For many of us, life is a constant frenzy. The rhythms we are used to, the commitments we make, the technology that allows us to (and obliges us to) to be always connected, contribute to making us march forward without stopping.
We are convinced that our existence is functional only to productivity, that every moment in which we are not doing something is wasted time, and that slowing down, or even worse stopping, is not only useless, but counterproductive and therefore absolutely to be avoided.
We have too much work, we are too stressed, and we dare not think about what could happen if we were to stop, even if just for a moment. This leads us to be in perpetual operating mode, but we cannot physically and mentally always be at maximum productivity, without stopping.
We need to take a break
We have become prisoners of a perverse mechanism, so we are increasingly dreaming of the possibility of stopping, but we continue to accelerate. And this trend shows no sign of changing or slowing down. In fact, the world around us continues to go faster and faster. The only thing we can change, therefore, is how we react to what’s going on.
“Instead of planting our feet and trying to fight change, we should ask ourselves how we can respond creatively.”
As long as we continue to see the break as the opposite of productivity, we will fuel an internal struggle that has the only result of being exhausted. What we should do is see the moments of pause and reflection as a functional part of our life, working and otherwise. We have to realize that the speed at which we go is not constant, and there will always be times when we slow down, or even stop. And rightly so.
Without stopping, our body and our mind suffer. Both need to regenerate, and removing this possibility is harmful. In addition to physical and mental damage, however, we must also reflect on those moments that we lose, if we do not stop to enjoy them.
A break can be an opportunity to review our way of managing time, a way to experiment with the rhythms of our life, and to regain control of our existence, so that it is not defined only by external factors.
How to define a break
Taking a break is an expression that brings to mind different situations, from a few minutes coffee break to a vacation of several days. Depending on the situation we are considering, the “pause” changes. There is no fixed time unit, and each type of break has its own characteristics and benefits. Let’s try to define what are the characteristics that define a break.
A pause is a moment in which we must immerse ourselves completely, a voluntary interruption, different from the small distractions (notifications, phone calls, etc.) that we face every day. It is a time when we decide not to pay attention to certain things, in order to leave “space” for others to happen.
Often, pauses are those moments when our mind is free to think without any kind of constraint. It is precisely during the breaks that we often have the best ideas, which can flourish only thanks to that detachment that the break allows us to have, in which it is easier for us to notice what is happening around us, in which we are better able to see what usually we would be too busy to notice.
The power of silence
A pause can also take the form of a moment of silence. Silence is a moment that creates tension, and we can use this tension in our favor. During a speech, a moment of pause leads people to reflect on our last words.
During a meeting, a moment of silence allows others to come forward with questions or comments, even if only to break the tension that has arisen. Silence works like the punctuation we use in writing, it serves to emphasize the rhythm of what we are saying, to place emphasis on the most important parts.
Make breaks a part of our routine
One of the best aspects of breaks is that they are extremely familiar moments, you don’t need to attend a course or read a book to learn. We can immediately begin to incorporate them into our daily lives. The easiest way to create a habit, such as taking a break, is to replace an existing habit. This requires commitment both mentally and physically.
The easiest type of break we can take is related to our breathing. Breathing is something that we do continuously, and we can therefore take advantage of it at any time. When a situation becomes tense, we can simply “take a breath” before reacting or responding.
This short moment brings with it enormous potential: it allows us to free our mind, take a step back and observe what is happening from a different point of view, and can often interrupt a moment of panic and crisis, giving us lucidity to formulate a reaction.
Breath may not always be enough. The next step, then, could be a short walk. Walking is also something we do often, so connecting it to a break becomes an extremely effective tool.
Getting up from the desk and going around the block might seem like a waste of time, but it brings all the benefits we have seen deriving from a break: it allows us to clear up our ideas, to take that moment of detachment that is often crucial to face a tense situation.
As we walk, our mind is activated, and it is as if the physical movement we make is mirrored within us, as if we were walking from one idea to another, changing perspective, noting connections that perhaps were not clear before.
If we are heading to a meeting, for example, we try to slow down our pace. Of course, running would get us there first, but those extra moments that we will take to arrive at a slower pace will help us prepare mentally to face the meeting.
An extremely easy technique to implement is to count to one before entering a room. It is such a short action that even the busiest cannot deny they can do it. Counting to one forces us to stop, even if just for a second. The important thing is the act of stopping, not the length of the break.
The journey home-work, for many of us, is a time of stress and frustration. Traffic, overcrowded trains, heat, delays. However, we can try to change the way we live these moments, and see them as a break. Instead of seeing them as moments to fill, perhaps checking the email or reading a book, we simply try to look around, to notice what happens.
The secret to turning something into a habit is constancy. We can try to carve out daily moments in which to write or draw, and make them our breaks. These activities do not necessarily have to be mental efforts, we can make them a moment of physical activity.
