Leadership Perspectives

Downtime is essential for leadership effectiveness

May 7, 2012

jerry - Olympic PennSome of a leader’s best thinking and learning occurs in that space in-between when all is still.  It’s known as the creative pause, a term probably coined by the best-selling author Edward de Bono, and it refers to the increasingly rare downtime that leaders have to rest and to quietly reflect.

Between the ultra-connected world that we live in, demands created by the current economy, and an often misguided work ethic, many leaders have lost touch with what it means to have true downtime.  Some carry as a badge of honor, the number of days, or even weeks, of vacation time that they lost in a given year due to non-use.  Many just don’t understand how important structured and real time off is to leadership productivity and effectiveness.

Benefits of structured time off.  A study conducted by Leslie Perlow of Harvard University demonstrated that structured time off was beneficial to individuals and organizations in a number of ways.  We all know how personally beneficial a vacation is and how refreshed we are when we return to work.  Perlow’s study, which mandated that participants take extra time off, showed that not only did work product and client satisfaction NOT suffer, but that the firm benefited from the conversations that took place around how to make the extra time off work.  Apparently, the added engagement around the work process was beneficial in itself.

To their detriment, Leaders are uber-connected.  For the typical leader, true downtime – time when we can be completely disconnected and “off” – is increasingly rare.  Many leaders feel compelled – or are pressured – to be accessible at all times.  Technology has not been our friend in this regard; spaces that used to be sacrosanct, are no longer so.  In our uber-connected world, we simply cannot hide.  Even when we are not working, we are constantly “on” and monitoring our technology.  In this sense, many leaders are never “off.”

Obstacle to learning.  This constantly plugged-in state is stressful.  It deprives us of the rest we need to really rejuvenate and it impedes our learning.  The New York Times reported on the ill effects of all this hyper-connectivity in an article entitled “Digital devices deprive brain of needed downtime.”  The author cited a University of California study that demonstrated with rats the necessity of taking breaks in order to inculcate new learning.  This reinforced what we already know from human studies about the role that sleep has in processing new learning.  The researchers believed that downtime was essential to allow the brain to review and solidify long term learning.

Taxing to the brain.  Some leaders claim to use digital devices such as iPods or game apps to unwind (sort of a micro-vacation), but another study cited in the NYTimes article, this time at the University of Michigan, led researchers to conclude that technological stimulation appears to “overtax” the brain and that we’d be better off with a walk in the woods.

Sounds good to me.

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