Giving yourself a break is not slack, it increases your productivity

When did you last give you permission for a break? What impact did it have on your productivity?

Everything has been written about productivity, and about leaders burning themselves out videoconferencing 12 hours a day. Yet, I meet more and more of those leaders, desperate to make more time to care for their teams, anxious to keep the business going, who cannot find the time for a break anymore.

Instead of writing an umpteenth list of smart productivity tips to lead in Covid times, I’d like to share a story that has moved me. Because “Joe” is a real person, and because his suffering resonates with the suffering of many leaders I have met lately. Thank you Joe for allowing me to share your story, and thank you Sophie and Katja for training me into becoming a better story teller. 

A caring leader

Joe is a leader you can count on. Not only you, but his teammates, his clients, his bosses, his colleagues all across the organisation. Oh, and his family, his band, his friends, his neighbours, not mentioning the beneficiaries of the charity he volunteers for. Joe cares, Joe is present, Joe is helpful. Nobody can ever get enough of him.

Covid enables and requires new forms of productivity

Covid and full-time homeworking have made Joe even more aware that he needs to reach out, listen to weak signals, take care of the people he works and lives with. That makes a lot of calls to make to keep in touch with everyone. Covid and full-time homeworking have also made business more difficult and his bosses manage their anxiety by organising always more video conferences. Joe’s boss needs him to spend more time strategising.

Always eager to improve, Joe makes a list of all the things he can do to set aside more time for strategic thinking. He invests in his team to increase their level of autonomy. He makes sure that the time he spends with them is uplifting and rewarding, before jumping on the next business review where he will sit still for 2 hours and 45 minutes and speak for 15 minutes, or 10, or 5. His weeks are packed with back-to-back video calls from 8 am to 8 pm.

Work-life balance you said ?   

Just like all of us, Joe misses his team, his gang, the afterwork drinks and the Sunday barbecues. But above all, he misses the plane trips during which he had no choice but to disconnect for a few hours. He misses his weekends, which have become the only moment when he can prepare the next PowerPoint presentations, answer his emails, do his admin. He hardly sees his family although they now live 24 / 7 under the same roof. 

Ring any bells?

When was  your last break? 

Friday, 2 pm. Coaching time. Joe’s sharp on time, delighted to make two hours for this conversation, he says with a worn-out smile. As we check in, I start feeling dosy. Why on earth is it so difficult to keep my eyes open? I struggle and wrestle against that sneaky sleepiness: I try to sit straighter, to open my eyes wider. I even try to stretch discreetly, in vain. No other way out than to be honest about it.

Sorry Joe, I’m feeling really sleepy. I don’t mean to be rude or anything…

– I can see that, he smiles exhaustingly.

– I’m wondering, is it just me or are you feeling something similar?

– Gosh no, it’s not just you! I am knacked too!

– Tell me Joe, when did you last take a break?

– …

– …

– I’m in back-to-back meetings since 8:30 this morning. And I have 3 more after we’re done.

– Have you had any lunch?

– Kinda, but no break. I have just grabbed some bread and cheese in the fridge a few minutes before signing in for our session. It’s been like that for almost a year now, you know…

– How about we both take 15 minutes now?

– Seriously?

– Your brain is not functioning anymore. If you agree that this coaching is about helping you strategise more, I seriously suggest you give your brain some air NOW. Leave your phone on your desk, grab your coat and go out. See you in 15.

 

Exploring the risks of change

When we resume, Joe looks in much better shape. He’s feeling a lot better too. “Incredible how these 15 minutes have reenergised me, he says. Thank you for giving me that permission”.

– What would it take to give yourself permission?

– Oh well you know how corporate life’s like…

– What could happen if you gave yourself permission?

– My boss would go bonkers. And he would probably take revenge by making me stay later, or giving me more work. Forget it.

– OK, how about your other meetings?

– … With my peers, it would be really awkward. None of them does this. Everybody’s in a productivity contest these days.

– Up to a point when overused productivity kills actual productivity…

 

 Taking a few steps towards real productivity

– With my team tough, it could work well. Actually, they’d love it and I’m sure we would achieve more in 45 energised minutes than in 60 exhausted ones.

– …

– And when I think of it, I could introduce an hourly break with the cross functional meetings I’m running bimonthly. I’m the project lead, after all. The way these calls are run is down to me as long as the goals are met. And I can see value in offering tactical breaks to shorten unnecessary discussions.

– Now that’s strategizing! What else?

– You know what, I have noticed that more and more of my colleagues turn their video off when attending the business reviews. That’s a way to give oneself a break, isn’t it?

– Do you feel like doing it?

– … To be honest, I don’t… Here’s a better idea. This week, we had a meeting that was much more efficient than usual because my boss had a short deadline. I feel OK to draw inspiration from that meeting to suggest an alternative agenda for the next one. There might be no breaks, but I think I can get buy-in for shorter waiting lines.

– Anything else?

– No, that was a productive session, thanks!