In her role as a human resources information center specialist, Kanisha Madison spends workdays on a phone, helping Duke staff and faculty and job applicants navigate Duke’s sometimes complicated systems.
Incoming calls can range from simple online password resets to complex benefits changes due to major life events. Between calls on busy days, Madison will put her headset down and take a few minutes to sit quietly. She said the breaks, which last fewer than five minutes, help ready her for whatever comes next.
“I put everything on pause, and it forces me to release all of the energy that’s telling me to stress out,” Madison said. “Afterward, my mind feels at ease. My mind is clear. So when I get back on the phones, I can take my time and make sure that I do everything right.”
Madison’s approach is backed up by experts, who point out that taking a few minutes during the course of the day to be silent – which can be seen as a simple form of meditation – can help sharpen your mind and relieve stress, which is especially important as a recent American Psychological Association survey showed that roughly two-third of adults have experienced more stress during the pandemic.
“There’s so much energy that goes into crafting words, there’s so much energy that goes into social interaction,” said Jason Cho, child and adolescent psychiatrist and medical instructor in the Duke Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “We don’t recognize how much energy that drains. So it can be a privilege and an opportunity when you give yourself permission to stop. You can have that energy routed in a different way.”
If you’re thinking about adopting Madison’s method and weaving a few nourishing silent breaks into your day, here are a few things to consider:
Short Breaks Help
Cho has studied and practiced different kinds of meditation for around 15 years, occasionally participating in retreats where he goes days in silence. But he said whether a period of silence lasts for hours, or just a few minutes, it can still be useful if there is intention behind it.
The key step is to set a time boundary – often with a timer on your phone – and stick to it. During that time, be silent and still. Find a comfortable position and, if you choose, close your eyes. Even in short bursts, this can help refocus the mind and lower stress.
“This isn’t the same as when you drive to work and there’s no one to talk to,” Cho said. “This is a little bit different. It’s like setting a boundary and saying, ‘This is what we’re doing now.’”
Slow Things Down
Madison takes silent breaks after especially complicated calls or after taking multiple calls in a row. It helps her mind slow down after a busy period.
For many in the workforce, following meetings with short periods of meditative silence can be a helpful way to get a mental refresh and process the new information those meetings may have revealed.
The quiet breaks become especially important with remote work, where days filled with virtual meetings often leave little natural opportunities for mental breaks.
“I’ve heard people talk about how with Zoom meetings, one of the things that’s been lost is the time walking to and from the conference room, or walking from one building to another,” Cho said. “That period of time allowed us to be quiet. So the need to be intentional about creating those opportunities is important because it’s not built into our routine.”
When working from her Durham home, Madison often has a window open so that, when she takes short quiet breaks, she can listen to sounds of nature, such as birds or the wind in the trees. She said the elements of nature make her quiet breaks more effective.
A Center For Advanced Hindsight study backed this up. The study had participants break up work tasks with short, wordless videos of people moving through different environments. People who watched videos featuring nature sounds and trees reported being in a better mood than those who saw an urban environment.
“A lot of research has demonstrated that even brief exposure to nature, both visual and auditory, can have numerous cognitive, emotional, and attentional benefits” said Jonathan Corbin, senior behavioral researcher with the Center for Advanced Hindsight.
No Wrong Approach
If you’re new to meditative approaches, it can be discouraging to have thoughts about work or daily life fill your head during periods of quiet. But Cho points out that it’s OK if your mind doesn’t go to tranquil places during these breaks. It’s more important to give your mind time to go where it needs to.
“Non-judgement is a big part of this,” Cho said. “If we’re thinking about the notion of good meditation or a good mindset, we’re already on the wrong case.
“It’s about taking a few minutes and committing to this, come what may. We’re creating a framework and a boundary and whatever happens in there, whether it’s a random thoughts, intrusive thoughts, restlessness, it’s fine. We just have to hold the boundary. Make a promise to yourself to not act, not respond, just be there. That’s all you have to do, just sit and be quiet.”