Time out: why? how? when?

  • Why take time out? During the last couple of crazy weeks I've been confronted (yet again!) with the consequences of just going on and on without enough rest, or breaks, or whatever term you prefer. It just doesn't work. Actually, it does work temporarily, which is the sneaky part. You get stuff done, are happy about it, and just keep on truckin'. But at some point it will bite you in the butt. None of us is exempt, so don't think you are. People who work out know, or should know, that rest days are necessary to let the body recuperate, repair muscle fibers etc. The same thing applies to mental work. If you just...keep...going, at some point you start noticing there's something wrong. Your concentration goes out the window. You get crabby. You forget things. You don't take basic care of yourself (showering, doing the shopping and eating in a reasonably healthy way). These are signs that you've already let things go too long. The best thing is to prevent this situation, but OK, we're human. Sometimes we have to turn the tide when it's already gone pretty far.
  • How and when? There are lots of ways, depending on whether you're going for the prevention angle or having to do damage control. 
  1. One of my favorite tips, even though it's hard for me to implement, is: don't go online first thing in the morning. If you do, you're likely to start the day in reactive mode and end up chasing your tail the whole day. The best thing is to start the day quietly (literally) and just let the ideas about today, this week, whatever, surface in your thoughts. I tend to turn on the computer as soon as I get out of bed, mostly because Man and I communicate often by e-mail. That's a pretty legitimate reason, but I admit I also just can't wait to see what's in my inbox. That actually makes me dependent on the actions of others and tends to get me all fired up before my own day actually begins.
  2. What about during the (work) day? Ideally, we stop doing what we're doing ("Step awaaay from the computer!") and take a real break, ideally involving something like talking to another human being, or playing with the dog or cat, or breathing some fresh air. Failing that, we can use the computer environment to help. I like the site that invites you to do nothing for two minutes. You get an ocean picture on your screen and ocean sounds from your speakers. The site counts to two minutes. If you do anything with the computer during those two minutes, the counter starts over (and you get a red "fail" on the screen; I haven't decided whether this motivates or punishes). You can also use a mindfulness bell (even if you're not Zen-oriented) to gently invite you to take a break. Even the simple TinyAlarm (for Mac users, but there are surely similar Windows applications) can be helpful, and you can set the alarm to use different sounds (the gentle gong is my favorite). Speaking of sounds, I find that turning off the incoming e-mail warning sounds is a huge step towards reducing stress, especially if you tend to be a reactive type like me.
  3. And long-term? Not everyone can afford frequent vacations, but people who work at home can turn off their work mail on the weekend or during a designated free day (or days). Avoiding distractions in general, and keeping focused on the task at hand (planning and goal-setting) can reduce stress. There are lots of suggestions and plans out there; this article on nuking laziness without becoming a workaholic is a place to start, and of course the classic is Getting Things Done and variations thereon. 
  • The basic idea is to be aware of what you're doing, and why. Keep that Dr. Phil voice in the back of your head: "How's that working for you?" If it's not working, dare to change it. And to tell me all about it!

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