FOUNDER FUEL: Let’s give rest and recovery a rebrand in your head…

As an entrepreneur there is always more that we could do. How many times can you hear yourself thinking “If I can just get this finished” or “I should just do this one last thing” at the end of your day or week? Maybe it’s the craving to achieve just a bit more and get that hit of dopamine for ticking something else off the list. Or perhaps it’s that misplaced sense of guilt that we should be ‘always on’ – trying harder, working longer. Either way, we never quite switch off to recover properly as founders and it’s stopping our brains working their magic.

Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of performance.

Jim Loehr, The Power of Full Engagement

The elephant in the room when we talk about recovery as founders, is that we fundamentally don’t really want to stop. We love the challenge, the pace, and the problem-solving. Any talk of recovery might mean we have to take our foot off the gas and stop driving forward the missions we are all so passionate about delivering. Rest is something we can put-off to a later time, and somewhere along the line rest and recovery also got labelled as lazy, or hard-wired to mean we’re not trying hard enough.

In short, recovery has a PR problem, but it is stealing performance from your future self.

Recover needs a rebrand

When we strip it back to the science, recovery is far from lazy – it sits at the very core of performance. Sustainable performance comes from proactively managing our energy from sprint to recovery and back again – just like an athlete.

We implicitly know we can’t sprint or lift weights all the time when it comes to physical performance, so why do we not give our mental and cognitive performance the same grace? Recovery needs a reframe and the science is here to help – it’s exactly why you have all your best ideas in the shower.

Your brain magically fixes things… if you’ll just let it

Not so long ago, it was thought the brain did little during periods of recovery – it was assumed that the brain was largely offline when not focused on a mental task. It wasn’t until the 1990s that this changed with the acknowledgement of the default mode network (DMN) – a complex circuit that stirs to life when we are daydreaming or at rest. 

As research now shows, the brain is anything but idle, purposeless or unproductive during rest. Downtime is in fact essential to mental processing – it is an opportunity for the brain to reflect, make sense of experiences learned and to process unresolved tensions and problems. This is why we have new ideas in the shower. This is why we solve problems when we walk to make a cuppa. This processing time is essential to both problem-solving and to achieving our highest levels of performance. And it’s magically working away in the background. So long as you build in a break. We’re not talking long breaks either – think micro-breaks in your day between tasks and a bit of proper downtime at the weekend.

Anyone can work their asses off, but it takes real courage to rest.

Matt Dixon, coach of world-champion triathletes

Further research suggests that the DMN is more active in especially creative people, and there’s also increasing evidence to show that our ability to learn actually occurs during this rest time, not during the task itself. All increasing the case for entrepreneurs to be taking downtime seriously.

Recovery moments is where all the magic happens. It is the counter to our fast-paced, pressure-filled days. And it is a counter that we need. Pushing too hard too often — stress without rest — doesn’t lead to growth. It leads to fatigue and burnout. By reframing the idea of recovery – banishing the idea it is anything like lazy – we can unlock growth, learning and add some much-needed credit to our energy reserves.

Practical steps our founders

For the holidays… Give yourself permission to be off. Really off. For those of you in retail and e-commerce, I appreciate your time may be capped, but for everyone else make the most of your free credits… We all know emails wind down, things quieten, and expectations lessen as everyone takes a collective sigh of relief. It’s the only time in the year that this happens, so make the most of it and be OFF. When that little neg-head voice goes “oh why don’t you just check your emails quickly” flick him/her off your shoulder and pick up a good book, go for a winter walk, or hunt down a classic Christmas movie instead. Your brain, and your business, will thank you for it in the New Year.

At the end of each week…. Choose a small activity to do at the weekend that you will do, for YOU. For you it might be exercise, for others it might be a walk in the park, playing outside with the kids, or dedicating an hour to consuming an episode of a favourite show. The truth is, what works for us is very personal, and may even change week to week, but what unites them all is the ability to completely switch off our brains from work. That’s when the brain can work its magic, letting you come back full strength on Monday morning.

Pepper your days with two-minute micro breaks to engage these magic ‘fixing’ capabilities of the brain every day. All we need to do is break up our fast-paced work focus with periods of micro-rest – make tea and let your mind wander, go for a walk at lunch, or do two minutes of focused breathing to top up your reserves through the day.

Final thought: Think purposeful recovery

All too often we can find ourselves in pretend recovery – like watching TV whilst still thinking through a problem or clearing our emails. This is literally the worst of both worlds – in fact it’s eating cognitive energy even more as you attempt to multitask. Resist the temptation, flick away any of those negative thoughts suggesting you should do just one more thing and surrender to your rewarding recovery time. That’s the only way we tap into the brain’s brilliant downtime software.

Just in case you need more convincing… It makes business sense too: In a 2017 experiment covered by the HBR, employees were forced to go on holiday and be completely offline (if they broke the rules they would not get paid for their holiday!). After the trial, managers rated employee productivity, creativity, and happiness before and after the forced holiday: Creativity surged 33%, happiness went up 25%, and productivity increased by 13%. 

Written by Christina Richardson, founder at weare3Sixty
Founder coach & trainer | Startup exec-team coach | FounderCircle® creator & head-coach. Passionate about sustainable founder performance, wellbeing and the leadership transition from founder to C-suite.

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