Take a Moment… Can you give your head a ‘holiday’ at work?

Posted by Sally Dellow
16 Aug

Aren’t summer holidays a marvellous idea?

Holidays feel like a chance to “unfold my brain”.  Instead of working in a tight, pressured ball, my head gets aired out — rather like hanging a duvet in the sun.

Returning from an extended break, I have more perspective on my responsibilities and my priorities.  When I come back to work after a week or so eating gelato, lying by a pool or marvelling at historic buildings, I find I’ve joined some dots, created some breakthroughs and come up with some new ideas.

So, how can we access that clear, open, creative “holiday head” when we’re at work?

I realise it’s not quite the same without the gelato, but I believe we can create more access to two of the biggest holiday upsides in our regular working environment — as long as we are quite intentional about it. 

Specifically, we need to seek out ways to create:

  • Distance (for perspective on our thoughts and actions)
    and 
  • Rest (for helping our brain make connections, generate ideas and solutions).

The Delights of Distance

Distance can be either physical or cognitive. Both help create perspective.

Getting out and about

Physical distance might take the form of working from a different office for all or part of a day,  working from home, or doing a couple of hours (thinking, drafting documents, responding to emails) while sitting in the corner of a favourite coffee shop.

Or perhaps you can stay away from people (another form of distance) by booking out a meeting room to work in all day and turning down all meetings.  Just for one day.  But what a sense of relief and space it might create.

A third form of physical distance might involve a walk-and-talk meeting. Persuade your counterparty to come along with you and navigate every air-conditioned walkway you can find, while you discuss a tricky topic. Or suggest going for a jog together over lunchtime. Or have your meeting on a bench overlooking the harbour. Let your eyes do some long-sighted focus for a change.

Creating distance by disinvesting

Cognitive distance is trickier but can yield enormous benefits.

I recently worked with the regional leadership team in a large manufacturer. I persuaded them to let me work as an ‘intervention coach’ helping two of the team conduct a very tricky conflict between the heads of sourcing and quality — observed by the other members of the team — as a learning opportunity around advanced dialogue skills.  

A couple of times I intervened, for example to offer insights into the impact of language choices, or to suggest ways to build trust in a particular moment, or to highlight that a question had been left unanswered. 

“How do you do that?” asked the Regional Head of Supply Chain, “I didn’t even notice that word had been used, but it was the key to unlocking the situation. I would never have picked up on that.”  

I pointed out that I can see (and hear) more because of DISTANCE.  Of course, you might dismiss this with “it’s easy for you”. After all, my reputation is not on the line; my P&L is not at stake; I am not caught in the tension and anger of a long and difficult relationship.  I can distance myself from the longer-term commercial outcome (and risk) hanging over the situation to be present to what is happening sentence by sentence. But it’s also something I have learned to do. It’s a mental state and a behavioural choice. I call this state “Disinvested”. It doesn’t mean uncaring. It doesn’t mean dismissive. It means I keep tight focus on the moment, and hold the desired outcome lightly in the background, rather than the other way round. It helps me retain perspective.

Ironically, that perspective — that disinvested distance — makes it possible to hyper-focus on the details of the immediate moment. Being fully present, seeing the moment clearly, allows you to invest in choosing the right word, reflect the feelings of your counterparty, take time to acknowledge strengths and build connection. A disinvested perspective allows you to select the right next step, within the next paragraph of a conversation, to take you towards big ‘magic wand’ outcomes you seek.

Oprah Winfrey put it this way: “doing the best in this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.”

You can create cognitive distance for yourself by naming and then setting aside your ‘magic wand’ objectives (eg, “we need every production run from China and Vietnam this year to pass QA inspection the first time”). It remains your ultimate intention, but it may not be your outcome for this coming 10-minute conversation. Make it your intention to be fully present for each exchange (often called a ‘transaction’) within the conversation — that focus will help you hold yourself and your partner accountable for each thing you say, so you have a more effective, adult conversation.

