety, and improved motivation. But for me the biggest benefit has been that taking a short break tends to relieve physical and mental tension, allowing your brain to do some background processing about whatever task you are engaged in.

Last year Scientific American published a fascinating article entitled ‘Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime’. It describes how our brains have a particular circuit, named the Default Mode Network, which is activated when we are not especially focussed on any one thing. This part of the brain is responsible for unconscious activity which is important in solving complex problems – i.e. what us programmers are paid to do. We’ve all experienced that flash of insight in the office kitchen or during the drive home. That is the Default Mode Network at play, and it is apparently more active in creative people (e.g. programmers).

So you owe it to yourself and your employers to take regular, short breaks throughout the day.

The Pomodoro Technique is quite strict about this. From the book:

When the Pomodoro rings, this signals that the current activity is peremptorily (though temporarily) finished. You’re not allowed to keep on working “just for a few more minutes”, even if you’re convinced that in those few minutes you could complete the task at hand.

I have found myself occasionally so involved when my timer goes off, that I have continued with the task at hand. But generally speaking I will either get up out of my seat and go to the bathroom or the kitchen to grab a drink, or I will stay in my seat but stop working, to check emails for example.

Aside from the Pomodoro Technique there are of course other proponents of regular breaks. The practice is a standard part of workstation ergonomics.

The Energy Project is an organisation dedicated to helping companies and individuals make better use of their energy, and it advocates workers taking many small breaks throughout the day. Those who still doubt the link between this kind of ‘energy management’ and success should note that clients of The Energy Project include Google, Apple, Facebook, Coca-Cola and Ford.

With all this evidence telling us to take breaks, both in terms of vacations and short breaks throughout the day, why then is this behaviour not more visible in the typical workplace?

There are a number of potential reasons, but probably the most obvious is that at no point are we fully convinced that taking a break is the right thing to do. Doing so might even make us feel guilty. After all, we are being paid to work, not to take breaks.

Only with practice and understanding can this obstacle be overcome, as you come to realise through experience that you are actually more productive and happier working in this way. The truth is that we are not really being paid to work, we are being paid to deliver results, and taking a break is often the most beneficial thing you can do for your employer, and yourself.

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