Want to have better impact at work? Ensure you’re having good downtime

Hands up if you’re seeing all sorts of funny social media posts about the optimum ‘out-of-office’ message to write during the holidays. This makes me wonder if people put as much effort into actually getting the most out of their downtime as they do in crafting “just the right message”.


The very word can make many of us feel guilty, particularly in a world where so many of us get our sense of self-esteem from our careers and the work we do. No wonder, then, that so many people fall into the trap of workaholism.

Workaholism manifests through working excessively and compulsively. This can be seen behaviourally, such as constantly working long hours and/or mentally, such as always thinking about work, even when at home. This is in stark contrast to the Theory of Thriving, developed by Gretchen Spreitzer and colleagues, which is a psychological state derived from the joint experience vitality and a sense of learning at work.

How, then, can we cultivate more thriving and less workaholism? To experience vitality, we need to be at our most energised. To learn, we need to have the headspace to take on new ideas.  The answer could be in relation to embracing our downtime.

Downtime is something Cal Newport covers in depth in his excellent book, Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world He comes up with three main reasons why downtime can help us do better work and I’ve summarised these in the sketchnote at the top of this post.

Here are five ways you can create downtime and get the maximum benefit from it


1) The power of the lunch break

Researchers from the University of Mannheim, in Germany, tracked the emotion, mood and performance of more than 100 people. Through the responses to the daily surveys, the researchers found that the extent to which people felt recovered after a lunch break had a positive impact on their ability to complete tasks in the afternoon. Not only did lunch breaks help people feel more energised but it also helped increase their engagement levels. As the researchers state,

“Recovery experiences during off-job time are well-researched and have been shown to be powerful predictors of well-being and performance”

This taps into the idea behind the Effort Recovery Model, developed by Theo Meijman and Gijsbertus Mulder, which suggests for a person to recover effectively, they need to not be exposed to the thing(s) depleting their energy. In other words, we need to step away from our work – both mentally and physically – in order to do our best work. Daniel Pink calls this “the power of a restorative break” in his book, When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing

2) The power of nature

According to Attention Restoration Theory, developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, spending time in nature can improve our ability to concentrate. It can also help our mental and physical health.

For example, a Stanford University study found that walking in nature can provide measurable mental benefits and may reduce risk of depression. And a recent study, from the University of Swansea, found that as little as an hour a week of outdoor learning had a positive impact not only for children. It also boosted teachers’ job satisfaction.

3) The power of role-modelling

As a manager, you’re being watched. All. The. Time.

The things you do, including how you work, all act as a template for your employees to copy. It’s not enough for you to say, “I don’t expect my team to work the hours I do”. The fact is, what you do outlines what is expected, intended or not. As Brendon Burchard says in his book, High performance habits,

“Cramming your day so full that you have no time for thought or rejuvenation just makes you tired and irritable. And no-one credits fatigue and bad mood for their world-class performance”

Role modelling how you work, including how you value downtime, can act as a form of support. For example, a 2013 study led by Monica Molino, found that the more demanding the job, the more likely workaholism would manifest. However, the researchers also found that things like support from one’s boss could act as a buffer between demands and workaholism. One way, therefore, you can show support is by making it okay for people to have downtime.

4) The power of focused downtime

While it can be good to do nothing, downtime, in Cal Newport’s book, is about doing something else. It could be going for a walk. Reading. Doing a hobby.

A 2019 study, from the University of California at Berkeley, explored how different types of evening activities can affect our feelings and behavior at work the next day. More than 180 people participated in the diary study and the results showed that experiences of mastery in the evening made employees feel more motivated to make a change the next morning as well as more capable. Participants also reported feeling more enthusiastic, excited, inspired, and joyful – in other words, the kind of feelings that make us feel like we’re thriving. This study shows the benefits of resting after work but not doing this in a passive, watching TV way. Instead, the researchers suggest that if you want to thrive at work, then think about resuming a hobby or finding a new one.

5) The power of switching off your email

As Peter Bregman says in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article,

“We try to be available because we want to be helpful. And yet being overwhelmed with tasks – especially those we consider to be a waste of our time – is exactly what will make us unhelpful”

You may, therefore, want to heed the lessons from a study carried out by Leslie Perlow and Jessica L Porter. In their study, they worked with a group of employees in a busy global consultancy, forcing each member of the team to take one day out of the workweek completely off-grid. They were to have no interaction with anyone inside or outside the company. Prior to the study, the team members were spending between 20 and 25 hours per week, outside of office hours, monitoring their emails. They believed it important to answer any email, no matter where or who from, within an hour of its arrival. The researchers found that when the consultants went off-grid, one day a week, they experienced more enjoyment in their work, better communication with each other, more learning and a better service delivered to the client.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

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