Pattern Interrupt: The Art of Taking Breaks

Very early in my working career, I constantly tried to burn the candle at both ends. When you’re in your roaring 20’s, you feel like you can do it all – have a social life, be successful, and have great relationships. Some people can do this, but it is truly not sustainable. So today’s topic is all about balance with taking breaks, specifically around when to work and when to play.

Now, I want to start off with a very important concept: You must keep working towards your goals. A break does not mean a hiatus. A break does not mean you get to sprint for 30 seconds and then rest the remainder of the day. Though I feel this is obvious, it is very easy for us to do the 15 minute workout and then go eat fast food the rest of the day (I still struggle with this). If you want to have balance in your life, you must truly find your own definition of balance – equal parts of work, play, and rest. However, as soon as any one of these are roughly 50% of how you spend your week or month, you need to reassess, re-prioritize, and re-align.

So what is a break? A break (to me) means that you are not working towards your main goals, but you are still doing something constructive. It can be playing a game (see Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk on how playing games make us happier and more productive), cleaning your house or cutting the grass, or working on an unrelated project (During some of my breaks, I built an R Shiny app on Crime Data for the John Hopkins’ Data Science Course). Notice none of these are laying down, sleeping, etc. There is a concept that “if you want something done, give it to a busy person” or “busy people stay busy”. I do firmly believe that you should stay busy, but it should be the right kinds of busy. If you feel like you need to “hustle and grind” your way to the top, you will find yourself looking for a new job, or, worse, depressed. You need to spend time with family, you need to go for a walk, you need to work on things that you are passionate about.

I’ll talk a little bit about my own personal success with this concept. Years ago circa 2013), I was working full time, dating my now wife, playing in a band, teaching music, and trying to have some kind of social life. I was on this full-time, seven days a week. When I wasn’t working at my job, I was at band practice, or learning a new song to teach or actually teaching, or calling my then fiancee to try and explain what all was going on with me. And while playing in a band or learning music may sound like a break from my day-to-day job, it was hectic to juggle schedules. I never felt like I had a moment for myself. I would kid myself by saying “I’ll feel better after band practice” or “music is therapeutic, so I will feel better after playing this song.” Only when you’re doing it as a second (or third) job, it is more chaotic than you can imagine. To say that I was stressed is an understatement, but I was young and had time. Oddly enough, after all that work, I certainly didn’t have enough money to be doing as much as I was doing.

After about 2 years and multiple times of calculating how I was going to survive without the extra income, I walked away from teaching, and soon afterwards, I walked away from my band (shout-out to Silent Hollow for being understanding and still going). As difficult as these decisions were, because I truly enjoyed some of the moments with my students and band, I knew it was best for me and my future. By simplifying my life, I was able to focus on my career and family and also take meaningful breaks at my pace, not on the schedule of others. Now I am able to play guitar or piano when I feel like it and not worry about the money involved. And these musical breaks are amazing – I am able to problem solve by not focusing on my problems. And I’m not the only one who operates this way – check out this article about Einstein and his love of music to solve problems.

So as you go through your daily routines, schedule time for yourself to play a game, do some light activity, or work on an unrelated problem. You will still stay busy and productive, and you will find yourself much happier in the long run.



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