How to be you more skilfully

  1. Agree what a good outcome would be for this conversation as a way to progress towards your bigger goal. (If you’re going off track or disconnecting from each other, refer back to that shared definition of success.
  2. Slow your own rate of speech down by 20-30% so you can really choose your words – it will feel odd to you but your partner won’t even notice.
  3. Commentate. Say things like, “That’s an interesting point, let me just think quietly about that for a moment before I respond” or “I feel strongly that it won’t work but I really don’t want to be in conflict with you…”.
  4. Listen with your eyes, ears, heart and gut. Focus on the words your counterparty uses, observe and comment on their body language, ask how they’re feeling (not just what they think). If a little alarm bell goes off in your gut, tell your partner about it, for example: “I’ve a feeling that something isn’t quite right here; are you sensing that too?”
  5. Ask a question or paraphrase what your parter has said after every 1-3 exchanges with them.
  6. Check in – ask how they are feeling about the way you are having the conversation (it feels less strange with practice!), as well as the progress on the subject matter of the dialogue.

In summary, learn to listen beyond just the hard data and task-related statements. Notice how you are having the conversation, what the atmosphere around it feels like from moment to moment, whether you feel connected and working together or whether you’re drifting or pulling apart. Pause regularly and share what you perceive as well as what you think or know, work with it — ensure that you move forward together, step-by-small-step towards achieving that bigger outcome.  

A series of short, effective, collaborative conversations (where we both truly agree and truly understand) moves us forward more effectively that one big ‘tell’ that leaves ambiguities unexplained and negative emotions in play.  Operating in this bigger landscape for the conversation gives the cognitive distance you need.

Want more resources on dialogue, presence, perspective and understanding a bit about conversational transactions? Try these:

A rest is as good as a change

Modern working life is causing brain burn-out (Click here to read more about the topic: Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain). Our brains need empty space.  We were designed to daydream.  That’s how we generate ‘aha!’ moments.

Deep, restorative sleep is crucial to clearing out brain plaques (Click here to read more about the topic: The brain may clean out Alzheimer’s plaques during sleep). But even short windows of rest, relaxation and ‘downtime’ are crucial to help you integrate all the information you have buzzing around your head, and make connections in order to ideate and innovate.  Doing this well literally changes your brain waves and allows your brain to dream, imagine and recover. (This infographic from MindValley is a good simple explanation of the various states your brain has and needs. Click here to read more about the topic: The Science Behind Brainwaves And Meditation)

To deliver your best work across a year, you should be taking all your holiday time. It’s a discipline.  But if you can’t go and snooze beside the sea for two weeks, here are some other restful things you can do as a busy working person:

Workplace mind-wandering

Indulge in a longer, warm shower before work – no radio, no phone, no music, just water your head and let it daydream.

Walk the longer, greener route to work. Go slowly. Let your mind wander.

At least once a week, schedule an hour that is completely empty. (I can hear you gasp in horror).  Sneak out and spend it alone, contemplating in a coffee shop (or eating an icecream), or better still, in a park looking at trees and listening to birdsong.

Every now and then, allow yourself to spring clean your desk. Do it at a gentle pace. File paperclips, alphabetise your inbox, delete junk, tidy your post-it notes.  This kind of mindless activity lets your mind drift and in that state it makes connections. That’s how good ideas happen.

Take a cyber-holiday for half a day (or a weekend).

Put some pot plants on your desk and take care of them – touch the soil, the leaves, give it some water and some love. 

Eat your lunch in a park.

Make your computer screensaver a greensaver: slowly scroll photographs of Nature, especially green views.

Put your feet up on your desk (or book yourself a quiet meeting room) for an hour and think about nothing and everything.  Doodle with pens and paper. Play meditation music. Close your eyes and let your subconscious brain find patterns.  Your work will benefit!

Headspace at home

Take a nap.

Take a walk and run your hands through the leaves of plants. Touch the bark of a tree. Smell the flowers.

Switch off your devices at least one hour before you sleep and remove them from your bedroom (buy an old-school alarm clock or at least set the ‘do not disturb’ timer)

Go to bed an hour earlier for a whole week.

Here are three excellent sites/books to help you understand brain care and the power of rest.

  • Blog –  [Author: Terry Small]
  • Book – [Title: Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less]
  • Site – [Author: Thrive Global]

And make sure you’ve booked your next holiday!