A conversation with with John Fitch, CPO of Voltage Control & author
“I’ve read a lot into behavioral psychology, and one thing that is appreciated across the board regardless of the therapist or psychologist is that you change the environment, you change the behavior.” – John Fitch
I’m Douglas Ferguson, and I’m on a mission to help people everywhere have better meetings. There’s clear evidence that poorly run meetings not only waste time, but they also squander a lot of money. A recent report by Doodle found that $541 billion is lost globally every year on common meeting mistakes–and that’s just the report from the County for Direct Labor Costs. This staggering amount translates into opportunity costs we incur from ineffective meetings.
I’m excited to have John Fitch with me today! John is the CPO at Voltage Control and the author of Time Off. John is an author, business model generator, and prototype creator. He enjoys deep, intentional work that leads to the facilitation of new ideas and business models.
John is a big fan of compartmentalization, especially with work colleagues, projects, and phases of projects. He stresses the importance of reflection and the design lens of conversation. John believes that compartmentalizing takes conversation design, “which I admit, I’m not a pro at, but I know that to compartmentalize we need to talk about it, have a language about it. I think it’s fascinating,” he says.
With COVID-19 and many of us working from home, John stresses the importance of having clearly compartmentalized spaces. “Now, if work is in your home and you haven’t developed a rest ethic and have yours defined, and you’re intentional about it, now that work is at home, it can be surrounding you at all times.”
Learning how to take time off can be an investment in many ways. It can help create new ideas and turn activities into meditation time, to name a few. Time off can also bring you awareness of what you do in a space of rest so that you can be intentional about how you spend time away from work. Find out why you should use breaks in your projects or meetings, how our days can be dictated by our emotional behaviors, and how you can have boot-up and boot-down time for your creative process.
[01:45] Time Off–the book and what it means to have a Rest Ethic.
[02:22] Compartmentalizing work matters.
[04:25] Doing specific tasks in your own space can help with compartmentalization.
[07:29] Use your transition time commuting as a slow interstitial time-off switch.
[08:05] Superhuman and it’s relevance to complexity theory.
[08:54] Driving and music can be a form of meditation.
[10:57] Incubation and the process of stepping away from the thing you are trying to achieve leads to more success.
[13:02] Use exercise to think through challenges–John’s interview with Terry Rudolph, a Quantum Physicist.
[18:20] Build intentional time into your schedule for rest during meetings or projects.
[21:31] Emotional triggers, both positive and negative, lead to a biased judgment of work.
[26:15] Utilizing rest time requires a transition period and acclimation periods.
[30:27] How John upgraded his business through time off and a real-life example from his book.
[32:15] Intentionally plan time off and give others a heads up that you are planning to be disconnected.
[34:17] When you lead a room, read others and be prepared to facilitate.
[38:24] John’s recommendations to leaders for facilitating better meetings.
[42:25] How you should reframe activities in your own mind.
Links and Resources
Time Off Podcast
About the Guest
John Fitch is a maker who loves tinkering and building prototypes of products and businesses. “When new ideas aren’t successful, it’s usually because a team was overconfident about how well customers and users would understand the idea and how much they would perceive its value.” He specializes in enabling teams to receive customer and user reactions before making any expensive commitments. This process involves a lot of play, unlearning, and empathy.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Intro: Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting.
Douglas: I’m super excited to have John Fitch on the show this week. And John Fitch is the chief product officer at Voltage Control and the author of Time Off. Welcome to the show, John.
John: Douglas, it’s an honor to be on a podcast episode with you, deep in conversation. And it’s also one of those classic funny lines where they’re like, “Hey, it’s been a while,” whereas right before recording this, you and I were prototyping some cool stuff. So it’s cool, then, to transition from the intensity, deep work of prototyping to a more casual conversation.
Douglas: In a way, this casual conversation comes off as a bit of time off compared to the deep, intentional work that’s required for facilitation.
John: Well said. And you said a word there that is really important. You said intentional. And in the book Time Off and the whole point of view I have is we talk about it’s important to have a work ethic, and we just proved that, prototyping some awesome software. We did it with an intentional work ethic. And having an intentional rest ethic is what the book Time Off is all about. So you’re right. And time off can be active, which is another, I think, eye-opener for our readers. It doesn’t just mean vegging out on the couch, which is totally fine, that’s a form of time off, but sometimes stopping what you’re doing and just having an awesome conversation with a colleague, a friend. In this case, you’re both of those. So, yeah. Good point.
