The Benefits of the Pause: Break Optimization

It isn’t easy in our fast-paced culture and faster-paced work culture to “take breaks”, or interrupt the flow of progressing work –even when it’s “well earned”.

Culture and society aside, it’s the reaffirming inner voice that’s egging us on to do more, keep going, do better, work faster, and grind harder.

Taking breaks, resting, pausing, and especially any declaration of “needs” regarding an individual practicing self-care is heavily stigmatized as not being able to keep up, or being wussy, high-maintenance, or not taking work “seriously”. (These are just a few reasons, a host of others include maintaining a sense of job security and keeping a competitive edge on the serious level of actually keeping your job, a stress pressed upon far too many by employers who want to use that psychology to exploit their employees.)

Thankfully, there are labor laws that help justify the importance of taking a break. But what about those of us who have non-traditional/unorthodox work practices? Or who exchange the 9-5 for the 24/7 self-employed route?

Well, it’s much less structured, and that’s the point.

However, loving what you do and experiencing the reward-based system of fulfillment it brings with each accomplishment, milestone, and gain, opens the back door to exhaustion and a very real tendency to work yourself into the ground. Whether it’s fueled by creative ambition, monetary goals, the sheer competitive spirit, exalted ideals, or by a dutiful sense of service to humanity, you’ll find a reason to push yourself farther than is healthy for your body and your mind.

But pause, you must. I think of it this way, “I must rest now, because what I’m prioritizing my focus on deserves the very best of me.” It’s the same idea that you must help yourself so that you are able to help others, so as to not tax yourself helping others that you cause detriment to your being.

As a creative entrepreneur who loves work so much that I exploit my own insomnia to get more done, I’m ardently suggesting to you: Give yourself a break.

 

I hope you’ll feel a little less guilty for breaking. In fact, I hope you’re reading this in a relaxed state that allows time to get through the whole article. But, you’re probably in the middle of something, are in transit, or are mindful of the time because… you’ve got shit to do! That’s cool. If you’d appreciate some break-spiration, I’d like to share a few personal tiers of remedies for different levels of over-work.

Mental Breaks

(for fast stress management)

First, try an easy remedy to help regulate workflow productivity by taking short “mental” breaks from the task at hand when having difficulty focusing and instead put your attention on a separate activity that is still engaging and creative but different enough to provide stress relief.

I plan trips.

It opens up my imagination and creativity to dream up the most ideal adventures and engages the part of my personality that is passionate about structure and organizing.

Neuschwanstein

This is the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, commissioned by Ludwig II of Bavaria out of his personal fortune (and not paid for by any public funds) to serve as a refuge for the reclusive king.

I’m currently planning a nature/exploration/step-retracing/castle-tour trip for my next German Adventure, along with: an American Legend Road Trip, a Romanian Mystery Mission, the Trans-Siberian Train Junket, several film and director-themed expeditions and a host of others. Since I’m under no actual pressure to plan/book on anyone else’s timeline, I can really enjoy the pre-planning process and let my imagination fly.

So not only do I give myself a “break” from the tasks at hand but I’m also being productive. When the time is ripe for one of these adventures, I actually just pluck it off a shelf, purchase my requisite tickets/reservations and I’m off!  Poof!

Mental breaks are incredibly important, they refresh the mind and spirit, and will make you much more efficient when you come back to your main work and produce better work with less errors than you would have if you tried working straight through.

So, what do you like to daydream about? Try planning it!

I Snapchat.

It’s very silly, very fun, and breaks up the pressure on my attention resources.

So unless you have fears that Snapchat is building a facial recognition database, snap on!

I watch a music video.

This is another way I love to give myself some mental relief. It also gives me something small to look forward to, a reward system favorite that can temporarily transport me to another place. Current repeats are:

Rammstein – Stripped
Beyonce – Formation
Muse – Madness
alt-J – Every Other Freckle

These will usually rotate or expire after their initial appeal (usually that it’s new to me) wears. However, some gems (Like Rammstein’s “Stripped”) I never get tired of as I take in nostalgic value and new inspiration and insight with every view. I’ve been watching that video for years!!

 

Physical Breaks

(these are truly restorative)

There’s just no way to perform at your highest level without allowing time for rest, physiologically. When you work very long periods the brain is using up oxygen and glucose as they’re the primary forms of the brains energy.

Naturally, maintaining unbroken focus or engaging in demanding intellectual activity for several hours really does burn enough energy to leave you feeling drained.

Anti-Screen

Both trip-planning and Snapchatting require looking at a screen, and extended time engaging in these activities will burn me out especially if I’m going from a work screen to another screen. This is where it’s great to get to know yourself better; By the way I feel, I can tell if I need a short snap-break or a break where I need to disconnect my vision, attention, and body from all screens/electronics and move.

