Work breaks for the single-minded self-flagellator

If you spend most of your day in front of a keyboard and monitor there’s a good chance that eventually you’ll wind up compromising your health in one or more ways. If you’re like me, the consequences might not be unmanageable until, seemingly all of a sudden, years of bad habits render you almost helpless.

I guess crippling pain was one way to get my attention. More likely it was the only way that could work, because I ignored lesser discomforts that warned me from time to time that I was doing something wrong. Now, I’m working on problems that start from my lower back and run through my fingertips. I’m reading books. I’m buying hardware. I’m buying software. I’m using tennis balls and trigger point canes. I’m seeing a kick-ass massage therapist (Mary Lou Ross – Douglasville Therapeutic Massage, if you’re in the area). I’ve referred some projects to colleagues. That right there ought to tell you I’m serious, if you know me at all.

When tackling the pain of computer work and repetitive strain injury (RSI), multiple factors must be addressed: posture, seating, keyboard, mouse, monitor height and angle, and work habits. If you’ve developed RSIs, each of these elements likely contributed in some way, and if you plan to continue working you must find an optimal solution for each aspect of the problem. There isn’t a single product or practice that provides a “silver bullet” fix.

Taking regular work breaks is one of the best ways to help combat RSI. It can be a hard habit to develop, however, if you’re the kind of person who tends hyperfocus and not quit until the task is done – and probably perfectly so. Personally, I find it hard to get “in the zone,” so to speak. Once I do I want to stay there until I’ve reached a natural stopping point, which is often well beyond what’s good for my body.

Break apps are a way to force me to put the work down for a few minutes. I wish I had a reasonable work style on my own, but I’ve had to accept that some of the assets I bring to projects – e.g., sticking with a problem until I find a solution, writing and rewriting until the code or the copy is perfect – come with bedeviling flip sides.

Up until recently I used the “Time Out” app. It’s wonderful for a free app but has some limitations. There isn’t a way to see how long is left before a break, which makes it hard to determine if I should delve into the next task or start the break early. It’s very customizable as far as break interval and length, but is all or nothing in terms of whether you can continue to work on into your break time. That’s both a positive and a negative for me. I’ll postpone a break five times if I can. When I can’t and it comes when I’m intensely focused on something, it’s frustrating.

Stretch app is inexpensive and seems to address many of Time Out’s shortcomings, and encourages and demonstrates the important element of stretching during breaks. I just bought it so I can’t give a comprehensive review, but I wanted to share it as an option. The developer is from Thailand so some of the English is funny, though everything is clear and understandable. Check out their demo video below to see what the app can do. Stretch is available in the Mac app store. You can get more details about the app on the developer’s (SquidMelon) website.


Have you tried other break apps you like? Can you make recommendations for Windows users? Use the comments area below to share any input or suggestions.

UPDATE 18 Feb 2014: After using the Stretch app for a little while it became both too annoying and too easy to divert from its intended purpose. When using the Time Out app I find it frustrating when a break begins when I’m in the middle of something I’d like to finish. While the app can be set up so that breaks can be delayed, I found that enabling this feature defeats the purpose of the app because too often I delay a break to get to a stopping point with which I’m comfortable, resulting in no break.

What works for me is not enabling the delay feature, and setting the app for five-minute breaks every 30 minutes. Five minutes is long enough that I will get up, stretch, get a drink of water, etc., but short enough that it’s easy to get back in that zone of focus that I find hard to leave if I have the option. If you’re something of a Type-A, I encourage you to try Time Out. I have heard several times over the years that I should take computer breaks but never saw how they would do anything other than impede my workflow. Now that I have worked with and without regular breaks I can confirm that they are one of the most helpful things I can do to reduce RSI pain. Perhaps if I had listened sooner they would have helped prevent it in the first place. I can also confirm that RSI greatly impedes productivity.

To find out more about the Time Out app, visit the developer’s website.