The importance of being idle
A view from Anna Vogt

The importance of being idle

Rest and recovery are proven to be key factors in gaining a competitive edge.

Coming back from a two-week hiatus over Christmas is always a tale of two halves. On the one hand, you feel refreshed and revitalised after two weeks of empty inboxes and zero FOMO, as the whole nation downs tools. On the other, the next break feels – and usually is – miles off.

So, what better time to talk about the strategic importance and merits of rest, and why we shouldn’t leave it too long before the next time out? Because the truth is, accomplishing all of your goals this year could in fact happen by doing a little less.

If you want to stop reading to implement this advice right now, take Barack Obama’s book recommendation from his 2019 reading list on your way. How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell will stand you in good stead.

But, for the rest of you, make this the year you give your downtime some serious priority.

Not because it’s an end in itself. But because rest and recovery are proven to be key factors in gaining a competitive edge and restoking that fire in our bellies. For this very reason, Arianna Huffington has done us all a solid and rebranded the old-fashioned term "vacation" into the much more progressive and 21st century-proof "thrive time". But if you need more convincing, here it goes.

Proven many times over, athletes seem to have cracked the golden ratio of work and rest: three weeks of hard, intensive training to one week of restorative exercise. This recovery period is sacred, not to be sacrificed at any cost. It’s their competitive advantage – both physical and mental. Having training sessions without a purposeful effort component helps them deactivate so that they can reactivate.

Yeah, yeah. Most of us aren’t athletes. What of it?

But the same holds true for us office Olympians too. The principal of recovery lies in the change in pace. Switching gears up and down rewires your brain and resets your body. Ever heard of the saying "a change is as good as a rest"? That’s why.

But, in our case, we don’t change enough or rest enough.

On average, one in three Britons don’t take their full holiday allowance. Our only breaktime tends to be for lunch, and when we lunch we only allow ourselves 16 minutes.

How are we supposed to perform if we are so busy working hard?

Author Tim Kreider put it well: "Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice, it’s as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… It is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done."

So those progressive companies that offer unlimited holiday (Netflix, LinkedIn, Eventbrite) aren’t just being super-generous. They know that these downtimes are vital to running a workforce with a competitive edge.

So what can we do to improve our recovery strategy for 2020?

The good news is that rest doesn’t only happen during long vacations. Although these are also vital. Remember, the key is to keep switching up the pace. And this can happen just as effectively on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. Here are a few pointers to shaking things up.

Time management

For those preferring a more scientific approach to rest, here is some interval training to get you going.

The Pomodoro technique: Nothing to do with tomatoes! Twenty-five minutes of working to five minutes' rest, in 90-minute work blocks. It’s effective because it works with your body’s natural rhythms. Research shows that performers practised in no more than 90-minute intervals.

The 52-17 method: Work for 52 minutes, break for 17 minutes. Proven to be the most effective. 

Ringfencing occasions

Dedicating certain activities or times to recovery is another way to ensure you are getting the rest and distance you need.

Phil Libin, chief executive of Evernote, never works when he flies. Instead, he consciously uses that time to watch movies, read books, play video games and allow himself to daydream.

Sir Richard Branson swears by taking all of his holiday allowance. He pointed out: "When you go on vacation, your routine is interrupted. Freed from daily stresses of my working life, I find that I am more likely to have new insights into old problems and other flashes of inspiration."

Overcoming guilt

It all makes perfect sense. Yet a survey conducted by Staples last year suggested that the main reason we don’t take all of our time off or even breaks within a day is because of feelings of guilt and being judged by others.

So I’d like to end on a call for solidarity. Support yourself and your team in resting and recovering. Whether it’s respecting time off, non-working days, work-free travel or some mindless web surfing at 3pm. Recognise that stepping away is just as hard and purposeful as leaning in.

Let this be the year we all learn that doing a little less actually gets us a little bit further.

Anna Vogt is chief strategy officer at TBWA\London