A billion dollar mindset toward breaks.
May 25 2019
6 minute read
We all get burnout, we just deal with it differently.
Sitting at my desk I had an overwhelming feeling doing to much but also getting nothing done. I would look back at my time and think I did a lot of things, I just do not recollect any of them. Its like my body was on auto pilot and my mind was taking a nap.
I worked at a company that was suppose to help with these type of things. I took advantage of all the "no meeting blocks" I could. I found that early on, I actually had an easy time being able to take a break. When it was "no meeting block" time I was the first up to ask if others want to join in on a meditation, walk or some type of meaningful break1. I could see others had a worse time then I did. I would ask "do you have some seconds I can borrow from you. Most of the time the answer was a thoughtful, no thank you, I am in a crunch. Half the time it was because they were so close to completing something but was just was not there.
At the time I was working as management and I really hated the notion of this. I did not want to look like a slacker while my reports were driving hard at a delivery. That is what bothered me the most about taking a break. I wanted to take a break for myself, but my sense of empathy for my reports made me feel guilty. After a while, I had started skipping some morning "no meeting blocks" and that ended up changing my mood and deminished my awarness2.
I can say, skipping those "no meeting blocks" did not fully attribute to my unhappiness, but it made it harder get time to reflect. Reflecting on the things I, or my team, had accomplished that day and the joy of delivering a huge project.
Flow can be a wonderful thing. I fondly think of a grand painting session I have had, or a time when I was able to knock out a feature in half the time estimated. Often I would try to optimize my work schedules for flow, mostly shuffling, the ever context switching, meetings around to a place that I could get flow in between. This flow is something that I would think if I take a break I am going to loose everything, and have to start over.
Flow is tricky and to say taking a break will not alter your flow is a lie, but the idea that flow is always being good is also a lie. Flow is associated with gambling and addictions. People get into a flow of gambling so much that they are willing wear diapers to not break their "flow"3. Flow can be reductive to you mind and it sometimes is good to get out of it and reset and take a step back.
I have never worn a diaper to work to get some shit done. I do not think that would be a healthy thing for me to do. That being said I will often blow through a "no meetings block" to get in some extra lines of code.
I got fed up and burnt out. I was not all because of the breaks, it never is, but I decided to take a long break. What taking time off, and also the smaller breaks, has allowed me to do is think. See, when I would sit down to get in the flow I would think I am going to get this done fast. There was a part of my brain, that would just looking up information. It is fast, like super fast, kinda like elastic search. That side of my brain is super good at looking up old info, things that I can do at a glance. Not all problems can be solved that way though, sometimes you need to stop and think critically. Think of the root of the issue, and sometime just verbalize it.
Has anyone done the "rubber ducky" technique? Its kinda like that there is that process in the mind that gets a problem and runs it through a simulator a million times and still can not find a fix. Only by taking problem, putting it into words, is it easier to the critical thinking part of the brain to process that information. Do you always need a rubber ducky? Do you need to verbalize the information? I am not sure. I do know, but I do know the process all starts with reflection. Being able to step out of a flow to see the information the flow is processing makes it so much easier to make sense of the issue.
Ejecting from the flow.
I have been experimenting for a while with productivity hacks and techniques like Pomodoro. I think Pomodoros are great, and can easily force you to take little breaks throughout the day. After a while I found myself missing check-ins, and worse I felt guilt when not checking in. Missing a few check-ins in one day would lead to self loathing and I wanted something that was more light weight but also had a soul to it.
Again, I want to stress, I am not a productivity hacker. I am not always the type of person to try out productivity hacks. I am more of a happiness hacker. I just think happiness effects your productivity. I also think the times we need to be the most productive ( work ) is the times that we can stress ourselves out the most. Most of the time that stress comes from not being productive but also, and almost more important, felling a sense on achievement when something is completed.
My goals in life are not to be the most productive human, but to be a happy human. I wanted something that had a focus on happiness verse productivity. Something that was a little more open to interpretation. I would rather less in a break think about the next task at hand and maybe think about an upcoming hike or reflect on a great trip I had just had. I wanted a tool with less rules. For instance I wanted a tool that knew when I did behaviors that would throw me further into a rabbit hole and try to intervene there verse a static time frame.
Build not buy
Being a developer I had the ability to make the product that lived in my head. In in a way it has been somewhat a therapeutic endeavor getting it out of my head. I used my prior knowledge and I started building a Chrome Extension. As a web developer 90% of my work day lives in a browser. Being able to change my behavior in the browser would change my mood significantly though-out the day. I started very simple and then have kept building off some core concepts. I started with breathing exercises. I good foundation point for attention and attention to self is the breath. We are constantly breathing to live, and connecting back to the very rudimentary function of the body gets you back in touch with yourself. This is something I have learned from years of meditation and yoga it is that your breath is the foundation. If you find your mind running in circles you can move your attention to the breath. If you are distressed often you can tell immediately by connecting to the breath.
The next concept was that I wanted this application to be responsive to my behavior. If I was doing some chill web viewing and maybe reading a long article fine that is not terrible behavior. If I am constantly opening up new tabs and doing a bunch of Google searches I am probably in more circular pattern.
My first iteration of the extension did three things.
- Breathing Exercise, that on completion reset my activity.
- Tracked new tab page views, and made the breathing exercise more predominant on each view.
- Simple notification that after three hours of activity would tell me to take a break.
It actually worked great. I ended up doing like 15-20 breathing exercises a day. The breathing exercise was very short only 5 breaths, but just enough to change my behavior during a flow state.
I started to notice that when I was on my computer it was easy for me to take a quick break like that and that also I felt accomplished when I had taken the break.
I sent the extension out to a few friends and they saw similar results. I got a lot of feedback how they liked how it was kinda a game to get them to do a breathing exercise. It felt great, but I knew that that was all just the start.
I am continuing to build out this extension. Recently coming out with a Screen Time feature that is to help surface your browser viewing times to you. It emulates screen time features your are now seeing in your smart phones but for your browser. I think the difference the future holds for my extension is that I am going to try to focus on trying to break up flow in meaningful ways and focus on trying to make users of the application have a happier more productive lives. Trying to detect potentially harmful behaviors and try to break the flow of the harmful behaviors.
Try out the extension yourself and give me feedback! Download from the Chrome Web Store
Lee, K.E., Williams, K.J.H., Sargent, L.D., Williams, N.J.G., & Johnson, K.A. (2015). 40-second green roof views sustain attention: The role of micro-breaks in attention restoration. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 42, 182-189.