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A phoenix rising from the fag ashes

As frankly observed by Brooke Shields; “Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life”. And there’s clear evidence that many people agree with Ms. Shields.

According to Public Health England, there are 7.2 million adults in England who smoke, that’s 1 in 6 adults. And they are now far outnumbered by the 14.6 million ex-smokers. The serious side-effects and health consequences of smoking are unquestionably bad, very bad – for smokers and the people around them.

But we would like to put a hand up in the fresh air for the actual fag break. This is a hand up for the unintended, but highly positive, side-effects of the fag break – rather than the actual fag, for which there are indisputable negative side-effects and an absence of positives ones! The fag break itself has very real benefits that we should notice and look to replace with new habits.

Benefit 1: Time out from being ‘task-focused’ with the opportunity to be ‘task-free’

Cognitive science recognises that our brains are either in task-focused mode (which activates when a person is involved in attention-demanding tasks), or in task-free mode (our ‘default mode’ which activates when a person is not involved in any task) which happens for instance when we daydream or our mind wanders – as discussed in our recent blog Time for a break.

But our always-on culture means we are increasingly working in the intense task-focused mode; driven by always-on technology, and at the cost of letting our brains mull things over – suppressing our ability to let our minds wander.

The fag break frees our mind for mind wandering – to do some heavy lifting and make creative new connections when free from tasks.

And the habit of fag breaks requires people to step away from work for a few minutes regularly throughout the day.  These small pockets of task-free time allow people to switch to meta-awareness and just watch the world go by.

Benefit 2: The random and diverse connections made with other people on fag breaks

Our connections at work are often limited to the particular silo’s we occupy – our function, division, project or team.

The context of a particular project or team further narrows the scope of people’s connections. In turn, this likely narrows our thinking, our conversations and our viewpoints.

Fag breaks can help bring diverse people together from different parts of an organisation – cutting through hierarchy and functional barriers. This is different to networking – like the Friends episode where Rachel took up smoking to get in with her boss.

Fag breaks help to open up different perspectives and diverse connection points. There’s a haphazard, unplanned coming together of people around fag breaks which breaks down traditional silo’s. And that opens up the possibility for different viewpoints to collide, which can often lead to new ways of seeing and thinking.

As the fag break becomes increasingly rare, we should consider the good side effects that need to be kept alight.

We need to find new ways and make time for task-free, mind-wandering and the space to make random connections in our organisations. What’s the equivalent of the fag break for you? Because the water cooler doesn’t do it.