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The Power of the Pause: Why Doing Nothing Is the Most Productive Thing You Can Do

Patrick A Palace


  • Working too much, having rapid mood swings, neglecting friends and family, and other signs may indicate the need to pause and rebalance life.
  • Vacation brain leverages mindfulness to help rest, reset, and become more productive.
  • Keep things simple, put technology away, focus on friendships and experiences, and other lessons learned from reflections.
The Power of the Pause: Why Doing Nothing Is the Most Productive Thing You Can Do
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Life-changing moments are rarely controlled. They simply arrive, usually unexpected. They can come in lightning bolts or passing thoughts. But no matter how they materialize, they are unique, personalized, and seemingly sculpted to affect the greatest impact. But even after they pass, these changelings always seem to grow greater purpose. I met my moment ten years ago in an unexpected place.

In 2011 I ventured not just to Cuba but, more particularly, to the year 1959. Havana was a city where time stood still. When Americans and capitalism retreated from Cuba, Havana didn’t change. It stopped changing. In many ways, the completion of the Revolution meant that the face of Cuba would forever be frozen in the 50s. No more beautiful European architecture was to be built. No more American cars were to be shipped into Cuba. No more beautiful seaside casinos were to be born. It was a land where time was truly frozen.

I couldn’t help but wonder how much of our America of the 1950s still lived in Cuba and how it must have felt living then as compared to today. I wondered if Cuba could transport me back to see this time with fresh eyes and if it would change me.

To my surprise, the shift was sudden and jarring. I lost my first modern convenience instantly. Cell access and the Internet simply ended as I stepped off the plane. No more Google. No more calls. No more text messages or emails. Gone, all gone.

So, I walked the streets without a single beep coming from my phone, knowing that I would not have emails to check, that there would be no calls coming in, and that I would have no calls, emails, or texts to return. It started to sink in pretty quickly. I had trials coming up, clients with immediate problems that had to be solved. I was sure there would be unexpected motions to deal with, and what about the office itself? Surely, someone would call in sick, perhaps a mistake would be made, and I, and I alone, would have to make quick and important executive decisions.

As time passed, the white noise started to clear, and I envisioned a better way through a new lens. You see, Cuba is a place where the speed of living life is calming. Time is slowed. Nobody is in a rush. Waiting—waiting in line, waiting for food, waiting just to sit and watch—becomes a part of everyday life, not an annoyance, but a pleasure. I pondered the teachings of Henry David Thoreau and embraced the opportunity to live a simpler life.

When time is freely given, spending time is like spending free money. There is a sense that more will simply be made. How nice to be given a clock that doesn’t tick so loudly. I had time to smell the roses, to enjoy a cappuccino, to have a leisurely lunch, and to stay out late, deep into the night.

Turns out, I was on to something I hadn’t realized. I needed a pause—a pause from work, from emails, from pleadings and letters. I needed a pause from making business decisions, planning trial strategies, and paying bills. I needed a pause from social media, a pause from print media and everyday news. Turns out, I was really stressed and didn’t fully realize exactly how crazy it all was. I never stopped moving, fixing, planning, paying, strategizing, working, and doing. That, I had thought, was the way life was, but Cuba had given me a life-changing moment. Cuba had planted a seed that I alone could nurture if I appreciated the value it held.

So, I stopped, I stopped cold and paid attention to the present. I stopped being “there” and started being “here.” I started reflecting inward. I started doing nothing.

The Simple Power of Doing Nothing

My journey to Cuba started a longer journey, one that led me to opening a yoga studio, cultivating a daily meditation practice, and living a life filled with long hikes in the mountains and hours floating in lakes, rivers, and the ocean in the quest for a simpler life, a life with less stress and more joy. But here is the truth of it all: I never stopped practicing law. In fact, I opened a second law firm, built a winery, and began rapidly growing my firms at a pace where they doubled in size and revenue every two years on a sustained basis.

So, here is the quandary: How can doing “nothing” help you do more? The key is your ability to “pause.” It was my “pause” in Cuba that changed my path toward seeking greater joy, greater focus, clearer priorities, and a life more worth living.

