Don’t take fake breaks (and two nonfiction books to frame your summer reading)

Up today: a simple tip to help you feel less harried and two great nonfiction books to kick off summer reading season.

These past few months I keep having some version of the same conversation with friends. Maybe it’s because we’re in our tired thirties (as Madeleine L’Engle called this decade); maybe it’s because spring schedules are alway bonkers.

The conversation-starting question: Why do I feel so rushed lately? And the answer, typically a rhetorical I know, right? 

Don’t get me wrong; I have seasons where I’m calm and collected when it comes to time management. But I have seasons when I’m not, and what I’ve learned this spring is when I start feeling rushed, my natural instinct is to begin frantically doing all the things that make it worse. It turns out that hurrying doesn’t help me catch up on my to-do list; it only serves to make me feel hurried.

I’m not alone here; my friends and I have been talking about this phenomenon like there wasn’t anything we could do about it. But that’s not true. This spring I latched on to a simple bit of advice that’s paying me back big-time. It’s from Laura Vanderkam, and it has to do with taking smart breaks.

We all take breaks in the course of normal life: for ten-minutes, or a few hours, or occasionally for days on end. So be smart about it: when you take a break, make it a real break. And don’t waste your time on fake breaks.

What’s a fake break? I know what mine look like: deleting unimportant emails on my phone, or seeing what’s new on instagram, or making a few quick phone calls. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these things—those doctor appointments aren’t going to schedule themselves—but they’re not breaks. And our bodies and brains need real breaks.

Laura dives further into the topic in her new book Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done (Amazon | Barnes & Noble), where Laura examines highly productive people who—despite their commitments, obligations, and successful enterprises—feel like they have abundant time. Plenty of people get tons done but still feel frustrated with how they’re spending their time. The people in Off the Clock feel like they have all the time in the world, and Laura investigates what exactly they’re doing that causes them to feel that way.

Off the Clock’s release date is May 29, perched on the edge of summer, which feels like perfect timing, because in the book Laura affirms the importance of approaching not just your work life but your whole life with care, and that includes embracing leisure—and by that she does not mean deleting unimportant emails. She means sitting with a good cup of coffee, or popping into the bookstore on your lunch break, or taking a walk around the block. (Or, we could suppose, hopping a plane to Tahiti, but that feels somewhat less accessible on a Thursday morning.)

Your brain doesn’t perceive ten minutes spent in your inbox as a break (and no wonder) but the same ten minutes spent reading a chapter in your current novel-in-progress? Absolutely. 

We’re entering summer, and with it, summer reading season. This is a time when many of us pause to consciously consider what we want from the season ahead. How do we wish to spend our time this season? And many book lovers think about their reading lives differently in the summer as well: they think bigger, because they know they can read more for these few months.

Another new book I enjoyed that frames summer—and summer reading—well is Alan Lightman’s new book In Praise of Wasting Time (Amazon | Barnes & Noble). It’s a short book—just a little over a hundred pages—and takes a more meandering, conversational approach to the same subject: why do we feel rushed, and what can we do about it?

Lightman’s answer, paraphrased: take real breaks. Maybe that means spending ten minutes staring at the clouds, or a few hours on the trails with your phone off; occasionally that means a longer unproductive escape. To me, it certainly means settling in with an iced coffee and a good book on a summer afternoon. Maybe even during work hours.

Consider this your annual reminder that “wasted” time isn’t wasted—if we spend it wisely. So take a break this summer—hey, take a break today—and spend some time with a good book.

Even if it’s just for ten minutes.

P.S. Laura Vanderkam has some nice preorder bonuses still available for Off the Clock: check them out here.
P.P.S. For summer reading ideas, check out the 2018 Summer Reading Guide, of course, and these 20 life-changing nonfiction books you can finish in a day. And if you’d like an imaginative, creative read for your TBR, add Lightman’s fabulous little book Einstein’s Dreams to your summer reading list.


Leave A Comment
  1. Jackie says:

    I’m slowly making my way through “In Praise of Wasting Time” and it’s really making me examine how I spend my time away from work.

  2. Lisa Zahn says:

    This is such good advice! I’m guilty of constantly taking “fake breaks” and then wonder why my life feels so harried. I’m definitely going to read those two books.

  3. Meghan says:

    So true! I have recently realized how important it is for me to purposely waste time. If I drift into it — even if it’s a “real break” activity like reading my library book on the sofa — I feel terrible. If I intentionally decide to take a break, it’s much more satisfying. I will have to check out In Praise of Wasting Time! Laura’s book is already on my can’t-wait-to-read list 🙂

  4. Michelle K says:

    Great advice! I struggle with taking “real” breaks because I start to feel guilty about not getting things done (especially around the house). How can I take a break when the dishwasher needs emptying? Alas, my attempts to get things done when I really need a break usually just leads to frustration and procrastination (i.e. I end up watching Instagram stories when #IdRatherBeReading and then I feel like I haven’t taken a break at all).
    I have added these books to my TBR list!

  5. Cheryl Weaver says:

    My life, at the age of 74, is a real break. I love it. I plan to read these non- fiction books this summer: Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Wild Things by Stephen James and David Thomas, Things That Matter by Charles krauthammer, Turn Back the Battle by Elisabeth Kendal, More Than Just Race by William Julius Wilson, Finishing Well To The Glory of God by John Dunlop MD, A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki.

  6. Faith Raider says:

    You asked what nonfiction titles I’m looking forward to reading over the summer. At the top of my list is “Four Tendencies” by Gretchen Ruben. I enjoyed “Better than Before” SO much.

    • Katie says:

      I’ve been enjoying Gretchen Rubin too! At the beginning of the year I tried to ready The Happiness Project, but just couldn’t get into it. Then a few weeks later, on a whim, I tried her Happier podcast while at work. I LOVE it. After listening to a lot of her podcasts that she hosts with her sister, I feel like I know her personality a litter better. That has made her books more enjoyable. I devoured Better Than Before and The Four Tendencies. I’m now revisiting The Happiness Project and have Happier at Home on hold at the library.

  7. SMG says:

    Lately I’ve been compelled to set aside fiction reading {gasp, I know!} in favor of non-fiction. I think I was becoming a bit indiscriminate in my fiction reading, and feeling that feeling of having eaten too many sweets…gorging on less-than-top-quality fiction. For right now my brain needs more to chew on… I have several fiction books that look good frozen in my queue at the library should I decide to enjoy them over the summer… but for now I feel like I need to use my reading time for non-fiction.
    Looking forward to your new book! I’ll recommend it to our library so many can enjoy it!

  8. May says:

    I went to fatigue clinic recently and was introduced to the concept of “therapeutic rest”, which is essentially what you’re talking about (although reading doesn’t necessarily fall into the category – for some people with ME/CFS, reading is exhausting, but thankfully I’m not one of those people). It’s so hard to get out of the habit of doing something when “resting”!

  9. Katy says:

    I love the idea of “smart” breaks. Sometimes simply reading a chapter from my current book (or an old favorite!) is enough to give me a little boost. Thanks for this reminder!

  10. Sheree says:

    Oh, lordy, I am *so* guilty of this!! Thank you so much for the timely reminder to step away *properly* (and the fantastic book recs!).

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