Douglas: Excellent. And I want to get to your background a little bit. But before we do, I love this notion of being able to be friends and colleagues at the same time. And I think there is this notion of compartmentalization that’s so important to be able to do those things. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this notion of compartmentalization.
John: I think it’s fantastic to compartmentalize lots of things. And especially with those you work with, but it’s important to compartmentalize the projects, and what phase is it in. I think we’ve talked many times before in our facilitation coaching that it’s important to look at your meeting culture through seasons. That’s a compartmentalization, right? You’ve decided, hey, right now we’re in a season of production, or we’re in a season of reflection or redesign or growth. And all of those have been intentionally compartmentalized. And so I think across relationships, that’s really important. But also within your company culture, within yourself, you’ve got to compartmentalize parts of yourself. Like, I can’t necessarily bring the version of me that’s going out hunting and hiking to every prototyping session I have. And so I think that mindfulness and that internal check-in, both for yourself but also across your team, is just, you know, that’s the beauty of reflection and intention. So I think it’s cool to just simply talk about it.
And I know you’ve had Daniel Stillman on the podcast and so cool to just think about the design lens of conversation. And to your point, compartmentalizing things, I think takes a lot of amazing conversation design that I know I’m not a pro at. But I know that to compartmentalize, we’ve got to talk about it, we have to have a language about it. So I think it’s fascinating.
Douglas: You know, it’s interesting you bring up this notion of hunting or fishing, and I think exercise can play a role there, these things that have a space associated with them. You go to do those things in that space tend to help with compartmentalization because you can think of that it serves a purpose.
Right at the beginning of COVID, I read some really fascinating writings by psychologists that were saying to really think about how you redesign your space and the purpose each room has for you so that you can still compartmentalize your life, even though you’re confined to a much smaller, let’s say footprint.
John: Yeah. It’s fascinating. I’ve been thinking about now since Time Off is out, you have friends and readers who reach out, and they’re like, “Hey, have you thought about what you’re writing next?” And in regard to the whole Time Off sort of franchise, if I’m to use that word, I think a natural follow up would be time on and intentional time on. And then a book title that I’m the most excited about regarding what you just said would be a title something like Time Away. I, too, have read a lot into behavioral psychology, and one thing that is pretty much appreciated across the board, regardless of the therapist or psychologist, is you change the environment, you change the behavior. And that’s so fascinating. And, yeah, right now we’re all limited. You and I can’t both just pack our bags and go to Ireland. Well, I mean, I guess we could, but probably not smart at the moment. But just by changing things up in your own house. I remember—remind me of Linda’s last name, who spoke at Control the Room.
Douglas: Linda Baker.
John: Yeah. Linda Baker. She gave a presentation on feng shui, and I think that’s under that lens of energy design, space design. And it is amazing if you just rearrange things. And I know I’ve been on so many Zoom calls with you. You’ve really transformed your office, I assume for the better. But all of those intentional environment changes have, I would assume, changed your behavior. Would you say so?
Douglas: Absolutely. You know, I’ve created stations, if you will, within my house, so that each spot’s almost like traveling to a new—it’s like a replica of what I had previously. I’ve got the space where I’m doing workshops. I got the space where I’m boxing and doing Pilates. I got the space where I’m eating. I got the space where I’m relaxing, and I got the place where I’m sleeping. I try to keep those responsibilities delineated and compartmentalized so I can be very intentional about what I’m going to do and how I spend that time.
John: And that’s really important. I think that’s one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about with the pandemic. In some ways, it was a big, forced time off for some people, depending on their context. But also, I didn’t really think about this because it’d been so long since I had the lifestyle of, oh, I go to a workplace. I work. I leave. I go home. A lot of people that going home, that interstitial time, was sort of a slow time-off switch. Like, they were going home, and when they went home, they were able to leave work at the office and home is home, and that’s a clear compartmentalization. Whereas now if work is in your home and you haven’t developed, as we call it, a rest ethic and have yours defined and you’re intentional about it, now that work’s at home, it could just be surrounding you at all times.
