When my children are watching a movie and we need them to take care of something outside of the room, they have one request: pause it.
It’s a fair request—they don’t want to miss Elsa building her snow castle. They know the words better than Idina Menzel, but they’re still as engaged as the first time they watched it.
I’m not sure this is something we ever really outgrow. We like results. We like progress. We like setting up goals and projects and ticking off little boxes and relish that sense of satisfaction at the end. Ah, dopamine!
Being productive is good. It’s how we create value. But there are times where we need to step back and push pause so we can take care of something else.
- Counting Pomodoros. The first time to push pause is as you’re working. It seems counter-intuitive, but taking regular breaks as you work (every 20 minutes or so) keeps your mind fresh and helps you sustain higher levels of energy and focus. That Keynote deck will be waiting for you after you stretch your legs and get a drink.
- Call it a day. At the end of the day, go home. Set an alarm if you need to. Give yourself enough time to wrap things up and then leave the office. Your wife and kids are waiting for you to come home. Fight the urge to fit in one more thing; instead, write down the top six things you want to get done tomorrow and leave it at that.
- Everybody’s Working for the Weekend. Take time off every week where you don’t work. Change gears and focus on avocations. Play. Have fun. Doing something completely different for a day or three will keep your energy and enthusiasm for your job going for the long run.
- Get out of Dodge. If you have vacation time, use it (and don’t cash out vacation days—take the time off). If you’re self-employed, figure out what you need to do to give yourself a break. Summertime and around the holidays are great times to take an extended break from work.
Each time you step back to push pause, it’s a good time to think one level higher. Between pomodoros, make sure you’re still focused on the right use of your time. At the end or beginning of your day, create a plan for the day. Over the weekend, plan your week. Over the holidays, set goals for the coming year. For bonus points, set aside time for a retreat to develop a five-year plan, draft a personal mission statement, or clarify your core values.
There’s one more time where it’s good to push pause:
- In the heat of the moment. If you’re getting worked up, pump your brakes. Don’t do something you can’t undo. Think thrice before you open your mouth. Viktor Frankl’s key insight was that “[b]etween stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.” You can choose to escalate and make a bad situation worse, or you can choose to step back, push pause, and act instead of react.
Being productive is fun. It feels great to check off tasks, achieve goals, and make progress. But we can’t just push, push, push and expect to get more done. There is a cadence to work. We will get more done if we work with that cadence.
The next time you need to go take care of something else, push pause! It’s okay! It’s even expected. What you were doing will be right there waiting for you when you get back. If you decide that it wasn’t the best use of your time and now you‘re going to do something else, that’s fine, too.