Harvard Business Online

To Get More Done at Work, Slow Down


Posted on How We Work: August 18, 2009 11:21 AM

On a Friday afternoon almost twenty years ago, soon after I had started working at a New York consulting firm, I was working on an important presentation with Andy Geller, who ran the office. We'd promised to deliver it Monday morning, and we were running behind.

At 2 o'clock, Andy told me he had to leave.

"But we're not done," I stammered. Andy was not one to let work go unfinished and neither was I.

"I know," he said, looking at his watch, "But it's Shabbat in a few hours and I need to get home. I'll come back Saturday night. If you can make it too, we'll continue to work together then. Otherwise, do what you can the rest of today and I'll pick up where you left off tomorrow night." I decided to leave with him and we met again at 8 p.m. Saturday night. Refreshed and energetic we finished our work together in record time.

A little back-story: Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath and it starts at sundown on Friday and ends when it's dark Saturday night. The exact time changes depending on sundown—earlier in the winter, later in the summer. For observant Jews it's a rest day. No work, no travel, no computers or phones or TV. The way I heard it once, the idea is that for six days we exert our energy to change the world. On the seventh day the objective is simply to notice and enjoy the world exactly as it is without changing a thing.

Observant Jews spend Shabbat praying, eating, walking, and spending time with family and friends.

They're onto something.

This life is a marathon, not a sprint. Most of us don't go to work for 20 minutes a day, run as fast as we can, and then rest until the next race. We go to work early in the morning, run as fast as we can for 8, 10, 12 hours a day, then come home and run hard again with personal obligations and sometimes more work, before getting some sleep and doing it all over again.

That's why I'm such a fanatic about doing work you love. But even if you love it, that kind of schedule is deeply draining. Not an athlete in the world could sustain that schedule without rest. Most athletes have off-seasons.

So if we're running a daily marathon, it might help to learn something from people who train for marathons.

Like my friend Amanda, who recently told me she was training to run the New York City Marathon. She's never run anything before. I asked her how she planned to tackle this herculean feat with no experience.

"I'm just going to follow the plan," she said and later emailed it to me. Here's what I learned: if you want to run a marathon successfully without getting injured, spend four days a week doing short runs, one day a week running long and hard, and two days a week not running at all.

Now that seems like a pretty smart schedule to me if you want to do anything challenging and sustain it over a long period of time. A few moderate days, one hard day, and a day or two of complete rest.

But how many of us work nonstop, day after day, without a break? It might feel like we're making progress, but that schedule will lead to injury for sure.

And when we do take the time to rest, we discover all sorts of things that help us perform better when we're working. Inevitably my best ideas come to me when I get away from my computer and go for a walk or run or simply engage in a casual conversation with a friend.

There is a down side to rest days though, and it's serious enough that I believe it's the unconscious reason many of us resist taking them. They give you time to think. My friend Hillary recently broke her foot and was confined to bed rest for several weeks. "The cast gave me a timeout card which I never would have taken on my own," she told me, "and when I did slow down, I felt a deep sadness. I had nothing to distract me from the feeling that I had been living a life in which my needs were never a priority."

But while it was hard for her, it also gave her renewed energy to refocus on her priorities. When we rest, we emerge stronger. There's a method of long distance running that's becoming popular called the Run-Walk method; every few minutes of running is followed by a minute of walking. What's interesting is that people aren't just using this method to train, they're using it to race. And what's even more interesting is that they're beating their old run-the-entire-distance times.

Because slowing down, even for a few minutes here and there and even in the middle of a race, enables you to run faster and with better form. And, as a side benefit reported by Run-Walkers, it's a lot more fun.

Faster, better, more fun? The only downside is time to think? You don't have to believe in God to realize that a day of rest is a good idea. But you do have to be religious about it.
Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults about how to lead and how to live. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and advises CEOs and their leadership teams. He is the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.

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