The Gentle Art of Taking a Break

Nell Edgington

In one of my coaching sessions with a nonprofit leader last week, we spent a good deal of time discussing how to take a break. But like so many leaders in the nonprofit sector, this exhausted, worn down, borderline burned-out nonprofit leader was very resistant to what every cell in her body was craving — a restorative break.

The 8-hour work day is a construct. In fact, throughout history the most creative and productive among us only worked a few hours a day, as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang explains in his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less:

“When you examine the lives of history’s most creative figures, you are immediately confronted with a paradox: They organized their lives around their work, but not their days. Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking.”

If you spent only, say 4 hours per day working, can you imagine what you could do with the remaining 20 hours in your day? Blows the mind, doesn’t it?

But that is simply unrealistic, right?

Believe me, I get it. Before I went on my social media break last year, I, too, was swept up in the modern notion of the endless to do list. I rarely took breaks because of the overwhelming fear that I might let someone down.

But I’m here to tell you that a break can be wonderful. And by “break” I mean anything that begins to restore your innate sense of peace and joy — from 15 minutes of sitting watching the birds, to a walk around the block, to an hour reading the latest bestseller, to a weekend spent completely offline, to a 3-month sabbatical, to anything in between.

A restorative break can:

  • Help you listen to your body, which is incredibly smart about knowing what is (and isn’t) good for you.
  • Reconnect you to your passions and what makes you want to get up every morning.
  • Remind you that you are human, not machine.
  • Make you much more productive when you do return to work.
  • Surface your creativity and inspiration.
  • Give you insight into how to solve those otherwise intractable problems you face most days.

But there are endless excuses that most nonprofit leaders give themselves about why they can’t take a break:

I Won’t Get It All Done

Actually, I have found (and research supports this) that productivity diminishes after a certain period of time. A study of scientists found that those who worked 35 hours per week were half as productive as those who worked only 20 hours per week. So instead of continuing to push through when you are feeling at your limit (and making yourself sick), listen to what your body is telling you and take a break. Then you can come back to the work fully restored and much more productive.

I’ll Let Down My Clients, My Board, My Staff, My Funders

Ah, the battle cry of the nonprofit leader. But the surest way to disappoint those who depend on you is to burn out. Because you are the leader, your nonprofit and its mission, its staff, its board, its clients and funders would be lost without you.  So put on your own air mask first, then you can much more effectively lead everyone else.

I Wouldn’t Know What To Do With Myself

I get it. If you are constantly working or thinking about work, you’ve probably drifted pretty far from what gets your energy flowing. We are all different creatures, so what energizes one person may not work for another. So get out a pen and paper and start listing answers to questions like: “If I had a whole free day to myself, what would I do?,” or “What were my favorite activities as a kid?,” or “When I lose track of time, what are the kinds of activities I’m doing?” Your answers to these questions are the things that constitute restorative breaks for you.

I Don’t Deserve A Break

It may be hard to admit, but I bet deep down this is ultimately what is holding you back from taking care of yourself. In refusing to listen to your own needs and take breaks when you desperately need them, you are ultimately telling yourself that your life, your health, and your happiness are less valuable than that of your clients, your staff, your funders, and your board. But that is simply not true. Your life holds just as much value as everyone else’s life. And you deserve to take care of yourself just as much as each of us does.

Just Do It! Take a break. See how it feels. Analyze how much more productive you are when you return to work. Then schedule your next break, and your next until you start making a habit of taking a restorative break once a week, or once a day, or even once an hour.

If you find it impossible to figure out how to take a break, perhaps some coaching can get you there. Check out my Leadership Coaching page.

Now I’m off to bake some banana bread. What will you do with your break?

Photo Credit: Milan Popovic 

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