If you spend any amount of time reading career advice, following founders of companies you admire, or scrolling Twitter, you’ll inevitably run into some version of:
l f***ing love the end of the year. All of the lazy people take the last week of the year off. Meanwhile, here I am in the office for my normal 16 hours days, getting a leg up on everyone who’s too tired to keep going. This is when champions are made. Work when no one else is to get an advantage no one else has.
You know, the typical self-congratulatory, invincible superhero type comment people love to make.
Well, here’s my experience: the longer you work without a break, the more likely you are to have a mental or physical breakdown that will force you to shutdown for a period of time that’s completely out of your control.
I would know.
In 2013, two years in to starting my first creator business I suffered what was in hindsight a complete nervous breakdown and debilitating level of anxiety. It manifested in the form of paranoia, constant anxiety, and terrifying physical symptoms like night sweats, insomnia, and weight loss. All of this further spiraled into a deep hypochondria and fear that I was dying of some lurking illness.
I spent hours on WebMD trying to self-diagnose. I barely slept. My wife (girlfriend at the time) did everything she could to reflect back to me the reality of the situation, but I was a brick wall. I didn’t want to hear it.
I had been working 12+ hours a day because of the financial pressure I felt to make the company work. I hadn’t been exercising or eating well. I was sacrificing my mental and physical health in the name of trying to make it as a first time founder.
These poor habits compound and eventually catch up to you. From experience I can say unequivocally: it’s not worth it.
Nothing else matters when you lose your health. We all know this conceptually, but we ignore it until we’re forced to face the reality.
It was a wake up call for me and began a lifelong journey to learn how to balance hard work with rest and recovery.
For ambitious, career-focused people, rest feels like a waste of time and opportunity.
We have to make a shift in thinking to embrace rest: the best way to achieve our full potential over a decades long career is to use rest as leverage for longevity. Hard work will produce the best results when measured in days. Proper rest and recovery will produce the best results when measured in years.
What professional athletes teach us about the importance of rest and recovery
For ambitious people, rest is an active effort to be passive for a period of time. It takes discipline to rest appropriately. This is where professional athletes can teach us a thing or two about the importance of recovery.
On the surface, if you were to look at the routine of a top athlete like Damian Lillard, Sue Bird, or Alex Morgan, it would be easy to look primarily at their training schedule. How many hours are they practicing their sport? Weightlifting? Conditioning? Studying film?
If that’s all you studied, you’d only be seeing half of the picture. The best athletes in the world focus on recovery every bit as much as they focus on training. You can’t progress without recovery time. It’s the biological reality of our bodies and minds.
In between practice and conditioning, their schedules include very specific meal and supplement planning, massage and ice baths, 9+ hours of sleep per night and sometimes daily naps.
Down time is every bit as important to top performance as hard work. I do not exaggerate when I say this: if you’re already motivated and ambitious, the single most important goal you can set for yourself is to get 8+ hours of sleep every night in 2021.
The end of the year is a perfect opportunity for rest
But right now, we have a rare opportunity — a turning of the calendar year at the end of one of the hardest years in most of our lives. A chance to pause, rest, recover, and reflect. If you’re planning to work this last week of the year, I’d ask: why? What is it that you’re trying to accomplish that can’t be better accomplished after a week of rest?
If you can afford to take this last week of the year off, I’d implore you to take it.
Here’s my list of what I plan to do over the 10 days I’m taking off:
- Spend quality time with my wife and son without other distractions
- Sleep 8+ hours per night
- Get outside in nature
- Get light exercise by walking, biking and skiing (meaning exercise that doesn’t further tax me physically)
- Do puzzles and play games
- Read for personal pleasure
- Write for personal pleasure
- Watch films and series for personal pleasure
- Stay off of my computer, phone, and iPad as much as possible
These are the activities that I know fill me up with joy and help me recover from a long and hard year both mentally and physically.
Channel your desire to be productive into reflection on the past year
Inevitably, when I take breaks like this, I get bored. When I get bored my mind wanders and looks for new ideas to act on. I get inspired. And then I want to start working on something new. I have to actively battle this urge. My bet is that you’ll feel something similar. Don’t fall for it.
Instead, I find the best way to “be productive” while getting the rest and recovery you need at the end of the year: take time to reflect.
Take stock of your year with a formal or informal annual review process. I do this on physical paper so I can stay off my devices and I reflect across seven areas of my life:
- Faith and spirituality
- Physical health
- Mental health and learning
- Financial health
- Travel and adventure
For each area, I ask myself three questions:
- What went well?
- What didn’t go well?
- What do I want to start, stop, and keep doing in the new year?
This leads to a list of habits I want to build or maintain over the course of the next year. I keep a notebook in my bathroom. Each night I record what I did that day, putting an asterisk next to the habits I stuck to. This allows me to look back at my year in detail to see what went well and didn’t go well.
This annual review process has become a staple in my life. You might find a similar habit that works for you.
The three most important reads on rest and recovery
- Why We Sleep by David Perlmutter – David Perlmutter has compiled the most scientifically complete guide to the importance of sleep. If you doubt the important of sleep for your long-term health and success, this book will change your mind.
- Thrive by Arianna Huffington – As an entrepreneur and executive, Arianna Huffington also learned the importance of rest firsthand. Thrive is the story of her journey to valuing rest and recovery as much as hard work. She is full of wisdom on business in general, and rest in particular in this book.
- The Nature Fix by Florence Williams – I’ve long been a believer in the power of nature to help us heal and recover both mentally and physically. Florence Williams put in the work to prove why this is scientifically true. Whether you’re an avid outdoorsperson or a committed city dweller, this book will give you the desire to spend more time outside for your own good.
Don’t hustle and grind your way to burnout
I’ve had a chip on my shoulder my whole life. I’ve been underestimated for as long as I can remember. It makes me want to work harder than anyone else I know, prove people wrong about what I’m capable of, and make it unequivocally true that I’ve reached higher than many would’ve expected. With that kind of mindset, it makes sense to work every chance I get — go, go go!
As the years have gone on, I’ve learned the limits of hard work. I don’t have the stamina to keep going at a break neck pace for the (hopefully) many decades ahead in my career. This started with a mental and physical health collapse while running my first business. Since then I’ve learned to work hard when I’m working and then completely check out when it’s time to rest and recover.
You need rest to reach your potential. The end of the year is the perfect time to take that rest and focus as hard on recovering as you normally do on working hard. When you feel the itch to “be productive,” spend time reflecting on this past year rather than jumping in to something new. Reflecting is an important part of recovery, whereas starting something new short circuits our recovery.
To rest is human. It doesn’t make you weak. It won’t make you fall behind. It will help you reach your potential over the course of your career.
Take this chance to get the rest you need.