A version of this essay was originally published by Forbes.com on August 8th, 2019
My family and I recently enjoyed three nights at a Japanese onsen resort on the bank of Lake Chuzenji, tucked away in the mountains of Nikko National Park, Japan. This onsen, and others like it, exist because of the natural hot springs in the region. The water from these hot springs — which has long been believed to have healing and rejuvenating properties — is piped into pools for resort guests to enjoy. These pools are known as onsens.
Steeped in tradition, Kai Nikko is a place where people go to rest, relax and rejuvenate in the water from the hot springs. I was deeply struck by how simple and minimal the place was — yet so beautifully ornate and full of meaning. The pace is intentionally slow, and the vibe is wonderfully quiet, contemplative and mellow.
Upon arrival, they showed us where to store our shoes and gave us a yukata and sandals to wear for the duration of our stay. The pace is intentionally slow and the vibe is wonderfully quiet, contemplative and mellow throughout the resort.
While staying at the resort, we enjoyed the ritual of visiting the onsens three times a day, for 10 minutes at a time, each occasion providing a welcome break in the day. There’s something special about a ritual of interrupting the day to soak, rest, be quiet and delve into a relaxed, meditative self-care experience. It really spoke to me — it was so simple, yet such a powerful experience. And at the same time, it was such a foreign concept to our daily lives back home.
Typically onsens have gender separated soaking pools, sometimes indoors and sometimes outdoors, highlighting unique Japanese design aesthetics. The pools are about two feet deep and vary in style and design. I was surprised to learn people traditionally soak for only about ten minutes at a time. Custom also dictates a quiet, almost meditative kind of experience. No devices. No talking. No splashing around. Just a time to relax and be still.
This particular onsen includes a surprise for guests in its lounge area outside the dressing rooms. Adjacent to the giant pastel-colored beanbag chairs that are scattered about on a slightly elevated platform is a small, unassuming wood-paneled freezer full of popsicles. I’ll never forget that little freezer of popsicles.
As I peeled the plastic wrapper off, holding the small wooden stick in my hand, I fell back into an oversized beanbag chair. For a moment, I was in a dreamy, childlike state, and I wasn’t alone. As I looked around, I saw people of every kind — children, parents and even seniors — all reclining in beanbags while enjoying a popsicle with pure delight on their faces. So many smiles. So much joy.
Reflecting on the experience, it would’ve been too easy for people to exit the pools and just return to their busy days. But the resort has created an unexpected opportunity with the beanbag chairs and popsicles. It’s as if they created a portal to a magical place where busy, focused, highly productive adults rarely venture.
The magic popsicles call out, like sirens to Ulysses, beckoning passersby to slow down, sink deep into the chairs and do nothing but enjoy a simple treat. Somewhere amidst the simplest of life’s experiences, I discovered a little something for my soul. And maybe a life lesson for all leaders and high achievers.
Consider this: How often do you go for a midday soak in a pool? How often do you sink deep into a comfy chair to enjoy a popsicle? How often do get up from your desk to create a little break in the day? What’s holding you back? What’s the story you’re telling yourself?
According to Psychology Today, “working for long stretches without breaks leads to stress and exhaustion.” When I stop to think deeply about it, I wonder if maybe we’ve all gone mad. I traveled halfway around the world to experience the revelation of a 10-minute midday soak. I crossed more than half a dozen time zones to encounter a freezer of popsicles. I don’t think it should be this hard.
As I type this, the sun beckons me to step outside and take a short walk to a juice truck parked down the street. When I quiet my mind, I notice a subtle, mysterious force reaching out to me and encouraging me to take a little time amidst my busy day to unplug and reset. Time to walk. Time to sit and be still. Time to close my eyes and daydream.
When’s the last time you intentionally daydreamed? What’s stopping you?
Why do we sit at our desks so much, staring into glowing screens? Why do we let bottomless email inboxes give us stress and hold us hostage? Why do we hold so tightly to our cell phones all day? Why does it seem impossible to take a break and go for a short walk? Why does a popsicle break sound so ridiculous?
More importantly, what if we didn’t live this way? Are we evolving or are we devolving? What if we made more time for walks, soaks and popsicles? How might it impact the quality of our work? How might it improve the quality of our lives?
One writer summarized the benefits of taking breaks in this Scientific American article: “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. … Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”
I have two hourglasses in my office: a big one and a small one. The big one lasts for 30 minutes, and I’ve found that most projects and meetings can be accomplished in 30 or 60-minute intervals. The hourglass provides a tangible, visual gauge of how much time I have to work with. Sometimes I game-ify things, hustling to accomplish my work before the sand runs out, which always feels good. The smaller hourglass lasts for 10 minutes — the perfect length of time for a short break between tasks.
So how can you get started on incorporating more downtime into your day? I’ve found that establishing a regular time on the calendar (with a reminder alert) for a daily walk can create a reliable structure and rhythm to lean into. It’s also helpful to have an accountability partner, a colleague or perhaps a friend, along with a regular destination, like a juice truck or a cafe, to help create a daily ritual. Once it becomes a ritual, it can evolve into something habitual — and that’s when it sticks. That’s when transformation can happen.
I also have a colleague who set-up a #Meditation channel on our company’s Slack app. Periodically whenever anyone is feeling that internal call to disconnect and reset, someone will post an invitation to the channel and organize a little impromptu 10-20 minute meditation session. Everyone is welcome and anyone can join, and I’ve found sometimes there’s an added human/spiritual effect by doing it with a small group of friends or colleagues. We’ve got a couple places around the office quiet enough for meditation, in addition to one dedicated medication/yoga/stretching area, outfitted with mats, bolsters and poufs for folks to use.
As you can see, there’s many different possibilities for low impact, easy to access opportunities for breaks — which when you think deeper out it, these are actually daily opportunities for improved health, increased performance, growth and transformation.
I also just ordered a small freezer for the office. It’s big enough for about 100 popsicles.
A version of this essay was originally published by Forbes.com on August 8th, 2019
--> This essay is part of a series published in collaboration with The Western Writers League. Take a few minutes to explore my peers’s work as well.
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