As I lay there looking up at the sky through the trees above me, my stress disappeared. I was no longer tired, no longer frustrated, no longer irritated by every small obstacle before me. My problems evaporated and my future suddenly felt a whole lot brighter. I realized that in this moment nothing was wrong and nothing needed to be fixed and I was freer than I had felt in a really long time. All this from taking a break from my run to lie down and look up at the treetops. There’s a rising tide of articles on the web espousing the incredible power of taking breaks to improve health, encourage creativity, and increase productivity. I personally find that taking breaks not only improves the quality of my work, but vastly increases my sense of well-being and fulfillment. And it’s not just in work that breaks are powerful. They help me in my exercise routines, my relationships, in learning new skills, and anything else that requires exertion. So why are pauses so powerful? And what does that tell us about how to make the most of them?
1. Taking Breaks Allows You to Rest.
This may seem obvious, but many of us aren’t convinced of our fundamental need for rest. We seem to think we were somehow granted superhuman powers and that our brains and bodies don’t need to recharge like everybody else’s. We think that we have unlimited stores of energy and that with enough effort, discipline, and force of will we can mine it all and turn ourselves into perpetual motion machines. Turns out we’re wrong. When we take breaks, we acknowledge that we’re part of the animal kingdom, and like all other animals were designed to go about our business in a cycle that includes bursts of activity followed by rest. When we pause, we allow our bodies to do exactly what they are designed to do to help us be more effective: replenish our resources and refuel our energy.
2. Taking Breaks Helps You Come Up With New Ideas.
The second step of the well-documented creative process is Incubation. After doing the necessary preparation and research, the next step is to let it all sit there without actively trying to find a solution. Incubation is all about taking a break. It’s the reason for the “Shower Effect” (the observation that all our best ideas occur to us while we’re in the shower). Taking a break, in this case from thinking about something, helps you broaden your perspective, take in the larger picture, and create new associations between familiar ideas. When we’re focused on something, our thinking gets caught in ruts (pretty much literally) and we stop taking in new information. When we take a break, our brains open up, new information becomes available and new pathways are possible.
3. Taking Breaks Gives You Choices.
Most of us, most of the time, are reacting more than we’re responding. Brain studies have shown that our neural pathways are like canyons; our thoughts and reactions are like raindrops traveling worn paths to the ocean. The more times they pass through familiar channels, the deeper those channels run and the harder it is to respond to familiar stimuli in different ways. For example, I had a client who found that every time she sensed that someone might be displeased with her, she got anxious and began to engage in negative, What If thinking. She would imagine being homeless and/or living with her mother whenever she sensed that someone was not happy with her at her job. It was an automatic reaction that happened without any thought or intention on her part. As for me, I get ridiculously frustrated and angry any time someone doesn’t understand what I’m saying, even if it’s because I didn’t speak loudly enough. We all react to certain triggers in ways that take us farther away from what we’re wanting, usually because we’re reacting rather than responding. Taking breaks opens up space for us to choose how we want to respond to something rather than just react out of habit. Whether we’re interrupting a propensity to work nonstop or pausing before we respond instinctively to someone’s comment, taking a break allows us to pause and reflect on what’s going on. What am I feeling right now? Why do I feel this way? What’s most important to me here? How do I want to respond? Even just taking a moment to be present with our experience in this moment, to notice what we’re thinking, feeling, and sensing in our bodies—in other words, to be mindful—opens up the possibility to make a choice where one did not exist previously. I’ve seen clients change in ways that they previously thought impossible when they learn to press pause in the middle of a habitual script.
4. Taking Breaks Fulfills You.
Taking breaks increases fulfillment in two ways: First, it’s a compassionate gift to ourselves that recognizes our needs and demonstrates care and concern for their being met. Having our needs met, whether it’s a need for rest or a need to feel cared for, is kind of the definition of satisfaction. Taking breaks helps us better meet our needs—be they physical, mental, or emotional—and as such contributes greatly to our sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. In addition, pausing allows us to actually feel fulfilled. So often we rush past what brings us joy in our effort to cross something else off our To Do list. We don’t take a moment to revel in our accomplishments, savor the feeling of connection with someone else, or even notice how good the sun feels on our backs. I had to pause before I could be filled by appreciation for the beauty of the treetops surrounding me on my run. When we learn to stop, we start to see just how full this world is of breathtaking and heart-warming beauty.
5. Taking Breaks Makes You Powerful.
At its most basic level, choosing to take a break is an affirmation of how powerful we are. We often lose touch with our power because we get discouraged. We’re afraid we could never leave our job, meet the people we want to spend time with, or find the opportunities we long to pursue. We forget that setbacks are not permanent and that we don’t always have to do what other people expect of us. Deciding to take a break is a small but forceful reminder that we do have the power to make important choices and that we are fundamentally free. It reinforces our agency in this world and reminds us that we can, in fact, take action towards our dreams and create opportunities for ourselves. It’s proof that while we cannot control everything, we can choose to take care of ourselves and move towards our desires. In a small but powerful way, taking a break allows us to practice creating the life that we most truly and deeply want to live.