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Work is not a pie-eating contest, says Juliet Funt. She’s a trainer in efficiency, but for her efficiency is not rushing through the day with the reckless abandon of participants in a pie-eating contest, without taking a moment to breathe.

We are caught up in what she calls today’s culture of insatiability, and desperately need to insert white space in our day – time without assignment, when we can relax and think. She compares it to the space between the combustibles that a fire can’t live without.

“The space is what makes flames ignite and stay burning. However, we forget this law of nature in every area of our lives beyond the hearth – especially at work. Our schedules are packed like the last moments of a winning game of Tetris and our brimming minds overflow into dozens of insufficient note-taking apps. There’s not oxygen to feed the fire,” she writes in her book A Minute to Think.

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There’s no such thing as a perfect break, observes consultant Wally Bock. There are only breaks that work for you (or don’t). So, experiment. Try taking a walk or chatting with co-workers or reading. Use the natural rhythm of the day to find such breaks.

While most people urging breaks are talking of a pause, he argues that a break is simply something different. “If you’ve been working sitting down, stand up. If you’ve been working on a report, take some time to answer e-mails or phone calls. If you’ve been working alone, work with someone else. A break doesn’t need to be fancy, formal or long, just different,” he writes on his blog.

Dan Oestreich, who bills himself as a reflective leadership consultant, says when there’s more to do we work harder – not only not stopping, but speeding up. But the pressure never ceases, so we are continuously hard-pressed. Instead, we need breathers, which he breaks into four elements:

  • Pause: This means stop. “It doesn’t mean kind of stopping as if rolling through a stop sign at 30 miles an hour. It means bringing the vehicle to a halt. The wheels not turning. Because if you don’t the brain won’t stop and whatever groove you happen to be in will continue, even if it’s one heading for a cliff,” he writes on his blog. Stop and breathe.
  • Reflect: Use the time to examine issues before you, thinking from a fresh standpoint and looking for patterns and meaning. The break here is not just from the pressures of the day or week but separating yourself from existing assumptions and biases. “Reflection cannot be done without the pause, the quiet, the sitting next to the river and watching how it flows. It isn’t a fight with reality. Rather, it’s letting the gradual, the sensed, the intuitive, the possible emerge from the swirling and muddied water,” he says.
  • Refocus: After reflection, you need to clarify your thoughts, notably focusing on what’s important and doable. It’s bringing order to your thoughts.
  • Reignite: Light the fire again. You can move ahead, given your new vision of what’s possible. He calls it mindful passion.

Ms. Funt urges you to take one minute – surely that’s not impossible – to let your mind do anything it wants to. Like a blender that has just stopped, your mind will still swirl with thoughts but if you repeatedly take breathers the doses of white space will be refreshing.

Use your commute to let your mind wander freely. If eating alone, do it alone – without television or a podcast. Give yourself permission to daydream every day for a moment or two. Organize yourself so each day begins with a moment or two of white space. Tie pauses to a cue – when you notice the sun on your face, bask in it for a quiet minute.

She says giving these breathers a title – white space, or strategic pause – emphasizes their importance and fights against the tendency to feel you’re slacking off and therefore succumb to the taskmaster of your mind.

Quick hits

  • Don’t work on projects you don’t think will succeed, argues consultant Mike Shipulski. It doesn’t matter what others think: If you sense it’s a bad project, it’s a bad project and you won’t make it work out.
  • Behavioural scientist Jon Levy says the greatest predictor of success isn’t IQ or what university you went to. It’s who you are connected to, how much they trust you, and the sense of community you share.
  • Others may be joining the so-called Great Resignation but if you are choosing to return to the office executive coach Nihar Chhaya recommends underlining that commitment by developing a “re-onboarding” program, meeting and sharing with colleagues: “Doing so may not only open your eyes to strategic opportunities to add more value and keep you competitive with your peers, but also reinvigorate your sense of purpose at work.”
  • A study suggests when we encounter a person through an image rather than in the flesh we attribute less “mind” to that individual, undervaluing their experience and abilities. In a world of remote communication, we need to be wary of how we evaluate others in such situations.
  • Windows expert Eric Wyatt advises you can launch your favourite desktop apps quicker by pressing the Windows key and a number key – the number one will give you the app in the first taskbar slot to the right of the start button, number two the second slot app, and so on.

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