Fill with joy and arrest the stress in the holidays

Does it ever feel to you that someone is tightening the gears on life in order to speed up time, especially during the holidays?

Years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Boeing Commercial Aircraft factory in Everett, Washington, where the new 777 jetliner was being assembled. The Boeing guide pointed out how the gears under the seats could be tightened to decrease the space between the rows, a potentially useful feature if you were selling the aircraft to a country of midgets.

I noticed, shortly afterward, that legroom did start disappearing on aircraft, an effort, I believe, to reverse engineer us into becoming midgets.

I don’t know who is responsible for tightening my experience of time during the holiday season. Every year, for those who celebrate Christmas, the number of days in the buying season appears to be expanding (has it spilled into September yet?), while our experience of time, or the lack of it, is increasingly compressed. Our collective buying hysteria is like a horse race, where we line up and wait for an announcer to cry, “And they’re off,” as we rush our way out of the gate, not quite sure how to even find the finish line.

No wonder we’re stressed.

If you celebrate another holiday like Hanukah, the winter solstice, Kwanzaa, or New Years, I hope you’re feeling more sane. I invite you to still take a few ideas off this page to apply to any big, stressful events in your life.

Make a list and check it twice.

Don’t worry about being naughty or nice. Just make a list of everything you want to do and realize that not even a superhuman filled with holiday spirit/s could accomplish it. Then take out a fat sharpie pen, maybe a red one, and, with gusto, put lines through at least a third of the items.

If this feels impossible (“You don’t understand, I have to buy a gift for my nephew…”), invite your BFF for a Toasted White Chocolate Mocha (real drink) and ask her or him to edit the list for you. Hopefully, they will question: You HAVE to put up a tree, attend two holiday concerts and go to the office party this weekend??? You HAVE to buy a gift for your thirty-five year old nephew who has never once said thank-you? You HAVE to decorate your bathroom?

The more obligations you can cross out, the more time you’ll have for the holiday experiences you most care about.

Drop Perfection. Pretty good is good enough.

Think of imperfections as the spice of life, like one of the secret ingredients in the Chestnut Praline Chai Tea Latte (real drink). You need them to prove that you’re human, and that applies to the people around you as well.

Set your tolerance meter on peak strength as you laugh at the foibles and failings of yourself and others. Your teenage daughter is acting surly? She’s proving herself human; don’t let it spoil your day. Your husband forgets to buy the candles before the party? You aren’t able to send out cards?  And that prize batch of cookies that chars when the doctor calls at the wrong moment?

More proof.

Remember that in the original Christmas story, the inn blew the reservation, the motels were all full, and the couple ended up staying in a barn without even a cot. Your mishaps and those of your friends are nothing in comparison.

(Special holiday bonus: My official permission for you to have an occasional, scrumptious meltdown if you need one.)

Accentuate the positive

With a tip of the hat to Johnny Mercer’s hit song from 1944, we need to give more attention to what we love so that what we don’t can roll off our backs. Confession: I do not like crowds, lines, Christmas carols played in elevators, holiday offers over Amazon, or malls. But I love putting up a Christmas tree, singing carols, decorating the house, quiet meditations and choosing a gift for someone I love (when I’m not stressed). And hot baths.

Focus on what you love and give yourself a lot of it. If you want to go to three Messiah concerts, keep White Christmas playing on the stereo, or sip a juniper latte (real drink) every day, do it. If you love winter snow, why not take a special drive up into the mountains and send a loving note to your in-laws telling them their gift will be coming soon?

If you choose to drink a cup of low-fat, highly-sugared eggnog every day, fully savor it, while allowing visions of January exercise programs to dance in your head. (Private note to husband.)

The holidays are meant to be a time of joy and celebration, so if you fill up on joy, you can throttle down on stress.

Take ten minutes (or less) to make a change

There will be a few things you might not prefer but can’t avoid, like the obligatory holiday office party that can be so deadly for us introverts.  That’s why I wrote my little e-book The Ten Minute Holiday Miracle: Reclaim your joy and sanity this season in ten minutes or less. It’s designed to help you create small intentions that change your feelings about your experiences, or to trick the stress out of you.

