In 2014 I undertook a wild experiment. While many of my peers were climbing the ladder in their careers, I decided to embark on a year-long journey to personally learn about the concept of rest. At the time, I was suffering from what I call the ‘doing disease’—the perennial, incessant need to keep doing, keep moving and keep achieving. I was an obsessed high achiever. An achievement addict. It was my vice and a socially acceptable one. But the truth is, I was dying on the inside. My identity was completely anchored on what I was achieving.
I started to research what impact this simple and yet profound idea of rest could have on leadership performance and the lives of others, using myself as a test subject. The year saw me come to view rest as much broader than the number of hours of sleep I was getting or the quantity of PTO days I was taking. Don’t get me wrong; sleep has an important role to play, and who doesn’t love a great vacation? However, I came to understand rest as being a space away from striving, doing, people pleasing, performing, or controlling. It’s a space where I have the freedom to choose how I spend my time and energy and where I am not having to produce or achieve anything towards a specific deadline. It can come in the form of five minutes, five hours or five days. You can learn more about my ‘Year of Rest’ in the Ted X Talk, “Redefining Rest–Slowing Down to Speed Up!”
Rest transformed me during my year “off”. So in 2015, I decided to take on another, possibly even more wild experiment. Could rest be as transformational in my day-to-day life if I were to jump into a fast-paced, high-achieving culture? Welcome to management consulting and Deloitte.
Now three years into my time at Deloitte, I’ve spent this time learning how to navigate creating space for rest and recovery for myself and my team. I’m thankful to work for an organization that empowers me to do this! Here’s a few things I’ve learned along the way:
- Practice, practice, practice. I’d spent a year building my rest muscle but when I dove head first into corporate life in the US, I quickly learned sustainable high performance is possible only when I am intentional and deliberate about fighting for rest and recovery. Burnout is likely inevitable when trying to consistently perform at a high level in high pressure workplaces without creating space for rest and recovery. There are days and weeks I do a really good job at creating that space, and there are days and weeks where I fall very short. I feel the difference when I’m falling short, and so do the teams I lead. I am a far better leader and contributor when I move from a place of rest. This requires me to practice.
- There will always be more to do. The word priorities only started getting used around 1940. Prior to this it was singular—priority—and meant the very first thing. I am amazed to find that so many people often struggle to know what their priority is. I have learned that there will always be more work to do tomorrow. My to-do list will never be empty. Learning to embrace this as normal has helped me set better boundaries with work and ensure I know what the first thing I tackle each day needs to be.
- Rest comes in multiple shapes and sizes. I have found it useful to think about rest from three different perspectives; during the work day, between workdays, and in the off-season.
- Rest during my work day – Cultivating rest can take as little as 60 seconds. It might look like taking five deep breaths before you dive into your next meeting. It doesn’t have to take up enormous amounts of time but it does require being intentional and deliberate about seeking those spaces.
- Between work days – What are you doing before work, after work, and on the weekends to nurture rest and help yourself recover? I regularly drive to work in silence to give my mind quiet and the chance to breathe. I also try to identify a 24-hour period during each week when I can practice a Sabbath; a time where I give myself the freedom to choose how I want to spend my time and energy.
- The Off-Season – Do you have period/s in your year set aside for rest? Have you ever considered taking a sabbatical? Taking a zoomed out approach to using your PTO and your career can be really helpful. Different years I take different approaches to creating an off-season. In 2018, I am taking a full month of PTO to ensure I have an off-season. This year, I wanted a long block of time off, and it took me 12 months of planning to make this happen.
- Rest needs air time. I have facilitated many sessions with clients on the topic of sustainable leadership and rest. One of the most powerful parts of the conversation is when there is air time given to talking honestly about the commonly held beliefs around productivity and performance. Many leaders are filled with fear when it comes to openly talking about their need for rest and believe it is a sign of weakness. I believe it is a sign of health. I don’t want to be led by someone who is on 24/7. I know they won’t be giving me their best. I encourage teams to have conversations and decide what topics they want to agree on such as email etiquette (e.g., when sending messages is/is not appropriate, expected response times, reply all), the productivity of meetings (e.g., can we remove some standing meetings, do we need three people from the same team attending), and PTO protocol (e.g., out of office messages, taking phone meetings during PTO). There’s no one right decision around any of these topics, but I would suggest teams start an open dialogue about some of these topics.
- Leaders lead the way. If you are the leader, whatever you do, your team will look to follow; what you permit, you promote. If you are on phone calls from your Hawaii vacation, your team will likely believe they have to do the same when they take vacation. If you send emails on the weekend, your team will think they need to respond on their weekend. As a leader, you are responsible for role modeling the behaviors around rest that you want your team to emulate. It won’t work if you tell them to leave work at 6pm and you are still there till midnight.
I’m thankful that both experiments have been successful! I have found it is possible to work in a high pressure culture and also empower myself and my teams to cultivate rest in their life. It won’t happen by accident. However, the benefits of rest are vast and impressive; rest can help you be more innovative and creative, have more perspective, make better decisions, display more patience, navigate personal and professional relationships more effectively and lead more empowered teams. I encourage you to try out your own rest experiment today, this week and this year and see what happens. I have found when you create space to slow down, you’ll actually speed up and be more successful and impactful at home, and at work.
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