The Pause

If you don’t pause to reflect, then you run the risk of navigating life blindly. Baseball great Yogi Berra once famously said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might end up someplace else.” How many people do you know who get to midlife and then realize they don’t like their jobs, or where they live, or even their partner? It happens because we start down a path with our first job, or a vision of what we think we want to do, and we follow the path too long past the point that we can simply stop and begin again. Planning your life for happiness isn’t a strategy or a plan as much as it is really just a technique.

Here is a great example. Best-selling author and coach Richard Leider spent 25 years interviewing 1,000 people toward the end of their lives who had retired from successful and satisfying careers. After his interviews, he observed that “they got so caught up in the doing that they missed the meaning. They overwhelmingly wished they had stopped at regular intervals to look at the big picture.”

Put another way, nobody ever died regretting that they didn’t work more. Without reflection, we all run the risk of veering off course, working too much, and loving too little.

Therefore, it is a necessity to reflect on where we are and what it means to us. The path to having less stress and more joy may begin in many ways with choosing your path more often. Life is full of course corrections, but they are best made with you driving the choices. For many, life feels more like a river that sweeps us up and takes us away down the rapids of life. But paddling over to the shore regularly to stop and see where you are and where you want to go from here is critical to building a life with purpose and on a more sure path. It all starts with a pause, if only for a moment today and another moment tomorrow until you are practiced in the art of the pause. Take a moment to do nothing, to observe your life, and to feel where you want to go so you can build a life supported by things that make you happy and give you purpose.

According to Steven Keeva, author of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life (ABA, 2011), here are a few signs that you have lost your way and need to stop and pause:

  • working too much;
  • spending most, if not all, waking hours on intellectual pursuits;
  • neglecting the body and ignoring the importance of physical well-being;
  • having rapid mood swings;
  • making play into work—that is, taking leisure activities too seriously or becoming overcompetitive;
  • neglecting friends and family; and
  • failing to take time for quiet reflection.

And here are less obvious indicators that your life may need rebalancing:

  • eating unconsciously, without concern for whether you are really hungry or how your food tastes;
  • spending too much time thinking about the past or the future and too little time being aware of the present;
  • sleeping too little or too much;
  • frequently feeling restless or irritable;
  • rarely or never being aware of the sacred in the everyday; and
  • frequently going to bed at night feeling that somehow your day was incomplete.

If this is you, then you may consider rebalancing by taking time to pause, reset, and chart a better course.

Vacation Brain

Here is the second tip to leveraging “doing nothing” into living better and being more productive: Give your brain some space. Pausing gives your brain some space, some relief, and some time to breathe for a moment. So many of us as lawyers spend our day reacting. We run a brain marathon every day but never stop long enough to give our brain a chance to catch its breath. Who can run without resting? Your brain is no different. Give it a moment to pause, rest, reset, and settle.

According to Janice L. Marturano, the former deputy general counsel for General Mills and executive director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, “A mindful leader embodies leadership presence by cultivating focus, clarity, creativity, and compassion in the service of others.”

It turns out that those who train themselves to pause and step away from the fire can create a space within themselves where they can go to take a break from the craziness of the regular world. The reward is improved focus, clarity, creativity, and compassion.

If you train yourself to pause, to take a cleansing breath, to close your eyes, then you are cultivating a safe space where you can go at any time. Imagine how nice it would be to open an imaginary door into a soft and comfortable room where you can be alone, peaceful, quiet, and calm. Then, when you have caught your breath, reset your attitude, and regained your purpose, you can open the door and return again to the moment you left. How nice to have a place always waiting for you when you need it most, like, for example, the first day of trial day, angry ex-spouse day, back-talking teenager day, or late to work and stuck behind a really, really, slow car day. Without a quiet place to go, who knows how you may show up, but the odds are, you may not always show up being the person you aspire to be.

I often refer to this secret room and the space it offers as “vacation brain.” I call it that because I first found this place when I was on vacation. I had planned a nice relaxing trip to Hawaii but ended up working through the first half of it. I had not really given myself a vacation, just a new location to work. But then, after a week, something peculiar happened. All the “noise” and worry just faded away. I had arrived at my vacation. I watched the waves, felt the sand, smelled the sweet breeze. And as soon as I did, there was a transformation. New ideas started flooding into my head. I felt creative, energized. All the busy noise had stopped. I was able to relax, have fun, and truly “unplug.” When I returned home, I vowed to learn how to return to that space in my mind. So, I started with a simple pause, a few minutes meditating, and then grew it from there.

