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Why I take sketch breaks instead of surfing the Internet (glenelkins.com)
234 points by glenbo on Oct 28, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 73 comments

I do this too. I also take off my shoes and do little toe-tap drills with a soccer ball. (Which can become a respectable work-out in 6 square feet.)

They're both non-verbal, I can almost feel myself using a different part of the brain. It's a good little rest, and erases my mental "context" of the problem -- I catch a lot of silly errors when I return to work.

Same thing here, only with an instrument. I work at home a lot and have a Clavinova in the same room as the computer. It's 10 seconds to change chairs. It clears my mind, and it also helps my piano technique.

There is a dead comment here that mentions meditation and as this is my main method for taking breaks I thought I'd share (as I doubt the comment is dead for mentioning it). When I find I'm stressing over a project too much I just put whatever I'm working on away and meditate until my thoughts aren't being pulled all over the place. The word "meditate" can have a lot of different meanings but basically what I do is just focus on something like the breath entering and leaving my body; doing so consistently (and going back to it whenever my thoughts wander) always clears my head and makes whatever I was working on a lot easier to do.

Do you ever feel awkward at work because you're meditating?

I'm currently only in school but I've never felt awkward doing so in public. It's not like you have to sit cross-legged or anything to meditate. Keeping a good posture can help with meditation but it's really an entirely mental thing. If I'm working in class I just stop working, sit back, and breath; I'm sure I just look like I'm relaxing. If I looked like I was meditating the fact that I would probably be pulling people's gaze might weigh on my mind a bit. For this reason keeping an inconspicuous posture is something I find helpful.

It doesn't have to be obvious. It can just look like you're thinking.

I write with my hands on paper as much as I can to get my eyes off of the monitor and my hands off the keyboard. Yes taking notes on something like evernote is more useful down the road, but for me there is something more free about jotting notes on paper. It gives me a mental break, a physical break, and if I come up with something really useful, I'll type it in a note program. As an added bonus, the retyping of it usually lets me come up with something new to add.

I write some of my best code with pen and paper. :) Stepping out of the keyboard+screen context helps me focus and opens up more creative thinking.

My G&L Tele is out of its case leaning against the wall most all the time for this very reason. 5-10 minutes of working on my Knopfler bends and I'm good. Time well spent.

To save someone else as musically ignorant as I some googling: G&L is a guitar brand. "Tele" is short for "Telecaster", a model made by Fender (who also makes the Stratocaster) which is presumably used loosely for similar models from other guitar brands as well.

Ahh- then "Knopfler bends" must refer to Dire Straights guitarist Mark Knopfler.

Yes, exactly.

Sorry for the guitar geek-speak. I guess for a second there I mentally collapsed the distinction between one of my nerd communities and the other.

Maybe I'll go onto Harmony Central's guitar boards and start using acronyms like DRY and OOP just to balance the scales...

I used to keep my bass guitar near me, but it got left behind when I emigrated to canada. Being reminded by people like you and posts like this makes me feel like going to a pawn shop and seeing if I can find a half-decent cheapie to hammer some strings on.

I did the majority of my writing with a guitar strap on, so I feel like picking one up to see if it could get me back into writing, something I've struggled with ever since I moved.

And for anybody still reading...some "Knopfler Bends":


G&L was founded by Leo Fender...of Fender fame.

I would go as far as to say that G&L has more of the passion of Leo then Fender does, they are very amazing guitars 'specially for the price you can get them.

Yeah, absolutely correct. Fender still makes some good guitars, but a lot of crap as well. G&L has been making sturdy, quality guitars for a reasonable price for a long time. They definitely have the mantle now.

I do the same with my bass when I am working at home. My only problem is that sometimes I get so excited playing it that is hard to stop.

As I said elsewhere (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3170702) I used to play bass when I wrote.

I once had to edit tablature for a song I was writing out of a movie review - oops. That was a "I can do two things at once, but maybe I shouldn't" moment.

I've got a couple of guitars sitting close by, but I don't use them often enough during the work day. Have been thinking about doing something other than surfing for breaks, might have to start working some Knopfler bends myself!

Do it. The world can always do with a little more sweet music, and god knows the wife will be pissed if I try to fit music making into a 5 minute break with her.

I've got a g and l asat classic, my favorite guitar ever. It's one from the mid to early 90's, pre Leo's retirement from the company. Such an amazing gat!

What type is yours?

It's an asat classic about like this one: http://bit.ly/snDQPZ

Definitely my favorite as well.

There is a Ted talk that goes over why Doodling should actually be encouraged: http://www.ted.com/talks/sunni_brown.html

Awesome talk.

