After fifty-two consecutive Mondays of posting ideas for moving from depression to well-being, last week I found myself caught up in an internal struggle. I decided not to post. There’s a laundry list of reasons for taking breaks (and a few reasons to proceed with caution when we’re depressed).
The Brain Never Breaks
In “Why Your Brain Needs More Down Time,” Ferris Jabr clues us in to what the brain does when it’s “not working.”
Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.
All of this helps us work more productively to benefit ourselves and others. The next part gets tricky when we’re challenged by symptoms of depression.
A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.
Attention and Motivation Breaks
Taking a break from focusing my attention on an individual post last week motivated me to view of the shape of the forest I’ve grown by planting fifty-two trees.
Still, I began viewing that forest first thing last Monday while I was still mentally fresh. Jabr passes along advice by Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project, who encourages us to tackle the most challenging task first thing in the morning so we can give it our full attention.
Productivity and Creativity Breaks
Reviewing the posts and exercises last Monday, I noted certain themes that emerged multiple times. This helped me realize which exercises are most productive. Coming to the exercises with fresh eyes also sparked some creative approaches I can use to encourage you to try them.
Performance and Memory Stabilization Breaks
When it comes to physical exercise, the more pleasant an activity is, the easier it is to remember to do it.
On July 4 my partner suggested that we get our exercise in by walking to a gelato shop. On one hand, this might not have been an ideal strategy if our goal was weight loss. On the other, focusing on the reward made the 5.6 mile round trip seem effortless.
The more pleasant I can make these exercises, the easier it will be for you to remember to do them, and the better they will perform.
Skillfully incorporating short breaks into our work day can help us improve our performance in executing our daily to-do lists. A helpful tool I use for this is the Pomodoro Method.
1. Decide on the task to be done.
2. Set the pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes).
3. Work on the task.
4. End work when the timer rings and put a check mark on a piece of paper.
5. If you have fewer than four check marks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 2.
6. After four pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your check mark count to zero, then go to step 1.
Here’s a timer link to help you remember to try it.
A Wandering Mind
Jabr’s article didn’t list a wandering mind as a potential downside to breaks, but depression often involves harmful mind wandering (dredging up the same negative memories and using them as a basis for negative projections about the future).
Keeping One’s Moral Compass
Not harming others is a key to well-being because it allows us to live without remorse and improves the odds that others will treat us well.
It leads to misery when we use our moral compass as a map for judging where others have strayed. If we’re prone to immoral actions ourselves, we can slip from regretting and making amends to viewing ourselves as bad people.
Maintaining a Sense of Self
For me, this is the most intriguing benefit Jabr lists for taking a break.
Near constant activation of the part of the brain charged with maintaining a sense of self is the common thread linking every form of depression. Some of the most promising research in depression treatment focuses on giving patients the opportunity to let their sense of self go.
Ten Minute (or Less) Exercise
When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink offers several types of beneficial breaks you might be able to incorporate into your work day.
These are part of the Pomodoro Method above. My favorite kind are…
2. Moving breaks.
I usually do five minutes of slow walking meditation for three-to-five minutes every twenty-five. This helps me come back fresh and gives me something to focus on other than memories and projections.
3. Nature break.
At a meal break, I get outside to walk. I usually have time to make a short visit to a park and return.
4. Social break.
Pink recommends syncing breaks with coworkers, surprising them by bringing them a cup of coffee, or phoning a friend.
He doesn’t mention social media. I’m pretty sure that’s intentional.
5. Mental gear-shift break.
A full-length or shortened version of any of the ten minute exercises from this site will work for this.
Pink also suggests taking a short comedy break. Silly cat videos do have a role in the workplace.