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Grooving—that’s life at its best. That’s what musicians—and especially drummers—describe as that moment when you’re feeling the rhythm so deeply that you’re almost obligated to stay in it. Not too fast, nor too slow. You’re “in the groove.” It’s the result of hearing the yeses, testing them, and then finding the right rhythm of yes and no, of notes and spaces.
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But it seems we are doing well with the notes, but not the strategic spaces. A Harvard Interactive survey found that American workers didn’t use 9.2 vacation days in 2012, up from 6.2 the year before. About a third of us eat lunch at our desk.
For business leaders especially, my hope is that you will find the right rhythm of yes and of no, that you will groove.
When the 16th century master artist, Leonardo da Vinci, was working on The Last Supper, he would without warning take a break. The prior of Santa Maria delle Grazie was not amused and entreated Leonardo with tiresome persistence to complete the work. The prior complained to the Duke who questioned Leonardo about his working habits. Leonardo, we are told, persuaded the duke that “the greatest geniuses sometimes accomplish more when they work less.”
Some like to describe this optimal state of life as balance. And that description works ok, if it implies the right mixture of activities that promote the good life. The problem with balance—or “the balanced life”—is that it sounds as if living well is to find some equipoise between equal parts of two different things, like relaxation and work.
I prefer describing life at its best as rhythm because it’s dynamic. Balance remains essentially a vision of things staying there on a scale. Balance is a teeter-totter that’s horizontal to the earth. It just stands there. A great rhythm, on the other hand, has movement and dynamism. It integrates a variety of different inputs. Some snare drum there, mixing with a thumping bass and spiced with a shaker, a tambourine, or some conga.
Rhythm—and this is the most important part and the one that’s often missed—has that expert relationship between sound and silence. To keep making noise is just that: noise. But a good rhythm has notes and spaces, and that’s what makes it work. And even more than work, that’s what makes it interesting and sometimes scintillating.
We need our rest. How does this work? Herbert Benson, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and renowned voice on the mind and wellness. He has given a clear description of why strategic breaks work from his research into the science of the brain. Dr. Benson calls moments of renewal “breakouts.” Here’s an example: You’re sitting at your computer, pounding out what you hope will be a hot new book on, let’s say, how to create boundaries so you can achieve your goals as well as health and peace. But you’re stuck on one sentence, maybe even just one stinking word. You keep plugging away, but no word emerges. You don’t know what to do because your publisher’s deadline was in the last century. So you keep pushing. But the creativity never flows.
Using research from neuroscientists and brain mapping, Benson describes that up to a point, stress helps us to think better. Beyond that, however, it frustrates us. The key is to know when you’ve driven yourself beyond what’s helpful. If you keep pushing yourself when you’re at a dead end, your “primitive brain” (the deep core that drives basic functions and raw emotions) goes wild. That’s when you feel fearful, angry, forgetful, frustrated, etc. Benson warns: If you push on, you do it at your own risk. In other words, when you see these signs, it’s time to switch gears.
So take a strategic break. Here’s how: Breathe deeply. Float in the pool. Beat a drum. Fold laundry. As the 12-steppers put it, “Let go and let God.” Listen to U2 or Mozart. Countless possibilities emerge, many tailor-made for you. The key is to do something completely different. Then the stress function is relieved and creativity emerges. Imaging studies suggest that deep meditation and creative activity lead to “coherence”—a synchronizing of the logical left brain with the intuitive right brain. There we enter into a cool Latin term, vis mediatrix naturae or loosely translated “the power of natural healing.”
How does this work? Benson and his colleagues suspect it’s the release of nitric oxide that shuts down stress hormones and fires up those feel-good neurotransmitters like endorphins, soothing the struggling soul. (Just to be clear, that’s nitric—not nitrous—oxide. It’s also the chemical released by Viagra, but I won’t go there.) Interestingly, the chemical formula for nitric oxide is NO. When you’re stressed, say yes to NO.
Before there was Herbert Benson and his Latin there was Tom Cootsona, my dad, who used to utter a choice piece of wisdom: “Sometimes pounding more nails just makes more holes.” Here’s how I first heard it: My dad and I were fastening together two pieces of wood. We pounded in a couple of nails. The bond wasn’t quite strong enough. So I get frustrated and whack in a dozen more. It still doesn’t work. You try bigger nails. It still doesn’t work. My dad said, “No more nails. Let’s try something else.” In other words, there comes a point when there’s enough nails. Similarly, with our problems: we often try the same solution repeatedly. If a project gets stuck, we’re tempted to work one more hour. “If I just work harder, I’ll solve this!” But sometimes, we don’t need nails, we need a wood screw. We need to step back and gain perspective. That’s the beauty of strategic breaks: Saying no to what’s in front of you and yes to moments of rest and renewal. In those moments, we gain fresh point of view, throw away the nails, and create a new solution.
Every day presents good and urgent reasons for saying yes to strategic breaks. Will you and I resist the natural rhythm of work and rest? What will your daily and weekly strategic breaks be?