The Power of the Pause

In today’s frantic and frenetic world, there are always more things to do than there is time to do them.

The issues and opportunities at work are daunting. Doing one’s best no longer seems to be good enough. “Do everything that you do better, faster, and cheaper” is the new mantra.

Our away-from-work lives are no different. I suspect that for many, being a “soccer mom” might be considered the “good old days.” Not only are parents expected to squire their children to sporting events, but also to shuttle them to study groups, church activities, after-school activities, and to host a variety of friend-friendly events.

In today’s hyper-connected technological world, other distractions abound. Checking multiple e-mail accounts, news feeds, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumbler, Instagram … all command our valuable time and by their constantly changing nature, demand – or at least invite – our constant attention. It would be a tragedy to miss a post or a tweet.

And what about us as individual human beings? With all of the other things going on, where do we find the time to exercise? Read? Support our spiritual and emotional needs? Be there for our partners and families? Sleep?

My instinctive reaction to all of these challenges is to become (even) more efficient – to figure out how to fit more into each waking hour. I study my Franklin time management book, becoming even more vigilant about prioritizing my “A, B, and C” tasks. I utilize my electronic calendar to synchronize appointments between my desktop computer, laptop, and smart phone. I color-code my to-do lists to keep similar requirements grouped together.  I remind myself that I can “sleep when I’m dead.”

There is a downside, however. All of those requirements and all of that efficiency take its toll. It seems I am constantly tired –both physically and emotionally. The quality of my work and decisions suffer. Finally (and this might be the worst) I’ve become addicted to the busy-ness. If I’m not doing three things at once, it feels like I am slacking off. Even as I am finishing one task, part of my brain shifts to asking the question, “What’s next?” The picture of a gerbil on a treadmill comes to mind.

When I was younger, I used to believe that I could simply choose not to do many of the tasks and challenges that I described above. That now feels like wishful thinking. Those challenges are here and there is no going back.

So what is “Plan B?” I think one answer to the problem is to simply pause — to take small “time-outs” for self-care and reflection. I just finished scanning (no time to read it completely) a journal article that suggests people can only pay quality attention to one thing at a time for no more than 20 minutes  before energy and focus wane, and attention wanders. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that those “focus batteries” are quickly recharged by shifting attention to something different, or simply pausing to reflect on the prior 20 minutes of input. With batteries recharged and energy restored, our brains are then able to re-focus on the next 20 minutes of processing.

Given that discovery, I am going to try to introduce a new daily practice into my life. The practice will be to take “mini time-outs” – 30 to 90 second pauses—throughout the day. If I can be present enough, I hope to reflect on one or more of these questions each time I pause:

  • “How am I doing?”
  • “How am I feeling?” Or “How do I feel about that?”
  • “How am I thinking?” Or “What do I think about that?”
  • “What do I need to do to take care of myself in this moment?”

As a bonus, I’ll try to remember to move my body – to stretch, or take a short walk to change my physical state and get my blood flowing.

Finally, I might indulge in doing nothing at all. Simply being. Consciously trying to not think of anything except taking slow deep breaths.

If this new practice works, I will benefit in several ways:

  • Higher quality focus on the task at hand
  • Less stress
  • Increased self-awareness
  • A sense of squeezing the most out of the precious, non-recoverable moments of my life.

Knowing myself as I do, one additional challenge will be to be gentle with myself as I experiment with this new behavior. Paradoxically, I am adding another activity to my already hectic schedule, even though its intent is to slow me down and maximize the focus and effectiveness of the other activities I am undertaking. I can see myself getting angry that I missed a scheduled pause – which runs completely opposite to its intent!

I invite you to experiment with “the power of the pause.” Please let me know if you try it and how it works. Perhaps there is something to the old adage, “sometimes you need to go slow in order to go fast.”

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