What Great Leaders Know About Rest

Productivity is critical to organisational performance, but for decades we’ve missed focusing on the one thing which can have a tremendous impact on it. Our blog reveals what’s missing, why we need it, and how the latest scientific research should fundamentally shift our thinking on productivity.

Even for the most experienced leaders, it gets tough at the top.  For all the dynamic thinking and inspirational leadership, it’s a pressured and challenging environment that demands long hours and huge commitment.  So, it’s no surprise that with increasing levels of awareness around mental health and the impacts of stress and well-being at work, the lens is now shifting to whether this is actually the optimum way to get the most out of business’s best minds.

It’s particularly pertinent at this time of year when many of the workforce will have already packed up the family and set off for their summer holiday.  Behind closed doors, even at the more junior levels, it’s likely there has been at least one ‘discussion’ about taking a work mobile phone or laptop.  This inability to truly switch off, or be perceived as unavailable, speaks volumes about today’s workplace culture and mentality.

A commitment to life, not just work

We accept with gusto that with a 10,000-hour investment we can become a master at our chosen subject yet many leaders struggle to give anything like that kind of commitment to their own wellbeing.  The pendulum has swung so far towards work that the phrase work/life balance has become lost as leaders strive to do it all.

So, what is the answer?  There’s a new school of thought that believes it’s rest and relaxation, and that as leaders, we’re just not taking it seriously enough.

A recent Harvard study has looked at how successful CEOs spend their time, breaking it down into 15-minute slots.  There were some interesting findings that should begin to challenge the perceptions leaders have. The work hard, play hard culture is still evident, with the working week still demandingly high at over 62 hours, but the down-time is better protected, more focused and importantly, more meaningful.

For example, almost seven hours are spent sleeping.  Quality, restful sleep where the brain has time to consolidate memories and skills. The remaining six hours are almost equally split between the fulfilment of family and personal time.

What is striking is that these CEOs are as deliberate and planned about their rest as they are about their work, seeing rest and work as two essential and complementary parts of an integrated healthy whole.

The science behind the theory

There are a number of new books that go on to challenge the norm of a working day by questioning the value of a 9am – 5pm daily structure, instead arguing that the brain is at its most effective in much shorter bursts.  The idea of working less to achieve more isn’t new – take a look at Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Work Week, published in 2007 and a New York Times best-seller for an early proponent of this theory.

But the focus on rest, not just work, is a relatively new thing. Author Alex Pang, in his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, explores the strategies used by some of history’s most successful leaders to practice deliberate rest, sustain their energy, boost their creativity, and lengthen their careers.

Two Awesome Hours, by Josh Davis, follows this with science-based thinking around productivity.  He believes in the principle of planning for two hours of peak performance each day which stems from aligning the brain and biological systems and then actively planning in ‘recovery time’.

But rest doesn’t mean our brain isn’t being useful. If you know you have your best ideas while walking the dog, or often wake in the middle of the night to a flash of inspiration, you’ll realise that our subconscious is using rest as its time for problem-solving. What these new ideas are telling us is that we have to get the balance right between focused effort and time to think – the yin and yang of work and rest – in order to make the biggest difference to our performance.

A totally new way of working

Despite the obvious appeal of working less and relaxing more, we’ve seen that even moving in this direction is culturally and practically difficult. For example, there are few truly flexible and agile employers, not only because of technology challenges but also the HR and cultural perceptions that go with being physically at work.

If we accept that our wiring means that we can only be at our best for somewhere between four and six hours each day, then when we work productivity really matters, and this means we have to organise our work so we can truly focus.

In reality we can only focus for circa 90-120 minutes at a time before needing some time and space to recover, so in theory we have two to three cycles in any given day depending on our energy. Optimising our use of these cycles becomes critical, planning mini-recovery in between where we can do other less taxing things and go again.

This is a totally new way of working to most of us, but the evidence is racking up that it’s a strategy we should take seriously if we want to be our most productive selves. If we truly want to effect change, we have to start treating rest with respect.

If you would like to discuss how to take your performance and productivity to the next level please schedule a complimentary consultation at your convenience.

 

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