The Power of Stepping Away

Every Friday morning I take a yoga class. I don’t have time to do this. It truly is the last thing I should be doing if I want to maximize my productivity. That is, if you measure productivity by the number of hours you sit staring at a screen, which is what I did for a long time.

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“If you want to succeed, get your (censored) in the seat!” is what I told myself for years. After all, isn’t that what employers drilled into me? Don’t dare leave until the clock strikes 5pm, and even then, give it a few minutes so you don’t look like you’re trying to escape from solitary confinement. If you’re chatting, daydreaming or surfing online, then obviously you are not earning your keep.

The message drilled into us is: If I don’t look like I’m working, I can’t actually be working. And yet I now know that this is absolute, ahem, malarkey. That weekly yoga class that gets me to work two hours late is probably the best thing I do to boost my productivity and creativity all week.

How can this be?

Because only by stepping away do you gain perspective. You know the story of Sisyphus, who was condemned to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down? Well maybe if he just let it sit at the bottom of the hill for a few minutes, looked at the trees and blue sky around him, he would have figured out a better way to get that rock up the hill. When we act like hamsters on a wheel day in and day out, we tire ourselves out but don’t necessarily get where we want to be. Only by taking the conscious mind off of your problems can the unconscious mind do the miraculous work of solving them seemingly effortlessly.

This happens to me again and again. For instance, I can’t come up with the perfect hook to open a story. I peck at my keyboard, write and erase. I get frustrated. I need coffee. I get up and make a fresh pot. I read the headlines on the daily paper or think about what I’ll have for lunch. And then <kapow!> the perfect word choice, the anecdote, the exact phrase I need is hatched in my head. And suddenly I don’t care about the coffee, all I care about is writing it down before I forget it.

I know I’m not the only one this happens to. Have you ever solved a work problem while drifting off to sleep? Figured out exactly how to solve that issue with your mother-in-law while doing 65 down the highway? Realized, “I can do this, and here’s how!” in the middle of a workout?

If so, you too know that stepping away, doing less, fuels the creative mind. Too often in my life I have thought that keeping my rear in gear, my eyes glued to the screen, would make answers surface and problems disappear. It doesn’t. In fact, pushing that rock up the hill non-stop is the worst thing you can do.

So the next time you’re challenged, frustrated, overwhelmed — walk away. Do the opposite of what looks like the right thing to do and embrace what will get you side-eyed glances from your coworkers. Go for a long walk. Have lunch with a friend. Take that morning yoga class.

Do something different and then wait for it. If you prepare your mind, genius will come for a visit.

[Editor's note: This was originally published November 14, 2013.]

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