From my book A Time for Yes, this post integrates lessons I've learned from various human sciences on what helps us to perform at our peak. Surprisingly, it's taking breaks.
|Mondrian's "Rhythm of Black Lines"|
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.
When 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. 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. A little bass drum here. Some snare drum there, mixing with a thumping bass and a spiced with a shaker, a tambourine, or some conga.
The key then is good rhythm among all the calls in life. Conversely, it’s not really work/life “balance” because I’m saying that all these three major areas—life, work, and love—need to play off one another to create a rhythmic beauty.
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.
Life is like that too. We live our best when there’s intense engagement in what we love, what we say yes to, and then points of rest.
The Bible also describes these moments of refreshing, of returning to God. One of my favorite verses finds its way into the prophecies of Isaiah:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;In quietness and trust shall be your strength.
This prophecy came to the people of Israel at a time of great social stress. They needed to hear about the rhythm of working hard and of returning to God. Tellingly, they did not because the next line reads, “But you refused” (Isaiah 30:15, NRSV).
We need to listen to the call to return and rest. And this rest and return make the rhythm of yes and no.
Let me describe how that worked for me when I was a kid, when the importance of rhythm founds its way in sports. And there I learned that sometimes the best lessons—the ones you need to remember—happen at age 10.
I was down four games to five in the third set at my junior tennis match. I knew I had to perform at my peak. My opponent was bigger and stronger. (My December birthday always put me as the youngest in my age bracket.) At that moment, when I hit the forehand down the line, it needed to be winner. Not just something safe. It had to be special, something that would be sure to take the point. So I was nervous. Even at that age, I’d lost matches where I got too stressed, too uptight and anxious, and I’d missed key shots when I really needed to make them. I knew the feeling of losing that last game. Match and tournament over. Loss to Cootsona. Time to pack up and go home.
I realize that some of us have a tendency to play it overly safe. Maybe we like our breaks a little too much. We need to learn to engage in our yeses just a little more. But I’m assuming that those interested in this book are geared toward optimal performance. More often than not we just keep working harder and harder. We refuse to take a break. We assume more work and more activity is better. The result is usually not more efficiency. Rather, we find ourselves overstressed and making bad decisions.
It turns out that the key for me at that moment in that critical match was actually two minutes of not playing. Before serving at 4-5, I took a short, but necessary rest when my opponent and I switched sides. To gain some energy, I ate a few caramels my mother had carried in her pockets (the ‘70s equivalent of Power Bars). As best I could at age 10, I focused my attention—not on not losing, but on winning. My opponent was back on the court way before I was. But I waited until I felt ready to return to the game.
At 4-5, I served strategically and not wildly. I took the game. At 5-5, my confidence increased and my opponent’s began to waver. Then returning serve, I started to make shots with more freedom and less fear. I was becoming steadier. It got to 6-5. Time to change sides again. Everything in me wanted to rush to the next game—knowing that if I took it, this three-hour match would be over. Instead, as we switched sides, I paused again.
By the time I served at 6-5, my nerves were calmer. I was in the Zone. Even when I lost two points, I still found myself serving at 40-30. Match point. The serve pinned my opponent in the corner, and he hit a weak backhand. I put it away. Match to Cootsona. On to the quarter finals.
I won the match, and I’m sure the brief respite had everything to do with it. I followed my shaky start with my best work.
Sometimes we find ourselves in a tight business climate, where it’s all pressure all the time. We can make the mistake of not taking that break at a critical moment. The match in front of us is urgent, but there is nothing more urgent than strategic breaks. Because when we rest, we can go deep. And we need to dig down when the match gets tough. It’s at the depths that we find creativity and innovation. When we want a new insight on the pitch we’re about to make, the speech we want to write, or managing that challenging employee, we need to move into the deeper functions of our brain. When we are constantly pushing ourselves, it’s simply impossible to do our best work.
Harvard Professor Herbert Benson has called these moments in everyday life “breakouts.” I’ve called it “saying yes to no.” Using research from brain mapping, Benson describes that up to a point, stress helps us think and act better. Beyond that, however, it simply frustrates us. 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 berserk. That’s when we feel fearful, frustrated, and forgetful.
At moments of key stress where we know we need to perform, but can’t, it’s time to change pace. Breathe deeply. Beat a drum. Walk around the block. Listen to Switchfoot or Mozart. There are countless possibilities, but the key is to do something completely different. Then the stress function is relieved and creativity emerges. Function Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies suggest that deep meditation and creative activity lead to “coherence”—a synchronizing of the logical left brain with the intuitive right brain.
In a tight market when we’re tempted to keep working and in the process simply get more stressed, let’s learn when not to work, to say yes to NO.
Now, interestingly enough, two former specialists in coaching tennis, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz, have taken their lessons from athletics and brought them to bear on life and particularly the maintenance of energy. In their book The Power of Full Engagement, they conclude that “managing energy, not time, is the key to high performance and personal renewal.”
Loehr and Schwarz discovered—as I did at age ten—that the best tennis players were the ones who used their breaks between games and even the time between points, most effectively.
They also emphasized that personal energy is multidimensional. And they outlined four areas:
- Physical energy is the fundamental source of fuel for life and for igniting other energies.
- Emotional energy means access to pleasant and positive emotions: self-confidence, self-control, empathy, interpersonal effectiveness
- Mental energy involves realistic optimism, mental preparation, visualization, and creativity.
- Spiritual energy is connection to deeply held values and a purpose that go beyond self-interest.
Interestingly, Loehr and Schwarz emphasize the need for “positive rituals” to keep this energy management. Positive energy rituals support effective energy management. For example, there are barriers to good energy management: Negative habits that block, distort, waste, diminish, deplete and contaminate stored energy. The solution? To establish strategic positive energy rituals that insure sufficient capacity in all dimensions.
Examples can be reasonably prosaic. You like to move your body? Take that walk around the block and grab a cup of coffee. In Say Yes to No, I recommend a daily sabbath, where we take 30 minutes a day to do something we love. Loehr and Scwarz found that our energy cycles run in about 90-120 minute intervals, and so at the end of each of those, we need to take mini-breaks. The key here is to put that in your schedule—to set in your iPhone and to know when your break is going to come.