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Give Yourself a Break

After 15 years of remote work, our team shares some tips for keeping the siren call of the keyboard at bay.

Full disclosure: Minutes into writing this post, I took a break.

I knew I needed to get up and walk away from my laptop if I was going to write anything worth reading. The signs were all there.

I kept glancing at my phone to see if I had any new texts or WhatsApp messages. (So much for silencing it to prevent distractions.) I scrolled Twitter. I browsed promo emails.

After a long and stressful week, I was running out of steam, and it was easier to focus on any words other than the ones I was responsible for stringing together. So I did what I usually do when writer’s block strikes: I went for a walk.

When I’m physically removed from my workspace and my body gets moving, my focus shifts—to the sunshine warming my face, the novel I’ve been reading every night before bed, basically anything but work. Minutes go by and often, almost magically, a phrase or a sentence will come to me out of nowhere. (One I might actually be able to use.)

Apparently, this isn’t an unusual phenomenon. A Stanford University study showed that when people performed tasks that required imagination, walking boosted creative ideation in real time and shortly after. But increased creativity is just one benefit associated with breaks. Others include enhanced productivity, restored motivation, less decision fatigue, and better physical and emotional health.

With the holidays on the horizon, there’s no better time to reconsider work breaks. To be clear, there’s no “right” way to unwind. But where you’re working and how long you’re putting work aside might impact how you go about it.

Following are some words of wisdom from the team here at Modern Tribe.

Know the Signs

When I start getting distracted easily or, worse, looking for distractions, I know it’s time for a break—and I’m not alone. An inability to focus is a warning sign for several folks here at Modern Tribe, including Paul, a product strategist, who linked it to a particular root cause.

“I can tell I need a break when I notice my attention is all over the place due to too much context switching,” he says.

Ashley, delivery manager, and Mike, sales lead, cite eye strain as a clue that it’s time to step away from the computer. But for Jamie, frontend developer, the tip-off is cognitive.

“When I’m not able to break down problems into simpler tasks or I’m thinking in circles about how to solve something, it’s usually time for at least a 30-minute walk,” she says. (Paul, Ashley, Carly, our agency director, and Nick, our director of engineering, also say that walks help them get back on track.)

Be a Conscientious Co-Worker

I generally don’t announce that I’m taking a break and neither do most of my co-workers. But if a break could impact a meeting or output, everyone I talked to agrees that a heads up is absolutely in order. Thankfully, Triberians are all pretty mindful of our commitments, so a scenario like that is unlikely. (Being happy, helpful, curious and accountable is how we roll.)

You could say that Carly speaks for all of us when she says, “I don’t take breaks when I know they will be disruptive to my team.”

“Travel” for Breaks

Modern Tribe is a fully remote agency, so our team has been working from home long before it became the norm for non-essential workers around the globe. But even WFH veterans like ourselves can have a hard time distinguishing break time from work time when both take place in a single location. Factor in that many of us are basically housebound these days (thanks, COVID), and it can start to feel like we never really escape “the office.”

A change of scenery, even indoors, can help, though. For Nick and Carly that might mean peeking in on their kids, who are doing remote learning. For Ashley, laundry and texts with friends offer a reprieve.

“If I don’t have a lot of time, I often just need to mind wander on the internet for a moment before diving back into a hard problem,” Nick says.

Keep an Eye on the Clock

Realizing that break time is over is possibly just as important as realizing it’s needed. And for several of us at Modern Tribe, timers ensure that we stay productive.

“I try to keep regimented and have some discipline around breaks,” Nick says. “In a remote work environment, it’s easy to be distracted by everything at home that needs attention. I’ve gotten in the habit of setting timers for breaks as well as focus time.”

Jamie also pays close attention to how long she’s away.

“I time my breaks,” she says. “That probably wouldn’t be great for everyone but it works for me, and I always come back refreshed. I have ADHD so time can get away from me if I’m not paying attention.”

Meanwhile, Paul’s thermos acts as a timer of sorts. When he sets out for a walk around the block, he usually takes a water-filled thermos with him. When the H2O runs out, break time is over.

Make Clear Transitions

Nearly everyone at Modern Tribe will tell you that a dedicated space for remote work is invaluable. Not only does it curb distractions, but it also gives you a place to vacate when working hours are over.

“I moved into a house with the space to separate my office from my living space just before quarantine started and that’s been crucial for me to be able to shift to ‘home’ time,” Jamie says.

Leaving your office and shutting the door is an easy way to put a lid on the workday. If there’s no door on your workspace, simply close your laptop and walk away. (Quickly, before you change your mind.)

Get Unplugged

Putting work aside for an extended period can be a little trickier than doing it for a few minutes or until morning. But for most people, it’s the best way to guarantee that a vacation is truly a vacation, not just toiling in a new locale.

We heart Slack at Modern Tribe. It’s our primary communication channel. And for that very reason, it’s one of the first things several team members ditch on vacay.

“Silencing Slack is the best way for me to disconnect from work,” Paul says.

Jamie goes a step further and deletes the app from her phone.

“When I take PTO, I try to take 10 to 14 days off and really check out,” she adds. “I travel to places where I can learn about different ways of living, and just don’t think about what I do for a living.”

Cultural Differences

At Modern Tribe, we think that grind-till-you-die mentality is toxic AF. It sets employees on a path to burnout or health problems (or both). Our team members know this and structure their days accordingly.

“‘Living well and doing good work’ requires intentional decisions,” Paul says, referencing our agency’s motto. “Breaks are part of that.”

But it’s one thing to know that long hours and overtime are bad for you, and another to feel empowered to take a breather.

“I really appreciate the way Modern Tribe encourages breaks,” Mike says. “The truth is, when I break, I usually come back better. But I also struggle with actually scheduling and taking the break. It helps to have someone say, ‘Okay, chill out already. You’re acting anxious. Go sharpen the axe a bit. Get some sunlight.’”