The power of giving our brain some space provides great mental health benefits. Why? Taking a moment to pause helps:

  • return our focus;
  • see our true priorities;
  • invigorate our creativity;
  • give ourselves clarity;
  • lead to well-made decisions, both big and small; and
  • let answers come to us rather than chasing after them.

But what if you just don’t pause? So what? Well, if you do not “pause” when you are in a stressful situation, perhaps feeling unsafe, being attacked, or “on the spot,” then you risk acting in a manner you regret. For example, without a pause you probably didn’t notice that:

  • you are getting angry, or scared, or that you are feeling out of control;
  • you just got your buttons pushed;
  • you are about to act in a way that you will not be proud of later;
  • you feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to do; or
  • your life is passing before your eyes.

But with the pause comes the calm, and you will find that:

  • you achieve separation from the reactive decision you would have made;
  • you regain focus;
  • you sense that time has slowed down for you; and
  • you make your best decisions.

And with these skills, you build a less-stressful and happier life, not by happenstance but on purpose, by pausing and “doing nothing.”

As a result, you may perform better in court, you may be a better partner, your back-talking teenager may not even faze you, and you probably won’t even notice the slow car in front of you all the way to work.

Reflections Leaving Cuba

As I left Havana in the back seat of a 1956 Plymouth Belvedere taxi, I began to make a list of lessons learned. I update it from time to time. Here is my Top Ten List:

  1. It is important to stop and have a cappuccino every day, not because you need coffee, but because it gives you an opportunity to talk to those around you and to take time in a day where you should be available to meet with your friends, neighbors, and those who you work with.
  2. Put away your iPhone once in a while. More information is just more information. It does not make you live better. Faster is not better, either. Faster is certainly not happier. At the end of the day, having answered dozens of emails and texts does not make me any more relaxed or give me more time. If you unplug, nothing bad will happen that can’t be handled later, as we did in the years before cell phones. Being unplugged will give you more time to engage every day with people, not their machines. Unplugging brings peace and gives time back to spend on better pursuits, such as soccer with your kids, a glass of wine with your spouse, or meeting friends at a neighborhood restaurant.
  3. Don’t Facebook when you can face look. Meeting friends on the street or in coffee shops and restaurants should not be something unusual but should be part of everyone’s life every day. It gives everyone the chance to stop and talk more, to be neighbors and part of a live and connected community.
  4. More is not better. Voluntarily limit choices and keep it simple. It’s okay not to have an all-access cable network with 192 channels or a blazingly fast 5G smartphone where you can play 30 hands of poker on ten websites at the same time you are dominating Destiny. Limit your choices and fully enjoy and appreciate what you do have.
  5. The present is the only place we can make a difference. Stay here in the present. Don’t wander off to the past or the future so often. Don’t spend so much time planning for the future. It will be here soon enough. Don’t spend too much time in the past, either. The present is where everything happens.
  6. Pause more often. In times of stress, pause, ground, and reset. In times of joy, pause and soak it all in.
  7. Learn how to pause, and you can always take shelter. The sooner you start, the sooner you will find greater focus and clearer priorities. The better you get at it, the more room you will have available at all times to duck into your private space and handle anything life hands you, or at least handle it in a way you will be most proud of.
  8. Doing nothing helps you do more. Pausing opens the door for greater productivity because, with rest, you are centered, prioritized, focused, and fully present in the task. Try resting your brain more often if you want to see what it can really do.
  9. Planning your life for happiness isn’t a strategy or blueprint as much as it is really just a technique. So stop and reflect often. Ask yourself what you want and if you are getting it on your current path. Correct your course as often as you need.
  10. If someone interviews me at the end of my life, I want to make sure that I can tell him that I never got so caught up in the doing that I missed the meaning. Live your life by stopping at regular intervals to look at the big picture. Nobody ever regretted loving too much, spending too much time with family, or finding the joy in everyday things. Make space for everything that makes you happy. Oh, and do the happy thing first, just like dessert, because nobody ever wished they worked more and because life is shorter than you think.