April 30, 2009 10:20 AM   Subscribe

What can I do for a mental break besides surf the Internet?

I'm a graduate student. Writing papers, researching, working problem sets and other grad-student-ly activities can be a bit fatiguing to the brain, requiring the occasional mental break to refresh the mind and re-set thought patterns that may have got into a rut.

Since I do most of my work on the computer, the natural thing to do when I want to take a break is to surf the Web. But inevitably, one link leads to another and I look up from my "five-minute break" to discover that half an hour has passed. Programs like LeechBlock have helped a little, but for me Web sites are like potato chips: I can't visit just one. Once I've begun it's difficult to stop.

So I need something to use as a mental break that, unlike Web surfing, is self-limiting. Something that I can do for five minutes that won't create such irresistible temptation to keep doing it, that will leave my brain refreshed and focused. Please help me replace this bad habit with a better one!
posted by fermion to Computers & Internet (27 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Before the Internet, there was Minesweeper! Try Solitaire, Minesweeper, etc. - the games are short and they're a nice break from thinking.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:29 AM on April 30, 2009

Are you at home working? See my journey to Frontier Land. No internet distractions and I take my 5-10 minutes to do dishes, laundry etc. For longer 30 minute breaks, I go for a run.
posted by meerkatty at 10:29 AM on April 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In drawing classes, they sometimes have people do quick five-minute sketches to help people practice immediately looking at how to frame a composition and draw attention to the most important parts (as well, as, like, drawing good quick and stuff). Keep a sketchpad on your desk, set a five minute timer, and sketch like mad until you hear the timer go "ding!"
posted by Greg Nog at 10:29 AM on April 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Go for a walk. Perfect for refreshing the mind.
posted by gyusan at 10:30 AM on April 30, 2009 [5 favorites]

Anything that gets you out of your chair/office and away from your computer. Take out the garbage, do dishes, sort laundry, feed the birds, walk around the block, stretch, do pullups/pushups/ab crunches, etc. When I'm planning for a day of dissertation work, I actually list out some 5-10 minute tasks that need to be done and schedule them for my work breaks. Sometimes after an hour or so of work, taking out the garbage actually seems like a reward...

The best thing I can do (if I can avoid the internet) is to do these tasks at scheduled times, whether or not I'm on a roll with what I'm writing. That way I take my 5 minute trash break and come back knowing the next thing I have to work on dissertation-wise. If I take these breaks at a natural break in my work (after finishing reading an article, writing a paragraph, etc.), I'm less likely to get right back to work after taking out the trash and more likely to get online and waste precious time because I'm not sure what I need to do next (or just don't want to do it).
posted by BlooPen at 10:39 AM on April 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

Before the Internet, I was addicted to Minesweeper, so maybe not ...

Try something that you never seem to get around to and want to get accomplished. It shouldn't be onerous, but it should be naturally self-limiting.

- Ab crunches, squats or some stretches
- A small, discrete piece of housework that will make you feel better for doing it, like scrubbing your sinks or wiping down the kitchen counter and cabinets
- Rinse, brush and floss
posted by maudlin at 10:39 AM on April 30, 2009

(Or, what BlooPen said. *shakes fist*)
posted by maudlin at 10:40 AM on April 30, 2009

One thing I'd like to do is practice meditation, zazen-style. I have the kind of mind that wanders a lot, and I can't easily stay on tasks mentally for long periods of time -- especially if I find the subject matter or the speaker boring in any way. I think that if I practiced zazen for short periods of time, gradually increasing, it would help sharpen whatever part of my brain is responsible for focus and concentration. Maybe this is a good idea for you too?
posted by ben242 at 10:48 AM on April 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

The benefit of doing a small task on your to-do list (dishes, trash, water plants, sit ups) is that you really accomplish a surprising amount throughout your day. When I work this way, by the end of the day I feel much more satisfaction.

So, yes, agreeing with the above.
posted by Vaike at 10:50 AM on April 30, 2009

Take a walk.
Listen to 2 songs.
posted by doorsfan at 10:58 AM on April 30, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the excellent suggestions so far!

