There’s something important that you and a dog have in common.
It’s not being soft and wonderful to cuddle with (though I’m sure you are).
It’s not the tendency to hump random people’s legs (hopefully).
It’s that you both need an afternoon walk.
A few weeks ago, I was standing at my desk stressing out about some insignificant piece of work I was overanalyzing.
You know the feeling. You look at it, then check Twitter, then check your to-do list to see if there’s anything else you can focus on, then look at it again, then check Slack…
I could feel my frustration rising and productivity falling as I scanned for anything I could pay attention to aside from this small thing nagging at me.
Until, in an act of desperation, I closed my open browser tabs, put my computer to sleep, set my phone on silent on my desk, and left. Normally I might try to force myself to push through the anxiety and stress, but that afternoon I just said fuck it and went for a walk.
There’s a coffee shop around the corner from our office with a respectable tea collection that I usually go to. I walked over, ordered my Vanilla Honeybush (perfect for afternoons when you don’t want more caffeine), and strolled around the other side of the block back to the office to start again.
The trip took less than 15 minutes, but the effect was remarkable.
I came back de-stressed, unanxious, and able to start fresh. That nagging task from before, it turned out, wasn’t even necessary.
Since then, this “Afternoon AFK” (that’s “Away From Keyboard” for you luddites), has become a regular part of my schedule.
And with how much it helps for mitigating stress, improving focus, and boosting productivity, it should be part of yours too.
These are the main benefits of an Afternoon AFK (AAFK):
By disconnecting, especially when you’re at a point of peak anxiety and stress, you release that tension and return to a more natural, relaxed, state.
And by walking, you help your body release some of the physical tension thats built up from sitting or standing in one place trying to force itself to focus.
Finally, by preventing yourself from being reached while you’re on the AAFK (by leaving your phone at your desk), you turn off that constant radar running in the back of your mind checking for notifications.
Knowing that you can’t be bothered by anyone else for a few minutes lets you enjoy your walk without it being interrupted.
As you work, you’ll add more things to your to-do list as you find, get sent, or think up other small things that you should (or, could) do.
These to-dos could take the form of actual listed items, but they can also build up in seemingly innocent ways like opening more browser tabs.
The increasing list of things to do, even if they’re inconsequential, amplifies your stress and anxiety as you feel more overwhelm from just how many things you need to get done.
The solution? Kill them off.
Many of the little things that creep into your to-do list during the day aren’t a good use or your time. You don’t need to read that article, don’t need to respond to that email, don’t need to prioritize that little change on the site.
But when you start loading up your mind and computer with everything you want to get done, it becomes harder to separate the wheat from the chaff and you end up wasting time and mental energy on insignificant little tasks.
By closing out of everything before your AAFK, and by questioning your to-do list when you get back, you remove these little tasks that would otherwise waste your time, and help you focus on the most important things.
Another consequence of working for a long period, especially on a team, is the tendency to see things as more urgent than they are.
Little is truly urgent, but other people’s desires and pressures can make you feel that you absolutely have to get something done immediately, even when it can wait.
This includes responding to things. Email, and now Slack, let anyone ping you with questions or “stuff” they want you to do. The tendency (especially with Slack and other instant messaging) is to treat these messages as urgent communications that must be responded to immediately, but they can usually wait.
Taking some time to disconnect and deliberately not respond to anything quickly helps you remember that most things that feel urgent, aren’t.
The easy version is to:
But as for why each of these are important…
By cleaning your slate before you leave, you won’t be immediately bombarded with everything you’ve left on your passive to-do list from before.
Browser tabs are a common way to create a to-do list (and procrastination resource) for yourself, and by shutting them all down you can remove all the shallow work that you don’t need to do, but that still pulls at your psyche.
This also helps make sure that when you return, you’re focused on “acting” on the most important thing you need to do, as opposed to “reacting” to whatever you left from before. Josh Waitzkin explains this in The Art of Learning, but one of the keys to high output is focusing on deliberate action when you sit down to work.
Your phone will completely ruin your “break” if you bring it with you.
By bringing it, this is what you’ll do and what you’ll be thinking (well, this is what I do):
“Shit I forgot I really need to do this thing and respond to that thing and oh god someone at the office found a typo that I need to fix oh hey maybe I’ll do a few Tinder swipes oh and I have to get my Candy Crush bonus for the day…”
But by leaving it, you get to actually disconnect from the things that are causing you anxiety. Leaving it might be scary and cause you anxiety on it’s own, but after the first couple minutes (or first couple AAFKs) you’ll adjust and look forward to leaving it behind.
You could do your Afternoon AFK inside, go say hi to other people, and walk around the office, but it’s less effective.
By getting outside, you disconnect more fully, and have to legitimately take a break. You don’t have the visual stimuli of your work, and you can enjoy the scenery more.
There’s also the psychological and physiological benefit to getting more sunlight. When you’re cooped up inside all day, you don’t get the sun exposure your body needs to be fully functional (Vitamin D and UV are vital), and taking a few AAFKs can get you the amount you need.
The reason you go alone is that by bringing anyone else, you run the risk of spending the AAFK talking about work. The point is to take a break from thinking about work, and by talking about it the entire time you never really disconnect.
(Though, if you can get the other person(s) to agree to not discuss work at all, that would be fine too).
Because tea is awesome, obviously
But aside from that, if you’re going on the walk in the afternoon, coffee is a bad idea. Caffeine that late in the day wrecks your sleep, and the stimulation will only increase your anxiety when you return.
About to go for an AAFK? Let me know about it on Twitter 🙂
Then consider joining the 30,000 other people getting the Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles and book notes.