WORK+LIFE >> BY KAREN M. KROLL
If you really want to improve your job performance, go ahead and take some time off.
Every three months or so, Tielman de Villiers, Ph.D., an engineering manager at Bateman Minerals and Metals in Johannesburg, South Africa, takes a long weekend getaway. He spends time with his wife and focuses on interests outside of work, such as photography and gardening.
“The main reason for taking time off is to rest and recharge. Coming back from a break, or even a weekend without work, I have renewed energy for the tasks ahead,” says Dr. de Villiers, who normally works 60 to 70 hours a week.
Taking time off can help improve your performance on the job in several ways. First, a break is invigorating and can prompt you to tackle your work responsibilities with more enthusiasm once you return.
It also gives you an opportunity to “step back,” says Lisa Gundry, Ph.D., professor of management and director of the Leo V. Ryan Center for Creativity and Innovation at DePaul University, Chicago, Ill., USA. Focusing on an activity outside of work can lend a new perspective on the challenges you're facing on the job.
This method is referred to as “pattern-breaking thinking,” based on the work of Edward de Bono and other creativity experts. By immersing yourself in an unfamiliar environment or experience, you gain new insights.
Dr. Gundry takes several of her classes to the Art Institute of Chicago to view French Impressionist Claude Monet's “Stack of Wheat” series. Each painting pictures a wheat stack in a different light and season. While the wheat presumably is the focus of the paintings, it's the background that actually distinguishes each picture. “Often, you don't notice what's around you,” she says. “It gets people to consider that the problem you're given may not be the real problem.”
A Little Peace and Quiet
Many weekends, as Beverly Stocker, PMP, hikes several miles, answers to work challenges often become clear. “When I get my mind quieter, the solution will dawn on me,” says Ms. Stocker, a project manager at Matanuska Telephone Association Inc., Palmer, Alaska, USA.
In 2004, Ms. Stocker was trying to figure out how to improve communication among the 150 stakeholders working on a project to automate the provisioning of services. With team members working in different locations and for different departments and business units, communication on the project was unwieldy.
She'd been relying on e-mails with documents attached, as well as regular status meetings. However, team members would often arrive at meetings lacking the information or materials they needed, because not everyone received updated e-mails on a timely basis.
While hiking one weekend, Ms. Stocker thought of Microsoft Project Server. After looking into the software, she found it would allow her team to set up a central repository for status reports, Gantt charts and other information team members needed. Now, they simply go to the site and click on the hyperlink to access resources.
Unwanted Free Time
Of course, not all free time comes because you want it. In November 2001, Paul Burgess, PMP, lost his job as vice president of operations as part of a downsizing at QSI Payments Inc., Brisbane, Australia. After he was let go, Mr. Burgess updated his résumé, contacted companies and applied for jobs. Four months later, however, he still hadn't landed a new position.
Frustrated, he decided to spend a few weeks working at Curly Flat Vineyard, a boutique winery in Lancefield, Victoria, Australia, his friend owned. “It was the right thing to do, rather than becoming despondent or stressed,” he says.
At the winery, he did everything from picking and de-stemming grapes to managing the fermentation process. “The time off provided an opportunity to experience other life activities and a context for my own professional career,” Mr. Burgess says. He realized that he could enjoy working in fields other than IT.
Mr. Burgess ended up staying in IT, but he credits his stint at Curly Flat–at least in part–for his success in landing a new position as a project director at Unisys. His time at the winery left him more relaxed and confident, and that likely came across in his interview.
Back to Basics
Stepping into the role of a beginner can help project managers develop a greater appreciation for the effort younger team members must make to master their roles, says Kay Fleischer, PMP, an independent project manager in Chicago, Ill., USA.
After wrapping up a project in the spring of 2005, Ms. Fleischer spent several months learning to sail competitively. It was her first extended period of time off, and the first time in a long time that she was back in the role of a novice. “At some point, you're at the top of your game professionally, and you just keep doing things that you're good at,” she says. “You do forget that you really need to be patient and can't assume things.”
Her sailing experience helped her appreciate anew what it's like to be a beginner. Like many disciplines, sailing has its own vocabulary, and novices probably don't know what jib and spinnaker mean or how these items are used. Similarly, Ms. Fleischer says, many newer project team members assume that a Gantt chart will suffice as a project plan.
While free time should be just that—without strict deadlines and goals—it helps to have a loose plan, Dr. Gundry says. That's especially true if the time off extends beyond a few days.
“If you take a sabbatical, you have to plan,” says Seppo Halminen, senior manager, project management at Nokia, Espoo, Finland. In 2000, Mr. Halminen took a six-month sabbatical after he finished overseeing construction of a recreational complex.
Initially, he enjoyed relaxing and working on house projects he'd put off. After several months, however, he was ready to do something productive. So, Mr. Halminen and his wife began a project they'd long talked about: making a movie to promote travel in Finland. Their creation, “Winter Holidays in Finland,” was shown to more than 20 million TV viewers in Eastern Europe.
Making the decision not to work for a while “freed the mind from the pressure or normal work tension to think creatively, which then led to the extraordinary thing of producing a movie,” Mr. Halminen says.
A Short Break
Taking off an extended period of time isn't always feasible, of course. But even getting away from work and into a new environment for an hour or two can help. “I'm a firm believer in taking breaks that don't take very long,” says Renee Hopkins Callahan, director of insights and innovation at Decision Analyst, a marketing consultancy in Arlington, Texas, USA. Something as simple as reading a book in a genre you usually overlook can be enough to help you think in new ways.
Creativity often involves making connections between situations or topics that don't initially seem particularly similar, Ms. Callahan says. The broader your range of experience, the more material you'll have to draw from when it's time to think of new ideas. “You need to seek out experiences that push you out of your routine,” she says.
www.pmi.org << SEPTEMBER 2006