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Different Types of Rest – Lessons from Vacation & Sickness


26May 2008

Well, I am just back from 2+ weeks on the road — some work related, and some family vacation. And I have been reflecting on different types of “rest” — which is a timely topic, given that most people had a holiday weekend (although I would bet, for many, it wasn’t necessarily restful), and others are looking forward to a summer vacation.

My vacation time included fighting sickness for a good part of it (starting with allergies / cold and turning into a sinus infection with sore throat, bronchial congestion and lots of coughing). And this combination of sickness and vacation led to my thinking about different kinds of rest we need and experience.

Obviously, on a daily level, we rest (or take breaks) as we go through the day and tire from our work and activities. Then at the end of the day, we rest, relax and eventually go to bed — where our night of sleep restores (hopefully) our physical, mental and emotional energy to tackle the tasks of the next day. We do this for five or six days and then have the weekend. And the weekend is supposedly designed to give us one or two days to rest and restore ourselves for the next week.

Unfortunately, many of us keep going at a fast pace (often doing “fun” things) that often wear us down. I am reminded of co-workers earlier in my life who would say they had to come back to work to recuperate from their weekend.

And then there are holidays and vacations. Holidays are typically celebrations that include family and friends, and can be fairly exhausting. Or they provide some extra time to get “caught up” on projects and tasks that we feel behind in.

Historically, for me, I have planned vacations at a full and fast pace — leave as soon as possible, return at the last moment possible and play hard in between. However, this left little margin for getting ready & packing, unpacking and doing laundry, and getting caught up on mail, email, etc. — which led to overload (not only for me, but more so for my wife). Fortunately, I have learned to back off of this some and leave some margin of time and energy on at least one end of the vacation.

What was interesting to me this vacation was the different experience I had as a result of being sick for part of my vacation. Typically, on vacation I let my mind “breathe” — I get away from work tasks, try not to think about work much, don’t do work-related reading, etc. and let my mind freewheel a bit. This seems to be restorative to me.

When we are sick, we usually need to rest as well — to let our body fight whatever infection we have, and regain physical strength drained from fighting the illness. But when I am sick and am resting (usually sleeping or sitting somewhere with a flat-line brainwave), I am not thinking at all. I may be on meds and I am just numb. And it is not restorative in the same way. I don’t feel mentally or emotionally rejuvenated, and my creative thought processes aren’t recharged.

So I was a bit disappointed, feeling somewhat robbed of the mental / emotional / creative rejuvenation I was looking forward to.

In thinking about my experience as a microcosm of what happens in other “organisms” (families, businesses, organizations), I realized that they, too, have different types of rest and restoration that occur.

When a system or organism is generally healthy, rest (vacations, corporate retreats, planning sessions) can help the organism regain strength and focus needed to take on new tasks and challenges. Healthy leadership teams can come away from an annual retreat energized with new creative ideas to take into the marketplace.

But if a group or team is not healthy — it is fighting serious internal problems and challenges, struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis — then the rest takes on a different experience and meaning. Then the time and energy is focused on just getting well. There may be a sense of relief — of taking time and energy to get “caught up” and deal with significant problems. But usually, there isn’t a looking forward to the retreat or planning session because it is problem-focused, not really being restorative or creative (who looks forward to laying in bed all day because you are sick?).

Some implications strike me for businesses, and even families who are planning to get together.

First, take a pulse of your system / organism / organization. Are you generally healthy? Or are you primarily trying to survive because of internal issues or external factors attacking you? If you are more in the sickness mode, then take steps to do what you can to get healthy. Don’t go into an annual retreat, family gathering, or planning session and act like you are going to do long term creative planning. It won’t happen until the more critical issues are addressed.

Second, if your system is doing well, then plan some time for some rest, reflection, and celebration. Don’t push your team to the limit. By planning some time to rejuvenate, you will allow the team members to become stronger, get recharged, and come up with some new creative ideas that will make the system work even better.

Generally, in the U.S., it seems we are frenetic about pursuing pleasure and leisure activities, but we are not great at pursuing restorative rest. This seems to be true at the individual level, within families, and within business as well. Think about it (it takes some free time and mental space to think about it), and see what you come up with.

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