A case for "Mental Cigarette Breaks"

PKM Mental health mindfulness

I pride myself on not having smoked for over 15 years. It's a filthy habit and one that took a long time to break. (Patches, if you want to know are what did it for me - plus being an early adopter of what at the time were called "e-cigarettes"). It took a long time for me not to get hooked by the nose like the kids in the bisto ad whenever I smelled cigarette smoke (not the smell of cigarettes on clothes or in houses, smokers - that stinks just in case you didn't know)

However, there's one aspect of being a smoker that I really miss - and that's the magical ability of a cigarette break to FIX whatever it is you're stuck on. The thing about having an addiction like nicotine is that when you need to satisfy it, you really can't ignore it.

When you need a ciggie, you're going out for a ciggie: FULL.STOP.

I remember that, at my peak I was smoking about 20 cigarettes a day (hardly a chimney, but still) - and of those 20 cigarettes, 8 or so would be in the evening, 2 in the morning before work, 2 at lunchtime - leaving 8 cigarettes smoked during working hours - which (breaking it down) means a break of 10 minutes or so at least once every working hour.

The thing is, I remember being so much more productive when I was a smoker, despite these regular breaks - why is that?

Our jobs as knowledge workers almost all include moments where we just get "stuck" on something - we can't figure out how to connect to the data on the server, or we can't find a best-practice justification for a point we're trying to make or we're struggling for just the right word to express what we need to say in that big presentation we're giving next week.

It's fairly well known that the best way to solve being "stuck" on something is to stop thinking about it for a bit - let your unconscious mind apply some grease to the problem while you do something else - and a ciggie break allows just the right amount of time to do that.

I think it's maybe not entirely coincidental that my stopping smoking corresponded with the all-encompassing reach of sites like  stack overflow into my sphere of work (software development) - there was a time (about 15-20 years ago) when the answer to every HTML/CSS/JS question wasn't a click away and you had to actually think about it yourself.

And the way it would work was:

[diagram - get stuck - go for ciggie - ponder problem on way down - smoke ciggie - empty mind - have potential solution jump into mind on way back up ]

It wasn't always that easy, sometimes it might take a couple of ciggie breaks to crack - but it did work and what's more, the problem you solved yourself became fixed in your mind - the act of coming up with the answer and implementing it helped to codify the memory.

Nowadays what happens is - you get stuck and you reach immediately for google. You spend 10-15 minutes trawling through answers, frantically opening browser tabs, changing your search criteria. Then another 20-30 minutes reading all the tabs you opened, throwing some away, chasing down rabbit holes opened by others - if you're lucky enough not to get distracted by clickbait and manage to stay with the original problem, then the best you can hope for after 30 minutes or so is somebody else's answer to a similar(ish) problem, that you hack away at until it works for you.

The stack overflow answer rarely sticks in your memory, because you're not really understanding it - you're more likely than not just copy-pasting it in. More importantly, you've not had a break - (remember all those imperatives we're given to have regular screen breaks to give our eyes and brains a rest?) - you've just battered away at the problem, your flow state is broken and you're a little bit frazzled and exhausted. (Not to mention you now have a desktop covered in 5 different browser windows, full of useless tabs that didn't solve the problem.

Sound familiar? ( I really hope so, because if that's just me, then I'm in the wrong job 🤣  )

So what I'm going to suggest is - before you reach for google, give yourself a "mental cigarette break" - step away from the keyboard. Go and do something else - if you can, step outside for 5 minutes, get some fresh air. Mentally ask yourself the problem on the way out, then stop, do something else, bounce a ball against a wall for your dog, do some yoga or deep breathing, maybe just look at a tree or something beautiful - the key is to mindfully distract yourself, without giving yourself something else to focus on.

When you come back to the problem you may very well have come up with a potential solution. Your unconscious mind will hopefully have been able to rephrase the question you're asking yourself. At the very least you will be coming at it with a fresh set of eyes and can see that you've just missed a comma in your code at the crucial point.

That deals with one type of mental cigarette break, but there's another kind as well - remember how I mentioned earlier that you'd have to step away from your work because the craving just grabbed you? What would you do then? Well, you'd go outside to "smokers corner" and maybe just chew the fat with another smoker. Or you'd just stand in the rain puffing away aimlessly. Your mind would turn to what you were going to do when you got home, what you were going to cook for tea, what you were planning for your partner's birthday. The point is, you wouldn't be able to NOT take this break - your craving would push you out the door into a howling gale to go get your fix.

This sounds a lot less productive than the first kind, but it's doing just as important a job. It's allowing you to pause and take a break from what you're doing for 10 minutes - to refocus your mind when you return to it. This is an important safety valve - it allows you to put your work into perspective - it's just a part of your day, it's just work after all.

I'm going to make a point of adding reminders (to act as a "virtual craving") to my calendar every 50 minutes or so - and see what happens - I'll report back ;-)