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The Magical Power of a 5-Minute Break

The thing about work-life balance is that it tends to tilt heavily in work’s favor.  “Workdays” are an essential part of our daily lives, “well-being days” are not. Work-life balance tries to convince us that what you do for work is separate from what you do for yourself. But that’s not true, and it never has been. 

If you don’t feel well, your work suffers. And when you don’t feel productive at work, your well-being suffers. My last company, Rise, helped people get into better physical shape. But the feedback we received from customers was hardly ever “I fit better into my jeans.” It was that they felt like better parents, better colleagues, and better leaders. 

As we discussed at the start of our journey, society has compartmentalized work and well-being without acknowledging that both are essential for sustained success. 

These two parts of your life aren’t separate but intimately connected. The goal isn’t to balance them against one other, but rather to harmonize them with one another. 

You do that by turning renewal into a rhythm. You’re not waiting until you reach a breaking point to take a break. With rhythmic discipline, you’re taking small, focused recoveries to continuously bring yourself back to green. 

Taking small breaks might sound overly simplistic when compared to a massive problem like burnout. But it’s amazing what can happen when you turn 5-minute breaks into a discipline. 

A year ago I was asked to host a new docuseries – sort of like an Anthony Bourdain for entrepreneurship, showcasing the stories of small businesses all around the world. 

I was a novice on camera with zero training. Folks on set referred to me as “the talent”, but I felt more like an imposter. By the end of the first day, the filmmakers were starting to suspect the same. We had done take after take, each time the director coached me to “loosen up” while the other twenty members of the crew kindly tried to hide their annoyance at my incompetence.

The next morning I woke up early and resolved to show up on set with the right mindset. I stretched, went to the gym, and ate a breakfast high in protein. At 8 am, I was going to be picked up by a driver. I showed up a few minutes early just to appreciate the morning sky. I was feeling as Zen as possible when my ride pulled up.

I hadn’t met the driver before, but as soon as I got in his car, I could tell that he was in a bad mood. He’d been fighting rush hour LA traffic on the way to my hotel and was about to do the same thing all over again. 

He was an enormous man. His chest and biceps threatened to bust through his suit. A wraparound tattoo edged just slightly above the neckline of his white-collared shirt. With every lane change, every sudden brake, I could feel his tension rise.

By the time we got to our destination, his disposition had completely rubbed off on me. I was no longer loose, far from it. I unbuckled my seatbelt – but I stopped myself from exiting. I knew the moment I got out of that car, I would have to be “on”, and in that moment I felt terribly off.

So I just sat there. I looked at the rearview mirror to find the driver staring at me cooly, wondering why I wasn’t getting the hell out of his vehicle. 

I cleared my throat. “Would it be okay with you if I just sit here for a few minutes and meditate?” His lips pursed together. He probably had to get back on the road. 

That’s when I decided to go out on a limb. “Would you like to join me?” 

His stare intensified for a moment, but then his shoulders dropped a little. He leaned back slightly, and said with a husky, drawn voice, “Ok. I’ll meditate with you.”

I pulled out my phone and started a five-minute meditation on an app called CALM. The two of us sat together in the parking lot of the film set and just breathed. When the five minutes were up, I felt ready to walk in. So I opened the car door and got out. 

The driver did too, and by the time I was out of the vehicle, he was already standing in front of me. Twice my size, he pulled me into a big bear hug, and said “Thank you….I needed that. I really needed that.” 

As he loosened his embrace, I took a look at him, into the same eyes that minutes ago had warned me to get the hell out of the car. Those eyes were now filled with gratitude. 

He then reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny square emblem attached to a red string. Lustrous, southwestern stones were pressed into its facia. It looked like a small piece of a pretty mountainside. 

With tenderness, he handed it to me. “I carry this on the road to keep me grounded,” he said. “I want you to have it…I promise it will do the same for you today.” 

I looked down at the beautiful amulet now in my right palm. I told him I couldn’t take it, but he insisted, so I did. 

Earlier that morning, neither of us knew each other’s name. On the ride over, we hadn’t said anything to each other. Now he had just given me something that mattered deeply to him. We were two strangers in the middle of a busy studio lot, neither of us wanting to say goodbye.

I watched him drive away, tracing my thumb over the smooth face of the emblem. I walked onto the film set with an almost otherworldly sense of confidence. 

After the first couple of takes, the director poked his head out from behind the camera equipment. “You must have slept well last night,” he said. 

It continued like this for the remainder of the shoot. 

That driver and I never exchanged names or numbers. We haven’t seen or spoken to each other since. But I carry that emblem with me everywhere. It keeps me grounded, as he promised. It also serves as a constant reminder of the magnificent power of a short break.

If the driver and I could reset ourselves with one focused, five-minute break, what would happen if you took multiple breaks throughout the day?

Over the years, I have asked leaders, executives, athletes, and artists to experiment with rhythmic recovery. One of the most common pieces of feedback they give me is “for the first time in my career, I feel more energy at the end of the day than I did at the beginning.”

When’s the last time you felt that way?

An author whose work I really admire is Anne Lamott. I keep something she wrote on my whiteboard, as an important – and much-needed reminder to practice rhythmic renewal. It says:

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes….including you.” 

With warmth and strength,