The paradox of the pause: How stopping regularly helps you get more done

In pre-internet days, it was much easier to focus and complete your work.

If you were struggling, you couldn’t escape to the worlds of Facebook, YouTube and Netflix for instant relief.

How do I know?

Because I was born before 1985. I know what it feels like to be a student with and without the Internet.

Here’s what procrastination looked like in a pre-Internet landscape:

Procrastination pre-internet

  • Loading up a computer game on a giant floppy disk (Note: the game could take several minutes to load).
  • Inserting a video game into a giant box to play Super Mario brothers.
  • Finding the phonebook and using the family rotary dial phone (or a public payphone) to call a friend.
  • In short, the rewards didn’t come in an instant.

    While your video game was loading, you had time to think:

    “Is this the best use of my time? Why am I avoiding this task? What am I scared of? Failure? Looking stupid? Am I just confused and overwhelmed?”

    Pauses were built into the day to help you reflect on your behaviour (what you should and shouldn’t be doing).

    The extinction of the pause

    But these days, with super fast Internet and mobile phones, pauses are nowhere to be seen. Most of us find ourselves in a constant state of restless idleness, switching rapidly from one task to the next.

    As Michael Harris, author of The End of Absence, states:

    “When teens work on their homework … a full two thirds of them are multitasking. If need be, they can simultaneously text, watch music videos, groom their Facebook page, and play Call of Duty, all while positioning up an essay on Hamlet.”

    Struggling to write that Hamlet essay? No worries. You can toggle between Word and Facebook in less than a second. Boom! Instant rewards! Instant relief!

    And this is how procrastination and multitasking become deeply ingrained (bad) habits.

    But what’s the cost of all this multitasking?

    Research shows that when you work this way …

  • You place your brain under enormous stress
  • You tire your brain out more quickly
  • You wear down your attentional resources, thereby making it hard for you to focus and make good decisions
  • You experience a drop in IQ of about 10 points (that’s equivalent to losing an entire night’s sleep)
  • You can make up to 50% more mistakes with your work
  • It can take 40% longer to complete your work
  • The good news is you can break this bad habit. Here’s how you do it …

    By inserting a pause button into your life.

    A pause button can help you to stop and reflect before you do something that you’ll later regret. It can help you re-focus and get back on track.

    The pause button I’m talking about isn’t something you’ll be able to find on ebay or Amazon. You’ll need to create your own pause button.

    The thing about your pause button is that it doesn’t need to be anything fancy. You could go on a free image site like Pixabay and print one out.

    Or you could get creative and draw one on a sheet of paper. Decorate it with glitter, stickers, crayons, etc. Frame it if you want. You want to personalise it. Own it. This button (if you use it) is going to deliver you to greater productivity levels and focus.

    Once you’ve got your pause button, stick it up on your wall. Make it far away enough so you need to take a few steps to get there.

    Every time you feel the urge to procrastinate by switching to a more enjoyable task (e.g. Facebook), walk over to the pause button and hit it.

    Now here’s the important part …

    You can’t take your hand off the button until you answer one simple question:

    What’s the next smallest thing you need to do?

    Your next small step may be:

    • Have a drink of water
    • Write one more sentence
    • Set a timer and keep going for another five minutes

    If you hit the pause button and think, “I really need a 5 minute break. I’m not getting anywhere with this …”, then no problem! Take a break. But be intentional about it and place a time limit on it (e.g. “I’m going for a 5 minute walk”).

    Let me make it clear: taking breaks after doing some solid work is not procrastination. Never confuse relaxing with procrastination. You’re not a machine. You need to pace yourself. Breaks help you manage your energy levels so you can tackle your work with a refreshed, clear mind.

    Making it a habit

    The act of getting up and walking over to your pause button will require a bit of willpower to start with. Initially, it may feel forced, strange and a little bit silly hitting a piece of paper on your wall. But persevere. The more times you hit that pause button, the sooner it will become a habit.

    To sum up

    Once you kick the bad habit of multitasking and procrastination, you’ll find your brain will be less stressed. This in turn will make it easier for you to study and retain important information.

    While everyone around you is freaking out because they’ve left their work until the last minute, you’ll be feeling calm and in control.

    So what’s the next smallest thing you need to do? Perhaps it could be creating a pause button for your workspace.

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