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Metaphors In Nature

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I’ve been researching and planning a burnout retreat and while doing so a metaphor in nature miraculously occurred in my very own back yard. I delighted and still surprised how nature is a powerful mirror. The pictured dogwood trees (which may not be the greatest trees to plant in Texas) demonstrated a reflection that small things can make a big difference. These photos aren’t the normal serene nature pictures that I usually display – they are a real live metaphor for what happens when you don’t get a break. The difference between surviving and thriving.

In May I purchased these two small dogwood trees on the very same day, we also planted them both on that day and dug the same size perfectly measured hole per instructions and provided proper dogwood fertilizer. I watered the trees exactly the same and watered them extra as the hot Texas summer reached record high temperatures.

Tree Stumped...

On a June 4, 2022 a warm Saturday morning I watered both trees on what turned out to be a windy 108-degree day, not sure what the “feels like” temperature was but it was a scorcher. I left for an overnight trip and returned Sunday afternoon to one dead looking tree that appears to have died or dried-up frozen in place as the wind blew the leaves. Needless to say, I was sad and shocked! I had never seen this happen before and was confused to what could have happened. I ruled out disease or insects because I’m familiar with those problems and have been able to remedy them in enough time to treat properly and save the plant. What could have possibly happened in one day to kill one tree and not the other? It was blistering hot outside so if both trees had died it might have been more understandable – but only one was a puzzle.

Curiously I observed the trees on and off for about a week – watering just in case some part of the seemingly dead tree might still be alive. What I noticed was that the still green and alive Dogwood tree had just a few minutes of extra shade in the morning and later evening the tree behind it provided a little respite of dappled shade from the sun. Is it possible that these two small breaks were the difference in survival for these trees? While it seemed like the tree died in just one day from the 108-degree day it’s more likely that the days prior with no breaks from the brutal sun led up to this extremely harsh day that was overwhelming and the final straw for the tree.

The situation reminded of times where friends or family members have had sudden pain or illness such as “throwing their back out” from tying their shoe or even with a strong sneeze. It seems as though this one random event has caused the injury but in reality, it’s a failure due to something more persistent such as bad posture or a lack of proper nutrition, exercise or stretching. So perhaps the small breaks each day allowed the now alive tree to be more hardy in the severe temperatures.

Now this incident with the trees could be a rare event or more likely a powerful message from nature that small breaks from consistent stress (or sun) can provide more resilience. There is an abundance of evidence that taking a longer pause to vacation and retreat are very important and beneficial (1) and this was a reminder that the small day to day breaks matter as well. Michigan State University’s 2018 study (2) shows that a break of just a few minutes can increase your productivity, is beneficial for mental health and well-being and helps us be more engaged at work.

The Wellbeing Thesis (3), an online research tool to support postgraduate students and their wellbeing, states that studies show that short breaks restore focus and attention and increase creativity and decision making. We tend to think that if we power through, we’ll get more work done which may be true in some cases, if you’re really good at fully restoring in your off time, but studies show that you’ll be more likely to make errors and produce less quality work.

Other studies sited on The Wellbeing Thesis found “that breaks can reduce or prevent stress, help to maintain performance throughout the day and reduce the need for a long recovery at the end of the day [1]; [2]. A study by Korpela, Kinnunen, Geurts, de Bloom and Sianoja (2016) [3] found that taking lunchtime breaks and detaching from work, increases levels of energy at work and decreases exhaustion. Furthermore, one year later it was found to increase vigor and increase energy levels over time.” It’s so much better for you to take a break before your body and mind are completely exhausted. It is typical to take the first breaks of the day at lunch or during the mid-afternoon when sleepiness and poor focus starts to set in. Baylor University (4) found it better to take a more extended break in the morning (even if it is your peak productivity time)—between 10 and 11 am.

In the end, it comes down to what is best for you. Experiment with your day and add reminders to take breaks to your schedule and track which times make a difference for you. Listen to your body and mind. Many of us received the message that our self-worth is tied to our productivity so taking small or long breaks is not an easy habit to learn so be gentle with yourself. If you chose to make breaks a part of your life and I hope you do be patient and don’t beat yourself up for not taking breaks. It’s a process. Our suggested self-care mini break menu to choose from and we’d love to hear your suggestions:

Know that even 1 min breaks can make a difference. You are worth it and even if you’re not in a place of feeling worthy, the research backs up that it’s better for your company. Consider your quality of work while you’re learning that you truly are worthy!

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