As a lifetime athlete, I’ve always valued taking care of my body. Two of the foundational components of a healthy body are nutrition and exercise. And while I am a stickler for maximizing and optimizing both, they already get all of the attention. But equally important is rest, sleep, and play. They are understandably less sexy – and to be honest –harder to make a profit from, so they rarely make the headlines. But without proper rest, adequate sleep, and moments of leisure, you will never become you best self.
Burnout is an emotional as well as a physical experience but there’s a reason we use the word we do to describe it. Burn out. “Fire can warm or fire can burn.” Our fuse is only so long and if we don’t step away once in a while, we will have nothing left.
I hear too often, “I can’t afford to take a break,” when the reality is you can’t afford not to. You might have been getting by, or maybe you don’t notice the way your performance has been affected by overdoing it, but I bet the people around you have.
More isn’t necessarily better. You don’t really get more done the more time you spend at your desk. The “work hard, play hard” crowd promotes excess hours at work, as if that automatically produces better work. But the Law of Diminishing Returns says we reach a point where more yields less and studies show “productivity actually decreasing over fifty hours per week.”[ Going too long without rest can not only lessen the quality of your current work but it hurts your ability to get back to work later. If you over do it, your network will be less productive. It’s as simple as that.
Rest is not a nice-to-have, it is a necessity. I rest my mind (unplug for technology, meditate, embrace silence and stillness) and my body (take days off from strenuous exercise, stretch, massage, cold showers) consistently. I embrace the duality of coupling intense work sessions and decompressed rest sessions. They are my Yin and my Yang.
The term “workaholism” first appeared in American in 1971, yet today we work 200 hours more per year then we did then. Overwork is unfortunately treated as a status symbol these days and I’m sure it’s one of the reasons that burnout is on the rise. The self-imposed pressure that we need to be the first in, the last out, and work through the weekends makes us value the wrong things. Is there a more efficient way to put in the time? Are you doing it to impress your boss? Are you doing it to get ahead? This overwork actually increases our chance of making a mistake, snapping at our co-workers, and hitting the wall.
The obsession with productivity has [made us] feel guilty when we’re not working. This guilt doesn’t allow us to even appreciate our ‘off’ time, which is so necessary to recharging. There’s nothing admirable about skipping vacations, taking a work call during your child’s game, or checking office email from bed. It’s destructive and a surefire path to burnout.
Even the vacation time we’re given at work—which is far less than many European countries—is not something we are taking. A little more than half of US workers don’t take all of their paid vacations and nearly a quarter don’t take them at all! Is it because they don’t need them? Of course not! It’s because they felt like they couldn’t. Even with all these vacation days left on the table, 61 percent of workers still “admitted to feeling pressured to do some work anyway” on vacation. There’s no point to a vacation if you’re just changing the location for your work. The time away can’t be just physical; it has to be mental and emotional as well.
These breaks are not just deserved, they’re necessary. And for those who still stubbornly believe that this how you get ahead, you’re working against yourself. It’s been shown that “people who take all of their vacation time have a 6.5 percent higher chance of getting a promotion or a raise than people who leave eleven or more days of paid time off on the table.” If possible, don’t schedule your vacation based on the calendar; schedule it based on your calendar, as in during a natural break in your work cycle. If you have to vacation with the calendar, then design your deadlines so that you’re not spending it working.
Because of the increase of work from home (WFH) culture, the office is now everywhere. And when you can turn the switch ‘on’ whenever you want, a dangerous thing happens: the off switch disappears. It is up to you to put in an intentional off switch to your job: whether that means a set schedule, a home office that’s separate from the living space, or some other resolution, don’t let work overtake your life. Dedication to your job should not sacrifice your basic well-being. If you’re in an environment where this is the norm, then it might be worth reconsidering if you can afford to stay there.
