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Creating Successful Leaders

Cell phones, e-mail and the internet were intended to help ease the stress of life, yet it would appear they actually make the work week longer, the pool of contacts larger, and the deadlines closer together.  We instinctively fight to stay afloat, throwing ourselves through all sorts of hoops without a moment’s rest. After all, how can we expect to take even a moment for ourselves when our to-do pile grows bigger by the minute?

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We can, and we should, insists Nance Guilmartin in her book, The Power of Pause. Herein she argues that pausing before undergoing a task gives you a better shot at success, in that it provides you with the opportunity to reflect, weigh options and make judgment calls uninfluenced by charged emotions:

“We’re quick to say yes to someone’s request because we don’t think we have a choice. We just hit the Reply All or Send button on an e-mail instead of considering our options, picking up the phone, or walking down the hall. We jump to conclusions based on assumptions, expectations, or wished-for outcomes that are frequently far from reality.”

Taking a step back while under stress is counter intuitive and takes practice to master. Yet, whether you wait a minute, an hour, or a day, “your ability to make better choices is sharpened, and that can lead to significantly better results for you and for your clients,” says Guilmartin.

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A moment of pause enables us to see the big picture of our circumstances. An angry e-mail from a client, for example, seems to demand immediate reply. But is action without true pause the best route to take in this situation? No, Guilmartin says, because during a stressful, disagreeable exchange, the chance is high that our emotions will get in the way of maintaining good relationships with those around us.

In a situation such as this, a pause allots us time to ask key questions aimed at the heart of our stress. To do this, Guilmartin suggests that “you use a simple phrase to help you shift from jumping to a conclusion, even if you think you are right and have the facts. Ask yourself this seven-word question: What don’t I know I don’t know?

In other words, are we missing something important we haven’t considered? In the angry client e-mail example, it could be we didn’t communicate sufficiently with the client at the outset or some important detail was lost in the shuffle.  Pausing to reevaluate both what went wrong and how to respond will optimize the chances of moving forward with the client in a fair, productive manner.

Not only does Guilmartin’s approach make sense, it’s backed by research as well. Bernard Benson, M.D., of Mind/Body Medical Institute explains what’s happening in our brains when we pause in the midst of daily work:

“…by completely letting go of a problem at that point by applying certain triggers, the brain actually rearranges itself so that the hemispheres communicate better. Then the brain is better able to solve the problem…As the brain quiets down, another phenomenon that we call ‘calm commotion’ or a focused increase in activity takes place in the areas of the brain associated with attention, space-time concepts and decision making.”

To put it another way, pausing actually increases brain performance. The next time you’re faced with overwhelming circumstances, remember that you have the choice to take a time-out. I encourage you take it. In so doing, you’ll give yourself the gift of perspective, time to weigh your options, and a moment to clarify your goals. Not only do you have this choice, even though it may not seem like it at the time, research shows that choosing to slow down helps you in the long run.

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Herbert Benson, “Are You Working Too Hard?” Harvard Business Review, November 2005, 54-56.

Nance Guilmartin, The Power of Pause: How to Be More Effective in a Demanding, 24/7 World (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 36, 153.

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