Douglas: Yeah. It’s not only the compartmentalization you’re describing, it’s the transition. And, you know, in complexity theory, whenever we’re talking about complexity theory, one of the examples I love to give is Superman. Superman doesn’t turn from Clark Kent into Superman instantaneously. He goes into the phone booth and changes. And likewise, when we’re moving from simple to complicated or complex, we can’t just transition from those domains instantaneously. We have to go through some transformation and recall that disorder.
And I know for a fact I used to—I live out in the country, and my drive home, I always planned it so that I would never be stuck because I hate sitting still in traffic, but I love driving. And just the motion, my thoughts form and dissolve and reform. And it’s a great way for me too, I think, it’s almost like active meditation. We’ve talked about this before, John.
John: I’m curious. Is there a particular playlist or something you would listen to in that transition time?
Douglas: You know, it’s interesting, John. You know I have very eclectic music tastes, and so I have about, gosh, I don’t even know what the total is. I think it’s somewhere in the realm of, like, 500,000 songs on a USB thumb drive. And it’s amazing because it used to be that back in the day, it was like a wall full of CDs. I still have a whole shelfful of albums, but now I have this thumb drive that’s like the size of a—I mean, it’s so tiny. It’s maybe two centimeters or something. It’s the tiniest little thumb drive. And I just put it on random. And the nice thing about listening to a really eclectic database of music on random, I can always skip something if I’m not in the mood for it. But it’s the weird serendipities of things that flow from one thing to another. And I might be on a thread of thought, and then it totally changes my gears because it intercepts where I’m at and re-shifts me. So I kind of like being taken on a journey that I’m not having to plan, that I’m not having to put thought into, and I just flow with it.
John: I like it. It’s like the audio version of Google’s Feeling Lucky feature. I mean, that’s a cool environment change. I mean, it’s your audio’s mind space. You’re just allowing serendipity. And I actually think that has a lot of beautiful correlation to our book Time Off, which a lot of times people who haven’t talked to me or read the book when I just surface-level tell them, “Yeah, I wrote this book,” they’re like, “Oh, that’s cool. You wrote a book on vacations,” and I’m like, “No, no, no, no. It’s our goal, my coauthor’s and I’s goal, is to really expand the connotation of time off, not just being vacation from work.” It’s micro practices. And why it’s important is we looked at the creative process, and there’s four phases of it. And one of the phases that’s absolutely essential is called incubation, and it’s when you’re not actively working on the thing you’re trying to achieve. It’s by stepping away from it, by doing something else. Again, that could be something very passive. It could be something very active, like an intense workout. The point is, is your subconscious and other parts of your brain are able to work in the background in those moments.
And so what I like about your random music selection is that is a form of incubation that—well, you’re driving, so you can’t really actively code or do any of your workshop facilitation work, but you’re able to be an open channel. And so those sounds come through, and who knows what memories that ignites, and one idea can flow into the next. And I know a type-A personality like me really benefited from changing my perspective of time off of this, like, I’m not working to, like, no, it’s actually a very productive practice for an investment in better ideas or an investment to an epiphany, perhaps. So I like that you’re just opening it up. You don’t know what’s going to come.
Douglas: Yes. It’s really fantastic. And one of my other favorite active-meditation techniques is actually just going to the gym and just having my sauna time, getting into a groove of—there’s a Pilates routine that I kind of developed out of my greatest hits, the things I really, really like. There’s a spine corrector and some different exercises on the Cadillac that I’ve done so many times that I don’t even have to think about what’s next. I just go in there and I flow through it. I’ll do that as a warmup, as a way of stretching and getting ready to do something more intense. And an hour will just evaporate. I’m not thinking about much of anything. And I found that time to be very valuable, and I miss it terribly because it’s really hard to recreate that at home.
John: It’s really cool that you brought up exercise. That’s one of the many deep dives in our book Time Off, and it reminds me of—we interviewed this quantum physicist named Terry Rudolph. And exercise is a really big part of his rest ethic, and he gave us—each person we interview, we ask them to give very practical advice for the reader to immediately try. And his was—and you could replace the word run with any kind of movement. But he essentially said, look, run hard to empty your mind or jog slowly to think through a problem without distractions. And so he essentially told us, if you need to clear your mind, go really hard. So that could be your high-intensity workouts. And challenge yourself so that you’re not able to think about anything, basically. And you just kind of get lost on focusing on not dying in that high-intensity activity. So it’s, in a way, you’re unplugged for a while and getting back to the body.