Despite being a professional speaker, being ‘on’ in front of people drains my energy (physically, mentally, and emotionally). Though I love being on stage, it exhausts me. And the way I refuel my tank is in solitude. I need alone time to gather my thoughts and rest my brain/body/heart. Understanding this about myself has helped me to ward off burnout. What activities drain your tank? Do you allow yourself the rest and separation you need after these tasks?
As a basketball performance coach, I saw how many coaches took better care of themselves in the offseason than during the season. But during the season is when they needed it. When we’re stressed, we start to abandon the very things that can help us tackle that stress. We overstuff our days as if we can catch up, but all we’re doing is throwing an inferior version of ourselves out there. Don’t burn the candle at both ends then be shocked when you’re completely extinguished.
Professional and college athletes have 3 distinct seasons:
- In-Season (several months of practices, games, playoffs)
- Off-Season (several months away from practices/games, focused on improvement/preparation)
- Pre-Season (8-12 week leading up to the in-season where training is heightened and focused)
I recognize that most folks in the business world work year-round, and don’t have an actual off-season, but they can still these utilize principles. Most NBA players take 2-3 weeks completely off after their last game. They get away from basketball, go on vacation, sleep in, and relax. Then they slowly start getting back into shape and continue to ramp up until training camp (pre-season). The time away is to help them recover and rejuvenate. Anyone can adopt a similar framework:
- Every day, take ONE hour completely ‘off’ from work/devices.
- Every week, take ONE day completely ‘off’ from work/devices.
- Every month, take ONE weekend completely ‘off’ from work/devices.
- Every year, take ONE week completely ‘off’ from work/devices.
When people tell me they’ll sleep when they’re dead I tell them, “Well, that’s going to be sooner than you think.” It’s a dark joke, but it comes from a place of basic science. We need to sleep. The fact that one missed night of sleep can make us feel so nightmarish, outside-our-bodies terrible, tells us how desperately we need it. Think about it from an evolutionary standpoint. It’s wildly inefficient for human beings to be asleep a full third of their lives, so obviously our bodies need it.
A few years back, lack of sleep “cost American companies a staggering 411 billion in lost productivity.” How could working all these extra hours go so wrong? It’s because work on poor sleep is just a lot of hours of unproductive work. Sleep is essential to decision making because your impulse takes over when you haven’t rested. Your frontal lobe—which is your decision center—shuts down when you’re tired and your baser instincts take over. So you’re putting in more hours on lack of sleep, but what kind of hours are they? You are more likely to set yourself back during these hours, messing up in a way that requires time to fix your mistakes later. More is not always more.
In the performance space, everyone knows sleep is the secret sauce. (NBA teams now even have sleep specialists on the payroll.) Successful people don’t literally work the most; they just know how be most effective in the hours they are working. I speak from a place of experience. I used to subscribe to the less equals more mentality when it came to sleep. I mistakenly believed that if I slept 4 hours instead of 8, that would give me an ‘extra’ 4 hours each day. After a few days, I’d be a whole day in front of the competition! (Yes, a knucklehead thought, but I had it.) I had convinced myself I needed less sleep, but the piper always has to be paid. Sleep scientists have coined the term “sleep debt” for the accumulated exhaustion that comes from consistently depriving yourself of sleep. And the physiological and emotional effects can be severe.
So as a society, we need more sleep. But we also need more play. Play promotes creativity, imagination, and sense of freedom. As we get older, we tend to drift away from play and gravitate towards structure, scheduling, and rigidity. We feel a nagging need to always be doing something productive or something on our to-do list. Many adults impose this belief on their over-scheduled children. A benefit of play, is that we are doing it for the sake of doing it, not for the outcome. This carries over from childhood because as kids we intuitively understand the process, not the product, is what matters most.
As a parent myself, I allow plenty of space for my children to play. No electronics, nothing scheduled, and minimal direction. “What should we do?” one of them asked when we first started. My standard answer? “Whatever you want!”
Give yourself permission to play around once in a while. Tap into that younger self, the one who found joy just in the doing.