Perpetual busyness, which used to be intermittent enough that we could see contrast between chock-full days and the others, seems like it might be the new norm in the 21st century. We get socked in with activity, heads down, forging through a never-ending to-do list, hoping things will work out. No break in the busyness and each day seems to just run into the next. We feel as though we are walking through a fog, and we rarely feel like we are living our best life. Is there anything we can do? Thankfully, the answer is “yes!” We can learn to take purposeful pauses.
A purposeful pause interrupts the fog that gathers when we’re on autopilot, pushing our way through the day.
A purposeful pause is a mini break in the momentum and speed of our mind and our days. purposeful pauses give us the space to reset and re-center, and when we do, we’re more likely to make conscious choices about our work and our activities that are productive, creative and compassionate. They are one part of Mindful Leadership training (meditation and leadership reflection are the other two). And, most importantly, they take hardly any time at all.
A purposeful pause interrupts the fog that gathers when we’re on autopilot, pushing our way through the day. It’s not all that hard to bring about a break in the clouds and when we do, we can gain new perspective on each moment. Try experimenting with these three ideas and see if your days begin to feel a little different.
1. Start your day with a drink
When I first described this purposeful pause to a group, I got some pretty strange looks. I had to clarify that I wasn’t advocating alcohol for breakfast! What I do suggest is that the first purposeful pause of the day be a mindful cup of coffee or tea.
What to do:
• Begin with the intention to notice the experience. Whether you make your own coffee or tea, or buy it, you can start by paying attention to its preparation. Notice what your body senses as you prepare for, and drink, your beverage: the sounds in the room, the aroma of the coffee or tea, the warmth of the cup in your hand, the taste as you take that first sip, and the feelings of warmth as the beverage is swallowed.
• Don’t multitask: no phones, laptops, newspapers, etc. Just meet the moment with your drink in hand, and when your mind takes you away, for example, to review your morning to-do list, redirect your attention back to the experience of drinking your coffee.
•When we begin our day with this purposeful pause, we are intentionally engaging in a mini training of our mind to be present. We use our body’s sensations to keep us grounded in the present. And, rather than letting the coffee get cold while we are distracted by texts or to-do lists, or missing the experience completely so that we wonder if we actually had a cup of coffee, when we finish and turn to the next task at hand, our attention is rested and ready to engage.
2. Use the door
Workday mornings can be hectic. Even if the alarm goes off on time and we’ve had our mindful morning drink, there’s always something: a sick child or one with lost homework, a car that won’t start, an unexpected phone call. Even without family or domestic crises filling our mornings, there’s still no predicting how traffic will be or what mass transit delays we may encounter. Such unexpected life challenges can mean we arrive at our workplace feeling stressed. This is the perfect time to use the door.
What to do:
• As you approach the door, check in with yourself. Bring your mind to where your body is, about to transition into a new situation. Let the door handle, if there is one, be your cue. It’s a natural place to pause for a brief moment before you open the door. This time, when you start to reach for the handle, let it remind you to do a quick check: notice whether you are present for this moment of your life.
• Bring your attention to the sensations in your body: the feel of the door handle, muscles tensing to push the door open, the temperature differences between outside and inside, the sounds in the street or the lobby, the feeling of your breath in your body. If it’s an automatic door, or a revolving door, adapt the exercise by watching for the moment when you trigger the opening mechanism, and pay attention to the way you time your entry as it revolves.
• These few moments of deliberately paying attention to your experience of arriving at work, of deliberately noticing whatever is there for you to notice, can help you feel more centered as you begin your day.
3. Resist becoming a Monday-morning quarterback
A Monday-morning quarterback is someone whose critique depends on hindsight. How often, after a string of meeting-filled days, do we Monday-morning-quarterback ourselves, wondering how time slipped away while we attended to the loudest screamers and never managed to get around to what’s really important? In each play, a good quarterback needs to see the big picture and know the best way to allocate resources, using foresight more than hindsight. For us to be good quarterbacks in our lives, we need to become “every-morning quarterbacks”—we have to take a closer look at what’s happening day by day, and keep the big picture in mind. An every-morning quarterback makes conscious choices about the way each day is met.
What to do:
• Begin with a purposeful pause before you head off to that first appointment or meeting. Take a few moments to look—really look—at your calendar for the day. Is there room in your day to attend to what is important? Have you allotted time for taking care of yourself physically and emotionally? Are you attending some meetings simply out of habit?
• When we spend most of our time putting out fires, we can’t attend to what is important—strategically or personally. It’s depleting and ultimately not sustainable.
So, if you haven’t been making time in your schedule for what’s important to you and to your work, or if you have been mindlessly attending meetings with little or no purpose, experiment with making one small change to your calendar each day. This may take some courageous leadership because in the short term, it is easiest to just go along with the craziness. But if there is no catalyst, nothing transforms. And remember, it need not be a big change, just a small step.
• Be disciplined about this practice until it becomes a habit. And never underestimate the ripple effect of those small changes.
Be gentle and patient with yourself. Most of us have lived lives of such constant distraction that learning how to be more present takes some time. Like fitness for the body, however, the reward for training your mind and opening your heart is the potential to live your best life. Mindfulness practices like the purposeful pause can teach you how to bring some sunshine to those gray busy days.