Or as, if you want to use a workout as productivity, you could set some clear intentions or questions to contemplate in advance, and then use that time off exercising to really give you a macro view. So that could be, like, as you’ve told me, in the sauna or in Pilates, where it is active, you’re definitely working out, but there’s enough space in there for you to dream up, have a macro view. And so I think that’s a cool oscillation of intention.
And also, that analogy could be made to a work project. There’s times where, like today, actually, you and I were prototyping. You can only do that for so long, just like you can only sprint for so long on the Treadmill, or you can only stay in the really intense, infrared sauna for so long. And so it’s just being aware of that oscillation and intentional about it to reap the benefits and not just choosing and obsessing over one.
Douglas: That’s right. And I think that it’s another thing to think about how you might hijack some of the systems to do things that you might need, because you, not to overuse the word hijacking, but imagine your emotions. Your brain chemistry is hijacking you at the moment. Well, then going for a really long run, in a way, you’re kind of depriving yourself of oxygen because everything’s just devoted to surviving that intensity. Whatever weird conversation you just had with someone that didn’t sit well, that’s going to all be history. And so then you’ll be in a much better headspace to analyze it, synthesize it, and address it. So that’s interesting. Time off can be both micro and macro, I guess.
John: I’m curious. That’s a good point. So I’m just, in real-time, I know you have a ton of experience in music and especially in synthesizers and other instruments. I mean, you’ve helped produce music. And if you think about it, time off is essential in music, too. Time off between certain notes gives you a rhythm. Time off from one section of the orchestra is important to evoke a certain emotion. I’m curious in, like, synthesizer space, is time off an important part of your whole setup? I’m just totally randomly curious about that.
Douglas: Yeah. It’s no different than other music, right? You’ve got micro timing, which, to bring it back to the micro and macro, you’ve got these moments with inside the melody itself, where literally—and if we want to really break it back down to the voltages, the voltage is either on or it’s off. If the voltage was on the entire time, nothing would happen, because the system would just be totally primed. You’d imagine it would just be complete stress, right? So in order to have anything interesting happen, it needs to oscillate up and down. So the voltage goes positive and it goes negative. Or if it’s d.c., it goes just positive and zero. And that’s where you get these really cool modulations, where really stuff interesting happens.
But I think if you were going to really bring it back to work and life and habits and how we keep our brains healthy, we also need to think about the frequency of isolation, because I would argue that even if you’re having too much rest and the contact switch alone could be exhausting, just switching between turn it on and off. So I think that the frequency is important to having it too fast, the duration too short, and then switch is too fast, it’s probably equally harmful.
John: Hm. You and I have been conductors of a lot of rooms. It’s been a great honor we’re able to learn so much when we do that. I’m curious before I go in because I’ve contemplated it for a few years, putting the book together, but in your own master facilitation, whether it’s a large group gathering or a small team or a design sprint, Douglas, how have you used time off as a function as a facilitator? Anything come to mind?
Douglas: Well, yeah. I mean, there’s the cardinal rule of the 90-minute break. We don’t want to go over 90 minutes before we have breaks, and making sure that that’s written into the agenda and being very strict about seeing to that. Also, just time away from the material can be really powerful, whether that’s by design—we build something into the agenda for us to kind of take a tour around through something different. It’s exactly the reason why you might do improv games or icebreakers and these types of things, where we intentionally want to move the energy or the patterns through the room. And it’s definitely an amazing tool when things get uncomfortable, and it’s unproductively uncomfortable, and we can call a break. We can use that time to let people disperse and then come back together at a time. It’s similar to going on that sprint, letting the emotions discharge so that we can come back together when people are a little less emotional or a little less spun up.
