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Feature--Taking a Break

D. Ben Knoble on 24 Jun 2018 in Blog

The animal kingdom has known for centuries, if not millenia, that breaks are a necessary fact of life. Why, then, do we so often forget to take them?

(Not so) Brief Musings on Brief Breaks

When I get buried deep in a project, as I did on Friday (when this post was supposed to be written), I get into a “zone”. This zone is well-documented and studied; it is crucial to our ability to Get Things Done™. Interrupting it carries all the peril of interrupting a feeding T. Rex. And, as Einstein so famously proved, time is relative–at least, when “in the zone,” consumed by furiously-paced mental or physical exercise, it seems to go from 0 to 60 in a heartbeat.

This zone also takes anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour to cultivate, and any interruption triggers a restart from square one–or even square negative one. So why do I find myself taking short breaks after a few hours in the zone?

It comes down to this:

  1. Short breaks are good; and
  2. Short breaks don’t interrupt

In fact, they provide an opportunity for a wide variety of other necessary activities. My most frequent breaks are bathroom runs, efficiently combining a chance to stand and stretch with more pressing tasks.

If you’ve ever heard of or talked about doing your best thinking in the shower (or on the toilet), then you know what #2 is getting at. My trip to the bathroom is a mental stimulus, not a slowdown. It jogs me out of whatever stagnant thinking patterns I’d become engaged in, literally changes my perspective, and forces me to tackle my current problem differently. Much like rubber-duck debugging, it is an essential tool and has saved me on more than one occasion.

And Now, a Return to Your Regularly Scheduled Programming

By the time my short break has ended, I’m ready to dive in again. My eyes have relaxed, my brain shaken itself out, and generally I’m feeling much better. But this effect doesn’t have to come only in short bursts.

And, more importantly, it can be dangerous to leave it out altogether.

Why This Article is Late

Ok, so, maybe I should have led with this part, explained why it’s showing up now and not Friday. But I’m not the AngryGM, I don’t have patented Long Rambling Introductions™ (yet), and I think it makes more sense here.

Here’s what happened: most nights this week after work, I sat down at my computer, maybe watched an episode of NCIS, but mostly just read programming articles, wrote code, and wrote for this blog. I did some reading before bed, consulted my phone for news during dinner, and my brain was chugging along most of the time at the same pace it was during work. I know this, because I could hear the gears turning. They were starting to rust.

Saturday, I had planned to be really productive (Friday, I had done basically the same as the rest of the week). I needed to Get Things Done™. I woke up a little late, sleeping in to take advantage of the weekend as planned, thinking that would be my “long break”.

I then practiced Tang Soo Do in practice for a test coming up this Friday (don’t worry, you’ll still get your feature). Feeling sufficiently invigorated, I took the bike out for a 5mi ride.

And then things collapsed.

See, I spent the rest of Saturday post-shower-and-lunch watching Netflix or the television (NCIS is my all-time favorite, with Grey’s close behind–plus Law & Order: SVU was marathoning again). Productivity levels: \(0\).

Sine waves

Like most things in life, ups and downs are the key to all of this. Sunday, today, I was productive. I took care of so many things I wanted to get done. And man did it feel good. But would I have been able to do that fresh off my first week of work after a few weeks of summer vacation? Heck no! I had to rest, relax, rebound.

I guess I really like the 3 R’s….

Anyways, now you know the whole story. You know that it is important for me to have short thinking breaks and longer zombie ones (although, “zombie” here is relative–as long as I’m not directly working on or thinking about what I’ve been working on all week, I’m probably ok). You know that not breaking at all can be dangerous–everyone has tried it; it’s either fatal or it fails. And, you know that you make it through anything because your future is in the sins, if you know how to read them.


P.S. I’m sorry about that pun.

P.P.S. No I’m not.

P.P.P.S. This article is both an essay on breaks and a wonderful excuse to finish it late. I do love it when a plan comes together.

If you’re interested, Joel has written a lot about the zone and how programming intersects with business. Check him out so you can make me want to work for you instead.


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