THE BLOG
09/16/2015 02:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Slowing Down to Speed Up -- How Successful Leaders Use Downtime to Enhance Creativity

I just returned from a needed vacation in one of my favorite parts of the US, surrounded by beautiful mountains of the west. While there, I became aware that I was far from alone among executives and business owners seeking solace through unplugging for a few days. In fact, by the sheer number of execs and entrepreneurs I met along the way and the discussions I had with them about why they were there, I felt a part of a growing trend of professionals looking for a new way to refresh, recharge, and access creativity off the grid.

After hiking to a beautiful waterfall one morning, I ran into a handful of working professionals and business owners doing the same who said they were taking time out not just to relax, but also to gain perspective on their daily tasks and responsibilities, both work and personal. Some shared with me that after spending much of the year tied to cell phones and meetings, they came to hike in the mountains, go fly fishing, try horseback riding, or just take in a new environment to help lead them back to a more balanced state in both work and life.

There's a good reason why leaders in every industry need to drop their usual agenda a few times a year. As humans, our tendency is to push ourselves to the finish line, beating ourselves up if we so much as pause in pursuit of our goals, which consequently depletes us of the energy we need to think creatively about the challenges we face at work and at home. This is not a good recipe for showing up as a centered leader for your organization or team.

2015-09-15-1442334246-3985471-photo3.JPGThe reason why pushing forward relentlessly is a bad idea comes down to science. Perpetual activity with no substantial break can cause an imbalance in the dopamine levels in your brain. Dopamine is a highly addictive, naturally produced brain chemical that provides a short-term sense of enjoyment, relaxation, or satisfaction. In order to get a hit of these good feelings, you might keep yourself constantly busy, speeding through decisions or projects, which can help you reach your goals more quickly but over time can create a vicious cycle of nonstop action. In the latter state, you might feel distracted and unfocused, and ultimately lose sight of your goals, priorities, and judgment, caring more about moving ahead than about where you are going. Think about people you know who have climbed the ladder and reached their destination--but then realized the ladder was leaning against the wrong wall.

What's needed as a contrast to all of this busyness is some downshifting, where you expand your awareness into other areas rather than constantly staying revved up and overly focused on your work goals. Whether you call it mindfulness or just think of it as taking time for yourself when you create a different, more centered perspective and healthy distraction in your life, serious downtime is essential for being an effective leader and bringing out the best in yourself and those around you. If you haven't taken a vacation in a while, ask yourself: are you choosing to keep yourself too busy? Next time you feel compelled to continue in constant motion, pause for a moment and contemplate what's keeping you so busy--and ask yourself if it is worth it. The pace, pressures, and external expectations may not change, but you can influence and manage how you deal with this reality.

If you are a busy leader or executive, I strongly encourage you to pull over and invest some quality time in yourself. Whether that takes the form of hiking in the splendor of the mountains, walking on the beach or your neighborhood, or simply looking out the window and taking in a beautiful view, there is great value in staying open and connecting with something outside of your day-to-day pressures. Think of it as slowing down to speed up. When you decrease your frenetic pace and connect with something larger than yourself for a while, you'll discover that when you return to your work, you'll be able to act from a clearer space that allows you to focus on the most significant goals in your career and life.

Finding ways to tap into this intimacy with yourself is the root to accessing compassion, centeredness, and creativity, which in turn enables you to tackle daily challenges and stresses with more fortitude and grace. By taking a self-imposed "time out," you'll realize that no matter what challenge or opportunity faces you in your daily life, most anything is possible.

I welcome your thoughts on the importance of slowing down to speed up and what you are or plan to do to be that creative and mindful leader!