Take a Break to Keep Moving Forward

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 10: Habits & Rituals

Habit and routine are cornerstones of a productive lifestyle; They remove the mental and physical effort associated with executing predictable, routine tasks and free up processing power for the tasks that demand more of your demand and attention.

Habits and routine are a good thing.

But humans are much like computers: as we process stuff on a daily basis we become clogged up with old bits of information, half-completed tasks, and inefficiency processes. Sometimes we need a reset, and this requires us to take a break – ideally a holiday.

I’ve just come back from a 10-day family “beach break” on the Spanish island of Majorca. Long overdue, I left my day job and writing work behind to focus on enjoying time with my family and getting some “downtime.” Like many, this holiday was an important opportunity to set aside my usual habits and routines and recharge my batteries. Whilst I was doing this I got to thinking about why it’s important to push that reset button every now and again.

Holidays will make you live longer

The benefits of taking a break can be loosely divided into physical and psychological. A significant component of a holiday is the simple need to rest. Scientific American suggests that we accrue a “Sleep Debt” (the difference between how much sleep we should be getting and how much we’re actually sleeping) of two weeks every year. Holidays and breaks represent an important opportunity to sleep more and reduce that sleep debt.

The physical benefits aren’t limited to getting more sleep though. A small health study carried out by Nuffield Health in 2013 suggests that holidays can improve your resilience to stress blood pressure and quality of sleep, amongst other things. For example, participants reported an average 6% improvement in blood pressure and a 29% improvement in the ability to recover from stress. This suggests that as well as helping you to recover those lost hours of sleep you’ve accrued through the year, holidays are an opportunity to improve your overall resilience and toughen you up for whatever challenges lie ahead. If, like my recent break, your holiday also takes you away from somewhere grey and rainy to somewhere with lots of sunshine, you’re also giving yourself the opportunity for a vitamin D boost and a myriad of related benefits, as outlined in this article on 10 health benefits of sunshine.

As well as helping you to recover those lost hours of sleep you’ve accrued through the year, holidays are an opportunity to improve your overall resilience and toughen you up for whatever challenges lie ahead.

Give it a rest

I’m sure that many readers have at some point found themselves saying “I’m ready for a holiday.” Although difficult to quantify, there comes a point where you can recognize that your brain feels full, energy levels are low and your everyday routines start to feel like daily hill climbs that are dragging you down instead of giving you support. Few of us can sustain indefinite enthusiasm and energy – we’re not Energizer bunnies – and we know in ourselves when resting becomes more than desirable, but essential to our ongoing health and peak performance. The causes can vary, but the fundamental underlying factor to this is stress. Much like the accruing sleep debt mentioned earlier, stress can build up over time and much like a heart pumping blood through a clogged artery, continuing to work whilst stressed can put more pressure on you and exacerbate things further.

One of the things we discussed in our interview with Andrew Smart in Issue 5 was the Default Mode Network – the concept that there are parts of our brain that are most active when we’re at rest. The theory goes that these parts of our brain are responsible for our most creative thinking and our ability to innovate; This is one of the reasons why it’s important to recognize the need to go into a prolonged “rest mode” for a time and give your Default Mode Network the opportunity to do its stuff.

I’m sure that it’s no coincidence that on the first few days of every holiday I go on, my head is buzzing with the last tasks and jobs I’ve left behind at work. It takes me at least two full days to unwind properly, at which point I stop processing all that information and experience a definite feeling of “switching off” where my mind feels noticeably calmer. I can’t account for this in a medically or scientifically accurate way, but it seems clear to me that there’s a distinct moment where the residual crap that has been sloshing around in my brain either gets processed and stored away somewhere or flushed out entirely.

One of the things that I managed to do on holiday was to go Scuba Diving again – a passion I’ve had for ten years or so but rarely get to indulge – and it reminded me of one of the things I love so much about diving: the tranquility. When you’re under the water, for that 30 minutes or so there’s almost no noise or distraction save for the sound of your own breathing through the tank (think Darth Vader in the bath) and possibly the sound of fish chewing on the coral. It’s an incredibly zen experience, and I often notice that my self-talk goes through a similar experience to my first few days of holiday. Firstly I think a lot about immediately relevant things – check my air, is my mask ok, so I know where my buddy is? Then, I have 5 minutes or so of “babble” where I think about what I’ve done that morning, how I’m feeling, what I have to do later that day. When that subsides, I’m left with a much more serene sensation where my thoughts pretty much equate to:

oh, look, a fish. breathe. Check Air. Another fish.

I don’t meditate, but I equate this experience to a form of meditation and it’s terrific. Perhaps a trip to a flotation chamber would yield similar results, I don’t know…but the stark contrast between the tranquility and calm I experience when under the water against my normal levels of “background noise” and internal dialogue highlights for me why it’s so important to grab those occasional moments of solitude and silence.

Force the break

You can’t achieve this form of rest or disconnection by stepping away from your computer screen and going for a walk; Short breaks are important for the daily stress cycle but to achieve a full reset you need to force yourself out of your usual habits and routines by changing your environment and removing all the usual stimuli that your brain associates with them.

This means going away somewhere – visiting friends, booking a holiday, whatever – and leaving behind all the usual triggers that you associate with your daily life. I’d recommend leaving your gadgets behind, though that may be too much of a stretch[^I did take my iPhone on holiday, though I didn’t check it often and for the most part of the holiday I resisted the urge to connect it to the Internet.]. If you can, I recommend leaving your work laptop and/or Blackberry behind; Be selective about the connections you bring with you – each one will add an extra burden. When I left my laptop and blackberry at home and went on vacation, I have to tell you it felt fantastic.

Don’t worry: all too soon you’ll be back to your everyday habits and routines and the familiarity and comfort that entails. For now, put your everyday accouterments behind you; Pick up things that are special, unexpected or unusual and most importantly, get some rest. This is the only way that you’ll truly be able to push the rest button and get yourself back to peak performance.