I know what you must have thought after having read the title of this article: “A bit of downtime would be nice, but I’ve got a business to run. It’s just not possible.”
I understand. I have had plenty of vacations with my smartphone pinging away at me from the plastic drinks table next to the sun lounger. I am well aware of just how hard it can be to get quality time away from your own business.
Which is why I am not going to state the obvious and suggest a vacation. Rather, the type of “mental escapes” we are talking about here can be as short as an hour (or even less), yet still give you a chance to properly disconnect.
And it’s important to understand that your company’s performance may truly suffer if you do not learn how to disconnect, because productivity is indeed affected quite considerably if we are working long hours without mixing things up. According to a 2014 study published by Stanford University, once we cross the 50-hour working week threshold, output levels on average start to drop off, hitting extreme low levels at the 70-hour plus range.
Another study published by the Department of Psychology at the University of Konstanz looked at what happens when workers are unable to psychologically detach from the office during down time. Aside from emotional exhaustion, participants also exhibited physical ailments including headaches and digestive issues.
Now none of this is to suggest you cannot work long hours. You will likely have to do so in the earlier days of your business, and many very successful entrepreneurs I know keep up those long hours throughout their entire careers. But I am suggesting that if you do not know how to detach, you should put a serious effort into learning how, because you may in fact be selling yourself short on the overall business performance front.
Once we cross the 50-hour working week threshold, output levels on average start to drop off, hitting extreme low levels at the 70-hour plus range.
So how to do so? In this article I present four ways. And I ask you not to be cynical as you read them. If you don’t like any of these methods, no problem. But then search out methods you will like. Try different things. Because once you realise how to truly mentally detach from your business at will, things will get better for you and your company financials.
1. Get a hobby
I know, I know, this one is almost a cliche. But while the word may conjure up visions of you in a retirement home completing a 2000 piece jigsaw, the reality is that a hobby can be absolutely anything. And to me the true definition of a hobby is something you literally just can’t wait to do. It’s that enjoyable for you. It’s that interesting to you. And in so being a “true pursuit”, it allows you to fully turn off, because while you are doing it you are not really thinking anymore, you are “just doing”. It is the ultimate distraction from work, naturally forcing you to forget about all other things.
Researchers at San Francisco State University looked into just how much of an impact an enjoyable hobby can have on our work performance, with the results showing that up to 30% of workers with a creative hobby performed better at work and reported greater feelings of “control and mastery.”
But to be clear, the trick is to find something you really love. You have to search this out. Whether it’s amateur astronomy, surfing, cooking, boxing, magic, painting – you name it – if you don’t love it, it will only be more work.
2. Sensory deprivation
If you’re the type that tucks your phone into your gym sock, or if you just can’t resist sending that “quick email” as you make your way around the golf course, then there’s only one thing for you: complete sensory deprivation. It’s a practice that’s gaining popularity right here in the UAE, where an overworked and highly stressed population is increasingly looking to find ways to switch off.
While it can take different forms, the concept behind it is the “deliberate reduction or removal of stimuli from one or more of the senses”. Think of it as meditation on steroids. On the more basic side it could simply involve covering your eyes with a blindfold and throwing on a pair of earmuffs. On the more extreme side it incorporates complex devices such as a floating tank, whereby you are placed in a tank filled with water, earplugs are inserted, and you float on the water with no sound, no visuals (it’s pitch black in the room), no smells, no touch – just you and your thoughts.
The science behind it all is worth a closer look. For starters, once the body gets used to the lack of sensory input, the brain’s stress sensors relax, releasing less cortisol (the stress hormone) and lowering overall stress levels. In fact, many believe that one hour spent floating is equivalent to up to six hours of sleep. And there is also its effect on brain power, with a study out of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada revealing that one hour of flotation can have a positive impact on cognitive ability, particularly with respect to creative output.
Food for thought, no doubt. I think I might just try it.
3. Self-imposed timelines
This one is not so much of an escape activity as it is a self order to call it quits at a specific time or for a specific period of time. Because if there is one thing every overly-driven entrepreneur can relate to, it’s getting “stuck in the task”. And this can actually get quite awful at times as you find yourself pushing yourself more and more to get things done – and in the process testing your sanity limits.
Although very easy to set up, it requires a genuine discipline to make it work. It’s about stepping away from the task, the routine, the office, etc. at set times. After all, it’s all too easy for a 6pm finish to slip to 7pm, 8pm – even 10pm and beyond – if all you are thinking about is the completion of the work or how much more you can get done. And let’s face it, for many entrepreneurs, there is no end to the work in their minds. That is, there is always something new to take on in that quest to build and build.
There are different ways to do this. You could, for example, set hard and fast start and end times that you at least stick to most of the time. Or – my favourite – you can work with a timer, setting limits for how long you will work in any one stretch (for example, a maximum of 90 minutes in one go) before simply getting up and walking away (ideally out of the office) for what is also a fixed period of say 15 or 20 minutes.
Just know this: The hardest thing for most entrepreneurs to do is to walk away in the middle of something. But because the driven entrepreneur’s goal is to keep building and building, he or she is always in the middle of something. So if self-imposed timelines are the only way to break away, then do it, because it is essential for your health and the health of your business.
4. Do something extreme
I admit, throwing yourself out of a plane or allowing yourself to fall backwards off a high bridge may not seem like the most obvious way to escape the stresses of working life, but in actual fact there is nothing like an extreme sport to completely “reboot” the mind.
Extreme sports are an incredible outlet for the pent-up emotions and pressures that the entrepreneur accumulates throughout the working week. In the moment, taking part in these activities helps to shake off those nagging thoughts that are normally carried from the office into our downtime. And for those who practice them regularly, simply knowing there is this outlet often means the everyday trials and tribulations of the business world tend to be less of a bother.
There is also this: Those skills developed on the extreme sports playing field can be naturally applied to the business world. For example, the endurance and overall discipline required will help with mental toughness, and the capacity for split-second decision making is certainly a valuable leadership trait.
Now clearly this is not for everyone. Indeed, it’s for a very small percentage of you out there. But it’s worth noting that if you do decide to take it up, you will find yourself in the company of a few famous entrepreneurs who have in the past also ventured into the extreme, including Richard Branson (skydiving) and Larry Ellison (extreme mountain biking – with the injuries to prove it).
If not for you, then for your business (though it really should be for you)
As difficult as it may be for you hardcore entrepreneur workaholics to switch off, you must learn it. Because whether we like it or not, the brain – just like the rest of our vital organs – has its limits. Think about it: Whenever you overwork your body through physical exercise, you get tired, right? And how is this solved? By taking a rest, catching your breath, and allowing your body to recuperate.
The same is required for a tired brain. And if you ignore it and just keep powering ahead, the task at hand will not be managed as well as it should be, and the overall strategic direction of your business will be negatively impacted due to you not being able to see the forest from the trees with the necessary clarity.
Stepping away from your business and truly switching off the entrepreneurial mind is not easy. Even if you can leave your work stresses at the office door, that guilty feeling that all entrepreneurs feel – that too much time off the clock is time wasted – starts to creep in before you know it. However, this is a mindset that can change once you start to understand just how much of a benefit downtime can have on both your health and the health of your business.
Neil Petch; Chairman at Virtugroup
With a history of business successes, Neil Petch is well known in the UAE and beyond as a visionary entrepreneur with a passion for helping others establish and grow their own businesses. Neil founded Virtuzone in 2009 and quickly established it as the region’s leading company formation expert, before launching Virtugroup, a holding company that has a wider mandate of supporting startups from establishment; to successful market entry; and all the way through to exit.