The Art of the Pause

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Inertia. Paralysis. Stagnancy. We all get stuck sometimes. In fact, if you’ve read this blog for very long, or any other blog that focuses on creativity, entrepreneurship, self-help, motivation, inspiration, or habit formation, you’ve read plenty about getting moving. Which isn’t to say that I won’t write about it again in the future. I will. It’s a good topic.

Forward motion is important, and there are countless reasons we can find ourselves in need of a nudge in order to get moving. Not only have I written thousands of words on the subject, I frequently read what other experts have to say on the subject. Sometimes you want a swift kick in the ass that comes from someone other than yourself. Have you ever kicked yourself in the ass? It can be done, but it’s not easy or terribly effective. If you haven’t tried to kick your own ass, you should. You should also make a video of the attempt and send it to me!

But what about the other part of the productivity equation? If you’re in perpetual motion, eventually you’re going to be exhausted and burned out. When you’re constantly busy, not only does your body get tired, your mind does, too.  Our brains are not designed to work overtime without downtime.

If you’re an artist or entrepreneur, refusing to take breaks can lead to all kinds of unwanted outcomes. This isn’t just my opinion. It’s neuroscience. All healthy bodies operate in cycles, and for the purpose of making the most of your time and energy, you need to familiarize yourself with the ultradian rhythm. The ultradian rhythm is the natural series of energetic peaks and valleys your brain experiences throughout the day.

You may or may not be familiar with the term, but you’ve no doubt felt the effects of this rhythm on an ongoing basis, particularly if you’re not inclined to take regular breaks.

Your brain is only meant to sustain full engagement for approximately ninety minutes at a time.

At the beginning of this ninety-minute cycle, your brain starts gearing up. It is excited and ready to go. As you immerse yourself in your work, particularly if you’re working on a project you enjoy, it gains momentum. This is part of what allows you to slip into the flow state.

But as you reach the end of those ninety minutes, your body and mind will start throwing up signals that it’s time for a break. Your concentration won’t be as steady. You might slip into multi-tasking. You might begin to feel fidgety, like you need to get up and move around. Or you might crave a nap.

If you’re not particularly interested in what you’re doing and don’t have a boss breathing down your neck, you’ll probably heed these signals. You might take a walk or call a friend. Maybe you’ll just use the bathroom and grab a snack. It doesn’t really matter what you do, the point is that you’ll switch gears for a little bit. Ideally, it is best to spend about twenty minutes doing something else before refocusing your attention on your work project.

On the other hand, if you love what you’re doing, you’ll probably ignore the cues you’re receiving. You may not even notice them at all. Your brain is being rewarded by the pleasurable activity, so your body asking it to get up and walk away is a little bit like trying to convince a sleepy three-year-old that it’s time to leave the park.

Sometimes we ignore the signs that it’s time to take a break for other reasons, too. There are reasons we don’t take breaks when we need them that are less pleasant than being immersed in a state of flow.

You might ignore your ultradian rhythm out of societal conditioning. You’ve been trained to believe that being dedicated means working straight through whatever you’re doing until it’s done. Maybe you even feel guilty or ashamed. Have you ever (either in your head or when talking about yourself to someone else) called yourself names like lazy, slacker, or fuck-off when you take breaks? If so, it’s time to forgive yourself for being a human, not a robot.

Or maybe it’s more concrete than that. You’re broke. You need money, and you won’t get paid until you’ve seen this project through to completion. Taking breaks means a lag between now and paying your electric bill or feeding your kids. Taking a break does not feel like a responsible option.

The only problem is this: Your body’s ultradian rhythm will only put up with being ignored for so long before it will fuck your world up in order to get your attention.

Somewhere between the beginning of your dip in energy after ninety minutes of concentrated work and the two hour mark, the intensity of the signalling is going to increase. I’m not saying you can’t push through and work more than two hours without taking a break. Of course you can. We do it all the time. Most of us do it every day, multiple times a day.

What I am saying is that it is counterproductive. During this period, your efficiency begins to wane. You might be working just as hard, but you probably aren’t working as fast. You’re also more inclined to make (and miss) little mistakes like typos, so the quality of your work decreases a little bit, too.

And of course, the real trouble begins when neglecting your brain’s needs becomes habitual. If you are regularly working for several hours at a time without taking breaks, eventually it is going to catch up to you. And when it does, it is going to bite you in the ass. Hard. You’ll have teeth marks for weeks.

Unfortunately, our culture rewards this kind of masochism. That doesn’t mean you have to participate in the insanity. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Do you really want bragging rights for being chronically exhausted, in a constant bad mood, endangering your health, and neglecting everything in your life except work?

I love to work. Seriously. A lot of it is like a form of play to me (everything except the parts that aren’t). I’m also not opposed to working long hours. Putting in more than forty hours a week does not depress me in the least. There’s nothing wrong with loving your job and devoting significant amounts of time to it.

There is everything wrong with working yourself senseless without taking time for other things. Not only is it hard on your body and mind, it’s hard on your relationships, and pretty much every other aspect of your life. Plus, after awhile, your work suffers, too.

Your creativity wanes. Your productivity decreases. Your efficiency is meh…

And guess what? Someone else is working fewer hours than you, taking more breaks, and getting more done. And it’s higher quality work, too. And then they get to go enjoy the rest of their life.

If you’ve been confusing being busy with being productive and efficient, watch Tony Schwartz: The Myths of the Overworked Creative. If you’re ready to start thinking about shifting away from the former and into the latter, it will be a half hour well spent.

Every creative needs to master the art of the pause.

Give yourself permission to stare into space. Or read a book for sheer entertainment value., not to improve yourself or learn a new skill. Take a walk. Get a latte. Have sex. Clean your kitchen. Call a friend. Take a nap. Play with your kids. Get outside. Write if you’re a painter. Paint if you’re a writer. Take up a new hobby. Take up an old hobby. Do something you’re terrible at, yet find absolutely, delightfully fun, just for the hell of it. Whatever. Just. Stop. Working. Do anything else. Or do nothing else. Really. (Note: I cannot dance well, sing well, or play pool well, but I never let this stop me.)

Do absolutely nothing for twenty minutes several times a day. The world won’t stop. 

You’re already an artist. You’re a creator by nature. You don’t have to worry that your creativity or momentum will vanish if you give yourself time and space to pause in the middle of your projects. In fact, they will expand exponentially within the newly discovered territory of unstructured time.

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