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3 Tips on How to Take Effective Breaks

Note: This is part of a series of blog posts I’ve been doing about adopting a more positive mindset. You can find the others in my list of blog posts.

You might already know this, but Americans are bad at recognizing when they need to take a break from a tough situation. And we might be even worse at admitting we need a break at all. As Shawn Achor points out in Big Potential: “We are told from a very early age that we shouldn’t avoid our problems.” (p. 172)

But he also points out that by not taking those breaks, we’re actually missing out, and not just on the fun of a vacation. We also lose a competitive advantage – because time off make us more productive.

Achor mostly talked about the importance of going on vacation from work, and I won’t argue that. My vacations have often been relaxing, especially when I can get out into nature like with my trip to New Zealand back in 2012.

But you can’t always go on vacation, or get away to the places you’ve been dreaming about. Sometimes you have family obligations, or financial constraints, or you need time off for less fun reasons like being ill.

So that’s why I want to expand on the theme and include the importance of breaks in general.

A vacation from your problems

In the movie What About Bob?, a psychiatrist tries to help a man named Bob who has a large number of phobias. The doctor’s best advice was for Bob to take a vacation from his problems.

If you’ve seen the movie, then you know things don’t work out the way the doctor wanted. But Bob did manage to get a new perspective and do things he’d never imagined.

And that’s really the key benefit to any kind of break. It allows you to step back from things long enough to see them in a different way. That way, when you get back, you can return to your tasks with renewed energy and focus.

Rest is needed for growth

You can also think of this like muscle growth. In order for your muscles to get stronger, two things need to happen:

  1. You need to stress the muscle enough to actually tear it

  2. Then you need to rest to let the muscle repair itself

The same goes with other areas of your life. Stress can be an opportunity for growth, but in order for that to happen, you also need to rest from that stress.

This doesn’t have to be a week-long vacation. It could be 5 minutes of quiet… a 10-minute walk… 30 minutes of not looking at a screen… or whatever works for you.

Even better is if you plan for regular breaks.

For example, don’t fall into the trap of believing that putting in more hours means being more productive. The opposite is true. As Achor points out, taking some time off increases productivity.

I can speak to this personally. I’ve been working part-time since 2011, and in the time I’m at work, I’m even more productive than I was when working full-time.

3 tips for making breaks effective

In order to make the most of your break, however long or short, here are a few tips.

  1. Prepare others for your time away. If you’re going on vacation, or maybe going offline for long enough that others might notice, it helps to let them know. For example, if you tend to respond to email almost instantly, even going offline for a couple of hours might surprise people if they’re expecting a quick response. And this is even worse if you’re going away for a week. Auto-replies are great for this, to let people know you’re not as available as usual but you’ll respond when you’re able.

  2. Really get away. It can be very easy to go on a pseudo-vacation or take a “fake” break. This happens when you’re theoretically getting away, but you still keep thinking about whatever was going on before. This could be work, but it could also be house projects, relationship issues, or even fun things like that scrapbook you keep meaning to finish. Let it go for during your break to get the most out of your time off.

  3. Plan your transition back. When you go back to your work or project or whatever you’re taking a break from, don’t necessarily dive right back in. See if you can find a way to more easily transition back. If it’s work, start with something small and easily doable. Or if you need to get up your courage for something difficult, like a relationship conversation or returning to caregiving, maybe listen to a song that gives you a boost or try standing in the superhero pose for a couple of minutes. (The superhero pose can make a surprising difference.)

How this applies for mindful eating

I’ve been thinking of this a bit like What About Bob? – specifically, maybe you could also take a vacation from some of your problems with food or eating.

For example, maybe you judge yourself harshly for eating a certain way. What if you took a break from those judgmental thoughts? What would that be like? Could you try it?

Or maybe you could give yourself a vacation from trying to be perfect. Even if it’s for an hour, see how that feels.

You might still want to tell other people about these experiments, so they’d understand if you start acting differently. And in these cases, if you like the results, remember you don’t actually have to go back to the old way of thinking or being. You could retire those thoughts or approaches permanently.

How I’ve been using this

What I’ve been struggling with most lately is everything that’s gone on with the cats. First it was worrying about their health issues, and now it’s grief from losing one of them.

In both cases, I’ve definitely needed to take breaks. When I was in more of a caregiving role, I could have theoretically worked from home the whole time, but I knew that would just drive me crazy with being on the alert all the time for their eating and behavior patterns. That’s why I still went into the office in the mornings, to get a little time away.

Similarly, while I don’t want to trivialize feeling sad, sitting with grief all the time doesn’t help, either. So I find other ways of keeping myself occupied, including work, but also going for walks, writing, and visiting with friends. I still grieve, but it’s more contained.

And then there’s my upcoming work trip, which will involve lots of food. I could stress about that… worry about how much I might eat… if I’ll be tempted by unfamiliar things… or if the different eating schedule will throw me off.

Or I can give myself a vacation from that. I’ll still prepare by bringing snacks, and doing that allows me to let go of the worry because I know I can handle the different situations.

How about you? Are you able to take a break or get away sometimes? Do you have any tips of your own for making that successful?

Either way, I hope this gives you some ideas about how to take breaks and really enjoy them. And also some reminders about why doing this is important.

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