The Power of the Pause


Do you choose your response or act on impulse?

Impulse says, “eat the M&M” or “pull the lever”, or “hit the snooze button.”

It feels good in the moment.

It’s bad for you in the long run.

Why Do We Do It?

If it’s bad for us, why do we do it?   Because it feels good.

We’re wired for survival.

It’s basic instinct: Me want food.  Me want sex.  Me want sleep.

It’s a simple, decision making process.  Your emotions drive you.  That is, unless you …

Choose Your Best Response

You can choose a more effective response.  Here’s how.  Inject a pause.  Before you react, get your options.  Then choose.  To get your options, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do you want to do? (you already know this, but put it out there)
  • What does your gut say?
  • What would be in your best interest?
  • What’s the most effective thing to do?

Putting your options on the table helps invoke your best thinking.  It breaks the automatic response of just doing what you want.  At the same time, your getting input from your emotions, your gut and your mind.  Now you can make a thoughtful response.  Simply put, it’s being mindful.  The fact you make it a choice, empowers you.  Ultimately, you have to find what works best for you.  For me, “what’s the most effective thing to do” helps a lot.

Practicing the Pause

You can use the Power of the Pause for a variety of scenarios.  Here’s some examples:

  • Breaking a habit.
  • Starting a new routine.
  • Changing from emotional reactions to thoughtful responses.

I use the Power of the Pause when I reach for something I shouldn’t eat.  I use it each time I hesitate to hit my treadmill.  I think of it as willful improvement.

Improving Your Effectiveness

Here’s some more information to help improve your ability to choose your best response:

  • Your thoughts create your feelings.  What you think about, changes how you feel.  Think about it.  How do you feel when you remember the best part of your day?  What about your worst?
  • Changing the question, changes your focus.  You can change your focus, by changing the questions you ask yourself.  Asking what’s the best thing for you to do is very different than asking yourself what you want to do, or not asking at all.
  • Prefrontal cortex over fight-or-flight.  Our prefrontal cortex is our mental simulator.  It helps us think better.  It’s an advantage over animals how simply react.  But only if we use it.
  • Don’t let people push your buttons.  Whether you’re reacting to insults or trigger words, remind yourself that you can use the Power of the Pause to choose your best response.

As simple as it sounds, injecting a pause can make a huge difference in the quality of your life.  As one of my mentors puts it, “you’re the sum of your decisions.”

What are some simple ways you can use the Power of the Pause to improve your life?

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Photo by Pink Sherbert Photography.


  1. It is different type of posts. It comes directly from you. You do not interpret others. It is you and it is super insightful and live.
    I use massively Park technique of EQ, which kind of resonate with Pause that you suggest here. Park kept me out of troubles so many times. It helps suppress my impulse to react w/o thinking about the outcome. Park/Pause rule! 😉

  2. @ Alik

    Thank you. Your intuition never ceases to amaze me. Yeah, I wrote this one a little differently. Today, I got a good reminder that I’m in a unique position of leading projects at Microsoft, mentoring softies, writing books, … etc. and that as much as I like to share lessons from my favorite books, heroes, and quotes, I have plenty of insights just from my day to day.

    In fact, in the somewhat near future, I’m going to share an exercise in building a robust resume by building a set of authentic stories. The point of the authentic stories is to really capture and share your unique experiences and differentiate yourself in a saturated market. For example, which is cooler, a PM that does project managment or a PM that’s shipped on time, on budget for 9 years at Microsoft, while leading distributed teams around the world? Which is cooler, a solution architect with Enterprise experience, or a solution architect that worked with industry experts to write the book on application architecture? You get the idea. Obviously, you don’t want to make stuff up, but you do want to get specific where specific helps.

  3. As an economist, I LOVE this post. I particularly love the saying “You’re the sum of your decisions.” Can I quote you on that? Er… I know it comes from someone else, but you’d be the closest reference I have.

