Take more breaks to be more healthy and productive

Written from Brussels, Belgium

They say sitting is the new smoking. “They” say a lot of things, and are more often quoted than anyone else I can think of, so I generally trust them.

As sit-in-front-of-the-computer-all-day people, most of us in the web community are quite stationary. Particularly during working hours. My solution to getting out of my chair more often, to be a little healthier, with the added benefit of being more productive, is the Pomodoro Technique.

The technique works on the basis of 25 minute task-focused working periods, followed by a 5 minute break. You set a timer for each period—I use e.ggtimer.com and Elliot Jay Stock’s Countdone. After four 25 minute sessions, you take a 20 minute break, and repeat. Each break is a reset, which hampers procrastination.

I was skeptical of the technique at first. I believed I worked in 2-4 hour productive blocks, with head phones in and no moving from my chair, or distractions. I was sure a timer would break my flow and slow me down.

The break periods really do increase focus and productivity though, as well as maintain energy levels. Or at least maximise them, reducing chances of exhaustion at the end of the day.

When I slack off and don’t stick to the system, I usually notice when I get tired. When I’ve been working solidly for a few hours and realise I’ve been staring at a screen blankly for 10 minutes. That’s my cue for a break, and to start setting my timer again.

The timer is critical. Thinking that you’ll somehow remember to take a break in exactly 25 minutes is wishful at best.

Getting up from your chair for breaks is critical too. Staying sitting, and doing other in-front-of-screen activities—like checking Twitter—doesn’t work. Your brain and body remain in the same pattern, although the task has changed, and you will return to work 5 minutes later a little more tired, instead of refreshed.

Some tasks aren’t suited to the technique I find. When I write, I like a 3-4 hour window of distraction-free time. Generally I don’t mind if my mind wanders in that time, and don’t appreciate timers going off. My thought process is different, and the interruption differs from one from designing, or writing markup, styling, or coding.

For email, it works amazingly. Or with social networks. I’ll often do a 5 or 10 minute timer—not exactly Pomodoro—to monitor the time I spend on these.

Some people hate the idea of setting a timer and think it’s too rigid or mechanical. I say try it. Do a full day and see how you feel. At the very least, who doesn’t like taking more breaks. Being healthier and more productive can be nice side effects.

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