Rather than take space here to describe these stress-busting secrets, I’d rather give you the book as a gift. Pick it up by clicking here.

Remember the holidays don’t have to be all sunshine and joy. It’s OK to embrace a little darkness, too. This is the season of light, and the light will always bring out a few shadows.

Enjoy the ride, and, even when life feels like a roller coaster, buckle up your seat belt and send out some extra love.

It’s needed more now than ever.

Taking the small steps back to thriving

What do we do when we keep getting clobbered by bad news?

Find our way back to thriving.

This week, I’m continuing my survival guide to pulling a little hope from tough times. Hopefully, you don’t need it, unless, of course, you made the mistake of listening to the latest report on Global Warming or what’s happening at the border with Mexico.

Topping my list of things-I-didn’t-ask-for-and-didn’t-want this week was Monday’s emergency root canal and the death of a favorite cousin. Plus all the national and international news.

I’ve also been questioning my authority to write about thriving creatively in the second half of life, while my list of woes keeps accreting with medical and health issues, financial concerns, the loss of a beloved, and even letting go of plans to adopt a dog I had been counting on. 

Maybe this week’s episode of the Survival Guide should be called Thriving is Not What You Think.

Raw and a bit crumpled, I’m wondering how I can have any legitimacy to talk about thriving. But this has been the perfect time to explore how we keep going when we feel broken, so maybe I still have something to talk about. I figure there might be a few others out there whose lives are rich, complex, and full of stuff not chosen.

It’s one thing to thrive when everything is going great, or an affirmation or two can turn things around. But challenges will come with life after 50 (or living in general), and we know better than to think that we can varnish over them. 

Don’t believe the well-packaged books, posts, and articles being marketed with titles like Do This One Thing and Your Life Will Be Instantly Wonderful. Yes, they’re tempting. (Disclaimer: I occasionally read this stuff.) But, even as I unconsciously take the bait and click on the tempting tidbit flashing over the Internet with a sexy, pseudo-solution, I know it’s a sham. After the headline, “clickbait” is always boring.

Moreover, the one-stop solution feels disrespectful of those of us who know it ain’t that easy. 

Finding a way back to thriving.

I decided to notice, on root canal day, what kept me going.

When you’re feeling raw or broken, the good stuff stands out. Maybe the darkness makes the light brighter. (Forgive me if that sounds like a bumper sticker.) With my customary, entitled belief that things should go my way worn off, I started noticing lots of small things that were, in fact, working for me. I found hints of delight.

The day of my root canal was brilliantly sunny, and I enjoyed a spectacular view of Mt. Rainier on the way to the endodontist. The “C” bus that I needed to catch came promptly. A brisk walk to her office gave me some exercise, and the warm greeting from the receptionist felt genuine. Throughout the visit, I experienced respect and compassion. The endodontist, whom I fell in love with as much as you can love working with a dentist, soothed me as she gently touched my arm. Beautiful music distracted me from the procedure (thanks Pandora Radio)–the nitrous oxide helped me relax into a semi-comatose state where every song seemed spectacular. 

Returning home, I needed to run to catch a bus and discovered that my knees, ankles, and back could still pull as a team. Back on the island, my husband was waiting for me on the street with an open-hearted smile. A friend who was also in pain called to ask me a question. I was buoyed by an opportunity to help another.

Each small step was a grace.

I discovered that life is never all one way…all happy or all sad, all dark or all light. 

I can’t pretend that everything that happens to us is good. The fact that my cousin struggled with early onset dementia for twenty years, knowing that she would eventually die of the same condition that had killed her mother, was tragic. Yet in her life and death, there were many miracles: her resilience and hope, her peaceful death, the way cousins are reconnecting around her departure.

Within everything, we can find enough good to keep us going. 

I won’t call the pain, hassle, and expense of a root canal good. Yet my day contained so much good within it, that I discovered that I was, indeed, thriving.

True, it broke my heart to not be able to adopt the dog I had been counting on; yet along the way I experienced a new friendship and generous, caring support from the dog’s current foster Mom. The heartfelt, compassionate back-up from the animal-loving friends to whom I reached out for guidance, touched me deeply. 