    The only thing that I would add is that I think it’s the job of the pre-frontal cortex to take care of the more instinctive side. If the pre-frontal cortex doesn’t make sure that you fulfill your basic survival needs like food & sleep, then your instinct will take over. I don’t think of it as a battle between the two, but rather a self-leadership issue. You can think of the primitive, instictive side as a child that needs to be taken care of.

  4. Thank you, this is a powerful technique with outstanding explanations. I only wish that I would have learned this before hitting send on a few angry emails. The path of least resistance is often not the best path for us.

  5. This is great. There are so many ways I could use a pause in my life to make things better for me. For example, before I eat something unhealthy, before I say something I shouldn’t, before I send a not-so-nice email, before I purchase yet another bag … the ways a pause could help me are endless. What a great post! I will definitely be using the pause in my life now, and I bet you I’ll see some serious results.

  6. Hi J.D.
    I was once told “follow your gut and your brain would know what to do next”.This was good advice for me.
    I think with change – it is always good to work on.
    Unfortunately, people don’t always see they are in need of it.

  7. Power of Pause for starting a new routine. Great way to stop and think twice before doing anything out of impulse – without making us too fickle minded as well. 🙂

  8. Very nicely put. Pause helps me avoid taking decisions in haste, in the heat of the moment – which I could regret later. For important decisions, I make it a point to take time to think about them even if I feel 100% sure right now. Usually something new to consider always comes up when I take time to think.

  9. Thanks, we all need to pause and think for a moment. Even with smaller things. Try to slowdown a little in this fast spinning world.

  10. @ Vi

    Go for it. The funny thing is, I don’t know if it’s my mentor, or my mentor quoting one of his mentors.

    I like the self-leadership and child analogy.

    @ Tom

    That’s a great way to put it. Yes, the path of least resistance is deceptive. It’s fooled me a few times.

    @ Positively Present

    I bet I will. I’m catching myself using the Power of the Pause several times a day now. It’s a quick way to put on my hat of effectiveness.

    @ Bunnygoblog

    That’s a good point. The more I inject the pause, the more I find I can trade up my automatic thoughts for some better ones. At the same time, I’m also finding thought patterns that already serve me well. Instead of luck into success, I can do it by design.

    @ Melissa

    That’s one place where my pause fails me 😉

    Once I’m in the bookstore, it’s game over. I actually need to inject the pause before I go in.

    @ Daniel

    Good point. The way to stay out of fikle is to first figuring out what you want to accomplish. Then you can pick the most effective path. One of my favorite questions is “what do you want to accomplish?”

    @ Avani

    Thank you. The key is getting into your best frame of mind. When you’re in the heat of the moment, you’re not in your best thinking state. State makes a huge difference.

    @ Fredrik

    That’s right. Even for the simpler things, our world feels better if we know we’re choosing our most effective responses. We’re in control, one small choice at a time. Even if it’s as simple as choose to be happy.

  11. JD,

    Your post reminds me of a phrase in the book I’m reading now – The Yankee Years. When Joe Torre was upset with his team, he’s ask his bench coach Zimmer what he should say to the team. Zimmer’s response was always “Wait till tomorrow, wait till tomorrow.” I think he understood the power of the pause!

  12. @ Daphne

    Zimmer sounds like a cool-headed dude. Sometimes the best coaches know when not to say something.

  13. Thought provoking stuff and I love the power of pause concept. I definitely need to use it at times too, especially when I reach for my chocolate in the evenings… or maybe at the supermarket when I buy it. But I also find that what’s really crippling is indecisiveness so any thoughts on that would be great. Keep up the great writing, I look forward to reading more.

    Annabel Candy

  14. @ Annabel

    I have a few ways of dealing with indecisiveness. By asking what I want to accomplish, I set a target. I then use time as a forcing function. I’ll give myself a time limit or timebox. For example, how much time am I willing to spend on the problem? As one of my mentors put it, don’t spend $20 on a $5 problem. I then start testing the decision against what I want to accomplish. Another rule of thumb I use is I try to spend 80% of my energy on the solution, and 20% on the problem. This let’s me test more options rather than get stuck in analysis paralysis.

