Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

Rhythms of rest

In Scotland, February can seem to be the grimmest month – the short, cold days are similar to those in December and January, but are unmitigated by preparations for festivities, or the optimism of new beginnings. In previous years, I’ve been heard to say that the only advantage of February is that it is short! This year, though, in my wee spot, the weather has been mostly settled – cold, yet bright, and still, yet with a quality of anticipation that is almost Spring-like.

It’s a different rhythm – a contrast to the most obvious ‘story’ of February.

This unexpected version of an unlovable month makes it easier to notice that the days have actually been getting longer for several weeks. And, beneath the ground, preparations for a new season are advanced. Seeds, roots, and bulbs, revitalised by the dormant period since their last fruiting or flowering, are stirring. If we could hear it, or sense it, the ground beneath our feet is whispering with gentle movement.

In nature, Winter months are a time of rest and renewal. In contrast, as human we often expend energy. December seems frantic as we juggle a sense of urgency and ‘deadline’ at work, with additional social commitments and preparations for the seasonal holidays. If the holidays themselves are full-on then, despite their pleasures, they can be pretty tiring.

Then, in January, there’s often a sense of striving, pushing ourselves to make changes: get fit, detox, launch new initiatives. We’re seeking to shape ourselves, our environment, our work. This again brings benefits, such as a sense of satisfaction and achievement, yet many of us reach February depleted and weary. We attribute this to a general lack of light and warmth – but it seems to me that the roots are much deeper: we’ve lost the art of rest.

As a leader, what form does genuine rest take for you? What difference does rest make to your leadership? To what extent do you respect the need to replenish your reserves?

The need for rest is universal – life is a rhythm of alternating effort and ease: a heart beats as a muscle contracts and relaxes, living beings cycle between waking and sleeping, an athlete trains in intervals of more exertion and less. Rest is an essential response to endeavour, providing punctuation that restores energy. The contrast between ‘doing’ and ‘not doing’ allows us to calibrate of the quality of our activity.

Periods of rests don’t need to be lengthy, but in a 24/7 world, where work infiltrates evenings and weekends, and the practice of a ‘day of rest’ is less universal, we may need to pay more attention to the frequency of them. In reclaiming the art of rest, we might seek new rhythms of longer breaks such as holidays or sabbaticals, and shorter interludes, such as sleep and weekends. We might also place renewed emphasis on brief ‘changes in rhythm’ during a day, such as mindful mealtimes, walking between meetings, and practices such as centring.

The bottom line is that, if we over-estimate our capacity to do without rest, there will, eventually, be consequences. One client refers to having ‘stupid’ days if they work for too long at high intensity. Leadership benefits from a good rhythm of rest. What is the optimum rhythm of rest for you? How might you develop new habits of rest?

There’s no standard recipe for rest. For some, playing with grandchildren will be the most nourishing thing, for others it will be golf, swimming, cycling or other activity, for others again it will be to listen to a piece of classical music from beginning to end. Whatever the form, I think renewal is supported by the presence of two elements:

• absorption in activities that are purely for enjoyment and pleasure; and
• empty time to make good contact with yourself and to reflect, gently, on life.

Balancing something and nothing fulfils two functions. The ‘something’ provides rest in the form of a positive change of focus. The ‘nothing’ offers an interlude in which to connect with matters that we might otherwise avoid or ignore. In this kind of restful pause, we have time and attention to notice changes that want to emerge within us, or things that no longer sit easily with us. We can hear quieter internal ‘voices’ that are easy to ignore in relentless busyness. Rest creates an opportunity for more deliberate engagement with important stuff.

Which brings to my writing – after 2½ years of monthly posts, it is time for a different pattern of ‘publishing’ my thoughts. I’m going to pause this blog, perhaps indefinitely. I’ve been experimenting with some slightly shorter posts on LinkedIn, and if you’ve enjoyed these articles you can join me there. I also aspire to another book…and it doesn’t ever quite get to the top of the ‘to do’ list. A change is needed.

Thanks to those who have commented on the website and to those who cheered me on in private through emails. I am very grateful for your support and appreciation. While I write for the love of it, I am delights me when my words touch others.

Time for a rest!

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