The Free Habit That Helps Me Stay Sane During The Workday
It’s so easy to treat your workday like there are a bunch of rules in place, even when they aren’t really rules. One rule I used to follow was that, if I took a lunch break from my workday, I had to just go, eat lunch, and return to the office. In reality, though, if I’m getting my eight hours of work in, it really doesn’t matter what I do with that lunch time. It took me a little while to realize what I really needed from my lunch break, and doing it has been better for me as a person and better for my mental state too.
Saint Augustine, back in the day, had a phrase that has always stuck with me in Latin: solvitur ambulando. The translation is something like “it is solved by walking,” or “when walking, it is solved.” I’ve discovered that this is true for me: finding time in my workday to take a short walk is the single most important thing I do. It’s not that I walk in order to solve problems, or in order to think systematically through things, but because of the break that going on a walk creates in my daily tasks, some things end up working out much better.
When I first started working at my current job, a mix of administrative tasks and teaching responsibilities, I realized that the ability to switch between tasks quickly and with little confusion or distraction was incredibly important. It’s hard to do this a million times in an eight-hour day, and so I started seeing my day as split up into the four-hour chunk before lunch, and the four-hour chunk after. I try to have something finishing up right at the lunch break, when I take a walk in the school’s gymnasium or outside in good weather.
Having the walk, as opposed to just a time to eat lunch, is the most effective switch I’ve found — during the walk, my mind files away all that I’ve done in the morning, and begins figuring out what to do in the afternoon and how it will get accomplished. It’s useful like a commute: as you drive or bus or train in to your workplace, you gear up for the day. This walk allows me to gear up for the second half of my day.
I also like the fact that it gets me moving. I try to do the standing desk thing, and my coworkers will tell you how often I pace in my office while reading something for work, but a dedicated, brisk walk wakes me up and gets my brain going in a way that nothing else does. It makes me pay attention to my surroundings, focus on something besides my computer screen, and usually doesn’t have me interacting with other people, which is one of my favorite things about my job — but can also be exhausting at times.
It also gives me a chance to get bored. There have been studies that show that some measure of boredom in your life, a kind of marginal space where you don’t already know exactly what you are doing, is good for creativity. At times, I’ll be listening to an audiobook or a podcast during my walk, but I won’t pick something work-related for that walk. And if the podcast or audiobook isn’t very interesting, my mind wanders, and I think about totally off-topic things. Very often, solutions to the tangled logistical snarls of my job come to me when my brain relaxes and looks at something else for a little while.
Lastly, there’s something meditative about walking — I usually walk in a circle rather than walking somewhere in particular, by using the indoor or outdoor track. Not everyone has a track at work, but just having a set route can do this. By not focusing on where you’re going, you can focus on the steps, on the sensations, on where your mind is at. It’s not actual meditation for me — I’m not very good at the clearing my head thing, though I continue to try — but it gives me space to not be planning anything for a little while.
Here, early in my career and full of constant worries about being enough and doing enough, a designated half hour when I don’t have to be or do much of anything is good. And being on my feet for it means that my body won’t take that opportunity of “not much going on” to just fall asleep. This is nice for a girl who is prone to dozing off during sitting meditations.
I know that many workplaces don’t lend themselves to a walk — either lunch is always taken while working at one’s desk, or the location doesn’t have an easy “walking path” nearby, or the corporate culture simply doesn’t value taking your marginal space when you need it. Still, if there is any give in the pressure of your work environment, I recommend pushing on it, just a little. Finding the place in your schedule where you can take a walk or a nap or a quick bout of chair yoga may be good for your productivity at the company, and for your own mental health. My office mates may or may not love my lunchtime walks, but they do tolerate them at this point, and they appreciate the good attitude and relentless work I bring to the problems that arise for us to solve. I think your coworkers and bosses would probably feel the same way if they saw the version of you that you can become with a little daily break of some kind.
Laura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio. She blogs about the stories behind family recipes at Recipe In A Bottle.
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