Episode 002: Dawn Kotzer – Reframing Your Day, Pauses, and Magic


Dawn brings thoughtful strategy to reframing breaks in our day as opportunities. She shares fun stories about thought habits, trust, and healthy responses to stressful environments.  She discusses the importance of pauses, questions, and curiosity, as well as fun 5-second awareness practices.  Dawn Kotzer is a Coach, Inner Wellness Guide and founder of The Mad Explorers Club. You can learn more about her work at www.dawnkotzer.com.

ERH:     Today I’m speaking with Dawn Kotzer. Dawn is an inspiring coach and inner wilderness guide. She is founder of the Mad Explorers Club, and today she shares how short breaks is where the magic happens in life and at work.

Dawn Kotzer:   Hi there. Thanks for asking me to be here with you.

ERH:    We are here because Dawn has beautiful insights about the things that I’m passionate about, in terms of Art of the Break. Many people are working in environments that feel very stressful and overwhelming at times. Some people listening right now are actually trying to do something about that and are responsible for employee wellness and healthy work environments, and some of us are individuals just trying to practice some of these things ourselves.

The first thing, Dawn, I’d just love to know in terms of breaking and thinking about a workday, what are some of the things that you use in your day or talk about with your clients in terms of balancing the things that just seem to fly at us at 100 miles an hour?

Dawn Kotzer:      That’s a good way to describe it, Elizabeth. They seem to fly at us 100 miles an hour. If you actually get a visual of it, visualizing things is really helpful. If you get a visual of something flying at you, maybe not 100 miles an hour because that’ll be kind of scary, just deflect. Just move your shoulder slightly to the right or left.

ERH:       That’s a nice visual.

Dawn Kotzer:    Yes. When you tie the visual to an action, it becomes a part of a structure that you can learn to trust. Another thing that you can do very quickly, these are two-second exercises, is a brush off. Your day has just been piling up, piling up. There’s residue from things you didn’t get done this morning. There’s residue from being cut off on your way to lunch, or things falling over or toppling or being just jostled about, or being assaulted by noises that you would rather not have invading your space. You can just do a simple brush off, like lint on your shoulder. You think of that thing that has created some tension, residue or stress for you, and just physically brush it off. First your left shoulder, and then your right shoulder.

ERH:     It’s so quick and powerful.

Dawn Kotzer:    The reason I mentioned those two things at the top of our call together is that we often feel that we cannot allow ourselves to take a break of any kind. That is more of a thought habit than a reality, but as you are most likely aware, thought habits are sticky little critters.

ERH:   Oh, they are.

Dawn Kotzer:   Yeah. We pack them. We don’t leave home without them.

ERH:     It’s so true. I remember walking into my office. I was the director, and I certainly had control of my day, and I chose not to take action. My habit was sitting down and not getting up for eight or ten hours.

Dawn Kotzer:   Yeah. Right, exactly. I’ve been there, too. I now live in a wilderness paradise on the edge of a lake in northern Saskatchewan. I’ve lived here for about 20 years, and I remember when I moved here with my now-partner, we were working on some outside project. Now, when you live in the wilderness there’s always a lot of work to do, and we live in Saskatchewan, so there’s a long winter. Really, our time to get outdoor projects accomplished is limited. We don’t have 12 months, we might have 4 months. We were also organic farming at the time, so there was other places we needed to be during the daylight.

There was a job to do. I’m like you. Okay, hit the pavement running, and let’s just do this job until it’s done.

ERH:    Exactly.

Dawn Kotzer:    You know, just grab a bite, grab a swig of coffee, just keep on going. My partner said, “Okay, we’re going to take a break now.” Really? We’d been working 2 or 3 hours. He says, “Gets kind of hot here, you know. It’s getting hot outside. It’s July. It’s very hot here in July. We’re going to take a break.” I said, “Really? What do you have in mind?” He says, “We’re going to go swimming.” I said, I remember, “Swimming? We can’t go swimming.” He said, “Why wouldn’t we go swimming?” “We’ll never get back to work if we go swimming.” He said, “Dawn, we live at the lake. You just walk down there, go swimming for 10 minutes, and come back.”

ERH:      That is a great story.

Dawn Kotzer:      I had to practice that … to get good at it, but here’s the thing, I did not trust. I did not have the habit of trust that I had built into a structure where I would get back to work.

