Zen Assistant: How to Stay Sane with Breaks

zen assistant
frustration

I felt like the high school nerd: head in the toilet, pockets emptied of lunch money. My job left me feeling like I was drowning in a foot of water.

I think every assistant feels the same at some point. Overwhelmed: the cackle of one Boss’s phone prompts the others, like a pack of hyenas. Three different people would assign three different tasks, all with the expectation theirs came first. The couple of client checks I shoved into my drawer must have fornicated overnight, because suddenly there was a stack of ‘em I needed to write letters for and send out. Contracts that required review — that I needed 30 consecutive minutes of silence to study — gathered dust in the corner of my desk. I felt like there was no way I could get to everything, so I should no longer try.

Which started me down this path of resentment. Which is always ugly. I started resenting the assistants who didn’t have a to-do list out of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (“the Everlasting List of Shit To Do!”), who found time to write scripts and read Deadline during the day. I resented every request for my time that I didn’t feel like I could give. I resented friends who worked hard and had moved passed answering someone else’s phone.

No, this wasn’t a healthy mind space.

The worst part: I realized at the end of each day, I spent every waking moment working on someone else’s career. Nothing I accomplished propelled me forward. The sun rose and set to a new batch phone calls, emails and submissions on behalf of someone else. Meanwhile, I didn’t find the time to study the Publishing Agreement that I wanted, or even glance at Deadline, to catch up on what’s New and Happening…

At home, I was mentally fatigued, I didn’t have the momentum required to dive back into my own work, to spend that crucial extra hour on a side project. Which doesn’t seem like a lot for one day (“big deal, you missed an hour today. There’s always tomorrow.”) In the aggregate, though, 1 hour after work for a year is 240 hours — what could you accomplish with 240 extra hours?

The situation was unsustainable. I could feel myself burning out, like my clutch was caught between second and fourth and instead of acceleration, I only found a grind.

Then, I decided to make one small adjustment in my day. One small tweak — and the results were immense. I felt this massive burden lifted off my shoulders. I was happier. I could focus on the tasks at hand better. What changed?

I started carving little breaks into my day

I divided up the break I normally took at the end of day, when I used up my reserve of will power and had nothing left in the tank to sputter across the finish line. Instead, I scheduled two breaks, one at 11am and 4pm. During these breaks — for 20 minutes — I ignored the to-do list. I worked for me.

Not like I could do groundbreaking work in two 20-minute sessions — most of the time I responded to all my personal email, read the trades, or read a blog post. Or I talked to the other assistants and asked them how they were, what they did over the weekend.

This small tweak made a huge difference in my approach to work. Before I started taking the break, the end never seemed in sight. Now, I could work like a madman right up to 11 am.  After, I dove back into things that were important to me. Here are other ideas on why this strategy works, and why it can bring out the Zen Assistant in you:

  1. Most of our minds begin losing focus around the 15-minute mark (need source). Taking a break and coming back to the task lets the mind disconnect, then reconnect with a fresh pair of eyes. Rather than leaving it up to myself to remember this (I won’t), it’s easier to set an alarm to remind me to break.
  2. When I know I’ve carved out specific time to work on my own tasks, it makes me more focused on my Boss’s work as well. What needs to happen in my own life isn’t weighing on my mind – I know I’ll get to it when it’s time. Instead I focus on crushing the task at hand.
  3. A huge advantage of the little breaks is it helps build momentum into the evening, when it’s hardest for me to squeeze that extra hour or two after work. Without scheduled breaks, I built zero momentum during the day. With the breaks, I’ve already overcome inertia by reminding myself, “this is what you want to do, and this is why you want to do it.” Then it’s a matter of keeping the trains moving forward.

Scheduling time to rest, building in breaks, isn’t a new idea. It’s been used forever, across industries. In Supersystem, Doyle Brunson recounts that after taking his first vacation from poker, he returned to the table and won 40+ sessions in a row. He made breaks a regular part of his game after that. At Google, “20 percent time” is a well-known program that allows an employee to work on a side pursuit, typically one day per workweek. The break motivates staff both when they’re working on their regular tasks, and when they’re working on the side project.

Will this start-up, autonomy-versus-management mentality ever permeate Hollywood? I think it’s a long while coming, if ever. In the meantime, taking scheduled breaks can keep you sane long enough to possibly see that day.

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Photo credit: Sean McEntee

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