Etty Hillesum, whose writings about life during the Holocaust have inspired me so much, wrote about the touches of beauty she discovered in her horrific surroundings, like how the sun bounced off the walls of the concentration camp or how a flower could grow in the broken concrete.

All is not good. But we can always discover the good that is waiting to be noticed.

My list of saving graces is full of items that are small and, seemingly, insignificant, like being able to run a few blocks. On my “Life-is-working-aren’t-I-great-days” I can forget to appreciate these small things. On my bad days, they are the gifts that bring me back to life.

The days when life drops us to our knees are the days when we may look down to find the flower in the concrete.

People come together in remarkable ways after the worst tragedies, like the recent fires in Paradise, California. Small acts don’t bring a burned home back; they bring back hope.

When we get raw, we get real; we drop some of the masks we carry that separate us from life. 

My book is taking a new direction. I don’t need to be a cheerleader for “Isn’t it great to thrive after 50?”  Rather, I can say, “Stuff is going to happen, but we can still find our way to thriving.” A bit of depression, a period of brokenness, or a calamity or two don’t banish us from experiencing the small wonders of life. At times, they may even be enhanced.

That’s how we will continue to thrive. We don’t have to force fit life into an ideal reality.

We follow its flow and discover what is ideal within the reality we have.

 

Want more time? Go slow…

A colleague once shared a Montana saying.
Question: How do you make cows move fast?
Answer: Slowly

It was one of the days. I was not succeeding in fitting life into the time available. Maybe I should have known that my jazzy new Adobe podcast editing software, designed to save me time, would exponentially increase the time it would take me to edit–at least while I was climbing a mountain known as “master new software.” I’m still panting.

I was standing at the sink trying to wash the dishes rapidly so I could return to my writing and other critical tasks on my agenda, when I heard the words, “Go slow.”

Slow? I challenged myself: why not. I was already hopelessly behind in my plans for the day. I remembered an exercise I had done in an improv theatre class in which the instructor asked us to slow all of our movements down. Each gesture we made or step we took, we were to do sloooowly.

I experimented, sticking my hand slowly into the hot water and swiping a sponge against the inside of a bowl, at half of my normal speed. Then I reduced my speed again. I almost stopped moving. I stood still as a stream of rinse water came out of the spigot like magic, bouncing off the sides of the bowl. I extended my arm a few inches at a time until I could safely nest the bowl in the drainer.  I took so…much…time.

What I discovered

The results were amazing. I started breathing more deeply. I began gazing around the kitchen with new interest. Ordinary objects caught my interest. I saw art where there had been none before, a beam of light on the counter; the texture of a basket, a streak on the window, a pillar of glasses, and the glistening of soap bubbles in the sink.

I enjoyed what I was doing.

Moving in slow time felt so different than my usual program of “let’s see how fast we can do this so I can get back to my real work.” I left the sink feeling refreshed by the work. What’s more, I felt that in moving slowly, I had shifted my relationship with time: I had gained time.

Since this first experiment, I have tried slowing down while walking a garden path, feeding the horses, and taking Riley the dog out for a poop. As I slow, I seem to break apart some habitual patterns and pay more attention to my surroundings.

What’s the big deal or isn’t this just mindfulness?

You may be shaking your head at my revelations, thinking that this is just another form of practicing presence or a modest experiment with mini-mindfulness. You’re right. But I wasn’t trying to be mindful, or spiritual, or present at all. I was just trying one simple thing in the midst of a crazy day:

Slowing way down.

The benefit of slowing is you can do it practically any time and anywhere, in the midst of the crazy parts of your day. You don’t need to save it for your meditation or use it to practice presence.

And you don’t have to relate it to your spiritual path or label it anything. You just do one thing: you…slow…down.

It doesn’t require a course, a guru and it’s free.

You’d need to exercise some care in high-velocity zones like Times Square or Grand Central Station in New York or Shinjuku Station in Tokyo where breaking with the rhythm of the crowds might be a bit risky. But maybe you could think “I’m just practicing slowness” when you find yourself on Seattle’s I-5 corridor moving at a tortoise-like pace. (Probably too advanced for me!)

