When I first arrived in New Zealand my boss was a relatively heavy smoker. It wasn’t unusual to find him outside dragging on a cigarette before coming back into the office to get back into his work. I often found myself joining him as we engaged in some conversation about an existing challenge we were facing into and although I never smoked, just the change of environment helped move the discussion along. After that brief five minutes outside we often came up with a solution or at least steps we could take to move us in the right direction. I’m not a fan of smoking but I am a fan of ‘smoking breaks’!
There are many benefits to stepping outside and away from your desk even for five minutes or so. The change of pace and change of environment often helps put those things that were a problem before into a different context. I remember my father-in-law sharing a story many years ago about a guided tour he was on in the Yellow Stone National Park. The ranger was explaining to the group about the history of the park, the native wildlife, how the landscape was formed, and so on. Surrounded by massive red woods the group suddenly came upon an open space, circular in shape that consisted of grass, bushes, and young trees just starting out on their journey toward the sky. Curious to know why this area wasn’t overgrown with massive trees over the years my father-in-law asked the question. The guide went on to explain that the park rangers regularly slashed and burned this area to ensure it remained the way it does. This, he explained, is something they do to continue the tradition of the Native Americans who inhabited the land for centuries before. The Native Americans did this as part of their hunting strategy. Rather than going out into the thick of the forest and hope to find game, they found that the young shoots and fresh roots that regenerate after the area is burned would attract deer out from the refuge of the trees. All the hunters had to do was to crouch and wait, and the game would come to them.
Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes…including you. ~ Anne Lamott
The same is true for our minds. All we have to do is to create a space and the answers to the problems we’re trying to solve will come to us. I’m sure you’ve experienced this before when you’ve stayed back late in the office trying to solve a problem. Exhausted and frustrated, you eventually give up and go home, and then when you came in the next morning the answer just popped into your head…and of course, the answer was so obvious! Taking regular short breaks helps us declutter, reset, and improves our effectiveness at getting through complex activities.
The other reason taking a ‘smoking break’ is so important is because it reduces our stress levels. Stress can come in many forms but the type of stress that we, as knowledge workers, need to be mindful of is the stress caused by daily hassles. Daily hassles is the term given to all those little things that build and build and build throughout the day or week; lost keys, annoying co-workers, deadlines, miscommunications, dependence on others, etc.; those things that eventually accumulate to reach, what psychologists call, the allostatic load. The allostatic load is akin to filling up an old kettle, putting it on the stove, turning up the heat and shoving a cork in the end of it. After a while, if the pressure isn’t released, the kettle will explode! Do you know anyone that’s ever happened to? Might you know them intimately? It happens to us all and that’s why it’s so important to take regular breaks. Taking ‘smoking breaks’ helps reduce the building pressure, reducing the allostatic load so we can continue to perform at a high level throughout the whole day.
There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither. ~ Alan Cohen
The last thing we can learn from smokers is that when they inhale from a cigarette, they take in big deep breaths. Deep breathing is well known for triggering the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of the fight-flight response) and is the only conscious way we can engage this system. Not only that, but instead of filling our lungs with toxins that are adverse to our health (as with smoking), filling your blood stream with oxygen boosts our energy systems and enables us to concentrate more, becoming more effective in meetings and at solving problems.
Now, obviously I’m not promoting smoking. But I am promoting the idea of taking regular breaks away from your desk, letting your mind wander and taking a few deep breaths throughout the day. Give it a go…you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results!
If you’d like to know how to regularly perform at the top of your game, or if you’d like to explore how coaching can help you become a better leader (of others or yourself!), or even if you’re just generally curious about what professional coaching can offer you, please contact us at any time for a free consultation.
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