ERH:     Exactly. This is kind of a funny story. My work started out in a manufacturing plant, packing spaghetti in the 70s. Little spaghetti packs came down the line and I put them in a box. We had breaks at 10 and lunch and 2 o’clock. For many, many years at the beginning of my work life, breaks were a normal thing. I think it’s really been in the last 30 years that we keep adding things to do, and even if you change environments, you still bring that same you to that next thing, which is, let’s just get as much done as we can in a small amount of time. Even if the job changes, we still have the same approach because, to your point, it’s a habit.

Do you work with people who are expressing concern about stressful environments? What are some of the conversations that you have? Do you have any stories around that?

Dawn Kotzer:     I do. I work with a lot of people who are entrepreneurial, so it’s really easy when you have your own business … The whole point of being an entrepreneur is that you get to design your own template for how you deliver what it is you choose to deliver to your clients or to the audience, and it can easily blur the edges between personal and business life. I work with a lot of entrepreneurial women who are used to wearing five hats, and used to juggling and multitasking, so again, as you say, wherever you go you bring yourself with you, right? I work with a lot of savvy, capable, intelligent, hard-working, resilient business women who have forgotten that they can give themselves permission to pause.

ERH:    It’s a big word right there, [permission].

Dawn Kotzer:      Right. I think important is to reframe the pause. Why take a break? Why bother? Why bother to take a break? In your case, you can get a lot more spaghetti packed in those 10 minutes. In my case, I could’ve got a lot done instead of going swimming, but when you take a break, to reframe the break as an opportunity as opposed to an interruption is really very helpful. What is it an opportunity for? It’s an opportunity to step back, take a beat, catch a breath, and allow your imagination and innovation to catch up with what you’re doing.

ERH:    Yes. I call them the aha moments.

Dawn Kotzer:     Right. I suggest people, what can make it easier to take a break is to reframe the break as an opportunity, and ask yourself a question, something related to work, towards something related to a conundrum you have, and take that question with you. You don’t actively think about it, you just carry it with you. The reason I suggest questions is that asking a question stops the brain.

ERH:   Oh, interesting.

Dawn Kotzer:     It stops the mind chatter and the thought loops, because the brain loves questions. Actually, what the brain really loves is balance. What the brain really loves is the end of the story, and when you ask a question, the brain is saying, “Oh, I don’t know how that ends. I’m going to go find out how that might end. I want to feel the balance of the ending of that.”

ERH:    That’s so great.

Dawn Kotzer:   Ask yourself a question. For instance, going back to … I think the one story I’m thinking of, we were working on a freighter canoe. My question would be, before we went swimming, was, “How can I not smash my nails when I’m learning how to hammer on the sideboards?”

ERH:      Right. Just step away from that thing.

Dawn Kotzer:    Step away. I asked the question, and I just let the question be. Say, “Okay brain, go find me some answers. I’m going swimming.” Reframing the question in a way that’s positive, and then filling the pause with something that’s fun. It could be going swimming. Well, that’s kind of fun. It could be going and having coffee. As you said, pick one person or a couple of friends to go have coffee with, but if you’re artistic, I work with a lot of creative people and I’m very creative, and I’m also very curious, so filling your break with curiosity, with one thing to be curious about, helps keep your mind in a space of lightness and exploration.

ERH:     It’s so freeing from the thing that you were doing before, I find. You touched upon play, and one of the things that I notice and have noticed in the past ten years of increasing responsibilities around office environments, and seeing people juggling ten or fifteen to-do lists and mechanisms of people reaching them, so they’re juggling a phone call, getting ready to go to a meeting. Somebody might walk into their office and they’re sending somebody a text, and in fact, there’s also instant messaging on their computer, and you’re just feeling all this stuff coming at you. If you think of the word, “fun”, it feels like fun is not responsible. I’d love to hear your thoughts around fun and how fun actually could be the most responsible thing.

Dawn Kotzer:   People who don’t play enough get really pissy.

ERH:        So true.

Dawn Kotzer:    When we take responsibility for our position, for our job, for our team, for the wellbeing of others, it’s really easy to lose sight of how important our emotional tone is to the wellbeing of others. Again, it comes back to reframing. Also, in order to reframe, you want to practice awareness. Now, again, awareness is a habit that generally we need to create, because we lose sight of it. We are aware of all the details and the pressing concerns within our workday, but we’re not necessarily aware of how we are meeting those concerns …

ERH:     We’re just doing.

Dawn Kotzer:     Yes. We’re just doing. One really easy way to practice awareness is … and again, I’m very big into five-second awareness play practices. If we would just pause for a second. I’m assuming you’re sitting.

ERH:      Yes.

Dawn Kotzer:     Okay, and I’m sitting as well. If you would just pause and feel the air on your left cheekbone, and then think of one word to describe it.

