Here's a quick question, to test your ability to balance work with breaks from work: Imagine it's 1969 and you're walking down a street in London when you hear the unmistakable sound of The Beatles, who haven't played together in years, giving a concert on a rooftop. Would you stop and listen?
(Substitute your favourite group for The Beatles, if the band is not your cup of tea.)
The question comes to me after watching a video of that concert, and noticing the crowd of onlookers divided into two groups. One group was entranced, or at least bemused, and they stood stationary in the streets, listening, even though they couldn't actually see The Beatles, or they clambered along rooftops and stairways to get a ringside view. The other group strode ahead purposefully, seemingly oblivious to the music, or stopped to tell the cameras recording the event for the movie Let It Be that the racket shouldn't be allowed in a business district.
Why I think about it is the fact that in 1969, as a busy person in my first job, I would have probably ignored the concert. Today, more mature, more aware of the importance of balance and the need for breaks, I suspect there's a chance I might stop.
Sure, there might be powerful reasons not to stop. Putting aside whether the music is not to your taste –you might have to pick up your child from day care, or have a meeting with a boss or important client, or a doctor's appointment. But many of us, I suspect, would walk by because the event isn't on our to-do list and we have a lot of burdens.
Taking breaks during the day is now accepted as vital to replenish energy and keep us on an even keel. Tony Schwartz, of The Energy Project, recommends breaks every 90 minutes, and, I would suspect, for impromptu Beatles concerts.
My friend Michael Hurley, a professor of English at Royal Military College of Canada, notes that The Beatles' John Lennon also weighed in on the matter in song: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
Adds Prof. Hurley, in a mash-up of The Hobbit and Star Wars: "Another Englishman, Tolkien, saw this as the dialogue between the unadventurous, routine-bound, do-not-disturb Baggins in us and the more spontaneous, risk-it Took side of ourselves willing, as Obi Wan counsels Luke, to 'Let go your conscious self and act on instinct.'"
Kevin Cashman, a senior partner at executive search firm Korn Ferry who happened to study transcendental meditation under the same teacher as The Beatles – Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – was a mad Beatles fan back in the 1960s. "I would have paused and fainted all at once," he says about how he would have reacted if in London that fateful concert day. "At least I would like to think I would have paused."
The slight doubt is interesting, given he has just written The Pause Principle, arguing we would not only be refreshed but better leaders if we could learn to pause more frequently – slowing down and stepping back when something significant comes into view. "History passes us by," says Mr. Cashman. "And history doesn't have to be this concert or big events. It can be our own spouse or key employees needing us to talk. We're all creating our histories in the moment."
He worries that we are increasingly addicted to our sped-up lives. He notes research findings have shown endorphins go up – we get a little high – when we check something off our to-do list.
"We need to learn to step back and pause into the important and pause into the complex. We need to slow down or we'll miss opportunities," he says. The phrase "Whisper words of wisdom, let it be" in the famed Beatles song, he says, harkens back to transcendental meditation, "words of wisdom" indicating a mantra, and "let it be" signalling the importance of deep pause.
He suggests we think of a matrix, with pause on the horizontal axis, running from low to high, and complexity on the vertical axis, again from low to high. Our life can then be divided into four categories:
This area of low complexity and low pause is where our productivity, efficiency and profitability comes. It's the management box, with little need to think, and the focus on getting simple things done.
This box of high pause but low complexity is dangerous, since we are wasting time, pausing too much – hesitant and fearful. Perhaps we're not skilled enough, or lack courage. You need to find out the reason you are pausing, and change the pattern.
This is where he says we spend most of our time, going faster and faster, until we're hyperactive, without much pause even though the issues are complex. "We do the expedient. We don't do the new and important. We run to our next appointment instead of listen to The Beatles," he says.
We want to make sure we spend 20 per cent of our time in this leadership box, where high complexity and high pause can allow us to leap ahead by taking time to ponder.
Although he presents that matrix with leadership in mind, he believes it's a great model for balance: "We need to be transactional to get through the day, but we also need to be transformative in managing ourselves and improving."
He believes we also need to be resilient, and quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson – "The world belongs to the energetic" – in urging us to monitor our energy levels. And he believes we should stop at impromptu Beatles concerts.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter