The Power of the Pause: Why You Should Just Be

UPDATED: May 27, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 17, 2017


“Decision is a risk rooted in the courage of being free.” —Paul Tillich


Congratulations on taking (or considering taking) the pause plunge. You probably don’t know how long or short it will be yet, and even if you do, take it in stride. Plans change and so can your pause. It’s easy to get sidetracked creating to-do lists or travel plans to exotic destinations. We all want to control our destiny. Why should pausing be any different from any other type of endeavor?

Well, although our brains want to remain in charge, it’s important to remember that when you take a pause, the outcome is unknown. Part of the thrill of pausing is leaving yourself open to be surprised by what happens. It’s human nature to get in front of any relevant issues to ensure a set outcome. Letting go of control is one of the hardest habits to break.

The good news is that by taking a pause, you do let go. A pause is about surrendering. Pausing allows for the possibilities of the unknown. Trust that your pause is in your best interest, even if you have no idea what the outcome will be or where you’ll end up. Trust in knowing that whatever lies ahead will serve you. Stay in present time. That’s a lot easier to say than do. Believe in your mission and replenish yourself by switching off in some way. This deeper sense of trust is what some people call their inner voice. I think of it as my inner guidance system that moves me forward in ways that serve my best interest.

When I started my pause, I had no idea what the outcome would be, but I had faith in my decision. All I knew was that as a result of working too much and going into my mental tailspin, I needed time to “just be” and check out. During the month between receiving approval for my extended pause and leaving Google, I wondered how I would spend my time. I was scared to make too many plans. I didn’t want to feel overwhelmed again. I wanted to leave room for plans to create themselves. If I filled up my time with too much doing, how would there be room for any magic to happen?

Beginning a pause requires a combination of courage, risk and self-assurance. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell tells us more. He informs us that part of any hero’s journey is to go through a challenge, obstacle or threat and come out on the other side stronger and changed for the better. After you’ve pursued a journey as the hero, perceptions change. You are no longer the same person you were before your experience. Having faced your fears head-on, you return with new ideas, experiences and lessons that allow you to grow. Through the act of pausing, you become the hero of your journey. That journey is an act of courage.

A pause means embarking on your own hero’s journey. As Campbell wrote, it is about facing the unknown: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Related: 5 Signs You Need a Pause

Courage to Pause

German existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich wrote The Courage to Be in 1952. In this book, he questions what it means to exist as a finite being. He introduces the concept that all anxiety is part of the human condition and implies that courage is being. Not to get too existential on you, but courage is also pausing, and it’s required for the decision to take the leap of faith in the actual act. It’s a step toward finding the next bread crumb to follow or door to walk through. Courage is defined as “the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous.” Part of what’s gained in the pause process is courage. Pausing means being OK knowing you’re uncertain of an outcome, letting go of control or surrendering to the present moment. Each one is a tremendous act of courage.

I felt a tinge of fear every time I explained why I was pausing to curious people who asked me. I accepted it, like most uncomfortable feelings, but it didn’t mean I stopped worrying. My biggest fear around my pause was that I would discover a side of me that I had ignored for far too long. What if I figured out I was not in the right job or career? I didn’t want to think about how much energy or time I had spent convincing myself I was passionate about my job and technology.

What if I realized I was miserable? What if I didn’t like myself? I felt hesitant to discover any of it. I didn’t let myself feel my terror. I skimmed over it and refused to acknowledge it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was exactly how I was supposed to feel. Because I was out of my comfort zone, it was a normal reaction. I had to face the ignored and stuffed-down emotional pain I previously was unwilling to look at. It was as if my body was an emotional safety-deposit box—holding emotions I didn’t want to feel under lock and key indefinitely. I didn’t realize that expressing them was important and would help me heal.

I had the same feeling when I began to write this. My fear sat in the pit of my stomach. I questioned if I could do it and wondered if I would fail. Writing required more introspection and effort on my part. Fear of the unknown lurked in the shadows of my thoughts and actions.

I knew that worrying about what I would do post-pause, without knowing any details, was pointless. Every time I started thinking about the future, it meant I was no longer present. I needed to face my biggest fear, the unknown, and trust that I was OK in it. I accepted the fact that whatever was on the other side of my three-month pause would be worth the risk. The reward of being more aligned and fulfilled was worth the price of the unknown, even if it meant discovering who I was, who I wasn’t and facing them both head-on. Courage would see me through.

