The compassionate art of taking breaks
At the weekend I read a great article by Tony Schwartz in the New York Times. It was exactly what I needed at that moment to address the problem of being overly busy. The article was about the importance of taking breaks in order to maintain productivity, and it started like this:
Think for a moment about your typical workday. Do you wake up tired? Check your e-mail before you get out of bed? Skip breakfast or grab something on the run that’s not particularly nutritious? Rarely get away from your desk for lunch? Run from meeting to meeting with no time in between? Find it nearly impossible to keep up with the volume of e-mail you receive? Leave work later than you’d like, and still feel compelled to check e-mail in the evenings?
With the exception of the thing about breakfast — I always eat breakfast — this is my life. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it, but checking my email first thing in the morning is what I do. Often there are 30 — sometimes 50 — that have arrived overnight, and I’ve got into the habit of doing triage on my emails as soon as I wake up. I grab my iPad, and I’m off.
I have another bad iPad habit as well, which is of reading on it at night after I go to bed. Because of this I almost always go to sleep later than I should, and then the kids often wake me during the night, or wake up very early in the morning.
And during the day I work more or less continually, usually eating my lunch at my desk. If I’m lucky, my lunch break lasts 10 to 15 minutes. I do of course meditate every day, so at least that counts as a substantial break, but otherwise I’m busy throughout the work day. Sometimes — and you may recognize this in yourself — I get to the point when I just can’t take in one more word. I hit the wall. My brain grinds to a halt and I’m forced to back away from the computer screen. I more or less collapse back in my office chair and wait until my brain has untangled itself from the knot it’s got itself into.
It’s not very mindful or compassionate!
Because this article resonated with me so strongly, I took it very seriously. On Sunday, after my wife had headed out with the kids, I lay down and took a nap. I slept for an hour. And I decided I’d make changes to my work day, too.
Schwartz claims that the brain works on 90 minute cycles. These cycles were identified as operating at night back in the 1950s, and it’s become recognized (he says — I haven’t checked out the science) that these cycles operate throughout the day. That “wall” that I hit is presumably when I’ve pushed past the 90 minutes of one cycle and, failing to take a rest, am now running on empty.
So I’ve been more conscious the last couple of days of the need to take breaks. I’ve been keeping better track of the time, and making sure I program in breaks. I also try to be more mindful of tiredness, so that I’m taking breaks when I need them, and not when the clock says I should have them.
For my breaks I’ve been getting up and walking around, doing the dishes, making and drinking some coffee, going outdoors for a few minutes in order to get a change of scenery and air, and meditating. I plan to add exercising and stretching to my breaks as well.
I’ve still felt a sense of strain in the work day. I think I really go at it when I’m working. But I would have felt much worse had I not taken those breaks.
But all those emails are still going to be flooding my in-box, right? That’s true, but I suspect that I’m just clearer and more productive when I’m better rested, and can therefore deal with them more quickly, efficiently, and effectively. Some of the email I need to deal with is correspondence about meditation practice, and for that kind of conversation you really need to be in a creative space — and that just doesn’t happen when you’re exhausted.
Another change I’ve made is not taking my iPad into the bedroom. This takes away the temptation to read articles or browse social media, and not only do I get to sleep earlier, but I’m probably getting a better quality of sleep because the light from electronic devices is believed to upset our circadian rhythms.
So it’s early days, but I feel like I’m getting more of a handle on my activities, so that I can be more mindful and compassionate toward myself. And that’s going to help not just me, but everyone I’m in contact with.