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Take a timeout: 9 do’s and don’ts for a good work break

Take a breakYour neck and back ache from hunching over your desk. Your eyes burn from staring at a monitor. You don’t want to stop because the clock is not your friend today. Yet stopping can, in fact, make the clock your friend. 

Taking a break on the busiest of days (and, of course, this is the busiest of seasons for tax CPAs) can be hard to do. I get it – while working on a deadline, I hyper focus and hate to put myself on pause. But I make myself do it because I know from experience that it will ultimately lead to greater productivity.

You don’t have to take my word for it, science says the same thing. Consultants monitored people’s productivity using an application called DeskTime and found that the best performers worked for 52 consecutive minutes followed by a 17-minute break. Not too surprising, considering that scientists have learned that our brains are better at solving complex problems when given a chance to relax. Think of that “aha” moment that comes to you when you’re in the shower or picking up dry cleaning. 

Some folks I know swear by the Pomodoro method, named after the tomato-shaped timer used by the method’s originator. Try setting a timer for various intervals to see what works for you. More important than the exact span of the break is reminding yourself to take one in the first place.  

Here are some additional tips:

  1. DO get out of the workspace and walk around. If it’s not 5 degrees outside, get out of the building for a few minutes. Here, too, science confirms the benefits. Walking stimulates blood flow to your brain, which leads to more oxygen and energy, as well as improved memory and thinking. If only science would also affirm the critical role of nachos and cheese in productivity.  
  2. DO seek out opportunities to talk with staff or colleagues who are available and keep the conversation light –you are working on so much technical content, you’ll need some relief. While chatting about the Super Bowl may feel like goofing off, you’re reinforcing relationships, which is extremely important. Double whammy: hit these first two “do’s” by offering to pick up coffee or tea for a few people.
  3. DON’T look at your email, computer or any other screen, more than you absolutely need to. This may be the only time you can text a friend or spouse or check personal emails, but be mindful that your eyes desperately need a rest to ease digital eye strain.
  4. DO bring in snacks for your break that provide sustained energy rather than a sugar-fueled burst that will be followed by a productivity-killing glucose crash. I am a big fan of peanut butter-filled pretzels. They may not top nutritionists’ list of healthy snacks, but I’ve found a few will fill me up, and they are low in sugar.
  5. DON’T cram in multiple errands that risk your coming back to the office even more stressed because you’ve exceeded the time you wanted to spend away.
  6. DO let yourself escape reality. Peruse travel magazines to plan your next vacation. Try meditation or check out silly cat videos (keeping in mind #3 about your eyes). I enjoy looking at food magazines, especially the gourmet recipes. Am I really going to make cherry-infused almond biscotti? Of course not. But I like knowing it exists, just in case.
  7. DON’T feel guilty or self-conscious about walking away from your desk. Trust me. It will be there when you get back, whether you want it to be or not. Think of Audrey II, that terrifying plant in Little Shop of Horrors yelling “Feed me!” Your stimulus-craving brain is saying the same thing and just as with Audrey II, there will be a price to pay if it doesn’t get satisfied. To ease the guilt, following the tip in #8 below may help.
  8. DO use some of your breaks to focus on the people important to you. Brainstorm a list of creative thank-you gifts for staff, or surprise a kid in college with a handwritten note. You can also pick out a “Thinking of You” card for a significant other who hasn’t seen much of you lately (go ahead and get a Valentine’s Day card while you’re at it) or call a friend you haven’t spoken with in a while. 
  9. DO consider taking advantage of the time to learn something non-technical. If you’re in a small office, getting out may be harder so listen or watch these videos from the Association’s Human Intelligence topics such as future proofing your career or thinking like a CEO.

Taking a break is one way to be more productive. Another is to use our free tools. Check out the updated Tax Practitioner’s Marketing Toolkit as well as the resources on the small firm website to boost your productivity.

Jeannette Koger, Vice President - Advisory Services and Credentialing, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

Take a break courtesy of Shutterstock.

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