The space of a breath

Why it is important to create more breathing space

Smaranda Boros

By Smaranda Boros

Professor of Organisational Behaviour

10 November 2021

Source: Management Team (12/07/2021)

After over a year of enforced solitude, we are all exhausted and longing for real contact. But maybe this is the time to make contact with yourself? Professor Smaranda Boros invites you to explore your inner freedom instead of complaining about external limitations.


After over a year of enforced solitude, we now share a deeper understanding of our need for authentic connection - both in the workplace and outside it. We all feel the exhaustion brought about by the prolonged state of disconnect. We crave people’s company and a simpler way to interact (and work). But what we tend to talk and reflect less about is the connection with ourselves. 

We are so primed, in this day and age, to look outwards for answers, that we largely forgot to be with ourselves. We regulate so many of our emotions through consumption, through interaction, or through distracting our attention through scanning the environment for new opportunities and stimuli (in a sort of an existential FOMO). And while all these choices have benefits – like keeping the economy going, creating and relying on support networks, innovation and change – they also have a dark side: eating/spending away our feelings (i.e. “shopping therapy”) and overconsumption, propagating negative emotions through emotional contagion, especially in the workplace, a lack of skills to examine and work through our emotions and over-reliance on primitive coping mechanisms, such as attentional distraction. 

Explore your inner freedom 

The current discourse in society is about our temporary deprivation of choice. Choice deprivation is a daunting prospective in a world that is becoming ever more individualistic. First, we should acknowledge the upside of a society that feels empowered and agentic through their members’ beliefs about the importance of making your own choices and fighting for the right to do so (democracies cannot exist without this prerequisite). And we need to acknowledge the present difficulty of choice deprivation, combined with the length of time uncertainty drags on. Yes, we are all exhausted. However, we need to also remember (or learn) that research has long shown that a rich array of choice comes, paradoxically, with less happiness. A plethora of research (especially in marketing) documents the fact that the more alternatives a person has to choose from, the less likely they are to actually make a choice. And when they do, the less likely to be happy about it. 

So how about a mental experiment: seeing the limitation in choice as a chance to reinvent our happiness, and inspect the boundary conditions we base our happiness on? 

Victor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. [...] Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” 

Maybe we can explore – more thoroughly and seriously than we did in the first lockdown – this inner space of freedom. Instead of looking outwards and bemoaning the constraints, look inwards and rediscover freedom. Use this time to have a walk with ourselves (no kids, friends or partners) and have some honest conversations about where we are, and what we need. One element that any coach in the world can vouch for is that people rarely ask themselves truly what they need and what they want. Even fewer differentiate between the two or follow up on the insights with actions and changes. 

And yet, when we do, we make room for deep personal transformation. And, to quote Frankl again, “Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” Before we go out to save others, fix problems and repair the damage we did to the planet, we need to take a minute (or many days) and look at ourselves. The key to resilience is having these honest conversations - not just with your mind, but also with your emotions and, very importantly, with your body. What does your body (battered by sitting down at an awkward angle, staring at a screen 24/7/) need? What do you need emotionally? The people that are sailing smoother through this pandemic tend to do sports or find ways to be outdoor more. They use the constraints to find new opportunities (e.g., running or doing yoga or going for a walk at lunchtime - and make that lunch just a bit longer than before). They stop to recharge when their bodies signal tiredness instead of pushing beyond the brink. This recharge can be as simple as 5 minutes of standing outside or in front of a window and allowing the mind to focus on mindful observation of the environment (as opposed to spiral in rumination circles). As simple as stretching for a few minutes or standing up during a meeting. They can also be as simple as taking a few hours off to go for a walk in the middle of the day - or take a power nap to reset. Or they can be connecting - offering your home-mate a shoulder rub or a random hug, as we all miss physical touch these days. 

People who are sailing smoother these days are also aware of their emotional battery - how many ‘lines’ it still has, what (or who) drains and it and what (or who) replenishes it. And they connect this battery awareness with their agendas. How does tomorrow look? How drained will I be after that particular meeting that I dread or after the call with that person whose attitude always drains me? When will I need a top-up? What is available for me to do or who is available to reach out to, to make this happen? 

These conversations with ourselves, once we get into the habit of them, reveal then deeper truths about our life and work choices. They allow us to question why we persist in something that doesn’t give us energy, or to realise why it’s worth pushing forward in the face of difficulties, when you believe in what you do. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says in Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life: “It is how we choose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur, or to something resembling a work of art.” 

Organisations can be an ally (instead of the eternal enemy) in this and create conditions for this type of behaviours. Citigroup has announced zoom-free Fridays. Some leaders (like the Belgian GM of Pfizer) lead by example and block with the help of Outlook a morning slot each day for ‘focused work’. Such examples make space in the organisation for others to follow suit and send the message that focused work, when you are not reachable online, is important work. Or leaders who explicitly do not reply to emails at odd hours at night or over weekend, and in doing so restate the importance of boundaries and work-private life balance. Small interventions like this create room for breathing in organisations. And room for breathing is something we all need and should try to create - in whatever small way we can. Because in that space of a breath, we can find the inner space of freedom Frankl talks about.

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Smaranda Boros

Smaranda Boros

Professor of Intercultural Management and Organisational Behaviour