When I was 16 years old a neighbor took me fly fishing. When we got to the river bank the first thing he explained was this:
“These rocks are slippery. So, if you lose your balance and fall into the river, don’t fight it. There’s no use fighting with gravity or the river’s current. So, just let yourself relax and go with the flow. Let the river carry you a little as you look for a branch or rock to grab.”
This was not just a lesson in fishing for me. To this day, it’s also a lesson for work and for life! Our daily lives often feel like a strong and continuous current of demands and expectations. These conditions can create anxiety and adrenaline within us. And, our impulse is to believe we have all the answers and to take action by getting the situation under control.
Many leadership books teach us that being decisive and taking action is always better than inaction. I disagree. There are moments in which the most courageous and productive thing you can do is what I call engaging in “the intentional pause.” I’m not talking about a nap or vacation, although, in our busy world, these are necessary ways of pausing. I’m also not talking about hiding, quitting, or giving up.
When I talk about the intentional pause I mean recognizing moments in which:
Stillness might be more important than an immediate response.
Staying silent might yield more insights than than talking.
Reflecting, even for a moment, might be more useful than making an impulsive decision.
Many of us have learned that to be strong and capable means to “keep going,” “advance,” “push forward in the face of adversity,” and “do whatever it takes!” But this impulse to push ahead and work harder can result in overwhelm and exhaustion. It also causes us to lose perspective and make poor decisions that can negatively impact those around us.
As a practice, the intentional pause has five sequential elements that are easy to remember.
1. Recognize. Realize that this is not the time to fight gravity or swim against the current. Recognize that there is value in non-action under these circumstances.
2. Respire (breathe). After taking three slow, intentional breaths so that you are no longer in default reaction mode. You’ve now created just enough space for choice rather than acting from anxiety, fear or habit.
3. Reflect. Ask yourself or those around you: What’s happening out there? What’s happening within me? What’s most important to attend to at this moment? Then, listen to the answers.
4. Reframe. To see the situation with new eyes, ask: How might this moment be an opportunity to clarify what is really important? How might this challenge become a gift?
5. Reclaim. To reclaim is to claim one’s own agency. In the words of Viktor Frankl, the psychologist who wrote about his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp: “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
An intentional pause involving these five elements can last five seconds, five minutes or five days depending on the situation.
In a world that values fast results and immediate answers, taking an intentional pause is a revolutionary act. So, why risk looking like the person who is putting the breaks on “progress”?
Maybe you already know the answer for yourself. Maybe your answer is that in the middle of the river of demands and expectations you need space to define priorities and gain a new perspective. Or maybe your answer is that you need to pause in order to gather your thoughts and listen to others’ ideas.
My answer is this:
I pause to ask myself if I’m about to take action that might cause suffering or damage.
I pause to ensure that my deeds are aligned with my values.
I pause because I always discover something new and valuable in the silence – like clarity, inspiration, calm, and resolve.
The famous classical pianist Edward Shnabel said: “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes ah, that is where the art resides.”
As the composer of your life, I invite you to look for the moments in which an intentional pause permits you to discover the art of living and leading with more consciousness, satisfaction, impact, and integrity.
When would an intentional pause be most useful to you?
Image credit: Jon Flobrant on Unsplash