“The mind ought sometimes to be diverted that it may return to better thinking,” wrote Plato in Phaedrus, capturing the importance of rest and recovery in our ability to make a meaningful impact. And now, over two millennia later — amidst our productivity obsessions and busyness status symbols — this advice is as timely as ever.
Last year over half of all Americans left vacation time on the table, forfeiting over 212 million days. Our time away from work seems to have gone from a way of expanding our experiences and mindsets to a luxury of the self-indulgent and a sign of the uncommitted.
Yet we know that vacation and recovery are critical for not only our peace of mind but our ability to learn and grow. Underscoring this thought, The Mission Daily recently revisited multiple ways that vacation can expand our minds and contribute to accelerated growth. And as Bradley Staats wrote in Never Stop Learning,
“When we’re rested, we can fully tap into our analytic horsepower. We are also more likely to notice the details around us, rather than fixating on a particular aspect of a problem, or perhaps missing the problem entirely. It is impossible to keep at highly demanding tasks, be they cognitive or physical, indefinitely; breaks — both within a day and across days — allow us to recover and recenter so that we can move forward in a productive manner.”
As leaders, we often have people who are ambitious and driven to excel in their careers. And many people do enjoy their jobs. They’re putting in extra time because they want to, not because their boss is forcing them.
Yet it’s important to recognize that we need to take the long view. Yes we want our people to excel and succeed in their careers. But for people to be successful in the long-term, they also need to develop healthy habits and have fulfilling lives outside of work.
Demanding too much of our people — even when they want to give it — is poor leadership. It sacrifices their long-term success for the immediate gains. It likens them to machines on an assembly line — commodities to be used and replaced as necessary.
Yet encouraging our teams to find the time for recovery and vacation goes beyond offering lip service to the notion of work-life balance. Instead, we need to make it easier for them to achieve that balance. We need to create environments that actively promote this behavior.
And while there’s no one answer on how to create this environment, the following are a number of ways that have worked for me.
Measure Performance. And Only Performance.
“All one can measure is performance. And all one should measure is performance.” — Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive
Conventional wisdom tells us that those who work more hours end up being more productive. Yet, as is often the case with conventional wisdom, reality offers a different view.
Boston University professor Erin Reid studied firms with high expectations for working significant extra hours and measured the impact it had on performance. She found that while managers would penalize employees who admittedly put in less time, they couldn’t differentiate between those who actually worked long hours and those who just appeared to. She also found no correlation between actual performance and hours worked.
So why the obsession with extra time if it didn’t translate into a relative impact? For one, it’s easy. Measuring hours doesn’t require any leadership or management engagement. Any moron can run a timekeeping report — beware any manager who prioritizes this measure because it’s usually a sign that he doesn’t understand what else is going on.
But another reason is that too many managers grew up making these same sacrifices. They’ve missed out on their children’s lives and have lost touch with their spouse. Cognitive dissonance rarely lets them acknowledge this as a poor life decision, so they rationalize it away as a necessary commitment. As Reid wrote,
“Leaders of organizations, however, who are already invested in how things work, and who themselves likely made many personal sacrifices to advance, may have trouble accepting the possibility that there might be another way to work.”
If we expect people to develop healthy habits and lead fulfilling lives outside of work, this is the mindset that needs to change. And it starts with today’s leaders.
Peter Drucker often said, “what gets measured, gets managed.” So we all need to choose what we want to manage. Time someone spends logged into a computer? Or the actual value of their contribution?
Choose wisely, because we don’t get to pick both.
Develop Defense in Depth.
“The reliability that matters is not the simple reliability of one component of a system, but the final reliability of the total control system.” — Garrett Hardin
While Hollywood movies often portray elevators as an impending danger, always ready to send the car and its hapless inhabitants plummeting to the ground, there is very little chance of this happening in reality.
The main reason is that elevators are built with several redundant safety features. Elevators typically have eight cables while just one is enough to handle the weight of the car plus riders. Even if all of the cables somehow, each elevator has a built-in brake system that will grab the rails if the car begins moving too fast.
Many engineering designs include multiple layers of redundancy, which limit the overall reliance on one specific feature. And just as our cars offer multiple brake circuits and your private airplane includes a fail-safe engine, our teams need a level of redundancy to limit the reliance on any one person.
Most employees take pride in their work and in their ability to make a unique impact. They enjoy being relied upon and want to be a critical resource. And we should encourage this behavior. It opens new opportunities and expands the company’s overall capabilities.
But we also need to develop defense in depth by cross-training our people. Not only does it eliminate single-point failure liabilities, but it also reduces the burden placed on any one individual.
When people feel as though no one else can cover their work, they’re less likely to take time away and more likely to always be plugged into the office. This represents a leadership failure in that we’ve poorly managed our resources to overly rely on any one contributor.