Most of us do not live free and fearless. According to G. M. Durst, approximately 70 percent of the population works to negotiate belonging and expression. They live in conformity, not venturing beyond the norms of society and culture. They go to the school that makes sense, do what others expect or tell them to do, have a conventional career path and don’t question assumptions about their lifestyle, family, belief systems or whatever is expected.

Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl reminds us, “What is to give light must endure burning.” I interpret “burning” to mean facing your own fears and having the courage to discover your true self and move beyond conformity. Frankl believed that people are primarily driven by “striving to find meaning in one’s life,” and that it is the sense of meaning that enables people to face their fears and overcome painful experiences. In Frankl’s words, I was willing to face who I really was, and “burn” my fears, in order to develop a stronger sense of self.

What fear is in you, or in your life? Are you afraid of quitting, staying or losing control? A pause can help you discover who you can become and provides an opportunity to courageously embrace your fear and look at what is and isn’t working for you. It can go way beyond finding a new job. It can be a way to heal and not rush off to the next thing with wounds exposed. Pausing is one way to give yourself permission to deeply connect with yourself, including feeling and expressing emotions, in ways you had not thought possible.

So, what does one do when plunging into the unknown? Where does one begin? Knowing you are stepping into the unknown, I’ve created three steps to help navigate your path. With a little guidance, my hope is that you harness your courage and take a leap of faith.

Related: The Best Ways to Find Your Inner Courage​

3 Steps to Taking the Pause Plunge

Figuring out how to structure a pause can be daunting. Planning a pause means planning in broad strokes. You’ll still leave room for life to get in the way. You can set yourself up for success by strategizing how and what you plan to do in the big-picture kind of way.

Step 1: Write your rough draft.

I heard Brené Brown speak on her Rising Strong book tour at the 2015 Google women’s employee conference in Chicago. She introduced us to one of her core concepts: writing down your “sh*tty first draft” or SFD. The idea came from Anne Lamott’s insightful book Bird by Bird. Writing your story and ideas down, no matter how messy, ugly or imperfect they are, is the first step to fostering awareness. It isn’t something you need to share with others. Brown calls it the “first version that your childlike self can write.” She suggests we keep it to six bottom-line bullet points as we consider our whole selves and unfiltered stories: the story I’m making up, my emotions, my body, my thinking, my beliefs, my actions.

Your SFD can also spark ideas for your pause plan, or a way to set your intentions for your pause. Write down whatever you feel like, and give yourself full permission to express, write and capture what your mind has to say. It doesn’t have to be a sweeping, detailed narrative. It can be a few bullet points, a Post-it Note-sized paragraph or a journal entry. Brown reminds us that our goal is wholeheartedness. That is the magic of an SFD.

I see the SFD as a critical step in identifying your limiting beliefs, acknowledging your fears, and creating intention and a plan for your pause. By creating this rough draft, you acknowledge your story and beliefs. You glean insights on how you want to spend your time (or not spend it), what your yearnings might be, and what actions you want to take (or not take). It allows you to clear out the thoughts you currently have and enter into the right frame of mind to create a plan for your pause.

How do you know if you are in the right frame of mind? If you convince yourself that you aren’t ready to plan, remember this is often a default way of thinking and you can choose to shift it. Your limiting beliefs might be getting in the way of planning. Notice your attitude. Are you curious about what a successful pause plan looks like? Or are you convinced it is what it is and maybe this is all a big waste of time? One way to support yourself, whether it is writing your SFD or any endeavor you take on, is to activate your growth mindset.

Step 2: Set your intention.

Setting intention is an easy way to tap into what you really want. Intention, or a determination to act in a certain way, adds meaning to your actions and helps you focus on a specific outcome. Intention is about envisioning what you want and going for it. Ask yourself, What do I want to get out of this moment, afternoon, day or pause? If you’re used to setting intentions, congratulations. You are on your way to a successful pause. Please note that intention setting is different from goal setting. Goals are specific, measurable and have timely outcomes. A goal is losing 10 pounds in two months, learning Japanese this year or having at least one date night per week. Goals are good motivators to act, but how you act is intention.

By setting intention, you create a vision for how you want to be and how you want to feel while pausing. Setting intentions before, during and after your pause matters. For any successful pause, intention is not so much about what you do as it is about how you show up and what possibility arises in your new space—whether it’s a day without screens, starting a new hobby or going away for a long weekend.