I should have mentioned that I do a lot of my work at the office (which I share with another student), so housework isn't always feasible as a breaktime activity.
posted by fermion at 11:02 AM on April 30, 2009

posted by caddis at 11:03 AM on April 30, 2009

Anything mndless that the body can do on it's own, as the others have said:

Go for a walk
Go outside and look at the sky
Have a conversation with someone in person or on the phone
Stretching, cals like jumping jax, pushups, crunches, plank, run around the block etc.
Read a novel, draw
posted by scazza at 11:17 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Never said it had to be healthy or non-habit-forming.)
posted by General Malaise at 11:22 AM on April 30, 2009

What about Sudoku or some other type of short puzzle. I make lists, but now that I've read this post I'm going to start exercising my breaks away.
posted by purpletangerine at 11:26 AM on April 30, 2009

I'm with purpletangerine--how about a crossword or sudoku? I find minesweeper and solitaire lead to 'just one more game, just one more game' ad infinitum. Or listen to a short humor or news podcast.
posted by lemonade at 11:31 AM on April 30, 2009

Best answer: You know, there are so many stationary exercises out there one could never get bored. There's all of yoga, sun salutations, you could have a pair of free weights by your desk and do bicep curls, if your chair doesn't have wheels you could turn around and do tricep dips. I'd think doing full wheel or a shoulderstand/headstand would definitely clear your mind.

Thought of more:
listen to the radio
Learn to knit or crochet
If you ride a bike, tune it up on your breaks
Plan your vacation (and not by randomly surfing the web)
Think of things in your house that you can give away
posted by scazza at 11:36 AM on April 30, 2009

- Go get a coffee, or make some tea.
- Do (part of) a crossword puzzle.
posted by Simon Barclay at 11:55 AM on April 30, 2009

Does anyone know an easy way to split mp3s into fixed-length segments, with a bit of overlap on the edges?

Assuming that could be done, you could listen to a chunk of podcast that suddenly ends, indicating that you should get back to work. Though I don't know how easy it would be to keep to just one segment.
posted by parudox at 12:04 PM on April 30, 2009

When I am focusing intently on work I try to take breaks that use a completely different part of my brain. It sounds a little daffy, but I like to take "song breaks" - I quickly find the lyrics to a song that I like, step away from my desk and sing the song aloud, with...feeling. I find it very refreshing and it helps me come back to the task at hand with renewed focus.

Granted, this might not be feasible in your situation unless you can get out of hearing range of your officemate...that is, unless they want to join in.
posted by messica at 12:17 PM on April 30, 2009

Response by poster: scazza--thanks, those fit marvelously well!

Learn to knit or crochet
I brought my chainmail supplies in this morning so I can give this a shot. (Chainmail is like knitting, only more macho and less practical.)

Think of things in your house that you can give away
A nice way to kill two birds with one stone. I have far, far too much stuff. And will have even more if I start working on chainmail on a regular basis. Heh.

All these suggestions are great--I will definitely set up some housework tasks next time I'm doing work at home, and maybe get a book of crosswords. It's nice to have a variety of methods to try, so I am certainly interested in hearing more ideas if they're out there!
posted by fermion at 1:13 PM on April 30, 2009

posted by ZaneJ. at 1:40 PM on April 30, 2009

One-minute dance party. I do this when I'm taking a break from research or writing, and to mark the end of the writing day. I crank the tunes (in headphones is fine), stand up from my desk, and shake it like I'm gonna break it.

Since you share with an officemate, it would be courteous to invite him/her to join you in the dance party.
posted by Elsa at 2:57 PM on April 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


I really like the idea of playing popcast for 5 minute as a break. I use the music player foobar2000 with the scheduler plugin installed. Instead of splitting the mp3, I will program the scheduler to play for 5 minutes and then stop (action "play", action "delay 5", action "stop"). Then I will bind that schedule to a key. That should work pretty well.
posted by gmarceau at 3:40 PM on April 30, 2009

Bring in a music player. Take a 5 minute walk, or run up the stairs in the next building over, while listening to music. Exercise, fresh air, and music all do a great job of refreshing your body and mind.

Find sites with beautiful pictures. Flickrs Interesting tagged pictures are great for this. Spend a few minutes looking at great photos. Just keep hitting refresh.
posted by theora55 at 3:41 PM on April 30, 2009

Try some puzzles/brainteasers. (Might help for those job interviews too, I like the ones here)
Call your mother (girlfriend, sister, etc)
Write a list of goals for today, this week, this month, etc.
Grab some coffee/tea, have a snack
posted by gushn at 10:57 PM on April 30, 2009

Do a language learning exercise at Live Mocha. It's free!
posted by willmize at 8:10 AM on May 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

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