How to take a break

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. – Ecclesiastes 9:11

Anyone who has run their own business for a more than a minute, knows that it requires stamina.

What is stamina?

“The ability to sustain prolonged physical or mental effort.”


How sustained?

How about YEARS?

Contrary to “gee whiz” guru BS that’s how long it often takes to start putting meaningful numbers up on the scoreboard.

Then there is the issue of sustaining the business, growing it, and defending it against competitors, regulators, and changing fashions, markets, and technologies.

In short, if you decide to be an entrepreneur and have your own business, you better be tough.

But you probably already know that.

The wrong way to do it 

The model for a hard-charging business owner, especially of the digital variety, is long hours, often late into the night. Wash, rinse and repeat endlessly.

If you have a very strong constitution this might work – until it doesn’t.

The problem with having a strong constitution is it masks a lot of bad habits.

How long can you get away with bad habits?

Into your 30s, your 40s, your 50s, your 60s?

It’s Russian Roulette, and as many people can tell you, rebuilding your health is exponentially harder than maintaining it.

And starting the rebuilding process in your 40s, 50s or 60s – when you are running a high stress business (aren’t they all?) – is not fun.

Here’s an idea…Don’t let your business undermine your health.

Uncommon common sense

Here’s some uncommon common sense:

1. Get adequate sleep

2. Start the day right

3. Take frequent breaks

4. Cut out the substances

I realize this is advice you could have gotten from your Grandma.

But guess what?

Your Grandma was right – and science is finally figuring out why all these things are so important.

Sleep is not just restful, it’s detoxifying

You can run on adrenaline for a long time and reduce your sleeping hours dramatically.

However, the cost is increasingly impaired reasoning, problem-solving and attention to detail.

The scary thing is because you’re gradually becoming impaired over time, you don’t notice how significantly your mental skills are deteriorating.

Lack of sleep is also connected to disorders like obesity and even appear to elevate cancer risk.

Many symptoms of mental illness – depression, hypersensitivity, emotional instability, panic attacks – also happen to be symptoms of sleep deprivation as well. Which came first? The chicken or the egg?

In fact, the function of sleep is so important that some neuroscientists have equated just one night of bad sleep to the effect of a mild concussion.

Why does sleep deprivation have such a strong negative effect?

Science has finally figured it out and once you hear the reason why you will never take sleep for granted again.

The newly discovered reason why your brain needs sleep

During the day, your brain builds up waste products (toxins). Your muscles and organs do the same thing.

Muscles and organs are cleansed non-stop throughout the day by the blood system, but the brain is not. The brain is protected by something called the brain-blood barrier, so it has to resort to a different system: the glymphatic clearance pathway.

This glymphatic system doesn’t do much when you’re awake, so toxins build up during the day, especially if you’re exerting yourself.

On the other hand, when you’re sleeping, the glymphatic system kicks into high gear becoming up to ten times more active.

No sleep, no brain detox.

Here’s why this is vitally important.

One of the neuro-toxins that builds up as the result of sleep deprivation is a protein called beta-amyloid.

Beta-amyloid is a scary substance for two reasons:

1. Build up of this commonly occurring toxin in the brain interferes with sleep, creating insomnia which leads to more beta-amyloid build up and more trouble sleeping. A vicious cycle if ever there was one.

2. Beta-amyloid build up (it actually lays down plaque in your brain) is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimers.

How to sleep better

1. Wind down earlier to give yourself more time for sleep

2. Realize your might sleep come in two shifts. You don’t need to sleep non-stop for seven or eight hours. It’s perfectly kosher to sleep four hours be awake for a while doing something productive (or fun) and then sleep another three or four.

In fact, this was how people commonly used to sleep before electric lights.

3. Remove as much light from your bedroom as possible. We are hard wired to wake up when we’re exposed light and to sleep when the lights go out.

Ever fall asleep in a movie theater? Ever notice you “oversleep” when you’re in a hotel room with black out curtains? That’s why.

Get heavy curtains to block out light. Put electricians tape over all the little red lights on your TV and cable box or put them in a cabinet you can close. (A for goodness sake, do not sleep with your laptop!)

