A couple of weeks ago I got back from my summer holiday – 1 week’s activity holiday on the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy. Beautiful. I’d definitely recommend. Earlier this year, during the Easter holidays, I spent a week in Dorset with my family near the historic, and impressive, Jurassic coast.

Now the kids are back at school and everyone I’m working with is talking about “Refocus September” – they mention that they feel they’ve had things on the backburner over the summer months or have been feeling a bit unfocused recently – they want their coaching sessions to help them refocus / get going / reconnect with their vision / identify their key priorities for the months ahead.* (delete as appropriate) 

Whilst I’m all in favour of having a clear outcome of what you want to achieve (one of the four foundational principles of NLP*) and have even read a book on Focussing,** I’ve become more aware over the years how taking a “proper” holiday twice each year is absolutely essential for giving me the clarity and energy I need to be effective in my role as a business leader and coach for the rest of the year.

Whilst coaching conversations are currently converging on the topic of refocussing, there are some leaders who tell me they haven’t taken a holiday this summer because they don’t have the time – some have even confided that it’s been years since they took more than a weekend off.

And, on the surface of it for those who have taken time off, when I ask deeper questions I discover the reality is that whilst they’ve taken holidays, many leaders have taken their work with them, writing proposals or dealing with emails in the shade while their family plays in the pool. Why is that?

As we talk on, I notice that fear seems to be a key reason as to why many people in work don’t take enough rest. Fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear of being irrelevant, all manner of different types of personal fears.

Or, I discover that instead of fear, people overwork themselves in pursuit of their need to be liked, or recognised, or rewarded. For some, it is a heady combination of both.

These feelings, or pay-offs, can become an addiction, a form of dependency, without you realising it. (Or, you may realise it but decide that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.)

As you’re reading this, are you thinking, is this me? 

Well, here’s the thing – being focussed is great but working consistently with no proper breaks is not how you best serve your team, your business, your customers – and it’s no way to treat your most valuable business asset (that’s you). 

What is your pay-off for over-working? What do you gain from your dependency? Why do you not take enough deliberate rest even though you know it will benefit you? Why not If you know it will enable you to be clearer on your vision or purpose?  

We hear a lot about the many things that are disrupting our workplaces: demographics, globalization, automation, digitalisation. And it’s true. But there’s another force transforming our lives and our work: non-work. Or, more specifically, what we’re doing in those hours when we’re not working. So, for those of you who either didn’t get a break over the summer, or took a pseudo-holiday, how do you re-charge on the run, now that it’s “Refocus September”? 

Develop the practice of Resting

The idea that rest is key to doing good work and having a good life is hardly new. Ancient Greek philosophers were eloquent in their defence of leisure and downtime. Work, they argued, was necessary to live, but taking the time to recharge was equally essential for living well.

Rest not only makes us more productive and more creative it is also healthy for us. Discoveries in sleep research, psychology, neuroscience, organisational behaviour, sports medicine, sociology and other fields provide a wealth of insight into the critical role that rest plays in strengthening the brain, enhancing learning, enabling inspiration and making innovation sustainable. 

When we consider the lack of rest in the workplace, it is easy to immediately think of the mistakes that can occur with a driver working a 12-hour shift, or a construction worker operating heavy machinery. Of course managing fatigue is extremely important in the construction and transport industries and you accidentally sending an email to the wrong person may not be on the same scale (depending on the context, however, it could be) – yet not resting properly means that you are more likely to make mistakes and is a clear signal that you’re not performing at your best.

The practice of deliberate rest, a skill developable like any other leadership skill, enables you to think clearer, make better decisions, connect with others and ultimately, navigate your way through your day being the leader that you want to be.

(For more examples on the benefits of adopting a resting practice see the excellent book about Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.***)

Rediscovering the importance of rest, though, requires challenging our modern view that work is the central measure of our value, that overwork is to be admired and celebrated, that being present in the office means that you are working hard and contributing to the future direction of the business. The idea that burnout is the price we must pay for success requires taking a good looking at.

This idea is a myth that arose during the Industrial Revolution when the Cartesian notion of home and work as separate – and opposite – spheres took hold.

Even as we’ve moved to a post-industrial world the old ideas still cling to life, and to our lives. As a coach I’ve noticed how success, for many business leaders, has become a race against time and obsolescence. Technology has accelerated the pace of our lives and given us the opportunity for a never-ending workday. A global economy that never rests encourages us to ignore, without realising that we’re doing it, our need for rest.

Having a resting practice in our lives not only makes us more productive and more creative but also more makes our lives richer and helps us recognise what makes us feel fulfilled. Being a fulfilled leader is an attractive characteristic to potential followers.

Note: not all rest is created equal – it not just about not-working. The most productive kind of rest is also active and deliberate, it’s about:

  • Structuring your daily schedule
  • Concentrating your mornings on your biggest, most cognitively demanding tasks
  • Checking emails at a couple of specific times a day
  • Turning off your notifications for set periods
  • Layering work and rest
  • Detaching from work
  • Detaching from devices
  • Taking a week off every season
  • Practising deep play
  • Getting plenty of exercise
  • Getting plenty of sleep.

Like all leadership behaviours, Rest is a skill that can be learned, nurtured and practiced.

So, put down your phone – or better yet, put it in another room – and go for a 20min walk.

If you’ve read this, think that you might be addicted to work, and want to take a look at this some more, get in touch with us for a further conversation via info@jmaleadership.com.

*Neuro-linguistic Programming

**Focusing: How To Gain Direct Access To Your Body’s Knowledge: How to Open Up Your Deeper Feelings and Intuition by Eugene T Gendlin.

***In “Rest,” Pang draws on emerging neuroscience to make a strong research-based case to show us that in order to actually get more done we need to work less and relax more. Whether through taking daily naps, as Winston Churchill did during the Second World War, or spending a week alone in a cabin like Bill Gates. ‘Deliberate Rest’ as Pang calls it, is the key to getting more done and working better.