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When do you do a break? Only if you are feeling

Nervous Tense Tired

Or are you a smoker and your body reminds you regularly of making a break? That signal causing you to pause is some positive side effect of smoking after all. Much better is if your colleagues pick you up for some chilling.

Starting small: The Coffee Break

Even with social networks, instant messaging and all these new technologies available today, there is definitely no replacement for personal conversations. If studies are correct more than 70% of the information is transmitted non-verbally via body language, gesture and facial expression. Just think about all these bumpy forum or email conversations, how easily many such problems could have been fixed by a personal chat at the coffee corner. Project managers will confirm the importance of personal contact in order to build efficient teams and enable cooperation. Smokers might have some strategic advantage here because they tend to flock across organizational borders thus facilitating the information flow inside companies.

My personal top reason for having a break is very different: A break is to disengage. Often I find myself confronted with some difficult problem where I run out of creativity. If there seems to be no progress possible at that time, then probably that gut feeling is correct. Sounds like a great occasion for a short break and considering something completely different. Or simply to relax and not think about that ugly problem any more. It is amazing how often there is a sudden unexpected flash of insight, not necessarily solving the problem at hand but typically showing some new way for dealing with the problem.

As a summary, humans need interrupts as well. And long lunch breaks like in Spain or France benefit the individual and the organization. It should be best practice in all countries to make the most out of the human productivity curve and use lunch time for a real recreation.

Getting bigger: The Offsite

Now the batteries are loaded, get back to the daily treadmill. Once I have seen a poster at a desk saying “same ****, different day”. Whoa, such a statement should make you pause and reflect! Something must be going horribly wrong here.

In IT you are typically driven by events, timelines and all kinds of distractions. Emails, instant messaging, phone calls are limiting your productivity of getting the real stuff done. To summarize the personal productivity literature in one sentence:  It is all about getting the important but not urgent tasks done. If you want to excel at work, do what is important, but not urgent (yet). Yes, all that “being proactive” stuff you might have heard of.

Now that requires three conditions:

  • being able to work for some time without distractions
  • being able to concentrate
  • having self discipline to stay focused

Working from the home office sounds like a perfect solution for the first condition. If you have the possibility to work from home for some time gives you some big advantage. Needles to say don’t forget to close down your mailbox, the instant messaging client and turn off your mobile phone.

Even if there are no distractions, there is still the problem of being able to concentrate. I am not sure about the reasons, but studies propose that not only the youth is losing focus. Multitasking, being always connected to exchange profanities and surfing the internet gradually replace such habits like reading whole books. You think that you are not affected? There is a simple test to teach you otherwise. Try to meditate. Close your eyes and count your breath. You have no idea how easily your mind gets distracted.

And the most difficult condition is self discipline, something that is barely trainable because it is some intrinsic capacity. If you are blessed with that predicate then you don’t need to read my blog at all.

There are so many possibilities that greatly benefit from offsites compared to work from an office:

  • sound planning (ever do something like a plan/do/check/act cycle?)
  • deep analysis (like in problem management or root cause analysis)
  • thinking out of the box / creative thinking
  • learning something new (having a beginners mind)

Strictly speaking, an offsite is only a break from the usual work habits, but it is still work. Nevertheless, if you are really lucky you might get Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow feeling so the work doesn’t feel like work at all.

Monty Python said it best: “And now for something completely different…”

Enjoy the Silence: The Retreat

Now this is completely counter-intuitive and absolutely impossible. A retreat sounds like the most boring place on earth, so why should one waste precious time with a retreat? And if you are having a family or a busy schedule or both, then just the idea of going to a retreat is simply absurd. In my previous paragraph I wrote that working from home office has the benefit of being able to work without distractions. That was a simplistic description. If we are honest, then there are two types of distractions: good ones and bad ones, i.e. the ones we like and the ones we don’t like. Living without distractions seems highly undesirable. Johannes Gross said it quite to the point: “I know many people who thirst for eternal life, but can’t stand a rainy Sunday afternoon.” And please don’t tell me you are different. Do you have a Smartphone? You see?

Is there a need for going to a retreat? Socrates said it rather bluntly: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The sentence is so harsh that I don’t want to agree, but I wouldn’t want to start a debate with a master debater like Socrates either. I don’t believe an offsite would be enough to check and reexamine ones plans for life or ones deepest goals. One definition of success I once read was: “Success is the progressive realization of a worthy ideal.” It is difficult to be successful according to that definition without being clear on ones own ideals. So a retreat sounds like a very important, but not urgent task on the personal to-do list.

Now if you think what has all this nonsense to do with SAP or IT? Well, retreats are quite common, if you reflect on them. The prevalent type of retreat for IT staff suddenly starts after some medical emergency or personal crisis. Let’s face it: IT work is quite bad for your health. It is bad for your eyes to sit a long time in front of some monitor. It is bad for your back to sit for hours. And it is bad for your mental health if you regularly work overtime, if you have a high pressure to perform, etc. It is quite easy to find relevant studies online which explain more details about that. So think about whether your doctor might suggest to you to rethink or reprioritize your life. It is even worse if it is not “bad luck” but your own fault to be in a bad shape.

There is lots of literature on the topic, of course. Maybe it started in the early 20th century with books like Napoleon Hills “The Law of Success” and “Think and grow rich”. Funnily, Napoleon Hill didn’t mean prosperity as the ultimate goal, but financial freedom to be able to pursue ones true goals. If someone is saying for example “I want to make 2 millions in 3 years, so I can play golf for the rest of my life.” then this is simply a self-delusion. Remember: Even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat. A personal retreat could even be as short as half a day. If you haven’t considered it yet, then decide whether you have a personal demand.

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  1. Michelle Crapo
    I love this blog.  It is so true, we are so busy running around doing things that we don’t have time for ourselves.

    I went to a seminar once.  Don’t ask I don’t remember the name.  I’m sure I will as soon as I hit send.

    We had to put rocks in a container.  The only way we could do it is by putting the biggest rocks in to the filler – sand.  That stayed with me.  It’s been years.

    The biggest rock for me is always family, then there is work, religion, SCN, answering e-mail, sending e-mail, keeping up with the local and national news, and yes, blogs.  Where do I consider a TIME_OUT.   Great term by the way.

    Never, I eat lunch at my desk.  Dinner in front of the TV.  Then maybe check my e-mail or do some e-bay. Breakfast talking with my husband.  Some alone time.  Even driving down the road you can see me with a cell phone.

    What a novel concept, time_out.  I wonder what will happen if I actually do that.  I’ll try, and let you know back in another comment.   MMMMMmmm Not sure I’ll be successful when I try. 🙂  I used to take a quite walk in the woods behind my house.  That was years ago, maybe it is time to start again – before Winter hits.

    Great blog!


  2. Joe Yasman

    Hi Mark,

    I was interested by some of your questions/replies on the SDN and it seems to me you could help me with one difficult issue I need to resolve. Is it possible to contact you through an e-mail? If you are ok with that please drop me a line on

    Thank you,



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