How do I allow myself to take breaks at work?

Updated Oct 12 2015
"Recharge" coffee cup printable from Etsy seller PureJoyPrintables.
"Recharge" coffee cup printable from Etsy seller PureJoyPrintables.
I work for a small, bustling law firm. The work is enjoyable, my boss is supportive, and I have a lot of freedom and flexibility. Lately I've been pulled in so many different directions that I end up working during my lunch breaks. Because I always make myself accessible to others, I inevitably became the "go-to person" to fix problems, troubleshoot the copier, direct phone calls, greet clients, etc.

I always manage to sneak in a few minutes to read Offbeat Home & Life while I'm scarfing down some food, but it never feels like a real break. (While writing this, I got bombarded with three separate issues.)

Does anyone have suggestions for avoiding workaholic tendencies? What are some ways to set boundaries with co-workers and allow myself to take breaks so that I don't burnout? -Jennifer

Oh Jennifer, I feel you on this SO HARD. This is something that affects people who work from home too. I'm always the go-to person for mid-day emergencies, since everyone knows I'm home and "free" to be the rescue squad. I often find myself taking a "lunch break," but then the sound of one of my co-workers pinging me on chat will draw me back in. Here's what I've done to try and take breaks at work…

  1. LEAVE. I try to walk to lunch and leave my laptop behind. If I don't feel like spending money on lunch, I take a walk instead. If I'm physically away from my computer or my phone, I cannot be baited into taking on extra work.
  2. Consult a therapist. Turns out that whole "I always make myself accessible to others" thing is a problem of mine, not just in work, but in my life. I'm not good at setting boundaries! I've been working on that issue, and I'm seeing results expanding beyond my work.

What are YOUR tips for avoiding workaholic tendencies and giving yourself a break?

  1. Schedule it! I'm not saying make lunch plans with a friend every single day (or do, if that fits your life and wallet), but schedule some part of your day to be busy taking a break. There's always some way to have an errand to do, a phone call to go outside to make, or a really important mystery appointment. I work very close to home, and sometimes the important thing I have to do is go home and pet my dog.

    Especially in offices where you utilize shared calendars, it's helpful to block out that time for yourself so people see, "Oh Jennifer is Busy/Out of Office right now. Must be something important." (And hey, getting time to yourself during the day IS important. Don't minimize your need for space!)

    • Amen. Block out a daily break on your calender. A few years back I started a new job that I really liked and was working hard at. To hard I guess. One random day my program assistant came into my office and told me he was worried that I was going to burn out because I was working long hours (in early, quick lunch on a conference call, leave late). He told me he was going to start blocking on a daily break for me on my calender to force me to stop. He said he does this for our big boss too. So he put in a standing 3pm half hour break on my Outlook calender. I'd go out for a walk, usually for coffee or to go window shopping at the Macy's down the street. I've carried that same philosophy to my current job. I have a standing 3pm "do not disturb" on my calender. Sometimes I walk down the bike path for 30 minutes, other times to the coffee shop furthest away from my office, other times just to sit in the lobby and read Offbeat Home on my phone. It is all about setting that break for myself and sticking to it.

  2. 1) leave. Go to the break room, out to your car, to a bench outside, just don't stay at your desk.
    2) have something to do. Bring a book, magazines, knitting, something to occupy your brain with non work things. And it people from interrupting
    3) block out your time. Put it on your calendar to remind yourself. Make plans with someone else if you have to.

    • THIS. I started bringing my cross stitch to work, and if I don't leave for lunch I'll stitch in my office after I've finished eating. I find most people don't bother me if they see I'm clearly on "leisure time", unless it's to say "Hey, what are you making there?"

      • I try to go outside to the picnic table, or eat at my desk with a friendly coworker. But if I'm eating lunch at my desk alone I shut the door, put my lunch bag on the desk, and read a book. People are very aware they're interrupting, and generally ask "when you're done lunch, can you…" If someone calls for a favour, I say "can I do that after lunch? 20 minutes?" The answer's usually yes.

  3. I realized how much overtime I was working as well, between eating my lunch at my desk, and never leaving on time. I started setting aside time to go for a walk (whether I go out for lunch or not). This helped a lot. Just recently I started moving up some "end of the day" activities so that I could shoot to leave on time more often. Its an uphill battle for sure, but I'm finding leaving the office when I'm scheduled to leave the office more often than not (the opposite of what I was doing before, has helped my mental health as much as my mid day walk. Leaving the building, or at least your desk is a huge step towards not burning out.