The time to develop effective backups is before there’s an emergency. The time to cross-train employees is before your critical talent turns in her notice. In the wise timeless words of Confucius,
“The superior man, when resting in safety, does not forget that danger may come. When in a state of security he does not forget the possibility of ruin. When all is orderly, he does not forget that disorder may come. Thus his person is not endangered, and his States and all their clans are preserved.”
Help People Be Effective at Work.
“The effectiveness of work increases according to geometric progression if there are no interruptions.” — Andre Maurois
Before my daughter goes to bed each night, we tell each other about our days. She shares information about the goings-on of her third-grade class in exchange for anecdotes of what I did at work that day. Although the other day she told me, “Daddy, I don’t think you’re telling me everything. It seems as though you should get much more done in your day.”
Despite my assurance that I was in fact telling her everything I accomplished that day, she remained skeptical. The fact was, my daily achievements were unimpressive to an eight-year-old.
Apparently, time spent in meetings and slogging through bureaucracies doesn’t warrant a lot of respect. And thinking about it some more, it really shouldn’t.
Yet what if we actually used our time at work to…you know…work?
It’s no wonder that our people struggle to take time off. We fill their (and our own) days with tangential efforts and “urgent” distractions until there’s little time remaining to actually perform their key job responsibilities.
In a 1981 interview, Nobel laureate Richard Feynman discussed how he makes sure he has time to think about difficult problems,
“To do high, real good physics work you do need absolutely solid lengths of time… it needs a lot of concentration — that is, solid time to think — and if you’ve got a job in administrating anything like that, then you don’t have the solid time. So I have invented another myth for myself — that I’m irresponsible. I tell everybody, I don’t do anything. If anybody asks me to be on a committee to take care of admissions, no, I’m irresponsible.”
Feynman avoided all administrative duties that he considered to be distractions. He knew that although he could do them — and often cared that those tasks were done well — they would negatively impact his ability to focus on the truly important, namely “doing real good physics work.”
If we want to encourage our people to lead fulfilling lives outside of work, they need to have a better opportunity to complete their work at work. And this starts with protecting their time and giving them the best opportunity to focus on the work that really matters.
Before you re-prioritize people throughout the day, stop and consider whether you’re helping them focus on their critical responsibilities, or whether you’re just piling on distractions and breaking up their concentration.
Set the Example.
“The reality is that the only way change comes is when you lead by example.” — Anne Wojcicki
More than anything, leaders need to set the example through their own behavior.
People watch the leader. Every action, every response, offers an example for how they should respond in future situations.
I once had a manager who never took time off. He was there when I arrived and there when I left. And there never seemed to be a time of day that he wasn’t sending out emails to the team.
He didn’t overtly demand this level of supplemental effort from anyone else, but the message was clear: he prioritized work above all else — and if we wanted to get where he was, we should do the same.
Good leaders are always conscious of the fact that their actions set the example for others, for better or worse. Just as kids learn more from watching what their parents do than what they say, people watch a leader’s actions and learn what behavior is valued.
So to affect the behaviors we want, we need to lead by example. Doing anything else sends an unclear picture to our team. In the words of leadership expert John C. Maxwell,
“Followers may doubt what their leaders say, but they usually believe what they do.”
Take your own vacation time. Unplug and let yourself be unavailable for a little while. Develop healthy habits and make sure there are things in your life that give you meaning outside of work.
In short, show people that you don’t expect them to live at the office — because you certainly don’t plan to.
Not only will it encourage them to detach and lead healthier lives, but I’m guessing it will have some benefit for our own lives as well.
Balance Over Burnout
There’s the often-used cliche of the evil boss forcing his employees to work under constant threat of firing. And these degenerates are out there, sowing disengagement and generally giving management a bad name. We’ve all met a real-life version of Bill Lumbergh at some point in our lives.
But this article isn’t for them. For people who choose to manage that way, it’s highly unlikely that a nine-minute online article will convince them to change their ways. But I do believe this group’s in the minority, and getting smaller with each passing year.
Most leaders are just trying to do the best that they can within difficult roles. They’re trying to balance the expectations for improved quality within heightened budgetary and schedule pressures. They work with good people who want to make a difference and be proud of their contributions.
Which makes this all the more difficult. When we have teams of ambitious, dedicated people, they can push each other into unhealthy habits in their pursuit of success. It’s the leader’s responsibility to see this and manage it with a long-term view, not exploit it for short-term gains.
It’s the leader’s responsibility to protect their people, even from their own ambition and drive when needed. To do anything else would be irresponsible. And we’d no longer deserve the role of a leader. Returning again to the wise words of Peter Drucker,
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
Thanks, as always, for reading. If you enjoyed this or have any suggestions, please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate if you could clap it up👏 and help me share with more people. Cheers!