You Need Your Coffee Break

Brew some coffee, find a nice place to settle in, because today we’re going to talk about the importance of breaks.

How often do you take breaks during your workday? Be honest with yourself in answering this question. Are these breaks actual breaks? Or are they simply more working moments masked as breaks?

Several years ago I wrote a book about the Swedish tradition of fika. Fika is the iconic Swedish coffee break, and it’s an important cultural tradition that celebrates taking a moment in the day to slow down. Fika is usually made up of a cup of coffee and something to eat with it. This is often sweet (cinnamon or cardamom buns are an iconic pairing) but can also be savory (like an open-faced sandwich). While a fika is usually associated with coffee, a cup of tea or other drink can also work. The main point is the break that the drink and food encourage you to take.

Fika is often a social affair, and it takes place in the workplace and during off hours. While a long weekend fika with a friend is certainly my favorite iteration, fika serves an important role during the workweek too, a valued and expected institution in the Swedish workplace.

I once gave a book talk where a Swedish attendee shared his own fika story. He had worked for a company responsible for a lot of patents, and at the end of his career, he and his colleagues sat down and discussed some of their ideas which had eventually led to patents. As they began to discuss these original ideas, they realized that most of them had been dreamed up during fika breaks.

There’s good reason for this. The first is that these types of coffee breaks aren’t meetings with set agendas. There is no goal, or purpose—fika really is just a break to sit and chat and take a step back from work for a bit, even if work topics do end up surfacing in conversation. The flexibility and freedom that comes from creating this “white space” in the day allows the brain a little more room to wander, and there’s a little more room for the creative sparks to kick in. Add a little caffeine to the picture and you can see why this creates the ideal space for ideation.

But in the United States, rest and breaks aren’t necessarily part of our cultural vocabulary, as we exist in a cult of overwork, exacerbated by a lack of social infrastructure and federal policy to ensure paid time off. In fact, the U.S. is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee paid vacation (although it does have broad support), and that absence of federal policy disproportionately impacts lower-wage and part-time workers. Meanwhile, the European Union’s Working Time Directive, “guarantees European workers at least 20 paid vacation days per year, with some countries mandating as many as 25 to 30 days per year,” according to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Even for Americans who do work for employers who offer paid vacation, a lot of us don’t even use those vacation days.

We have come to be defined by work. This “workism,” as defined by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, is “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.” Pair that with the dark history of productivity and a lack of policy, and you can see why as a culture we continue to perpetuate this ongoing obsession with work, even when it doesn’t serve us. It becomes harder and harder to take a break.

The reality is that, “…working less can actually mean working better,” writes Anne Helen Petersen, in an installment of her newsletter Culture Study looking at the recent study in Iceland, which showed that a four-day workweek came with multiple benefits. “That idea is particularly difficult for Americans, who fetishize long hours for many ideologically tangled reasons, to understand.” We have to find a way to dismantle that fetishization, because as so many studies show us, taking breaks is essential.

While it may seem small and inconsequential, we can start with a coffee break. Find time for fika.

Consider how breaks fit into your overall workflow, and start to make them a regular part of it. If you work for yourself, this might be a little bit easier, but even if you’re part of a team, consider pitching the idea of a regular fika break. In the Swedish workplace, fika is often a mid-morning and early afternoon affair, but your workday structure might require something different, and it doesn’t always have to be caffeinated. I certainly drink coffee while working on my computer, but I also like to be mindful of taking time when I step away. In the summer that might mean drinking a cup of coffee sitting on the porch, or slipping through a few pages of a book or magazine while I take a short break.

Scheduling in regular breaks is an essential part of running a sustainable business, not just because you’re stepping away from your tasks and to-do lists, but because you’re giving your mind the space to wander. Think of all the input, all the information, all the emails, that your brain is handling on a work day. We fill that space up quickly. Writer Ferris Jabr has referred to this as “cerebral congestion,” and it takes a toll, because our brains need downtime to function. Back in 2012, Tim Kreider wrote a piece for The New York Times titled “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” I remember reading it when it was first published, and came back to it thanks to the link in Jabr’s piece. “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” writes Kreider. Almost a decade later and I’m not sure that we have made much progress, even after a year that forced us to rethink all of our activities and our work demands. Going against a culture where productivity and busyness are baked into our sense of being isn’t easy, but we have to work to create that change. Our well being depends on it.

Rest and breaks aren’t indulgent, they are essential. From a pure work standpoint, frequent breaks throughout the workday have been shown to improve productivity — even microbreaks are good. They are also an important part of the creative process, and whether our job has us creating art, doing bookkeeping and financial planning, or teaching, creative thinking is an important part of all professions. If we don’t allow ourselves the space for breaks and rest, we can’t tap into our full creative potential.

Slow down. Pause. Refresh.

Take your coffee break. You need it more than you might think.

Anna Brones

Writer and artist based in the Pacific Northwest. Author of several books including Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Works as a papercut illustrator and teaches classes and workshops on art and creativity. Find her online at annabrones.com.

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