How downtime and switching off can power your business success

How downtime and switching off can power your business success
Dan Martin
Dan MartinDan Martin Content & Events

Posted: Fri 21st May 2021

If many of the so-called business gurus are to be believed, entrepreneurs will only be successful if they work 18 hours a day, get very little sleep and are always on. But actually, the opposite is true. Switching off and getting some rest is vital.

As part of Dell Technologies' Turn Off, Tune In series of events, a panel of founders and business leaders discussed why downtime is a key factor in business success.

On the panel:

  • Holly Tucker MBE, founder, notonthehighstreet and Holly & Co

  • Louise Hill, co-founder and COO, gohenry

  • Timothy Armoo, CEO, Fanbytes

  • Aisling Keegan, SVP & GM, EMEA CSB, Dell Technologies

Work/life integration, not work/life balance

When the phrase work/life balance was first used in the 1970s, the world of work was a very different place. In 2021, where work ends and non-work begins is a much blurrier line, particularly during the pandemic. That's even more true when you're running your own business which certainly isn't a traditional 9-5 job.

Tim Armoo said rather than work/life balance, you should focus on work/life integration. The entrepreneur often joins a group of his friends, who are also business founders, to chat about entrepreneurial ideas and challenges.

"Being able to differentiate between what you see as hard focused work and what you see as low tech, latency work is important," he said.

"It's fun to jam out on ideas, because the truth is that it's extremely difficult for founders to not think about business. Equating it with play will make you feel less guilty, less like you're needing to be constantly on. Your time off can be business related but thinking about cool stuff to do."

Taking time out is a 'business imperative'

Taking a break is not just a nice to have but a "business imperative", according to Aisling Keegan. It's something she recognised seven years ago. Her son had kidney problems when he was born and she had always wanted to do something to help the hospital that saved his life. She took nine weeks off work during which she climbed Kilimanjaro and raised money for the hospital.

"I learnt so much in those 10 days about how to become a better people leader and how to better serve customers and employees," Aisling said. "It helped me appreciate what's out there and get a real understanding that regardless of what you do, everyone has their own challenges and story.

"Taking time out is a business imperative. You need to create that culture for everyone who works with you and set the example that downtime brings a more productive, more efficient, more creative and a more innovative you to the table.

"Working more than 55 hours a week has a significant drain on your productivity. Take frequent breaks to get away from the whirlwind of the day to day."

Aisling has been inspired in her philosophy for taking time out by the book Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg. "One of the key takeaways is that good stress plus rest equals growth. Hard work only becomes sustainable when it's supported by rest."

Louise Hill has a similar belief about time out being a business essential. "No one wants to work with a CEO or a leader who is stressed or burnt out," she said, "so taking the time to make sure you're focused and clear headed is actually taking the time to make sure you're a better leader and therefore doing something incredibly important for your business. It is absolutely justified and massively important."

Recognise when it's time to step back

As a business grows, there comes a point when a founder must recognise they need to let go. Three years ago, gohenry was accelerating fast but Louise Hill started to question why she was having to work so hard. She realised she was "a roadblock in the business because so much of what we did, why we did it, where things were and how things worked was in my head or on my laptop. It was a risk for the business and it was stopping us growing as quickly as we should have been."

Louise and her team set out to remove "single points of failure" from the business. They made sure knowledge was disseminated, things were delegated and it wasn't a single person who knew where something was or how it worked.

There are other moments when business owners need to recognise they are not the right person for the job. When gohenry decided to expand internationally, the business needed to raise new funding. Without experience of growing a business overseas, Louise looked for someone who could. She ended up employing a CEO who had spearheaded the international growth of online training company which resulted in the company being bought by LinkedIn for £1.5bn.

"If you want your business to grow, you have to let go," Louise said. "Stepping back to reflect on what's going well, what's going badly and what you enjoy is so incredibly important.

"If you do that and think about how it aligns with the business goals, it becomes clear where you need help. You can then bring people into the business who are great at doing what you don't like doing or in areas where you're weaker."

Louise also said you need to let go of your ego. Holly Tucker agreed. "Good ego powers us to be the Duracell batteries that we need to be," she said, "but then there's time ego needs to put aside for the good of our businesses. It takes real strength to understand that."

Talk about the bad stuff as well as the good

Being honest about the good and the bad of business can relieve a lot of the pressures founders face. "An overwhelming amount of the pressure is because of the external stuff we feel we have to replicate," Tim said. "We feel we need to be as successful as the so-called successful people we see on Instagram or LinkedIn.

"I'm very bullish at telling my employees we are going to share the things that suck, the things that are really bad, the things that people don't post on social media.

"When you realise the pressure to be always on and the pressure to be always performing is just an illusion, it really helps."

Holly Tucker added: "If we create the right communities around us, we feel like we can go out there with not being the best version of ourselves."

Schedule your breaks

Taking regular breaks during the day is vital for staying focused and refreshed.

If you struggle to take one, try scheduling them as set times in your agenda, something that both Aisling and Holly said they do. Aisling has gone one step further by creating a set break for her team of 1,000 employees. Recognising the need for people to take time out during the pandemic, she made it mandatory for all her staff to down work tools at 12pm - 1pm every day and do whatever non-work activity they want.

"I have lunch with my husband for 30 minutes, something I haven't been able to do for almost 30 years during my work career. For the second 30 minutes I go for a walk on the beach with our dog. Exercise and fresh air are vital for getting the oxygen pumping to the brain and getting those creative juices flowing. It's a great way to recharge your batteries for the afternoon."

Getting outside is important for Holly too. "Creative ideas come to me when my brain is not so switched on," she said. "During the pandemic, I've been getting up at 6am, having a cup of tea, sitting in my garden, listening to nature, and walking and running as part of training for a 5K."

Asked by an attendee whether you should refuse requests for meetings during your scheduled break times, Aisling said: "Absolutely." If the meeting isn't an absolute essential that will impact negatively on your work if it doesn't happen, you should push back. "Work is not a thing you do, it's an outcome you create," Aisling concluded.

Dan Martin
Dan MartinDan Martin Content & Events
I'm a freelance content creator and event host who helps small businesses and the organisations that support them. I have 18 years of experience as a small business journalist having interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs from billionaires like Sir Richard Branson to the founders behind brand new start-ups. I've worked for a range of leading small business publications and support groups, most recently as head of content at Enterprise Nation where I was responsible for the prolific output of content on the company's blog and social media. I'm based in Bristol where I run and host regular events with the local small business community and have strong connections to major business organisations in the south west region. In total, I've hosted over 50 events; from intimate meet-ups to conferences with an audience of hundreds including events for international brands like Facebook and Xero. I'm also a big fan of podcasts having hosted Enterprise Nation's Small Business Sessions as well as lots of online events including Facebook Live interviews, webinars and three live web chats from inside 10 Downing Street. With my partner, I co-run Lifestyle District, a lifestyle blog focused on culture, art, theatre and photography. I'm here to help. I'm volunteering free advice calls of up to an hour as part of the Recovery Advice for Business scheme, over the next 6 months. Please get in touch to see how I can help your business. 

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