The Potential in the Pregnant Pause

Friday, March 27, 2015 - 5:52am
Photo by Minoru Nitta

The Potential in the Pregnant Pause

Last week I heard Tony Fadell, the creator of the iPod, and more recently, the smart thermostat Nest, speak about the principles that inform his design practice at the annual TED Conference.

Here’s what stuck with me most: he said that designers have to resist habituation in order to be transcendentally successful. They have to build in a pregnant pause and ask themselves questions about the status quo. They have to have beginner’s minds. They have to wonder, as they reach for their toothbrush and toothpaste: Is this the best shape for a container filled with paste? Is this the best material for bristles? Is this the right sized handle?

In short, a designer has to constantly resist settling for that old fallback of exhausted parents and irritated bosses everywhere: “Because we’ve always done it this way.”

I would take his important point a step further. I don’t think it’s just great designers that have an awareness of how their own habits dull their capacity to be creative, to invent, to expect more. I would argue that it’s great humans that do. One of my favorite mantras in the Buddhist tradition is, “May I see what I do. May I do it differently. May I make this a way of life.”

I say it often. Because, to be quite frank, I sometimes get really sick of myself. I get sick of my anxiety. I get sick of my automatic thoughts. I get sick of my “way.”

Of course I try to be gentle with my tired self; we all have a way of being in the world that makes us feel safe. Habits are part of what makes our lives livable. In the chaos of contemporary life, we crave the easily ordered, the familiar, the given. The things we do over and over again, the things that we don’t have to orchestrate or anticipate or invent, are like welcome exhales.

For me and for anyone who does some form of creative work, habits can be creative life rafts. My words drown in this overwhelmed life without them — my cup of coffee set here, my notebook with my pen on it here, the Wi-Fi shut off, the blank page and that blinking cursor egging me on.

When we get too attached to these habits, we risk losing our sense of wonder and our potential for the catalytic experience. When we get too comfortable, we risk falling asleep on the job — the job being living an awake life.

So it has me thinking: what are the habits that I need to or, better yet, want to shed? What are the habits filled with pleasure, the ones that make me feel grounded and capable of diving back into the fray of my busy life; in contrast, what are the habits that dull me? What are the habits that have gotten me here but won’t get me there?

Certainly my tendency to pull my cell phone out of my pocket and check my email or Instagram account during any moment of idleness is a habit that’s best shed. I gained inspiration for this one, as of late, while following WYNC’s fascinating Bored & Brilliant; participants attempted to resurrect boredom and all its wonderful byproducts by committing to cutting the umbilical chord with their cell phones.

I also want to spend more meals doing nothing but, well, eating. Innovation isn’t the only thing murdered by habitual multi-tasking like this. Pleasure is too. Habit sometimes dulls the senses and strips us of the surprises that come with noticing. I want to actually taste what I’m eating more of the time. I want to marvel at how it arrived on my plate. I want to taste the gratitude.

My biggest ambitions to resist habituation are rooted in my relationships. I want to be less dutiful. I want to pause before I get busy anticipating everyone else’s needs and making sure that no one suffers or fights. My wiser self knows that both can lead to transformation. I want to take up more space in some relationships and less space in others. I want to spend less time on guilt and more on joy. I want to choose my choices. I want to depersonalize. I want to say it plain.

What about you?

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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Yes Yes ,how much I need to listen up. Being aware of the habits that deaden our senses..obstruct creativity..and poison our thinking. Thank you Courtney.

Like you, and many more I meet in my daily awakening practices, I want death to find me intensely alive.

That is beautifully said. Thank you.

I 100% agree

Another great one! Thanks.

Excellent, Courtney. I love your postings as well as the TED programs.

it is in the "pausing" that spirit may enter, and lead me to an unexpected place, a place I may not, and probably would not have, considered.

A wonderful start to reflecting on how to balance routine and the creative spirit (good habits vs. less good habits). Thanks for sharing!

Courtney, your insight is so well communicated within in your words: pregnant pause so beautifully encapsulates the silence we can take before birthing an idea into the world. I've been doing some research on curiosity with my academic advisor and it struck me that so much of connecting and unplugging and personalizing is mindfulness. As you pointed out we can't be mindful when we have our minds on our phones. You are write "bored and brilliant," our minds and hearts were made for so much more. I want to be mindful of how I spend my time when I don't have pressing academic demands and I want to spend more time outside: in a hammock or on an adventure. Another splendid piece! Thank you for sharing.

Habituation can be an awful trap.

Thank you Courtney for this lovely reflection and powerful reminder.
Let us take comfort in our connections and rituals that help us connect. But, how important it is to not these rituals become meaningless habits. How life-giving it is to open our perspective, to look with wonder instead of looking through a film of "this is what I've seen before." I love your posts and look forward to them each Friday!

Thank you so much, Carrie! This means the world coming from an artist and human I respect so much. I hope our paths cross again soon.

This is food for the soul. A banquet! Thank you.

Thank Courtney for another thoughtful reflection... your thoughts on pausing and creating sacred space is somehow linked to what I have been considering lately about the difference between my curiosity (looking at the toothpaste tube...) and my wonder (who is this person looking at himself in the mirror with this tube in his hand). My curiosity is quite a glorious gift, but my wonder is... well... wonderful. Sometimes I think that curiosity is a mind in an open state- and wonder is my heart in an open state... So grateful that you share your expressive gift...

