Suddenly Home FIVE: Why Breaks are No Luxury

In my last two posts I explained how to fend off outside distractions by making your home office into a mini-fortress. One reader thought that word was a little strong and suggested, “safe haven” instead.

But I’m sticking with “fortress.” It reinforces my next point, that you need to break out once a day. And I mean really break out. Leave the work premises. Take an hour off and do something else. Every day.

I’ve periodically failed to follow this advice. In the middle of a rush or book launch going for a mid-day swim felt like a luxury.  But I always snapped back to my senses. Leaving the office for an hour a day is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.

My daily break usually involves exercise. I’m relentless about breaking a sweat once a day. Every day around noon I head out for a walk, swim (off limits at the moment) or cross-country skiing (winter and summer: I have roller skis). I  also do Pilates as part of my morning routine.

In recent years, I’ve even heard a number of people in my life call me “athletic.” I think this is hilarious. I spent most of most  days in my life frozen in front of a desk holding my arms still at a 90-degree angle while I  tap little pieces of plastic. The biggest movement I make is crossing and uncrossing my legs. This would be cardio if I was in a coma.

But to be clear: I don’t exercise daily for the pure love of sport. I do it because it keeps me stay sane and productive.

My “break” of choice is some kind of rigorous physical activity, but it doesn’t have to be for everyone. The point is getting out and doing something else for long enough that you forget things a little. Leaving the office for a good stretch is like a pushing a refresh button on your day.

Even in the best of times, which these of course aren’t, when you work at home there’s not much reason to go anywhere else. I don’t walk to a bus or a train or even a parked car. I don’t open a lock let alone cart material with me on public transit or shovel a car out. My commute consists of a 10-metre triangle between my bed, my fridge and my desk. In a crunch, I could crawl it.

Still, barring real emergencies, I leave the house after lunch every day to do something else. For me, covering distances – on walking paths, ski trails or pool lanes – is the only thing that really gets me to stop thinking about work. Occasionally I combine necessity with necessity and walk to the grocery store, but it’s the walk that gives me a mental carwash, not the shopping.

I’m lucky to have a partner who sometimes joins me on my daily excursions (my husband, who is also a home worker). Walking has been one of the constants of our professional life together. The first thing we do when we move to a new city or apartment is look for a place to walk.

In Paris it was the beautiful Jardin des Plantes, a (gorgeous) ten-minute stroll from our apartment. In Toronto, our circuit was  the shore of Lake Ontario west of downtown. In Arizona we drove to a desert hiking trail 10 minutes from our house.

We have walked in ugly places, too and bad scenery gives us a bit less to talk about. But the point is walking, not talking.

The important thing is getting out. Everything looks different after you stop thinking about it for a while. Deadlines are more flexible; bad drafts of articles are less disastrous; even squabbles with colleagues (we have them too) seem less dramatic.

Of course, the present situation has its challenges. Most of my normal activities are off limits – maybe even walking will be. The pool is closed. The snow is melting. At the moment there is still too much slush for roller skiing and who knows when our sports park is going to be off limits.

But even if we go into total lockdown, I’ll find a way to get out of my office to change gears. I’ll do Pilates on the porch if I have to, to get my daily mental carwash.

What I won’t do — as I explain in the next post — is housework.