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My battle with rest

I’m 37 years old. A professional. Lucky enough to be trusted as an advisor to leaders around Europe… but all that said, I have absolutely no clue what good quality rest looks like.


The Problem

I feel stupid. Like “sick to my stomach – how could this happen? – you’re such an effin’ idiot” level of stupid.

I’m in a conversation with my (quite brilliant) coach and she’s just helped me realise that…

‘I’m 37 years old. A professional. Lucky enough to be trusted as an advisor to leaders around Europe… but all that said, I have absolutely no clue what good quality rest looks like.’

‘What on earth?!’

Being the great conversation partner she is, Grace brings me round from self-directed frustration.

“I don’t think it’s just you, Sean. Leaders everywhere are frazzled and – ironically – finding that resting well is hard work!”.

Eh?!? Rest = hard work?!

Well yes, because lifestyles being as they are – unstructured, digital and demand led – it takes an extra-intentional effort to accept our limits, turn off and stay sane.

The Cost

So there’s some real science as to why we’re frazzled. And not only why we’re frazzled, but also why it can be so hard to find a way out, yet completely crucial to find that way given the costs at stake.

Neuro-science (which let’s remember is only about 30 years old as a proper discipline) is telling us from MRi scans that the frontal lobe – the bit of our brain the gives us our best thinking – is particularly susceptible to cognitive fatigue. And at the same time for most people in the Western world it is also completely overloaded with inputs.

I’ve found Daniel Kahneman’s book – Thinking Fast & Slow – really helpful here in understanding what’s known as “decision fatigue”. Knowledge workers like you and me spend out days making hundreds, sometimes thousands of decisions – large and small. It explains why at the end of a day where we’ve bounced from meeting to meeting, given directions to team members, negotiated deals, created content, managed clients, developed solutions and sifted through a small mountain of email and online communications, we can end up utterly exhausted. And all that despite sometimes not feeling like we’ve really achieved much!

Anyway, the real problem is the long term accumulation of said fatigue. Because we simply get used to it.

In my case, I accept the ache as normal. I keep producing amidst a mental fog that slowly seems to get more dense. And it’s all because I don’t esteem the idea of rest.

I keep telling myself a story that “Well, if clients and the team are delighted and value seems to be flowing all over the place then things must be ok, right? Just keep going”.

But deep down I know (and mostly avoid) three nagging realities…

i) Even though the recipients of what I do are happy, I secretly know quality of my work could and should be better. And better wont come from simply working harder.

ii) Just keeping pushing isn’t going to be sustainable for the long term. What’s the point of succeeding this year and failing over ten?

iii) My family and friends deserve more. It’s not ok for me to consistently be a bit of a zombie in the evenings and at weekends because I engineer the week to be so draining.

My (work-in-progress) solution

So what to do? There must be a seven-step process right? A killer insight? A perfect strategy? “Well, No” Grace reminds me. “It’s much more organic and personal than that.”

F***** hell.

Now one thing you need to realise about me is I’m paid to be a strategist and shaper. Someone who figures out solutions to complex problems. Which makes me feel worse because – given what I do – “Surely I should surely be able to figure this out, right?!”

There’s a perfect plan out there, an elegant strategy I’ve not found yet just waiting to be diaried and executed.

“How’s that working out for you?” I hear.


“Rather than plan your way through it, why not just step back and observe. Notice what your mind and body do naturally when you find yourself genuinely resting. Then look to do more of that.”

Looking back I appreciate this as a brilliant example of solution focused coaching (a topic for another time).

“Just notice the patterns, allow them to gradually expand and give more space for them to emerge.”

So, after a few months here’s what I’ve noticed most…

Going from 5th gear to 1st gear doesn’t work.

After long slog of a project a few years back my wife and I flew straight to Cyprus for a week to sit by a pool, slowly bake, read, drink mojitos and talk about what’s next.

It was a disaster. I felt even more exhausted at the end than I did at the beginning. And I think it was because we just stopped dead and the gap between frenetic activity and sun-drenched nothingness was just too wide for body and brain to adjust well. At least for me… Helen had a great time!

Last month we did ten days in Malaysia after a similarly brutal period of delivery. This time though, we planned for the first three days to be city-break in Singapore, before spending a week on a beach in Penang. Because there was a ‘3rd gear’ bit of activity as a step down from the insanity of what came before, the actual rest when I got to it was MUCH more effective for me.

Nap. As much as you can. Regardless of what we all think.

It’s unfortunate that – despite all the scientific evidence and business rationale for doing it – it’s still completely socially unacceptable to allow (never mind encourage!) napping during work time in most of western culture.

However, those of us with a greater degree of control over our workspaces and calendars should absolutely take a half hour nap after lunch, which I manage to do at least twice a week.

Da Vinci, Einstein, Edison, John F Kennedy, Churchill, Maggie (love or loathe her politics but admire her productivity!) all produced an awesome amount of world-beating stuff and were prolific nappers. Read more (and build a business case in your brain) herehere and here. To get started on proper power-napping (yes there’s more to it than just closing your eyes!) there’s a great post on how to do it well by Health Ambition here.

Embrace unstructured / dead space.

When a pipe is clogged it needs to be emptied for flow to be restored. Your cognitive bank has to abide by the laws of physics.

I’m a creative at heart, so pointless and meandering times of writing, drawing, photography, cooking, reading and walking are crucial in both recharging and deepening the well from which decent ideas can be drawn.

Declare device free days

I’m slowly getting better at having Sunday’s be a real sabbath. For millenia, the majority of human societies and tribes have embraced structured rhythms of life, respecting seasons and patterns across the weeks, months and years. I don’t know what makes us (ed – me!) so arrogant to think that that we can be so unstructured in our time and just keep running with no times / seasons being deliberately made different.

So in line with embracing dead space HAS to be a commitment to a device free day. Pencils, pondering and people. No pixels.

The meta point

There’s a bigger point here that I’m learning about the need to acknowledge that we all have limits and we have a duty to be kind to ourselves when we meet them.

It’s so tempting (to me at least; you might be much more disciplined) to keep going and ride the dopamine wave of another email sent, another proposal written, another client helped, another problem solved.

But that wave has to level, and rather than let it crash through ego and ignorance, far better to progressively get better at bringing it down intentionally.

Maybe I need to notice more.