Doing Less is the Smartest Thing You Can Do

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on

Entrepreneurs work ruthlessly—by choice. Even I, as someone dedicated to health and wellness for decades, have broken the balance rule and worked straight through the night, through weekends, through vacation. (And ironically, I write this to you from a very short but much needed break in in South Beach.)

I choose to do what I do because it thrills and fulfills me, never mind the typical motivators of financial gain, acknowledgement, power, desire for control. And I know tons of entrepreneurs who similarly get a rush out of the above-average pace, the nonstop nature of what we do.

Which is why Tony Schwartz’s much-shared piece in the NYT a few weeks ago (“Relax! You’ll Be More Productive”), struck a chord. We all need to be reminded that less is more, and that our health and our businesses depend on it.

Schwartz not only writes about the improved performance of employees who take more vacation, as seen in their higher  year-end performance ratings, but also writes about several recent studies, that make the connection that sleeping too little — defined as less than six hours each night — was one of the best predictors of on-the-job burn-out. A recent Harvard study estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity. In the stress management product I have been building for  several years now we see similar correlations between sleep and connection to work, motivation and depression.

Though we should take the red flags of diminished productivity seriously and stop when we feel exhausted, anxious, worried, tapped, we quite often do the opposite, which explains, as Schwartz cites, that “a recent survey by Harris Interactive found that Americans left an average of 9.2 vacation days unused in 2012 — up from 6.2 days in 2011.” An estimated one million workers miss work each day because of stress, costing companies an estimated $602 per employee per year and absenteeism is to blame for 26 percent of health-related lost productivity in business, according to Health Advocate, Inc.

Seeing as how I’m on vacation, I found this part to be particularly compelling.

The 90-Minute Rule

Schwarz also points to some research at Florida State University which points to the importance of rest and recovery in maximizing productivity: “Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players.

“To maximize gains from long-term practice,” Dr. Ericsson concluded, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

Bottom Line: Our bodies and minds work cyclically, moving from alert to tired about every 90 minutes. Yet instead of taking a break, or changing up what we’re doing–going for a walk, interacting with people–we reach for sugar, caffeine, and other unsustainable energy sources to push us through the rough patch, resulting in higher stress levels and eventually burnout.

I grew up surrounded by entrepreneurs in the restaurant business, a 24/7 affair even before technology made so many of us always open for business. My brother, often works 6 days a week and I can’t remember the last time he had a vacation.

But every morning he makes a point of spending a few hours outside around his home walking, running, sitting in the sun and enjoying the solitude. It’s part of his day, and while it’s not “vacation,” it keeps him charged. I don’t even know that he thinks about it that much. His perspective is, I do this every day and then I work. For him, normal life and vacation cease to function as the two binary options for how he spends his time. Because he has found a way to get the benefits of a little vacation every day, he’s not caught between the competing pressures of rest and effort.

I think many of us actually have these habits, but let’s make them rituals of renewal and spread some awareness. The ten sacred minutes by yourself with your coffee in the morning before the day starts. A brief, brisk walk in the middle of the day. Maybe an hour in your week (or your day) when you log out of email and give your work undivided attention.

Better yet, make it a standard for your company. Encourage employees to take frequent breaks and renew themselves—you’ll get a more calm, focused team as a result. Maybe there’s a log-out hour in the mornings where employees can make headway before the onslaught of emails begins.   People can’t change by themselves—the norms are too great. As leaders we have the opportunity to give people the tools to be able to change.  We won’t make it if we don’t change the way we work.   When we manage the relationship between working and renewing we’ll be more sustainable and likely more efficient.