4. Turn the TV and computer off early.

5. Alcohol and other drugs disturb the ability to sleep – and give the brain more neuro-toxins to contend with.

6. A trick which seems to promote sleep is to tire out your legs.

If you’ve walked ten miles in a day, you probably won’t have any trouble sleeping, but who does that?

A way to “trick” your body is to stand on one leg until you can’t hold yourself up any more. Then switch to the other and do the same. Then do one more cycle.

There seems to be a connection between tired legs and sleep. Maybe it’s nature’s way of making sure we do enough hunting and gathering everyday. The problem is that these days many of us these days do our “hunting and gathering” sitting down in front of a computer screen and our sleep systems don’t get that all important “time to sleep” signal.

7. Be prepared. It may take many months to reverse bad sleep habits.

Give your brain the time it needs to eliminate the toxic build up you almost certainly have and sleep will eventually start coming easier – with all the accompanying benefits. Better mood, sharper mind, more energy.

Bottom line: Sleep is not a joke and it’s not “macho” to pull all nighters regularly. It’s self-destructive.

The morning is the rudder of the day

We’re all dehydrated when we wake up in the morning. If there is one thing your brain does not like, it’s being dehydrated.

Break that eight hour water fast with something to drink.

Believe it or not, in the morning the effect of coffee is more placebo than reality. Worse, the more coffee you drink, the more you need as tolerance builds up.

What really wakes you up in the morning is your own home-made cortisol which is at its highest level of the day when you first wake up. Give it a little time to kick in.

If you really “need” coffee at all, it’s going to do you more good an hour or hour and a half after you’re on your feet and then again between 2 PM and 4 PM when cortisol levels tank.

Obviously, if you drink coffee late in the evening and are sensitive to caffeine, you’re probably wrecking your chances of a good night sleep.

As for people who take drugs to “focus” their minds and have more energy, God help you.

This is one of those things that “works great” until it doesn’t. You’re literally shredding your nervous system long term for the short term benefit of squeezing out a little extra working time. That’s a bad trade.

Would you abuse an expensive car that way? Of course, not. You can get a new car. Rehabilitating a brain that’s had its neuro-chemical functioning mangled by drugs like Adderall etc. is not fun.

One last tip: Get some sunlight on you as soon as you wake up. First, it’s healthy and second, it helps your body set its natural clock.

For many people, the morning is the golden time for creative thinking. Why? Cortisol levels are high and if sleep has been even remotely good, the brain is less burdened by toxins than later in the day or evening.

Naps are a good thing

If you’re attentive, you’ve probably found yourself sitting in front of your computer trying – and failing – to get a normally simple thing done.


You need a break.

Rule of thumb: If you’re not cruising through your work, it’s probably a sign that it’s time for a break.

If you’re sleepy, take a nap (one of the wonders of working at home.)

But warning: Naps of 20 minutes or more put you into “sleep inertia” territory.  Instead of waking up refreshed, as you will feel from a 10 to 20 minute nap, you’ll wake up groggy.


When you lay down for a nap, set a 25 minute timer.

This kind of  nap used to be called a “cat nap.” In the 1980s, it was called a “power nap.” Whatever you call it, it’s a fine art and well worth cultivating.

One source advises drinking a caffeine drink bring before you lay down because it takes at least 25 minutes for caffeine to enter your bloodstream (evidence that it is cortisol, not coffee, that wakes you up in the morning.)

The more regularly you nap the better. Daily is best. Several times a week is good too – but for sure after nights when you know you’ve been sleep deprived.

How to take breaks

Long hours are unavoidable when you run your own business and contrary to guru BS, they are more common to Internet-based businesses than less common.

So how do you deal with long hours…and keep your mental edge…and not burn yourself out?

Become a master of break taking.

Have your most important weapon in the battle for rest at hand – a timer – the same thing you need to keep your nap from going too long.

1. The twenty minute break

Set your timer for 20 minutes and when it goes off stop, let your eyes look into the distance, and stretch (nothing complicated, no fancy yoga needed.)

The whole process takes just 20 seconds and you can keep thinking the entire time so it won’t break your flow.

Twenty seconds isn’t much, but for your body it’s a surprisingly long period of time. Enough to do a re-set.

