If you want to stay on a schedule, you need to be able to take breaks that last a certain amount of time, and no longer. But that can be difficult. By definition, you are taking a mental rest from concentrated effort. How do you take that rest, without slipping into unawareness that your 3-minute stretch has turned into a half an hour of puttering?
How do you maintain your intention to keep a break short, and still get the benefit of the break? Obviously, you need a break, so you do not want to do heavy thinking. But you do need to hold your purpose in mind so you don’t get pulled off into random activity. You need to stay focused during the break.
To do that, you need to know your goal for the break. What do you want to happen during the break? Do you need true rest? Do you need to stretch to make sure you don’t get stiff? Are you just checking in with physical needs for food, water, etc.? Or is the purpose to quickly clear your head? What would the ideal break look like?
You probably sometimes plan short breaks (less than 5 minutes) and sometimes longer ones (for meals or exercise). All of them are at risk for lasting longer than you intend. But if you spell out the purpose of your break, and therefore the reason it should last only 3 minutes or 5 minutes or 25 minutes, you can hold that reason in mind during the break. By keeping focused on your purpose, you can keep the break to the appropriate time.
Getting that reason in mind may be as simple as repeating a phrase to yourself, such as “this is just a quick stretch break.” Knowing the positive purpose of the break is critical, so that you can see when you’ve accomplished the goal. You are finished with a stretch break when you feel your shoulders relax and your breath go through your body. But if you just hold it as a negative (I’m getting away from work for a while), there is no obvious end point.
In some cases, when the break is longer, you may need something more elaborate. Perhaps you need a bit of a ritual to help you get the right mental set for your break, and set up reminders for when to come back to work.
For example, when you start your lunch break, you might go through a ritual that involves clearing up your desk and laying out the work you will do after lunch, front and center, with a note on it stating what you will do first, and why. You can then firmly set in mind an idea like, “I want to finish lunch on schedule so I can finish this [insert value-laden description here] work by 2:00 p.m.”
In other words, being intentional about the value of the break, and the value of ending on time, helps ensure that it will both serve its purpose and support your other goals.
This kind of intentionality can help you avoid all kinds of slippery slopes. For example, discussion in classes can sometimes slip down a slope to take the class off topic. To avoid this, I think in advance about what my goals for a class are, and what I want to elicit in discussion. This doesn’t guarantee that I keep the discussion on track, because a conversation involves two people. Sometimes I discover that we have different agendas, in which case we need to talk about that. But my job is to figure out what my goals are, what I think (in advance) will be most helpful for the class, and then use this knowledge to direct the discussion and/or adjust the class as needed when new information comes out. Clarity about my specific purpose in the class helps me maintain the right mental set so that I can guide the class more effectively, and adjust if needed.
How will you plan your next break? Or avoid your next slippery slope? Give it a dose of intentionality!