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Working Smart II: Pacing Strategies

This group of activities will help you stay “up” for your work, focus on it more clearly, and actually complete the job more quickly than if you tried to work straight through without heeding your body and mind’s cries of distress when their natural rhythms and needs are violated. Choose one or a handful.

Mind Balance Strategies

1. Take a 10-minute break after every 90 minutes of work.

Recent research indicates that brain fatigue sets in after about 90 minutes of focused attention on any one mental task. After that point, the mind needs a break and our attention will wander even when we don’t consciously notice we’ve “gone somewhere”! Ideas will seem to be coming more slowly; thoughts will be transferred to the computer screen more hesitantly. Eventually we’ll take note of what’s happening—we’ll start feeling logy, restless, leaden-minded or bored—but by the time we become consciously aware of the brain fatigue it’s often too late. The enthusiasm and energy that would have brought the project to life has drained out and we feel very, very inclined just to drop it altogether for today. Or to take a lo-o-ong break…

So, when working on a mind-heavy project, set a timer and take a 10-minute break every 90 minutes, regardless of whether or not you feel you “need to.” In fact, ideally you won’t feel yet that you need to take that break, because you’re pausing while you’re still ahead of the mental energy curve! That way, 10 minutes will be much less likely to stretch into an hour; and you can resume work guided by enthusiasm and excitement rather than driven by your inner taskmaster. We can just about guarantee that you’ll finish the project faster than if you try to slog through it—and stay in love with your work, too!

2. Alternate left-brain and right-brain activities.

The linear, word-and-number-oriented left brain that writes your documents or makes your plans will serve you better if you “rest” it after a morning or afternoon’s work by switching to your more holographic, image-oriented right brain for an hour or two. Unfortunately, this need often drives us into unconscious internet surfing (a swift flow of images can let a word-weary left brain rest) or computer games with high visual content. The problem? Those things can be addictive, as you have probably experienced. Instead, try walking in nature for a few minutes, even if it’s just a turn around the yard or around the block. Or buy yourself an adult coloring book or a jigsaw puzzle. Or what about those pictures you took last summer that are languishing forgotten in your phone? Or… you get the idea.

At least 25 minutes is needed to rest that left brain; an hour’s even better. Be sure, though, to set a back-to-work timer…you may be amazed at how thirsty your right brain is!

Body Balance Strategies

Just as your mind needs those quick breaks every 90 minutes, your body needs frequent changes too. Here are some:

1. When taking that 10-minute break, get up and walk.

Around the house or office, out into the hall and back; just walk. Walking increases two kinds of circulation: vascular and lymphatic. And since both blood and lymph work to flush accumulated toxins from the body, you’ll feel a great deal fresher and more alive when you sit back down. Your brain will thank you. (And so will your body, with increased vigor and decreased interest in snacking!)

2. Take at least ten deep breaths during that 90-minute work period.

Same reason: your lungs also help you de-sludge your brain. Do you have to count? No. Just set the intention to take at least 10 deep breaths and your other-than-conscious mind will issue the needed reminders to your lungs and diaphragm.

3. Rest your eyes by changing focal length.

Looking out the window or at the opposite wall every few minutes will relieve a lot of eyestrain. And in case you haven’t noticed, when your eyes are tired, they complain mightily to the rest of the body and you end up feeling tired and cranky. Put a sticky note on your monitor that just says “Eyes?” to remind you to look up from your work every time you see it. (Move the note frequently from place to place around the edge of your monitor screen so it can continue to attract your attention.)

Life Balance Strategies

Now stretch the time frame. Remember the old adage about “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”? Yep. Your mind and all your senses will be sharper, your energy will be higher and clearer, and your creative channels will open wider if your life as a whole is a healthy, organic balance of work, rest and play.

1. Take at least one day a week off and fill it with joy.

This means, for most of us, not opening the laptop, not checking email on our phone. It doesn’t mean you have to sit in a chair all day, or even get out of the house (though that’s highly recommended!). It means you’re doing something you consider restful and/or recreational—and it’s something you love to do. For instance, though cooking may look like work to many people, if for you it’s great fun to prepare some fabulous dish that will delight you for days to come, go for it! Or if gardening is your joy, pulling weeds may be a wonderful meditative exercise that fills your soul. This day of joy will open and fill your heart—a necessary prerequisite to an inspired and enjoyable work life.

2. Make rest and sleep a priority.

These valued contributors to our effectiveness are given much lip service but little real heed. Do you know how many hours’ sleep you need in order to wake up rested (not what the internet tells you)? If not, you might want to experiment with adding an hour to your night, three nights in a row. Then assess how you feel on the third morning and through that day. Are you more keen, more present to your work and to your life? Or are you feeling dull and logy? If so, cut back again. (Why three nights? Because overtired bodies and minds can take that long to show the benefits; they’ll tend to complain about how tired they are for a couple of days first, now they know you’re listening!) And if you just can’t get enough sleep in the night, try 10-minute “power naps” in a recliner twice a day. Even if all you do is doze lightly, it’ll help more than you can imagine. (The same three-day-experiment suggestion applies, by the way.)

3. Divide your tasks into small milestones, then celebrate each one with rewarding


One step at a time is how we walk best, and also how we work best. Do this dividing before you start the job, and decide on the reward for each milestone in advance. Write it down. If at all possible, make the steps small enough so you can complete one in half a day, or a day at most. Then reward yourself immediately. The rewards can be very small, as long as they would be enjoyable. (Generally, a good plan is to stay away from food-as-reward; there are so many other ways to celebrate!) Here are some suggestions:

For reaching smaller milestones:

- Smell some flowers in your garden

- Listen to a favorite but little-played song

- Interact with your dog or cat

- Call a dear friend and tell them you’re rewarding yourself by talking to them

- Do some stretches

- Go for a short walk, especially near flowing water

- Watch some clouds

- Throw a Frisbee or shoot some baskets

- Count the birds in your trees

- Play your musical instrument (one song)

- Open and smell three of your favorite spices

And then, the big rewards. After completing a whole task or project:

- Get a massage

- Go out with a friend to a concert or play or art museum

- Take a day trip on your next day off

- Engage in your favorite sport: set up a game of tennis, a hiking or skiing date, with the

intention that this one’s to celebrate you!

- Have a garden?

- Buy, and plant, a new plant

- Visit a new park

And you'll have noticed that all these "rewards," great and small, are also great life-balance and work-pacing tools in themselves. Doubly rewarding! Enjoy!!

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