  4. When you're blocking out time for yourself, try doing it in different ways to see what really works for you. Two lots of twenty minutes might be easier to manage and allow you more breaks, or you might prefer one longer break.

    Also, when you're off to the loo, dont let anybody stop you and take your sweet ass time in there. It means 5 minutes of hopefully alone time. The same goes for other tasks too, set off on them and don't allow any distractions. If it means not making a big announcement about going to lunch and slipping out quietly, do it. Otherwise you get the perpetual "Just one thing before you go…"

  5. I actually want to add this although it might seem harsh.

    Have you thought about why you're the go person? Your question says you "make yourself available" which is obviously a good thing in a small office. However are you giving these people the instructions or advice they need or are you actually doing the entire job for them? Being helpful makes you a great team member, being taken advantage of makes you the team doormat.

    I'm not saying this is the case for you (only you will know that) but it might help to be less available or unable to help for the small requests?

  6. I have a bad habit of this as well–taking on responsibilities that are way higher than my current job, and going crazy. I actually used to have a mgmt position, quit the company because of burnout, then negotiated to come back at a lower (non-mgmt) position with more freedom/less responsibility. But because I have the experience from the higher job level, I get sucked into things.

    Very, very, very strong boundaries are key. I still struggle with this–the balance of being a "team player" vs "not my job". I do fairly well. I have to ramp up and work extra hours during crunch time, but I also draw back as necessary after the crazy periods. I get frustrated with myself at times (for no good reason, as my therapist points out!), but have been better at setting firm boundaries without feeling the guilt. I am NOT being paid to do the job of others. Pushing back is not failing, it's being proactive. Since I'm not interested in a promotion (which would put me back into the mgmt position that I hated), it's a little easier to push back.

    I agree with exploring the possibility of therapy. I'm a single mom by choice, and found that in lieu of having a partner to bounce these things off of, therapy helps a lot to provide an objective view of "Do you see you are driving yourself crazy? Of course your coworkers are going to ask you to do x, y, z–you can do it. It's up to you to say now is not the time. No, they don't care that you are doing a higher level job, basically they are going to get as much revenue out of you as possible because it saves.them.money." When I get especially stressed in work, just having that bi-weekly place where someone provides me with a reality check helps a LOT.

    And we don't even have a lunch break where I work–we are expected to BILL 8 hours per day–if we want a break where we are not working, we have to work longer hours. I'm not willing to do that, so I work through lunch (with the occasional online break like now). Fortunately, I'm really efficient so I can bleed the time I spend surfing into billable projects. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • The OP says she's a lawyer in a firm, but sounds like she's doing "busy" tasks that are not directly related to lawyering. My advice: think about what tasks are in your pay grade.
      For example, fixing the copier – not in your pay grade. If it's a big office, you likely have some support staff/secretaries/interns that can just as easily do this job. If they don't know how, teach them to do it, then never do it yourself again. Focus on your "billable hours", the stuff that's in your job description.
      Ultimately, your office team will start to respect those boundaries, and will start respecting your time and talent.

      • I'm not actually a lawyer, but a paralegal / office manager. Part of the problem is that the non billable responsibilities of the office are split between the non-lawyers. Defining duties in our office is a current work in progress.

  7. One thing that has worked really well for me in changing my lunch habits is bringing a lunch that has to be heated up. I started bringing soup as part of a drive to eat more veggies, and found that when I had to walk to the kitchen anyway to heat it up I was more inclined to go and eat it in the break room. Plus, I don't like having soup smell in my office.

    This exact thing might not work for you, but the general principle of making the lunch at desk thing slightly more inconvenient in some way (such as choosing a messy food) is a good prod to change habits. It's so easy to eat a sandwich at my desk, if I have a sandwich that's usually what I end up doing.

  8. A couple "BASKETS!" things that have helped me.

    Don't just be a helper, also be a referral service. You don't have to do it all, but you probably know who else could help. A simple "hey, I'm doing X right now. Have you asked Person?" can work wonders. You're still helping and filling that need while also keeping yourself on your own tasks.

