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David Nguyen
David Nguyen

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Keep Your Axe Sharp

The importance of taking a break as a developer (Keep your axe sharp)

Introduction

Once upon a time, there was a massive rivalry between two lumber jacks. In order to settle the feud, a competition was raised to determine the finer wood chopper. Given 24 hours, the two lumber technicians were to chop as many logs as they could. They would be graded on the quality of their chops, waste, and quantity.

By noon, both men were fairly equal in logs. One lumberer, let's call them Sam, decided to stop, and left for their tent.

"Aha! My rival is a lazy lumberer! I shall win this no problem against such a weak-minded individual. I'll chop all day and surely win" thought the other lumberer, we'll name them Lap. So Lap continued working hard, and chopped without break.

chopping wood

As the day went on, Sam began to surpass Lap. Sam's number of logs began to rise higher than Lap's. Yet, Sam had went off to take a second break. Lap still tirelessly working, confident in claiming victory, now that Sam has left 2 times during this intense competition.

In the end, Sam had at least double the amount of logs that Lap had.

"How is that possible?!" Lap exclaimed sweatily, and frustrated. "You lazy lumberer went off, took a break for lunch or whatever while I tirelessly worked". How was it that Sam was able to out perform Lap?

Sam responds "I went off to sharpen my blade. Enjoyed a hearty lunch"

It was clear who's logs were cleanly cut, consistent, and plentiful. In the end, even though Lap worked hard continuously, without break, Lap's logs were inconsistent in quality, and only half of what Sam was able to produce.

The moral of the story? Keep your axe sharp.

The Problem

Life as a software engineer involves long hours testing, debugging, planning, strategizing, building, problem solving, tech swapping, refactoring...the list goes on. It has become a stereotype that being a developer means 12 hour days of non-stop 'productive' work. There are countless stories of burnt-out individuals who've left the field.

The problem is not the hours itself, but how those hours are spent. Don't get me wrong, 12 hours is too long. We humans require some variability to keep our sanity. However, sometimes we can't escape the need to be in the lab for 12 hours. The key is being mindful of how those hours are spent. It can make the difference between a quality product, and a bug-ridden mess.

overworked

Performance Quality Decrease

As humans, we always have our attention on something. What that something is at a given moment is not always clear. Unless you've developed mindfulness. The problem is our attention can move around relatively easily. It could move from forming the interface for this class to interact with it's external environment to 'how did Rick form the technology to turn himself into Pickle Rick?'. Then it may stray into thoughts of the cutie sitting in the corner. 'Wait wait wait, no, my interface!'.

Recent research has theorized that our attention is not a victim of 'vigilance decrement' but actually because 'stimulation blindness'. What do I mean by this? Alejandro Lleras states 'The brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time'. Focus on a stimulant will decrease it's effect on us over time. This phenomenon is akin to staring at a tree for so long that eventually the tree ceases to exist, even though it is right in front of your eyes.

homer leaves

This can explain why performance decreases over time. By focusing on a problem for long hours, our mind will eventually become blind to vital components. We trick ourselves into thinking that we need to work harder, and be ever more vigilant, however, the fallacy in that belief is that our bodies don't work like that. It becomes challenging to be more efficient and productive. Our mind has reached a point of exhaustion.

Another analogy, our attention is like a muscle. When you exercise, do you do 36 reps of a bench press with maximum weight possible, followed by 36 reps of squats, then the next, then the next...? No, you take breaks between to let your muscles rest before continuing on to your next set. This is how you maximize your potential gains in the gym. Intense, strenuous action, followed by a rest period, then back to intense struggle, and so on. Your body requires that time to get oxygen into it's blood cells, otherwise it can run out of 'air' leading to over-exhaustion and a plate landing on your head. Your attention works the same way. It requires time to relax, have a breather, let the work simmer for some time.

In a study, 84 participants were divided into 4 groups, and performed a single computerized task for 50 minutes. The findings in the end were that the groups who had no breaks, performed very poorly, while the ones who had breaks (two in total) performed consistently throughout the 50 minute interval. This finding exemplifies how effective breaks can be for productivity.

The Solution

Take Breaks!

It should be relatively clear now how important breaks are when it comes to productivity. We live in a world now where 'being busy' is a mark of pride. The problem is, being busy is not being productive. It is simply occupying time with tasks you may or may not necessarily be interested in doing, but in a stressful state. Productivity is time spent effectively, and efficiently. This means there is less stress from feeling overwhelmed, which is commonly what people feel when they are 'too busy for anything'.

gorilla break

There are several different types of breaks, and a plethora of ways to spend your break time. There are bad ways to spend your break, and wonderful ways. The common types of breaks are long and short ones. Long consists of days, weeks, or a month. These are useful when you've been on a project for several weeks or months. However, the important one that we should all adopt into our daily lives, are the short breaks.

