Remember when video recorders came along and for the first time we could pause the action to answer the phone or make a cup of tea, and if we missed something we could rewind to catch it again? What a breakthrough that was.
Now, in the digital age, we have even greater control, because digital media can be handled in so many different ways to give us unlimited control.
At work though it is almost as if the opposite is true; though we benefit from the technical stuff there doesn’t seem to be a pause button for email, mobile phones, job demands and the many other things that are constantly demanding our attention.
But you can. Here are five tips to help you reclaim your day by pressing the pause button:
Stop and think
Obvious, yet so often forgotten. It might help to prepare a short checklist of questions, like:
- What am I doing right now?
- How does it fit with my priorities (today, in life, whatever)?
- What is my goal in this activity?
- Do I really have to do this (or can I delegate it)?
- Am I going round in circles? (If you are, see below)
- Can I break this down into essential and less important tasks?
These are just suggestions, you can design your own questions. The point here is that we often stumble on without taking the time to pause and think about what we are doing, to reassess and reappraise where we are and how we are going about things.
Alter your rhythm
Our basic rest/activity cycle means that we need a change of pace every 90-120 minutes. This doesn’t mean stopping work, but it does help to alter the rhythm. Alternate periods of focused activity or concentration with ‘lighter’ tasks or ‘watercooler’ chats. 5-20 minutes should do it. This ‘down-time’ is still productive – connecting with colleagues, making phone calls, planning – but it is more right-brain than left, and helps to restore energies.
Schedule breaks and stick to them
We are allowed breaks at work and they are necessary for balance and productivity. Failing to take breaks, eating on the run and so on, may seem like a good idea, but it is counter-productive. The mind is still working during breaks and how inspiration for many great discoveries and inventions happened during ‘down time’ has been well documented (see for example Watzlawick). Conversely, continuous work without breaks correlates with higher stress levels and impaired judgment.
Whoever said that ‘Thinking is not work’? Perhaps nobody did but many of us act as though we have no right to stop and think. How else can we plan, prioritise, re-schedule, balance and do all the other things that help us maintain, and even increase our productivity? Taking breaks allows us some time for this, but learning how to think and then devoting some time to the task is an invaluable exercise and, once again, vital for productivity, balance and wellbeing.
Struggling with a problem or decision? Find a colleague to talk it through with. It might help to use some sort of structured framework like dialogue, or in a group, the Reflecting Team. Two minds are far greater than the sum of their parts and real, focused conversation (the sort where the room disappears because you are so involved in it) can yield ideas that nobody would have thought of alone.
Use the unconscious
Make friends with and trust your unconscious. Part of the mind is working all the time and it will problem-solve and come up with answers if we encourage and let it. We all know the phrase ‘I’ll sleep on it’, and the same process can work for you during waking hours. This is not an excuse for doing nothing and waiting for the answer to pop up. Fortune favours the prepared mind, and preparation means thinking a situation through as far as you can, then taking a break from it. This enhances creativity and allows the inner mind to do its work (Claxton 1998).
Claxton, G. (1998), Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, Fourth Estate, London.
Stanfield, B. (2000), The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island.
Watzlawick, P., (1978), The Language of Change, W.W. Norton, New York.