John: Yeah. It reminds me when I was in film school, we took this class, and I was really focused on being a producer, which was kind of the business mind, the coordinator of the project. But in order to do that, you had to take editing, and you had to take directing. And I remember being really fascinated by, in our directing class, one of the biggest tips we heard from renowned filmmakers was if you’re the director, I think on average, it was like two or three months was the minimum recommended from when your filming ended, so all of your production of the live-action footage, etc. Two to three months between that and when you sat down the first time with your editor, because you needed to be detached from the material, because there may have been a particular shot, a particular line, a particular character, that in that time of production you were just really excited about personally and in detaching from a while allowed their advice. And I definitely, when I was producing documentaries, benefited from this advice, that by the time you had been so detached, you were able to really reflect and kind of come to the material new again and work with the editor from the perspective, more of a new viewer versus someone who’s been deep in the weeds for a long time.
Douglas: Yeah, that’s interesting. I feel like the weeds could cause a couple of problems. If I were to bring it back to design sprints, it’s a reason that we encourage people not to do any synthesis at the end of day five. So if you’ve done interviews all day, you’re going to be suffering from recency bias from the most recent interview. Just go clear your head over the weekend and come back. Take that time off to let it all just dissipate, disassociate from whatever happened. It was much more effective.
And John, it makes me wonder. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this. Do you think there could be things around emotional triggers that are—I mean, maybe that scene was filmed on your birthday. People were giving you lots of Happy Birthdays and encouragement; maybe you got a cool gift from someone. Or maybe you found out your grandmother was sick the day this other scene was filmed. And so could you have these associations with them that are subconscious, where you might judge them in ways that aren’t accurate?
John: Oh, that’s certainly the reason you need a team, because of that complexity of influences. And I actually wish that I would have known how much that my film-school experience would have prepared me to work in software and design. I had no idea. I think I would have been much more intentional as a student because we had these—and I mean, you and I do them all the time, working together, and we help organizations get comfortable with doing them. We just have a different language for it—but in film school, we call them design crits, “crits” short for critique. And you would show up with your work in progress, a.k.a. a prototype; and you would sit there with about eight to nine others; show the 90 seconds, four-minute clip, whatever the professor allowed for. I mean, you had to get good at taking feedback, and through repetition, it was not easy first. But by the time I graduated, you look at feedback as this beautiful gift. And it’s because of yes, there’s certain things that I’m attached to. And how many John Fitch’s are there in the world? I mean, I’m sure there’s some people with a similar psychographic as me, but that’s not going to get me an award-winning film.
And so just exposing yourself to more and more feedback early on, I think, humbles you and gets you out of your own head with all of those influences, because someone will resonate with something that you might think is not that exciting. Whereas you can see a pattern of something you’re deep—like to your points earlier, something around, oh, my birthday happened, and I had a super-good day, and we shot that one scene and that scene’s got to be in the film. And unless I get checked by a team or early viewers, early testers, that could be a poor decision on the quality of the story. And so, we are in the art of helping people, I think, quickly adapt, thanks to the gift of feedback.
Douglas: It’s amazing, right? It’s interesting. Even if your time off isn’t giving you the answers, like we can rely on the perception of others, the perspective of others. And I want to come back to this notion of, I feel like a lot of this is borne out of kind of tech burnout and getting in these situations where people are overworked and they need to kind of step away from things so they can do better work. It’s almost like a rejuvenation and a recovery, to use the athlete metaphor. If you train all the time, you’ll just wear yourself out. There has to be time for recovery. So that’s why people do the sauna, the ice bath, the compression sleeves. Take a day off. Take a week off. Heal.
And I’ve been thinking a bit lately about this notion of flipping the switch from active to inactive or time on to time off. And I’ve personally found it a bit difficult just to completely flip that switch into the other mode, and it’s because we kind of prime our nervous system and our mind and our habitual states, the things that we kind of get acclimated to, and how we spend our days are based off of behaviors. And as we were kind of going through this transition for moving more and more things, pretty much going to a 100 percent virtual facilitation company versus a 15, 20 percent virtual company, it required a lot of my work and attention, and I poured myself into it, partly to support the community, but also to make sure the company stay alive and survive this transition. And now that I’ve got a lot of things in place and I’m confident about where we are, I’ve started to pull back. And as I’ve done so, it’s been great to have some of that time off and to be able to shut off and think about other things and come back to it.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that it’s a continuum. You know, if you look at a thermometer, if you put a thermometer into boiling water and you turn the stove off, it’s going to take a while for that thermometer to get back down. You can’t just go straight into the other mode. And so I’m just curious if you thought much about these, that it’s around these kind of this rest time and even making use of it might require some transition. It’s not just like, let’s just go do it. Okay, I’m doing it. It’s like I need to almost, like, train myself to be able to function in that mode properly.
