May 9, 2023 | Jill Duffy – Since starting to write this article, I have walked to a coffee shop, gazed enviously at a young woman’s matchy-match outfit, walked home from the coffee shop, cut up a banana and ate it with peanut butter, sat at my desk, moved to the bed, and contemplating trimming my cuticles. At the same time, I came up with some potential headlines for this story, looked over my notes from two research papers I read a few years ago related to the topic, double-checked their citations, and began writing.
I have a preternatural ability to focus (like, really, it’s frightening), but I know I can’t produce my best work day after day if I don’t intentionally break my focus and mix in an adequate amount of something else.
Everyone who works needs breaks. Without breaks, we function less productively over time and are more prone to burnout. According to the research(Opens in a new window), breaks refresh us, enable more effective decision-making, and improve our ability to control and manage stress. And the same research says our breaks need to be enjoyable if we are to reap these positive benefits. In short, we should f*ck around.
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F*cking Around Keeps You Human
The worker in me—and you—needs to sit and get the job done, while the human in me needs to process thoughts and feelings, find moments of joy, and remember that I am a whole person whose emotional and psychological needs will never be met by work alone. Equally, my employer needs a thoughtful, complex, and complete person to show up to do the job well, despite what you may have heard about robots coming to replace us.
The f*cking around that we knowledge workers do in between spurts of work is vital to meeting our potential. Sure, there’s the productivity angle, but we also need little breaks throughout the day because they open us up to creativity and allow us to create a happier relationship with work.
What It Means to F*ck Around at Work
If you want to get nerdy about it, “f*cking around” at work can also be called taking short breaks, taking microbreaks, or in some cases, “workplace internet leisure browsing.” That’s what researchers like Brent Coker call it(Opens in a new window) anyway.
Short breaks are self-explanatory. Microbreaks are even shorter, maybe a few seconds or a minute, and often you don’t even get out of your chair to take them. The catchy “workplace internet leisure browsing,” even more endearingly shortened to WILB (like it’s wild), is a type of short break or microbreak you do online. For example, let’s say you do data entry for 20 minutes straight, and then you pop open a tab and read headlines on your favorite news site for 30 seconds. That’s WILB. Or maybe you grab your phone and open TikTok or Instagram for a minute or check sports scores, or see if Dril has posted anything new on Twitter. All examples of WILB.
Taking internet-based breaks is easy no matter where you work because if you sit in front of a computer, you can stay right where you are while taking your break. To an outsider, it might even look like you’re still working. You might even convince yourself that you’re still working. But rest assured, you’re resting. You’re giving your brain some time off from the job at hand.
“The f*cking around that we knowledge workers do in between spurts of work is vital to meeting our potential.“
The researcher I mentioned, Coker, found that to be most effective, breaks have to be short, intermittent interruptions rather than one or two long breaks. When people don’t take breaks, or when they spend way too much time f*cking around online instead of getting work done, their productivity is lower. The result is a bell curve.
The two low points in productivity are represented by people who take no breaks and people who take too many breaks or whose breaks are too long. The high point of that inverted-U curve representing peak productivity is where people take a lot of microbreaks. Coker’s research even pinpoints 12% of total work time spent on breaks as the inflection point. In an eight-hour day, that’s a little less than 58 minutes total. To implement Coker’s findings, split it up however you like, but keep the breaks short. And give yourself at least an hour for lunch on top of that.
What’s Better Than an Internet Break?
WILB is good, but I think we can do better. The research I’ve cited so far about internet breaks was published in 2011 and 2013, which means it relies on studies done before then when the internet and our relationship to it was quite different. Internet companies have become masters at distracting us and sucking us in, to the point where people question whether giving up smartphones could make us more human. So maybe going to the internet for short and enjoyable breaks isn’t the best we can do.
As a longtime remote worker (I even wrote a book about it(Opens in a new window)), I haven’t worked in an office for many years. But I still remember the kinds of breaks I found most enjoyable when I did. I looked forward to popping out for coffee, swinging by someone else’s workstation for a chat, or sometimes just lingering in the bathroom to let my mind wander while I fixed my hair.
When working from home, the possibilities for short breaks are endless. There’s always some light housework or chore to do, like throwing in a load of laundry or changing the dog’s water, but these examples are still work, and neither ranks very high on the enjoyability meter. You’re much better off doing something fun, like giving your pet some attention, listening to a short podcast, or doing a little dance to “Workin’ For A Livin’” by Huey Lewis & The News the next time you have two and a half minutes for a breather. (And talk about enjoyable, the music video(Opens in a new window) certainly will lift your spirits if it’s been a while since you’ve indulged in the hair stylings of American rock ‘n’ roll circa 1982.)
Our relationship with the internet has changed. I find myself falling into deep despair every time I read news headlines, so I probably shouldn’t spend my breaks looking at The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Los Angeles Times. I know it’s not good for me, though it’s hard to close those tabs. If I get more joy out of stepping onto the balcony to figure out which neighbor hired a moving truck, then I should spend my break time doing that. Being a nosy neighbor, for me, is a fun way to switch things up for my brain.
What to Do When You Do Too Much F*cking Around at Work
Not everyone has the self-discipline to only do a little f*cking around and get back to work. If you’re prone to taking microbreaks that turn into macro breaks, you may need to switch your approach to learning how to focus instead.
If focusing does not come easy for you, I highly recommend learning about The Pomodoro Technique(Opens in a new window) and maybe trying out Caveday. They’re both essentially techniques for focusing on work. Caveday uses the same principles as The Pomodoro Technique, but it’s done in a virtual group setting, whereas Pomodoro is a solo method. The basic outline for both goes like this:
- Decide what you need to focus on.
- Write it down or share it with other people.
- Set a timer (about 25 minutes for Pomodoro and about 50 minutes for Caveday) and focus only on your task for the duration.
- When the timer runs up, take a short break! Enjoy your break! Do something fun!
- Repeat the process.
If you’ve never done these techniques before, steps one and two are much more important than you may realize. Actually deciding on the concrete task you will do and putting it into words is enormously important in learning how to focus.
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What’s notable about the techniques is how they intentionally build in break times so that you stop working and take a pause preemptively before you reach the point of working ineffectively.
Balance Your F*cking Around
Every reliable piece of advice you’ll find regarding work always comes down to balance. Balance your work with breaks that are truly enjoyable for you. Balance your f*cking around with getting back to work in a timely fashion; that is, keep your breaks short. But don’t shortchange yourself. Ensure you adequately f*ck around and have fun while doing it.