RITUAL: THE WORRY BREAK
One of my favorite five-minute renewals is taking a “worry break.” A couple of years ago I came across a senior leader who had a somewhat unusual reputation. While the culture inside his company was intense and cutthroat, he was known for being calm and centered—while also being highly effective and well-respected.
I noticed that he carried a sand timer with him wherever he traveled. When I asked him about it, he told me that whenever he has a worry that just won’t go away, he takes his sand timer to a quiet place and turns it over. For the next few minutes, as each grain of sand empties from one vessel to the other, he focuses on nothing but that one thing disturbing him. When his mind tries to shift to something more positive, he brings it back to worry until the timer is complete.
At first, this sounded like a recipe for anxiety. Wouldn’t focusing on a troubling thought simply make it more pronounced? Neuroscience, however, tells us that what we resist persists. When we try to ignore or push worry out, it grows from a whisper into a scream.
According to Professor Fred Luskin at Stanford University, you have somewhere around 60,000 thoughts every single day, and around 90% of those are duplicates of a thought you had yesterday. The majority of those duplicate thoughts also tend to skew negative. They contain at least a hint of fear, anxiety, or doubt. If the inside of our heads were a soundtrack, for most of us it would be a song about worry, played on repeat. This doesn’t just make us anxious, it drains us of energy. It’s hard to be present, focused, or creative when Alice in Chains is playing in the background.
Counterintuitively, if you choose one of the worries that are replaying in your head, and pull it closer for a few minutes, it will likely quiet down.
My friend Cindy works for a marketing agency. She recently told me she’d been struggling to focus because she was constantly worried about climate change. During meetings with clients or colleagues, there’s a persistent voice inside of her saying, What does any of this matter when the planet is burning?
So I asked her, “What if, for a few minutes each day, you allowed yourself to do nothing other than fret about climate change?” Though she was skeptical, I convinced her to give it a try for one week. About an hour before bedtime, she set a timer on her watch and committed to doing nothing but worry about the peril facing our planet. She did this several nights in a row and started to notice something I’ve observed in myself and in others.
By the time the last bit of sand drops, her catastrophic thoughts begin to quiet down. They haven’t disappeared, but they’re no longer demanding so much of her mental bandwidth and energy. And that has freed her up for other priorities, including getting a good night’s sleep.
RITUAL: THE GRATITUDE BREAK
If focusing on one negative thought can actually make you feel better, what would happen if you intensely focused on one positive thought?
You’ve probably heard some of the scientifically proven benefits of gratitude. It strengthens relationships, increases feelings of security, reinforces kind behavior, and helps with depression. It also helps boost your prana. When you feel genuine gratitude, your body tends to release oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine—all ingredients that help shift you into a creative, energetic state of mind. And yet, to receive gratitude’s rewards, we need to do more than just think about gratitude. We need to feel it.
Gratitude journals have become popular, and yet listing out items can unintentionally turn gratitude into an intellectual exercise. Building an inventory might shift you to thinking about gratitude more than actually feeling it. So I started using the sand timer for a different purpose—a gratitude break. Each night, I pick one win—big or small, personal or professional—and spend a few minutes relishing every detail of that event. Not just the victory itself, but the people and the steps that helped me along the way.
A couple of weeks ago, my six-year-old and I took a walk together around our neighborhood. We often take walks as a family after dinner, but this time the two of us went alone. Later that night, I flipped over my sand timer and took myself back to that walk. I felt her tiny hand in mine. I smelled the fragrance of the wind blowing off the trees that line our streets. I heard the neighborhood dogs barking in the distance. I saw porch lights turning on in the evening sky. Until the last drop of sand landed, I celebrated and relished that experience. I felt it in my bones.
Have you ever tried something like this? Most people I talk to haven’t. Many of us fall into an unforgiving cycle that scientists call “hedonic adaptation.” As soon as we experience any kind of success, we almost immediately reset and go looking for the next win. In his memoir, Confessions of a Winning Poker Player, Jack King wrote that championship players rarely remember the hands they win. But they remember every tiny detail of the hands they lose.
We’re wired to remember our losses and forget our wins. The result is a library full of negative memories and a sparse catalog of positive ones. So anytime you experience a setback, your brain retrieves similar negative circumstances and your mind tricks you into believing that this is part of a conspiracy-like pattern. Your internal response is, Why does this always happen to me? Your energy dries up and you feel depleted. You fixate on that losing hand despite the stack of chips in front of you.
Gratitude breaks are a tool to reverse our natural tendency to dismiss the wins and dwell on the losses. That might sound like a formula for happiness, but it’s also an important tool for performance. Because every time you commemorate a win, you build more resilience to face the next loss.
Excerpted from Everyday Dharma: 8 Essential Practices for Finding Success and Joy in Everything You Do by Suneel Gupta, Published by HarperOne on September 5, 2023