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Rest within reach: new rules for work

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

I set up my out-of-office responses and closed my laptop. I hid my work apps on a distant third screen on my phone, turned off all notifications, and told my capable team the conditions under which they should call or text me. I would be away from work for three weeks, time I had set aside because I knew I needed more than my standard few days off. I was tired to the bone, as my grandma used to say.

During those weeks, I rested. I did some writing. I caught myself up on doctor’s appointments I had missed over the year. I visited family. I went on a mini-trip with a few good friends I had lost touch with. I cleaned out closets, took my kids to the park, and tried new recipes. I took naps. I did not check email or voicemail or touch one single work-related project. Then, a few days before I was to return to the day job, I asked myself a question:

What about the way I’ve been working has put me in a position to need this much time off in order to really rest?

That question led me to others, and eventually to a few critical insights:

The habits I built during the COVID crisis were not sustainable. I had gotten involved in an overwhelming amount of day-to-day operational details, habitually working longer than 40-hour weeks heavy in long meetings while attempting to maintain my focus on all my regular executive work. I stayed in email and texts all day so I could respond quickly to everything that came in. These behaviors helped get us through the hard parts, but I kept them up well past their effective date.

My satisfaction and effectiveness had waned as a result. My presence during meetings waivered. My preparation was sub-optimal. My focus was waning, even on things that interested me. I wasn’t going as deep as I usually did. The work where I add the most value and that I enjoy the most had been back-burnered and the impact hit my workplace and my heart.

My mindset about rest was not helping: I thought of it as an episodic event, the opposite of work, something reserved for nighttime, weekends, and vacations.

After we tell ourselves the truth about the mess we are in and how we contribute to it, we land on a powerful question:

What can I do about it?

>>>I could choose to believe that I could rest even while I worked.

>>>I could think of rest as more than an episodic thing that happens at night or on a vacation, but as a gift I could give myself whenever I needed it.

>>>I could build new habits that respected the limits I have as a human being who is also a CEO, mother, wife, daughter, and friend.

>>>I could give myself some boundaries that would help me stay sane and healthy and connected to what mattered most.

These things seemed worth a try, so I wrote some new rules. I like to approach change as an experiment. I wanted to make new rules, then live by them long enough to test some of my fears. Would the sky fall if I was less available? Would my team lose their way? Would I be less productive?

Here were the rules I made:

First, I limited the number of hours I would spend in meetings each day. This ensured I was in meetings that really benefitted from my presence, and that I was focused, engaged, and prepared every time.

Second, I limited the number of hours I was “on”, ensuring that I had quiet time at the beginning and end of each work day to focus on my priorities, and to do the researching, insight-building, connection-making, wondering parts of my job that are more important than you might think. This includes taking regular breaks each day. On some days, it even means taking naps (GASP).

Third, I limited email to only a couple of views per day. I left the notifications off as they had been during my vacation. This meant my priorities were set by me, not my inbox, and my focus was not distracted by the next bell that rang on my laptop.

Finally, I committed to focusing the time I had to more of the work that I love, work that energizes me, and that helps my company in unique ways that I had missed during COVID.

I started practicing my new rules immediately, and after a few weeks, once I knew that they would stick, I shared them with my team. My new habits would affect them - it would mean potentially longer wait times for responses, or that I'd delegate some of my former meeting commitment to them, or that there would be times I'd be unavailable. How'd they respond? No. Big. Deal. Some of them decided to try their own version of the rules. Some of them were already working that way.

These things I was white-knuckling pre-vacation, expectations I had of myself to be everywhere and everything and do it all quickly, were not expectations others had of me. In fact, my new pace would positively affect my team. When the CEO chills the intensity, there's a domino effect that others experience. What I thought might be a burden to them was actually a gift.

One of the most interesting things I learned in that experiment came about a month after I adopted the rules. We make rules to serve us, not the other way around, which means that we have to know when it's OK to bend or break them. A circumstance came up that required immediate attention and demanded availability and focus beyond the limits I had set for myself. For two days, I lived and worked outside of those lines. It was the right thing to do to make sure things turned out well for a critical issue.

Then: when I returned home that second day, I could feel it. I could tell. My body and mind were saying: "let's not keep that up, OK? Go back to the new rules tomorrow."

It reminded me of when I change an eating habit, like when I stopped eating beef and pork several years ago. My body got used to not eating it, and felt much better as a result. Then, when I was served a dish made from beef stock, I had an immediate reaction, my body letting me know this was not something we needed to do again.

Building new rules and habits helped me two ways: In the short-term, day-to-day, it has meant that I am more well-rested in general. I don't go into weekends or nights totally spent because I am pacing myself better all day, every day. The quality of my work has improved. And: it has helped me re-set more quickly when I need to, providing this protective mechanism that will help keep me on track for the long-haul. Before my rules, I didn't notice if I overdid it because overdoing it was the norm.

What about you? How do you define and think about rest? How well is that mindset helping you personally and professionally?

What new limits could you experiment with today? What would happen if you turned email notifications off for a few hours each day? How might your productivity shift if you blocked an hour each day to focus - no meetings, no calls? What part of your habits could benefit from a reset?

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