Should software engineers take a break every 90 minutes even when in ‘the zone’?

Thoughts By 3 years ago

I recently heard an interview on Bloomberg with Tony Schwartz, the CEO of ‘the energy project’, about how workers should take a 10 minute break every 90 mins.  Schwartz stated that 90 minute intervals is the human rhythm for going from alert to tired and that taking a 10 minute break every 90 minutes will increase “your capacity to focus, increase your capacity to think creatively dramatically”.  Schwartz also discussed that the longer the employee went without a break the more susceptible they were to distractions such as emails, sms and colleagues.

After hearing this interview I wondered, if this 10 minute break every 90 minutes rule applies to everyone.  How well will it apply to me, a software engineer? The reason I wondered this is I, like many software engineers, often find myself ‘in the zone’ also known as ‘being in a state of flow’.  When I am in this state of hyper-focus I feel that taking a 10 minute break would only break my concentration.

I am sure many programmers will be very familiar with being in this mental state.

Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi identify the following six factors as encompassing an experience of flow.

– intense and focused concentration on the present moment
– merging of action and awareness
– a loss of reflective self-consciousness
– a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
– a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
– experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

During this time I  (like I assume many programmers) feel that any distraction will take me immediately out of ‘the zone’ and it can often be difficult to reach that state of hyper-focus again and I can sometimes be in this state of hyper-focus for a lot longer than 90 minutes.

After hearing this interview I began looking into more studies discussing this concept. I found an article in Scientific American by Jabr F. (2013) Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime.

This article discussed why downtime is so important for the brain.  How during downtime, your brain is able to reflect on, and make sense of what it has learned.  The article stated that often the mind will “solve tough problems while daydreaming —an experience many people have had while taking a shower. Epiphanies may seem to come out of nowhere, but they are often the product of unconscious mental activity during downtime.”

As a programmer, I am very familiar with this phenomenon,  when I have been struggling to find a solution to a bug or find a design solution when suddenly the answer comes to me while my mind is elsewhere.

So I can see some merit in taking a break every now and then, especially if you are really struggling with a problem and maybe need to let your mind wander for a little while. However, should we really be forcing ourselves to take a 10 minute break every 90 minutes even if we are ‘in the zone’? Should I trust the science behind these studies or trust my gut, which tells me if I am in the zone I should just keep working so I don’t lose my concentration?

Next week I will follow the strict 10 minute break every 90 minutes rule and see how it affects my concentration, motivation and performance at work.

  • Ivan Milutinovic

    So, how did your little experiment go?