John: You threw the perfect slow-motion softball pitch to me right now. This is the whole thing that the backstory that led to Time Off. To answer this is, again, we put together these two words. I had not come across it before. Not going to be—I can’t say I invented it. They’re just two separate words that we put together. But rest ethic. So work ethic for me is like someone with a solid work ethic, they’re not just carelessly driving themselves for no reason. They put high intention. They’re good at prioritization, decision making, etc. They follow up with what they’re going to do. Intentional work ethic, to your point, yes, to get the most out of rest, it’s going to take some intention. And so those things you’re feeling are real.
And I learned, and I’m going to simplify it, and I think each person has to figure out their own transition art. But when I was at Animal Ventures, a firm that did prototyping with a lot of supply chain automation work, my two business partners were the ones that opened me up to this whole concept of time off. And our model of time on, time off by no means is copy, paste at other cultures. But based on how we worked and what we did, we were able to establish a model where everyone worked for three months. So think about a quarter. And then after that quarter, you had a month mini-sabbatical, and we had to stagger those.
And a lot of people hear that and they’re like, “Oh, that sounds amazing.” Well, we had to really design that out and practice it. And before that month off, there was a lot of preparation, not just like, “Hey, I’m going to go away for a month.” You decentralized your functions as a person. Each person has responsibilities and things they handle, and those would be documented, and in a way, diversified across a few other people that would be still in their time-on mode. Or you would think about ways to automate it more. So we were all—again, it was this intentional thing you would do. It was like the time-off prep so that it wasn’t like all of a sudden massive switch off and then shit falls through the cracks and things aren’t operationalized. So a lot of intention.
And then also—so then you’d go have your time off, and if you did that prep right—you really were off, and you didn’t have to freak out during your time off because your functions were not only handed over, they were going to be upgraded because that was one of the points, is new people get a hold of those functions, and they’re able to poke holes in it and be like, “Oh, that’s not that efficient. We could do better.” Or a new technology comes out in your month that you’re off, and the people upgrade the operations.
And then, let’s say I would come back from that mini-sabbatical. I had a re-acclimation period, sort of like altitude adjustment, where it wasn’t just like I came back on Monday, and it’s boom, full blow. The last one I had done at the firm when I was still there was a week-long acclimation period where I’m not necessarily back to work. I’m understanding what has changed. That was one category. The second of work was I was giving in sharing my epiphanies on how my position, my department, my product ownership, whatever it was, I mean, that time off gave me a lot of epiphanies. And so I would share, “Hey, here’s how I think it could be better,” and we would workshop that. And then the people that handled my functions while I was gone would then report to me saying, “Hey, we ran your functions while you were away, and we upgraded it.” And so I had to now—I had literally an upgraded playbook for the position. And so all of us were upgrading the business-culture software through this time off. And so the ramp up and the ramp down is often never practiced. And that’s important.
And I think a beautiful analogy is you’re an athlete and you warm-up, then you do—well, in that case, the hardcore work, in this case, the hard core time off—and then you have a cool down, and you re-acclimate. And that’s really important to do.
One of the micro tips in the book that I’ll give you an example of a mistake I made where I didn’t take my own advice. We interviewed Tiffany Shlain. She came up with this concept called the Tech Shabbat, where, for a 24-hour period, you don’t interact with any screens. And it’s a really powerful exercise, especially given that we work in screens a lot. I find that it slows downtime. In a way, I get bored on purpose, and it’s just really fun what you end up filling that time with. And what’s funny is the first time I did one, I did not take that advice of prep and then acclimate. And it was awesome. I was like, time slowed down. I’m enjoying no screen time for a weekend. And when I get back to my phone on Sunday, my iPad, and I open it up, I have, like, 25 missed calls and all these texts, and it was from my mom and her friends because my mom is so used to chatting with me on the weekends. She was like, “All his devices are off. All his phones off.” She thought I got kidnapped and was freaking out. And then that stressed me out. And so I could have easily prepped her. And that’s just a little micro example of, great, you have some intentional time off planned; make sure to prepare for it. And then, also, integrate yourself in a meaningful way back, because it is hard to go from a very rested rhythm and state and then suddenly just drop it in. It’s like you call it boot-up time in a lot of the meeting culture at work you do, Douglas. And I think there’s boot-up time, but there’s also—what would it be, boot down?— to also get prepared again to take time off.