    I second the even mentally scheduling yourself a consistent lunch break. I don't put it on my calendar, in case something comes up that's truly dire or I feel hungry earlier or later, but saying "I take lunch about 1" helps me get my day together and coordinate my tasks. And then, unless something 5-alarm fire drill comes up, I stick to it. This also allows, if, say, my emails are worse than usual (which has been the case for me lately, tbh), I don't have a calendar appointment staring me in the face saying "you're killing your own lunch hour".

    Another thing is to occasionally tell people no. People, even with the best intentions, can abuse your willingness to help them. If you're being consistently asked about things the person consistently should be doing on their own, nothing hurts with responding with a question to a question. "Hey, can you check Thing?" "Are you having login trouble? I can give you my login if you need it."

    Again, you're still helping without doing their work for them. You'll also find that if you keep consistent with it, they'll stop asking you for things they're too lazy to do and will come to you with actual needs and questions that warrant attention.

  9. Would it help to think about how taking a break affects your health? I don't have stats for you (though I imagine they're easy to find), but sitting too much is bad for your body, as is staring at a computer screen for too long. Without breaks, you'll be less productive over the day and your stress level is likely to be higher. I don't think I have to tell you how bad for your body that is. If you have trouble convincing yourself to stop working because X is super important, try reminding yourself that even five minutes away from your computer will help you in so many ways in the short term and the long term.

    Also, take water breaks. Lots of them. Get a water bottle and get up often to refill it. Between the water and the bathroom, you'll have more little breaks throughout the day, and hydrating can only help you.

    • I do that as well. I have a refillable. My office is super dry, so I drink a ton of water through the day. The results also mean I spend some time relieving myself. Between the two, I would say I am standing and walking about every 2 hours which is right around optimal.

    • Yep to the water thing! Make it a small water bottle so you do have to refill it often.

      The best break tip from me, walk away from your desk, eat somewhere else. I used to sit out on the veranda at my last job where I was the go-to for any little computer problem, no computers on the veranda so I can't log in and fix it for you right now, also I would go for a walk every lunch time after I had wolfed down my salad. Can't work if you are not at work!

  10. I have a slightly different dilemma — I feel like there's an attitude, maybe American, maybe just capitalist — that asking for breaks is bad. I've worked in many different types of places, from retail to theatre to offices, and in almost all of them, you're "supposed to" take the legally required breaks, but people see coworkers who take their full amount and number of breaks as being lazy or not hard workers. Where I work right now, even though we're all assigned break times on the daily schedule, we still have to go to the manager on duty and ask to take a break. I know this isn't an attitude I can change, but I don't know how to deal with it.

    I highly suggest headphones while on a break. You don't even have to listen to anything, just have them plugged into your phone or computer or something. (I am fond of listening to ocean soundscapes.)

    • I actually highly recommend headphones at your desk too to see if it cuts down on some of the really silly requests people might make of you. I feel no shame in putting headphones on and saying to my coworkers, "I'm going to be doing this thing I need to focus on, so I have headphones on. I'm not ignoring you if you talk to me and I don't respond, I just can't hear you." (Spoiler alert: I am ignoring them.)

      Truth is, if I have something I actually really need to focus on, I can't do that with music on, but they don't know that. However, I work in a very small, crowded area with no privacy, so this has helped with some of the really silly requests ("wait, how do I attach a PDF again???" uggggghhh) and has definitely cut down on getting involved in annoying chatter. Sometimes I just need to do this, not for productivity's sake, but because my brain needs a break from being in such close proximity to others and I want to focus on reading the comments on an OBH article. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • What about trying to own your breaktime a bit more, slowly but surely. Instead of saying "Hey Boss, could I please go for a break now??" say "Hey Boss, it's my lunch time, am I good to go?" It might not seem to be very different but one is asking for permission to have lunch and then other is checking now is a good time for you to have lunch with the assumption that you will get that break. Or try saying at the start of shift "Hey boss I've got something I have to do at 12 so I will need to take my lunch break then." in that case you are dictating when you get to have a break but also giving the boss a good heads up.

  11. I think we all go through this at some point or another, but it's SUPER IMPORTANT for your long-term health to take breaks, especially an hour for lunch. I'd try talking to your boss about it first, to make sure they aren't accidentally/subconsciously projecting an expectation that you'll work through lunch.
    Then, my best piece of advice ever on this, is to talk a walk at lunch. A full hour if you can, 30 minutes if you can't (and then eat your lunch not at your desk after). This ensures that even if you don't get a chance to stand and stretch every hour like you're supposed to, you're still getting some blood flow in your muscles, and fighting stress with activity.