  15. That makes sense and at analysis paralysis is to be avoided at all costs. Will implement your strategy next time it hits. Thanks again.
    Annabel Candy

  16. My mom taught me to always consider the source before considering the validity or importance of anything. Then she added that whatever I said (or wrote, or drew) revealed far more about me than what or who I said it about.

    These two truths have stood the test all my years. I haven’t always done so well with them, though. I’ve reacted often before considering the shoes someone else is wearing. Shoes I’ve never worn or even tried on. Trying on another’s perspective during The Pause, when I actually pause to do it, serves everyone.

    I don’t fire off angry notes… I go for a walk or drive. And I talk about it all — out loud, and sometimes very loud — until I get it all straight in my thinking. I have tried imaginary two-way conversations, so I can get what’s been done or said and the reasons for it. And then, if the thoughts won’t leave me alone, I’ll respond, but with fists uncurled and brain working.

    What do I want the outcome to be? What does my gut say? (And is it talking because I got my feelings hurt, or I decided to take offense even if none was intended, or I’m just in a rotten mood?) What best serves the outcome I want and is most effective to achieve it? I love all those questions… whether I’m responding or changing something in my life.

    I particularly like change how you think to change how you feel. I say change how you look to change what you see, as in do I see the weeds in a field or wildflowers in a meadow? It’s all the same plant, in the same space. I like adding your admonition. You combine the cognitive with the sensory…

    I’m printing this one out… you have said a ton up there in your post to think about. Thank you, J.D.


  17. @ Barb

    That’s some great advice from Mom. The source matters a lot. As much as I like hearing from experts, I optimize around listening to those with results. I agree that whatever I say or write or draw does say more about me than what or who I say it about.

    Cognitive + sensory is a powerful combo.

  18. Hi JD
    This post comes at a very good time. A very forgettable incident occurred with me just a couple of weeks back when I acted on impulse. I do have problems practicing pause in personal life, especially on road – thanks to my wife I am slowly learning the power of pause.
    Though I use the power of pause while sending mails, the pause sometimes extend to few hours. Not sure if I need to put a check on it.

  19. @ Akshay

    Great to hear. I’ve been more focused on the Power of the Pause lately. I think just reminding myself of the results and choosing a more effective response is helping me use it in more scenarios.

    One thing that helps me when things are taking me too long is I ask, “what’s good enough for now?” and that helps me reduce how much time I spend on some things.

  20. Hopefully it isn’t too bad to post a comment a couple of months after the last one here. I wonder if this can be overused, so that a person that does a lot of thinking and not much doing may use this as a way to procrastinate on doing something. If someone very rarely acts on impulse, could it make sense to try something impulsive once in a while? I don’t know the answer though I think the question is interesting. That probably shows my internal intellectual analytical side, but I think those are some of my strongest traits. I do enjoy reading the articles on here and may post more in the future as I get various ideas or thoughts to share.

  21. @ JB

    No problem.

    You can use The Power of the Pause to act more. When you catch yourself getting caught in analysis paralysis, you choose your best response. In this case, it’s more action.

    It’s really about checking or changing default habits, in favor of deliberate results.

  22. Saw this just now… and i like it a lot! i could use this as i tend to get my buttons pushed…

    this is one of my favorite ones as much as i like “dump your brain”; “triage action w/ skill” and “achieve a calm state of mind”

    although you pick out different sections or insights to discuss i see how they are all inter-related and support each other.

    they all truly work for me given my personality and natural tendencies..thanks for this post:)

  23. […] I took a breath, paused to reflect this, (do not underestimate The Power of the Pause)  and chose to seek her point of view. So I asked her genuinely: “What makes you think […]

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