Go Ahead, Take that Break

Mon22Aug11

Go Ahead, Take that Break by Whitney Johnson

Defy the “Always On” Mindset

Study after study shows how important rest is to the human brain. Yet, the world of work seems to get busier and more demanding every day. This means you have to make even more of an effort to disconnect and find the time to relax. Try leaving your phone at home on your next family outing. Make a to-do list on Friday and hide it (physically and mentally) until Monday morning. If this seems like a waste of potentially productive time, remind yourself that moments of quiet are critical. After focusing intently on a project or problem, the brain needs to fully disengage and relax to be creative. Only after a break can you have a breakthrough.

Last weekend, like every weekend, I scrawled a long list of things to do on an old envelope. But unlike most weekends, instead of tethering myself to a computer and working, I sat in my backyard alongside my 10 year-old daughter in our collapsible camping chairs, reading novels. I wish I could tell you that this was a bona fide afternoon of rest and relaxation (R&R). Not quite. In flinging aside my agenda, my workaholic self felt more than a little bit naughty. In fact, a more accurate descriptor of that afternoon would have been rebellion with a little relaxation on the side (R&r).

In this same spirit of rebellion, I’ve begun docking my phone downstairs, rather than on my nightstand. Now that I’m no longer checking e-mail during the wee hours, I’m sleeping more soundly. Emboldened by this win, I left my phone (which my children call, not entirely in jest, my third child) home during a recent family outing. The bad news is that my 24/7, always-on fortress remains relatively unassailable. Just last night, when it was time for our family’s evening prayer, I was so busy tweeting that my husband deadpanned, “What, are you going to tweet your prayer?”

And yet I’m not about to advocate a wholesale disconnect. After all, it’s been demonstrated that technology and connectivity do make us happier. But now that we can live life in the cloud, I wonder if there’s an ever-present dark cloud of “more-to-do” hanging over our heads, with the languorous, lazy days of summer becoming bygones, and busyness a badge of honor. Do we consider unplugging a necessary evil, a nuisance we would happily do without, rather than recognizing that rest is integral to innovation, and more importantly, to a meaningful life?

According to current neuroscience research, after focusing intently on a project or problem, the brain needs to fully disengage and relax. As composer, musician and producer Brian Eno has opined: “The difficulty of always feeling that you ought to be doing something is that you tend to undervalue the times when you’re apparently doing nothing, and those are very important times. It’s the time when things get sorted out. If you’re constantly awake work-wise you don’t allow that to happen.” More pithily, as said by John Cleese: “If you are racing around all day, ticking things off lists, looking at your watch, making phone calls, and generally just keeping all the balls in the air, you are not going to have any creative ideas.”

When we do nothing (take a walk, a warm shower, slowly wake up), we defy the “always on” mindset, recognizing that we, like our muscles, become more productive by alternating work with rest. As leaders, we can encourage this healthy rebellion by example. We may think we’re being responsive, even impressive, when we send work-related e-mails at midnight, on the weekend, or vacation, but those who work for us will see us as establishing a norm. If you will take some real down-time without the constant tug of technology or a to-do list absorbing your thoughts, you will give your employees permission to do the same.

Refraining from constant communication can give your words more weight when you do speak. In the book Sabbath, author Wayne Muller recounts a conversation with Oscar Castro-Neves, an accomplished guitarist and composer for movies, in which Castro-Neves teaches, “It is common in a dramatic scene to gradually bring the music to crescendo, and then stop rest silence. Whatever is spoken on the screen in silence is heard more clearly, more powerfully; the words are lent an additional potency, because they are spoken out of silence. When you listen to music, listen to the cadence of rest. Martin Luther King, the most famous speech of his life. Listen to the cadence. Free at last. (Rest) Free at last. (Rest) Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”

The most typical dictionary definition of rest is “not moving or tranquil.” Another definition is “a thing or place to put something for support.” Rest is life and work support. It reinvigorates us so we can get things done. It allows us to subvert our inner workaholic, liberating our innovative self. It also allows us pause to gain perspective, to plumb the meaning of our life.

What we think and do today makes meaning of what we did yesterday. Learn to lie dormant. Listen to your cadence of rest. Take a break.

Only after a break can you have a breakthrough.

[Whitney Johnson is a founding partner of Rose Park Advisors, Clayton M. Christensen’s investment firm and is the author of the forthcoming Dare-Dream-Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream (Bibliomotion, May 2012).]

Originally at http://blogs.hbr.org/johnson/2011/07/go-ahead-take-that-break.html

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