The “Ten-Breath Vacation”: Shift from Racing to Pacing

Barry Flicker shares how a ten-breath vacation can reveal information about you and help you use your time more effectively.

Just as it takes money to make money, it also takes time to make time. Common sense tells us that we must learn to walk before we can run. But the urgency of warp speed consistently overrides this common sense. Consequently, we speed up when we need to slow down, and confuse activity with effectiveness. Doing the wrong thing faster and faster only accelerates our failure rate.

The mechanism that keeps this counter-productive behavior locked in place is captured perfectly by a Zen parable.

A professor of philosophy became fed up hearing his students singing the praises of an old Zen master. Determined to get to the bottom of all the mystical mumbo-jumbo, he goes to the monastery to find out what this Zen-thing is all about. The master tells the professor that he will gladly share his teachings, but first they must have tea. Irritated, the professor insists that he is much too busy for such niceties. The master is equally clear – no tea, no Zen.

Reluctantly the professor agrees to have tea. The Zen master seems very happy. He slowly unwraps a paper parcel and pours leaves into a mortar and pestle. He grinds the leaves and places them in a bamboo strainer. Lighting a small charcoal brazier, he places water on to boil. While waiting for the water, the Zen master begins arranging flowers. The ever more irritated professor keeps looking at his watch.

Eventually the tea is ready. The Zen master hands the professor a cup and begins to pour. He slowly fills the cup halfway, three quarters, to the brim and continues to pour until it is spilling onto the floor.

“What’s the matter with you?” screams the professor, as he pulls away the overflowing cup. “Can’t you see it’s full and that no more will go in?”

“First lesson in Zen,” says the master. “Nothing more can be added to an already full cup. You came here to learn about Zen, but you were full of your own opinions. Before we can learn anything new, first we must empty the cup.”

The warp speed world keeps filling our cups with an endless stream of accelerating data, deadlines and demands. This creates the illusion that we are in a constant state of learning and innovation. But if the outer world keeps changing while we keep responding with our same old behavior patterns, we are actually growing increasingly out of touch.

This is the problem faced by [his client] Christi and her team. They find their cups kept so constantly full that they are unable to pace themselves appropriately, open to new possibilities, or create a brighter future. Is it possible to slow down, even for a moment, when working at warp speed? This is the question with which we began our next inquiry.

“Christi, when we first spoke, you told me that the constantly accelerating pace was killing you, What’s making you run so fast?”

“We either grow faster than we can hire or we downsize faster than the workload shrinks,” she said.

“The volume and pace of our projects too often are dictated by our competition or sudden shifts in the market,” Ellen added.

“Another factor is that marketing makes promises to customers that bear little relationship to our capacity to actually deliver,” said Dave.

“In each of these examples, who’s setting your agenda?” I asked them.

“The idiots out there,” said Al.

“Do you remember what happened, in the Project Game, when Brenda let the volume of messages define how she played?” I asked.

Brenda was quick to respond.

“I tried working so fast that I misread information, sent notes to the wrong people, and overlooked key communications.”

“You can never empty a cup that other people constantly refill.”

“But I have a hard time saying ‘no’ to people,” she said.

“Why?” I asked her.

“I guess I don’t want to disappoint them.”

“But isn’t that exactly what you do when you make commitments that you can’t fulfill?”

She agreed that that was true.

“It may look like it’s other people that are causing you to run on overload, but it’s not. You own your agenda.”

“It sure doesn’t feel that way most of the time,” she said.

“Let’s try an experiment to see why that is,” I suggested.

I explained to them that we were going to attempt to manage a very simple agenda. We were going to attempt to keep our attention focused on our breathing for one minute.

Emptying Your Cup

“Just notice the air moving in and out of your body for sixty seconds,” I instructed. “If you find that thoughts about work or personal concerns interrupt your focus, simply return your attention to your breath. At the end of one minute, you will again hear the chime sound. At that time, please open your eyes and let’s talk about your experience.”

“Do we have to chant ‘Om?’” asked Al.

“If that’s what you’d like Al, that’s fine.” I said.

Sixty seconds equals about ten breaths in and out. When we were done I asked them what they had noticed.

“It was great,” said Brenda. “I almost fell asleep, it was so restful. I wanted to keep going.”

“I was amazed at how hard it was to stop thinking about work even for sixty seconds. I’d try and pay attention to my breathing and the next thing I know I’d be reviewing my Email or mentally preparing for my next meeting,” Christi added.

“That’s what’s running our agenda most of the time – pre-programmed responses that worked in the past. Isn’t it amazing to see how difficult it is to turn them off?” I asked her.

“It’s almost embarrassing,” she said. “I consider myself a very disciplined person. Seeing that I couldn’t keep my mind focused on one thing for sixty seconds is very disturbing.”

“It’s a problem we all face,” I told her. “The problem gets compounded in a world of warp speed change. Do past successes still make sense in the changed environment? We need to slow down long enough to find out.”

“I can see how taking a minute to clear my mental space in the midst of the daily insanity could help me make better decisions and function at a higher level of efficiency,” said Ellen. “It was like taking a ten-breath vacation.”

“A ten-breath vacation,” Dave repeated, “I like that. Another benefit I experienced was noticing more of what was going on around me – like the sound of air conditioning turning on or people’s conversations in the hallway. At first, I thought about this as a distraction and it made me frustrated. Then I noticed that everything had a certain rhythm or cycle to it. At that point they stopped becoming distractions and began blending with my breathing.”

“When we slow down long enough to notice the relationship between things, we can often see how to use our time more effectively.” I added.

Noticing that Al had been uncharacteristically quiet; I asked him if he had anything to add.

“For me it just seemed like a waste of time.”

“What actually happened for you during the experiment?”

“I sat there thinking – ‘What are we doing this for? When is it going to be over?’”

“So Al, what does it tell you about Brenda that she almost fell asleep and wanted to keep sleeping?”

“That she’s exhausted and needs a break.”

“How about Christi?”

“She pushes so hard in one direction that it’s hard for her to shift gears.”

“And how about someone who refuses to play at all?” I asked him. “What conclusion would you draw about them?”

His eyes narrowed and he drew his mouth into a tight-lipped smile.

“This team needs you Al,” I continued. “But you’re not going to be much use to them or yourself playing with a full cup.”

He started to laugh.

“I see what you mean,” he finally said. “I guess it’s easier to see how other people are screwing up than it is to see that about yourself.”

“Often the things we like least about other people’s behavior are the things we need to work on ourselves,” I said. “That’s what your team needs to know – Are you willing to work on yourself in the interest of helping them succeed?”

“Meaning what exactly?”

“Why don’t we ask your teammates?” I suggested.

“If you would just consider what’s right about something before you tell me everything you think is wrong with it, that would be a huge relief,” said Brenda. “I feel like we get stuck arguing right and wrong instead of evaluating costs and benefits.”

“I disagree, totally!” he said, and then broke the uncomfortable tension with a sly grin. “I’m only kidding. Maybe I’ve been taking the easy way out. It’s easier to poke holes in something than it is to take a risk. But I guess the time has come. If we try something and it doesn’t work out, what’s the worst they can do? Fire us?”

That was worth a laugh from the rest of the team.

Barry Flicker is the founder of Basic Training. This article is taken from Barry’s book, Working at Warp Speed, which you can preview at


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