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The Habits of Successful People: They Disengage to Renew

I just booked a flight for a vacation to Cancún, Mexico, and it got me pondering the relationship between work and rest in a startup.

One reason I’m building a startup is to gain control over many aspects of my life. I like to hack my productivity, and I’ve found I don’t necessarily thrive by following normal working hours or only working from an office.

If you’re working on a startup or have aspirations to create one, I’m guessing you can relate. By experimenting with these concepts, I’ve found I can get more done.

I find it particularly interesting to relate this to startups because there’s a lot of emphasis on crazy things like 18-hour days in startups.

Time, or energy?

Over the last few years, I’ve realized that while time is limited and in some ways determines how much I can get done, what really determines my productivity is what I do and how I feel in the time I have.

Energy plays a large factor in how we feel and how productive we are. I realized how important energy is in a book I read called The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz. The overall message of the book is:

“managing energy, not time, is the key to high performance and personal renewal”

In a similar way to the fact that you need renewal in order to grow muscles, we also need renewal in order to grow our capacity of mental energy. Here is how Loehr and Schwarz put it:

“Any form of stress that prompts discomfort has the potential to expand capacity – physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually – so long as it is followed by adequate recovery”

This idea that if we shift from trying to manage time to managing our energy we can achieve more and feel better while we do it has led to me doing quite a lot of experiments with my work and rest.

Experimenting with work and rest

I’ve tried many techniques to squeeze maximum productivity out of myself. When I embarked upon my first venture I was working very long hours, far beyond the point where my productivity dipped. This was a habit I carried over from university as a result of deadlines imposed at university.

One of my weaknesses is that I over-estimate how much I can get done in a period of time, so it is easy for me to go far beyond my optimal levels of energy. I came across a comment in an article on How To Stay Healthy While Hustlin’ A Startup, and it really rings true for me:

“Skipping sleep for a few extra hours of work destroyed my morale, creativity and attitude.”

A startup is chaotic enough, so does it make sense to put ourselves in such a state?

The idea of stopping or “disengaging” is something I’ve found to be very important. I try to a good amount of sleep and regularly go to the gym. I stop working when I feel I’ve gone beyond the point of my high productivity period.

Disengaging from your startup

Disengaging is probably one of the most challenging aspects of running a startup. Whatever I’m doing, I often find myself thinking about my startup. The thoughts can really affect productivity because you don’t get the renewal you need in order to return to the work with high levels of energy. I can’t put it better than Loehr and Schwarz:

“The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal”

The suggested way to improve our ability to “fully disengage” is by creating rituals. I have a ritual in the evening of going for a short walk and, upon returning, going straight to bed and reading a fiction book. It helps me disengage from the work I’ve done in the day and get the sleep I need to wake up refreshed and ready for the next exciting day.

I’ve realized over time that I feel the best when I have a balance of work and rest.

Although I’ve done a lot of traveling in the last few years, I’ve not had a true “switch off” vacation since I started Buffer 3.5 years ago—perhaps even since I started OnePage before that, 5 years ago.

The team is now an incredible 26 people, and they’re all super inspiring. We focus on balance and sustainability in the culture we’ve set up, and I think taking a break is probably one of the best things Leo and I could do right now. So I’ll be heading off in just a few weeks.

Have you thought about how your energy levels affect your productivity? Do you experiment with work and rest? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Robert Boyd

    Awesome post, Joel. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this.

    I just finished reading The Power of Full Engagement yesterday, and the gradual steps I’m taking to fully engage in whatever I’m doing (whether it’s work or rest) are already making a noticeable impact on my focus, productivity and overall happiness. Loehr and Schwarz are really onto something.

    That said, I was left wondering how to best integrate longer periods of rest and renewal into my life. Creating daily rituals that connect us to our core values makes a lot of sense to me, but taking a longer vacation seems a little more daunting. Like you, I haven’t taken a proper one in nearly 4 years. Especially as a co-founder and CEO, I imagine this will be even more challenging for you to fully disengage for a longer period of time, so I’d be really interested in hearing your thoughts on the experience.

  • Rebecca Straley

    I am in agreement this is an awesome post…and something I preach to those I work with!

    As creators – and those serving others we sometimes forget to serve ourselves…and if we are run down or stressed – are we really providing the level of service others need!

    I use to allow myself to stay up all night at least once in a week – to be creative – write and “finish” many projects! The problem is it destroyed the next day and held back the day after that…in addition, it was not healthy for my system to endure this unpredictable pattern.

    I find a three or four day vacation every three months revitalizes my productivity! With this schedule – my rest is never too far ahead. My problem seems to be my husband is either on a different pattern/cycle or does not yet know his pattern/cycle to re-energize himself. He can run down to the ground before realizing he is exhausted…

    Any suggestions when working as a team / marriage… how you get in sync?

  • I believe if people are starved of ideas their productivity fails. The daily grind, meeting deadlines, etc. are the types that choke freedom of mind. Meditation, vacation, get-togethers, getting to know strangers, etc. are the breaks that the mind needs to rejuvenate and perform better.

    Somewhat related to this, if I may add, I remember reading an article on a study some time back that found why poor people, led to existential fight, are prone to make bad decisions. Their mind is never free to look for new ideas.

  • Hanna Lisa Haferkamp

    Very interesting post, Joel. I always enjoy reading your articles – well written and good insights.

    I’ve never commented before, but this post resonated with me so much that I thought I’d share my experience. I’ve taken up a management position at a company undergoing a huge transformation process half a year ago and was lucky to be able to build a team up from 3 to 10 very quickly. I have a consulting background, so being responsible for a complete team for longer than a couple of months was something pretty new for me.

    One thing that I had not thought of before taking on that job is that I now have to manage both my own productivity and the productivity of my team. I try to encourage them to find out how, when and where they can work best – for me, it doesn’t matter if someone sits in a coffee shop, on the beach or in the office to write a blog post, as long as it gets done. In Germany, this attitude still seems to be rare and there’s not a lot of inspiration out there how to implement this. That’s one of the reasons I like your blogs – gives me good ideas how to help my team (and myself) get more productive.

    One final thought – I finished reading a good book quite a while ago that gives some good advice on rituals to implement. It’s called “Happier” by Tal Ben-Shahar and connects scientific studies on happiness with interesting examples and exercises. Maybe something interesting for you, if you haven’t already read it yet?

    Keep up the good work!

  • I totally find my productivity as well as my mood drop if I’ve been going at it for to long. It’s ironic, that working more may not be the pay off in the long run. Enjoy your Vacay Joel! I’m sure you deserve it!

  • Field of Success

    Thanks for sharing Joel. I love writing and reading on the topic of successful people

  • Isos M.

    Thank you for the share! Getting my morning start ;-) and desengaging right now.

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