    It's very easy to get in the habit of having lunch at your desk, but it actually can attract rodents (crumb fall), and will almost certainly keep you from taking a full hour away from work stress, staring at a screen, sitting motionless, etc.
    If you have a buddy nearby (or a coworker who would be down?), maybe make a standing appointment to walk to the local coffee place for a 15-30 minute break mid-morning or mid-afternoon as well.

  12. Definitely leave. Staying at your desk for lunch is basically a guarantee that you will end up doing at least SOME work during lunch. When it's at least nice-ish outside (ie, above 45 degrees and not raining), I leave my office and drive over to a nearby park and sit on a bench, eat my lunch (I always bring my lunch), and then take a walk in the park for anywhere between 10 minutes and half an hour (some days I sit a doodle around with my phone more than I should).

    Not everyone has access to a park, so here are some other options: if you are in a large building, do some laps inside the building, up and down the stairs, etc. if it's raining, and around the building/block/office park if the weather is reasonable. The biggest thing is get up, leave, and stretch your legs for a bit. You will feel SO much better. ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. I would add a few for when you are at your desk;
    Turn off automatic email syncs and switch off notification on your phone, if it is important and must be done now someone will phone, probably twice in a row, use "do not disturb" function on the smartphone which lets the second call go through.
    "Can I get back to you?" then either they will do it themselves or come back later.
    My work group chats and personnel chats are silenced. It is impossible to concentrate with the constant bleep of incoming messages. Once again if they need information there and then they will phone.
    Do you have your own subordinate? Pass on tasks. I struggle with delegation.
    If you are busy ask the task giver how important it is, tell them you have to finish a current task and can get onto it later. Something of equal importance to the current task they can ask someone else.
    Use the importance of a task to set an order and concentrate on one at a time, sounds simple, really not in practice.
    Leave unimportant tasks until tomorrow.

  14. 1. How many times a day do we wish we can say "YOUR POOR PLANNING ISN'T MY EMERGENCY!"
    It has taken my husband years (YEARS!) to lay down the law: a new hire will be entered into the system no sooner than 10 business days from the date he receives the request. Sure it takes him (Computer Guy for the company) 15-30 minutes to generate a user into the network and then print up all of the paperwork for them; but he has figured the other departments at his work have to know a good month in advance that the hiring/security clearance process needs to be started in order for that person to step foot through the door. If they can't spend five minutes filling out the request form during that time, then he isn't going to stress over them. (Anymore)

    2. Me personally: I have found wearing my Fitbit that I am not as active as I initially thought. I'm not here to sell you the product, but I think this (or something similar) might work as a healthy reminder of the number of steps you have taken, calories you have burned, or minutes spent active. It might be the "excuse" that will help you step away from the desk for a little longer!

  15. Learn to say NO. Have a notepad, either on your person or at your desk, and tell people to leave a note, which you will handle/prioritize when you are done with your break.

  16. I'm repeating what others have said, but LEAVE. Move out of the space, go outside, or even just walk to a different part of your building. Hell, even go eat in your car if you have to.

    Practice saying NO.
    "I can't right now"
    "Can you run that by me again in half an hour"
    "Give me 20 minutes and I'll be with right with you"
    "Can someone else do that if it needs to be done right now, otherwise I'll get to it later this afternoon"
    "No, that isn't part of my job"
    "No, that isn't feasible"
    "I'm sorry, No"

    I'm in a job right now where I am a lot of people's go to, and I take care of what I can, and at other times say no, either because it's outside the purvey of my job description, or because I don't have time. I'm working with someone else who is the other go-to in a crisis, an I see him doing things for folks that he doesn't have time for, and that aren't part of his job description.

    One of my coworkers came up to me and said "We are out of cups down stairs", they clearly wanted me to go get or find some more. Since cups are not my job, I simply said, "Oh, that's a bummer", and went about my job.

    Later I saw my can't-say-no coworker bringing in more cups, even though it's even LESS his job then it is mine.

    tl;dr It's ok to say no politely when it isn't your job and when it's during your break time, or you don't have time. It's ok to do extra, but that's on YOUR terms.

  17. Thank you all SO much for the suggestions. I love the supportive community/family of Offbeat home! I'm using all the ideas to make a master list that I can print out for my desk. Today I left the office and did some window shopping – it felt amazing!

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