The Technology Loop and Fred’s Sanity
There’s a Portlandia episode in which the Fred is working at home, sitting at his dining room table with his laptop, tablet, and phone in front of him. He’s checking email, updating Facebook, reading Tweets (and whatever it is that comes through Tumblr: Tumbles?), and answering texts—all at once. He’s trying to keep up with the flood of all these constantly updating streams of digital demands on his attention. Bouncing from one device to the next at an increasing pace, we can see a panic rising in him. Eventually, in his frenetic state, he calls out to Carrie, his wife/girlfriend, to save him, to help him. She rushes into the room, and seeing that he’s caught in a “technology loop,” goes into action. She shoves in front of him a framed picture of himself when he was in high school—Fred, smiling and calm. “Fred! Look at this. It’s you, in high school, before the internet, before Facebook, before Tumblr, and email and Netflix. See how happy you were?” Fred, thinking back, calms down a bit and breathes. But only until the next “ding” of an arriving email, and then… (watch for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pe-zq4bFPFU).
I have mixed emotions watching this scene. Yeah, it’s very funny, but it’s also too familiar. That feeling of onslaught, of helplessness in the face of rising demands on my time and attention, is ever-present in our lives as busy professionals. Look around and notice—at least half of everyone we see in airports, at restaurants, on trains, is looking at a screen. It’s a common and banal lament these days, I know, but I’ll say it anyway: we’ve become addicted. We seem to not be able to help ourselves.
I’ll speak for myself: my own ego-anxiety that I won’t perform to the level required to meet the complexity of my work tempts me to stress and strive in a way that’s full of distraction and low-grade panic. I fear that I’ll miss something that will fall through the cracks and failure will result. Too often these days, I find that I’m like the newly proverbial ADD kid, flitting mentally from one brief focus to another, without much coherence or conscious awareness of intention.
The metaphor that captures the feeling of work/life of managers and leaders best is that “the bullet has left the gun, and we’re trying to outrun it (before it hits us in the back).” There is no rest, no recovery, and no useful reflection when we’re running that hard.
The consequences of this lack of mental coherence and focus concern me here. As leaders, we are making hugely consequential decisions affecting the lives of those in our organizations, and collaterally, the societies around these organizations; and we’re commonly doing that without the habits of rest and reflection so necessary for clear, focused decision making. We’re running willy-nilly from meeting to meeting without the time, inclination, or discipline to think deeply.
If you’ve been paying attention to what’s happening in and around you, I know that you get this. It’s right in front of us every day. ‘Nuff said.
Regular Doses of Rest & Recovery: It’s Better Than Cod Liver Oil
In the Buddhist community of Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, periodically rings a Mindfulness Bell. Upon hearing the bell, everyone stops, and takes three silent, mindful breaths. Then they are free to continue their work, awakened ever so slightly by the pause of mindfulness.1
Reversing the effects of the constant dissipation of our energy and attention as we react to the demands around us requires committed disciplines to build “oscillation” into our lives: a concrete back-and-forth between hard work and productive recovery.
Doing this is not rocket science, but requires a certain level of courage and commitment to take on. Creating disciplines of oscillation requires us to say no to some of the onslaught of demands (and thereby risk disappointing someone or missing some opportunity) in order to create space in our schedules for rest and recovery. And, as we begin to do so, the fear-based ego-assumptions about what’s at stake will surface to talk us out of it (there’s little space to take on that topic here; that’s for another article).
Oscillation between hard work and productive recovery
The back and forth between work and rest is built into the fabric of the natural life around us: we breathe in and breathe out; day turns into night and turns into day again; we work six days and rest one (or we used to); summer turns into fall and much of the natural world goes dormant in winter. The pattern is fractal—it repeats itself at different levels of scale, but it’s always the same: productive labor gives way to productive rest.
Our lives had been built around this rhythm for millennia…until the industrial revolution and the advent of modern production methods. As we adjusted to the pace and incessant demands of the three shift, machine-centric factory schedule, we moved into one of our final frontiers: the 24-hour work day. Jeremy Rifkin, in his well-researched book, Time Wars3, contends that by adapting our lives to fit the never-resting, never-slowing pace of our production schedules, we’re costing ourselves dearly in terms of physical health, increased health care costs, greater numbers of industrial accidents, and decreased emotional stability.4 We’re out of sync with our natural circadian rhythms, and it’s hurting our performance more than we realize. Our Promethean push to keep going no matter how tired, as if it were some kind of heroism, has pushed us to the edge.
