My wireless connection to the Internet had suddenly stopped working. At first I was frustrated — I had been in the middle of browsing some books on Amazon. But I quickly took it as a blessing. I had an article to write and the Amazon browsing was a distraction. I resisted the temptation to distract myself further by trying to fix it and got to work. I finished the article in record time.
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That's a lesson in itself. But it's not the whole story.
Once I was done with the article, I needed to send it to my editor. What was previously a distraction — fixing my Internet connection — was now essential.
So I put all my deep technological know-how to work: I yelled at it.
No change. So I yelled at it some more. When that didn't work, I closed all the applications and rebooted the computer. It still didn't work. So I opened the wireless router software and played with some of the settings. Still nothing. Finally, I turned the wireless router off and on several times but that didn't do anything either.
I just sat there silently angry, staring at my computer equipment, ready to admit defeat. But then I remembered the solution that had worked for me before, when all else failed. I unplugged everything and waited one minute.
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While everything was unplugged, I had nothing to do, so I just sat there.
It's strange, because one minute is so little, but when the time was up, I felt noticeably different. I wasn't angry or frustrated or annoyed. I wasn't on the verge — as I was before — of throwing away all my electronics if this solution didn't work. I felt oddly refreshed. My situation hadn't changed, but my perspective had.
It turns out that when I unplugged my equipment, I unplugged myself at the same time. And when that short, barely noticeable minute had passed, I felt different. Renewed. Ready to speak softly and gently to my wireless router instead of yelling at it. Maybe even joke around with it a bit to lighten up the tension.
Which got me thinking: This unplug and stop everything for a minute strategy might be a pretty good solution for whenever things aren't working in life.
That point was reinforced for me in a recent cell phone call I had with Eleanor, my wife, while she was traveling. We were having a difficult conversation and each of us had the feeling that the other one wasn't listening. Then the call was dropped. We tried calling each other back but only got voicemail. So we sat there for a minute, each of us in our respective places. Unplugged.
When we eventually connected again, the tone of the conversation changed radically. We were softer with each other. More attentive. More forgiving and loving. Better at listening and rephrasing what we heard the other one saying. I never thought I'd say this but, for once, I was happy that my cellular network is unreliable. It gave us both a minute to breathe and get some perspective.
Unplugging and waiting for a minute is an unexpected strategy because it appears passive. You aren't actively developing new strategies, arguments, or viewpoints. In fact, you aren't actively doing anything.
When you unplug and wait for a minute, you restore yourself to your factory default settings, which for most of us tends to be generous, open-hearted, creative, connected, and hopeful. That makes us more likely to be effective when we plug back in.
In a meeting that's going nowhere? Take a break. Making no headway on that proposal you need to write? Stand up and take a walk. Fighting with your kids? Give yourself a time-out. Unplug for a minute and breathe.
This is not a strategy that requires practice and skill building. All it requires is remembering to do it. Sometimes, life requires active, willful engagement. But sometimes, the smartest move is disengagement. That magic minute of not doing anything has the power to change just about everything.
Which is what happened with my great and wise teacher, my wireless router. Miracle of miracles, when I plugged it back in after that minute of waiting, my wireless Internet starting working again. And so did I.
Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. This story first appeared in the Harvard Business Review.