One of the principles about focus that I really like is the value of breaks. Whether you take them every 25 minutes, every 90 minutes or something in between, taking breaks actually improves your focus. Breaks create containers for your focus.
Breaks also shift how you view the inability to focus for long stretches of time. 90 minutes is a long time to maintain focus. Losing focus is normal. And you won’t be capable of the same level of focus or concentration in every 90 minute block of the day.
Give yourself permission
You could experiment with just this. Instead of getting annoyed with yourself or wondering what is wrong with you, give yourself permission to get up and take a short break when you start to get fidgety and distracted.
Walk away from the computer. Do something physical (especially if your loss of focus felt physical, like fidgeting). You could put on a pop song and dance. You could just walk around the room. Or shake out your arms and legs. Then sit back down and work.
Some participants in A Meeting With Your Writing report that just giving themselves permission to take a break doesn’t really help much with their focus. They found themselves thinking about that cup of tea 5 minutes in. Planning to take a break after a specified amount of time, say 30 minutes, worked better. They were able to focus for that 30 minutes. Get up. Make tea. Focus again.
One participant decided that she would get up and make tea after 60 minutes but only set her timer for the 90 minutes of the writing session. (We all call in to celebrate and do a closing exercise after 90 minutes of writing.) She found that she got into flow with her writing and didn’t even notice the time until 70 minutes had passed. At that point, she just kept writing until the timer went off. The act of deciding when she should or could take a break was enough.
Other participants have noticed, after several weeks of observing their focus, that they tend to run out of steam after 60 minutes. They have started scheduling a break at that point, and then sitting back down to do other writing tasks that don’t require the same level of focus for the last 25 minutes of the session.
Experiment with where you take the break and whether you actually set a timer. Keep in mind that every day is different. You aren’t looking for the One Right Way ™ but rather a range of options that are effective and a sense of when to choose which one.
How long is a break?
You want your break to be a real break. But you don’t want to have more break time than work time. You’ll need to experiment but it seems that a good rule of thumb would be that shorter lengths of focused time need shorter breaks. And a longer break should come between longer sections.
90 minutes seems like the kind of cycle our bodies like (in sleep anyway, so I don’t see why not when awake). Taking a 15 minute break after 90 minutes would be reasonable. If you break your 90 minutes up into 3 x 25-minute sessions, you probably want about a 5 minute break between those. (a 7 minute break will make the whole thing add up to 90).
Sometimes, the task you are working on and the emotional and physical context, make it necessary to work in very short increments of say 10 minutes. In that case, you might write for 10 minutes, get up and stretch or shake out your limbs, and then sit back down for the next 10 minutes, taking a slightly longer break after several of these shorter sessions.
I also recommend taking a proper lunch break away from your desk of at least 30 minutes. Allow yourself to enjoy your meal. Maybe go for a walk.
What would you do in a break?
Start by getting up from your desk. Movement is highly recommended, not least because your brain functions better with exercise and movement.
- do some jumping jacks
- put on a pop song that makes you want to dance and dance
- go make a cup of tea
- go for a walk
- run around the house/building
Some of those sound crazy (like the dancing) but A Meeting With Your Writing participants have tried them and they work.
One participant put some pans in the sink to soak before the meeting started and then washed the pans during a break. If you work from home, you have lots of options for breaks:
- put the laundry in
- hang the laundry up
- fold laundry
- wash dishes
- tidy the living room
- chop vegetables
- put something in the crockpot/oven
- make bread — that involves short bursts of activity with long waits in between
- vacuum/sweep one room
- pick up toys
I don’t really feel like doing any of those things either but most of them also benefit from setting a timer and only working for 5 minutes. Win-win.
Do you take breaks? What do you do in a break?
Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.
Edited April 18, 2016.