Counting to 10: The Strategic Pause

"If you want to work here," the job interviewer said, "know this: we don’t stroll to the water cooler, we sprint!"

I pictured the entire company racing frantically for water. Why? Were they extremely dehydrated?

I never got that job. Still, I like to run. But if you’re a runner, you get a better workout if you vary your speed with interval training. Jog, then sprint, then jog some more.

The same is true at work. Do you believe a frantic pace – sprinting nonstop throughout the day – means getting more done?

Then try a productivity experiment: take a break every hour or so, and see what happens. For example:

1) Stop before or after routine activities like attending a meeting or checking email.

Stop for a minute or two. The trick, when stopping, is to step away from your thoughts and your concerns.

So drink a cup of coffee and really taste it, listen to a song and really hear it, or just walk around the building a few times.

Also take strategic pauses:

2) When you get emotionally triggered. Suppose your manager tells you about a promotion: "Sorry, you didn't get it, we chose Harriet."

Harriet??? Count to 10. Still triggered? Count to 10 thousand. Pause before you say something unfortunate.

3) After you ask a question. Common mistake: rushing in with a dozen more questions before anyone’s answered the first.

"How come I didn’t get the promotion?" you ask your boss. "Is it because of my leadership ability? My collaboration skills? Do you dislike my hair?"

4) Before sending an email, especially an angry one: "Re Harriet's promotion: I’m repulsed and deeply nauseous."

Pause. Is "deeply" the right word? Did you spell check? Do you really need to "reply all?"

5) Before answering a phone call. Who’s calling? Oh no, it’s Harriet! Pause. Smile. Then answer the call.

6) When being introduced to someone. Stop. Listen to their name. Examine their business card. Look at their face. Suppose, later, you had to pick them out of a police line-up – could you do it?

7) When giving a presentation. Pause for dramatic effect. Also pause when your mind goes blank. That beats filler words like "um," "huh," or "please-just-shoot-me-now."

8) When negotiating. Suppose you’re offered a job at $100 zillion. You counter with $120 zillion, and give a brief rationale. Then, stop talking.

9) At the beginning of a meeting, before diving into the agenda. Stop. Ask some basic questions: Why are we here? Does everyone need to be here? Did anyone order chocolate chip cookies?

10) When there’s nothing else to say.


Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (, Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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