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Between Assignments: How Better Down-Time Leads to Better Up-Time

Apr 24, 2023

The time “between assignments” can be our worst. For an Enneagram 3 like me, it can be maddening, anxiety-producing and nerve-racking. Why? Because I’m not moving. I’m not producing. I’m not accomplishing. I’m not checking boxes. I’m not procuring results. I’m not tracking progress. I’m not populating a scoreboard. I’m just sitting. Stewing. Waiting. Wondering. Regretting sometimes. Stirring up trouble other times. Left to my own devices I can treat the in-between times as a sort of misfortune that one leg of the race has ended and another has not yet begun. But that is my mistake. These are the golden times. These are the times to drink in refreshment, to recalibrate and to get ready for what’s next.  

Think about this parallel for a second. James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Ethan Hunt - what do they all have in common? When they’re on a mission they’re unstoppable. But when the mission is over, they seem to lose their “superpowers,” don’t they? They go from achievement to aimlessness almost instantly. It’s like they don’t know how to take a break very well. Kind of like you and me.

If you’re a leader, then you’re mission-driven. Sometimes to a fault. You do well when the adrenaline is pumping, the progress is visible and the pace is fast. But if things slow down or go into unexpected territory, you get scared. And when the season is over, sometimes you don’t know how to handle yourself until the next assignment surfaces. The problem is, down time can take you down if you’re not intentional about it. BUT if used wisely, down-time can lead to some of the greatest up-time you’ve ever experienced.

CLUE: It’s all about your stops, your starts, and what’s in-between.

One of my favorite business books is “Scaling Up,” by Verne Harnish. In the book Verne observes, “those who pulse fastest, grow fastest.” What he means is, teams that connect more often around their goals move more quickly toward those goals. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But the same is true for individuals. Maybe you’ve been feeling sluggish in your leadership because you’re not doing down-time right. After all, this on and off rhythm is a hard-wired need, placed in us by the Author of Life Himself, God. He instituted the six-and-one ratio of rest all the way back in the beginning (the Sabbath). And that pulsing principle extended to even to fields and crops and debt. Fact: Life works best in a work-rest cycle.

 You might be wondering what this has to do with Jason Bourne, or even you.

 Well, I’m proposing that your quality of life comes down to your starts, your stops and your in-betweens. How well you start - a day, a week, a month, a project, a relationship, a business, a church, or anything else. And how well you stop; or should I say how often. In my opinion, there are two simple switches that could change everything for all of us: Stopping more frequently, and stopping more intentionally.

Think about it. On the seventh day, God rested. Awesome companies offer Sabbaticals. Exciting teams have victory celebrations. Major life milestones call for massive parties. Why? What’s the point in all the starts and stops?

 My opinion? The reason for all of these things is to get more connected to our destiny as individuals. These are the opportunities for us to get better, to get closer to our Creator’s calling on our lives.

 So how can you use your down time to enhance your up time? How can you avoid burning out and dropping out when the adrenaline rush subsides?

 2 things: (1) Plan more pauses, and (2) Ask three questions.

 PLAN MORE PAUSES

Right now it’s April 24th, 2023 and my wife and I are hovering about 35,000 feet above the Atlantic, on the way to go see our kids in Rome. We just finished an incredibly productive (and busy!) season at home in the Portland, Oregon area and we’re ready for a break. After almost four solid months of intense schedules, pressures and projects with church, home and business, it’s time to pause. We sort of planned it this way. In fact, if you know us well you might be recognizing a pattern. We work hard and then we play hard. Truth is, our friend Ron invited us a while back to join their church’s tour of the Holy Land and we couldn’t resist. When we realized the timing, we knew we had to throw in a visit to our kids in Rome, lest we fly right over the top of them on the way to Israel. And so we’re taking three weeks off. A couple days in New York City, some time with the kids in Italy, and one of our life goals - finally seeing the sacred places we’ve read about and imagined so many times.

