Better Results by Slacking Off

In yesterday’s blog post, Darcie wrote an awesome article about breaks. If you haven’t read it, check it out here. In today’s post, the last in our 5 part series, I’m going to talk about breaks. As I’ve mentioned in each of the articles in this series, this article is directed at software and web developers. However, if you are a heavy computer user my points should apply to you just the same. Today’s post is a bit more of an opinion piece but if you want to get into the science of stress and productivity, then let me know in the comments. If there is interest, we’d be happy to post a blog on cognitive ergonomics, stress and the role of breaks.

The 5 habits I’m going to touch on are:
1. Monitor Position
2. Screen Set-up
3. The Lazy Posture
4. All the Wrong Equipment in All the Wrong Places
5. Get Up and Take a Break!

breaks

Being in front of a computer for long hours, day in and day out, can really… well… suck! Compound that with all of the wonderful project management related challenges, including deadlines, budgets, creeping scopes, and struggling team members, software and web development can be a cognitively demanding and stressful occupation. I like to define stress as a feeling which occurs when the demands on a person outweigh his or her ability to cope with those demands. Stress is something that each of us deal with day in and day out and is associated with numerous negative health outcomes including heart disease, sleeplessness, depression and mental health problems, among others.

In terms of the programmer (or the heavy computer user), stress can seriously disrupt performance and productivity. Much research has demonstrated that stress reduces cognitive abilities, and leads to distortions and  misinterpretations of situations and events. Short-term stress is usually managed well. Think of all of the times you were down to the wire with a deadline and you were able to overcome the stress and pull through! What we want to avoid is the long-term or chronic stress which can lead to becoming “overstressed”.

If short, a person that is overstressed is productively useless. This person is irritated, distracted, impatient, forgetful, pessimistic and often angry! I know I’ve been this person! And some people are more susceptible to becoming overstressed than others. So, on to the point of this blog post! Take a break! As I mentioned earlier, if you haven’t read yesterday’s article, you should! Through years of experience, I’ve found that when I’m stressed, tired, sore, or having an absolutely unproductive day, a break is key! And not just any ol’ break, I’m referring to point 5 in Darcie’s list of break types:

  1. Very short pauses (sometimes called a change of posture)
  2. Micropauses, where workers can relax their arms and hands briefly off the keyboard
  3. Short breaks initiated by work such as when the telephone rings or chatting with a coworker/supervisor
  4. Breaks initiated by the workers such as a deliberate change in tasks, such as changing from computer work to faxing, photocopying, of filing
  5. Formal breaks such as coffee breaks and lunch time

Although new tech start-ups as well as huge corporations (Google comes to mind) are doing this very well, real breaks are still considered a faux pas by many businesses and employers. What I mean by a real break is allowing a person to become completely cognitively disengaged from the tasks that they were previously focusing on. And this isn’t easy! Think back to your school days when you were cramming for a test. And lets use math as the subject (It needs to be technical). I don’t know about you, but when I crammed for math tests, whether it was way back in high school or graduate level statistics, I had horrible dreams of numbers flying around. Back then the stress of the task as well as the coming exam stuck with me and my brain stayed engaged with the topic, even in sleep! This same situation happens when stressing over a cognitively demanding tasks like programming. A real break allows you to stop thinking about the numbers, forget about the stress, and focus on something different while allowing your mind some much needed relief.

stressed-coder-840x420

What I consider to be real breaks, others may consider to be play-time or horse play. Many employers will baulk at the idea of paying staff to do any of these activities; that is until they see an increase in productivity when workplace stress is reduced:

 
    • Games – from table top ping pong, billiards, and foosball

 

  • Video games – Why not? There is nothing like a little original nintendo to calm the nerves

 

 

  • Sport – basketball, road hockey, badminton etc. Anything that can take your mind off things, provide team building and get the heartrate up

 

 

  • Fitness – Google has swim-in-place swimming pools available to all staff. Why not incorporate an exercise bike or treadmill into the office?

 

 

  • Rest – Sometimes, all a person needs is a quick catnap to clear the mind and regain productivity

 

 

  • A couch and a TV – Sometimes a half hour of turning your brain off and watching your favourite episode is all it takes

 

 

Like I said, these may not seem like they fit into the workplace. If you or your staff are under a ton of ongoing stress, doesn’t it make sense to try to reduce chronic stress by allowing yourself or others to take a productive break? The way I look at it, a lost hour of work is far better than a lost day due to a stressed worker!

Joe has had a diverse career across many industries which has provided him with invaluable training and experience. Joe's specialization focuses on the human factors of human-computer interaction, with a particular focus on usability. He has conducted numerous academic and internal scientific research projects, has a Master of Science Degree from the University of Victoria and is an active software/web developer. Fun fact about Joe is that he has had four holes in one (twice on the same hole) and a double eagle while playing golf.

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