Warning: Do Not Read This Post If You’d Rather Stay Stressed and Overwhelmed

note valuesLast night, I sat down for five minutes. I paused.

My 12-year-old daughter wasn’t feeling well; she’d had a headache at school and came home funky. I had been at work all day, gone grocery shopping after, came home and put away the groceries, made tacos, played Mankala with my third-grader and read to her in bed, then sang to her while she fell asleep. In other words, it was a pretty normal evening. By 9:00pm, I was ready to collapse myself, but my headachey daughter wanted me to sit with her. I did, for a few minutes, stroking her hair. Then I said, I’ll come back in a little while.

And I took two pillows from my bed, asked my partner if she wanted to sit for five minutes, set the timer on my phone, and settled in facing the wall.

And then it came… the contrast, and the corresponding relief. Of doing nothing. Of not responding to anything, not even my girl when she came padding into my bedroom. The amazing thing was she didn’t say a word. She saw that I was sitting there and just seemed to understand, that I was not avoiding her or putting off her needs. I was simply tending to my own, for five minutes that felt both like a blink and an hour. An oasis, even if it was filled with thoughts from the day and thoughts of what else still needed doing. I knew she needed my attention, and I also knew she could wait. I knew there were still more dishes to wash and a load of laundry to put in the dryer, and that those too could wait.

The same moment could be applied at work. Say you have back-to-back meetings, an overflowing inbox. You’ve barely stopped to pee, much less take a lunch break to get some fresh air or take a short walk. Maybe you’re trying to figure out how to move some big project forward, or you have to prepare an agenda for a meeting with your boss. Let’s say you supervise other people, and two of them called in sick today and payroll is due, you have to get to the bank before 5:00pm, and the dentist’s office just called with a reminder about your cleaning this afternoon. Maybe you and your significant other have been meaning to go for a fall hike all fall, and you are wistfully aware that the trees are almost bare of leaves and there is a frost warning for tonight.

This is the part where you might feel like you can’t possibly pause. There is too much to do. Maybe this is the part where you feel irritable. Or overwhelmed. Or just tired.

Our days are often like this, in some iteration or another, a fugue of incessant sixteenth notes without variation, fast fast fast and full full full and go go go. And this is when things are going along fairly “normally,” meaning there is no emergency, no crisis. No frozen pipes or dreaded pink slip or last-minute snafu, no injured child or chronic illness or bad news on the other end of the line.

If you have ever practiced yoga, you know that savanasana, or corpse pose, is how every practice concludes–whether it was a gentle 15 minutes or a vigorous 90. The language of yoga is that of “integrating the benefits of our practice,” the intention being that without taking the time to just be, to pause, to rest, we cannot fully come to feel the effects of all the doing.

If life feels like something you have to hold onto like a handbasket on its way straight to hell, or a roller-coaster ride that makes your stomach lurch, or simply a treadmill stuck on an 8-minute-mile when you’d rather be strolling, pausing like this can be painful. Because rather than feeling the benefits of all of the doing, you might feel the negative impact of it. You might realize, by taking five minutes to just sit there, that not pausing is actually a form of procrastination. Not taking rest when to do so is an option (and there are few professions where it isn’t) is a way of avoiding your life, even as you might think your life is the reason you can’t, or don’t, pause.

Our culture–whether you’re a manager, a business owner, a parent, an artist, none or or all of the above–feeds this reliance on busy and its corresponding glorification of stress. It’s a badge we wear, a purple heart of martyrdom.

If more people said, Actually, that can wait five minutes, if we could differentiate between fires to put out and true emergencies, if we inserted rest symbols into the endless stream of notes that is the music of our days, we might just start making different choices about how we live and work. We might get brave and admit to someone that we don’t in fact enjoy this sense of chaos and the anxiety it provokes, that causes all kinds of problems–in our relationships, our health, our ability to keep up.

We might just stop keeping up.

And that may be scary, especially if our sense of security and even self-worth rests on this premise that we must go a million miles an hour from the moment we wake till we collapse into bed.

But it doesn’t have to be scary.

Like all fears, as soon as you turn the light on, the big monster shadows shrink to harmlessness. If you find that you are putting a lot of things off–whether it’s returning that package with the too-small shoes or meeting the deadline that looms closer each day–consider that pausing is actually an antidote to procrastination. It may be just the thing you need to move forward.

Stop, for a moment, for one full breath, for five minutes, and respond to nothing. I am willing to bet nothing will fall apart. In fact, this small act may be the glue that holds all the pieces together.



  1. I have been moving at a million miles an hour for 2 months. Today I decided to take a few hours for myself. I hired someone to clean the house and I walked the dog, caught up on thank you notes and did some of the physical therapy exercises I need to do for my shoulder (injured during yoga). It was quiet and I was only doing things for me. I also spent 20 minutes on my cushion and tended to the terror and the not good enoughs and the quiet. It was kind of painful but in a good way, like cleaning out a wound. I have been feeling a bit selfish about all this and I am so grateful that you wrote these words. They are a balm for the heart of anyone taking a bit of time for herself. Thank you!!

    1. Pamela, we’ve been talking a lot about this lately, too–the feeling that it’s selfish to take rest or do things for ourselves, when really the opposite is true. Thank you, as always, for sharing your experience.

  2. I hope that this isn’t taken in the wrong way – I was looking at your free journal and because I am a total geek about grammar because I am an English teacher, I thought that I should at least offer the suggestion that you change affect to effect.

    “I’m sure you already know that your habits have an affect on
    your productivity and time management.”

    In my classes, I would certainly think that you meant the noun version – which is effect, as opposed to the verb version, which is affect.

    And thanks for offering the free journal – I am going to work on it – after my five minutes of nothing, followed by, ugh, about four hours of sleep (had a dog tonight who kept getting sick…) before I get up again to try to teach English – yay me!

    I love your thoughts – thanks for sharing them. 🙂

    Jen Sekella

    1. Jen, your comment made us both giddy–because we are dorky that way, and deeply appreciate folks who not only care as much as we do about things like the difference between “affect” and “effect,” but take the time to leave a comment, to boot. So yes–yay, you! So glad you are enjoying the journal. And we hope your dog feels better.

    2. Hi Jen,

      Popping up to echo Jena’s sentiments. Yes, thank you so much for pointing out the error! I can’t believe we both missed it! Another pair of eyes can be such a gift. I’ll change it right away. 🙂

  3. Erich Schiffman – wise yogi – calls this the sacred pause or the holy instant. He recommends practicing it whenever it occurs to you. No need to even sit, just pause wherever you are, breathe, and notice.

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