Breaking from the screens is what will provide a true respite and effectively reboot your brain. Personally, I’m very fond of walking. I just pocket a few essentials (knife, keys,  lip balm, pen & paper) and walk out the door. If I’m feeling public-evasive, I’ll pace indoors and will usually pause to stare out a window.

Blood-Flow

I’ll piggy-back this onto the pacing: love movement if you don’t already. In whatever form suits you best, just get the heart rate up even (or take a deep breath to reset if it’s already up from stress) like putting some oomph in your step, doing squats, stretching, 10 push-ups every couple hours, jumping jacks, dancing, walking to the second nearest coffee shop, etc. Personally, I really like to shadow-box. It’s a quickness on my feet and practicing my favorite moves that gets my heart going, with the added benefit of fun because I pretend I’m ALI.

Besides, increasing blood flow to the brain helps sharpen your awareness. A study by Jim McKenna from the University of Bristol showed that after exercising, work performance was consistently higher as shown by better time management and improved mental sharpness. As your brain is your single greatest asset that we cannot afford to let it dull!

Exercise improves your brain in the short term by raising your focus for two to three hours afterwards. Now that you know this, try planning any pitches, presentations, or situations accordingly so as to be at your mental “peak”. Test the results yourself! Long-term, you can fight brain deterioration and Alzheimer’s on a cellular level (neuroplasticity), as the brain is able to improve itself with blood flow (yay, exercise!) and levels of brain-derived protein.

How do you like to move your body? Don’t do something you’ll grow to resent, because you’ll just stop doing it. Pick something physical that you enjoy.

We all know exercise releases endorphins, those feel good chemicals. Did you also know that endorphins improve the prioritizing functions of the brain?! How cool is that! A natural remedy for impulse control! So when you come back from exercise, your ability to sort out priorities will be greatly improved, allowing you better concentrate on the task at hand, and what’s truly important.

If you want something done, give it to a busy person.

It’s a proven fact that productivity begets more productivity. So give yourself a damn pat on the back for the work you’ve done and reward yourself with a few minutes to up to half an hour most days of increased heart rate. Because when you come back from your blood-flow break, you’ll be a little high off the endorphins, glistening from a dewy glow, a prioritizing maestro, and sharp as a tack. 

All this amounts to a more productive day as well as a being a real aide in finding/keeping an optimal work/life balance. A regular blood flow/movement/exercise routine is essentially a structured activity that helps us become better at time management and more confident in our ability to pull off the demands of life.

This is why I stress the importance of moving in a way you like to. Without the joy, it could be the first thing you eliminate when looking for more slices of precious time. I know it’s tempting to nix, but it could be just the thing that helps keep your life, mind, and body functioning smoothly and in balance.

Scooby Snacks!

I’m a HUGE snacker. I like to keep munchies or “scooby snacks” nearby just incase I need an energy boost or nibble.  I love seeds and nutmeat, here are a few personal favorites:

  1.  SUNFLOWER SEEDS (from their shells salted, baked into sea-salted nuggets,  in sonnenblumenkernbrot –I’m actually not that picky so long as they’re salted!)
  2. Trail mix
  3. Pistachios
  4. Salted Cashews

They keep very well and aren’t prone to spoil or deform under the sun.
Now, we all know food is fuel. So when picking snacks that serve you, try to pick the ones that’ll keep your engine running longer, as opposed to the ones that you’ll burn through fast only to crash now and suffer (as will your work!) later.

I look at it this way: Fire needs fuel just like I do. You ever burn some paper? Fire eats it up in a pinch before it’s out. What sustains fire? Dense logs. Nutrient-poor and sugary snacks will run you hot and flame out fast, so steer clear and opt for healthy snacks as your slow-burning fuel to keep you going all day.

Protein People! Lest we forget, protein-rich foods contain an amino acid that increases the production of neurotransmitters that regulate concentration and alertness: tofu & cheese for the yay!

 

Meditation. Obviously.

I left Chicago for ten days to learn the Vipassana meditation technique. It remains one of the most valuable and privately cherishing experiences of my life. Incase you’d like to learn more, this is the place I went to. I promise, they don’t try to sell you anything, guilt you in any way for any reason, or try to steal you from your family and friends to devote your life to the will of a charismatic but dangerous leader.

While there, I submitted to the strict eating schedule of two meals a day plus fruit and tea at dinnertime. Everything was organic, fresh, and there were enough options for a picky eater like myself. The day began at 4:00am and I, along with the other students, meditated for 10 hours with a few rest/meal periods, and concluded with a short instructional lecture ending the day at 9:00pm every night, for ten full days straight.

