If you’ve followed my work for any period of time, you’ll know that I’m a big proponent of goal setting, praising progress, lifelong learning, and continual growth. It’s important to have a compelling vision and satisfying to live a purpose-driven life.
But sometimes we go overboard on the “driven” part. That’s when things get out of whack. Our stress levels go up, the quality of our sleep goes down, our immune systems lose strength, and our creativity vanishes like an ice cube on hot pavement. When you begin to feel these symptoms, that’s when you know it’s time to prioritize self-care in the form of rest, reflection, and recharging.
Practice Doing Nothing
Smart leaders know that sometimes one of the best ways to get things done is to do nothing at all. Why is that? Because too much focus can narrow your thinking. Your brain gets stuck on the same old neural pathways and your thoughts don’t extend beyond the obvious and unoriginal.
Jeff Weiner, who recently stepped down as CEO of LinkedIn, understands the importance of doing nothing. “Part of the key to time management is carving out time to think, as opposed to constantly reacting,” he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Surprisingly, when we step away from the relentless pursuit of tasks, we’re often able to see our vision more clearly and feel newly inspired by it. So, the next time you’re feeling stuck, follow the direction of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland:
“Don’t just do something, stand there!”
In other words, break away from your routine of constant activity to reboot your mental and physical health.
Working out with a personal trainer, I was fascinated to learn that muscle growth does not happen during the workout—it happens when we’re resting. The same is true for us. We grow when we pause to reflect on what we’re doing. That’s why, if we want to develop as leaders, we need to prioritize down time.
Start Your Day Slowly
I learned to take daily time for reflection from my late friend and coauthor, Norman Vincent Peale. Norman taught me that we all have two selves: an inner self that is thoughtful, reflective, and a good listener; and an outer, task-oriented self that is focused on achieving and too busy to reflect. Guess which one wakes up first in the morning? The task oriented self! Most of us leap out of bed into our task-oriented selves without giving our inner selves a thought. We race through the day, filling every moment with activities and achievements, until we fall exhausted into bed, with hardly enough energy to say goodnight to the loved one who might be lying next to us. The next day we’re at it again. Soon, one day leads into another, and life becomes a rat race. As Lily Tomlin said:
“The trouble with being in a rat race is that even if you win the race, you’re still a rat.”
The way to avoid the rat race is to honor your inner self by starting your day slowly, in solitude, taking time to reflect, pray, or meditate. I get inspiration from a booklet of favorite uplifting quotes that I put together and read in the morning.
Take Your Personal Time Off
In addition to carving out daily reflection time, it’s also important to take vacation time. But according to a recent Pew Research survey, a significant share of American workers—46 percent—say they do not take all of their available paid time off. People cited worry about losing their jobs or falling behind in their work as the reasons for not taking the time.
Leaders and managers need to encourage people to use their personal time off. While it may seem counterintuitive, several data driven studies show that time off leads to greater, not less, productivity. It’s easy for me to believe those studies, because their findings track with my own experience.
For more than 60 years, my wife, Margie, and I have had the great privilege of spending the summer weeks at our lakeside home in Skaneateles, New York. Surrounded by a deep, green forest and overlooking the water, our cottage is the perfect place to rest, reflect, and recharge. Here is where I often find new inspiration for the books I’m writing.
No matter where you live or what resources you have, it’s important to find a place where you can recharge and reflect. Maybe it’s a nearby park, a beach, or a campground in your favorite national park. Once you find that special place, prioritize spending time there. Not just because it will make you more productive, but also because you deserve the quiet joy of being in nature and spending time with the people you love.
Harold Kushner, the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, said that in all his years as a rabbi, he never heard anyone say on his deathbed, “I wish I had gone to the office more.” So if you haven’t taken time off yet this summer, get to it!