The Art of Pausing

When the church bells toll 1 pm throughout Italy, you’ll find workers and school children scuttling home while small businesses and banks alike close up shop. Within an hour, the cobblestone streets are empty. It makes no difference whether you’re in Rome or some remote village, everyone heads home for la pausa: “the pause.”

This daily pause isn’t a chance to race home and finish a project, or even to attend to chores. It’s time for a leisurely lunch with family, for a long nap, for idle daydreaming. It’s a time to embrace what the Italians call la dolce far niente, or, “the sweetness of doing nothing.”

The concept of a three-hour break in the afternoon seems anathema to those of us born and raised in a culture of hyper-productivity. Since the 17th century, Western culture has equated idleness with evil, and hard work with a ticket to grace. It’s no surprise that, to many of us, “doing nothing” sounds about just as sweet as battery acid. Yet as I discussed with Tom Hodgkinson on the Tracking Wonder Podcast, there remains a tension between our compulsion to work hard and our desire to enjoy life.

The problem is that we live in an era of unprecedented information, immediacy, and access. And we confuse that information with importance to the point that we crave the dopamine rush of email notifications and Facebook “likes” as much as we covet that morning cup of coffee.

But ever since the pandemic took root in March, I’ve noticed a gradual cultural shift. Whether by choice or out of necessity, we’ve all been decelerating. Maybe you feel as if you’re moving more slowly, as if your mind seems to be processing a bit more slowly, too.

Part of my work at Tracking Wonder is to help high-performing professionals, leaders, and entrepreneurs excel without burning out, to live a life of meaning and mastery. In my years of working with artists, writers, city planners, start-up founders, and solo-preneurs of all stripes, I’ve found that when you can redirect your distracted attention toward what matters, you set up yourself and your brand or business for growing with integrity.

So rather than fight these signals from our bodies and brains, why not honor them and fashion pausing into an art? Instead of seeing idleness as a vice, why not transform it into a virtue, a habit to nurture and a practice to master?

The Art of Radical Pausing

The art of radical pausing is not an easy habit to foster in a world wired by tech corporations that have misused the psychology of attraction and addiction to get you, unconsciously, to hang out on their platforms for longer and longer. However, if we try to bypass our overburdened brains and to carry on with business as usual, we risk burning out or spiraling into self-recrimination or depression.

So, how do we learn to embrace idleness, even in the face of crises?

On the Tracking Wonder Podcast Mike Erwin, author of Lead Yourself First and CEO of the Character & Leadership Center, spoke about leaders who dared to be courageous and ethical in trying times. All of the visionaries he studied – from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Jane Goodall to Winston Churchill – took extended periods of pausing in solitude. Doing so strengthened their intuition, their capacity to generate novel solutions, and their ability to make difficult decisions wisely. And they did so when times were tough, not easy.

The irony is that we advance our most impactful and purposeful work, when we learn how to step away from it and allow ourselves to daydream. In fact, research has found that our minds continue working on the problems that consume our conscious thought, even when we are not consciously focused on them. As funny as it may seem, we can be productive, more creative, more fulfilled if we learn to put down our phones and let our minds wander. As the psychologist Amos Tversky said, “You waste years by not being able to waste hours.” 

But not all daydreaming is fruitful, and not all pausing is restorative. So what’s the difference?

What Pausing Is and What It Isn’t

It’s important to distinguish between a genuine pause and a distraction. Pausing is about creating the space to hear your own inner voice, then tuning in. It’s about turning our task-oriented brains off so we can invite creative insights and novel ideas in. It’s about freeing ourselves from external obligations and internal anxieties to let out minds roam.

The art of pausing is not about plugging in and tuning out, as so many of us often do in our spare minutes. It’s not about Netflix binging or finding digital diversions. Most importantly, pausing is not about shirking responsibilities to other people. Quite the opposite. To pause artfully, you can build idle hours into your schedule so you can enjoy the sweetness of doing nothing unburdened by our day-to-day responsibilities.

With this distinction in mind, here are a few tips to help you quiet your busybody of a brain and embrace idleness.

  1. Listen to your somatic signals.

If you’re feeling distressed or if your mind is running a bit more “thickly” than normal, you might judge yourself for being lazy or lackadaisical. But maybe that ache in your neck or those sleepless nights, your uncharacteristic boredom or your brain fog, are signaling you to change pace. 

Slowing down can actually help you get more done and feel better doing it. As Tony Schwartz, head of the productivity consulting firm The Energy Project, says, “When demand in our lives intensifies, we tend to hunker down and push harder. The trouble is that, without any downtime to refresh and recharge, we’re less efficient, make more mistakes, and get less engaged with what we’re doing.” 

Next time you recognize burnout creeping in or brain fog looming, take a moment to acknowledge it. Notice if and where you feel it in your body. Make a promise to yourself that you will carve out time to engage in the artistic and leisure activities that bring you joy or peace, but that you normally don’t have time for, whether that’s gardening, yoga, reading a novel, or keeping a journal. 

  1. Taper your outward attention.

If you find that your schedule is over-full and you regularly feel overwhelmed, you may want to think about tapering your outward attention so you can turn some of that focus inward. Pare back on your responsibilities and carve out time in your schedule that is entirely for yourself. Literally write it down and set a time frame for your experiment. 

For example, one client is rising early for herself, before her family and before she shows up to lead her own team. Each morning for the next four weeks she is giving herself two hours to herself to wander, roam, and play. It’s a way to help her keep clear boundaries, not grow resentful, and not become burned out. The four-week period gives her psychological security.

If carving out that much idle time sounds impossible, then you might want to start with a Schulz hour. As David Leonhardt described in his 2017 opinion piece in The New York Times, former Secretary of State George Schulz recognized the value of deep solitude. He carved out an hour each week for daydreaming with the instruction that he was only to be disturbed by his wife or the president. 

Start by setting aside a Schulz hour for a set timeframe where you can walk, read, engage in your favorite hobby, or simply let your mind wander entirely undisturbed. Hide your phone, iPad, or any other digital distractions and just hear yourself think. It may be uncomfortable at first, but the more you practice the more artful – and enjoyable – this time will be.

  1. Ask yourself: What am I devoted to?

Sometimes we can become so absorbed in our work that we lose sight of our passion – our purpose – for the work in the first place. When you pause, you step out of some of the daily responsibilities you set yourself up for. You respond less to urgent needs that you likely have created to make yourself feel needed and relevant. And you ask yourself, repeatedly, What am I really called to?

One client in New York City has – by necessity – paused her commute and closed her office rental agreement. The newfound space has birthed numerous insights into what she is and is not called to outside of her practice. 

This past summer, I too engaged in my own pause experiment. I said “No” to more and “Yes” to less. 

The experiment culminated two weeks ago by taking 7 days with my two girls and wife on an island in Maine where we had no Internet or cell reception. A few days I lost track of the hours and the day of the week. I felt deeply connected to – not escaping from – what is true and real.

I had no big revelations but gentle affirmations. My deep gladness comes from teaching, strategizing, and having deep conversations latent with surprise and insight. I remain devoted to changing the way we work and live with more wonder, more wisdom, more courage.

In the words of Joyce Carol Oates, “What begins in childlike wonder and curiosity becomes, if we persist in our devotion (or delusion), a ‘calling.’”

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