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preamble>

It seems to me that computer programmers are one of a select few groups of people who actually take pleasure from sitting in front of computers for long periods of time. Most people in other professions actively dislike their time at computers, and do their best to avoid it (so, I assume, they don't have problems taking breaks). At least for me, having external cues for taking breaks, and clear instructions on what to do with each break (stretch, go for a walk, close my eyes, look into a distance of preferably a few km and focus on faraway objects, etc...), is a must.

So far, I've just been making up the breaks and tools to get them as I go along, based on what looks to be low-specificity information found on the net (generic stuff ala ergonomics advice for office staff). This has led to all sorts of side effects - loss of attention as I get distracted if I walk around, breaks in flow with alarm clocks interrupting my thoughts, and people around me assuming I'm low on work due to the frequency of my walking around compared to everyone else.

/preamble>

tl;dr

  • Taking breaks is important
  • My internal break taking system doesn't work, and ad-hoc ones have unwanted side effects
  • What do you do to make sure you take proper breaks?
  • How do you avoid unwanted side-effects, such as getting distracted or interrupting flow or giving your co-workers the impression you're spending a lot of time goofing off?
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closed as too broad by gnat, MichaelT, Bart van Ingen Schenau, GlenH7, Dynamic Nov 29 '13 at 4:50

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

    
Could always take up smoking. Brain: "Uhh... snorfys... it's been 2 hours man... pack your shitk, it's time for a break." Oh... unwanted side effects to your health... nm. –  Steve Evers Jun 29 '11 at 17:31
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You joke, but one of the more successful experiments I tried involved asking people around me who do smoke, to take me out with them for second-hand smoke breaks. My coworkers did a fairly good job of knowing when I'm not in a state where I can be interrupted, smoke breaks have fixed time limits, seem more socially acceptable (not goofing off, going for a smoke), and were out-doors which is excellent for fresh air/stretching/getting your eyes to workout. –  blueberryfields Jun 29 '11 at 17:40
    
Weather permitting I regularly take walks around the block as a break. Clears my head, gets the blood flowing, helps me out. –  Chris Jun 29 '11 at 19:03
    
hehehe, I thought about that too, but my asthma/allergies don't allow me to do this. Something I like to do is to just turn around a bit and work 10mins on some personal projects on a notepad (an actual paper notepad!) I know it's not as good as taking a walk, but it changes my mind, and relaxes my eyes a bit. Also, people don't frown because they can't tell I'm not working, and I'm fine with it because I know I'm not abusing! –  Tipx Jun 29 '11 at 19:33
    
It was a half-joke. I smoke, and there's a group of us from test/dev that all go out together... we make it a point to make sure we're all ready, but be sure not to get 'out of sync' with each other's breaks. –  Steve Evers Jun 30 '11 at 3:09
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6 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

@Pierre 303 suggested this to me a while back and it works out well: WorkRave. It is a tool that does precisely what you're looking for.

It's designed to prevent Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) but it can be used for what you're talking about as well.

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WorkRave seems to do the trick with respect to break frequency, but doesn't seem to address the "what to do with the breaks/avoid unwanted side-effects" question. I'll try it out, though, haven't played with it yet. –  blueberryfields Jun 29 '11 at 17:42
    
Any suggestions for OSX? –  Jack M. May 17 '12 at 19:23
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Because the amount of time you can work productively for varies day-to-day, I take breaks on the following conditions:

  • "strong" hunger or thirst (though you should never really feel thirsty if you are hydrating / sipping water throughout the day)
  • need to use washroom

A "long" break (30 minutes to an hour) I usually use for physical exercise, and I take such breaks when:

  • 1) I just finished fixing a bug, fleshing out a feature that I am proud of. I take the break as a reward
  • 2) I am completely stumped and need to clear my head

I use the gym for #2 a lot.

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+1 for physical exercise. I like to run or bike 30-45 minutes for lunch, taking only very small breaks in the morning and afternoon. This has so many benefits: clear head, endorphin rush, counter acts our sedentary workplace, etc... –  DevSolo May 17 '12 at 20:29
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Who Moved My Brain has some interesting ideas about revaluing time and attention.

"Listening to your body" would be another suggestion I'd give. This means paying attention to what are your legs telling you, your bladder, your arms, etc. For me, this is still a work in progress, but I am getting better about it.

Know your strengths and play into them. Change your perspective on how you see this. For example, if you have a perfectionist tendency then you may want to try to optimize your time management and experiment with how to integrate breaks and make this work.

