Quality downtime is the key to keeping your mind and body in peak shape and more resilient to adversity.
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In 2018, Megan Craig suffered a mild traumatic brain injury at an ice rink. A doctor told the associate professor of philosophy and art that to speed her recovery, she had to commit to three months of “brain rest.” That meant no reading, writing, screens or strenuous thinking.
If you’re feeling exhausted or overwhelmed as you read this, a few months of prescribed mental downtime might sound ideal – minus the brain injury, of course. But for many hard-driving entrepreneurs, this story strikes fear in their hearts. How could they continue to grind out those long, hyper-focused days?
It’s no secret that the startup culture glorifies the 24/7 hustle. We hear that to build resilience, we just need to work harder. We have to dig in and find those extra reserves – and sometimes that’s true. However, more often we build resilience by taking the time to fully recharge.
What is resilience and why does it matter?
According to the American Psychological Association, “resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”
When we’re resilient, we’re better equipped to handle the hailstorms that life sends our way. Resilience is important for everyone, but studies show that it’s essential for founders.
Recently, researchers from Smith School of Business at Queen’s University surveyed a group of first-time entrepreneurs just before they started their businesses, then followed them for two years after launch.
According to researchers Jana Raver and Ingrid Chadwick, the most resilient founders saw setbacks as puzzles they were equipped to solve. The pair referred to this attitude as a positive “challenge appraisal” mindset. When entrepreneurs combine this mindset with proactive behaviors, their odds of business survival increased by 129 percent.
Rest makes us more resilient
When I launched my company, JotForm in 2006, I worked around the clock doing everything from coding the web forms to answering support questions. I was obsessed with results and I thought constant work would get me further, faster.
Now, I view quality downtime as a measure of success. I spend at least a week every year picking olives with my family. I take real vacations and weekends off. And I want our 152 employees to do the same. Recovery is embedded in our company culture because I believe rest is an essential way to build resilience. Yet, we often misunderstand what resilience looks like.
In a 2016 story for Harvard Business Review, Michelle Gielan and Shawn Achor explain that we often see resilience and grit through a “tough” or militaristic lens. “We imagine a Marine slogging through the mud, a boxer going one more round or a football player picking himself up off the turf for one more play,” they write. “We believe that the longer we tough it out, the tougher we are and therefore the more successful we will be.”
However, success means balancing our passion for business with an equal measure of personal growth, learning and wellbeing. Not to mention that those militaristic metaphors represent stereotypical, “macho” versions of resilience.
“From a very early age, boys are indoctrinated with the athletic metaphor: You don’t give up,” says Susan Folkman, a retired professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told California Magazine. “You keep going after that success. You fight for it. You don’t take a second. You just fight harder.”
Additionally, “tough” behaviors don’t make room for the nuances of solving puzzles, uncovering creative solutions and working collaboratively. They can also make us sick and ineffective. Research shows a direct correlation between lack of recovery and a higher number of health and safety issues, while insomnia costs U.S. companies $63 billion a year in lost productivity. As Gielan and Achor write: “overwork and exhaustion are the opposite of resilience.”
Make space for intentional recovery
The answer to overwork is to approach rest with the same diligence we apply to our businesses. Time off doesn’t mean catching up on calls or emails. It’s not a chance to obsess about that tricky staffing problem, either. We need to give our minds a full break from the rigors of entrepreneurship.
At the same time, rest doesn’t mean lying in bed all day or binging on Netflix. As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes in his recent book, Rest, recovery isn’t the same as time off:
“We get the most from breaks when we do things that are relaxing, that let us experience control and mastery and that provide a sense of detachment from our working lives. Recovery is active, not passive and we can design it to get greater benefit.”
The APA also suggests that taking care of ourselves can build resilience. We need to pay attention to our own needs and feelings, while participating in activities that feel fun, energizing or relaxing. For example, I don’t love the gym, but I couldn’t lead a team on two continents and serve over 5 million users without my morning workout.
Build rest into every day
Humans aren’t built to work or think for hours without restorative breaks. Yes, we need to take vacations and put our phones down during personal time, but we also understand the demands of building a business. Boundaries do blur, so founders need to be even more careful about creating moments for recovery.
Set up automatic phone reminders to get up and take a break. Look away from your screen and daydream for a few minutes. Ideally, after every 90-minute block of focused work time, you should leave your desk. Don’t take your phone. Go for a walk, talk to your team or grab a cup of coffee.
If it feels indulgent, remember that growth requires a combination of two factors: stress and rest. “Studies show that both the body and the brain respond to stress by becoming stronger –– so long as the period of stress is followed by adequate rest and recovery,” writes health and performance coach Brad Stulberg, who has studied the world’s top achievers.
“When it seems like everyone around you is working endlessly, it’s easy to want to do the same,” says Stulberg. “But pushing too hard too often – stress without rest – doesn’t lead to growth. It leads to fatigue and burnout.”
Schedule and protect your downtime
Many people are more productive when every free moment is crammed with activities. But for entrepreneurs, our work is never objectively “done.” Even a friendly dinner can turn into a networking or pitching opportunity.
The antidote is to schedule your personal time and treat it like an investor or team meeting: a non-negotiable commitment. Spend time with friends and family members and try not to talk about business. Go for a hike, play a game with your kids or take a short road trip. Anything that allows you to disconnect from the challenges of entrepreneurship will fuel active, productive recovery.
Speaking of recovery, philosophy professor Megan Craig eventually recovered from her accident and gained a new perspective on how rest protects our most valuable resource.
“We have to attend to our bodies, to care for our fitness and psychosomatic health,” writes Craig. “But we also need to care for our brains. I wish someone had told me that long ago and that my education into philosophy included more common-sense doses of rest for the primary organ of my thinking.”
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