In the first flush of the new millennium, one of the world’s best investors, Stanley Druckenmiller, made one of the greatest trades of his life. He accurately predicted that the direction of Treasury bonds in late 2000 and early 2001 would be contrary to conventional wisdom. He was able to see the reality of the economic situation, trade heavily against the market trend, and reap the rewards. That insight netted him a nice payday, and he acknowledges that it only happened for one simple reason: he took a break.
Before making that huge and ultimately successful trade, Druckenmiller had taken four months away from Wall Street. He had stepped out of the noise of the financial news and rested his body and his mind. He relaxed and recharged. When he finally returned many months later, he could suddenly see the big picture with fresh eyes. And what he saw changed his life.
“I will go to my grave believing that if I hadn’t taken that sabbatical, I would have never made that bet,” Druckenmiller reflected in an interview years later. “It’s because I was freed up . . . my mind was clear and fresh.”1 In a business where everything depends on clear thinking and good decision- making, a little rest and relaxation made all of the difference.
For leaders in any field or area of expertise, the power of rest, repose, relaxation, and rejuvenation should never be underestimated. It might seem counterintuitive to suggest that such passive, quiescent activities can be the fount of dynamism and creativity, but that’s exactly the point. Indeed, there may be few things that spur productivity more than those behaviors that allow us to empty our mind of prosaic mental clutter. That might mean meditation, sleep, a long run, or just a walk in the woods. In those moments of relative stillness, the superficial concerns that usually fill our waking mind leave our attention like water flowing out of an overturned vase, and the deeper cognitive algorithms and higher intuitive functions of our mental apparatus can begin to work their own magic on the issues of the moment. Often, the result will be the pleasant surprise of creative insight, or a newly affirmed conviction in the right way forward.
“The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out,” writes the co- founder of Visa, Dee Hock. “Clean out a corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill it.”
A recent survey of American workers suggested that more than 60 percent are burned out or highly stressed. Harvard Business Review reports that job burnout accounts for an estimated $125 to $190 billion in healthcare spending annually, and contributes to a number of chronic diseases. And among executives, one study conducted by Harvard Medical School found that a stunning 96 percent of senior leaders reported feeling burned out to some degree, and a third of these described their burnout as extreme. While we may be tempted to blame our stress on the pressures of the job, the culture of the workplace, the expectations of stakeholders, the balance sheet, and so on, the reality is that every human being has a significant degree of power over their own states of being. No, we may not be able to remove all those sources of stress, but we can do a tremendous amount to improve our resilience.
Too often, it takes a crisis to force the most driven among us to take a pause. Ideally, conscious leaders shouldn’t wait for a health scare or other crisis to force them to change their habits. The ability to revitalize ourselves is one of the lowest- hanging, sweetest fruits that any of us can pick off the tree of life. Finding the rhythm of deep engagement and quality disengagement, activity and stillness, passionate focus and restful detachment is one of the most important skills for sustaining leadership over the long term. While we all may have different set points, tipping points, and breaking points, no one escapes the need to recharge. A few minutes, a few hours, a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months— everyone needs the time and space to properly revitalize and reinvigorate the self. Those who do it well give themselves a powerful physical and mental edge— not to mention a superior quality of life.
In our digital age, unplugging may be more important than ever, precisely because we are so plugged in. With smartphones, social media, and seemingly universal internet and mobile access, it’s hard to find a moment of time or a square inch of the earth in which we are not connected to an onslaught of information, communication, and, along with it, distraction. Any leader today is acutely aware that their attention is one of their most valuable assets, and so it’s imperative that we think carefully about our relationship with our devices and the digital universe to which they connect us. Although the digital revolution has brought us tremendous benefits— personally and as a society— it has also left many addicted to the relentless need to be always on and ever connected. According to several studies by Nielsen, the Pew Research Center, and Smart Insights, in 2018 people spent an average of four hours per day on their phones!
This increase in “screen time” is having a significant impact on everything from our ability to communicate to our cognitive capacity and mental health. A Microsoft study in Canada, for example, found that the average human attention span has decreased from twelve to eight seconds since 2000. More important, this decreased bandwidth gets in the way of our ability to concentrate and make decisions. A 2017 study by the Journal of Consumer Research found that even when a smartphone is turned off, its mere presence takes up a significant amount of attention and reduces our cognitive capacity.
Technology isn’t going away anytime soon, so as leaders we are confronted with a critical question: How can we enact a more conscious relationship with these ever- present devices? Whether it’s being mindful about how much screen time you’re engaged in on a daily or weekly basis or taking the time to periodically unplug by going on a “digital fast,” there are many ways to reconsider the posture of infinite availability that is the unwritten rule of the information revolution. There is nothing inherently wrong with being connected, of course, but we each must consider how best to enact a more powerful relationship with our digital worlds, so that they won’t, by default, have undue power over us. Some leaders, the authors included, engage in digital fasting by spending extended periods of time in the wilderness, where cellphone reception is limited. Hiking on the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail has afforded us much- needed respite. In the midst of all the pressures and urgent decisions that come with significant leadership roles, this can be a critical way to step outside the fray and refresh. Joyeeta Das, CEO of the big- data startup Gyana, makes sure to take two extended “digital detoxes” per year— one a silent retreat and the other a deep- sea diving mission. She says, “That’s where I’m at the mercy of water and faith in the universe, and this recharges me every time.”
Of course, the “cold turkey” method of detoxification doesn’t work for everyone. And there are a wide variety of practices you can use to decrease your addiction even in the midst of your normal workdays. Tom Patterson, CEO of the clothing company Tommy John, checks his email only before and after the workday and abstains in the hours in between. Arianna Huffington puts her phone to bed at night by keeping it out of her bedroom and never checks it first thing in the morning when she wakes up.
The key to an effective digital fasting strategy isn’t doing something specific— it’s just doing something. Simply being willing to confront your own digital addiction— to have a more conscious, deliberate relationship to the always- on information revolution— is the first step toward liberating your precious attention from technology’s addictive grasp.