We struggle because we take crappy breaks.

I don’t mean that we take breaks to crap.

I mean that we take breaks that are crap.

We take breaks that don’t fulfill their purpose: breaks that don’t refresh us, breaks that don’t calm us, breaks that don’t prepare us to keep working.

There’s value in noticing the crappiness of our breaks.

I’ve experienced that value.

When I’m working on something strenuous and I see that I’m about to take a crappy break, I say to myself, “Rudi, you are about to take a crappy break. Are you sure you want to do this?” Sometimes the answer is yes, but often the answer is no.

I write essays like the one you’re reading now. Writing is highly stimulating. Sometimes it’s highly frustrating. Often it leaves me needing a break. So what do I do when I’ve been writing for an hour and I need to change things up?

If I check email, that’s a crappy break.

If I read the news, that’s a crappy break.

If I browse social media, that’s a crappy break.

If these breaks have any value as sources of rest and refreshment, it’s that they take my mind away from my task for a moment. But they do that by cramming different things into my overwhelmed mind. And all of that new junk doesn’t help me at all when I return to writing.

Does knowing that there’s been a horrific bombing in a war overseas help me write?

Does knowing that scientists have once again confirmed that humanity faces a climate catastrophe help me write?

Does knowing that some celebrity wore a revealing dress to a gala help me write?

None of these things help me write. They actually hurt me, because now I’ve got to get them out of my mind before I can concentrate on writing again.

Usually, I assume I can handle it. I’m an adult, right? Consuming some news, reading some emails, sending a text, clicking a few links is not going to totally derail me, is it?

Maybe, maybe not. The real problem is that I need something important from these breaks – I need refreshment from them – and I’m not getting that.

These breaks actually do the opposite of what they’re “supposed” to do. They drain my energy rather than replenishing it. They make it harder for me to continue working rather than making it easier.

So why do I take these crappy breaks?

First of all, crappy breaks are convenient. I’m already sitting in front of the computer and the “break” is available right on my screen. 

Second, crappy breaks are tempting. They promise immediate gratification.

Third, crappy breaks seem like the only option available. That’s because I haven’t identified what a non-crappy break would even be. I haven’t figured out how to take a genuinely good break. I haven’t understood how to achieve real refreshment in the limited amount of time I’ve got. 

Getting up and stretching might be a good break. But if my mind is racing as I try to stretch – if I’m still “writing” in my mind – I won’t come away from the stretching feeling very relaxed at all.

Going out for an hour of vigorous exercise, or getting a massage might be an amazing break, but I might only have a minute to spare, so those options aren’t practical.

What about taking a minute to meditate? What about breathing calmly and clearing my mind? What about not thinking at all for a moment – not thinking about my project, and not thinking about anything else in its place? 

Sure, a moment of mental emptiness would be refreshing, but emptiness is hard to achieve, isn’t it? 

Hard to achieve for sure, but I’ve seen that by practicing meditation I can get better at it.

With practice, the idea of a meditation “quickie” seems more doable – you can meditate in as little as 1 minute.

Meditation is not the only effective sort of break, but it’s an important one.

My point is that we shouldn’t assume we already know how to take good breaks. We shouldn’t assume that break-taking is a natural and spontaneous thing where we’ll just intuitively figure out how to do it well and we’ll inevitably get the benefit of refreshment that we need.

We should think of good break-taking as a skill that we can develop with practice. A skill that will help us be more effective at the thing that we’re taking the break from.

If you’re exhausted at the end of a day of work, is that because work was hard?

Or is it because you took lots of crappy breaks?

It might be that those crappy breaks were more exhausting than the work itself.

The reason you’re finding work so tiring might be that the work is making you take so many crappy breaks.

But those breaks don’t have to be crappy. ■

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