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Why Is Everyone So Busy? 'Time Poverty' and Ways You Can Fight It

03/05/2015 01:06 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2015
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Last year when I added up the days and half-days, I took about four weeks of vacation. Shocking, I know. It seems luxuriously European. Americans tend to take only 16 days off a year, according to a study by Oxford Economics, while our counterparts in France, Denmark and Spain take an average of 30 annual vacation days.

But that time off is what helps give me my competitive edge, and what vaults my whole team ahead.

Too often, we're plagued by "time poverty" -- the idea that there's not enough time to do all the work we need to do. Especially in high-earning professions, time is money. The more money we make, the more valuable our time, the more time we devote to work to earn more. With that logic, work breaks become money-losers.

"More people at the top are trading leisure for work because the gains of working -- and the costs of shirking -- are higher than ever before," notes an Economist article about "time poverty" published in December.

The problem is, we stress out, and we burn out. But research is increasingly finding that the cure for "time poverty" isn't more time -- it's better using the time we have.

Sitting at a desk and plugging away for long hours has increasingly diminishing returns. The longer you work without a break, the more you struggle to complete tasks, the less creative you'll be and, ultimately, the less time you have.

In fact, according to an article in Entrepreneur magazine last year, resting and rejuvenating allows you to be more productive in less time.

One solution is to allow employees to take off time when they need it -- not when the company dictates they take time. This means actually being willing to trust your employees. As it turns out, people tend to be pretty honest, and don't take advantage of such systems.

Netflix is a perfect example. They were one of the first startups to embrace "take what you need" vacation and personal day policies. As reported in Harvard Business Review, they found that employees' common sense worked better than formal policies most of the time.

But it's really up to the manager to encourage time off, and to lead by example. Here's what I do: In our all hands meetings, we don't just talk about vacations -- I have my team share their holiday photos, and the best picture wins a prize. I make sure my team knows that I take vacations, that I drive on school field trips, that I volunteer at my son's school every other Friday morning and that I go to lunchtime yoga on Tuesdays (when I'm not traveling).

I've given my staff running shoes, and I'm contemplating fitness trackers next, and putting us all in a group online so we can remind each other to take the breaks we need. And I tell my team that time-off is the "special sauce" that keeps us creative, innovative and cutting edge.

If changing course for your whole team seems daunting, start with the most important person -- you. Just like the flight attendants say, put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others, secure your own time to recharge, and then tackle the corporate culture.

  • Start viewing downtime as crucial. It's as important to your job as working hours. Tell yourself, "I have to unplug from work, it's part of my job."
  • Find a passion. Learn an instrument, take a social sabbatical, start foreign language classes, go for a run every day. Do something that recharges your batteries away from a computer screen.
  • Power down. It's essential to connect with family and friends who can recharge you. Around the dinner table at my house, one of my four kids will announce "Phone pile!" and we'll make a little face-down, powered-off electronic device pyramid in the middle of the table. This is a visual reminder to be present in these precious, fleeting family moments.
  • Make your downtime count. Flopping on the couch to channel-surf isn't it. Actually taking a vacation, going for a walk, or even sitting outside on a bench on a sunny day, your smartphone left behind, can give your brain a break.

I admit it's not easy sometimes. I am naturally a perpetual do-er, so I can get impatient and restless. I forget to relax, and catch myself weighing multitasking options (can I watch CNN, listen to a book on tape and run on the treadmill at the same time?). But I know I need to log-off -- not just for my sake, but for the sake of my team and my business.

So what's the first step you're going to take to recharge, and what is an immediate benefit you can envision?