To Perform At Your Best, Rest More

Feel like you’re walking through molasses every day? Most leaders I work with struggle to be productive. Some even say that they, or their organizations, are at 60-80% of “normal.” The reasons are obvious—Zoom fatigue, simultaneous work and parenting, social isolation, increased anxiety, and all the other covid-related stressors.

One thing that can help is getting more rest. But that’s not intuitively obvious. With no commute, no rushing from meeting to meeting, you might think, “All I’m doing is sitting here at my computer all day. Why would I need more rest?”  Or worse, “I’m so unproductive right now, I need to push harder and longer to catch up. I don’t deserve a break.”

Guess what? We need rest now more than ever.

I recently found inspiration about rest in an unlikely place: a virtuoso musician with a habit of taking breaks. Classical guitarist Andres Segovia is known for raising the profile of the guitar from a lesser known instrument to a mainstay of great concert halls. To achieve this, he had what on the surface seems like a grueling practice regimen of 10 hours a day.

A closer look reveals that his practice hours were filled with rest periods. Segovia disciple Eric Henderson describes the master’s approach:

“Practice in sets of fifteen minutes, divided into two sets of seven to eight minutes with a short break between,” says Henderson.  “At the end of each fifteen minutes, take a three minute break, stand up, get a glass of water, stretch, etc. but be sure to take a moment to focus your eyes on something far away to relax your eyes from the close work of the page and the fretboard and to clear your mind.”

Segovia repeated this routine three times, for a total of about 45 minutes, then took a 15 minute break. Thus, each round of practice was an hour, including several breaks. He repeated this routine five times in the morning, and five more times in the afternoon. In the middle of the day—you guessed it—he took a relaxing lunch break.

While I now see the wisdom of the master’s approach, when I first heard about Segovia’s practice routine, my instinctive reaction was, “How lazy! How could he possibly take so many breaks?” His approach struck me as being too leisurely.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

My reaction was not that different from the mindset of many American leaders. At least unconsciously, they see breaks or rest of any kind as a form of weakness. Softness. A lack of true productivity and commitment. Segovia’s habits seem so…so “European.” The next thing you know, he’ll be taking six weeks of vacation! The truly productive leader is always on, always in execution mode, sleeping little, constantly getting things done, avoiding vacations.

I may be exaggerating, but not much. And when senior executives buy into this way of thinking, model it for their teams, expect it from their people, they create organizations that are designed for burnout. This mindset is misguided.

The solution is to schedule real breaks into your day. For example, schedule your meetings to be 25 or 50 minutes long so you have a gap between them. Get up and go outside. Walk around the block. Take some deep breaths. Add a lunch break to your calendar. Make it sacrosanct.

Schedule some phone calls every week to replace video meetings. Use those calls as an opportunity to go for a walk. Let the person you’re meeting with know what you are doing, and invite them to do the same.

Or, as one of my advisors does, if you feel stressed try just staring into space for two minutes. It really does make a difference.

A body of evidence on sleep–the ultimate form of rest–clearly shows that better sleep is linked to more effective leadership. Given that a lack of sleep is also associated with mental health issues like anxiety and depression, getting a good night’s sleep should be a top priority. If you like so many others have trouble sleeping, get Harvard Medical School’s Guide to a Good Night Sleep, or talk to your doctor. For a quick read, see our sleep blog.

Tony Schwartz has been writing for years about leadership peak performance. A big supporter of rest breaks–including naps–he also mentions another often overlooked truth about resting: you can get better at it. Here’s Tony:

“Along the way, I learned that it’s not how long, but how well you renew that matters most in terms of performance. Even renewal requires practice. The more rapidly and deeply I learned to quiet my mind and relax my body, the more restored I felt afterward.”

I imagine that after so many years of taking so many breaks, Segovia had become a master of recovery. It was his alternating between fully absorbed intensity of focus, and meaningful speedy recovery that helped propel him to world-class heights of artistry. Even at the age of 83 he was still practicing five hours a day, and yes, he was still taking breaks.

We are living, breathing human beings, not machines. And as living beings, we need periods of activity and periods of recovery. Just look at your cat; periods of activity are always balanced with long, luxurious naps. Even the rings on trees show us the same natural cycle.

To truly be our best, our most creative selves, and the best leader we can be, we have to take care of ourselves like the living creatures we are.