I recently announced that I have just finished a thirteen-year stint at Cisco. I’m moving on to start my own consultancy (which you’ll hear about in coming months), but the key point right now is that I already have some strong ideas about what I want to do next and I’m finalising how I want to get there. The reason that’s important is that by the time I actually left the office and had a lot of free time, I wasn’t overwhelmed by it. I know that sounds odd – who wouldn’t want to suddenly have a wide-open calendar they can fill with a holiday, or binge tv watching, or spending more time with their kids? But the truth is, after such a long stretch at one organisation, I need to recover, but it needs to be active recovery from work, not passive. Sure, I’ll do my fair share of Christmastime eating and drinking and afternoon naps. But then I’ll spend a good amount of this time “off” as more like time “dialed down”.
What is active recovery from work? It’s a lot like active recovery from a workout.
Most people are familiar with the concept of active recovery versus passive recovery in an athletic context. If you run marathons, the day after the marathon you can basically do nothing, just rest and relax (passive recovery), or you can do very light exercise like a short jog or brisk walk or easy swim. The latter is active recovery. The theory is that active recovery is actually healthier for you in the long term. Your muscles definitely need time to recuperate. Blood lactate accumulates in the body during strenuous activity; active recovery can help clear it out faster than passive recovery. Studies show that active recovery can actually improve performance over time, while also providing the rest that protects you from injury.
So how do we take this recovery from locker room to boardroom? Think about what you are recovering from – what has made this year so taxing. Take the pandemic (as just a random example of what might be stressing you out). Have you had to help implement work from home policies, or been emotionally supportive for team members who have struggled during the pandemic? Has your ability to cope been thwarted by lack of access to natural stress relievers (the gym is shut, socialising at the pub is limited)? Are you, like me, about to engage on a new stage of your career? Whatever it is, that’s your intense workout – that push to get through those challenges was your marathon. How you engage in active recovery from work should be a lighter version of that engagement or using slightly different (mental) muscles. Can you take an online course in team management? Can you fit out a proper home office space? What will better prepare you for your next round of intensity that uses your brain in a different way, but engages you more than a Netflix binge? A lot of this year has been reactionary, crisis management type activity. In the short term, the adrenaline and newness buoyed us. Ten months in, it is simply fatiguing to live in uncertainty.
2020 was the marathon you didn’t train for. Now is the time you can reset for a new normal, prepare for next year with thoughtfulness. I’m not talking about cleaning out your inbox. I’m saying, at the very least, most of us are recovering from doing our jobs under extreme, unpredicted circumstances. Next year will be just the beginning of back to normal. But now we know, and we can rest up while also preparing. This is the time for reconsidering how you will do your job, whatever it is, next year. I’m spending a lot of time planning my new business – getting the legal aspects of a corporate entity in place, talking to my accountant, setting goals. I’m not jumping right into a full suite of projects or even pitching clients. I’m engaged in active preparation, while also recovering from more than a decade of a rewarding, but intense, role. I’m in a light jog phase now, thinking about my professional future enough to keep those muscles active, but stopping far short of anything that’s really taxing. The idea is to dip in enough to keep building on your strengths, but not participating in your regular routine. Whatever has exhausted you is fair game — it doesn’t have to have anything to do with the pandemic, of course. It’s recognising that while your instinct might be to simply collapse on the couch with a gin and tonic, there are more productive recovery techniques.
Sometimes, passivity is the right activity. Athletes who have actually injured themselves often do need real, total rest. They are in a repair mode, not just a recovery one. Think of it as the difference of pushed to your limits in a healthy way, as opposed to breaking past your personal safe zone. It’s the same with professional “health”. If you have worked yourself to the point of depression, or physical health issues due to lack of sleep or poor diet (or both), you need a proper rest. Sleep itself has enormous restorative benefits. So does physical exercise. Totally unplugging from work or any other demanding mental activity is perfectly appropriate if you are not just exhausted, but no longer able to function normally. Ideally, we never let ourselves get to that point, but it’s worth stating it, especially in a year that has been so unusually taxing. Most of us, need a week (maybe two) of turning away from anything and everything that can help prepare us professionally.
Active recovery from work might be even easier than taking a holiday. (It’s still 2020).
If I was going to really just unwind completely, I’d probably rather do it in the Seychelles than London in winter. But the reality of the pandemic means you might find it not only useful to engage in active recovery from work, but easier to do so in a way that is beneficial. The ultimate passive recovery is a proper holiday like a spa vacation or a lovely beach resort. But those things are difficult to do now as so many places are closed or require extensive quarantine. And even if you could you’d almost certainly find some activities have been curtailed. But creating the optimal active recovery is much easier – you can access everything you need online, or even with pen and paper. There’s something satisfying just being able to determine when and how you shape recovery in this context. And these days, there’s precious little we have full control over – you may be surprised how delightful it is when you do.
Robert Kovach is an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100, and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership and team effectiveness. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own. Contact him for speaking inquiries.
Dr Robert Kovach
PSYCHOLOGY. LEADERS & TEAMS.