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« The Wisdom of the Loud | Main | Are strong opinions that useful? »
Tuesday
Dec232014

The power of downtime

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Does doing nothing really help?

It’s sometimes hard to throttle back at this time of the year. After all, weren’t you going to get all that stuff finished by the middle of December?

It is often the result of the goals we set 12 months ago. Nothing like a bit of a stretch, we thought at the time. There’d be time to do it. Maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t. To-do lists have a habit of getting too long.

What’s the argument for doing less?

An Olympic coach once showed me a graph of the performance cycle of 20 elite athletes. Those who scheduled periods of total abstinence from their training regime consistently recorded levels of peak performance higher than those who didn’t.

That’s probably no surprise. Living things perform better after a rest. A racehorse trainer campaigns a Thoroughbred for a series of starts, but when it’s over, the next stop is a few months in the paddock. It’s standard procedure for most racing champions. “After all,” as one trainer famously said, “they’re only human.”

Science also tells us it’s more than just the physical. When we rest, the brain is anything but idle. A whole raft of neural pathways kick into gear. They start processing what’s been going on in our lives. Mental and emotional rest is crucial for everything from consolidating recent learnings to clarifying your next best action.

No surprises there either. Cerebral congestion shuts out creative ideas and alternative thinking. There’s no room for inspiration to enter. That curbs your productivity and limits your strategic vision.

Doing less?

There is a limit to how much you can achieve with intense focus. Most studies show remarkable productivity is achieved in the first two or three hours of serious effort, but returns rapidly fade after that. It’s why its best to schedule demanding tasks in the morning. Studies show the vast majority of people suffer a bout of burnout toward the end of the day.

The cycle isn’t just a daily one. Longer term, your brain needs time out if the strategic view of your career or your business is going to adapt the cycle of your life.

Take the so-called ‘crisis at the summit’, a syndrome in which high-flying executives suddenly find themselves sidelined. They get sucked into micro-management, fail to move on from solo performance, lose connection with their family and become buried in a narrow focus on immediate tasks.

Doing less in this situation is often about getting others to do more. That’s not a matter of shirking responsibility. It’s about being open to a phase of personal development in which lifting others becomes more important than lifting yourself. It’s about the shift from worker to manager to leader.

That can be hard to identify – let alone follow – if your focus is bogged down in the minutiae of life as you have known it. It’s downtime that gives your brain a chance to see life as it could be.

After time in the paddock, a racehorse often moves on to the next stage of its career. Like well-rested humans, they can then step up to a more important race in their next campaign. 

Reader Comments (1)

A lot of research these days says that people are only productive for about half the time they are at work. But maybe that's not a bad result.

December 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRinnie T

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