How do people working at home decide how much time to spend on breaks?
March 2, 2016 8:01 AM   Subscribe

I've always struggled with this--sometimes I feel like I just can't focus on my work, or feel too lonely and distracted and need a change. But if I'm on a deadline, I'm certainly able to put those feelings aside and power through. Then I feel guilty that I don't "power through" all the time to be maximally productive. So, is there any "objective" way to determine how much break time (e.g., screwing around on "Ask Mefi") one truly needs?
posted by Jon44 to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I do a lot of work with very little direction and work from home a lot and the way I contend with what you are describing is the following:

- Prep a list the day before that includes tasks that should be my target amount of time I want to work (I usually put it at somewhere between 8-9 hours). This does a few things for me: I always know what I *should* be working on, so when I do get distracted, I know exactly where I should go; Helps remove the guilt from spending 5-10 minutes trolling askMiFi or something else, as "I am making good progress on my list"

- Accepting that distraction will happen and is sometimes helpful, but doing my best to not let it get out of hand. Looking at Facebook for 5 minutes...okay...starting to read a long-form article that is going to take me an hour...not okay.

- Track my time to 15 minute intervals. Even though I don't have to hand-in time sheets, I keep track, as I am very willing to cheat and say that I did the work I needed to do OR overwork and not really notice. This helps keep me honest.

With those principles in place, I try to keep my distractions to the 5ish minute mark. Any longer than that, then I won't allow myself to track that time as productive on my time tracking sheet. I'm not sure if this is in-line with the amount of distraction I need, but it helps keep me from burning out.
posted by chiefthe at 8:18 AM on March 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've come to realize that I have a window of about 5 hours (8:00 AM to 1:00 PM) that I consider my power time. I generally buckle down and get a lot accomplished during this time. Mid to late afternoon is a bad time for me mentally (hard to focus), so I normally run errands with my wife. I think the key is figure out your power hours and take advantage of them. I used to stress when I didn't operate at full steam all day long, but no more. Obviously, I take mini-breaks (I'm here on AskMe at 11:18), but I think that's healthy. Be realistic about your mental capacity.
posted by davebush at 8:20 AM on March 2, 2016 [20 favorites]

Are you familiar with the Pomodoro technique? Google it to learn more, but basically, it's about using a timer to schedule worktime while allowing for breaks. (The difficult thing, however, is actually implementing it.) You'll find many Pomodoro timers for download too.
posted by Leontine at 8:23 AM on March 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

Big fan of Tony Schwartz – Manage your energy, not your time
It’s far more efficient to fully focus for 90 to 120 minutes, take a true break, and then fully focus on the next activity.

A true break being defined as 30 minutes+ – a complete shift in activity. The measure how many sprints you can go through a day – 3, 4, 5, 6, etc.

Chunking work into 60-90 minute pieces allows you to plan daily time in terms of blocks of activities, rather than specific contexts. When working at home, that is ideal, for there are (often) far fewer external cues that break up the day.

Then, in terms of allocating time, find out your natural pace, in terms of numbers of chunks. Do you have a big Monday with 7 sprints, followed by lighter Tuesday / Wednesday Thursday where you have 4 sprints and go to the gym/store/errands/play/etc, and then a final full day of 5 sprints on Friday?

Essentially, sprints/chunked time intervals make it easier to find your natural rhythm in the absence of external cues.
posted by nickrussell at 8:26 AM on March 2, 2016 [14 favorites]

Start by changing the terminology you use. Futzing around on AskMe isn't a break, it's a distraction. A break is getting up and stretching, going for a walk, making that dentist appointment, etc. Own your futzing and earn your breaks.

When I was freelancing, I dedicated specific chunks time *every day* to the work, and built regular breaks into it. Now that I work at home sometimes, and for varying amounts of time, I find myself doing what you're doing - futzing around and then powering through when on deadline. For me, consistency worked, inconsistency doesn't.
posted by headnsouth at 8:33 AM on March 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

My dog let's me know when It's time for a walk. If I need distraction, I clean something that needs to be cleaned, fold what needs to be folded, take out the trash. On the computer, I just don't open any sites that don't have to do with my job at hand.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:36 AM on March 2, 2016

Seconding the Pomodoro technique, which allots time for both productivity and breaks. Making a mental distinction between breaks and distractions, as headnsouth describes, will also help you. If you're doing internet junk when you're supposed to be working (as most of us do), it will eat up productive time while not giving you a true break.

One of the things that helps me the most is starting the day out with a distraction-free chunk of time. For the first half hour I'm at my computer, I don't look at anything that isn't work-related. It's easier to force productivity at the very beginning of the work day than after a couple hours of futzing.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:01 AM on March 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

For me, the timer on my phone is the only way I can be productive on days when I have no "must do" work. I make a bargain with myself. "I will work for 45 minutes, hard and strong and get as much done as I possibly can. Then I will take 15 minutes to surf the net, read, etc. Then, when that timer goes off again, I will hit it hard for another 45 minutes."

Just starting out, I would work the 45/15 ration, and then once a week or so, add another five or ten minutes to your work time. Eventually you will find the sweet spot for yourself.
posted by raisingsand at 9:06 AM on March 2, 2016

I use the Pomodoro technique and would accomplish nothing if I didn't have it. That said, it works best when I have tasks that are smallish and can be picked up and put down easily - 25 minutes isn't actually a long stretch of time!
posted by kalimac at 9:39 AM on March 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

There is no ethical duty to be "maximally productive." Let's say your employer pays you to accomplish X and you can accomplish it in 2 hrs per day rather than 8; you have no moral obligation to do more than X just to fill the other hours. So, to me, the "objective" way to determine it is to first determine what your goal is (finish a project, make $X, keep your job, get a promotion, win an award, etc.), then, what is the minimal amount of labor required to accomplish that. Any designated work hours above and beyond the minimal labor are now free to be "break time." If you work on a billable hour basis, obviously you can't bill for hours you're not working, but for salaried jobs I don't see any ethical issue. Part of what they're paying for is access to you during your working hours -- they have access to your additional capacity but they're not utilizing it; this is not your problem.
posted by melissasaurus at 12:27 PM on March 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

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