Here are some examples of intention:

  • Before you get out of bed, intend to be fully present with everyone you interact with.
  • When you leave home, intend to spend quality time with your partner, a good friend or family when you return.
  • Before you start your car, intend to have a relaxing ride to work.
  • Before you enter your place of employment, intend to show up in a calm state by taking six deep breaths.
  • Intend to meet, smile and speak with three strangers before noon.

Keep a pause journal or “pausebook” and write down your rough draft, or SFD. It becomes proof of your own talents, intentions and capabilities during and after your pause that you can review and reflect upon. When I paused from Google, I didn’t know about SFDs, so I didn’t write one. Instead, I bought a five-by-seven-inch pink spiral notebook and called it my “career journal” to capture all of my notes and insights from others. It was the validation I needed to see, documenting my capabilities.

Step 3: Create your plan.

Even though you want to surrender to a pause and plunge in, it’s important to know how you want to spend your time pausing. Your plan does not need to be specific or detailed. It is better to leave it somewhat vague and open. In my case, I created a framework for a few things I knew I wanted to do and left room for the rest to unfold. I wanted to take things one day at a time. Before you dive into planning, let’s explore common ways we like to think we’re doing ourselves a favor by planning, when in reality it might not be helpful. This is true especially when we fill our time with nonstop action for the sake of doing things.

Related: How to Create a Master Plan for Your Life

Busifying, Doing and Being

The word business has a striking similarity to the word busyness. Both share the same root, a 14th century Old English term, bisignes. This word means “care, anxiety, occupation” and a “state of being much occupied or engaged.” The word busy is defined as “full of activity or work” and implies a similar anxious occupation of sorts. To what extent is keeping busy a way to stay occupied? Whether you are at home or at work, doing busywork implies that you have a lot of activities that occupy your time, but they might not necessarily be fulfilling. The question to ask is, Why do we do for the sake of doing?

When my brother and I were recently planning a trip to visit our mom and stepdad in Syracuse, New York, Drew mentioned he was struck by how so many people, including our well-intentioned mom, Virginia, thrive on keeping busy. He created a verb to describe this behavior: busify, which he defined as “to constantly fill time with activities.” (I have yet to see it defined anywhere else as this, so as far as I’m concerned, he gets full credit!)

I suspect there are many Virginias among us. Finding the balance between being and doing is different for everyone. It is one of the dualities of the human condition. The being in us wants to emerge, present and aware, happy to exist. The doing part in us wants to achieve and strive, to accomplish, to be seen and to make a difference. Both are essential and important pieces of who we are. But we have lost sight of how important just being is, as we’ve focused on doing and building in our modern society. With so many of us busifying our lives, it is easy to forget how powerful doing nothing is. Ideally, pausing can become a way of life. Whether we’re at work or elsewhere, pausing is a skill. It takes practice and conscious effort, especially for my fellow overachiever, doer types. My mom is no different from many of us, for whom doing is a way of life we have grown to know and love. We do things because they make us feel good. As a result, we feel fulfilled and accomplished. How often do any of us stop to ask ourselves, What activities are contributing to my overall well-being?

At work we do the same thing. In our culture, the busier we are at work, the more productivity and profits can follow. Standing around appearing idle conjures up an image of a slacker or someone who is wasting precious time. What if that time is spent pausing because of a problem you’re trying to solve? It might look like you are daydreaming, but actually this is one of the most creative and productive states of mind, and data and research from multiple studies prove it.

In a 2013 article in Scientific American, author Ferris Jabr summarizes the benefits of daydreaming and shares insights from studies about time spent at work managing information:

Some studies have demonstrated that the mind obliquely solves tough problems while daydreaming—an experience many people have had while taking a shower. Epiphanies seem to come out of nowhere, but they are often the product of unconscious mental activity during downtime. A 2010 LexisNexis survey of 1,700 white collar workers in the U.S., China, South Africa, the UK and Australia revealed that on average employees spend more than half their workdays receiving and managing information rather than using it to do their jobs. Half of the surveyed workers also confessed that they were reaching a breaking point after which they would not be able to accommodate the deluge of data.

What if pausing was woven into corporate culture by making skill-based self-awareness and emotional intelligence training part of a minimum requirement of an employee profile? This is the power of pausing and the potential it carries personally and professionally. It can become a way of life to balance out our “always doing” lives.

