When was the last time you gave yourself permission to take a timeout? Many of us were taught that when things get tough, you simply work harder. We measure our success in terms of perceived accomplishments.
At Envisio, we work with many organizations that are trying to accomplish great things with limited resources. If you lead one of those organizations, you know the compulsion to just put your head down and keep pushing forward. Eventually it exacts a toll, you crash and fall into mindless coping habits.
For me that habit was sugar. Now in my early 50s, running a high-growth software company while raising three young kids, there’s a lot going on in my life. At the end of the day I would reach for chips, cookies, cake, whatever. In moments of high stress, my default was to binge on sweets. It was affecting my health, mental clarity and my ability to be present for those around me.
At Envisio, “health” is written into our values. It’s not just lip service—we practice it by giving employees gym allowances, organizing group exercises and stocking the fridge with healthy food. We have former athletes on our team, and we strive to take care of our personal health. Last month I realized it was time for me to step up and model this value in my own life.
With the help of my good friend and health coach, Janice D’Aloia, I found the perfect boutique health retreat centre on Vancouver Island where I spent seven days disconnecting—no smartphone, no television, and no laptop—and reconnecting with my mental and physical health.
Admittedly, I’m prone to extremes—I’ve done long silent retreats and hiked up Himalayan mountain peaks to seek the insights of local yogis. I’m not afraid to step out of my comfort zone and put myself out on a limb. Not everyone is drawn to these kinds of extremes, and certainly not everyone can take a full week out of life to reset, but you can still pause, assess, and pivot, once in awhile. In fact, I think it’s essential for true creativity, collaboration, and productivity.
With that in mind, here are four key lessons I’ve taken away from my retreat that anyone can apply in their own journey toward a healthier life.
Lesson 1: Put your Own Mask on First
There’s a reason airlines tell you to put your own mask on first: you can’t help anyone if you don’t help yourself. We each have a limited pool of cognitive resources, and when you drain that pool, you compromise your ability to lead and to be present to those who matter. I’m no good to anyone when I’m sluggish, depleted and unfocused.
Leaders are infamous for putting in long hours. But real success is rooted in problem-solving and creativity—not in the number of hours we work.
In my case, putting my own mask on looked like this: meditation, yoga, massages, isotonic flushes and long walks in mountain fresh air. For you it might mean reading on a beach, making time for the gym, working in the garden, cooking a beautiful meal, or stepping out of your comfort zone to visit somewhere new.
Lesson 2: To See the Trees, you Must Leave the Forest
For me, it wasn’t enough to pause. I had to fully break out of my daily habits and step out of normal life. This was a full reset.
Previously I was trying to simply patch holes in the walls, but it was time to strip everything down to the studs and rebuild from scratch. Fully detoxing from caffeine, sugar, wheat and electronics meant I could then come home and be thoughtful about what I added back in and what I left in the junk heap for good.
Having your routine interrupted and meeting new people is proven to inspire and bring new perspective that you can apply to your work. I spent my retreat week with an eclectic group of ten people from around North America, aged 18 to 55. Each person gave me insight that helped me reframe my perspective in a completely new way.
Lesson 3: You are What you Eat
For seven days we ate only raw, whole plant-based foods—rich with enzymes intended to heal you from the inside out. I lost 11 lbs, but more importantly, I kicked my sugar addiction and discovered just how little food I need in a day. Most of the time, what we call “hunger” is really just a habit. When you’re consuming dense, live, raw foods you feel full longer. You feel truly alive.
Caffeine was the hardest to abandon. After three days with a dull headache, I emerged from a fog that was replaced by immense clarity. By day four I no longer hit a 3pm wall. My thoughts fell into place and I pushed through a lot of reading and writing I hadn’t been in the headspace to do for months.
Now back home I’m applying some of the techniques I learned for processing nut-based foods to replace much of the meat in our diet. I’m meal planning with my kids, and my 9-year-old daughter and I are putting together a PowerPoint presentation for the rest of our family on healthy eating habits.
Lesson 4: Keep your Head Inside the Ride
As a hobby cyclist, my time on the road is meant to be decompression time. But more often my rides are clouded with planning for the week ahead or reflections on the week before. I’m on autopilot, and by the time I get home I’m rarely better off than I began. My head is rarely in the ride.
On day 3 and day 6 of my retreat I took long rides along the rugged coast. I treated it as a form of meditation—focusing on each peddle, each breath. Along the way I stopped and chatted with local fishermen, actually seeing the beautiful scenery. My only goal was to be present, with no agenda—not dwelling on the past or planning the future. Each day I brought that same approach to my walks—focusing on each step. And when my thoughts began to wander, I brought them back to the rhythm of my steps.
The result? By the end of the week I could sustain focus longer, I was better able to have moments of real human connection, and I felt incredibly grounded. I read two books that had been on my shelf for months, and had some creative breakthroughs in problems I’ve been mulling over. Since I’ve been home, my kids have noticed the difference. Our time together is more intentional and meaningful.
Three weeks later, I’m still reaping the rewards of this personal time out. I’m more productive, I’m making better decisions, and my relationships at home and the office feel healthier. The most important takeaway of all: taking time out isn’t selfish—it’s an act of generosity to yourself and those around you.
PS: A special thanks to my retreat mates Chandler, David, Helen, Jamie, Kim, Peter, Rebecca, Sara and Tilly for sharing their own unique personal stories and for their friendship and wise counsel throughout the week.