Staring at trees

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I have discovered a remarkable way to increase my productivity: taking a break in the middle of the day, sitting on the steps in front of my school building, and staring at the trees across the street.

I recently got interested in my fitness and overall health.  I hired an expert personal trainer, Aaron Fountain, to do online fitness and health coaching.  This past week, Aaron had me do a series of assessments, and one of them was to record my typical schedule: waking up, workday, bedtime, meals, exercise, breaks.

As I filled out the survey, I was struck by this fact: I schedule no breaks into my work day.

Yes, sometimes I take 15 to 20 minutes to eat lunch because I get hungry.  I often eat lunch at a meeting with my assistant principals.  However, I do not consciously look at my schedule and say, “When is a good time for a break?”

I thought about what my leadership consultants Ariel and Shya Kane had said at a seminar*: When they are working on a project, they take a break when they feel their energy waning.  And when they are taking a break, they really take a break: they don’t continue to think about the project, or work on it in the background of their minds.  When they return to the project, they’re fully rejuvenated and able to approach it creatively.  They compared the act of constantly thinking about a project to having lots of apps open on your phone: eventually, even though you’re not actually using the apps, they drain your phone battery.  Continuing to work on something in your mind, even when you’re not working on it physically, is like draining your own battery.

This week, I started taking breaks.  When I thought of what a break would look like for me, the most appealing idea was to sit on the steps in front of the school building and stare at the trees across the street.

I like trees, and these trees are remarkable: tall, stately, yet also gnarly and full of personality.  Our school is situated across the street from a beautiful, sprawling campus housing a school for the blind, which includes dorms, playgrounds, lots of grass, and yes, trees.  The trees are beautiful in winter too, because you can see their shape, their solidity, the branches winding and spreading out like webs.

I don’t think about much as I stare at the trees.  Things that have happened during the day pass through my mind like clouds.  If a great idea bubbles up, I jot it down on my phone, then put my phone away.  I don’t try to meditate or do anything “deep.” I just hang out for a while– five minutes, or fifteen minutes–  then go back into work when I feel rested, and start to feel a surge of enthusiasm around my next task.  Until then, I do nothing in particular, just looking at the trees across the street.

Photo credit: Julie Nariman 

*The Kanes’s next NYC seminar is called Transformational Time and Project Management and is being held on May 4-5, 2019.