Confession: I like to get things done.
I grew up in the 60’s/70’s, raised by Early Boomer parents in the Midwest. I have a strong case of what my millennial kids call “the Boomer/Protestant work ethic”. Going “strong and long” is what I grew up thinking the goal was when it came to work. My parents, teachers, and early bosses all drilled the idea into my head that staying on task with full focus was good, daydreaming or playing was not good.
Over time, I have learned that there is a little problem built into this approach. Our brains just aren’t designed for it. We need breaks. The executive center of the brain (the PFC) only stores about 20-90 minutes worth of fuel at a time. When that fuel runs out and we’re running on fumes, thinking gets “fuzzy”, decision making becomes slower, creativity goes down and reactivity goes up.
We’ve all been adjusting the ways that we work over the last few years. For some of us, the pandemic brought entirely new patterns of working, moving from in-office work to home based work. A lot of us are spending more time in Zoom rooms or other virtual environments. With labor shortages and supply chain issues, we are doing more with less and pushing harder than we used to.
When I announce to a class that it’s time for a break, everyone goes straight to their device. Many people now use their entire break to check their emails or return missed calls with only a brief visit to the restroom. An observation that I’ve noticed is happening even more than pre-Covid days.
Imagine that you were going to set out on a cross-country road trip. There are two tanks that you need to manage – one in your car and the other in your body. How would you manage them to be most efficient? Most people would begin with a full tank in the car and an empty one in their body and drive until one of them needs to be either filled or emptied. At that point, you would pull into a gas station, fill up your tank, use the restroom and start again.
What would that trip be like if you pulled off and only put enough gas in your tank to get you to the next exit? Ridiculous, right? Who would do that?
Well, many of us do that all day long at work. We start with a nice full tank of energy and then think we can run on fumes and a few tiny little dribbles of fuel the rest of the day.
So, how do you get a complete fill-up?
Here is a good rule of thumb: do the opposite kind of thinking that you have been doing. It turns out that “daydreaming” is really good for us. It is a great way to let that PFC shut down and rest while other parts of the brain take over. If you’ve been doing a lot of problem solving, do something “mindless” like cleaning. Going for a walk is fantastic, but not as helpful if you are on your phone or thinking about work while you do it. Try going for a 20 minute walk and focusing your attention on the colors you notice or the sounds you hear.
These are a few forms of mindfulness that are highly effective at giving your brain that refueling that it needs.
I’d tell you more, but it’s time for my break!
Are you getting enough breaks in your thinking and your activities throughout the day?
How do you use your break times?
Just a little food for thought.