Mastering the Art of Recovery


This post is a section of our report, A Leader’s Guide to Well Being. For a copy of the whole report, email

Mastering the art of recovery

Most of us are struggling to be productive. The reasons are obvious—Zoom fatigue, simultaneous work and parenting, social isolation, increased anxiety, and all the other pandemic-related stressors. And that’s on top of the myriad pressures executives were already experiencing.

Getting more rest can help, but 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.”

In reality, the stresses of the pandemic have made rest more important, not less. And there are huge benefits in taking more time for rest and renewal: breaks, midday workouts, naps, more sleep, and vacations where you fully unplug. Consider:

  • An Ernest & Young study  found that each additional 10 hours of vacation yields an 8% improvement on year-end performance ratings
  • Daytime naps have been shown to increase vigilance, reaction time, and memory
  • Avoiding burnout was the top reason to travel in 2018 according to a U.S. Travel Association survey. Increasing focus was the second reason
  • A study published by Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that real, well-planned vacations result in lower stress and more work success
  • In another study published by HBR, 94% of respondents saw a significant effect on energy and outlook after a well-planned vacation
  • Only 60% of Americans use all their vacation days and most stay on work email during vacations

Moreover, high quality rest and renewal is something you can master–like tennis or the violin. Approach it that way and your down time will be more effective.

How leaders renew

Alternate fully absorbed work and deep rest. Work in focused blocks of 60-90 minutes, then take a short break. Studies of elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors, and chess players found that the best performers typically worked for no more than 90 minutes followed by a period of recovery.  And it’s the quality, not just the quantity, of the rest that matters. For inspiration read how Andres Segovia, the virtuoso guitarist, used to practice.

An Ernest & Young study found that each additional 10 hours of vacation yields an 8% improvement on year-end performance ratings

Shorten your meetings. Make your meetings 25 or 55 minutes long so you have a gap between them. Get up and go outside. Take some deep breaths. Also, match meeting duration to the work at hand. Do you really need an hour? Maybe 45 minutes is enough. Some meetings only warrant 15 minutes.

Take a real lunch break. Do you gulp down food in five minutes during a meeting? While efficient, a fast lunch doesn’t provide any recovery from a busy morning. Schedule 30 minutes for lunch, or, better yet, an hour. Protect the time.

Take naps. Naps? Really? Yes. In fact a midday nap even for 15 minutes can be extremely refreshing. During the lockdowns prompted by the pandemic, many working parents use every scrap of “break time” to interact with family. That’s good, but it’s not rest. Instead, climb into bed. Just be sure to set an alarm.

Exercise in the middle of the day. Tony Schwartz, a productivity guru, recommends midday workouts. Try one when you feel an afternoon slump coming on. Go for a walk or run. Can’t find time? Convert some 1:1s into “walking meetings” by phone or get a treadmill desk.

Eat smaller, more frequent meals. Want to be exhausted in the afternoon? Eat a huge lunch with lots of refined carbs. Otherwise, try frequent, small meals and snacks based on the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate–vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts and legumes, and lean meats. For some people, five or six small meals a day provides more consistent energy.

Fiercely protect evenings and weekends. Vacations shouldn’t be your only time to truly step away from work. Unplug from email for a time each day and every weekend. One leader we know bought a time-locked cookie jar and put his phone in it for family time.

Sleep more, even if that seems impossible. Whatever it takes, get more quality sleep. Set a consistent, early bedtime. Avoid alcohol and coffee late in the day. Hire more help at home. Delegate more at work. Learn new sleep habits–it’s a profound form of renewal.

Make the most of vacations. Plan your vacations well in advance–at least a month. This ensures the planning itself doesn’t become a last-minute stressor. It also puts a stake in the ground, helping prevent you from ditching vacation time when work heats up. If a big trip won’t work, go somewhere nearby, or try a “staycation.”

During vacation, shut off your email and truly unplug. Don’t check work email even once–it can rekindle work stress for hours, even days. Get a separate computer for personal use so you aren’t tempted. Delete the work email app from your phone; it’s easy to add back later.

Whatever you do, be proactive. Burnout doesn’t usually just go away without some kind of change.

What if I’m burned out?

If these suggestions don’t feel like enough, you might be experiencing burnout. If so, take it seriously. In 2019, the World Health Organization formally designated work-related burnout an occupational phenomenon. The Mayo Clinic defines it as: “a special type of work-related stress–a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” Consequences can include fatigue, insomnia, sadness, substance abuse, and increased vulnerability to all kinds of illness, including heart disease.

If you think you’re burned out, take a longer period of vacation than you ordinarily would: say, three or four weeks. During that time, unplug completely. Or take a longer leave of absence, planning the time for rejuvenation, like you would a good vacation. Don’t worry about others’ perceptions. One leader we worked with thought his six week leave would make him look ineffective, but it helped him regain his footing, and, more than a year later, he’s still highly regarded.

Finally, talk to your doctor. Your burnout symptoms could have a medical cause or a medical cure. Whatever you do, be proactive. Burnout doesn’t usually just go away without some kind of change.

Our favorite tips

  • Think of renewal as a collection of valuable skills to master over time
  • Work in focused 60-90 minute periods followed by a short rest
  • Take more breaks–naps, midday exercise, a walk around the block
  • When you’re off, unplug. Turn off devices and put them away. Buy a timer-based locking container for your phone. Disable email notifications. Get a separate, non-work computer
  • Ask your assistant to convert some 1:1 meetings each week into “walking meetings”
  • Leverage pre-sleep rituals and ensure a cool, quiet bedroom
  • Take your vacations and truly unplug. Plan them well ahead. Change scenery or go far away when you go on trips. This has shown to boost happiness levels, provided it’s well planned

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