The Key to Planning a Pause: Deep Listening

There are two meanings to what I call “deep listening.” The first meaning relates to listening to your inner voice and following your intuition. It is a guide for planning your pause. Whatever questions might arise, it’s about turning inward and paying attention to what you feel cultivates compassion for yourself and others. You can develop your plan as you practice deep listening. It isn’t about jumping into the next thing because you suddenly feel uncomfortable with a new routine (or lack of one). Deep listening is when you allow your inner voice to emerge and share what your plan is in the first place. It’s all too easy to miss it. It’s easy to drown out this voice with the distractions and noise of everyday life.

I believe one of the biggest blocks to deep listening is when we busify ourselves and fill our lives up and miss the cues that deep listening provides. The plan that our intuition is pointing us toward becomes drowned out or goes unheard when all that needed to happen was to allow your inner voice to be heard.

Prior to my pause, deep listening to my inner voice took place, but only to a certain extent. I liked to cut it off or not allow it to have too much airtime. I chose to stay busy to avoid tuning in to myself and feeling at a deeper level. If I had stopped to listen to my inner voice or my true guidance system, I would have heard something along these lines: Why do you ignore me? Why are you doing so much? Why are you working so hard to avoid me?

I was too scared to be alone with my thoughts and feel how unhappy and isolated I was. On some level, I knew that if I sat still and listened, I would learn something about myself that I wasn’t likely ready to acknowledge. My pause forced me to deeply listen to my own inner voice. I listened to this voice and heard that my plan should focus on not making plans. Everything else would be a distraction. It was time to get real and be fully present with myself.

Deep Listening as a Way of Life

The benefits of deep listening go far beyond planning for a pause. It can help you tune in to how you are feeling and your presence in any given moment. What works for you? Focus on how your body feels and settle into yourself. Allow your mind to quiet. Take in your surrounding sensory-rounded data—what you see, hear, taste, touch and smell. If you find your thoughts spinning mindlessly, simply bring attention to your breath.

Try deep listening while performing an activity you enjoy. Expect the occasional distraction. The key is to recognize when this happens, catch it and return to your deep listening “in-the-zone” state. Focus on your breath and use your sensory perception. What do you see, feel, hear, taste or smell as you move? During your activity, chances are you will feel more engaged, alive and in tune with yourself as a result.

Deep listening can happen anytime. I happen to find it often in physical exercise. When I get into a boat in the Oakland Bay, I am present in the here and now. Cooking, gardening or flying a kite can all be ways to find a meditative or deep listening state. When your body is physically engaged, you are more likely to come up with an idea, resolution or realization. Your inner voice emerges from this space. Imagine your inner voice appearing like a thought bubble over your head in a comic strip. Only you hear it, but it is relevant and important communication. Ask yourself: What am I feeling? What happened recently that caused me to feel a certain way?

We all adopt different ways to heal. Deep listening can lead you to de-busify your life, repair a relationship or move closer to your vision of who you want to become. There’s plenty of research that shows deep listening can slow down resting heart rate, reduce levels of stress and raise what HeartMath Institute research director Rollin McCraty calls “heart coherence,” or the ability to synchronize our physical, mental and emotional systems. “It is a state that builds resiliency—personal energy is accumulated, not wasted—leaving more energy to manifest intentions and harmonious outcomes,” McCraty says. Like a form of meditation, deep listening allows your thoughts to flow and attune to your own body, mind and inner voice.

There is nothing wrong with filling your days with activities you love. These are the enjoyments and pleasures of life. They matter. If you are passionate about what you’re doing, you become happier and more fulfilled. Deep listening is one way to figure out your motives and whether you’re doing what serves you. Are you passionate about something you love in a way that feeds your spirit? If you’re on the right track, your entire being—our mind, body and soul—will answer a resounding yes. Or are you trudging through something because you “have to get it done,” even if it is taking a toll on your physical, mental or emotional health? What can you do to help your own deep listening skills?

Related: 6 Mindset Shifts That Will Improve Your Life


PauseExcerpted from Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break by Rachael O’Meara, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Rachael O’Meara.

Rachael OMeara CREDIT Larry Dyer

Rachael O’Meara is the author of the upcoming book, Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break. She is also a sales executive at Google and a transformational leadership coach, assisting others to fulfill their potential.