Most of the time, I’m a relatively positive person. But right before leaving for a much-needed five-day vacation a few months ago, I had a meltdown that would have given a toddler a run for the money. During the previous few months, way too much time had been spent at work dealing with stressful situations over multiple weekends. Couldn’t remember the last time I had a full day off.
Things started to go awry when I couldn’t check into my flight online. What should have been a five-minute fix by the airline turned into an hour on the line with a customer service agent. All while I started to worry about being late for an appointment about 20 miles away in Atlanta just as rush hour approached. Someone popped into my office to ask a mildly irritating but innocuous question that would have been a breeze on a normal day. But not at that moment. I erupted into a surge of frustration that had nothing to do with the person or situation. While I apologized quickly and no damage was done, it reinforced that you can’t wait for vacations to blow off steam. It’s much more effective to take pauses, for a few minutes or a few hours, to diffuse the cumulative stress of work.
What do I mean by a pause? A break from the normal routine of your professional or personal life. Here are four ways that even truly time-crunched individuals can take a pause:
1. Try a five-minute meditation. Most of us can spare five minutes between waking and sleeping each day. I’m talking about time you already spend in the car pool line or riding the train home from work, the moments before eating breakfast or stepping out for some quick solitude in your backyard after dinner. Many smart phones allow you to download a free five-minute meditation application that clears your mind through guided breathing and imagery. Afterwards, you might be surprised at how refreshed and focused you feel.
2. Start journaling. During particularly intense moments, consider opening a computer file and posing a question at the top of the page about a concern, challenge or opportunity before you. Let yourself take ten minutes or so to write whatever enters your mind in response without worrying about factors like sounding eloquent or punctuation. You may also prefer to download your thoughts into a beautifully bound book, type notes into your tablet or speak the truth into a voice recording app, playing it back when ready to gain more clarity.
3. Schedule an activity where being quiet is a prerequisite. I know some people do their best thinking and self-reflection in a Yoga or Pilates class. My triathlete husband gets the same kind of experience during his training runs, swims and bike rides where checking his phone for messages isn’t an option. A massage can be a wonderful time to gain insight while the soreness and stress is being pounded out of your body – just curb any need you have to make nervous chatter and ask your therapist to do the same.
4. Change your scenery. At lunch, take a walk around a nearby park instead of eating takeout in front of your computer for the fifth day in a row. Many corporate campuses have nice breakrooms or meeting spaces going used at different times of the day; perhaps you can find a quiet corner to slip into just to get away from your desk. Work from home to gain a different perspective.
Whatever option you choose, honor the pause. Remember, a pause is about stepping away from your regular life to gain a clearer perspective. Cluttering it up with interruptions like email, IM’s, texts or social media negates its positive impact. Put down your smart phone or even better, lock it in a drawer or leave it behind during that time. If you haven’t de-stressed in a while, this might take practice. But the clarity and calmness you gain will be worth it!