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By Teri Grant

This article will take ~11 minutes to read.


Have you ever been in this position? You arrive at work, and hit the road running. You don’t look up again until 2pm; you haven’t eaten lunch yet, maybe you haven’t even used the washroom, and you definitely haven’t had a breath of fresh outside air since you came into the building.

For most of us, these just feels like the unpleasant, inevitable truth of the day-to-day grind. We don’t enjoy it and we want a different routine, but how?

Some days you might be able to break the hectic rush with a lunch outside the office, or lacing up your runners for a 30 minute powerwalk at noon every once in a while – but then it’s right back in it again.

Maybe all of that time spent on the task treadmill could be worth it – but, what if you’re not actually doing your best work despite pouring hours into it without pause?

You know this applies to you if you find it difficult to work on larger projects because there are too many other pressing issues – or, when you do set aside the time, your brain is so accustomed to putting out fires that you can’t actually dig in and focus. Non-emergencies become tempting to prioritize, because they’re somehow now less stressful than the thought of taking three hours (three whole hours!) to work on writing a single report.


Imagine, for a second.

What if every day, there was space to breathe in your calendar? What if, instead of feeling like you’re behind before you even begin, you know at a glance if you’re prioritizing the things you need to? What if your own self-care was as sacred a part of your calendar as any other meeting or deadline?

It is possible. The solution is to treat taking breaks like you would treat the buildup of any habit. Prioritize it, stick with it, and it will happen.


Where do we begin?

In her book, “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives”, Gretchen Rubin talks about the critical importance of creating habits (some might say routines, or rituals); for her:

Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. We repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives.
— Better Than Before, p. xi

When Gretchen Rubin talks about habits, she’s worth listening to. She made her way through Yale Law School to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – where she realized that she actually wanted to be a writer, and then made a massive career change to be a bestselling author.

But even Gretchen Rubin has some difficulties. She started on this book, “Better Than Before”, because the act of habit creation was a vexing puzzle for her, despite her impressive track record of accomplishments that certainly had some positive habits backing them up.


Creating Habits

Rubin describes the act of habit creation as the path to happiness. While this may not resonate with everyone – some of you may be totally resistant to the invisible cage of habits – those of us that would love to make taking breaks stick permanently in our schedules can learn from her.

One of the biggest obstacles to taking breaks at a regular time comes from the nature of the day-to-day work: there is no typical day.

While one week you might be able to hold your lunch time as ‘you time’, the next week that lofty goal might get trampled in the mud of a busy, frenetic string of meetings, projects, and unexpected tasks. By the time you reach Friday, you’ve lost another week.

But what to do about it?


Pillars of Habits

Rubin describes the four Pillars of Habits:

  • Monitoring – we manage what we monitor
  • Foundation – first things first
  • Scheduling – if it’s on the calendar, it happens
  • Accountability – someone’s watching (this one is less ‘Big Brother’ than it sounds, don’t worry)

To learn more about these four pillars, I highly encourage you to pick up a copy of the book from your local library – it’s fantastic. I won’t go into detail about her research and insight here; instead, we’ll apply them to the work week.


Monitoring (we manage what we monitor)

One of the interesting points that Rubin makes in her book is that we aren’t really that good at accurately estimating our behaviour. We underestimate the amount we spend on our credit cards, and we’ll overestimate the amount of physical activity we get in the day. The only way to actually know what your break time is like is to count it.

Take a week or two, and just count. When do you take a break? This could include:

  • Going to the washroom
  • Walking outside
  • Chatting with a colleague about non-work things
  • Eat a snack (without being glued to email)
  • Read a few pages of a book or a blog
  • Check social media for non-work purposes
  • Staring off into space
  • Tidying up your papers on your desk

Track how often and how long – and, track how you feel before and after (as best you’re able to). Do you actually feel better after checking Twitter for 15 minutes? Or, is a 15-minute walk outside more recharging?

