Let’s be honest: every now and then, we sneak a digital smoke break at work. A little Facebook here, some online news there and perhaps some light tweeting from the loo (stop that). If things are getting out of hand, however, look no further than your trusty, old calendar for a fix.
There’s no work without pause
At the risk of diving straight into hardcore zen, there’s no no light without dark – and no work without pause. Intertwined as these two concepts are, it’s somewhat surprising that a multitude of employers still harbour a certain disdain for employees whom, at least visibly, take breaks beyond their allotted time.
As far as I’m concerned, there are two primary reasons for this: the first is an antiquated school of thought which has been handed down to us from the industrial revolution, where a conveyour belt mindset equated time with output. This was all fine and dandy for churning out T-Fords, but hardly remains relevant in the knowledge age.
Second, a capitalist society is built on certain principles, and the singularly overriding principle is and will always be profit. To achieve it, you simply have to get the numbers to line up in the correct manner – and in order to do that, you need to measure things.
Unfortunately, some things about humans are easy to measure, while others are not. How many widgets we can crank in the time span of an hour is a fairly easy one. Mathematical intelligence? Sure, why not. Social intelligence? Exponentially tougher. Creativity? Nigh impossible.
Still, the pandemic that is measuring remains a staple of the workplace as we know it, even though it’s easy to prove that, for a broad variety of situations and even professions, it is completely and utterly inappliccable.
Why, then, does it continue to linger?
Because our human nature strongly favours the exclusion of that which cannot be understood. Accordingly, a manager whom does not understand that which cannot be measured will revert to what which he or she understands – or that for which there is a system that will allow for the quantification and extraction of seemingly meaningful data.
Simply put: incompetent dufuses resort to the lowest common denominator – time equals output.
And, as we’ve already covered, this particular school of thought does not apply in the knowledge age. Mental exhaustion is a different beast from physical exhaustion, even though many of the same principles apply.
The primordial break
Of course, for the longest time, there was one kind of break that society accepted because managers and workers alike craved it: the smoke break. As the Western world has realized over the past couple of decades, however, smoking is somewhat… lethal. Hence, smoke breaks are going the way of the dodo, along with the only beneficial aspect of smoking: the breaks.
Ah yes, the breaks.
Oddly enough, the kind of mental fatigue that follows long, uninterrupted periods of concentration and focus appears somehow to be of lesser importance to address than the physically damaging activity of smoking. Still, even if we don’t crave the smoke anymore, we do crave the break – but these days, they – like everything else – are digital.
Don’t be coy; you know what I’m talking about. Twitter, Google+, online news, Facebook and what have you – we all resort to these distractions when our brain tells us that it no longer can focus on a single task to the exclusion of all else.
Now, I’d rather recommend you aim for quietude than some light, digital diversion – but if you prefer the latter, you may have noticed how the collective siren song has a bothersome tendency to make itself known more frequently than you’d like.
Aside from the fact that our willpower is at its lowest when we dislodge ourselves from a primary activity to take a break, these services have (unsurprisingly) been designed with the sole focus of trapping your attention for as long as period of time as you will allow them.
Combined, these two factors deliver a one-two punch that could leave a noticeable dent in your productivity level – which you’ll likely recognize as one of those days you’ve spent a lot of time in front of your computer at work, but somehow got diddly done.
Thankfully, the antidote is kept within mankind’s most ancient (as well as most frequently abused) productivity tool: the calendar.
If you’re not heavy on meetings (and I sure hope you’re not), I recommend applying the Pomodoro technique which works on the basis of scheduling breaks at regular intervals – typically, 25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of pause. Then, simply conduct your digital smoke breaks inside said intervals.
If you’re mired in meetings, the appropriate tactic is to eschew scheduling meetings back to back for spacing them out a little and tucking breaks in between. You may worry that this is considered unprofessional – and rightly so, but that doesn’t negate the fact that you really do need to take breaks.
Should others have access to view your calendar, simply mark those appointments as private, or label them as ‘Review’ – after all, you should always spend some time post-meeting to get your notes and tasks in order.
Scheduling breaks offers a dual benefit: improved focus is followed by improved willpower, and there’s more than a chance you’ll notice that the tug on your psyche from digital distractions is reduced abruptly and severely.
To paraphrase Jim Rohn: “Either you manage your digital smoke breaks, or they manage you.”