Why you need to ditch the guilt and step away from your desk!

A woman sits up at her kitchen island, opens her laptop and doesn’t leave that position until the evening rolls around.

A dad has redesigned his working week to accommodate two hours of childcare a day. He seques seamlessly from his to-do list to looking after his kids, with no break in between.

It’s been a common theme over the last few months. Many of us are shackled to our desks and laptops. We are cramming in work at all hours, not giving ourselves enough downtime, barely leaving our workspaces for a break.

Why are we doing this? Of course it’s partly it’s because we’re grappling with this new, crazy world of work. There’s a lot to deal with: additional pressures of childcare, anxiety over C-19 and endless video calls. How is there time to step away from our screens? But partly I believe this reluctance to get up and away from our desks is down to us bringing our old ways of office-working to our home-working.

During my in-person workshops for organisations, I’d ask who would take a break or step outside the office building during work hours. I was always surprised how many people would answer that they didn’t step away from their work zone. The familiar refrains would be repeated — they’d just got into a habit, or the in-house canteen was cheaper than the high street sandwich shop, or that they were simply too busy.

And now, as our workplaces have shifted from office to home, it appears we are still finding it hard to break free from the laptop.

Microsoft has analysed instant messenger data on their Teams platform. What it showed was that during lunchtimes before lockdown there was a 25% dip in messaging. And then during lockdown the dip was only 10%. We have been less able to switch off than before. It seems our propensity for self-care has got worse.

You’ve got to get out.

When the pressures of our work feel urgent and demanding, our instinct is to sit there and plough through it. So why bother stepping away from your blinking cursor?

When I used to run workshops for the BBC in cities around the UK I’d always make a point of getting out of the building at break times, and it always proved valuable. Once leaving the BBC building in Salford for lunch I had an interesting chat with Sonny, a cleaner. In Hull one time I got a different perspective on the city from chatting to the owner of a small coffee shop. On another workshop in Glasgow I headed across the river and discovered the independent shops and cafes of Finnieston.

Getting out is more than a ‘nice to do’. Had I not wandered outside on those days and explored the streets, it would have affected my creativity and productivity. Staying inside, I know I’d have had less oomph, affecting the quality of my workshop.

It’s not rocket salad

It’s not a wildly radical revelation — to leave your desk and get a refresh. But it can give you a much-needed boost and different perspective. Take your sandwich for a stroll and go sit on a bench! Eat your salad on your balcony with a side of sunshine! A participant on one of my More Good Days at Work workshops told me he worked five minutes from Tate Modern. Yet he’d never gone there during his lunch break. He promised that would change and decided to head there once a week to get recharged and inspired.

Get over the guilt

Here are three reasons to step away from the desk:

  1. The benefits of a break. It’s not skiving — it’s essential for us to mentally cope with our day. So let’s stop feeling bad about it.We are healthier and happier when we take a break. It boosts our productivity. Breaks are a switch-off, a recharge. It’s an opportunity to do something else and get the brain cells firing in a different direction, whether you go for a walk, chat with a neighbour or spend twenty minutes eating mindfully. Research shows that if we don’t have downtime during the day we become irritable and less productive. Even ten minutes can make a difference, and it could be as simple as grabbing a novel and sitting outside on your apartment balcony, doing some yoga or going for a walk.
  2. Creative energy. It’s rare we get our best ideas at our desk. I always get good ideas when walking around the city or sitting in coffee shops. Yesterday after a swim in the sea I sat chatting to Alison, a production designer for TV shows. She told me how she always gets ideas while swimming. It was also a pick-me-up for me to delve into someone else’s world for a fascinating ten minutes.
  3. Curiosity. We miss out on opportunities — whether ones that help our role or just the ingredients that make for a more enriching life — if we’re squirrelled away and blinkered to our surroundings. When we’re stuck in ‘busy’ mode we just don’t notice what’s around us. One element of my BBC workshop prompted participants to get outside onto the streets. It’s an hour spent nurturing their curiosity. In Glasgow a health correspondent said she learned more about one of the city’s neighbourhoods in a 45 minute wander than she had in twenty-five years driving through it.

On your bike

After one of my recent More Good Days at Work (online) sessions, the company’s founder told me her action point was to take a 3pm bike ride. Why? Because she never failed to have her best ideas on her bike. And she knew that 3pm was when she’d have a post-lunch energy slump. So what a great way of getting energised — one that suited her particular working day and would give her a double benefit, namely to drum up ideas and better use of the ‘slump’ time.

So if you want to energise your day, you need creative inspiration, or you know you’ll just benefit from a break — get unshackled from YOUR laptop.

If you want to energise your team about taking a break and also provide ideas and inspiration for staying creative and curious at work, Ian’s More Good Days at Work session is available as a one hour lunch and learn. Join organisations like Ogilvy London and Sugru who have hired Ian over the last few months.


Sparking change through story. Energising people at work. Author of 365 Ways to Have a Good Day (out Nov 2021). Fuelled by coffee, curiosity, walking.

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Sparking change through story. Energising people at work. Author of 365 Ways to Have a Good Day (out Nov 2021). Fuelled by coffee, curiosity, walking.

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