I loved it, and returned soon after to volunteer as a server, an experience which served it’s own purpose.

When I first got back I was able to meditate two to three hours a day. Over the course of a year it dwindled to 15 minutes in the morning and at night until I fell asleep. As of this writing, it’s now just at night in my bed, whatever time it is I crawl into it, until I fall asleep. It’s my one-year anniversary and I consider it a great opportunity to reinstate such a healthy habit!

The skinny is this: I wasn’t “sold” at the idea of shipping myself away for ten days in the care of potential weirdos, taking a vow of silence, in the middle of BUFU-nowhere, where upon I surrender my cell phone, all technological devices, paper, pens, writing instruments and all other forms and ways of committing information to remembrance. Only when I did research, and came upon an article called, “Transcendental Billionaire” did I take the leap of faith and apply for the course (It’s FREE, no-strings-attached free, so there’s always a waiting list).

I’m so happy I did.

If you have something similar you practice to quiet your mind, re-center, calm the nerves, and restore perspective, try incorporating that into your day and see what happens. If you’re open to trying Vipassana on for size, or any other meditation technique, give it a go and see where it takes you. I can only speak from anecdotal experience, so I’d rather you try it yourself and have your own experience.

If none of that looks appetizing, try sitting quietly for ten minutes and focus your attention on the sensations of your body, the exhaling through your nose and how the air moves over your upper lip, the temperature, breezes over your skin, the dull ache from last Tuesday, your heartbeat, etc.

Break Optimization –Natalee Style

  1. Work in bursts, then take a break. I’ve read that 90-minute spurts could be more effective, this is according to a theory of rest that borrows from other observations made during sleep research. They get this from the ultradian rhythm which we progress through all five cycles of sleep and sort of apply that to the cycles of waking life signifying the movements between higher and lower states of alertness in a perceived rest-activity cycle. Now, I don’t time my activity-rest cycles according to the ultradian rhythm, but feel free to try it! You can also “feel it out”: Pay attention to when you’re about to burn out, then check for water, a snack, fresh air, blood circulation, sleep, etc. and supply whatever you need accordingly.
  2. Napping. Napping improves learning and memory, it boosts mental alertness as well as increases creativity and productivity. For me, naps can be tricky, and I definitely plan them carefully. The 25-30 minute recommended nap along with the more beneficent 60 minute nap will sometimes do it’s job as a short and effective energy booster. But sometimes it can work against me and I wake up feeling weird and disoriented, especially if I’ve fallen hard (overtired) and wasn’t ready to be pulled from a dream, if I had an intense nightmare, or if I had a surrealism dream and I wake up feeling like I’m in a different day/place/version of reality (ah!). My life constantly teeters relative normalcy and Rod Serling-normalcy. But you probably don’t have any Rod Serling issues and will be able to nap just fine, so go for it!
  3. Mindfulness. Basically applying some meditation techniques and/or other extremely effective perspective-adjusting exercises that are very calming. For me, it’s meditation, for you, maybe it’s a yoga or deep breathing. Admittedly, I sometimes forget I have this invaluable tool in my life-toolbox -especially if I’m overtired, hungry, or my judgements are compromised somehow. If you forget too, try leaving little clues for yourself when it is on your mind, like a post-it with your snacks “checking in” or setting an alert on your phone. The benefits are instant! (But if you’re not into meditation, don’t sweat. I also love re-reading my favorite quotes and book-passages. It’s a different kind of stabilizing and provides a very secure feeling, like a deep reassurance from a trusted friend. So keep a favorite book nearby, it helps!).
  4. Anticipating the Need. Do your best to think of yourself first and anticipate when and what kind of break you’ll be needing. While working long and hard is invigorating for me, I know that if I don’t stop myself, I’ll try to force myself through fatigue and try to scratch the absolute bottom of my mental barrel. If this sounds familiar (and if you’re an entrepreneur or have the creative impulse, it absolutely will!), try setting a time limit to your break, take it, return to work, and you’ll be happy knowing you’re working smarter.

My ultimate recommendation is: Take what you can use from this post and discard the rest. Fit it to your life and your needs.

Resisting the urge to copy and paste this entire beautifully written post from The Scientific American, I’ll just relay a few choice quotes that stuck with me:

“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”

The article also goes into detail relaying new research that supports the idea that our brain is working no less when we are in a state of rest, or downtime. That support greatly adds to the favor of intuition as an information bank which is exciting for me as I’m regularly explaining to people the scientific function and overall importance of the real human mechanism called the intuition!

“…that the human brain is in fact a glutton, constantly demanding 20 percent of all the energy the body produces and requiring only 5 to 10 percent more energy than usual when someone solves calculus problems or reads a book.”

So, give yourself permission to care for your brain, and Give your Self a break!

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