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Margaret Moore

Brain Breaks Elude Me

(And I am an expert in coaching and behavior change.)

Source: Dreamtime

The American Heart Association recently announced that sitting too long can cause heart disease and diabetes—even in people who exercise—adding yet another expert opinion that too much sitting is bad for health.

The latest advice aside, years ago I decided that I really want to stand and move more during my workday. But most of the time I don’t. I can focus for hours at a computer without moving at all. Sometimes I wish I had my creative husband’s short attention span, as he cannot sit still for more than 10 minutes.

It turns out this ability to focus for hours also means I have a highly organized, highly self-regulating mind. Still I know the amazing benefits to the brain of taking regular brain breaks. A few years ago, I co-authored the Harvard Health book and e-course Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, where I explain the importance of brain breaks. I’m not talking about online shopping, which I do without any nudging, but a little physical movement combined with mind wandering to unleash your brain from any goals. Basically a good reboot. I have presented this concept to tens of thousands of people, and yet, still—personally—I don't take brain breaks consistently.

But I haven’t given up. As founder of Wellcoaches, a School of Coaching which trains health and wellness coaches worldwide, I can’t give up. No coach would! Then recently I heard Jay Blahnik, director of fitness and health technologies at Apple, explain the well-meaning motives behind Apple’s “time to stand” nudge. I wear my Apple watch everyday, but still, I don’t stand—even when nudged.

So I started thinking that I should dig a little deeper to figure out why, using a new technique that I have outlined in my Harvard Health book, Organize Your Emotions, Optimize Your Life, which will be published in September.

With my co-authors, we explore a new model for the human psyche. It can be simply described as an adult version of the Academy Award-winning Pixar movie, Inside Out, but even more profound, positing that the human psyche has multiple distinct entities with unique agendas, voices, and emotions. My own deep work to study the nature of human nature led me to uncover nine universal life forces, or subpersonalities, and I validated their existence with hundreds of clients. Each morning, I do a roll call with my inner family, tuning into the voices and needs of each of my nine subpersonalities, decoding my emotional state, which is always a mixed emotional weather report. I ask each member of my inner family “What’s really going on with you?” On the subject of sitting too much: “Why don’t I do what I heartily recommend to others? Why do I not listen to this well-meaning Apple nudge?” Let’s find out together.

1. First, meet Autonomy. She cares about being the captain of our ship and in charge of my life; certainly not allowing anyone to tell me what to do. She says she finds the Apple “stand up” nudges annoying. She wants to stretch, not stand. She wants to control the timing of the nudges. She wants a visual reminder that a small dose of movement will reset our brain software and unleash more order and creativity. When the nudge comes up, she is defiant.

2. Next let’s check in with Body Regulator. She feels outgunned. She keeps patiently whispering that even a two-minute stretch break will yield big dividends: More productive and creative output, and more energy at the end of the day. She has data to prove it. For periods where I did take brain breaks every hour or two, she reminds me, I did feel noticeably more refreshed and agile at the end of the day.

3. The Creative is in full agreement with Body Regulator. Letting my mind wander is the quickest, easiest, and biggest boost for creativity. She feels as though other family members keep our noses to the grindstone most of the time. “Sigh…I wish I’d been born into an inner family that doesn’t treat their Creative like a slave.…

4. Executive Manager, one of the slave drivers, prides herself on her extreme ability to juggle lots of balls, get a ton of things done, and never need a break. “Breaks are for wimps with disorganized minds!”

5. The Standard Setter agrees totally. “Let’s plough through our impossible workload as we have huge goals to achieve in this lifetime, if not this week. Time doing brain breaks means this rocket ship will never make it to the moon.”

6. The Curious Adventurer is also not keen. What the heck is new and exciting about standing and taking a break when I can go looking for the just-in, next season’s designer clothes and handbags, just a click away….

7. Now onto Confidence. She can really see the ambivalence. Despite the Body Regulator’s data, and the Creative’s yearning, most of the inner family is not on board. She would rate our confidence to sustain a brain break habit most days at a 5 out of 10 at best. Her opinion: It’s simply not worth expending a lot of effort trying to get everyone on board to really make this a habit.

8. Relational really doesn’t like the inner conflict around brain breaks. A little more compassion for the Body Regulator and Creative is in order. “I hate to see them suffering so. But I also respect the fierceness of the Executive Manager and Standard Setter. They really have gotten this family a long way.”

9. Last is the Meaning Maker. Hmmm…funny we have never asked Meaning Maker for her wisdom on this topic. I haven’t made it a priority, and why is that? Good thing that Jay Blahnik at Apple got us thinking!

So let’s take stock:

We have two members of the inner family in favor of regular standing and brain breaks (Body Regulator, Creative) and three against (Curious Adventurer, Executive Manager, Standard Setter).

Autonomy could be swayed if I control the timing, and I like the reminder visuals. Relational would like more harmony among them all. And Confidence will get on board if the others do. So what’s the takeaway here?

A little more balance in my work days would bring more calm and equanimity and a few moments to savor the miracle of being alive. That is what I recommend to others. So how do we put this into practice?

We could ask Creative to design a fun brain break reminder that Autonomy endorses—a visual that triggers a smile and opens my mind to the immediate upside of standing up and taking brain breaks. What if we scheduled a couple of adventures every week so Adventurer gets her needs without competing with brain breaks. We could ask Executive Manager and Standard Setter to give the idea a test drive a couple of times a day, and allow us to collect some data. All of this gives Confidence more hope. Tomorrow is a new day, let’s try it out.

Onward and upward, as I—I mean, we—say.

PS: Meet my Inner Family


About the Author

Margaret Moore is the co-director of the McLean/Harvard Medical School Institute of Coaching.