Because I’m an introspective person by nature, I crave these in-between times. For me they are as valuable as the fast-paced, goal-achieving moments (maybe more if I’m being honest). Because it’s in these moments when I feel like I reconnect with my soul, and my Savior. And being connected on that level makes it possible for me to really connect with my wife and my family. Otherwise I can be a little grumpy and distracted. But I’ve learned not to justuse these times to sit by the pool or ride roller coasters (though I do love a good adventure). We don’t need a busyness sandwich. Busy season - busy break - busy season. That’s not a recipe for health or happiness. We need a real pause.

The problem is, most people misinterpret what a “break” really is. A healthy, helpful break is not just a passive pause, where you do and think as little as possible. It’s more like an intentional interlude where you refuel, reflect, recalibrate and get ready for the next assignment. And if you believe - like I do - that those assignments are from God Himself, then maybe it’s worth your time to figure out how to use this time well.

Before we move on let’s get nitty gritty about planning a pause…

  •  Daily - do you have a time every day that you pause to rest, reflect, pray, read Scripture, and plan like you’re on a mission from God?
  •  Weekly - have you gotten in the habit of carving out a day each week where you rest, reconnect with God and others, and get yourself ready for the week ahead?
  •  Monthly - do you have a rhythm of resetting each month so you can course-correct and make sure you’re healthy, aligned, and on track to win?
  •  Quarterly - is there a place on your calendar set aside to “retreat” long enough every few months so that you can get a grip and muster the energy and clarity to charge ahead again?
  •  Annually - are you unplugging completely at least once a year for as long as it takes to come back better?

If the answer is yes - congratulations. Your calendar is your friend here. Make sure those things are on your calendar, cleared (and maybe shared?) by your spouse and family, and honored by your team. But now, what should you actually DO during that time?

ASK THREE QUESTIONS

OK so maybe you do grab that lounge chair next to the pool. But don’t forget the journal. These three questions can turn your next down time into even better up time:

1. A growth question - what am I learning?

If you weren’t sure, it’s now officially confirmed. I am a certified nerd. I’m the kind of guy who takes a journal (either analog or digital) with me almost everywhere I go. In fact, my journals are some of my most prized possessions - not because they have any great ideas in them, but because they record my journey of learning and growth. And I’ve paid dearly for those lessons. It’s why I love tools like Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner or Brendon Burchard’s Growth Day App. They prompt me to ask better questions of myself. Tony Robbins once said, “the quality of your life comes down to the quality of questions you’re willing to ask yourself.” Craig Groeschel once said, “the difference between where you are and where you want to be is the amount of pain you’re willing to endure.” That’s heavy stuff, right? But there’s probably a reason why you’ve heard of these people. It’s because they’re practicing what they preach.

So…in the last 24 hours or 7 days or 1 month or 90 days or year, what are you learning? If you’ll start now to record your leaps forward, you’ll start to build momentum you didn’t know was possible.

2. A focus question - What’s Important Now?

I’ve got to give credit where credit is due - Tony Morgan taught me that this question spells out the word “WIN.” I love that, don’t you? Too many times we race off in a new assignment without even knowing how to WIN. We haven’t gone deep enough. We haven’t paused long enough. We haven’t listened closely enough.

What’s Important Now?

Do you know?

How do you know?

Who needs to help you decide?

You can’t win unless you know What’s Important Now. Take the time to figure it out before you get moving again. 

3. A courage question - how do I want to re-enter?

It’s not fair to “take” a break and come back giving the same. It’s important to come back better. Come back more present. Come back more aware. Come back more compassionate. Come back more determined. Come back more committed. Come back more joyful. There are lots of possibilities here, but by all means come back better than when you left. To do that, you’ll have to use your down time differently - not passively, but more fully engaged with the reason you’re here on earth. I’m not suggesting that you turn all your vacations into a one-person conference. But I am suggesting that you have a mindfulness in your down time that allows you to prayerfully reach for your next level in the next leg of the journey. If you’ll set the example here for your family and your team, you’ll end up creating a culture of continual improvement that will be unstoppable.

Here’s to hoping that sometime in the next day you’ll take that scheduled break to begin this glorious cycle. You’ll be glad you did.

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