Just take a sheet of paper and a pencil, and let the words or lines come by themselves. Initially we will have to think about what we write or draw, but soon it will be easy to let the hand move by itself, without having to consciously control it.
Just something simple, without obligation. If we manage to make it a daily habit, a moment just for us, in a very short time these moments will become precious.
Plan longer break times
The breaks we’ve talked about so far are short and frequent. But there is another type of pause, longer, less frequent. These are more sought after moments, designed a priori, whose impact must last over time. Their purpose is to act on the way we feel, on our mood.
Bill Gates, for example, regularly schedules what he calls “think week”, the week for thinking. During these weeks, he isolates himself from the world, bringing with him a selection of books and newspapers, and dedicates himself to the issues he considers important.
This habit is spreading widely not only among the great leaders of the tech world, but among anyone who lives a busy life, which requires a period of time in which consciously and actively we undertake to change the rhythm. The instinct that many of us have when faced with workloads, that of gritting our teeth and moving forward, cannot always work. Occasionally, we simply have to step back.
These moments are too infrequent to become habits, and must therefore be planned in advance. We must therefore treat them as if they were appointments to be scheduled. In other words, we must take the time to take a break, to create moments that are not dedicated to carrying out tasks and activities, in which we can think of other things.
It is important that these moments are not loaded with expectations, that they have no purpose other than to allow us to unplug. If we manage not to set goals for these breaks, we will notice that extraordinary things can happen in a short time. When we change the rhythm, our mood also changes, and with it the way we perceive time.
Nature: best place to take a break
Time isn’t the only factor to consider when thinking about a break. Especially for longer breaks, changing settings can amplify the beneficial effects.
Nature is an excellent element to combine with breaks, because it allows us to get back in touch with what is the natural order of things, away from the congestion of information and technology to which we are subject every day. An hour in an extraordinary place can be worth more than a whole day in a mediocre place.
The world we live and work in is full of barriers, whether physical or imaginary. The activities we carry out define the boundaries within which we must be, therefore it is necessary to disconnect from these limits, to change the environment.
We must clearly indicate to our collaborators that we are taking a break, that we are moving away from the usual space (physical and mental) in which we work.
The break as a cultural element
Taking a break, in addition to being a habit that we create, can also be a cultural element. Depending on where we live, time flows differently, and is therefore lived in a different way.
Spending all our time in a big city certainly allows us to take advantage of more services and to be connected, but it does not leave much space for breaks, especially long ones.
Moving to a more “rural” area leads us to experience time in a completely different way. We wake up early in the morning, we stop for a longer lunch break (maybe we also take care of preparing the meal), we take a “digestive” walk, the evening after dinner we socialize more willingly.
The problems that could arise in these situations are completely different in nature from those that haunt us in the city.
The sabbatical year
One type of break that is certainly demanding at a temporal level is the so-called “sabbatical year”, that is, a one-year break from work, at the end of which our workplace has been preserved, and we can, if desired, return to it.
However, it is not necessary to be so drastic. Many executives, for example, take a few months off after finishing an assignment, and before starting the next one. Each break can have different lengths and meanings, depending on the person.
Technology can help us with breaks
Technology must not be just a prison from which to try to escape. If integrated into a balanced and relaxed lifestyle, on the contrary, it can also help us with breaks.
How many of us live according to our calendar? Having breaks (from small breaks between one meeting and another to weeks of reflection) clearly indicated on our calendar will help us not only to respect them, but also to make others respect them. Indicating a date on the calendar with the word “PAUSE” is a very clear sign for the people we work with. In those moments, in those days, we are not there.
For each of us, time can be organized in “layers”: days, weeks, months, years. Each of these layers has its own development time, and its own pace. We can try to think about how to live the breaks for each of these layers, thinking about the daily breaks differently from the longer ones.
Another tool that we can use is called a “scanner”. In this case, we try to visualize our day not according to predefined and standard times, but to the way we perceive it. We can use an I to indicate the moments of work, and an O to indicate the moments of pause.
So a typical day could be like this:
where we start from breakfast (O), then check the e-mail (I), make some phone calls (I), attend a meeting (I), after which we take a break for coffee (O). Subsequently, we engage in other activities, followed by a longer break, and maybe a walk. After the afternoon work, then, the activities (I) end, and space is left for break and recreation.
This method, in addition to the single day, can also be applied to longer moments, such as different periods of the year, always following the same principle, that is to try to balance the I and the O.
The relativity of time
What can we learn from what was said about the breaks?
For many of us, life is marked by the clock and calendar, two instruments that use fixed units of measurement to mark our time. But, as we have seen, time, although it cannot be stopped, travels in a very different way depending on where we are and what we are doing.
Learning to take control of our time, in an era where everything is controlled and marked by technology, is the key to living a more peaceful and relaxed life, and to avoid succumbing to the stresses of modern life.