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Karen Horneffer-Ginter, Ph.D. Headshot

Full Cup, Thirsty Spirit: Why We Stink at Taking Breaks

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One of my favorite ways to take a break is to lie on a hammock, so much so that, several years ago, I purchased a metal frame in order to set one up in my backyard. When I'm on it, gently swaying back and forth and looking up at the open sky and occasional passing birds, I can feel miles away from the items on my to-do list, as well as everything else for that matter. Ironically, when I'm on my hammock, I'm not really that far away from anything. It sits only a few steps from my backdoor, and once I'm settled into the hammock's worn rope, my butt rests, at most, about a quarter inch off the ground. It's close enough that I often wonder if I'll end up with grass stains on my back pockets. Still, the experience creates about as simple and pure a break as a break can get -- which causes me to wonder: Why don't I do it more often?

I've been curious to understand why so many of us are so awful at taking breaks. What is it about our cultural conditioning as adults that prevent us from stepping away from our seemingly-important tasks in order to briefly recharge? Certainly, we're presented with adequate opportunities to pause when we don't want to: red lights, traffic jams, lines at the grocery store and at the bank. For many of us, however, when given an opportunity to take a break at a time when a break would improve our energy level and our concentration, we don't do it. It becomes just too compelling to continue doing what we're doing. Maybe it also feels too difficult to change our momentum in order to pause -- or to recognize that some value might come from taking time to recharge.

I wish we could start a cultural movement to reclaim the power of the break. For starters, it might help to recognize that by definition, a break is supposed to happen between things, just as a page break is inserted right within a book's content. Possibly, we could reinvent the old-fashioned cigarette break -- stepping outside, taking in some fresh air, noticing our surroundings -- just without the smoking part. Or maybe we could approach it as a coffee break, sitting down for a few minutes and directing our attention to something different -- letting the caffeine and even the beverage be optional.

If I were to make up banners and flyers in support of the break movement, they'd have to speak to our tendencies to exhaust ourselves. They'd have to describe how easy it is to get lost in what we're doing and to continue on past a point that's really in our best interests, or even in the best interests of the project we're working on. Our doing, in and of itself, can create a desire for more doing, just as eating sugar creates a longing for more sugar, and getting irritated can cause us to escalate into more irritation. From this perspective, it's important that we practice taking breaks just to keep the habit fresh, so that we don't forget how to. Such practice offers a type of assurance that we'll have this skill set intact for when an opportunity arises to read a bedtime story to our child, or to notice the first blossoms of spring.

Taking breaks is a useful tool for those of us wanting to live more mindfully, because by taking time to recharge, we're often better able to bring our full presence into our day-to-day activities. A break can serve as a meditation bell of sorts, bringing our attention back into the moment and allowing us to return to our activities with a fresh start.

It's worth experimenting with what sorts of breaks work best for us -- whether they are short or long, inside or outside, at risk of causing grass stains or not... Reflect on what your version of a coffee break might be.

Want some suggestions? Visit http://www.fullcupthirstyspirit.com for a free downloadable PDF poster of "50 Ways to Take a Break," along with other inspiration and suggestions.

For more on unplugging and recharging, click here.

For more by Karen Horneffer-Ginter, Ph.D., click here.

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