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What You Don’t Do at the Office Is Just as Important as What You Do

Many kitchens in America have egg timers, small mechanical alarms that are made to look like the hard-boiled eggs they are probably being used to time. In Italy, where they are more likely to boil pasta than eggs, they are shaped like tomatoes. This small cultural idiosyncrasy is the reason behind the name for what has become one of the most popular time management techniques: the Pomodoro method. The inventor of the now well known work strategy is Italian Francesco Cirillo who used one of these ubiquitous Italian culinary tools to time his work break intervals.

The Pomodoro technique calls for 25 minutes of heads-down work followed by five minutes of break. After the third work interval then a 15 to 20-minute break is taken. There are many important psychological reasons why breaking work up like this helps keep you more productive. The predetermined stop times create a sense of urgency that spurs progress and the short breaks help the brain regain focus for the next stint. The process has become the genesis of numerous time management applications and even an entire genre of music playlists.

The twenty-five minutes of work and five minutes of break time was just an arbitrary number that suited Cirillo. Research on the topic has shown that a more ideal cadence might be something more like 52 minutes of work followed by seventeen minutes of break. This might be why Apple watches give “stand reminders” every 50 minutes. Other research has also shown that either physical activity or purposeful retaliation was more effective than “unstructured breaks.” Whatever the perfect break schedule or activity actually is, the takeaway from all of these studies is that taking a break is really important for us physically, mentally, and spiritually. 

The ability to unapologetically take breaks is one of the many things some workers prefer about working from home. Certain workplaces and work cultures encourage long hours and long periods of head-down work, to their own detriment. But as much as some of us are good at finding time between work for ourselves at home, the need to take uninterrupted breaks could be an advantage of the office in the long run. Many of us learned that while breaks are much easier to take at home, they can often be anything but restful. Oftentimes work from home breaks are filled with chores like laundry and dishes. Add partners and kids to the mix and work break at home can be anything except uninterrupted. 

It has been said over and over again, “If offices want to get workers back they need to be places where they want to work.” Maybe a better goal, though, is to be a place where workers want to take a break. After all, there is little that a workplace can do to change our work. You don’t notice the tasteful room accents or human-centered design when you are buried in a computer screen. Even a view, long the litmus test of a desirable office, is nothing more than a smear of colors in your peripheral vision when you are focused on a task at hand. 

So rather than rethinking how the office can help us work, we should instead be thinking about how it helps us take breaks. Office design should revolve around the areas where people can lounge or share a coffee in between work. Office amenities should focus on the kinds of break activities that we might not be able to get at home like meditation rooms or exercise equipment. Digital offerings like tenant experience software should encourage breaks and help people make the most of their break time. I am not saying that offices should start to have alarms that tell people when to work and when to break, workers should have a choice in the matter. But maybe they should at least have a few tomato-shaped timers and try to explain to them how and why to use them.

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