We’re Not Digging Ditches, In Defense of the Mental Break

A mental break is productivity’s greatest cohort, so why do we avoid them?

A few years ago, I started having panic attacks. I was out to lunch with my co-workers one day and boom, I was inexplicably hot, sweating and feeling faint. Back at the office, I sat in front of another co-worker’s mini fridge, my heart beating rapidly, a bag of ice on the back of my neck. I was nauseous. I couldn’t cool down. Nothing helped. I managed to drive to a local clinic, took an EKG, got an IV of fluids and started feeling a little better. Afterward, I went home exhausted and fell asleep on the sofa for the rest of the night.

It took several months for me to feel better and equally as long to figure out what might be triggering the attacks. The problem? Work. At the time, I was slammed. I was busy all the time, writing and producing — exactly what I’d wanted to be doing for years. But in fulfilling that professional goal, I lost sight of my personal priorities. I wasn’t getting any rest. I’d spend all night working on documents, creating moodboards and shotlists and sending updates — some, unnecessary because my supervisor at the time was a terrible manager so I’d be up against an inane deadline because he’d forgotten to communicate. I thought I was managing, so I didn’t complain; I thought I wanted to be this busy, so I kept doing it.

Unfortunately, what you want and what your body wants are two different things and I knew one thing for sure: I did not want my work to be deleterious to my health. In the words of Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins, one of the millennial generation’s greatest and most profound memes: Ain’t nobody got time for that. In the following months, I would make several minor adjustments to my working life that impacted my health and attitude in significant ways, but the thing I had to do first was take a mental break.

Take this insight from one of my favorite bloggers, the minimalist lawyer and writer Jennifer Taylor Chan:

“We might not think that sleeping through our alarm, cramming ourselves into a packed subway car, or eating a mediocre lunch can impact our long-term happiness, but it absolutely can. One of my favourite phrases is, “how we do anything is how we do everything,” and the actions that make up our daily routine is no exception.”

Although I thought I was out there living my best life, I was actually hanging on by a thread. While I was getting great feedback from some, from others I was demeaned and treated disrespectfully. I’d spend all day crafting great ideas only to look back and realize I hadn’t stepped away from my desk all day. I spent most nights at home, working, because I thought I was learning. I thought the dedication to work was helpful, when in reality, it was isolating.

These days, I’m a big fan of the break. I wear a FitBit, mainly so I can obsess over workout goals (and beating my friends’ step counts), which vibrates at 10 minutes to the hour if I haven’t taken 250 steps in the previous 50 minutes. That’s just a few steps up and down the hall. It’s nothing. And yet, I routinely fail to meet it, even if I meet my daily step goal. The American Heart Association, by the way, recommends 10k steps a day, or about 4 miles. I also incorporate breaks into my productivity routine in a method loosely resembling the Pomodoro Technique. A mental break is about the best thing you can do to be productive. Step away. Think. Come back and start again. But, just like mental health in general, there is a stigma surrounding breaks (here, here) that argues long hours equal success. I don’t buy that.

Research shows that mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories and encourage creativity and that even 7–10 minutes of downtime can help “restore the wake-circuit neurons to their former excitability.”

In the time since I’ve left my full-time job in June 2018, people have constantly asked me what I’m working on, how my job hunt is going, what I’m doing all day, etc. For a while, I truly didn’t do much. I visited coffee shops and read books and magazines; I traveled and designed business cards; I shot a couple of videos of food dishes I’d been making for my blog and busied up the pages of an empty watercolor pad.

About 85% of the people I told this to seemed to understand what I was saying, but would ask the same question when they saw me again. In some of my lower moments at the office, my co-workers and I would often joke that as stressed as we were at times, we weren’t “digging ditches” so what were we really complaining about? C’mon, we’ve got automatic coffee machines and embroidered fleece jackets! But let’s not make excuses for the absolute reality of stress and overwork. Machines dig ditches these days and people are better and more fulfilled when they are better able to see straight.

Take a break, folks.