September 9, 2013
The Power Of Stepping Back

I am the chief executive of my company, with responsibility for 30 people in the United States and another two offices overseas. As part of my vacation last month, I took two weeks when I was completely offline and didn’t check in to my office at all.

Was this a wise move? Was it responsible?

First, the practical issues. My out-of-office message directed people to reach others in my office if they needed something urgently. My colleagues knew how to reach me if necessary. I also trusted them to take care of issues that might arise. I also knew that they’d contact me if there was something they thought demanded my attention.

I was feeling tired and overloaded when I left for vacation in early August. I looked forward to relaxing and being with my family, but I equally craved time for quiet reflection. Thinking creatively, strategically and long term is a crucial part of any leader’s job, and I felt frustrated trying to make that happen amid the phone calls, e-mail, texts, meetings and the slew of questions and issues that come up over the course of a working day.

My brain had just gotten too crowded. With so much external distraction and so many issues competing for my attention, I was only able to give small amounts to any one. To make deeper and more meaningful connections between the disparate ideas in my head, I needed to free up both time and internal space.

That isn’t easy, as you surely know. The pull of digital life makes it as addictive as any drug. Truly disconnecting from e-mail, FacebookTwitterInstagram, Pinterest or whatever your latest fixes may be is nearly impossible for most of us to contemplate. I solved the problem simply: when my wife and I went to visit our daughter and her husband in Amsterdam, I didn’t bring my laptop and I didn’t activate my phone.

We hung out together, biked, walked and lingered in restaurants. But I also took a couple of hours for myself in the afternoons. I sat down with a journal and a pen, and free-associated. At first, it was just a jumble of thoughts about the new direction I believe our company needed to take. As the days went on, though, the thoughts began to sort themselves out, and clarify and cohere.

Time without interruptions and imminent deadlines was an incredible luxury. I didn’t feel rushed to arrive at conclusions or solutions. I could pursue an idea or a direction without worrying about its immediate utility. It allowed me to take a much more long-range view. But along the way, I found myself musing on a range of other concerns.

For a decade now, for example, I’ve been trying to define what our company does in a simple, accessible way. I never came up with a description I found satisfying. But one afternoon, my mind unexpectedly wandered down that path. Literally five minutes (and 10 years) later, I had this sentence:

“We help organizations create workplaces that are healthier, happier, more focused, more purposeful and higher performing, by better meeting the needs of their employees — physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.”

As I struggled with how our company could better serve its mission, I spent a lot of time thinking about what people needed if they were to thrive. It dawned on me that most of us assume we’ve reached maturity — adulthood — around the time we joined the working world.

But the fact is that we have vast potential to expand not just our range of skills over the course of a lifetime, but also to deepen our self-awareness, relax our self-absorption, widen our circle of care and lengthen our perspective. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be writing about why such growth is so critical for the next generation of leaders.

I returned to the office this week feeling re-energized and inspired by the opportunity to reflect, read and relax.

A couple of significant client issues had arisen in my absence, but they didn’t require my involvement.

The most common reason many of us feel compelled to answer e-mail constantly is that we are addicted to feeling connected. And by the end of two weeks, I couldn’t resist checking e-mail any longer, even knowing that if anything critical arose, my office would find me.

What I know now is that nothing terrible would have happened if I had stayed off longer. Many of us want to believe we’re more indispensable than we really are.

When I did go back online, there were a couple hundred e-mails I had to respond to, but I just sat down in a couple of focused 90- minute sessions and dealt with them. If I’d been answering them throughout my time away, I’d never have been able to do the sort of thinking I did.

It’s not possible to race between meetings and e-mail all day long, and simultaneously reflect on what all this frenzied activity is accomplishing. We can’t think outside the box when we’re simply running around inside it. It doesn’t make sense to do more and more, faster and faster, if we’re not stopping intermittently to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing.

I’ve already introduced two experiments in my company this week.

The first is to offer all of our employees the opportunity to take time away from the office, simply for reflection. All I ask is that they come back afterward and share with their colleagues, in some form, whatever insights they’ve had.

The second is to introduce two 15-minute periods a day during which people are invited to come into our conference room and sit quietly, in meditation, or simply reflecting — one at the start of the day, the second at midafternoon.

I’m convinced that we’ll derive more value from these periods of “not doing” than from simply trying to get as much done as possible. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.

Reprinted from The New York Times DealBook

Tony Schwartz
Tony Schwartz is the founder and CEO of The Energy Project and bestselling author of The Way We're Working Isn't Working, published in 2010. A frequent keynote speaker, Tony has also trained and coached CEOs and senior leaders at organizations including Apple, Google, Sony, the LAPD, and the Cleveland Clinic.

Other Articles by Tony Schwartz:

The Rhythm Of Great Performance

Rules For Prioritizing Amidst Demand

What Makes Employee Resilience Possible

What Women Need At Work To Give Their All

The N.F.L. As A Toxic Workplace

The Magic Of Feeling Safe At Work

Your Boss’s Work-Life Balance Matters As Much As Your Own

The Power Of Meeting Your Employees’ Needs

Why You Hate Work

How To Help Your Employees Love Work

  • Emily Perry

    A great article Tony and something I advocate strongly within Purple Cubed. As a leader it’s your responsibility to take time out to think – you need to remain balanced at all times and be able to drive the organisation forward. If you’re mind is cluttered and confused you’re unable to do this. As we know behaviour breeds behaviour and this is not something you want to replicate. Therefore I applaud the initiatives you’ve implemented within your company upon returning and I too believe you will see the benefits of creating this ‘thinking time’ within all individuals, no matter what rung of the career ladder you are on. Thank you for sharing. Emily Perry – Head of Commercial Development, Purple Cubed

  • Tajinder Pal Singh Dhuria

    I had a similar experience last month. Though I am not CEO (yet!) but my job is very demanding due to nature of the business. I went to a remote area in north Wales which was miles away from any mobile network. First day I was panicking as an addict without addiction, but in couple of days I calmed my self and started enjoying the countryside. Lots of time of reflection and thinking long term both personally and professionally. Best impact was that when I came back after almost 10 days away from the office I was more productive and clear about the objectives.
    Everyone should give it a go and I plan to take breaks like that at lease once a year!

  • Debbie Ruston

    Great points in the article Tony. A sign of great leadership is
    recognizing the power of downtime like this, knowing that the people
    left in charge are fully capable. Very often people feel overwhelmed
    coming back because of all the catch up they have. I have found it
    helpful to book 1 extra day on return from an extended holiday to do all
    the catch up, so the first day “back” you can jump in refreshed, caught
    up and ready to go.