Take a good break
It’s easy, particularly in tough times, to get a one-track mind. To get out of the fog, you need to take a break. The truth is that not all breaks are created equal.
The new world of work may have offered many benefits. But leaping from video call to video call is definitely not one of them.
We are ending one of the most exhausting years that many of us can have imagined, let alone experienced, and I think a lot of people are crawling to the finishing line.
These last few weeks of the year seem to many to feel like a call to arms to burn the last reserves of mental fuel – with big things to do, and the familiar monotony of lockdown re-descending. Just fit it all in. Get it all done.
But that can be unpleasant, unproductive, and potentially harmful.
Remember to take a break.
Not just a flick of your phone. A good break.
I’ve always been ok at taking breaks. A cup of tea. A walk around the block. A meaningless chat. It’s an important part of my process.
In fact, I’ve been known to refuse to respond to questions until I’ve had a break – or even, in extreme cases, until I’ve slept on it at least once. In a serious workplace environment with a focus on confidence and efficiency it can be a difficult sell – but the truth is so often that the only way to solve something is to stop thinking about it. It’s amazing how often the answer offers itself up once you start thinking about something else.
But this year, I feel like I’ve stepped it up. I’ve really found some world class ways of having breaks. Things that are so consuming, or lateral, or satisfying, that they inevitably help me to find the angles around a complex strategic, operational or collaboration issue.
These are very, very idiosyncratic to me, in some cases extremely so. But they have given me so much pleasure and so much positive escape this year…I just wanted to share them, and to encourage anyone who reads this post to find their own!
1. Adventures in Time Travel
I am currently in the middle of co-writing a 12-issue graphic novel about a cynical Soho-dwelling monkey who gets drawn into a time travel adventure to try and prevent the end of the world.
I’m not just dabbling in it either. I’ve hardly read anything but time travel novels for about 6 months now, and I’ve watched 30+ different time travel movies.
And with my writing partner, I’ve now written at least a hundred pages of script, character treatment and story sketches.
I’m not expecting publishers to be forming an orderly queue outside my house. (Although if any publishers, or, dare I day, Hollywood producers are reading this, I should note that this story has enormous commercial potential as well as significant artistic merit, probably in that order.)
But it’s enabled me to reconnect with one of my best friends; to focus meaningfully on an entirely esoteric area of knowledge; and to use entirely untapped parts of my brain.
And to give my brain a work out by thinking about the philosophy of time travel…which is pretty much as heavy a brain twister as you can give your cerebral cortex. So not a break exactly, but definitely a change.
2. Helping Somebody
I was lucky enough to have some superb role models early in my career. I am not sure I would have described any of them as mentors exactly – I’m not sure there was quite that degree of duty of care involved – but certainly teachers, challengers and inspirations.
It feels a little bit like something that has disappeared from the world of marketing, certainly within agencies, which is bad for the craft, and bad for the people.
I’ve always tried to help and support emerging strategic talent in the industry with mentoring in whatever form is most helpful, especially for those who are a little different from the traditional success model, whether that’s in their background or the way that they think and operate. At some points, I have put huge amounts of time into this, and I don’t think I’ve ever said no.
And I’ve always felt like it’s a moment of fairly straightforward reciprocity – hopefully it’s helped a few people along the way, but I’ve always got a huge amount of knowledge and inspiration from the process.
This year in particular, there have been a lot of people to speak to – often people with difficult career situations or choices – but the harder and more hectic it’s become, the more I feel I have got out of it.
I think there’s something about the nature of the time spent alone this year, the time spent drawing down on your resources, that makes the feeling of generosity such a powerful recharge.
(So, what I’m saying, is that if I can help anyone along this line, don’t be shy, there’s just as much in it for me as for you…)
3. Unnecessary Piano Solo
I love checking out people’s working environments in the Zoom era. I love seeing people’s spare bedrooms, their carefully coutured home workshop spaces. I particularly love the senior client who I’ve spoken to several times over the last few months who always has a brass bedknob hovering just above his shoulder.
By a fluke of fate, my ‘office’ is really a music room. It is full of instruments that I have tried and mostly failed to play over the last decade: the guitar, the banjo, the mandolin, the mountain dulcimer. It’s got my pride and joy, the organ that in better times I play regularly with my band Caburn (see here for visual reference https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usapyYu2W9I)
That means it is also where we keep our piano – bought for us by all of our friends as a wedding present. That means that immediately before or after a difficult workshop or conference call I can generally be found pounding out the intro to a Bruce Springsteen song or some intense boogie woogie improvisation.
I am not a very good pianist, and you will almost certainly never hear my play – but when it comes to playing the piano, I am a world-class break taker.
4. The Joy of Paperwork
I’m not going to give this one too much airtime, and you probably won’t believe me. But if you get into a groove, and you have a job that is mainly creative, getting your paperwork in order can be a brilliant way of ordering the mind.
Particularly if you are a freelancer/independent worker/consultant – a life in which one of the main potential rain clouds can be the failure to get payment or schedule work effectively.
If you are feeling uninspired, dedicating yourself for a little while to jobs that absolutely demand that you are not too stimulated is an ideal counter-foil.
5. The Thrill of the Cold
I never would have thought I would like being cold. But trust me: cold water swimming is incredible.
Ideally just as the sun is coming up, in the sea, or in a freshwater lido – both are fantastic.
The sea probably edges it, based on sheer, life-affirming natural beauty.
I load the gear into my bag, half-asleep. I start running over the challenges of the day on the short drive to the water. I load up on problems. And then before I know it, I am in the sea, and all power of logical thought, or of stress, is gone.
There is only my body, and the rising sun, sometimes the gentle rain, and my body.
Sometimes recently, if the land is cold, the sea is warm enough that a mist rises all around me as a swim.
The only problem is that by the time I get out, the best part of the day is already gone.
But my brain is as clear as a bell.
Honestly, you have to try it.