ERH:      Warm.

Dawn Kotzer:     Okay. We’re done.

ERH:      Wow.

Dawn Kotzer:       That’s not long enough to have a really huge impact on your career, but it is long enough to start building a habit you can trust.

ERH:     Right, because I think that’s woven with the permission [trusting ourselves].

Dawn Kotzer:     Right. One of the things about play, play is a state often equated with children. When you think of young children having fun, sometimes they ask permission to go play, but often … It’s coming close to Christmas, so you know the stories, the best presents are the boxes and the pots and pans, not the gift itself… little kids will have more fun playing with the boxes. There’s something to be said for that. They don’t ask permission to play, but they are playing with the thing that is the easiest for them to play with. There’s no assembly required, there’s no batteries required, there’s no rules, there’s no regulations. What is the easiest step that you can take that feels like play?

ERH:   Right. Like having a little toolkit, if you will, maybe, at your desk of quick things that you know you enjoy or can practice.

Dawn Kotzer:     If you like to keep your hands busy then grab a notebook, a very small notebook, the smaller the better, two favorite pens that you like. You test the pens by writing on the paper and finding a sound and a feel that you like.

ERH:     I like that, [the sound of a pen, it’s true].

Dawn Kotzer:    Yeah, because it’s very sensual. You involve as many senses as you possibly can. That notebook is only used for you to scribble in. That’s it. Just keep it there. Another thing is, if I am preparing for something, especially if I’m doing some speaking or something, I like to have … and a lot of offices may not have these things anymore, but I like to have a pink eraser handy, or a piece of chalk, either or. I stand up, and I walk around the office thinking or talking out loud while I’m tossing the eraser or the chalk in the air and catching it with the same hand that I toss it.

ERH:      What does that help you do?

Dawn Kotzer:     What it does is it softens the focus. Softens the focus and puts me in a state of more natural physical movement, because I’m possibly practicing a speech or talking out loud, rehearsing something, maybe a conversation I’m going to have with someone, but the tossing of the little, tiny thing in my hand reduces the stress that I might choose to attach to the speech or the meeting that I’m anticipating. Often, what we do, we choose to keep adding things to our day, and we also choose to see some things that are just busy as stressful, or we choose to see some things that are, hey, they’re part of the terrain, we choose to see them as stressful. What if we could reframe them as an opportunity to turn them into something more playful?

ERH:     That’s perfect. I really love the imagery that we’ve talked about throughout this short time. We’ve talked about giving permission to do something different and to break up our time, but that, also, how you don’t need a lot of time to do these things, and they can be really small things that have a big impact if you involve more senses, and if you do things that are curious and fun and use those little bits of time that you take to really break from what you were doing, knowing that when you come back, you will be better at what it is you’re focusing on.

Dawn Kotzer:     Right, because I do find that that is probably one of the greatest hurdles, is that our body so desperately wants to take a break, but our mind is challenging us to get more and more done. We are choosing to pile more things on, and so I do think that we disconnect, or we no longer trust ourselves to get back to work after we take a break. These tiny, tiny exercises that I’ve shared with you are really the ones that I suggest people start with so that they can develop a habit of trust, which builds the structure for them to take a break of 10 minutes or 20 minutes, make the breaks more playful, reframe them as a positive gift to others and to themselves.

The other thing you might want to do is ask yourself the question, “What can I do that feels like it’s filling my well? What small thing can I do that feels like I am refreshing myself, not depleting myself?”

ERH:      That is perfect. That’s a really great thing to visualize. Dawn, you have been filled with just wonderful ideas here, and I’m already thinking of things that I can do to start a list, because I am that person working from home now, and it’s very easy to get lost, and I really appreciate some of the ideas, even for my own practice, and I know that there are things that others will take from this. Is there anything about this topic that we have missed that would be great to share before we close?

Dawn Kotzer:    Well, I think, really, you can never steer yourself wrong when you start with awareness, and recognizing the fact that you do not take breaks is reason alone to celebrate.

ERH:      Well said. Dawn, I really appreciate your time, and I hope people will pay attention to the soon-to-be launched Mad Explorers Club. There will be more to come on that. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Dawn Kotzer:   Oh, it was my pleasure, Elizabeth. Thanks for asking me to participate. We need breaks. The pause is important. It’s where the magic happens.

ERH:    You can learn more from Dawn at dawnkotzer.com. Thank you for spending time with The Art of the Break. I hope you learned even one thing to make your workday better or something to inspire you to help your team or employees. We can create much better ways of working and produce better outcomes in the process.

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