Thinking of your break as a reset may help you take more of them and likely increase your work-effectiveness.

In her new book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown shares “if we don’t have the skills to get back up, we may not risk failing”. She uses the phrase “reset skills” and calls “practicing calm” one of the most underrated leadership superpowers. Brown defines calm as “creating perspective and mindfulness while managing emotional reactivity”.

I was reflecting on this idea of practicing calm in the context of watching people try to thrive within competing and conflicting obligations in their work, academic, family, and personal lives. It is common for even the most high-performing employees to get derailed by feeling overwhelmed with what’s on their to-do list. In an overwhelmed state of mind they typically come to the firm conclusion: “there is no way I can ever get it all done.” Our tendency in these moments is to speed up, when what really we need is to slow down.

Far from calming, these can be moments of fairly intense anxiety and the thoughts we have in these moments can interrupt our capacity to cope effectively. Without solid reset skills we can be lost in this “cloud of overwhelm” much longer than we need to be. Prolonged periods of being overwhelmed can cause us to numb this heavy feeling with our go-to addictive behaviors or most cherished procrastination activities, which in turn tends to increase our self-loathing, shame, and anxiety. This pattern can even trigger an episode of major depression.

Given many of us have been asked to do more work with less resources, and many of us are balancing multiple roles at one time, it is fair to say that having moments of overwhelm will be part of our ongoing life experience. So we might want to develop some super solid reset skills.

One of the most basic reset skills is taking regular breaks from work. My non-scientific study of MSU employees tells me that most of us do not take our breaks. When I ask people if they take their break the most common response is “whenever I take a break I feel guilty that I am not working” or “there is too much to do to take a break.” I often counter that there is too much to do to not take a break.

Those of us that do step away from our desks, tend to take the kind of break where you take your super busy mind off of work for a quick couple of minutes, redirect this same busy mind to focus on your personal life. This may help us tend to a flurry of personal details but it is not what I would call a “reset moment."

A moment of reset happens when we actually allow our left brain processors to officially clock out for 10 to 15 minutes and allow this part of our brain to rest. Our process actually works better throughout the day when we give it a chance to truly rest. Laurie Cameron author of The Mindful Day: Practical Ways to Find Focus, Calm, and Joy from Morning to Evening invites us to “Make our break meaningful. Go for a walk outside, or draw, or close your eyes and focus on your breath – something to give your prefrontal cortex, the reasoning part of your brain, a break.”

Whenever you find your mind is spinning or you can’t focus or prioritize,  it may be helpful to know that in that particular moment no amount of additional processing is going to help you figure out the problem. So continuing in that mode of thinking is not an effective work strategy. As Albert Einstein was known to say: “You can’t fix a problem from the same level of consciousness that creates it.” From this we can learn that you can’t use your processing brain to fix the fact that your processing brain is overwhelmed. What you need is a shift in consciousness that allows you to move from your processing/calculating mode of thinking to your receiving/reflecting mode of thinking. This shift not only allows your processing brain to reset, but it might give you an opportunity to be aided by your deeper wisdom and to have a brand new idea enter the equation. In order to help this shift in thinking occur, you can facilitate a personal reset. You can also notice when a group’s thinking is stuck and unproductive and be the wise person in the room that suggests a group reset to allow the members of your team to go do a reset and then come back with a fresh perspective.

Thinking of your break as a reset may help you see that your willingness to step away and reset your processing brain is in fact an essential work-effectiveness skill, so you are still serving the University (and your family) when you let yourself reset. Rather than seeing this as a moment of “slacking off” you can see this time as your commitment to practice calm, to create mental space for a new perspective that might allow you to acknowledge, honor, and release your temporary experience of being overwhelmed.

Recently I was sharing this idea of a mid-afternoon reset with a first year graduate student and she began to consider what it might be like to “take a day trip out of the shadow of the mountain of things to do.” She then wondered if she took that kind of break if she would realize that it is not actually a “mountain of things to do”, but rather a series of things she can attend to one at a time. Then perhaps she could enjoy each individual task a little bit more, which would make completing them less draining to her spirit overall. For this student, learning to reset throughout the day may help her avoid the prolonged moments of “being glued to the couch with no interest in doing anything at all”.

If you have not been taking your breaks, or if you have been walking away from your desk but not really walking away from work – try on taking more mid-morning and mid-afternoon resets. Allow yourself to sit or walk with a quiet mind, bringing your full attention to the present moment, utilize your senses to help you fully connect with your environment and your innate health and wellbeing. It doesn’t matter where you take this reset moment. Find the best spot you can and let yourself have a simple moment of awake mental rest.

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