“Build gaps in your life. Pauses. Proper pauses.” - Thom Yorke
I certainly didn’t expect to use a quote from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke when I sat down to write this article, but here we are, and, well, he nicely sums up what I’d like to talk about.
This topic had its origins in my last trip to Phuket, Thailand in November last year, but didn’t really crystalise until the first week I was in Poland with Wim in January. Thailand was meant to be a time for self development, to bring the ‘best version’ of myself (whatever that meant) to share with the 200 participants I was going to be guiding.
It turned out to be everything but.
While it fell far short from what I had anticipated (that was probably my first mistake), I came up and out the other side with insights about myself, about the value of stress and resilience, of coping mechanisms and of the importance of self care - which is the focus of this article.
NB: I’ll be covering the other insights, particularly the role of the ‘Stress Adaptation Cycle’ in a future blog.
“Mind the gap”
Anyone who’s travelled on the tube in London will have heard this automated message. It’s a reminder to take care to not step in between the platform and the train, to look out for the ‘dangerous’ gap.
However, in our lives I don’t believe gaps are dangerous; from the natural pause between our inhale & exhale to abstaining during Lent or taking a year-long sabbatical, they can be highly necessary and extremely beneficial. For clarity, ‘gap’ as I’m using it here, can also be read as a ‘pause’ or even a ‘break’.
The tricky part is that our mind does not like gaps. Gaps make our mind uncomfortable and anxious. It wants to fill the space with what it thinks it needs and wants. It creates stress so we take action to fill the gap. It wants to keep us moving, constantly busy, to create continual noise, so that the void is filled (or is not there in the first place).
But it’s in moments of stillness that we can actually listen the best. It’s in these moments of stillness that we actually hear the most.
Here are a few ways that we can all benefit from a gap/pause/break and add some stillness to our lives.
Renowned breathing expert, Patrick McKeown describes a good breath as one where “breathing is light, quiet, effortless... and gently paused on the exhale.” With our breath, the exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest state), while the inhalation stimulates our sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight state). This exhale pause can be seen as a transition between states, preparing our nervous system to shift from relaxation to activity.
Expanding on the transition concept is the practice of starting your day with meditation. When we’ve just woken up our body and mind are refreshed (hopefully), and the day’s to-do list has yet to creep in. Making time to pause between being asleep and awake creates a space for ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’, helping us to be more aware, present and connected to the day.
I apply a similar principle before leaving the gym. Working out increases the activity of our sympathetic nervous system and most people leave the gym still in that stressed state (albeit unconsciously), and end up staying sympathetic for hours. To avoid this, I incorporate XPT’s Post Workout Recovery Protocol breathing. This 3-5 minute pause helps me clear and prepare my mind for whatever activity I’m doing after I walk out the gym door.
You can also add gaps into your work day to improve productivity, boost your motivation and stimulate creativity. The Pomodoro Technique - a time management philosophy - breaks down tasks into 25 minute chunks or ‘pomodoros’, that are spaced out by, you guessed it... short breaks. Personally I use these breaks to get the blood flowing with some push-ups or air squats, refocus my attention with some box breathing or clear my mind by getting some fresh air.
The final daily gap is the most important; sleep. It’s the ultimate pause button for our daily lives. Sleep is vital to good health and wellbeing as it restores and repairs the body and mind through both the REM- and deep-sleep cycles. Check out any podcasts featuring Dr Matthew Walker (the Sleep Diplomat) or his book ‘Why We Sleep’ for the rundown on just how important a good night’s rest is!
Weekly & Monthly Gaps
While I was already practicing a number of the daily gaps, before the start of this year my weekly and monthly gaps were non-existent. For the months leading up to Thailand I was either working 7-days a week or my mind was preoccupied with work 24/7. There was no off-switch, no decompression time. And eventually it caught up with me (mainly because I failed to listen to the signs my body was sending me - but that’s a whole article by itself!).
What that experience taught me is the importance of carving out a gap in your week - a sacred time where you can be free to unplug and recharge. It could be as simple as leaving your phone at home for the morning while you read a book at your local cafe or something more involved like going for a hike for the day. Just make sure it is different to your other day-to-day activities so you can clearly separate one area of your life from the other. Like the pauses in the Pomodoro Technique, these longer breaks can be a great way to gain a fresh perspective on life.
Another type of pause that more and more people are taking up is forgoing a particular activity. One of the most well known is one we’re in right now - Lent - where people abstain from something to reduce distractions in their life and refocus their faith. Two other examples are Dry July (I won’t count no-shave November) and social media detoxes.
Stepping away from an activity or behaviour allows us to reflect on what we are left without it, and more importantly in my opinion, what we gain from not having it - what I see as the true benefit of gaps/breaks/pauses in our life.
Long term Breaks
The bigger picture of our lives should be no different than the day to day. Just as a pause during our day is important for restoring balance, a pause in life can be just as beneficial.
Granted, not everyone is in a position to quit their job and go travelling through South America for 2 years or take a sabbatical and explore their love of basket weaving for 12 months, but they’re not the only type of gaps that can be beneficial.
Are certain periods during the work year quieter than others, do you only have 18 months to go on your degree, will your children be more self-sufficient in two years time? Are there opportunities like these that can allow you to step back for a brief period, if only just a little?
Alternatively, lifestyle changes may create an opportunity for pause all of their own. Has moving to a new neighbourhood freed up more family time, is this job loss an opportunity to step back from your career and reassess, does this health scare require you to reduce your stress?
Aubrey Marcus’ book Own The Day, Own Your Life with it’s concept of ‘how one single day of positive choices leads to a lifetime of concrete strategies’, really helped me focus on chunking my life down into making each day the best possible, where I’m at at the time.
Therefore, when it comes to creating gaps in my life, that’s where I choose to focus my attention - on the individual days.
For further reading, I loved this article on creating a buffer by author and all-round badass Sarah Wilson which has more daily tips and this one from Huffington Post about the importance of the ‘in-between moments’.
Rather than minding the gaps in our lives, seek them out and create them.
Interested in learning how the Wim Hof Method can help you press pause? Come along to one of my workshops? View my list of current activities
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