Why CEOs Need Downtime For Peak Performance


Being a CEO means making an endless series of tradeoffs.

One exchange that leaders inevitably make is trading off their downtime for additional hours on the grind. This exchange starts off as mutually beneficial, with both the CEO and company growing faster the more hours that are devoted to the relationships.

Most expect there to be a linear relationship between the grind and success: more hours leading to better returns.

In reality, the short-term relationship between effort and success is a V-shaped curve.

All of us have a breaking point after which each additional hour makes us worse off than we would have been by dropping the pen. That we all need a break makes intuitive sense, and yet leaders often have a particularly difficult time allowing themselves the downtime. What’s worse, most CEOs and founders I’ve talked to have confessed to feelings of guilt and remorse after taking time to themselves, fearing that each hour not spent on the company is an hour away from its success. As the V-shaped curve tells us, the notion that leaders are either contributing to the company or stealing time from it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Whether we look at studies on learning to play the piano or how athletes reach peak performance, deliberate periods of rest interwoven across a consistent effort to excel is what propels individuals to greatness.

The idea growth trajectory for a leader is more of a terraced hilltop than a hockey stick, tracing out a line of sustained growth broken by plateaus dedicated to rest and recovery.

If the field of leadership studies is to learn only one thing from pro-athletes it’s that we should take recovery as seriously as the act of performing itself.

How Recovery Sets You Up For Success

To truly benefit from rest you must first understand that you’re not just slacking off; you’re investing in your own ability to perform even better once you return to the fray. Being a professional leader is no different than being a professional athlete when it comes to recovery, and you need to begin by committing to the act of doing nothing productive as deeply as you commit to the grind when you’re on the clock.

Knowing that you are in great company in your idleness will help fend off the sense of anxiety and existential dread that often nags at high-performing individuals on their off days.

Bill Gates is famous for his ‘think weeks ’spent in a cabin in the woods far away from technology and the daily grind. Albert Einstein’s love for sailing influenced his groundbreaking accomplishments in physics, and the idea of Harry Potter came to J.K. Rowling during an uneventful train ride to London. While we’re at it, the whole of Finland is technically off from midsummer to early August.

The right approach to idleness is to think of it as regular maintenance; an act of self-care that keeps you on a growth trajectory when consumed at the right time and in the right proportions.

It’s important to remember that recovery has a ramp-up time as well. You can make time for recovery, but you can’t schedule it to start at a given time.

If you’re looking for Bill-Gates-like results, half-days off or a dinner on a Friday aren’t going to cut it. Instead, aim for at least 2-3 days of dull detachment bookended by administratively unencumbered days of leisure to allow you to ramp up to recovery and to land softly back into the grind.

Some of us might benefit from outsourcing the arrangements to make sure we stick to the program, which has given rise to an executive retreat industry that is ready to serve leaders looking to recover optimally.

Recovering Optimally By Getting Out There

One of the most profound ways to reset and recover is through a digital detox. Disconnecting from technology, even for a short period, allows leaders to break free from the constant barrage of emails, messages, and notifications that steadily chip away at your ability to sustain growth.

Retreats rooted in nature can be transformative,” Kirk Reynolds, CEO of Wilder Retreats, explained during our recent discussion on how CEOs get their teams to take their minds off work by busying themselves in other ways.

When you’ve been indoors in the same setting, staring at a problem, getting outside opens your mind, and recharges your creativity,” Kirk added as our chat dug deeper into the importance of physical contexts in guiding and constraining our thinking.

In addition to fully packaged adventures, there’s no shortage of options for leaders who are looking for help in optimizing their recovery without throwing their digital devices away.

Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman notoriously explored the limits of the human psyche at Big Sur’s Esalen Institute, and the Rockefeller Foundation is famous for its convening program at the Bellagio Center which has given birth to the Gavi, the Global Impact Investing Network among many other impacts.

Richard Branson is another example of CEOs committing to active recovery with a variety of retreats and other leadership development events hosted at his private Necker Island and a whole business dedicated to retreats with Virgin Limited Edition.

If getting out there isn’t financially or logistically feasible, there’s always the option of simply being more mindful about rest and recovery whenever and wherever you can. Mindfulness practices, such as those facilitated by apps like Headspace or Calm, can be enough to help leaders declutter their minds and gear up for their next stage of growth.

Whatever option you go for getting serious about performance means being serious about recovering, and there’s no better time to get started than the holidays up ahead.


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