The Value in Taking a Break…
More and more I see people who are overwhelmed, overworked, stressed out and exhausted. I know this feeling very well. In 2013, circumstances required me to work very, very hard. Even though these circumstances were temporary, and even though I was really having fun during the excitement of it all, by 2014 I was completely exhausted. The enthusiasm I carried for my work was gone. My curiosity was dulled. My thinking became unclear. That is when I knew I needed a break. Fortunately, I was in a position that allowed me to take six months off. During that time I slept (a lot!), read, meditated, played with my kids and studied. As a result, I came back to work invigorated and with a new sense of purpose. Because I had been able to take a step back, I now see things more clearly than before. I think more creatively, and work with more confidence.
Often, I see people in this same situation. Because our culture tends to view needing a break as weakness, they are looking for a treatment or a pill or a diet that will allow them to keep moving forward. It’s as if they are frantically trying to keep up with a speeding train, and there is no station in sight. Typically, these folks know exactly what they need. They might need some time away, help with a project, some quality time with a friend or a spouse–maybe even to find work more suited to their strengths and interests.
This is lesson number one: “You know what you need.”
If you stop long enough to look deeply, if you can cut through the social conditioning and work ethic and delve into your own mind-body wisdom, the solution is there.
Unfortunately, even once we recognize these solutions, we don’t often perceive them as available to us. I was in the same boat–since I was the only practitioner in one of my offices, I thought it would be impossible to take time off without closing that office completely. This thought–which I held to be ultimate truth–prevented me from looking for solutions. Then one day, it occurred to me that my health was at stake.
I remembered a story a friend had told me about the busiest period of her life. She had three young children, she worked as a nurse, she volunteered, she was busy all the time. She said, “I was just nonstop. Until one day I went nonstop through a stop sign and plowed into another car.” That accident landed her in the hospital for 5 months.
So as soon as I decided that time off wasn’t a choice, I opened my mind to possible solutions. I made a few phone calls, sent a few emails, and within 24 hrs had work coverage for the next 6 months.
Which leads me to lesson number two: taking a break makes you more productive.
One of the main excuses I hear from folks who are working too hard is “I just need to get through_____, and then I can slow down a little.” We know that the more likely scenario is that another more important or more compelling situation will present itself as soon as the current one is over. Or we know that even though we say we will take a break once this busy time is over, we probably won’t. And the myth is that if we stop to smell the roses, we will lose our momentum and therefore our productivity. This is simply untrue. I say, stop the train before the train stops you.
One of my teachers used to say, “Giving 100% is killing you.” Another famous acupuncturist who is known for getting pain relief immediately once needles are placed says, “when you get 80% improvement–STOP! Otherwise you’ll screw it all up.” His point is that after that 80% threshold, the amount of work we put in produces fewer and poorer quality results. Many productivity experts recommend working about 50 minutes of every hour, and then getting up to take a walk or otherwise get some distance from whatever you were working on. This applies to both mental and physical work. If you work at a computer, stop and walk around for a bit or maybe close your eyes and listen to music. If you are doing physical work, stop and rest or read some poetry. In other words, Let your brain re-fuel.
It is common practice in academia to take a sabbatical, and this concept is becoming more accepted across disciplines. Designer Stefan Sagmeister takes one year off every seven years in order to step back from his design work and reinvigorate his creativity. In his wonderful TED talk, he says something like “we in the West plan for about 40 years of work and 15 years of retirement, so I just decided to cut off 5 of those retirement years and intersperse them throughout my work years. This way the energy generated flows back into the business and to society at large. And at the same time, I have more fun.”
There was a great article in the Harvard Business Review back in 2007 which talked about increasing productivity, creativity and innovation by encouraging employees to take care of themselves. It’s called “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time.” The article talks about top-down workplace change, but also points out that “individuals need to recognize the costs of energy-depleting behaviors and then take responsibility for changing them, regardless of the circumstances they are facing.” In other words, whether you are the CEO or the line worker, there will be small and large things you can do to take a break and restore your energy.
For inspiration, look to nature. Waves surge and then withdraw. Storms rage and then the sun shines. Birds work hard to climb away from earth, and then glide on the wind. Bees have an incredible and difficult work schedule, but then spend the winter huddling together inside, resting and staying warm. Plants create beautiful flowers and berries and leaves at an incredible pace, but during winter they rest deeply. These are natural cycles of productivity and recuperation. When we ignore these cycles, not only does our health and vitality suffer–but our WORK and CREATIVITY suffer.
“What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.”
Don’t exhaust your caterpillar before the butterfly has a chance to emerge! Listen to the signals indicating a break is needed:
- becoming more easily distracted
- tasks take longer to do than they used to
- things that used to be fun aren’t anymore
- feeling fatigued
- re-reading the same sentence
- becoming easily irritable
- feeling something is missing in life
- feeling overwhelmed
- losing interest in things
- reaching for the coffee or energy drinks as a way to “get through”
- increased alcohol consumption
- memory problems
In order to begin to recover your energy, you could make drastic moves like quitting your job, but that may just add more stress in the long run. So you could start by trying out small changes. The possibilities are endless, and here are just a few suggestions:
Hourly (pick one or two)
- Set a timer for 50 min and spend the last 10 min of every hour taking a walk or even a nap.
- Close your eyes and breathe deeply for 30 seconds.
- Go outside. It’s amazing how this can change your perspective.
- Chat with a friend or coworker and not about work.
- Write down the one most important thing to accomplish in the next hour.
- Read poetry.
- Listen to music.
- Stand up and stretch.
- Read an inspirational quote.
- Admire a piece of art.
- Stare into space or out the window.
Daily (do as many as you can)
- Spend a little time writing / meditating / or staring into space
- Exercise a little — enough to feel your heart pumping, but not so much that it’s like a second job.
- Eat meals without working at the same time.
- Answer emails only twice a day.
- Notice your propensity to complain about things and begin to change that. Complain only to people who have the power to change things or to people who can truly help you see a way to change things.
- Turn your phone off for at least one hour, or while you are working on a task that requires focus.
- Do your best to sleep well.
- Be diligent about negative self-talk. Change the story.
- Plan at least some time reserved for “whatever the heck I feel like doing.” Put in on your calendar. Make it mandatory.
- Spend time outdoors.
- Do something silly–dance in your pajamas.
- Do something that makes you feel connected to God, the universe, the world around you.
- Be completely present with your kids or a good friend.
- Plan at least one vacation…even if you just plan to stay at home but not work. If you can, plan some time off every quarter. Even if each break is shorter, they may prove more rejuvenating, and you’ll have more to look forward to.
- Spend a week tracking how you spend your time. How does this reflect what is important to you?
- Spend some time in self-examination. Take the strength-finders test or some other personality test. Quit trying to fix your perceived flaws and instead develop your innate talents.
- Spend a week or even a day “disconnected.” What is it like to not have your thoughts interrupted six times an hour?
- Better yet, turn off the power in your house for a day. Live by sunlight and candle-light. Enjoy the silence.
- Go for a hike, go camping, go sailing or fishing.
- Sleep for a whole day.
- Go on a retreat — this could be a formal structured retreat or just some time away by yourself.
- Review your accomplishments. For one moment, forget all that there is left to do. Forget all that didn’t go the way you had planned. Forget the failures. Make a list of everything you accomplished from work projects completed to an exercise program in place to overcoming some negative behavior or thought pattern. Then just be with the success of that.
- Take a scenic train ride…just for fun. Make sure it’s a leisurely one!
–Heather McIver, L.Ac.