Back in my late 20s, the concept of ‘taking time off’ was foreign to me. I had no time, no money, and no sense of inner permission. I was working full time, studying full time, and living in a foreign country. Yes, I was privileged to have the opportunity, but I worked hard, very hard to make it count. One day, I was talking with my teacher, complaining about feeling depressed and uninspired. He peered at me, and said, you look like a pasture whose grass has been munched down to the nubs by cows. You need a break, he said. You’re not depressed. You’re exhausted.
Of course, I argued with him. I couldn’t. I had no time. I had no money, I had to work, study, finish my thesis. I had a million reasons why taking time off was completely out of the picture. Finally, after much debate with myself I asked a friend if I could stay in her mountain cabin for 4 days. I remember the feeling of sitting in the sun, high up in the Alps. It was early spring, a bit like now. And the warm rays on my face felt like they reached right inside me, and fertilized that poor, munched down pasture. Four days. And I even brought my work with me, writing a few hours every morning. And yet, those four days felt like two weeks. I can still remember sitting on the bench, against the stone house, the warmth of the rays reflecting off the melting snow, the smells of early spring, the wind in the trees, and most of all, the sense of spaciousness.
I was reminded of this story the other day when I was talking to a client about his decision to retire. He made the decision while under terrific stress and at that time, it felt absolutely right. But now, 5 years later, he is restless, bored, and unhappy. He knows there’s more, but doesn’t know what to do. He admitted to me that he wonders if retiring was the right move. He was burnt out and exhausted, and retiring felt like the only and best option. But in retrospect, he admitted, he just needed some time off.
It’s easy to confuse time with space. Time is a proxy for space, or more precisely, mental space, or detachment. And detachment takes no time at all. My client made that decision without any mental slack. And this is a terrible place from which to make decisions. And yet we do it all the time. And it’s not just exhaustion that limits our mental space; it’s any kind of pressure, urgency, and emotions. When we’re so caught up in our own thought process and the emotions driving it, we make lousy choices. From within a system, any system, our solutions are limited by the parameters of that system.
We need mental slack, some detachment to gain a vantage point outside our own system. This isn’t just optional, but imperative. Because the feeling itself of having no time is the problem. When we are too tired, scared, or stressed, that mindset is our biggest problem. In fact, researchers at Princeton University have shown that when someone is overwhelmed with insoluble problems, their cognitive functioning is reduced. The constant worry and stress of survival reduces the mental slack necessary to think and ponder and make better decisions.
Time often feels like the culprit but the funny thing is that all the time in the world won’t necessarily give us the mental slack we need. And getting some mental slack, stepping outside of ourselves, of our pressured and harried mindset takes a lot less time than we think. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of taking a breath, closing your eyes, or even clicking your heels three times.