The Habits of Successful People: They Disengage to Renew

Jul 16, 2014 3 min readSelf-Improvement
Photo of Joel Gascoigne
Joel Gascoigne

CEO and co-founder @ Buffer

I just booked a flight for a vacation to Cancún, Mexico, and it got me pondering the relationship between work and rest in a startup.

One reason I’m building a startup is to gain control over many aspects of my life. I like to hack my productivity, and I’ve found I don’t necessarily thrive by following  normal working hours or only working from an office.

If you’re working on a startup or have aspirations to create one, I’m guessing you can relate. By experimenting with these concepts, I’ve found I can get more done.

I find it particularly interesting to relate this to startups because there’s a lot of emphasis on crazy things like 18-hour days in startups.

Time, or energy?

Over the last few years, I’ve realized that while time is limited and in some ways determines how much I can get done, what really determines my productivity is what I do and how I feel in the time I have.

Energy plays a large factor in how we feel and how productive we are. I realized how important energy is in a book I read called The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz. The overall message of the book is:

“managing energy, not time, is the key to high performance and personal renewal”

In a similar way to the fact that you need renewal in order to grow muscles, we also need renewal in order to grow our capacity of mental energy. Here is how Loehr and Schwarz put it:

“Any form of stress that prompts discomfort has the potential to expand capacity – physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually – so long as it is followed by adequate recovery”

This idea that if we shift from trying to manage time to managing our energy we can achieve more and feel better while we do it has led to me doing quite a lot of experiments with my work and rest.

Experimenting with work and rest

I’ve tried many techniques to squeeze maximum productivity out of myself. When I embarked upon my first venture I was working very long hours, far beyond the point where my productivity dipped. This was a habit I carried over from university as a result of deadlines imposed at university.

One of my weaknesses is that I over-estimate how much I can get done in a period of time, so it is easy for me to go far beyond my optimal levels of energy. I came across a comment in an article on How To Stay Healthy While Hustlin’ A Startup, and it really rings true for me:

“Skipping sleep for a few extra hours of work destroyed my morale, creativity and attitude.”

A startup is chaotic enough, so does it make sense to put ourselves in such a state?

The idea of stopping or “disengaging” is something I’ve found to be very important. I try to a good amount of sleep and regularly go to the gym. I stop working when I feel I’ve gone beyond the point of my high productivity period.

Disengaging from your startup

Disengaging is probably one of the most challenging aspects of running a startup. Whatever I’m doing, I often find myself thinking about my startup. The thoughts can really affect productivity because you don’t get the renewal you need in order to return to the work with high levels of energy. I can’t put it better than Loehr and Schwarz:

“The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal”

The suggested way to improve our ability to “fully disengage” is by creating rituals. I have a ritual in the evening of going for a short walk and, upon returning, going straight to bed and reading a fiction book. It helps me disengage from the work I’ve done in the day and get the sleep I need to wake up refreshed and ready for the next exciting day.

I’ve realized over time that I feel the best when I have a balance of work and rest.

Although I’ve done a lot of traveling in the last few years, I’ve not had a true “switch off” vacation since I started Buffer 3.5 years ago—perhaps even since I started OnePage before that, 5 years ago.

The team is now an incredible 26 people, and they’re all super inspiring. We focus on balance and sustainability in the culture we’ve set up, and I think taking a break is probably one of the best things Leo and I could do right now. So I’ll be heading off in just a few weeks.

Have you thought about how your energy levels affect your productivity? Do you experiment with work and rest? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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