Sabbath for Sustainability


Sabbath literally means rest. Following the etymology of the word back to its origins that is what it means. If we look at the most common applications of the term, sabbatical, it also means rest. So, when I say Sabbath for Sustainability that is what I mean. Removing all of the charged potential meanings, I want to focus on that; intentional, planned, organized, rest for Sustainability.

Most people I know, who have worked in a corporate or even private business setting for any time, struggle with the idea of rest. Many of us don’t realize it. We think we rest when we go home at night or stop working for the day, but up until the head hits the pillow most of us are still working: Checking emails, reading/writing texts, taking calls, etc. When I was a child we had a word for this, Workaholic. Someone was a workaholic when they were so addicted to work that they never stopped working even if it meant missing meals or special events. It was seen as an addiction that was just as bad as any drug addiction because it broke up families and destroyed people’s health.

As I grew up in the corporate work environment this tendency to focus on the job over personal needs led to a term, work-life balance. Even as the term became popular, there were those who questioned if it was a real thing. Should we be striving for this balance or is the reality that each person must define what that means. The “happiness” of the individual was selected as the defining measurement. If you are not managing you own balance, it is your fault.

Having worked with some workaholics and struggled to manage a work-life balance, I have discovered something. All of my friends who never took those needed breaks knew but could never admit they were unhappy. Until that day came when something happened forcing them to pause for their health or their marriage, they could never admit how unhappy they were. So, to say it is about the person and their happiness is somewhat disingenuous. I happen to know, as someone who worked beyond the hours that made me happy to meet objectives that were unreachable or undefined, that when it came to work I often “took one for the team”, “went the extra mile”, or just “sucked it up” because I felt it was what was expected and necessary. I wonder why I thought that. That’s right, I was told so. Through the words and actions of others at the time, I knew what was expected.

Now I’m going to tell you a secret about this. In my experience, and with most people I knew, they had complete control of this. That’s right we are in control of it. There were very few times in my career (one very specific time at the beginning of my career) when continuous and persistent attendance to the job was required. Many times we allow ourselves to believe that everything will fall apart without us. It is rarely true. Even in the few times that I remember being the critical path, I had been informed that I could “take whatever time I needed” to recharge. What stopped me? Why did I not listen? It is an interesting question and I expect if you asked yourself you know the answer. Doubt, distrust, fear all play into it, but in most cases it is just that we never put ourselves ahead in the priorities. We are always willing to give more than we have. The second part of the secret is, we would be better at our job if we would take the time.  

We own and are responsible for our own sustainability. In my first job out of college my manager told me, openly on the first day we worked together, to take time whenever I needed it to recharge, and yet I didn’t. I have had vacation time at every job that I have struggled to take. In order to establish a sustainable pace in your work, you must accept the responsibility for your sustainability.

Whatever you do, you must build rest in. Daily rest is necessary to let your mind and body recharge. When you leave work, whether that means leaving the office or walking away from the desk at home, leave it. Create boundaries where you don’t check e-mails, texts, or phone calls. They will be there when you get back, I promise. If you have to, make these times transparent to those you work with so they know what to expect. If they look at you oddly, remind them that you are responsible for your own sustainability, and this is how you are managing it. If your environment requires full-time coverage, create that with backups and coverage schedules (I know this can be hard, but you must take control of your Sustainability).   

I worked with someone once who loved to run. It was a passion of theirs. They would find themselves in the middle of the day with time available and they would chose to take that time to go for a run. This break from the daily cycle of meeting  with clients whenever she could get it helped her recharge. I know she sometimes listened to audio books that were related to what she did or thought about work while she ran, but even that change in pace can be relaxing and restful. In future posts I am going to look at several ways we can build sustainability into our lives, but find ways to get your mind and body to rest. Turn off work for a little while.

Even as I write this, I know how hard it can be. When I met my wife I had to introduce her to the voice in the back of my head. I am a perfectionist, and I have a monitor in my head that keeps me straight. As I grew up in the cold war, the image I see when I think of uncompromising is an East German scientist. This is what confronts me when I am slacking off or falling short. When I try to create these breaks, he often shows up, tapping his clipboard, pushing me to do something productive. Over time, as I have learned to deal with his uncompromising focus on work, he has changed to a more cartoon-like version of himself, but he still causes me problems as I work on my own balance.

As I started to focus on running my own business, I decided that all of the people I knew running their own businesses talked about how it is an unending job. It is not 9-5. I understand that, but I had to create some boundaries or I would fall into that cultural norm I grew up with, the workaholic. In order to create space for me to be successful, I have established a working agreement that I will take a day every week, a sabbath, to rest and recharge so that I can be better prepared to accomplish my goals. I will not focus on work during this time. I will recharge and rest. My friends in my previous role as an agile coach will understand that this is putting outcomes or throughput ahead of 100% utilization. In order to be an effective system, we must allow rest to occur.

Rest, a sabbath, is critical to maintaining a sustainable system. You may not be ready to accept the idea that you can be more productive if you set aside a whole day in the week. I understand that, but try an experiment with me now. Set aside some time each day to recharge, without e-mail, phone calls, or chats. See if the next time you go back to the desk you are not recharged and able to do more. If that works at that scale, give a day a try. What can happen? Who knows, maybe you can figure out a balance that works for you. Don’t let that voice in your head (whatever yours looks like) push you back into the grind. Aim for a balance that creates your optimum throughput. Isn’t that what you want anyway? Isn’t it better when you can do whatever you need to because you have the energy? That is what we mean by Sustainability.   

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