Short Walks With Einstein

Short breaks consist of 5-15 minutes of relaxation. Some professionals use this as a moment to reflect and review. We'll get into that later. These short breaks should consist of activites that remove you from the world you've been in for the past little while.

As software engineers, we spend a majority of our working day in front of a computer screen. The light emitted from it strains our eyes, causing stress to certain nerves over a long peroid of time. The screens are also a big reason our collective sleeping patterns have been disrupted of late. That's a topic for another article however. On our breaks, we should make an effort to leave our area, environment if possible. Spend time looking at something that is not a screen, and interact with a complex organism. Personally, I like walks to a park, where I can look at tall trees in awe. You can go to the water-cooler and interact with fellow professionals, close your eyes and listen to music somewhere, meditate, call a friend, etc.

Whatever you do, try to stay away from social media. That is not a break. It may even be a bigger stressor. Studies have found that individuals who use social media are more stressed out than individuals who do not. The reasons for this deal with social pressures, and self-generated insecurities. Though that issue deals with a whole ton of psychology that we won't delve into here. The point is, avoid social media, and instead interact with nature, real people around you, or a non-virtual hobby.

no social media

Suggestions for Short Breaks

Meditation

Meditation gifts abundant benefits. Be it 5 minutes, or 30 minutes, you will be able to help yourself recenter, and clear mental toxins. This is a practice that begets greater benefits the more time you spend practicing. If possible, make this a daily practice. 10 minutes once a day would do your life wonders.

Exercise

Exercise is another highly beneficial activity. The obvious benefits are for your physical self. However, less known are exercises' benefits for the brain. Exercise has an inherent ability to decrease anxiety and increase calm, clear, logical thinking. Dr. Holly Phillips claims that β€œEven 24 hours after exercise, you're less prone to experience anxiety symptoms. 30 minutes of exercise, four times a week, is sufficient for significantly reducing most people's stress."

Walks

Although this may share similar benefits to exercise, I felt it deserves it's own mention. One of the greatest minds of our time, Einstein, would attribute his success to walks. Einstein would have daily walks, whether it was during his time at Princeton University, or in Milan. Revelations would come during many of these walks. I believe this is thanks to the combination of focused and diffused thinking. Darwin had three 45 minute walks a day. Now you don't need to have such long walks, but a 5-10 minute walk outside may refreshen your mind, and may even help you eureka a solution.

happy walk

Pomodoro Technique

This popular technique has been a big player in the productive professional's handbook. The gist is, you have two timers, one for duration of time for focused work, and another for complete avoidance of said work. The most popular ratio is the 25/5 split, meaning 25 minutes of focused work - meaning removal of all distractions - followed by 5 minutes of break. Another popular one is the 50/10 split. Some professionals may add a 5 minute review and reflecting period to go over what they've been working on before the break.

Summary

Our productivity decreases over time. The quality of our work degrades over time. Stress increases from overworking. Taking breaks serves to alleviate these. Our minds require time to breath, and rest, without it, it can feel strained and suffocated, increasing potential for errors. Take walks, talks, lifts and pulls, whatever it is, just make sure it's away from your screen. Key thing to take away, keep your axe sharp!

confident chewy

Resources

How Taking More Breaks Will Boost Your Productivity - Simple Programmer
BBC - Future - What you can learn from Einstein’s quirky habits
How to take breaks while coding - DEV Community πŸ‘©β€πŸ’»πŸ‘¨β€πŸ’»
The Science of Taking a Break | OnlineSchools.org
Brief diversions vastly improve focus, researchers find -- ScienceDaily
How Do Work Breaks Help Your Brain? 5 Surprising Answers | Psychology Today Canada
Photo Credit: Jason Abdilla on Unsplash

Top comments (2)

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griffinator76 profile image
Nathan Griffiths

I've lost count of the times I've been faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem that I've spent hours wrangling with, gone to bed and then solved within minutes the next day!

Sometimes your brain just needs some time out.

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ahrke profile image
David Nguyen Author

Haha I feel ya! Sometimes a nice shower does the trick too I've found.

🌚 Friends don't let friends browse without dark mode.

Sorry, it's true.