Thank you

I want to give myself the gift of space to think, to feel, to breathe deep into my gut, and to care for myself in authentically nurturing ways.

I simply love this article, thank you for writing it. It gave me pause to sit back and think AND put myself in this story. It is a perfect write up for me because I am coming to the end of a chapter in my life and starting. A new book. You see I am a nontraditional student (starting life late) and I am about to graduate with a Master's degree with not a lot of prospects that will pay my bills and finance my school loan payback....I have become habitual and now it is time for a change.

Lovely thoughts.

I appreciate your distinction between the habits that keep thinking and overthinking people sane versus those that dull experience. However, as someone still just touching things like yoga and mediation, I think that the physical habits are fine, almost desirable if they allow potentially habitual thoughts to disappear, in other words, realizing that who we are in the moment we are in is not the same person that experienced this habit, ritual, or routine yesterday, or an hour ago. The designer doesn't stop brushing his teeth the same way at the same time; she just pays a bit more attention to what she is doing, perhaps with a trained mindset that when she notices or imagines something different, unusual, or perturbing, she can choose to act upon it or not. To me, remaining alert during a life of habit produces more creativity than having to pay attention to constant distraction. Thanks for the stimulating stipulations you offered.

"I want to choose my choices. I want to depersonalize. I want to say it plain." You have captured in these few phrases the central challenge of my current life. Thank you for a thought-provoking and on-target reflection that has touched so many right where it was needed.

Thank YOU. You're not alone in the journey, trust me!

I listened to a woman who is a hospice care provider. She told me that when her patients know they are dying they hold onto life with every purposed intention until they have the opportunity to see their family members. When they have met every person around the bed side they usually slip away soon after. Suddenly I understood how precious awareness really is to life and to relationships. When pressed at the end of life no one has to convince us to let go of and be mindful. Thank you Courtney for your bravery in admitting what needs to be let go. I don't want to wait to awaken my senses when it is too late.

Your are a gift to us. Your thoughts and sentences express so many feelings and emotions that we all feel but have failed to capture. Please don't stop filling us with all your insights.

Kind Regards, Steve

Wow, thank you so much, Steve.

Thank you.

I want to maintain a simple, uncomplicated but rich life. I want to have engaged, attentive relationships. I also want to stay in the wonder of what's next, like a child who thinks that anything is possible.

Courtney-your post could not have come at a better time for us. We are weary of habituation and the dreary ennui it produces. Change and growth go hand in hand if we embrace them rather than resist them. We are embarking on a new adventure in a new community and are quickly learning how healthy it is to embrace the unknown rather than rage against it. Living life to the fullest means trusting God to take care of us. I wonder if habits are a product of putting our trust in our own nature rather than His?

Thank you!

The desire to "resist habituation, especially in relationships, is huge (which is why we quote you in "The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels" — and, thank you!) Once we have what we want, it's too easy to forget to appreciate it, and just focus on all that's "wrong" (aka, not as easy/perfect as we wanted) with it. Habits make life easy, and, really, it's OK to want habitual/easy for some things; I am so grateful have a working espresso machine that provides me with two perfect cups every morning, and I don't really want to have to stress about it. That's a privilege I have, living in the U.S where electricity and water (despite the California drought) are accessible — for a price. If we're mindful in our relationships and focus on being present with no agenda/preconceived notions, then we can avoid "anticipating everyone else’s needs" and actually listen. That's not our job, anyway — except with small kids, who need a mix of habits (the constant) and serendipity, which they seem to find no matter what.

Thanks Vicki, very very wise.

This is so lovely, Courtney - thank you for this piece. So many of us go through our days on automatic pilot, not realizing all of the choices that we avoid by relaying on our preferences, our traditions, our habits. When I teach the Enneagram, I talk about how understanding our type can help us see our patterns of behavior and decide how well they are working for us. And we need to slow down and take that "pregnant pause" in order to see how stuck in our habits we have become.

Thanks Courtney for sharing the importance of disconnecting with societal influences in order to reconnect with our inner voice. In my own path to personal freedom, I am implementing the Four Agreements which stress the need to shed outward expectations, societal confinements and domestication, and to be 100% me, not who anyone wants or thinks I should be. Thanks for sharing your insight.

Thank you for this. I often urge people to (re)discover that child-like sense of awe. It becomes so challenging in the busy-ness of daily life. Travel, especially when you are forced to disconnect and cannot, CAN.NOT. instagram every bite, can reawaken that sense of wonder. But how rare are those opportunities? How do we create these spaces in our ordinary, uber-connected, push-pull lives. That is the challenge.

I get caught in the I want sometimes and in the demanding that I need to know what's going to happen. That's a habit. Even in my journal I spew out "I want it to look this way" and "I want to feel this way". Being stuck in the "I want" habit keeps me from experiencing what I need and keeps,me feeling like I am politely a God with good intentions. When all the while it's about control, fear, doubt. Even when I am in good intention of not wanting to be in fear and doubt, I can't help it. It's where I am. I try to embrace those moments now and not judge it. I think that's where I start (or try to intend to start) with everything I ecperience. Honestly, it is also a form of acceptance and letting go and not head butting situations. I know when I am in a transitioning place when I feel frustrated and doubtful. If I hang in there and not judge that place with the intention of moving forward, I get the lesson or the next step. I guess you can say it's a habit but I think of this way as setting an intention. See - Embrace - Listen - Ask - Know - Move - Live.