5 Surprising lessons I learned from 20 years of taking summers off.

If you’d rather listen than read, go to Sound Insight, episode 9.

5 Surprising lessons from 20 years of taking summers off at CathyJacob.com

I’m breaking the rules.

Despite countless articles, webinars and podcasts that advise me to publish frequently and consistently, I’m taking an extended summer break.

It’s a risk. I could lose subscribers and listeners. If I’m not serving my clients, I don’t get paid. If I’m not on social media regularly, people stop paying attention.

This is not the first time I’ve taken this kind of risk. I’ve been taking unpaid summer sabbaticals since the late 1990s. Many times, I’ve been warned I will lose clients, or my career prospects will suffer. There were often financial pressures to keep working.

I have no regrets.

In that time, I’ve started three successful business ventures and applied the two-month annual sabbatical to all three. I’ve gained far more than I’ve lost from this two-decade experiment, and it has kept me deeply engaged and loving my work.

I know I’m very fortunate to have the autonomy over my work and my time to take this pause every summer. But you don’t need to take your summers off to benefit from these 5 surprising lessons I’ve learned from this practice.

1. There’s a fundamental flaw in how we think about work-life balance.

Consider the language we use to talk about taking a break.

We describe it as time off, down-time, off the grid, unplugged. As if we are stepping into a kind of void where nothing of value happens. Our thinking about rest and leisure is another relic of our work addicted way of operating in the world. It’s only valuable if it enables us to keep on working.

For many, leisure is like this black hole – lost time, even wasted time; time spent in an exhausted stupor at the end of a long week. Leisure is defined as “not work.”

But leisure is about more than not working. It has a purpose beyond recovery.

Leisure has value for its own sake. It’s about replenishing, savoring, connecting with loved ones and relishing the experience of life.

2. We are happier and healthier when we respect our natural rhythms.

A balanced life is not the careful allocation of equal time between work and some nebulous thing called life. Or jamming as much variety as possible into your day. Balance is the art of living life in a way that respects our natural rhythms.

We are seasonal creatures, and we live on a seasonal planet. We have circadian rhythms and even, ultradian rhythms – times during the day when our energy is high and low. Times when we are alert and focused and times when our attention seems to float and drift.

But rather than accept and honor these rhythms, we fight them. We try to overcome them – go faster, push harder. Yet our bodies and minds are not built to be chained to a desk, peering motionless into a screen for hours on end. We need to sleep, work, rest, eat, move, and play.

Leisure and work are mutually sustaining systems.

The greatest gift of autonomy over how I spend my time has been learning about my own rhythms. Training myself to use the times when I am most alert and focused to do my most challenging work. Paying attention to when my body needs to move and be active and when it needs to rest.

I learned these things the hard way, by pushing myself to exhaustion and burnout. It took a lot of failure to finally learn how to work with these rhythms in a way that is sustainable and fulfilling.

3. We get more done when we take time to rest.

The most common complaint, by far, that I hear from leaders and professionals is that they don’t have time to think or get their most important work done. Their calendars are jammed with meetings and obligations, many of them unproductive and stressful. They spend hours wading through emails, the vast majority of which are either junk or not important. Their devices constantly beep, buzz and ring, distracting their focus.

At the end of a day of this, they feel exhausted, depleted, and unproductive.

Research over the last three decades into the work habits of accomplished artists, scientists, and other professionals has uncovered that most of us are capable of only three to four focused, highly productive hours of work per day.

Setting aside time for undistracted and challenging work – what author, Cal Newport calls Deep Work – at a time in the day when you are most alert and focused, supports you to think clearly and make better decisions. When you combine intense periods of focused effort with periods of rest, you produce more – up to a point. After about four hours you become fatigued and the quality of your focus degrades.

A little over three years ago, I decided to test these findings in my own life. I had long been frustrated by my inability to make time for writing. My weeks were full of transactional busywork, emails, meetings, appointments, and other obligations. I relegated writing to whenever I could squeeze it in. As a result, it either didn’t happen or I was trying to write when I was fatigued, and my mind was easily distracted.

I redesigned my schedule in alternating weeks – one week I set aside mornings for writing and moved my meetings, client sessions, and transactional duties into the afternoons. The following week, I devoted full days to writing.

I got two big surprises from this experiment.

  1. I learned how much of the transactional, mundane work I could actually cut. I did this by asking myself, “is my involvement in this really adding value?” I also learned that by scheduling the more transactional tasks into compressed timeframes when my energy and focus were lower, I became more efficient at triaging those things that really mattered and letting go of those that didn’t.
  2. The even more surprising discovery was that I did not produce any more on the weeks I devoted full days to writing than on the weeks I wrote only in the mornings. Overall, the quality and volume of my writing rose dramatically, but it was all accomplished in under four hours a day. Spending more time than that, was usually a waste of effort.

Your work may not involve writing every day, but it likely does involve tasks and projects that are challenging and demand focused time and tasks that are more mindless and transactional. Being mindful of doing your most challenging work when you have the most energy and focus, not only improves the quality and quantity of your work, but can free up time for more leisure.

4. There is more than one kind of exhaustion and many flavors of recovery.

In her Ted Talk, The 7 Types of Rest that Every Person Needs, Dr. Saundra Daulton-Smith explores the ways we can become depleted beyond the physical including mental, sensory, creative, emotional, social and spiritual fatigue. That is why leisure needs to come in more than one flavor.

In his book, Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang shares examples from science, art, writing and business on the ways leisure fuels great achievement and a more meaningful life. For example:

  • British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill doggedly insisted on a daily afternoon nap even while the Germans were bombing London in World War II.
  • Nobel Prize winning geneticist Barbara McClintock had her greatest discoveries while taking long walks and intentionally used them to activate her unconscious, “in the service of scientific discovery.”
  • Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates took mini sabbaticals he called “Think Weeks” to explore new technologies or think through new directions for the organization.
  • Austrian graphic designer, Stefan Sagmeister, in 2001, closed his business for a year, risking losing his famous clients to take a sabbatical. He found the benefits to his well-being and to the health and profitability of his business so profound, that he now does it every seven years.

Weaving these and other stories with advances in the study of neuroscience, Pang presents a convincing argument for the essential role a varied and rich leisure life plays in creativity, innovation, and overall performance. He shares compelling research on the surprising benefits to the brain of leisure pursuits such as sleep, naps, walks, play, and sabbaticals.

5. Leisure is not a reward for hard work; it’s an essential part of a well-lived life.

Seeing leisure only in relation to how it fuels work, misses the most important point.

As I get older and look back on my life, my most important and pleasurable memories have nothing to do with my work, which is surprising to me given the central role that work continues to play in my life. The moments I remember and treasure most happened during times of leisure. Further, my best and most creative ideas and insights came to me not when I was working but when I was taking a break from work.

When you take the measure of your life, it is these spaces called rest that are the times that give it texture, meaning and joy.

Looking for more? Subscribe to The Slow Sip, my free monthly newsletter packed with articles, podcast episodes, practices and practical recommendations to help you transform your relationship to work and life.

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    Cathy Jacob

    I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

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