My friend Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist, speaker and author, writing about neuroscience and the soul2, says: “If there is anything we are learning about the brain, it is that it flourishes far more easily when it gets plenty of rest. Americans on average get about 2 hours per night less sleep than we did one hundred years ago. Not that big a deal for one night. But for a week? A year? Over the course of our lives? Not to mention that sleep also serves the purpose of, among other things, providing our brains with the chance to clean up waste products it has accumulated during the day. When those waste products don’t get their proper disposal, we remember things less efficiently, we increase our risk of depression and anxiety, and new research indicates that we are more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease.”
We must learn how to rest again. Simple in concept, but emotionally challenging. Slowing down feels risky to me. It feels like playing hooky from school. It feels irresponsible. And the ease at which I can continue to plow through my work, even when that work is rendered less than productive due to exhaustion, is a vestige of my early days when I was more driven by the reactive “performance-to-self-worth” structure of my consciousness.
The five rhythms of rest and recovery
Recovery from the stresses and wearing-down of work is found in the disciplines and habits of oscillation between work and recovery. Work hard, recover well. Work hard, recover well. Over and over.
Five natural rhythms are built into our embodied life that can help us structure this oscillating behavior. Like the tides that incessantly flow in and out, if we can learn to work with them, we can gradually find our way back to a more ordered, less frantic way of being.
- Ultradian rhythms (many times a day): Research shows that when we take breaks every 90 minutes to breathe, move, or shift to another type of work (from emails to meetings to reading, etc.), our level of energy and focus remains steady throughout the day. This is in contrast to the common “hammering through” on one type of work for hours, the end of which is distraction and burnout.4
- Circadian or diurnal rhythms (about a day): Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep every night. Don’t skimp. Just because you may be used to getting less does not mean you’re “just wired differently.” Nope. You’re human, and you need that much sleep. Go to bed around the same time each night, turn off the screen-time two hours before bed, keep your bedroom cool and dark.
- Weekly rhythms: Take a day off each week. Truly stop working on your job tasks. In fact, do only what activities you find restorative. Do what you want to do, not what you have to do. Choose to abstain or fast from your normal work responsibilities.
- Monthly (lunar) rhythms: Take one day a month—during the work week, if your job allows for it—for thinking and reflection on the big picture. Retreat. Journal. Pray. Plan. Steven Covey coined this the Quadrant One day, for the quadrant of his model in which “Important, but not Urgent” responsibilities fell. Pay attention to those, and ask the big questions. Take time to listen for the answers.
- Annual rhythms: Just take your freakin’ vacation, will ya?! It’s remarkable how many of us professionals don’t take over half of our allotted paid vacation. Yes, I know it’s a bear getting ready for an upcoming vacation, and it’s even harder coming back from one to a pile of work. Do it anyway. You need it.
More than ever before, leaders need to be well rested. Only with rested brains and bodies can we think clearly, reflect wisely, and lead well. We’re no one’s heroes when we work incessantly, linking meetings together all day without a break to breathe. The wise have always invested time in thinking deeply. The wise have always read widely, listened closely, and considered things well. Doing this takes time and focused energy. And courage to risk letting some things fall through the cracks and disappointing somebody. Let’s take the risk to slow down, say no to “crazy-busy,” and recover the ability to think clearly. A lot is riding on it.
1Quoted from Wayne Muller’s confronting and hopeful book, “Sabbath: Finding rest, renewal, and delight in our busy lives.” (Bantam Books, New York, 1999)
2Curt Thompson, MD, “Anatomy of the soul: Surprising connections between neuroscience and spiritual practices that can transform your life and relationships.” (Tyndale House, 2010)
3Jeremy Rifkin, “Time wars: The primary conflict in human history.” (Touchstone, 1989)
4: “The Corporate Advantage.” Human Performance Institute, (HPI, Orlando FL, 2008)
5. Jim Loehr & Tony Swartz, “The Power of Full Engagement” (Free Press, New York, 2003)