If moving at half-speed doesn’t help you relax, move at quarter-speed. Move so slowly that your movement feels like art. Play with it. And keep washing the dishes, walking the path or feeding the animals.

Something might open up for you. Please experiment and then tell me about it.

Slooowly.

 

How to keep your creative spirit from getting buried

Last week, I received this letter from a dear friend:

Dear Sally,

I’m a wreck. How many times have I heard someone say, “On your deathbed, you won’t wish you spent more time at work.” But guess what? Today, I wish I could have even gotten to my work.  My new saying is “On my deathbed, I won’t wish that I had spent more time online with CenturyLink.”

You write often about prioritizing your creative work, but let me testify that it isn’t that easy. This was the day I set aside for my project, but then tech problems came up and consumed the whole f-ing day, excuse my French. Tech glitches appear to love a vacuum.

You don’t need all the details, but it started with lousy internet service and many calls for help from CenturyLink. Knowing it might be years before we got help, I decided to go to the library to upload a document. Then, returning to the office, my office computer kept crashing, so I called Apple. But the rep couldn’t help me reload my operating system because the Internet connection was too weak.  I hoped that I could still salvage my writing day in the afternoon, but …

I started my writing session by warming up with one short how-to video on YouTube (just one!) and aghhh discovered that my websites weren’t “secure” even though I had paid real money to secure them. My website hosting company said they needed to send an email to admin@mycompanyname.com to make the security work, but of course. I didn’t even own that email. I bit my lip, tried not to scream and set about to acquire that email address. Of course, Gmail was no help so I….[Insert expletive]…I could go on, but you get the drift. Nothing was resolved, I’m a mess, and I feel like I wasted the whole precious day I set aside.

Can you help?

Your friend,
Enraged

Dear Enraged,

I get it. It was one of those days you got bucked off of your plans. Just hold your horses a bit, and tomorrow you can get back into the saddle.

First of all, know that what just happened isn’t personal.

Remember that story about “how to boil a frog.” You don’t put the frog into boiling water–he’d jump out, but you put him in tepid water and then keep turning the temperature up. I’m seeing a lot of warm frogs these days, living overloaded, computer-dependent, technology-infused lives. We don’t notice how each new upgrade, extension, feature, or device we use turns up the heat just a bit.

But I don’t want to depress you. Let’s tackle the problem. It comes in two parts: you and you. First of all, we have to help you return you to some semblance of the loving, compassionate, balanced person you are. After that, we can figure out what to do differently in the future.

Part one: Here are a few ideas you can use to help you regain you.

Acknowledge the problem. Create your own 12-step program for technology-inflicted rage. Know that this isn’t just about you. Find some compassion for the rest of us frogs.

Breathe. Your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) has kicked in. Tension is high. But you can support your parasympathetic nervous system with breathing and this will calm you down. Seems so basic but so important–even for five minutes.  Take some deep breaths and long, complete exhales. Let the breath expand and move within you. I won’t get fancy because you’re in emergency mode.

Break the spell. Don’t worry about being productive. First, we’ll need to break the grip of whatever monster has you in this agitated outside-of-yourself state. Sing, chant, massage your feet–anything that you know relaxes you (and gets you breathing). Meditate. Take a walk. Dance if you have energy. Or just sit on the couch and do absolutely nothing. Read a book that sends you into another world. Don’t come out until you start to relax.

Gratitude. Remember that technology has two edges: it creates miracles with so many opportunities to work, connect, collaborate and grow; it also consumes our time. Give thanks for the privilege of access. (Isn’t it silly that we get so irritated when our computers need ten extra seconds to reboot?)

Hug a pet. I’m big into pooch hugs these days. My new dog Riley generously allows me to hug him as much as I want; he even seems to like it. My cat occasionally returns my affection, and my horse allows me to breathe into her muzzle even though she isn’t sure why I am doing that. Breathing with an animal is the perfect antidote to computer-induced rage.

Part two: strategizing what to do going forward.

Without any judgment, how could you have protected your creative space a little better?

