You need breaks throughout the day. Your brain can only stay focused for so long before it gets tired.
This is the time of the year when I’m doing a lot of reading and coaching around the results of the Next Level 360 feedback instrument. The 360 provides a picture of how leaders are doing around three vital leadership imperatives: managing yourself, leveraging your team and engaging your colleagues. As I’ve written here before, I completely believe that managing yourself effectively is the foundational imperative. If you’re not doing that well, then you’re not going to be very effective at the other two.
And, if there’s one behavior that underlies managing yourself effectively, it’s pacing yourself by building in regular breaks from work. I have not run a Next Level 360 or self-assessment for a group of leaders in the past 10 years where pacing yourself was not the number one development opportunity flagged in the average scores for the group.
And, as they say, all information is lost through averaging. Pacing yourself by building in regular breaks from work may be the number one identified opportunity but that phrase means different things to different people. It starts with figuring out what a break from work means to you. For a lot of leaders I’ve worked with over the years, their starting point on a break from work is a weekend or a day off or shutting their phone down for an hour or two in the evening. Nothing wrong with any of that. Anyone who wants to live and lead at their best should, in my experience, take those kinds of breaks. Those kinds of breaks are a good start but they’re not enough.
You need breaks throughout the day. Your brain can only stay focused for so long before it gets tired. Your body needs to move. Your bodily systems (blood pressure, stress hormones, digestive, reproductive hormones) need to get back in balance. Little microbreaks throughout the day—breathing, movement, human connection, gratitude—go a long way towards keeping the optimal pace that will enable you to live and lead at your best.
Here are three markers for determining if you’re keeping the right pace for yourself and what to adjust if you determine you’re not.
Energized or Deenergized? Check in with yourself. Are you energized or deenergized by what you’re doing? If you’re energized, you may be in such a state of flow that you’ve become completely and positively absorbed in your work. If you’re deenergized, you’re probably feeling tired, cranky and looking for something to distract you. If you’re feeling that way, take a break and come back to it later. Maybe while you’re taking that break and your mind is working in the background you’ll come up with a better way to approach the work that was deenergizing you in the first place.
Prepared or Unprepared? Over the past few years I’ve been coming to the conclusion that taking time to prepare for what’s coming up on their calendars is the difference between great leaders and good enough (and maybe not even that high) leaders. Sadly, I’m seeing fewer and fewer leaders who are consistently prepared. Their calendars are so racked and stacked that they don’t leave themselves any time to stop, step back, take a couple of deep breaths and say, “OK, in this next meeting, what am I trying to accomplish and how do I need to show up to make that outcome likely?” You may have just noticed that that’s not a ton of preparation but it’s way better than what a lot of leaders are doing to prepare which is nothing. Just winging it from meeting to meeting is not a great success strategy. Get in the routine of taking a few breaks throughout the day (first thing in the morning is a great time) to do a little visualization around the what and how of your day.
Thriving or Surviving? This is the big picture marker of whether or not you’re getting enough breaks from work. Are you healthy, happy, and productive? If yes, the chances are you’re doing a good job of pacing yourself. Or, are you feeling run-down, stressed-out and grasping? I hope not, but if you are it’s likely that you are mired in the chronic state of fight or flight that comes with always having your foot on the gas and never tapping the brakes. Please, for the sake of your health and well-being, your productivity, your family, your friends, and your co-workers, read the post I just linked to and take a few minutes to do one of the simple pace yourself ideas I listed there. My guess is you’ll notice you feel a little better and, if you do, it’s because you changed the physiology of your body in a way that’s the beginning of the path to getting back to living and leading at your best. Don’t try to solve for 100 percent. Solve for five percent. If you get into a few routines that help you pace yourself five percent better each day or week, it won’t be long before you see significant positive differences in your life and work.