I recently wrote about how I’ve started college classes again. It’s been several weeks, and I’ve been doing something that’s apparently a little crazier than I’d realized. While I knew it was atypical, and not entirely sane, I didn’t realize just how crazy it was to take a full 14 credits in an accelerated summer semester. What this has meant is that I am constantly working, just to keep up with the scheduled assignments, let alone study for tests. That means an awful lot of time at a desk, or with a book. I am just like everyone else – I sit at my desk or in the coffee shop, reading, writing or typing and I gradually fall forward, hunching over my studies. And it’s trying to kill me. My back and ribs haven’t been this unhappy in years. This story is nothing new, and I’m far from the first person to endure this.
But I’m developing strategies to help myself, and finding that some of the best strategies for helping my back are also benefitting me in other ways. I’m hoping that this can help all you desk jockeys out there with your desk-induced discomfort, stress levels and your overall health and happiness. That’s right – your overall happiness.
As a massage therapist and personal trainer I always suggest, to my clients who work at desks, to get up and move around regularly throughout the workday. I’m not the first person to recommend this, and I’m not always great at keeping on top of it, myself. But when I do manage to heed my own advice, I’m a more productive and a much happier camper. But sticking with it seems to require a strategy, and then some techniques to support that strategy.
Firstly, plan your breaks, and make sure they are actual breaks. There are countless strategies and tools out there for this. Odds are, if you are sitting at your desk, you are probably connected to the internet. There are plenty of online timers out there, including the Pomodoro Technique, my preferred way to block time. While I haven’t read the whole book, and entirely immersed myself in the Pomodoro strategy, I have incorporated the basic premise of using 25 minute blocks of working time, alternating with a 5 minute break, during which I stand up, stop looking at the computer and use different neural pathways.
Please, do not check Facebook, and call it a “break.” It’s not. You’re not giving your brain an adequate break. Nerve cells use more glucose than any other cell in the body, and giving one set of neural pathways a genuine rest will allow them to flush more metabolic waste and regenerate glucose stores for more efficient work, once you sit back down. And don’t just stay where you are. Get up and move around. Do some standing back bends, a couple sun salutations, some arm drags along the wall (to help offset all that hunching over your desk).
If you are afraid that you’ll lose your flow, don’t be. In fact, there’s a strategy of stopping work for a break when you are on a roll, and the work is easiest. The theory here is that it will be easier for you to get back up to speed, if you stop when the work is already easy.
Alternately, if you are mentally stumped, taking a break and resting those neural pathways can serve to refresh you and give you enough mental energy to build up some starting momentum once you sit back down. I tend to try to break on schedule, but if I’m hitting a mental roadblock, I either change projects, or break early.
Finally, plan to stop working for an hour or two and go workout. Standing and walking around the house or the office is wonderful, but the mental focus a workout requires, and the full endorphin rush it provides are unmatched in their ability to help you mentally refocus. It’s well documented that regular exercise is one of the best anti-depressants out there (often at least as effective as medications), and can help with sleep, stress and energy levels. I can say from personal experience that the time I’ve given up at my desk in order to workout is almost always more than offset by the efficiency I gain after the workout from the stress relief, and being mentally refreshed.
It’s tough to remind myself that taking the time to not do work actually helps me be more productive in the long run. It seems counterintuitive, at first, but I promise that it works. In fact, on his podcast, Bulletproof Executive, Dave Asprey asks his highly successful and very intelligent biohacking guests to give their top 3 recommendations to help other people be healthier and more efficient, and an overwhelming number of them mention taking time off, or otherwise not working. These people know their stuff. So give it a shot. Check out the TomatoeTimer, set your parameters and consider breaking your to-do list into 25 minute tasks, and make yourself more efficient, less stressed, healthier and happier, all at once.