I'm guity of being caught doodling in class. As early as first grade. I still remember one particular day long ago where a teacher noticed me doodling during class. The lecture halted. My notes were confiscated. Then torn up and tossed into the trash. I was horrified.

And yet, to this day, I've never stopped doodling. It's quite soothing. Some of my best works of art started as "just a doodle."

That just made me remember that I used to draw during class often. Over time, teachers forced me to stop. Looking back on school, I started out as a well-behaved, good student, and finished as disinterested, depressed, and moderately disruptive. I wonder if there was a connection.

It would be interesting to know what other people in the technology industry do during their breaks. I usually go for a smoke and a cup of coffee, and maybe getting to know what other people do could inspire me to avoid this bad habit.

I go for a walk outside.

I go talk to people face to face.

I recently bought a couple of CDJs and a DJ mixer and have been experimenting with mixing/scratching and music in general.

It's fun, challenging and has lots of opportunities to weave in bits of technology too.

I bring a camera to work, and if the weather is nice, I'll walk around outside and take photos. And even if the weather is terrible I'll take photos just to capture the scene.

At previous jobsI've played the a Korg piano I've got, sometimes I juggle, sometimes I doodle, if I've not had any exercise yet sometimes I'll walk around the building.

I study art and freelance as a designer. As you can tell, sketching is a big part of my life. Doodling, sketching, brainstorming, laying out wireframes on paper, value and abstract studies all involve touching some sort of a pen tool, be it a tablet pen or a graphite stick.

From what I found, I prefer sketching with a 2H pencil to tablets. There is just a lot more feedback, and like the author describes it, I'm a lot less likely to get unfocused when sketching on paper than when sketching in Illustrator.

Wacom Inkling promises the best of both worlds: draw on paper, upload the bezier curves into Illustrator http://www.wacom.eu/index2.asp?pid=9226&lang=en

I haven't tried it myself, but enjoyed using Logitech's early io Pen years ago http://www.logitech.com/en-us/support-downloads/downloads/di...

A good book on sketching and it's application as a business communication tool is Dan Roam's The Back of the Napkin.


There is some interesting reading about relations between drawing, perception and various modes of brain operation in "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" by Betty Edwards (excerpt here: http://drawright.com/drsbread.htm )

Am I the only one who first read the title of the post as "stretch breaks" instead of "sketch breaks"?


Problem with using physical media - STORAGE.

Trust me, I have literally 1000's of pieces of paper lying around here with ideas, sketches, the works, built up over 15 years. I'm never going to scan any of it.

Get a tablet before it's too late.

The problem with moving to explicitly tablets is that the feel of different papers/pens is radically different than any electronic technology can provide.

There are smartpens now, but there's still a loss of texture when storing images, and displaying them on a backlit screen alters them as well.

That aside, a tablet completely wrecks the point of getting away from all the distractions that come with your computer.

This is so true. I was given an iPad 2 earlier this year and I love it. Reading, surfing, planning, wireframing, does it all.

But doodling? Brainstorming? There is no app in the world (yet?) that can match a pad of paper and a good, comfortable pen.

I use a Wacom pen especially built for the iPad screen and an app called Penultime. Works pretty well.

You know you can get a scanner with a feeder right? You just have to drop the paper in the feeder and it will produce a set of pdf documents.

It is more expensive than normal scanners but in your case it would properly be worth it.

This is so true, I've got a Fuju Scansnap 1500 and it really really made my life easier. Drop pages in poof they come out as scanned on both sides or just one (it figures out blank pages), as a pdf, with text ocr'd off if it can recognize it so its searchable. They automatically drop into a shared folder on a filer. Paper goes in box with a date, dates > 3 yrs go to shredder.

Or find a library or College locally with photocopiers that can scan. We have one at work, it scans A4 sheets at the same speed that it copies, software can select resolution (300dpi max), colour and PDF or TIFF/JPG. On our system it e-mails the resulting pdf to you. I've seen some with USB ports.

Why do we need to archive everything?

I do a lot of photography on film - maybe 5% of it ever gets scanned. I have, at this point, maybe 10,000 frames of images shot on different types of film all sitting around in binders. Most of them will never be scanned.

So what? Most of them don't deserve to be scanned. Save the effort and braincycles for your good sketches/ideas/doodles/etc as opposed to trying to painstakingly archive every insignificant thing that's ever crossed your mind/pen/keyboard.

I'm way late to this thread, but while I agree with the notion that some notes just aren't worth saving, I can't tell you how many times I've had my ass / time saved by simply being able to look up that one piece of information that I only needed maybe once every few months. "Pick up milk" isn't useful, but "create that directory" is worth a lot to someone.