Protect your time/space. You set aside time to write, (good) but then you watched a short video (dangerous). Marketers are super proficient at dangling shiny objects before you and distracting your attention. And once you saw you had a problem with your website, did you have to immediately resolve it? I know, “you thought it was going to be quick.” But between us both, how often does that prove to be true?

Stop the action. Those technology glitches start snowballing and soon you’re facing an avalanche. You keep hoping that “just one more thing” will resolve the problem. But the real problem is you. You’re fried. Anger has aborted your thinking. Call “time out” when you feel yourself sliding down the mountain. Step away. Take a break. Do your breathing (above) and then reconsider whether to continue down the path that you’re on. It’s probably going nowhere.

Be vigilant about your priorities. Protect your creative space in your overstuffed life the way you’d protect a meeting you’ve scheduled. Exceptions allowed, but double check anything that threatens to pull you off your path. Maybe you want to guarantee yourself one hour of writing before you even peak at the Internet. .

Make lemonade. Sorry for the cliché, but there’s got to be some good coming out of what you experienced. Compassion for others? A funny story for your next party? A piece of writing? A blog post?

Spread kindness. It’s too easy to get upset with the people who, like pawns in a broken system, are trying to help us. When you do anything to acknowledge them or make their day lighter, you are sending a beam of light into the darkness. Call that your daily victory.

Start again. Tomorrow you have a new opportunity. Isn’t that fabulous? Plan now to go forth and create. And thanks for reaching out for help.  It’s ALWAYS easier for me to give advice when I’m not caught in the middle of things myself.

Does your work make you better?

In her stunning collection of essays (highly recommended) This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett offers us this simple, yet profound question about marriage she received from her friend, Edra. Quoting Ann:

“Does your husband make you a better person?” Edra asked…I had no idea what she was talking about. “Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?” she said, running down her list. “Does he make you better?” 

That last question could be applied to many things in life–including our work.

We need a new word for “work”

I’ve been struggling this week to find a more uplifting word to replace the word “work.” In writing a book on thriving in the 3rd Act of life, I’m asserting that engaging in creative work is one of the keys to staying vital.  But “creative work” could mean working a job, making art, serving your family or community, creating a business, fixing a car, or ???  In wanting to stay open to so many creative possibilities, I figured that I’d better define what the heck I mean by work.

I checked the dictionary’s synonyms for work and found: labor, toil, drudgery, and exertion–not an uplifting array. Is work really synonymous with  “ugh?” (As in “It’s Monday and I have to (ugh) go to work.”)

No wonder people want to leave “work.” Who wouldn’t given the negative overtones?

A more positive way to look at work

What if you could engage in an endeavor where:

  • you applied devotion and discipline and showed up regularly.
  • your creative juices flowed freely.
  • you experienced a sense of wonder, curiosity, and continual learning.
  • you felt a sense of rightness, as if you were doing something that was truly yours to do.
  • you felt a sense of purpose and passion.
  • you might be paid or not.

What would you call that?

The way to know what qualifies as a right endeavor might be by asking a question like the one Edra asked Ann Patchett.

“Does it make you better?”

Not richer, more successful or likely to show up in Time Magazine’s top 100 People of the Year. Just better. You know what I mean.

“Are you more vital, alive, compassionate towards others, a more fulfilled human being?” “Do you feel like your being is expanded as a result of your engagement?”

Another word choice could be your “creative practice.” It comes with less baggage. (I’d love to know if you have a better alternative!)

The nature of a creative practice

You know you have a creative practice when you feel like it has you.

There’s a bit of a master-devotee feeling in it, combined with the above-mentioned devotion and discipline, When I was studying photography during my year as a college student in Paris, I couldn’t wait to get into the darkroom to see what miracles could happen next. My accredited “work” for the year was studying French and passing a number of courses, but my real work-as-practice was allowing myself to explore photography and cinema with eyes of wonder.

I can still remember that cool, blue-lit darkroom, where the shallow troughs of water and chemicals bubbled. We students spoke in subdued voices as we awaited our turns to print our films, swooshing our papers through their chemical baths, while holding our breaths to see what would emerge.

