If you want to get things done, pause

Machines work well at a constant speed – and the faster the better. They are designed and built for it. Whether they are spinning cotton or crunching numbers, regular, repetitive actions are what they excel at. Increasingly, our world is designed by machines, for machines. Digital technology brings them ever more intimately into our lives. We hold our phones in the palm of our hand, but it is they that have us in their grasp. We adapt to machines and hold ourselves to their standards: people are judged by the speed with which they respond, not the quality of their response. We find ourselves in a state of “continuous partial attention” – rarely stopping, never fully present. Such ideas are being woven into our culture. “Always on” becomes something to boast of, or aspire to. The moral high ground belongs to those who get on with things, not those who “delay”.

Most of us are busy most of the time, if not with work then with family, domestic tasks or our social networks – real and virtual. When I ask people how they are, they almost always answer “busy” or some variation of it. Busy-ness is high status. We feel we are being “sensible, logical, responsible, practical”. Ticking things off the “to do” list becomes a means of defining, or escaping ourselves. Faced with that anxiety we try to keep calm by carrying on, but what are we missing out on?

In my work as associate fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, I use methods drawn from improv theatre to explore how people respond to complex, changing circumstances. I have the chance to meet and observe hundreds of leaders, from all over the world and all walks of life. With rare exceptions, they feel they need to get better at “work-life” balance – though none of them really knows what that means, or how they might attain it. By contrast, good improvisers always seem to have time, they don’t hurry or rush. They are able to pause. And it is this, rather than an ability to think fast, that enables them to respond so effectively in situations they can neither predict nor control.

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A few years ago, I became very interested in what it means to pause. I realised that this isn’t as simple as it might seem. A pause could be a moment of silence or a year’s sabbatical. I sought out people who pay attention to pauses: from actors and artists to musicians, film makers and Zen monks. I asked them about the value of gaps and spaces, about how they create them and what they get as a result. I reflected on the place where I live in rural Spain, and what it has that eludes people living more frantic lives. I read widely about rest, waiting, the “Slow Movement” and the nature of time itself.

I started to notice where pauses show up in my own work and life. For example, I realised that when writing, a short walk was a more effective way to break a creative block than concentrating harder. When people came to visit me in Spain I saw how powerful brief periods of disconnection could be. As a friend from Oregon said, “After a day here, I found myself solving problems I didn’t know I had.” Time isn’t the same everywhere.

I realised that a pause is not nothing. It acts as a kind of switch or opening. As Helene Simonsen, a classical musician, says, “Whatever you are doing, if you want something else to happen, you need to pause.” A film director spoke of how he used a tiny delay to grab the crew’s attention on set: “Pause for the space of a breath or two, before you say ‘Action’ and it changes everything.” Others spoke of pause as a “sweet emptiness”, “a quality of stopping” or an “active presence”. A pause is not so much an absence of thought or action, as an integral part of it.

It is not a fixed unit of time. It might be taking a moment before you enter a room, but it could also be a “screen-free Saturday”, a “Think Week” every two years (which works for Bill Gates) or a year-long sabbatical every seven years. However fast you are moving, there is always the chance to pause. To rest, reflect or recuperate of course, but also to appreciate, get perspective, connect to others, listen, add emphasis or have new ideas. You can pause for effect or pause for thought. It can be planned or spontaneous, momentary or lasting. When writing, I organise myself in 90-minute blocks of time, with scheduled pauses in between. I don’t allow myself to go beyond the 90 minutes, even if I am on a roll. Often, I will go outside, or do something manual between blocks. This keeps my energy and enthusiasm up. And when I come back to the text, I often see things afresh (in fact, this just happened, as I came back to this piece after a break spent chatting with a friend).

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Sometimes my pauses are responsive, not planned. When I get stressed, I have a phrase I say to myself: “There is time for everything.” This punctuates the stream of anxious thoughts and reminds me that the sharp sense of urgency I feel is exactly that – a feeling in me, not something in the world. If there is no one else around, I will say it out loud. Making it physical makes it more powerful. Repeating it a few times has a calming effect, connecting me to my body and my breathing.

In workshops or coaching sessions, I find the “pregnant” pause incredibly useful, particularly when I am unsure what to do next. I just say “So…” and leave what feels like a cavernous gap – though normally it is no more than 10 or 15 seconds. This invites whoever I am working with to voice their thoughts. The pause draws them forward, giving them the chance to shape our conversation.

You can think about pause as a habit. One executive I worked with would take five minutes to himself, to do nothing in particular, before he left the office. He made it a way to close the day, and leave work thoughts at work, rather than carrying them home with him. You might think about designing longer and deeper pauses for yourself, and how you could create a space where pauses are woven into the fabric of your life or work.

But it can be challenging. Some people were disconcerted when I told them I was working on a book about pause. There was one who immediately and indignantly declared, “But there is always a cost to pausing.” The very idea created a kind of panic for her. There was an awkward silence. A pause, in fact. After a minute or so her husband added, “Perhaps… but there is always a cost to not pausing as well.” This illustrates the dilemma we are caught in. If time is money, then pausing will cost you. But what about the cost of not pausing? What about the opportunities you miss, the perspective you lose, the connections you don’t make, the enjoyment you forsake?

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Others struggle with the slippery nature of pause. If a pause can be so many different things,where should I start? Try this; make pause a “thing” and start noticing how, where and when you pause (or don’t). That shift alone starts to change your behaviour, bringing your attention to the times when you might benefit from a little more pause, or pauses of a different kind. Paying attention to when you pause (or don’t) is a different way to think about your relationship to time. It invites you to think about finding your rhythm, not managing your time; about composing a life, not becoming more productive. This is about getting more out, not packing more in. Think of it as something to play around with. You can start immediately if you like. Just put the magazine down and you can make a little pause for yourself right here, right now and see what happens.

There is more to life than getting things done. Time isn’t a commodity, scarce or otherwise. Time, as we experience it, varies wildly. A minute eating ice-cream is not the same as a minute doing press-ups. Even time itself isn’t a uniform raw material – as the physics of Einstein shows. Try to let go of the idea that time is linear, regular and objective, and think of it in the same way we experience it – as elastic, variable and layered. Instead of setting work and life against each other, use pauses to leaven your experience. Pause is like yeast: you don’t need much, but it is a vital ingredient.

I want to give pauses, in all their delightful variety, more visibility, importance and status. My hope is that each of us can use pauses, great and small, in our own way, to interrupt the insidious slide into a mode where we act like poorly performing machines, rather than the vibrant, irregular, delightful people that we are.

Do Pause by Robert Poyton is published by the Do Book Company ay £8.99. Buy it for £7.91 at


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