I’m absolutely blessed that I can, from time to time, go along and see what my girls get up to in their after school activities. Both of my girls study piano and watching their little fingers dance across the keys is amazing to me. Sometimes, as you can imagine, when they are learning a new piece that requires both hands going in different directions it can get a little confusing. I sat watching my daughter, Ciara, struggle with the piece she was learning and I smiled at her determination to get it right. After a couple of attempts Ruth, Ciara’s piano teacher, leaned forward and gently asked her a question, “Would you like to walk around the magic circle?” I was a little confused but Ciara simply smiled, got up off her seat and slowly walked around the blue-ringed rug lying in the middle of the room. “I think I need to do it twice,” she said and around she went again. When she sat back at the piano she took up where she left off and I was pleasantly surprised to see her effortlessly play the piece that was, only a moment ago, causing her frustration.
It immediately occurred to me that this is something I need to do more of. I’m guessing, because of the culture of busy-ness we like to pursue, I might not be alone here either. How often have you been sitting at your desk struggling to find a solution to a problem and without seeming to get anywhere? After hours of trying to figure it out you finally give up for the day and head home. Then, as if by a miracle, you sit at your desk the next morning and bam! the solution pops into your head with seemingly no effort at all. So often it’s the little things that add up to us being more effective throughout our day. Think of it this way, if I were to hold a glass of water out to my side with my arm extended, what’s bound to happen over time? If you’re thinking, well your arm would get tired, you’re right! However, what if, before my arm got too tired, I decided to set the glass of water down just for a few seconds before picking it up again? Right again, I’d be able to do this all day without any effects of fatigue whatsoever. Therefore, by consciously planning in ‘strategic downtime’ throughout our day we allow our bodies and minds to resettle before taking on the next challenge with renewed vigor and warding off the effects of fatigue.
There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither. ~ Alan Cohen
There are so many techniques out there to help us do this, most notably the Pomodoro Technique which challenges you to set an objective to complete within a 25 minute time-box. Obviously if the objective is going to take longer than 25 minutes you need to estimate how many pomodoros (25 minute time-boxes) it will take and chunk it down into smaller tasks. There are many benefits to taking this approach because when we’re focused on achieving a goal we perform much better. The obvious intention is to then take a 5 minute break after the 25 minute focused effort to get organised for the next task. My personal preference is to have high intensity working periods where I’m focused on achieving one or more tasks in a 1.5 to 2 hour period and then take a break (why not download an app onto your smart phone to help keep you honest?) Working at home allows me to stand up and stretch without drawing too much attention to myself but simple tasks like walking the length of your office to the water cooler, and rather than see how long you can hold the glass of water in your outstretched hand, drink it down. Another little mini-break could be a walk around the block…fresh air does wonders to rejuvenate the mind and body. Many teams stop work and do a quiz in the afternoon. You could listen to your favourite music or chat with a colleague. What are the ways you could introduce strategic downtime into your day?
Watching Ciara play the piano for a little while longer, she looked up at Ruth and said, “I think I need to walk around the magic circle again,” to which Ruth responded, “No, dear, I think you need to concentrate a little harder.” When we have a task to do that is a little outside of our comfort zone and challenges us we might be tempted to do less challenging tasks that are well within our skill set to restore that sense of psychological comfort. We call these escape activities. You know, like cleaning your desk or clearing out your junk mail when there are other more important things to do. Be mindful of the difference between escape activities and strategic downtime. Escape activities add little value in the moment, strategic downtime should rejuvenate us and get us ready for the next challenge at hand.
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