The simplicity of this step can bely its power. In Rubin’s words:

The Strategy of Monitoring has an uncanny power. It doesn’t require change, but it often leads to change. To paraphrase a business school truism, “We manage what we monitor,” and keeping close track of our actions means we do better in categories such as eating, drinking, exercising, working, TV and Internet use, spending – and just about anything else. Self-measurement brings self-awareness, and self-awareness strengthens our self-control.
— Better Than Before, p. 45

Foundation (first things first)

For Rubin, the Strategy of Foundation is addressing the biggest, most problematic aspects of our daily habits right from the start. In her words:

We do well to begin by tackling the habits that help us to:

1.     Sleep
2.     Move
3.     Eat and drink right
4.     Unclutter
— Better Than Before, p. 59

Many of these are directly applicable to our daily performance at our desk job. Movement, healthy eating, drinking water and whole-fruit juices, and keeping a clean space are all aspects of Foundational habits.


No more guilt.

This is encouraging! By taking time away from your desk to move for 15 minutes, to eat a healthy lunch (perhaps pre-packed, or pre-ordered), or to put away the morning’s papers, you will not only experience the direct benefit of that experience, but, according to Rubin, you will also contribute positively to other habits you are trying to form.

In other words, energy put into one habit will also result in positive energy to all of your habits.

If feeling guilty about leaving your desk for ‘you time’ is part of what’s holding you back, if the act of unplugging and not being instantly available to answer every question and email that comes your way is somehow going to make you a worse colleague, remember this section – it’s for you!

By taking that time away, you will not only return more clear-headed, but you will actually over time build up your ability to do other habitual aspects of your job more effectively.

It’s good for you and it’s good for your work when you take regular, habitual breaks.


Scheduling (if it’s on the calendar, it happens)

This one is exactly as it sounds – but, it needs a caveat: “if it’s on the calendar, it happens IF YOU’RE SERIOUS ABOUT IT.”

If it’s in your calendar and you treat it like a flexible item that can be moved anywhere, guess what? It won’t happen. There will ALWAYS be something that you can justify filling that time with other than your break time. Put it in the calendar – and then get serious about it. Don’t mess with that time! If you can’t do it every day, fine! Do it every other day – but hold it sacred.

Remember, your overall approach to work will improve with each positive habit you foster – so don’t give up on this one. It will not serve you well (or your work well) in the long run.


Accountability (someone’s watching)

This can also be translated as, “find a buddy.” We are more likely to follow through on something if we feel like others might see us (in fact, MUCH more likely). So, why not find a break buddy to go with you? Ideally, someone that will be sad/disappointed/upset if you cancel on them; someone that will be too nice and accommodating if you repeatedly cancel is not going to be an effective accountability buddy.

The accountability strategy, according to Rubin, will have mixed success depending on how you feel about meeting expectations. If you’re someone that does a really good job of meeting your own expectations, you might get away without an accountability buddy. Simply announcing to a friend – or to yourself – your new habit of taking breaks may be enough.

However, if you know that you really do need external expectations to follow through (due date for a library book to finish reading it, friend to meet at the gym to go workout, etc.), you may find this is a make-or-break part of your break-taking habit.

Be honest with yourself, and find someone (helpful) to join you in your new habit.

Now that we’ve taken a deep dive into some of the strategies to make the most of habit formation – and how to avoid a few pitfalls, we’re ready to start tomorrow (or today!) with making regular, healthy breaks a part of our day.


A quick summary of how to find time to take breaks at the office

  • Establishing a positive habit like taking regular, rejuvenating breaks at the office will not only provide immediate benefit through relaxation, but will also have a positive impact on other habits that you are hoping to foster.
  • To establish a break habit, focus on the four Pillars of Habits:
  • Monitoring – we manage what we monitor
  • Foundation – first things first
  • Scheduling – if it’s on the calendar, it happens
  • Accountability – someone’s watching (this one is less ‘Big Brother’ than it sounds, don’t worry)

Make it happen:

What is one wish you have for your day/week? Is there a strategy above that you could immediately implement tomorrow that would make a difference? Do you have an ally to help this happen? This could be friend to try this particular strategy with you, or who wants to try out one of their own and needs an accountability buddy themselves.


Rubin, Gretchen. Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Doubleday Canada, 2015.