I’d leave the studio in wonder, my eyes captivated by the Art Nouveau curves of the Parisian Metro signs; my curiosity piqued to study the faces of subway riders, my time on the trains absorbed in dreaming of what I would shoot next.

Today’s practice

My work-as-creative-practice these days is writing, although I hesitate to say that because I still love any chance to teach leadership storytelling and coach my clients. But the master who calls me to attend is intangible, not measured by money or external rewards, rather elusive about what she or he wants from me, and very demanding.

I’ve learned that in showing up for work, I will be challenged, altered, and rewarded if only by the satisfaction of launching a few ideas that someone else might read. As a result, I walk in the world differently.

Heeding the master

Years ago, when I was in a period of high obsession in the garden, I had a similar sense of commitment to a master with whom I was in regular dialogue. The rules were similar: show up consistently, maintain a sense of curiosity and wonder, structure my life to support my endeavor, and wait for orders.

When I’d garden in those days, a world opened up for me. I’d spend hours on my knees getting to know my garden by weeding, digging and pruning before it would start to “tell me” what it wanted next. Then I’d enter an altered space where I followed the orders I was hearing: remove this hellebore, transplant that Japanese maple, trim the lower branch, pave the path with logs, etc. I only left when night descended and I couldn’t see to work.

Similarly, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, I needed devotion and discipline to work on my research while managing a full-time job. At first, I felt like I was slogging uphill, but as the project continued, a voice started emerging from the pages, talking back to me, and encouraging my work. Its directions weren’t as assertive as my garden’s, but I was in dialogue with a force and my work was to listen.

I smile to myself when I hear people complaining about the process of completing a doctorate, knowing that mine was a delight. Hard work, of course, but a practice that “made me better.”

What’s your practice?

Am I’m crazy? I’d love to hear from some of you who know what it is to surrender to a creative practice. If you have a better word for work-that-allows-you-to-thrive, please let me know.

What is your creative practice and…does it make you better?

How often and when should you take a break?

 

 

Who needs a break from work? I do. We all do, probably more than we know. But when should we take those breaks, and for how long, to keep our performance rolling during the day?

When you search online you’ll find a wealth of expert-sounding opinions, with references to a few core ideas that are repeated so often that you almost think they are true.

Should we follow the research on ultradian rhythms (see below) and time our work for 90 – 120 minutes followed by a 20-minute break? Or should we heed the research that says the sweet spot for productivity is 52 minutes of work, followed by a 17-minute break?  Or should we stick to bursts of 25 minutes, using the popular Pomodoro Technique?

Let’s explore these ideas, after tipping our hat to science, (so politically endangered these days), to see what the research actually says.

Ninety minutes on/twenty minutes off

Personal energy guru and leadership consultant Tony Schwartz promotes the idea of improving performance by working with our daily ultradian rhythms of activity and rest. (Ultradian means a recurring cycle of time that repeats over a 24 hour period.) Nathan Kleitman, a physiologist and sleep researcher, did groundbreaking research uncovering the “Basic rest-activity cycle” (BRAC) of 90-120 minutes that occurs when we sleep and, it appears, when we’re awake. Could working in 90-minute cycles during the day help improve performance? Apparently Kleitman thought so, as Schwartz does today. But the research isn’t so clear.

Attempts to scientifically test Kleitman’s idea that working for 90-minutes and then resting improves productivity haven’t panned out. The US Army even commissioned a study in the 1990’s to look at the connection between the rhythms and performance, but the findings weren’t strong.

That doesn’t mean the idea of syncing your work with your ultradian rhythms isn’t intriguing, and the benefits of taking more planful breaks in today’s constantly driven work cultures make sense. Recent research conducted by faculty of the Wharton School of Business found that compliance with safety regulations increases when people take real breaks between shifts, a finding that’s relevant for today’s over-taxed physicians who might otherwise forget to wash their hands.

So taking creative, renewing, or as-needed breaks, without purporting that the magic 90-minute number for enhancing performance has been scientifically proven, seems to make good sense.

