It took me over 30 years to be able to write this.
I first wrote it in my journal, timidly scribbling the words. Although I knew nobody would ever see them, I cringed a bit while my pen went over the page.
But after jotting down these four words, I felt incredible relief flowing through my body. Never had I imagined that so much liberation and inner calmness could come from just one sentence.
There, I’ve said it. And you know what? I’m damn glad I did!
That’s why I’m writing this article. My bet is that you need to hear these words too. And if you’re anything like me, reading them won’t be enough. You need to feel them — let them flow through your veins and own them.
So please, if you only get one thing out of this article, take a deep breath and read this sentence out loud:
It’s okay to pause
Let that sink in.
Now, before you dismiss me as one of those feel-good gurus, let me tell you a bit about the science and philosophy behind taking a break and why it took me so long to realize I needed one.
Why So Serious?
I grew up in a family of high-performing, high-functioning intellectuals. Half of my relatives are MDs — the other half are MD, PhDs. In such families, winning a silver medal only earns you a stern remark.
“How come you didn’t win gold?”
Taking breaks wasn’t just something nobody talked about, it was actively shunned upon. Even when my results matched the expectations, I was still criticized for the amount of work I put in.
“Just imagine what you could have achieved if you’d studied even harder.”
Combine this mentality with being a lonely child, eager to please and well aware of the expectations placed on his shoulders. What you get is, well, someone who doesn’t know how to take a break.
Don’t get me wrong. This upbringing has served me well for the better part of my life. I graduated from med school among the top 10%. I received numerous stipends, gave talks at international conferences, and started my PhD at Germany’s best university (next to a Nobel Laureate).
So what changed?
I will tell you my personal reasons for deciding to pause in just a sec. First, let’s have a look at the science behind this often discredited practice.
The Science Behind Taking a Break
The brain needs downtime — you wanting to work overtime can’t change that. It’s taken science decades, but the results are finally in: your brain isn’t idle while you rest. In fact, it’s anything but.
While you may be resting, your brain is performing some much-needed maintenance work. Just like your muscles grow during the post-workout rest periods, the connections between your neurons grow while you rest.
So what does this mean in practice?
You become more alert, your reaction times shorten, and your concentration improves. You have better memory, increased imagination, and improved problem-solving skills. And, if that’s not enough, by taking a break you can also decrease the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, boost happiness, and have better sex.
Prominent examples of people who used naps and/or daydreaming to hone their craft include Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali, Norhan Pamuk, John F Kennedy, and Leonardo da Vinci.
These guys managed to take breaks and do incredible work. Or rather, as the scientists would argue, they managed to become so good because they took time to rest.
The Philosophy Behind Taking a Break
Whenever I’m faced with a difficult decision, I like to look for precedents. No matter how tough or complex my current conundrum may be, there’s a good chance that at some point in history, someone smarter faced a similar problem.
That’s when I turn to philosophy.
I don’t mean the kind of abstract ivory-tower philosophy you hear about in school. What I’m referring to is philosophy in its most basic and raw form. The original kind of philosophy, which deals with the daily struggles of living a good life.
To answer my dilemma regarding breaks, I turned to one of the OGs of philosophy.
“The mind must be given relaxation; it will rise improved and sharper after a good break.” — Seneca the Younger
Seneca was no slacker. He was one of the richest and most powerful people in ancient Rome. As a statesman, dramatist, and philosopher, he made his mark on virtually all his contemporaries (including the king of the most powerful empire on Earth).
But it’s through his writing that he really put a lasting dent in the Universe. The influence of his 124 letters is hard to overestimate. From future kings and philosophers to war veterans and Super Bowl winners, the ripples of his teachings reverberate to his day.
He was active, prolific, and influential. Still, one of the things he urges us to do is take breaks. Not to put off work, but to pause and recover so we can come back stronger and do even better work.
“We must indulge the mind and from time to time allow it the leisure which is its food and strength.” — Seneca
The Morning Everything Changed
I promised I would tell you my reasons for finally allowing myself to take a break. Truth be told, all the scientific and philosophical arguments I’ve just listed weren’t enough. I had to experience it myself.
It was 9 a.m. and I had just got off the phone with my lawyer. After downing my third espresso, I looked at my to-do list.
I had to call that lazy contractor, who wouldn’t get off his ass and finally do his goddamn job. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s incompetent people!
Blood pressure rising
I also need to schedule a meeting with the gardener.
And I have to get a doctor’s appointment.
High-pitched sound in both ears
And I have to get all of this done before picking up my daughter at 3 p.m..
I grabbed my journal and a pen and went into the back yard. It was a beautiful morning, with the sun shining through the leaves of our walnut tree. I grabbed a chair, looked up at the sky, and thought, This is ridiculous.
At 30, I’ve already achieved more than I had ever dreamt. I’m stronger and fitter than in my 20s. I have a loving wife and an absolutely adorable daughter. I’ve built a house from scratch. And I have one of the best-paying specialties in the country.
Is everything perfect? No. Can I achieve even more than this? You bet I can. But to what end if I can’t enjoy it?
What good is a perfect rose if nobody stops to smell it?
In that moment everything changed. That’s when I opened my journal and wrote down those words.
It’s okay to pause
Not because I say so. Not even because the scientists or the philosophers say so. But because no amount of money, no title, and no number of awards will guarantee you a fulfilled life.
It’s all up to you. And it starts now.