Does taking breaks for ergonomics hurt flow?
October 22, 2009 4:16 AM   Subscribe

Doesn't taking breaks for ergonomic reasons hurt "flow"?

I've recently been having tendinitis issues at work (I'm in the IT field). I've bought an ergonomic keyboard, started correcting bad habits and I also installed Workrave; a small program that "forces" me to take the occasional break.

I've begun to wonder if these breaks are hurting my overall productivity. Specifically with regard to the psychological concept of "flow". Am I wrong or is this just something I have to deal with?
posted by defben to Work & Money (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You needn't break your 'flow' during a break, if that break is just for ergonomic reasons. Assuming you're doing something IT-related (as opposed to something like creative writing), a break could just be standing up and walking around in a circle for five minutes while you carry on thinking about what you were just doing.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:22 AM on October 22, 2009

Short-term, yes. Long-term, you adjust, the same way you manage to talk fluently while somehow stopping to breathe all the time.

Eventually, you stop being conscious of the break being a 'break', and your brain keeps ticking as usual, as in LMdBA's example.
posted by rokusan at 4:36 AM on October 22, 2009

I'm a programmer. Yes, it will hurt flow. You have to pick which you want to hurt less.

If you're lucky, changing the scenery might eventually be natural enough that you won't drop the eggs you're juggling.
posted by cmiller at 4:55 AM on October 22, 2009

You're less productive if you have flow and roll along for some time and then can't work at all due to injury.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:27 AM on October 22, 2009

You can still think about the work while you are taking your break.
posted by smackfu at 6:42 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I find that I can preserve flow if, while I interrupt the physical activity (writing at a computer) I don't interrupt the mental work (thinking about and creating written materials). So when I get up for a break, to have a cup of tea, stretch or loo break, I don't let myself get distracted by thinking about other stuff, reading the mail or a magazine in the loo etc. I think about what I'm going to write next, or what I just drafted. This preserves my flow and when I get back to the desk, I can get on with things fine.

On the other hand, having a break and deliberately thinking about other stuff for a while is a good tool to get past log-jams in my thinking.

So for ergonomics sake, you only need to take a physical break, not a mental break. Stay mentally focused on your programming, for example thinking about the next lines of code, and hopefully you'll not procrastinate or stare blankly at the screen when you return.
posted by dowcrag at 6:47 AM on October 22, 2009

Of course, the pain and discomfort of tendinitis most certainly interrupts work-flow, as well. Pick your poison.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:25 AM on October 22, 2009

Yes, it definitely does, and can be incredibly frustrating. The alternative is far worse, in my opinion, though.

The research I have seen [citation absent] says that the microbreaks are more important than the longer rest breaks. This is what I find from personal experience as well—if I skip the microbreaks I start to notice it pretty quickly, whereas I can skip the longer rest breaks for a while without noticing. So I set up Workrave so that I can't postpone a microbreak, but I can postpone a rest break. I find it's easy to keep my flow during a 30 sec microbreak just by continuing to think about whatever I was thinking about. I set my long rest breaks perhaps a little more often than I would otherwise so that I have some buffer for postponing a little to finish things up.

I've also gotten pretty good at bookmarking my train of thought. It's nice to be able to keep everything in your head at once, but it's not sustainable, especially if you have to take breaks that break your train of thought. So I set up Emacs to highlight the characters "XXX" and any lines that end with whitespace. The former is how I make "todo" comments and the latter is a good way of finding places where my concentration was interrupted in the middle of something.

When I have to complete a multistep process, I type all the steps down as uncommented lines with XXX in front of them. If I need to take a break, I type XXX and then what I was doing, if that part is even necessary. Explicitly planning small tasks like this leads to a pretty low rate of careless coding errors (knock on wood).

I also keep a pad of paper around where I sometimes write out things that I think of doing during the breaks. I don't like to do this as much though, since I'd really like to give my hands a break from everything.
posted by grouse at 7:46 AM on October 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

One citation for the effect grouse mentioned is

Computer terminal work and the benefits of microbreaks
McLean, L.; Tingley, M.; Scott, R.N.; Rickards, J.
Applied Ergonomics 32 (2001): 225-237
posted by gmarceau at 9:26 AM on October 22, 2009

How productive are you when the pain is so great that you need to see a doctor and have surgery? Just use the microbreak to reflect on what you're trying to accomplish. It'll help.
posted by filmgeek at 10:40 AM on October 22, 2009

Ages ago when I was learning the habit with the aid of a wrist-watch alarm, the alarm would sometimes beep when I was 5 layers deep and unwilling to come up for air at that moment. I'd just keep in the back of my mind that I was due for a break while I brought things to a place where I'd be able pick up again with less effort than if I'd broken out immediately when the alarm went off. It's not hard to train yourself to do that, but a 5-minute timer on your desktop can help, if you need it. By now, both habits are long since fully ingrained - no alarms needed.
posted by TruncatedTiller at 11:50 AM on October 22, 2009

This may not apply to your situation, but for me, when trouble-shooting and problem-solving applications and systems, sometimes I find it helpful actually to break flow and go off and do something else.

When I worked in an office, I'd go and get a cup of coffee or go outside and walk around the building. Now working from home, I might take the dogs for a walk. My mind stays active, maybe on a conscious level, maybe on a subconscious level. And during this "other" activity a solution or new line of approach might come to me.
posted by Robert Angelo at 3:09 PM on October 22, 2009

I'm using rsibreak on linux.

Regarding flow, my practice is to ask myself, when I get a break:

0) Take a deep breath.
1) What am I doing right now?
2) Does this make sense?
3) What's the next step.

It's an increasingly more useful exercise, integrating zen and GTD, I guess.

Also, I'd third or fourth the "rsi is harder on flow than taking a breather now and then".
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:27 AM on October 24, 2009

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