What’s the Secret Ingredient Behind your Best Work?

Jun 25, 2019

There’s something missing in our culture today. Something I witnessed growing up on a small Iowa family farm. Coming from a lineage of farmers, there is a distinct daily practice I remember my grandfathers using, a practice that had drifted to the wayside by the time my father was farming: noon-time rest.

After dinner, the meal we call lunch now, my grandfathers rested from their morning labor and recharged for what was yet to come between then and sundown. One grandfather would lay on the dining room floor, much to my delight, while I doctored him up with my nurse’s kit. My other grandfather rested comfortably in his well-worn red chair, hidden behind the pages of the daily news.

It was a time before the internet and cellphones, and I was too young enough to appreciate the practice for the value it afforded: renewal. My grandfathers knew this value; they understood that they needed rest before tackling the next half of their day.

By contrast to my grandfathers’ materials-based work that produced tangible results, my work, like the work of many of you, is knowledge-based, where the results are frequently intangible. Neither theirs nor ours is more valuable than the other, but both are exhausting in their own unique way. They are both work, sustained and challenging efforts toward a goal.

The difference between the work is time. In a bygone era, a day’s work was marked by the rising and setting of the sun. My grandfathers recognized the way to sustain their work. Their noon-time rest stems from an ancient tradition called the Sabbath, which literally means ‘To rest.’ Today, technology affords us the ability to work around the clock; the pace is constant and never-ending. There is no random rest.

Frantic and Frenzied

Adding to the pace and accessibility to our work is the fluidity—we multi-task and stretch ourselves to cover several things at one time. We’re pulled in many directions.

Our breadth of work and reliance on technology creates a constant source of interruptions. Our devices remind us with alerts that emanate at all hours, pulling us back to that project / client, etc. We react to each one, unable to ignore the impulse to check and respond.

Fractured and Fragmented

Layer these technology interruptions on top of typical interruptions that come in a day from people to random events of life, and we suddenly have broken concentration as the norm. These disruptions to our concentration require more energy to overcome—finding our place, recalling a thought, or finishing work are stuttered bursts of energy that tax a person faster than they think.

The result is a fractured sense of work, accomplishment, and completion. Piecemeal completion of work never gives us a chance to feel fulfilled by an outcome or see progress as a linear motion upward. It is fragmented into just an overall sense of work-to-do and lack of time to do it all.

Regain Composure Through Rest

Without rest and recovery, we face a human energy crisis. People are more exhausted and distracted than ever. Modern studies show that, compared to roughly 20 years ago, people are twice as likely to report they are always exhausted due to work.

Rest is one step in a cycle of intensive effort and reluctant recovery. Rest yields insight and creative breakthroughs, something we need more to keep our competitive edge in a world of constant change. Rest is when the brain incubates and evaluates the ideas it generates by way of deep work, a type of work that author Cal Newport defines as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task, that in turn, allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.

The rewards of rest are great in the workplace. Studies show that workers who have the chance to get away mentally, experience downtime, and devote their energies to other things they value are more productive, have better attitudes, get along better with their colleagues, and are better able to deal with challenges at work.

Rest is not a luxury; it is a necessity. A necessity that some of the world’s greatest leaders recognized for the part it played in producing their best work: Abraham Lincoln, Jane Goodall, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Dwight Eisenhower understood rest as not merely taking a break, but about renewing, replenishing and restoring.

Still relevant today, rest is vital for people in leadership positions. They have people who depend upon them for clear-eyed vision. A type of vision that can only come from engaging in deep work.