The Power of Stepping Aside: 8 Ways to Take a Time-Out

These days, we’re busier than ever. Between demanding work schedules, household tasks, family obligations and social commitments, it’s easy for "stressed" and "overwhelmed" to become our default setting.

When your ever-growing task list and ever-shrinking window of time have you feeling like you’re bailing water from a sinking boat, your first impulse might be to bail faster. But, while it may seem counterintuitive, a better way to handle the situation might be to put the bucket down—at least temporarily. 

Think of it not as giving up, but as pressing the "pause" button on life—which, according to licensed professional clinical counselor Lisa Bahar, can be a quick way to feel rejuvenated and inspired.

Bahar says most of us have a "doing state of mind" and a "being state of mind." When we neglect to pause, she says, we are stuck in the "doing" state. But the less time we spend in our "being" state, the less effective we are in getting things done.

Tina Williamson, a mindfulness teacher and founder of the blog Mindfulmazing, says that most people’s bodies are in a constant state of overdrive and stress. She compares that stress to a guitar string: You need a little bit of tension to play, but if you get too much, it will eventually snap. When unchecked, she says, stress can cause a whole array of problems, including anxiety, decreased energy, unhappiness, headaches, stomach issues, long-term health problems, relationship issues, lack of focus and worry.

"The mental and physical effects of pressing pause are astounding—more energy, a clearer head, emotional resilience, better decision-making, an increased sense of well-being, fewer headaches and stomach issues, a calmer body and improved sleep, to name just a few," says Williamson.

Start the day off slowly.

"The only reason we feel busy is that we jam a million things into the day and don’t leave time for ourselves," says Jeff Agostinelli, a life and business strategist. "The best way to make sure you get time for yourself is to start the day off with time just for you." That might mean making your favorite coffee and sitting outside on the porch to read a book or write in a journal for 10 or 20 minutes, or doing a few stretches or yoga poses—any activity that shows your brain that it’s okay to slow down and take time for yourself.

"When you do this often enough, it becomes pervasive," Agostinelli said. "When you start the day by choosing to slow down the pace and notice the benefits it brings, you might ask yourself: ‘What would happen if I did this more?’"

Rediscover the art of daydreaming.

Remember when you would spend countless hours letting your mind wander freely as a child? There’s no reason your thoughts and imagination can’t be just as unbridled as an adult—it just takes a little more discipline and intention to set them free from the constraints of busy daily life.

Bahar encourages her clients to take a moment each day to be curious, thoughtful and reflective—to practice the art of daydreaming. As an example, you might take three minutes to simply step outside. Notice your breath, or a flower, or an aroma in the air. Pay attention to the sounds around you. Look up and notice the sky, and smile while doing so, to condition your brain to be content with just being, Bahar suggests.

When you first start taking pauses, you will likely notice your mind fighting to return to the task at hand. "The ‘doing’ part of the mind is going to resist this, but over time, your ability to just ‘be’ will actually start making you more productive, less agitated and less anxious," Bahar notes.

Be intentional about your vacations.

Most people have this one backward, Agostinelli notes. They might tell themselves, "I’ll go on vacation when I make a certain amount of money, or have the time, or get this thing done…" Instead, he recommends planning the trip first, then acting accordingly. In this way, he says, the vacation is like a carrot on a stick—a reward that is waiting at the end of your hard work.

"When you do this right, you can use the trip as fuel anytime you have low energy or just don’t feel like doing the work," Agostinelli says. "You’ll also feel accomplished when you reach the finish line [and] you get to go on that trip, hit the off switch and recharge your batteries."

Find your "keystone" activity and make it a priority.

What is the one thing that, when you devote your time and attention to doing it, makes everything else easier? "This is your ‘keystone,’" Agostinelli explains. "That one stone at the apex of an arch that keeps the rest of the stones in place. If you remove it, the whole arch falls apart."

He believes everyone has one keystone that makes everything else stay in its place. That might be doing a physical activity, playing an instrument, creating artwork—anything you love to do that makes time disappear and allows you to get lost in the process.

Count backwards.

"In addition to the obvious benefits of stress reduction, distraction and calming the body, counting also helps with anger management," notes Williamson. She suggests trying this simple practice, either silently or out loud.
  1. Count backward from five to zero.
  2. When you reach one, start over. Repeat the sequence for one minute.
  3. Use slow, controlled breathing throughout the exercise.
After one minute, your mind will feel less focused on stressful thoughts, says Williamson. "Your mind needs to focus to count, so it will send calming signals to the rest of your body."

Imagine the worst-case scenario. 

Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C of the Baltimore Therapy Center says one way to disengage from a situation even when it feels like you must be involved is to think about the worst possible outcome. "More often than not, it will be something you can survive; rarely do we find ourselves in real emergency situations," he says. "Think about the worst-case scenario and make peace with it."

You'll get fired? Finding another job may not be pleasant, but it's probably not impossible. Your partner will yell at you? Not your first choice, but you'll survive it. Once you've made peace with the worst possible outcome, Bilek says, you'll be able to step aside and take a needed break without nearly as much stress.

Schedule one-minute mental health breaks throughout your day.

Life and business coach Tristan Gutner suggests setting an alarm for several moments throughout your day. When it goes off, stop what you're doing and consciously do nothing—just rest.

"Don't think about the work you're not doing, or the meeting that's coming up, or the emails you need to answer," he says. "When that minute is up, if you've really given yourself the micro-rest, you'll go back into your day re-charged and ready to handle business."

Do a standing forward bend.

In Williamson’s opinion, the best physical way to "press pause" is to do a standing forward bend. "This exercise relieves tension and calms the central nervous system," she says.
  1. Stand tall with your feet touching or hip-width apart, whichever feels better for you.
  2.  Inhale, and as you exhale, melt your chest toward the floor. Sweep your arms down on either side of your body and forward fold from your hips.
  3. Tuck your chin to your chest, relax your shoulders and extend the crown of your head toward the floor, creating a long spine.
  4. Ensure that your bend comes from your pelvis and not from your back. Imagine your pelvis as a bowl of water; rotate forward to tip the water from the front side.
  5. Shift your weight forward onto the balls of your feet. Keep your hips over your ankles.
  6.  Straighten your legs as much as possible (a slight bend in the knees is okay).
  7. Let your arms hang, or hold your elbows and rock back and forth. If you can, bring your fingertips in line with your toes.
  8. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Sway your neck from side to side to release the tension. Allow your head to hang heavy with no tension. Remember to send your breath to your shoulders and neck and allow the muscles to soften.
In a world where a frenetic state of being has become the rule rather than the exception, it’s more important than ever to find ways to step aside and take a time-out when you feel overwhelmed, stressed or on the brink of burnout. Try incorporating a few of these strategies, and when you’ve found the ones that work best for you, make them a regular part of your daily routine. Your brain and body will both benefit.