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Why "Staying Busy" is a Mistake, and What to Do Instead

Working on the wrong things can lead to burn-out, confusion, and flat-out failure. There's a better way.

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Running a startup means constantly running. We race from one meeting to the next, chat with investors, dash off to a dinner meeting, and then collapse in a heap at night. In between, we’re constantly checking email, our social media feeds, and text messages.

The problem of course, is that we never stop to think about what we’re doing. We’re in a constant state of frenzy without ever pausing to reflect on whether we are working on the right things and being productive with the right tasks.

That’s why it’s so important to take a break during the day. This pause for self-awareness because is important because working on the wrong things (ahem, tweeting all day) is what leads to burn-out, confusion, and flat-out failure in our business pursuits. Self-analysis is healthy because it means we can adjust what we’re doing instead of just working.

Here are a couple of ideas to help you take a break effectively, starting with a thought experiment that could lead to some brilliant discoveries about yourself.

Spend time in silence and reflection

One of my favorite authors is named Mark Batterson. I’ve read all of his books, some of them twice, so I know he likes to bring up the Johari window, a self-awareness tool. Here’s the highly condensed explanation of what it is. There are four quadrants. The upper left is what you know about yourself and what others know about you. The lower left is what you know about yourself but others don’t know. The upper right is what others know about you but you don’t know (at least not yet). The lower right is the strangest of all. It’s what you don’t know about yourself and neither does anyone else.

Catch all of that? It’s a fun exercise to think about. I view that last quadrant as the one where we must listen. Self-awareness requires silence and reflection. When we take a break to jot down a few random thoughts in a journal or to call a friend, we are creating open spaces for reflection in order to interrupt the normal flow of work. It’s easy to silence your phone but not as easy to silence your mind. An intentional break puts the world on mute, at least for a few minutes.

Taking a break is not about making more decisions. It’s about making fewer decisions and avoiding decision fatigue. The goal is to give your mind more space to think and ponder. This separation from all work, tasks, and responsibilities helps you step back and look at yourself from the outside in.

Imagine a future version of yourself

Here’s another exercise that can help. Imagine a future version of yourself. You’re in great shape. You have more time. You are not always looking at your phone. You don’t check email and social media every few minutes. You’re incredibly efficient and productive. Every self-help tip you will ever read provides the same advice: if you follow a process, you will succeed. Great so far, right?

Good process = good results = good success.

Your habits are leading to the predictable results in your life. As we covered in the introduction, process is good. Setting goals is good. Purpose and self-discovery are good. Healthy habits are good.

What’s often missing is the why.

Take a break and try to become more introspective about those desires, about your life goals. You imagine what all of your tasks are leading to and who you will become as a result of completing them. As self-help guru Napoleon Hill once stated: “Strong, deeply rooted desire is the starting point for all achievement.”

If following a good process or routine is like an engine, then we must recognize that the productivity engine leads us somewhere. A break allows us to see if the engine is heading in the right direction.

It often means we need to stop doing so many things.

Stop ‘mentalizing’ constantly for a few minutes

Input processing is a fascinating field of study. It turns out we’re all constantly “processing” other people during a conversation—sizing them up, noticing their body language and mood, and analyzing their behavior for clues. We’re also mentalizing, which means we are always constructing emotional models of behavior. Cal Newport, the go-to expert in this field, has connected the dots between input processing and why productivity is so difficult at times. We’re “on” all the time.

For example, you might be having a simple conversation with your spouse over dinner, but your brain is constantly trying to predict what he or she will say next. You’ve essentially constructed a figment of that person in your brain. There’s the reality of what is happening during a conversation, and then there are the emotional nuances of how you are feeling, what you’re predicting people will say, and even what you’re believing about them, which may or may not be true. The battery almost runs dry.

In everyday situations, we’re constantly trying to find our emotional bearings. How are we perceived? Are these facts true? Mentalizing is a way to not only understand ourselves but also develop a construct of another person—who we think they are or want to be, and how that relates to us. If that all sounds exhausting, then welcome to the human experience.

This is why we need to be so intentional about breaks: being a human is exhausting! We’re constantly trying to find meaning in everyday situations; our antennas are always out, trying to perceive what others think. We need to take breaks to alleviate all that pressure. Your phone needs to recharge once in a while; so does your brain. It’s this separation from tasks that helps you to see them from a fresh, new perspective and to determine if they are worthwhile. Caring deeply about tasks doesn’t mean you obsess over them. You also need to set them aside sometimes and let them germinate. This is one reason some of my best ideas come to me in the car or in the shower.

The main point? You can’t perceive whether your tasks are worthwhile unless you take a break from them. Will you try taking an intentional break today?

This essay was excerpted from from the book The 7-Minute Productivity Solution by John Brandon.

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