Three things we can learn from smokers 4/13

eyes closed.2559396April 2013

In one of my last real jobs in the corporate world, I was surprised to learn that taking coffee breaks in the onsite cafeteria was expected. I found this rather peculiar, as I had never taken coffee breaks before, other than in my teens and early 20s.

It was made quite plain by my fellow designers that I should follow them to the third floor cafeteria. Not taking a break made everyone else who did take one look bad. Call it workplace peer pressure. I thought it was a bit silly and a waste of time, but complied. After all, I was new on the job and didn’t want to ruffle veteran feathers.

My home office provides no peer pressure, or peers for that matter, or a third floor cafeteria. (dang) There is no union. No punch clock. No boss. I have the freedom to take all the breaks I want whenever I want. I can start early or late and work all night long if I want to. And sometimes I’m even paid for it! But the corporate world is a little different, isn’t it? 

When I coach individuals within an organization, I am reminded of an opposite practice to that of my old job – that of not taking any breaks at all. Maybe you’re one of those people who work straight through your day, without any breaks, scarfing down lunch while working, if you have any lunch at all. 

Personally, I see little benefit to the workplace, or the workers, from this practice. Our brains can only be effective for so long. Beyond a certain point we’re pushing rope. Burnout and resentment are likely outcomes for the worker who never stops.

Of course there is one group that will always take breaks – smokers! There are three things we can learn from them.

1. Take breaks regularly.
Smokers seem to be able to walk away from their work and take a break in spite of workload or personal work ethic. There’s something to this addiction. 

A stressful situation, a tired mind or body, confusion or overwhelm are all good reasons, that affect us all, to walk away. But don’t wait for a reason. Make taking breaks a preventative habit.

2. Head outside for breaks.
Due to bylaws and norms, in most places you can no longer smoke at your desk or on the job, even outdoors. Here are a few good reasons for all of us to head outside.
• Many people work without windows nearby and might never see daylight during the winter months.
• Nature is comforting and healing.
• Here in the north where we spend many months indoors, any chance to step out and breathe fresh air is a good thing, even when it’s freezing cold outside.

3. Practice deep breathing.
Unfortunately for smokers, there’s a cigarette at the source of the inhalation. But think about the value of taking a few deep breaths, without the nicotine, when the pressure mounts and your hair is on fire. Practice slow and deep breathing, filling all the lobes of the lungs, then exhaling all the stress and negativity. Exhaling invokes a relaxation response. 

Conscious breathing brings you to the present moment. This is a much better place from which to problem solve than from anxiety or worry about the future. Use your breath to your advantage and return to your work with a calmer, fresh perspective. 

The break I recommend is not about sitting in a staff room or cafeteria drinking coffee and eating cinnamon buns. (I developed a sweet tooth during my obligated coffee breaks years ago.) It’s about creating a change and moving your body. It’s about stepping outside. It’s about some sort of escape, a healthy practice that refuels and restores, versus dragging you down. And it’s not a waste of time. 

Healthy Break Ideas
• Take a short walk around the building – inside or out.
• Climb some stairs.
• Do some deep breathing, meditation, guided or not.
• Have a small, nutrition break away from your desk.
• Do some stretches to limber up your wrists, shoulders, neck, and back.
• Rest your eyes – look 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. Look left, right, up down. Roll your eyes.
• Listen to some tunes
• Find something green and alive or gaze at the blue sky.
• Visualize your favorite sanctuary.

Unhealthy Break Ideas
• smoking
• visiting vending machines
• visiting with the “ain’t it awful” crowd
• surfing the net
• pretending you’re working

I’m looking forward to the gardening season. I like to take what I call “petunia walks,” where I water my garden during my workday. It’s good for the soul and it’s good for the petunias. Cinnamon buns not required.

Do it now. Take a break – even if it’s just five minutes. Notice that you’re taking it. Remind yourself why you’re taking it and what it’s doing for you. Be fully conscious, in other words. You’ll get more done with less effort, and you will be doing something to mitigate burnout and resentment. You gotta love that.