Fifty-two minutes on and seventeen minutes off

A couple of years ago a huge media buzz started when DeskTime, a firm that produces employee productivity tracking software, produced research done by the firm showing that the “most productive people work for 52 minutes, then break for 17 minutes.” DeskTime, with access to millions of records that monitored employees’ productivity while at the computer, isolated the “top 10% most productive employees” and analyzed their behavior. The 52/17 rule emerged and swept the Internet like a new gospel.

A bit skeptical, I had to challenge the source of this oft-cited research: a firm in the biz of selling productivity tracking software. They define “productive employees” as “those who had the highest ratio of using ‘productive’ [software] applications for their line of work (e.g., a marketer would indicate social platforms like Facebook as ‘productive’.)”

Did you understand that slog of words? Productivity becomes a function of what DeskTime can measure–”productive” software tied to an employee’s field–not a reflection of creative activity. (Will I be more productive using Microsoft Word to do multiple 52-minute segments or just brain-dead?)

Science aside, I kind of like the idea of working in fifty-two minute time blocks. It fits my rhythm although I doubt I’ll be diminished if I work fifty-three.

Pomodoro and the twenty-five-minute window.

Years ago, the Pomodoro technique was created by an Italian software designer and time management aficionado Anthony Cirillo and popularized all over the world. The system uses a little tomato-shaped kitchen timer (hence the name Pomodoro – Italian for tomato), to measure work that is done in timed twenty-five minute stretches, followed by a short break. The twenty-five minutes can be a motivation to get going on a project, or a way of tracking your work. Many swear by the method. Cirillo did not base his concept on research; it came out of some interesting assumptions he made. Nothing to dispute here – if twenty-five minutes is a good frame for a spurt of work for you, great!

But if the tomato timer goes off and you want to stay put for another ten minutes, nobody dies.

Here’s my synopsis, based on what I’ve distilled about when to take a break:

  • Our bodies do follow rhythms during the day and it is useful to pay attention to them.
  • We tend to barrel through our day ignoring our body’s need to rest.
  • Resting, taking breaks, and enjoying time-off are undervalued in many workplaces.
  • Paying attention to cycles of energy is useful–but prescribing an ideal amount of time to work isn’t.  (Suggesting-good; prescribing-not.)
  • If we don’t periodically shift gears by taking breaks, our ability to focus is likely to decline.
  • When we break, our decision about how long to take, and what to do should reflect the self-knowing we all need to develop out of listening to our bodies, paying attention to our energy, and noticing our focus.

My Suggestion: Know YOUR rhythm.

Different folks will be productive in different ways.

With a tip of the hat to Aesop and his fables, my husband and I have a tortoise and hare contest going on between our different rhythms of work. I am more hare-like, jumping into a project and working in a burst of activity before signing off. I can be very productive, but push me to keep working beyond a certain point and I fall apart. (Either 25 or 52 minutes could work for me.)

My husband, on the other hand, may delay jumping into a project a bit too much for my taste, but when he commits to a piece of work, his concentration and perseverance astound me. He can easily work for at least a two-hour block of work, interrupted only by an occasional bathroom break.

(I’m not sure which one of us would have won the race…)

Fit your breaks to your needs

When to take a break? When you need one. Your body and your mind will tell you.

How long a break? Rather than assigning a prescribed number of minutes to an optimal break (e.g. seventeen minutes), focus on the quality of that break and how it renews your creative spirit.

Sometimes five minutes of stretching may be all you need. Or occasionally, after a lengthy stretch of pressured work, knock off for a day (or if you have to show up at work, do stuff that’s really easy on the mind).

After a stint of mentally taxing work, I’ll probably need to move my body. But, if my work is physical, sitting at a desk is the break I need to physically recover (I’ve been weeding a lot recently–it makes desk work look enjoyable!)

When my work is highly creative, I like breaks that feel brainless and ask nothing of me. I’m experimenting with staring into space or doing yoga nidra (sleep meditation) when I’ve hit a moment of creative exhaustion.

Bottom line: Breaks aren’t just about improved performance, alluring as that might be. Breaks are also about reviving our spirits and remembering the creative, whole people we are.

 

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