The Coffee 'Break' Conundrum

In IT: is it work time, or a break?

I’ve been hearing a lot of similar stories lately. They usually go like this:

  • “Should I clock out of work if I take a small break? Technically I’m not being productive… so…"
  • “You are getting a lot of coffee… and then you just stand there looking out the window. We don’t pay you for this."

In this blog, I won’t talk about the regular Coffee Break Conundrums (Black or with milk? What cookie should I eat with this? Should fake drinking out of an empty coffee cup be allowed on camera? @BillyKorando 🤔 ). I want to spend some time reflecting and thinking out loud about the “break” part. Is a “coffee break” a break at all… and what arguments could be put forward to support the claim that “coffee breaks = work time”?

Let’s see where we end up with this!

This blog is reflection on something I’ve seen happen around me as a software consultant and through stories from fellow consultants. This is very much me thinking out loud and crystallizing my thoughts on this topic, usually a dangerous thing to do publicly on the internet. Not everything comes from my personal experience but I’ve written this post from my perspective. If you think differently about this topic or if you feel I’ve missed something, please be so kind to point out my fallacies or biases in the comments. I’m here to learn.

How we learn and solve problems

Let’s start with the idea that you are paid to solve problems. This seems like the most general description I could use to include as many of you, the readers of this post, as possible. You are all problem solvers… be it writing code to automate solutions, writing code to test that code or determining what should be built in the first place.

As humans, we unfortunately have to rely on that thing inside our bodies called “our brain” to solve problems. The problem is, the brain is full of biases and tries to take shortcuts where it can… some shortcuts useful, some counterproductive. Our brain is sometimes erratic, weird and uncooperative. These rebellious acts of the brain happen more often for some of us (ex. ADD/ADHD) than others (ex. neurotypical), but they do impact us all.

Great books to read on this topic are “Thinking Fast and Slow” and “The Idiot Brain”

So lets first take a step back and look into how solving problems (and learning) actually manifests itself. As presented in one of the first chapters of the magnificent (“can’t believe this stuff is FREE”-level) course Learning to Learn our brain operates in 2 modes: Focused and Diffuse.

I’ll be listing only an extremely simplified explanation of the two modes here… for more detail, look at this blog post..

  • Focused mode is single track. You experience this mode of thinking when you are working on a task and everything around you seems to fade away into the background;
  • Diffuse mode is all over the place and allows you to look at the broader picture. You are not focussed on 1 thing but let your mind wander;

Ever had a really though problem you spent hours on, only to solve it in a couple of minutes the next day or after a visit to the bathroom? That phenomenon, which is almost a meme / cliché in our industry, can be attributed to the diffuse mode of thinking. By letting your mind wander, you give it the necessary room to form important connections, see the bigger picture again.

There is enough research out there from people much smarter than me to confirm that focused and diffuse modes are a real thing, so let’s continue our story with the reasonable assumption the theory is valid.

Efficieny: Focussed vs Diffuse thinking

When looking at the work place, usually a place where we need to find solutions for problems, you really need both diffuse and focused modes of thinking. Sometimes you want to be in “in the zone”, focused on implementing that feature which is described in your user story.

If you run into a problem however, chances are your brain is now fixated on the solution you had in your head… and it’s really hard to pull yourself away from it. That’s the moment where you can benefit if you succeed in switching your brain into the diffuse mode, taking a step back, see the bigger picture and try to figure out some alternative solution.

Unfortunately, there is no easy switch hidden somewhere on your head to flip between these two modes. What is know however, is that diffuse thinking usually occurs when you do other things. Take a shower, go for a walk or go grab some coffee. Looking at it this way, taking a break is a way to get your brain to switch to diffuse mode… which would make taking breaks an integral and important part of solving problems.

Given all this information, isn’t it weird then that so many managers only consider you “at work” when you are in focused mode behind your desk? Isn’t it strange that coffee breaks or just walking around the office to give your brain a rest is considered lazy & unproductive? What is happening here?

One explanation could be it’s an availability/measurement bias: It’s easy to measure the amount of time you sit behind your desk. Measuring the value of your diffuse thinking is much harder, but it might be much higher than you anticipate! I’ve personally saved companies hours (if not weeks or months) of work by stepping back and shutting down the focused mode for a short while. Some things that happened when I was activating my diffuse mode, aka taking a breather:

  • I realized some features on our backlog are unnecessary or could be built in an easier way;
  • Realized what a potential solution could be for a problem I’d been struggling with;
  • Remembered a collegue who had a similar project, contacted them, found better solution than the one I had in mind;

Measuring work efficiency is a hard task. If you read my experiences above, you know those actions saved a ton of time and money. However, that saved time will never make it on a sprint report, burndown chart or work log… and unless I specifically mention it to my manager, chances are they’ll never know.

Should I be paid if I figure out a problem in my sleep?

The content of this post so far could be used as an argument that companies should pay you for your diffuse thinking time as well as your focused time. I believe this to be true on a certain level but let’s refine that idea (being paid for diffuse thinking time) for a second and look at what that might mean. If we ask to be paid for our diffuse thinking as well… what would that say about overtime?

The trope mentioned earlier (“I went home, slept on it, and now I have a solution”) implies you did some diffuse thinking at home which benefited your company. Should you get paid for that as well? Where does the working day stop in this case? For hourly workers: How long did your diffuse thinking take to come up with that solution? As you might imagine, trying to quantify diffuse thinking time would lead to an organisational nightmare. So what can we do?

If we believe the research on this topic, both focused and diffuse thinking are needed to solve problems. This certainly makes a case that it might be beneficial to allow room for diffuse thinking during the regular workday. Consider the following two scenarios:

  • Person X can solve a problem in 3 hours but they took a 30 minute walk to let their brain wander;
  • Person X can solve the problem, struggling 5 hours, focussed on their screen, then goes home to “sleep on it” to only solve it the next day;

Which situation was more productive? What instance is going to be more taxing on the employee? When was the most value provided to the company? The answer seems clear.

What are you being paid for?

It’s important to note that I’m not advocating employees should be allowed to just walk about the whole day, every day. The economic reality is that in order to get paid, you need to provided value, either to your company or directly to your customers.

You are being paid to be as productive as you are able to be. As a professional you should do whatever you think is necessary… even if what you think is needed is to take a break. As I’ve talked about in this post, taking breaks is important to let your brain switch gears.

So if you need one, take one and remember, you can’t spell “breakthrough” without “break”.



Footnotes

I am fully aware I leave a lot of open discussion space with this blog and if I triggered a response within you, please leave a comment! There are a lot of things I don’t have an answer for.

If you need a lot more breaks to get the job done than your colleague, that might be a bad look but should it be? There is a lot to be said about the value of neurodiverse teams, something I will be exploring next as I don’t know enough about neurodiversity to see how this discussion is appropriate for the many ways in which people can be different.

I also realize I’m in a situation and profession where taking a break is not really frowned upon that much but it’s still interesting to think about this topic. If your company has a policy for this, please drop a comment! I want to learn how to think about this absorbing as many perspectives as possible.

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