Give It A Break

Way back in the early days of my career, I was a software designer at DIS Corporation in Bellingham, WA. I helped design and build dealership software for farm equipment and automobile dealers.

One winter my colleague Jim and I had a tough problem to solve. Or at least we thought it was tough – we had been thinking about it for a few weeks. Basically, an important client asked us to figure out how to print financial statements (balance sheet and operating statement) using a completely arbitrary fiscal period. For example, if the company’s fiscal year began on October 1, we had to print out a statement as if their fiscal year started January 1, and still have all the debits and credits balance properly.

We had both worked at DIS for a long time and had worked on a lot of challenging software design problems. But we were having trouble with this one, our brains hurt, and we weren’t getting anywhere. So out of frustration one day, we decided just to go skiing instead. I’m not going to say that we asked for permission – we just didn’t go in to work that day, which wasn’t so unusual for developers who had been with the company as long as we had and had flexible working hours.

I don’t remember much about the skiing up at Mount Baker that day. I think it was pretty windy and miserable. However, I do have a very clear memory of the conversation Jim and I had on the chairlift. Our discussion had come back to the financial statement problem at work, and – as we talked about it 50 feet up in the air at Mount Baker – we arrived at a solution.

Let me rephrase that. We arrived at the perfect solution – one that resolved the entire problem simply and elegantly. And it wasn’t even that hard – it was just a concept* that we had completely missed until we took a break and went skiing. Back at work on Monday, we implemented the technique and it was beautiful. As far as I know, it is still in use today, over 20 years later.

I just read an article in Wired magazine (Driven by Distraction, March 2010) that reminded me of this phenomenon. The author Brendan I. Koerner states that “…goofing off isn’t the enemy. In fact, regularly stepping back from the project at hand can be essential to success.” He says that checking our Twitter and Facebook accounts can give us a break from our work that will release our creativity and help us solve problems. Jim and I didn’t have the Internet to distract us back then, but going skiing was a pretty good alternative.

With all the emphasis we hear about being efficient, it’s easy to lose sight of how valuable taking a break can be. And it takes guts as a manager to trust your team members with the freedom to manage their own time and take breaks when they need to. That trust is usually rewarded by being able to motivate and retain the smartest, most hardworking and trustworthy employees. Of course, you also need to be able to measure their actual performance and give feedback about how they can improve. The ability to sit at a desk for long periods of time without a break isn’t one of the things that you should measure.

At J Street, we’re quite flexible in our schedules, which lets us work when we’re most efficient and take breaks when we need them. And our team sometimes takes a mental break from our software development work by discussing and rating movies. These “non-work-related” discussions help us connect in new ways and strengthen our relationships, which come in handy when the projects get tough and we need to trust each other.

Do you notice that sometimes you solve a problem or have a great idea when you’re not actually working on it? What would happen if you encouraged yourself (and those around you) to take more breaks from the actual work? Maybe more creative ideas are right where you didn’t think to look.

* Oh, you’re curious? We took all the transactions that fell before the desired fiscal period and accumulated them into a “magic number” based on their normal debit and credit behavior. That magic number (positive or negative) was then added to the Retained Earnings balance for the new artificial fiscal period. That’s an over-simplification, but you get the gist of it. It’s so simple I’m a bit embarrassed to tell you that we couldn’t figure it out – until we went skiing.

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