November 30, 2007

Workrave, or why frequent breaks help you go full speed ahead

November 30, 2007 - Categories: productivity

If you don’t want wrist pain or eye strain to force you off the computer later in life, use a break reminder program to help you remember not to push your limits.

Every three minutes, a little dialog pops up on my laptop and reminds me to stretch and refocus my eyes for ten seconds. Every hour, the same program reminds me to take a two and a half minute break—and even helpfully suggests some exercises I can do. I usually ignore those suggestions in favor of quick chores (a sink of dishes, a stack of clothes) that get me out of my chair and doing something just as productive.

I came across Workrave (workrave.org) while looking for a time-out software for my work laptop. I had tried a break reminder tool on Mac OS X before, and I remembered liking it even though it always managed to catch me mid-keystroke. Workrave was highly recommended and ran on Microsoft Windows, GNU/Linux, and BSDs (probably including Mac OS X), so I tried it out.

I found that the frequent breaks help me stay focused and active throughout the day. The breaks not only give me a chance to stretch and rest my eyes, but also helped me remember to stay on task by helping me catch myself when I found myself getting distracted. The breaks help me remember to check posture, too. It’s easy to slip into a slouch while working. If you look around an office, I’m sure you’ll see lots of people hunched over their computers. When I don’t take the time to stretch and sit up straight, I find myself tired and sore in the evenings. When I do, I feel more upbeat. Simple decision, eh?

I also use the breaks as an opportunity to remember to drink more water. This is something I tend to forget during particularly intense programming or writing sprints. A few years ago, I collapsed due to dehydration, and I was taken to the emergency room. I had simply forgotten to drink water in addition to what I took in at meals. Since then, I’ve been a lot more careful about water intake. I find that I do better when I have at least a glass and preferably a pitcher of water close at hand. When Workrave reminds me to take a break, I sip some water too. When it’s time to take a longer break, I get some more water and take care of other matters along the way.

It’s strange, but slowing down helps you get further. Break reminding software is Good Stuff, and I strongly recommend that you try out something like Workrave. Time Out for Mac OS X looks pretty good, too. Whatever it is, try it and see if it works for you. Tell me what you think of these breaks, and share your tips!

(Want more ideas for slowing down and working smarter? Grab this book at your library: Cool Down: Getting Further by Going Slower)

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