In my most current job going on 5 months, I'm mostly a programmer, but I've also become something of a scribe because the documentation of their current environment setup is absolutely abysmal. One time, a coworker and I had been debugging a SQL Server SSIS package that kept failing on a new machine when there should have been no reason to fail, and for quite awhile had no leads. All efforts to look through stacktraces, logs, and the event viewer lead nowhere. All we knew was that it was some Excel error from what it was telling us. What ended up being the issue was that the following folder didn't exist:


It's an empty folder, though. We were given absolutely NO indication that this was needed from our research, until my colleague remembered it one day after THREE weeks of trying to fix this damn thing, and all we needed to do was create a damn directory. My boss's face turned white when I told him what the fix was because he recalled having this same exact error bite them in the ass before.

This is the site in question that saved us now has a permanent place in our Wiki now:


(and yes, we wrote down all the information from it in the chance that the link goes dead :)

When I was a student I found juggling to be a useful distraction when taking a break. It kept the mind engaged but took my focus completely away from my studies. I think this the key to a good break activity. You want to stay sharp but completely distract yourself. There are probably also benefits that come from using your motor skills, different parts of the brains and even shifting your focus to follow moving objects.

It was also quite rewarding to slowly see myself improving.

A recent article in "scientific american mind" argues that our sub-conscious mind solves problems when we sleep or daydream. I see no reason to think that when you are scribbling some doodles, the same thing isn't happening in the back of your head. This also probably helps to rest your ocular muscles and gives your retinas a break.

I use a pomodoro timer to prevent breaks from lasting too long or being too infrequent. (It's important to rest your eyes!) I like this idea though, it would be less, irritating to have your break end when you're in the middle of a doodle than when you're in the middle of an article.

Agreed. The pomodoro technique is great for keeping your breaks time-bound. I often just walk around the office for a few minutes and refill my water bottle, etc. Gives me a chance to stare at something else than a screen.

To combat that, I usually use my short breaks to collect articles using Read It Later, or Instapaper... then use the longer breaks to actually read them.

Yeah. I should do something like that. What I end up doing is just not reading stuff. Or taking breaks that are way too long.

Excellent! It has an implicit deadline AND its actually relaxing. Surfing the net, unless its social, does a little to relax your eyes, your brain, or your body's posture.

I don't have any physiological proof but moving away from the screen is the first step to a purpose-seving 'break'.

If you're not into pen and paper, there are a bunch of cool sites that let you doodle in the browser. I've been using this one for a few weeks and it's actually pretty cool: http://doodle.ly/

I'd recommend going down the dead tree route, if only to rest your eyes, also it helps walking somewhere else to sketch to get the blood flowing.

In terms of eye health, it's beneficial to get outside and look at things in the distance. Constantly focusing on something right in front of you sucks. doodling is awesome but doesn't provide the variety your eyes need.

Unfortunately, I live in a small apartment and the only desk I have has a computer on it, which makes it hard for me to concentrate on sketching or anything else. I guess I should go to the library more.

hard backed book? Clipboard with a few sheets attached? Window overlooking a street?

Nah. I have a huge hdtv on my only desk, so I always want to put it to use when I am sitting there. I think I will just go to the library or the park when I need to do take a break from my computer, and besides, its nice to be outside at the same time.

Dyed black hair? Tight pants? Single speed bike?

Nope, beard, loose clothing, bus pass as it happens. Its a UK thing.

scratch that, just doodling is enough http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ik2CZqsAw28 no need to even pretend you know how to draw

The first word of your post needs another vowel :)

yikes! Embarrassing, but fixed nonetheless. Thank you.

I do origami. I especially find modular polyhedra, folding simple one piece over and over to assemble something beautiful.

doodling , or wishful-writing conveys a very nice feeling of letting your brain 'be himself', and often surprise yourself.

On the musical side, odd time 'swing' drum rudiment at slow pace , while sustaining a deep breathing pattern is very relaxing. ( actually it's something close to what steve gadd advice for learning/enjoying drumming )

Try juggling. What's interesting about it is that I have to consciously turn my forebrain off to juggle successfully.

Juggling is good. I do that, and my other mental-break hobby is Rubik's cube type puzzles. Sometimes spending five minutes deeply in thought but a completely different kind of thought is exactly the right refresher.

I've been doing this for a few months. Painting would be ideal, but my new location doesnt allow for it.

Did anyone else read it as stretch breaks? I think that would have been quite relevant too.

and the first to do about that is blogging about it.

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