What it takes to take a break

I spent a week away from the keyboard last month, and my neck and shoulders eased up a lot. But now I’m back to my bad old ways—I’m not taking enough breaks.

My bodyworker, Roy—who got me to exhale to such good effect last summer—recommends roll-away breaks every half hour or so.  Roll chair back from computer; turn away from screen; take three breaths, focusing on the exhale (the inhale will take care of itself); and let your eyes be non-engaged for a few moments, either by closing them or gazing into the distance.  Optional: stand up. He also recommends resting by lying back over a bolster (or rolled-up blanket) at least once a day.

I have to make these breaks super-simple and inviting, or I won’t take them. The elements and what I need to make them work:

Every half hour. Every 40 minutes might work better. I’ll experiment. But in any case, I need regular reminders that don’t annoy me. A screen-interrupter would be annoying. So would an alarm. How about a meditation bell? One that I don’t have to download? I’ll try this one.

Turn away from the screen. The optional standing up will help with this. I could walk over to the window, which has a decent view. That would be a good incentive.

Take three breaths. Roy says these should be through the mouth, not the nose, because opening your mouth relaxes the jaw (and by extension, the neck). So it’s more like a sigh. OK, sighing I can get behind! I used to sigh a lot, just naturally, until an irritable boyfriend complained about it. This was, um, decades ago. I miss sighing! Incentive! Wait, but ex-BF memory is disincentive. Don’t want that baggage mucking up my nice break. Seriously, it’s decades old, can we let it go? Time to reclaim sighing! Will experiment. If sighing feels great, I’ll sigh. If not, just call it an exhale.

Close eyes or gaze into the distance: Gazing (non-engagedly) at the view is definitely an incentive.

Funny how much prep I need for something as basic as taking breaks. That’s habits for you.

The resting over a bolster part could be a way to mark the transition between work time and done-with-work time. I work late, so that’s going to be tougher. I’ll start with the breaks.

To review The Plan for Happy Breaks:

Set online chime to go off every 30 to 40 minutes. When it chimes:

1.  Stand up.
2.  Walk over to window.
3.  Sigh three times.

P.S. Got any non-annoying timers to recommend? Let me know in the comments!


  1. Janet,
    I struggle with this also. I was complaining to my optometrist about how much my eyes were bothering me, and he told me about research he was doing about computer use and how bad they were for our vision. At the time I was spending 40 + hours a week on screen, often in long uninterrupted stretches. He taught me to gaze into the distance (has to be more than 20 feet) for a couple of minutes every 20 minutes. It makes a huge difference when I remember to do it.

    I have been lying over a foam roller, which is a bit more pilates than restorative yoga. I think the instability of the surface distracts me enough to actually begin to relax. It’s so not easy!

    I keep my tea pot in the kitchen, so I need to get up for more tea. I drink a lot of it, which then assists with my need to get up for bathroom breaks more often. Biological in and out seems to work better for me than timers.

    I’m going to add your breaths. And sighs.

  2. Janet Bailey says:

    @Christine – I’ve heard the same thing, about computer use and vision. Helpful to have a number to aim for (20+ feet, 20 minutes). I’m capable of completely ignoring biological urges, sad to say, but the chime is helping. (When I remember to set it.) Good to hear how different methods work for different people. I’ve even managed to drape myself over the bolster—actually a folded-up yoga mat—a few times.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I like the breathing through the mouth trick, thanks! It does relax my jaw, and then neck, and I tend to stick my neck forward while I am on the computer (to see the screen better? who knows).

  4. Janet Bailey says:

    @Elizabeth – That neck-forward thing is really common—I do it too. Funny, like the screen is inexorably drawing me in…

  5. Mark says:

    Ditto to the above. I’ve heard there are free downloadable buddha chimes for a pc? Any ideas appreciated. Mark

  6. Janet Bailey says:

    @Mark – I’ve been looking for downloadable chimes too—haven’t used them myself, so none to recommend yet. (Readers: any suggestions?) The online chime I linked to above has been working pretty well so far.

  7. Reba says:

    Hey Janet & Mark,

    I use this free meditation bell app – http://www.macupdate.com/app/mac/20879/meditation-timer

    It’s designed for Macs (I’m a Mac loyalist), so I’m not sure if it will work for PCs – but under the specifications it says ‘PPC/Intel’ , which might be some sort of PC thing? Myuh? (I am ignorant Mac user.)

    Hope this is helpful!

    Love Reba

  8. Salinya says:

    Thank you for this Janet! Now all I have to do is to be mindful that I do need a break within an hour, as I spend almost 50 hours in front of the computer screen per week! I think it will help a lot with an alarm (I downloaded the one you shared) and I hope to get less neck/eye strain hopefully within the next few days! I also have been advised to be seated at a 120 degree angle, to lessen eye, back, and neck strain. Hope this helps! Thanks again!

  9. Janet Bailey says:

    @Reba – The app looks nifty, but alas, it looks like it’s Mac-only. Thanks though! xo

    @Salinya – 50 hours, yikes—those sound like healthy changes you’re making. Good luck!

  10. Great tips on taking breaks that will truly soothe the soul! I like to use diffuse essential oils into the air during my happy breaks. I just choose the ones that match my mood or need and breathe away! Thanks for the awesome post. 🙂

  11. Holger says:

    I use every “natural” interruption during my working day to look out of the windows and focus my eyes on some trees far away. Most of these interruptions are phone calls, incomming emails….
    It takes a while to contition yourself to look out of the window though..

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