This story is part of a 10-piece series for which HuffPost staffers agreed to experiment with improving their health and decreasing their stress on the job. It’s also part of our monthlong “Work Well” initiative focusing on thriving in the workplace.
It’s pretty typical for me to spend 10 hours straight sitting in front of my computer at work, stepping away only to replenish my cup of tea every few hours. I hardly go outside, and I get my daily weather updates primarily from people returning from lunch.
It’s a bad habit I’ve been meaning to break for a long time, especially since I’m not gaining a lot from it: I start getting distracted by late afternoon, and sometimes I feel my eyes pulsing uncomfortably as I continue straining to look at my screen.
Sitting all day isn’t good for anyone. It increases your risk of heart attack or stroke -- an effect that even regular exercise can't always undo. Worse, when people sit they tend to slouch as the day passes and end up losing energy and productivity.
It was time for me to change things up -- for the better.
I decided to push myself to get out of the office for around 30 minutes each day. I would refrain from checking email and Slack messages (but still take my phone with me) and make sure that I cleared my head before heading back in.
I was mainly just excited to get some fresh air during the day. I hate feeling chained to my desk, but in all honesty this was completely self-inflicted -- what began as guilt about stepping away from work devolved into a simple laziness to stand up and get out. And it seemed like I was wasting an opportunity to explore the lovely area around Manhattan's Union Square, where our office is, while my friends at other news outlets had to deal with the hellhole that is Times Square during peak Elmo hours. I expected that once I started taking these breaks, the hardest part would be to limit myself to a half-hour. I was happy to find that I was right -- being outside makes such a big difference!
“Stepping away for a quick walk,” I messaged my colleagues, feeling almost guilty that I was doing so. Ridiculous.
I headed up Fourth Avenue toward Union Square, then looped back. I felt like I was wandering aimlessly. I kept checking my phone to see that I wasn’t taking too much time, but that just resulted me in getting back to the office in under 20 minutes. And because I can’t stand seeing the number of unread emails in my inbox creep up, I ended up deleting emails every time I checked my phone and barely paid attention to my walk. By the time I realized what I was doing, I was already in front of my building.
I’d say this first day was not a success. But it was nice to feel the (warm December) wind on my face, even if it was brief.
This time, I actually set a goal for myself: I’d go to the Strand, look around, then head back. I’ve been on a reading spree lately and got giddy just at the idea of browsing.
It was around 2 p.m. and the bookstore was pretty busy. I resisted stopping by the $1 rack (my bookshelf at home is running pretty tight on space) and headed straight for the staff recommendations inside. I love running my hands over book covers and peeking at what other people have picked up. My eyes immediately fell on these Elena Ferrante books -- if you’ve finished her “Neapolitan” series and are itching for more, these are great reads!
As I headed back, I noticed that I’d even managed to warm up my hands and feet, which tend to slowly turn to ice blocks by 11 a.m., even though it’s December and office AC no longer makes sense and I swathe myself in my coat blanket every day. It’s so great to get some healthy blood circulation again.
At my editor's insistence, I trekked all the way up to Central Park instead of making my usual loop around the neighborhood. All right, all right -- I guess I’ll do it.
I started smelling the horse manure the minute I stepped off the subway. Then I got irritated at myself for choosing the wrong subway exit, since I had to battle with enormous Cadillacs in order to cross the street and get back parkside. Just great.
But all that fell away the moment I passed into the park. It was quiet, and the leisurely walking pace everyone adopted was already putting me at ease. I saw dozens of ducks swimming in the pond and actually stopped for a few minutes to watch and figure out which ones were paired up.
I walked past tourists snapping selfies under a pedestrian bridge, businessmen having lunch on a bench and crowds waiting for the Zamboni to clear off the Wollman ice rink. I saw a few stands offering Central Park maps -- and tips from real New Yorkers for just a quarter! -- and vaguely wondered whether they were a joke.
I reached the southern edge of the park with still some time to spare, so I sat down on a bench and people-watched. This was by far my favorite break, and the one during which I felt least pressed to check my phone. I’d also been getting sick that week, and I hadn’t realized how much I needed the fresh air. My good mood followed me as I jumped back onto the subway downtown. When I sat back down at my desk, I was excited to start working again. I felt my productivity increase, and the rest of the afternoon flew by.
Goal today: go to Union Square, walk all around Union Square, actually look at Union Square.
The first thing I noticed was that the holiday shops had gone up. Did I somehow miss this during my first day? The energy in the park was infectious. I got pumped just looking at the little ornaments hanging from sellers’ stands and warm, toasty foods that would be great for an afternoon snack.
I was more than halfway into my challenge and I was now looking forward to the moment each day when I could head outside. It broke up the day nicely and I always felt energized afterwards. I was pleasantly surprised by how much these 30 minutes were doing for me.
I headed south on this unseasonably warm day (it was in the mid-60s by 2 p.m.) toward Washington Square Park. Another great spot that I’m not visiting enough, even though it’s less than three minutes away. Nearly all the benches were taken, and people were perched around the fountain as well.
I found a seat and watched as people Instagrammed the arch, ate lunch in shorts and played on the swings. I wanted to stay longer and was almost bummed that this was the last day of my trial week… until I of course realized that I could continue this even after. I’ll be back!
Once I got used to taking breaks, it got harder not to do it. If I was having a slow afternoon, or if I knew I could quickly step out while waiting on story edits, I did. I became more aware of how I was feeling, both mentally and physically, and made sure to give myself enough time outside (within reason, of course) and away from the screen to refresh. And I realized that it was totally acceptable to take time for myself at work -- no one demanded that I get back to the office, and my afternoon productivity noticeably improved.
If anything, I wish that I’d made this change earlier. But this week was a good reminder to take better care of myself at work. I fully plan to continue taking short breaks going forward, whether it’s a walk around the neighborhood or maybe even a meeting with a coworker. And if you happen to find yourself glued to your desk, don’t forget to get some fresh air!
More stories like this:
- I Took My Full Lunch Break Every Day For A Week -- And You Can, Too
- Here's What Happened When I Slept For An Extra Hour Each Night
- I Tracked Every Moment Of My Life With An Apple Watch, And It Drove Me Nuts
- Don't Drink And Meditate, And Other Things I Learned While Going Zen For A Week
- My Phone Notifications Took Over My Life. So I Turned Them All Off.
- Phones And Bedrooms Just Don't Mix. I Learned That The Hard Way.