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Walking Away From Your Desk is Critical—But Easier Said Than Done

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how great ideas can arrive at unexpected times and places. You’ve probably experienced this yourself: hammering at a problem for hours—or days—only to have the answer pop into your head while you’re washing the dishes or walking the dog. Stepping away from work also recharges your batteries, giving you the physical and mental energy you need to be innovative and productive.

I feel strongly about the importance of making time for deep thinking and exercise, as well as priorities completely unrelated to work. But let’s face it, walking away from your desk is easier said than done. Our professional lives are busy and unpredictable, which makes work thrilling and exhausting. If you want to go the distance as a leader, you need to find a balance between work and life, productivity and rest—for you and your entire team.

Set up your team for success

In my article about creating a growth culture, I suggested that leaders should act less like a boss and more like a coach. Any athletic coach will tell you that muscle isn’t just built in the gym but during the recovery period after a workout. Without adequate rest, the risk of injury shoots up and progress can take a nosedive. The same applies to our work lives: to maximize productivity and avoid burnout, we all need downtime.

It sounds great in principle, but you can’t just tell people to work harder at relaxing! Like a coach, you should take a good look at your team’s habits and your own. What’s keeping people at their desks after hours? Could they leave the office on time if they were supplied with more resources or by working more efficiently?

Ask your team to help you root out “time thieves,” such as too many meetings or an open-door policy. You may discover you’re not the only one who’s been sneaking back to your desk at night to fit in uninterrupted work or deep thinking. If so, give people, including yourself, explicit permission to block off time to focus—door shut—during normal working hours.

Remember, it’s your responsibility to ensure the workload fits into the hours that you and your team are at your desks. Otherwise, employees may simply hide how often they steal from downtime in order to get things done.

Make a habit of zoning out

When you read about the daily routines of writers and other creatives, an interesting pattern emerges: a lot of them are regular walkers, runners, and gardeners. This isn’t just about smelling the roses; many creatives find physical activity triggers breakthroughs and treat it as an essential part of their process.

“I’ve never been one to solve a creative problem behind my desk,” says Thomas O'Keefe, Founder and CEO of O'Keefe Reinhard & Paul, an award-winning, Chicago-based advertising agency that’s known for its innovative campaigns for big brands. “For me, creative ideas require achieving more of an out-of-body experience that a desk can never provide.”

To get himself into a state of creative flow—often called “the zone”—Tom combines cardio exercise with music. He’ll even make a song playlist that has a thematic connection to a problem he’s trying to solve. “I’m not necessarily wracking my brain for the answer,” he explains. “In fact, the problem is more in the back of my mind, with the music and exercise driving my main focus. That’s when an idea pops.”

The process is so effective that Tom synchronizes his thinking time with his workout schedule. “I say to myself, ‘I can figure that one out on Thursday during my run…’ And usually, I’m able to deliver, at least to some degree.”

Getting outdoors and moving your body is great for you, even when it doesn’t deliver a “lightbulb” moment. However you find your flow, take a cue from creatives and make it a habit—putting it on the calendar if necessary. By encouraging your team to do the same, you’ll not only help everyone follow through, but reinforce the value of a balanced approach to work and life.

 Practice empathy and patience

Juliet Funt, CEO of the Juliet Funt Group and consultant for Fortune 500 companies, has noted that leaders don’t always empathize with the challenges employees face when they try to make space for thinking time. “We won't even train leaders without their people,” she said on the How Leaders Lead podcast, “because we want an entire community liberated. . . to recuperate, think, ponder, and create.”

Some leaders talk a good game about the importance of reflection and rest but quickly grow impatient when someone isn’t around to answer a question straight away. Consider how your behavior might help or hinder your team’s ability to get away from their desks. Do you tend to reward long hours more often than successful outcomes? Do people feel pressured to perform for the boss? How often are your employees’ days hijacked by your whims? Before you drop an urgent task onto someone’s to-do list, ask yourself whether it’s truly important and time-sensitive or only seems urgent because it’s front of mind.

You can practice empathy and patience and engage your team in the setting of day-to-day priorities. Ask people directly, “If you attend to this request, what won’t get done today? Will you still get to the gym or home in time to have dinner with your family?”

Perhaps most importantly, you must be the lead example to your team, modeling the habits and behavior you want to see. What are your tips for carving out time for rest, hobbies, exercise, and family life? Have you ever had an unexpected breakthrough because you walked away from your desk?