Here's a quote from the movie "Garden State" that really resonates with me:

This is my life, Dad, this is it. I spent 26 years waiting for something else to start, so, no, I don't think it's too much to take on, because it's everything there is. I see now it's all of it. You and I are gonna be OK, you know that, right? We may not be as happy as you always dreamed we would be, but for the first time let's just allow ourselves to be whatever it is we are and that will be better. OK? I think that will be better.

If you want a place to find ideas to try, "Sources of Insight" has lots of articles that may be useful.


I recommend revaluing time and attention as I could see your problem around breaks as being just a symptom of a larger problem around time management. The thought chain in my head in posting that quote was that if your health is really so important to you then you do it. You don't make excuses or think it is too much to take on, you just figure out how to make it work. Yes there may be mistakes and things don't work that someone may have thought would work, but you still keep trying. Sources of Insight has various sections covering topics like effectiveness or intellectual horsepower that may give ideas or strategies to help your issue around breaks. I generalized your question to my mind and gave what I thought was a reasonable answer about how to view this from a few different angles. Hopefully this paragraph has cleared up what I was thinking in giving that answer.

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I don't really understand how this answers my question. Why do you recommend revaluing time and attention? The quote doesn't seem to talk about strategies for taking breaks, and Sources of Insight seems to be more about overcoming writers' block than about inserting breaks into the workday. –  blueberryfields Jun 29 '11 at 18:34
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Why not set a timer? A 5 minute break every 30-45 minutes sounds pretty reasonable to me. Taking breaks encourages you not to zone out for long periods staring at the screen. This can be a big boost to productivity. Two points:

  • I get that other people might think you are slacking off, but it seems you are aware that taking these breaks is pretty important.
  • As for an alarm breaking your concentration, if you want to enforce breaks for yourself, that is sort of the point.
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I find that, for most work worth doing (the most challenging and fun programming problems) I spend periods of 2-6 hours in "flow" - completely unaware of external environment, and with my productivity at 10-50x higher than normal. Getting into flow isn't easy, and doesn't happen regularly - so I highly want to avoid losing that state. –  blueberryfields Jun 29 '11 at 17:37
    
@blue -It sounds like you might need to make a deep adjustment to your flow then. Coding for 6 hours straight is not healthy in the least. I doubt you are really getting anywhere close to 50x productivity boosts either. That would mean at max productivity you could get close to 40 full days of work done in 6 hours. I do not doubt that you get a boost, but if you can learn to break more often and boost more frequently, you could end up much more productive and healthy overall. –  Morgan Herlocker Jun 29 '11 at 17:51
    
@ironcode 50x is not an understatement. One day of flow is worth roughly two months of regular work, conservatively, when the two are comparable. Often they are not - there are problems that I simply cannot solve, no matter how much non-flow work I do. For those kinds of work, flow is irreplaceable –  blueberryfields Jun 29 '11 at 18:29
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@blue - Then it really sounds like your question is unanswerable. Something like "How do I make sure I take proper breaks, when I am unwilling to take them?" cannot really be answered. Perhaps you could normally be on a schedule, but ignore the alarm if you were in the middle of a flow marathon. –  Morgan Herlocker Jun 29 '11 at 18:50
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You are wrong about being 50x more productive, and have nothing to back that up with. You only think you are being productive, but a lot of the time you will be more productive by taking quick breaks. If you are working on a hard problem sometimes you become too focused on the problem that taking a break will bring you to a solution faster, because it gives your mind a chance to relax and think outside of the box. –  KallDrexx Jun 30 '11 at 13:17
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The break isn't necessarily the thing you need. You need to stand up, stretch your fingers, etc...

A sit/stand station might do wonders. Get one that goes quickly and easily from one form to another though....I have one that's a pain in the ass to use and thus don't.

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An exercise / sitting ball might work, too. I've found that a ball provides just enough distraction that I don't get easily distracted by other things when tired. It allows me to move around a little, bounce, etc., and it's fun. I've found it increases my productivity and focus when I am tired, and it's supposedly a low-level workout, too - about 350 calories per day, I think they say. It has reduced my need for "get up, walk around" breaks significantly. It's a similar principle to the sit / stand workstation, but lower investment. –  Ethel Evans Jun 29 '11 at 19:15
    
I assume you're not working in an office :P –  blueberryfields Jun 29 '11 at 21:06
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I don't know how often and for how long you are in: the zone, flow or wired-in, but necessary breaks are better for you in the long-run. You're going to get interupted. Get over it. Your fellow employees need to spend more time working and less time monitoring your breaks. If your boss has an issue, explain the need for breaks. Let him/her know you have a system (and bothered to put some thought into this) and ask what is acceptable. You have data - that's enough power to shut those up who don't mind their own production.

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