Retreat to get ahead.
A lot has happened since I last posted. I included a link to one of my articles detailing my weekly review process over at GTD Times, and got over 100 daily visits across the span of about 5 days (without doubt a record for this humble site).
Unfortunately, that timing coincided with an assignment in one class and writing a take-home exam in my administrative law class. As such, I effectively invited a bunch of people into my home and then fell into a coma for the duration of their visit. Not the best way to increase traffic or treat people that are interested in what I have to say.
Administrative law was a challenging course, though only inasmuch as the subject matter was very dry, and it was a large-credit course condensed into half the time. I was spending 8 hours a week in class, and additional time reading. The challenge was to stay motivated and engaged throughout. Nevertheless, things have started to settle down a little bit, and as I travel over to Vancouver for the weekend, I’m given the familiar gift of a dedicated 1.5 hours in which to put thoughts to keyboard.
Today I want to talk a little bit about the importance of retreating. If you don’t need convincing and only want the strategy, you can skip to it here.
What I’m hoping to convince you is that there is value in having the self-discipline and awareness to take a step back from time to time and pull away from whatever you are currently focused on.
There are many good reasons to purposefully retreat from your current task or project. First and foremost is the need to combat diminishing returns. Although this is generally an economic theory, it is applicable to much of our daily lives.
Can you think of a time when you were banging your head against the metaphorical wall for hours, trying to solve a problem, only to go for a walk, return and immediately conceive of the solution? These experiences are not uncommon, and are illustrative of the value of retreating.
When a problem is receiving all of our focus, we can develop mental tunnel vision. Our mind’s become focused to the extent that we are unable to synthesize or incorporate any additional information from outside of our particular area of focus. It is not until we step back that the blinders on our mind are removed and we are free to think of a solution in terms that exist outside of the confines of the box we were operating in.
Do you take breaks at work?
If you answered no, you probably thought to yourself “I’m way too busy to take a break, I can’t afford the time”. The fact is, you can’t afford not to take breaks.
Without taking time to retreat and reconnect with yourself, the efficiency with which you are able to apply yourself to your work will diminish over time. This is not an uncommon process amongst law students. A-type personalities have an aggressive bent and love throwing themselves at a task. Failure in achieving that task within expectations is met with zeal and resentment, and a redoubling of effort. Many a weary face have I seen turning in assignments in the morning, telling fables of seeing dragons at 5 in the morning, shortly before they awoke in a pile of drool in time to hand in their completed paper.
I can’t afford to!
Actually, you can’t afford not to.
This is a good statement to trigger your self-awareness and alert you that maybe you need to take a step back. With unbelievably few exceptions, taking 15 minutes away from a task you are working on is not going to result in failure.
Retreating from your tasks and projects is important, but this philosophy should be applied not just to work, but to life in general.
For the first two years of classes, I’ve been a part of the co-op program. This means that I take classes for four months, then work at a legal job for four months, and back again. A lot of my friends planned their work so that they finished on a Friday, and then started school again on a Monday. When I told them that I had two weeks off, they exclaimed disbelief: “You’re so lucky!”.
Luck has nothing to do with it. You have to actively make time for your retreats. No one else is going to do it for you (and the same applies for your breaks at work). Are you thinking that you can’t afford the time off? Why not? The benefit you will gain from taking two weeks off to process your own thoughts and reconnect with yourself will far outweigh the material costs of missing out on the paycheque.
But I go on vacation..
Vacations are awesome. For many people they are a form of retreat. It takes them away from their context, frees their minds up to relax and focus on what they want to achieve when they get back home, and spend time with the person that they love. For some people, this is all that they need, although I must admit that the people I know that take the most vacations are often the ones that are the most stressed out on a daily basis. They should probably be retreating more on a daily basis, and less on a monthly or annual one.
When you go on a vacation, are you doing a lot of planning? Are you stressed out at all about the cost, either during the vacation or when you get back home? Do you go on vacation to let your mind sit idle for hours on a beach, or to be exposed to culture different from your own? None of these are cause for judgment, simply different approaches to vacation. I love being exposed to new cultures when I travel, and so this type of vacation really isn’t much of a retreat for me — it’s time I spend actively engaging and expanding my mind.
It’s about balance — remember?
Regardless of the approach you take, the bottom line is balance is a quality that we must seek to imbue in our lives on a continual basis. This balance must be sought at the microscopic level (on an hourly or daily basis) and on a macroscopic level (annual vacations, etc.). If you never make the time to be at peace with your thoughts, you’ll never have the time.
Okay, you’re convinced. Here are some of my own strategies to help adopt the habit of retreating:
- Remember the trigger phrase
- If you catch yourself saying something like “I can’t afford to take a break right now”, it’s probably the time when you most need one.
- Question your assertions
- If you’re telling yourself that you can’t afford the time away from your task or away from work, question how accurate this is. Why can’t you afford to take that break? Will the benefit you gain from taking a break really be that detrimental in the long run? Looking back, would you have more regret for not taking the break, or for having taken it?
- Ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t have the option of turning down the break
- I always ask my wife this question when she refuses to take a sick day (in spite of being dreadfully snotty and sick). What if she wasn’t given the option — would her entire project fail? Would she get fired? Would the world end? Ask yourself what would happen if your power went out for 15 minutes and you couldn’t continue working during that period. (If you’re thinking about how you really need to start saving your work more often, you’re missing the point). The consequences of taking a break are not that bad.
- Specifically schedule time in your work calendar for breaks.
- Label them “appointment” or something sufficiently vague. Doing this for 15 minute breaks may become onerous, but I know more than a few people that would benefit from booking time like this for a couple of hours during the day — if only to ensure that they have a few hours of undisturbed time.
- Whenever your situation is undergoing change (new job, moving homes, etc.), give yourself more time than you think you need
- Don’t assume that the weekend will be enough time — specifically leave a little bit of extra room between the end of one job and the start of the next one. A few days off will not break your bank (and if it is, perhaps you should be focusing some attention on living within a tighter budget). Taking the extra time will allow you to adjust and accept the change at a reasonable pace.
- If you need more encouragement, think of all of the things you wish you had time to accomplish but never do
- The simple act of contemplating what you might use the added time off for will help you focus on the value that retreating may provide, rather than just the costs