What this will do is: 1) reduce eye strain and preserve your vision, 2) improve your posture and 3) get your blood flowing – all of which will reduce the aches and pains that come with sitting all day.

If you’re really ambitious – and I hope you are – stand up, stretch and move your body for 60 seconds. Again, it’s not a lot of time, but your body will really appreciate it.

2. The hour break

After an hour, it’s time to get up for real and move.

Best things to do: a five minute walk, simple stretching, or – believe it or not – some push ups.

The goal is not to get yourself ready for a Mixed Martial Arts bout. It’s just to give your body the thing it craves: a little physical exertion. Yes, exertion. We’re built for it and when we don’t do it regularly, we break down.

3. Enhancements

If you can swing it, get outside and walk.

Get some sun on you. Breath some fresh air.

If you’re too lazy for that, at least get outside and sit down somewhere nice.

A study of Toronto neighborhoods showed that health and the number of trees on the street correlates nearly perfectly.

Neighborhoods with lots of trees have healthier people and visa versa.

So find some greenery or lacking nearby greenery bring some live plants into your office.

(It’s another story, but if you can get enough plants of the right kind into our office, you can literally “pump” fresh oxygen into your interior space and neutralize another, little discussed problem: indoor air pollution. Search these keywords and a world of solutions will open u to you.)

Other ways to take a break when you have more time – like for lunch – include socializing with positive people, doing some breathing exercises (one minute of deep conscious breathing is enough to make a difference), or read or listen to something interesting, entertaining, enlightening.

In short, reward yourself with something you like.

Timing: In general, the morning is the best time to crank through large amounts of challenging tasks. It’s a “golden” time. Protect it.

Mid-afternoon is the best time to goof off.

Early evening – after a long period of mid afternoon goofing off – is a great time to get back to anything that didn’t get finished in the morning.

Your mileage may differ – in fact it probably does.

The important thing is not following someone else’s theoretical best schedule, but to know your own up and down times and plan your work around them.

The results

Follow this advice for a day and you will notice some changes.

Follow it for a month and you’ll have so much extra energy, you will be tempted to squander it (but don’t.)

Follow it for a year and you will be a new person.

“The race is not to the swift” and outcomes in any venture are always uncertain at best, but opportunities and insights continue to unfold the longer you’re able stay in the game.

What you can control – and what ends up becoming supremely important – is how well you’ve taken care of the marvelous instrument you’ve been given for the long haul.

– Ken McCarthy

P.S. For over 25 years I’ve been sharing the simple but powerful things that matter in business – and life – with my clients.

If you’d like direction for your business that will work today, tomorrow and twenty years from now, visit us at the System Club.

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5 Responses to How to take a break

  1. Dr. George April 6, 2018 at 10:53 am #

    Excellent advice! Thanks Ken.

  2. James April 8, 2018 at 12:06 am #

    Right on, Ken! It’s really good to hear someone like you taking on the myth of the caffeine-fueled entrepreneur superhero who never needs any sleep and never thinks about anything except his business. This really misleads people. Stamina is not just about determination and grit, it’s just as much about keeping your batteries charged. This is particularly true for anyone who’s in a creative field or just needs to stay innovative and think outside the box. There’s a lot of evidence that the brain uses sleep to process information and work over problems. If you don’t get enough sleep and you never get away from your desk to keep your mind fluid, your brain can make the kind of associative mental connections that bring about flashes of inspiration.

  3. Carol April 9, 2018 at 1:10 am #

    Hi Ken,

    Intriguing article with lots of good common sense advice.

    ‘The scary thing is because you’re gradually becoming impaired over time, you don’t notice how significantly your mental skills are deteriorating.”

    This point is one that’s all too easy to ignore as we’re busting through each day, getting it done. We don’t realize that our decision making skills, patience and creativity are all impaired when we don’t get enough sleep. A good night’s sleep, or even a good nap could reignite our brains and allow us to accomplish so much more than an all-nighter ever could.

  4. Bryan O'Shannassy April 12, 2018 at 1:40 am #

    Thanks for a great essay, Ken.

    Bryan O’S

  5. MD. Mahiuddin April 14, 2018 at 1:43 pm #

    You are someone I unable to compare with no one else Sir.
    Great Advice!!!
    Thank You…

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