Human beings need breaks.
It is the reality of having temporal bodies that need to rest and recharge. A famous study of Wachovia employees, done a few years ago by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy, found that when people take regular breaks, they are measurably more productive.
The problem is that many of us don’t take conscious breaks. Instead, as I study people’s time logs, I’ll see a few blocks of work, and then an entry with a name like "Email/FB/websurfing." It’s a bunch of online nothingness. It can be fun, or it can feel enlightening, but from the perspective of managing your energy, it’s not as relaxing as truly separating yourself from the screen and office chair that confine you much of the day.
I was talking about this with a former smoker recently when she mentioned that this had been the upside of her old habit: real, relaxing breaks. The smell and the shortness of breath? That she could do without (and the long-term health consequences). But having a pack a day habit did require her to leave the office every two hours. She’d go outside, do something that didn’t involve looking at a screen, and calm herself down. It was a good way to renew her focus and reward herself for getting through tough meetings.
The decline in smoking rates over the past few decades is a good thing for public health. But as I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized that the institution of the "smoke break" (or better yet the "coffee break") is a perfectly civilized one that we should try to keep. When you find your attention wandering, it’s time to step back from the desk and go outside. Even if it’s snowing. A nicotine addiction forces people to go outside in all kinds of weather. It’s the rare day when a little bit of fresh air won’t make things seem better, and there’s a growing body of evidence finding that outdoor time has all kinds of health and mood benefits.
A quick walk around, or maybe a personal phone call, can be as pleasurable (and far healthier) than lighting up. Give yourself 10 minutes off, then head back in. Now you’re ready to face the next two hours—until it’s time to head back out again.
Do you take "smoke breaks"—minus the actual cigarettes?