Douglas: Yeah. You had to open, explore, and close, right?
John: Yeah. So that’s something that can be applied on the micro and macro as well. And it’s helpful, too, because in the time off, there’s not only the gift of recharging and building your enthusiasm back up, but you’re going to have—again, it’s an important part of the creative process. It’s called incubation. And then following incubation is illumination. That’s the aha. That’s the moment of clarity. That’s like you’ve zoomed out peregrine-falcon-level view. You’re looking at things differently because you’re detached for once. And that’s when we unlearn and rethink things.
Douglas: Yeah, I love that. And it also reminds me of not only do we need to prepare ourselves, we also need to prepare others. So setting those expectations and making sure that others aren’t going to be negatively impacted by—because if it’s completely selfish, then it’s not going to necessarily serve us when we go to do our deep work again, because we usually have to collaborate with others or others are going to be the benefactors of our work. And so I think it’s really awesome that the book shows this path where people can be really, really intentional about their rest ethic, so how they help inform others, how they help prepare others. I think it’s really wise.
John: Yeah. And it’s important, too, for leaders to—and I know you and I’ve talked about, especially in the art of facilitation, read the room and be aware. For I think leaders to feel more confident, I mean, just based on some of the early readers who’ve been reaching out to me that are in a position of leadership and influence, their biggest question after being won over on the importance of time off is, “Okay, now I need to work with my team to figure out what our more-detailed time-off strategies and operations are.” And that’s awesome, and I’m glad that they’re thinking about that, and they’ll work through it because until that intention and design is put forward, the time off and rest ethic in a business context is generally just a short little clause in vacation policy. Whereas it can be so much more manageable, I think, and smart, if it’s a daily, a weekly, a monthly, it’s not just this, like, “Oh, yeah, you decide when you take time off, and here’s our policy.” To actually embrace it and to workshop it and to figure it out for the context of that business is something we hope leaders think about after they read it because it expands that definition that time off is not just vacation and mai tais on a beach. I mean, our sub-chapters are things like sleep, solitude, exercise, reflection, play, which you and I talk a lot about. And then also our relationship to technology.
And the last thing I’ll say that I’d be curious to get your ping-pong, back and forth. I think the most mind-blowing thing that we uncovered in the opening section, which is called “Time Off Throughout History,” it’s like 100,000-foot view of humanity’s relationship to work and leisure, and we found we kind of knocked the dust off of this brilliant thought series from Aristotle, who talked about this concept of noble leisure. And actually, the word school, which goes back to, I think it was pronounced schola or scala, meant leisure. They looked at it as what we did in our leisure time, which nowadays we would call extracurricular or volunteer or playtime or hobby time, that was the most respected thing humans did. It was noble because in those moments we would think to ourselves what’s possible, what’s a better society, we would share, we care about the environment. Literally, because of noble leisure, they invented mathematics and philosophy, these things that propel humanity forward.
And why I got excited about that is he said that one day all of culture would have the opportunity to revisit noble leisure because we would eventually automate the mundane. And you and I think a lot about artificial intelligence and how that’s impacting the future of work. And we’re helping companies think about rescaling, retooling their teams to be more focused on these human skills, these soft skills, however you want to call them. But I just get excited because I agree that Aristotle, his advice of noble leisure, we’re at a time in human history where that’s not so much of a pipe dream anymore. You could argue that once, who knows, a decade, two decades from now, with automation—and you would know more than I on the accuracy—that real humanness, that noble leisure is kind of what’s left for us, the more that mundane is not only better suited for machines, but I think that helps humans get back to those quality moments.
Douglas: So, John, when we’re thinking about how facilitators can make use of these concepts and maybe help teams perform better or work better together, what comes to mind? What recommendations do you have to have better meetings or to just be better facilitators, in light of what you’ve kind of uncovered in the book Time Off?
John: So, I mentioned some of the sub-chapters that are in there, of the components that make up a rest ethic, things like reflection, solitude, play. And I think that’s really important to incorporate those types of practices into your workshop, your meeting because in all of those activities that I just mentioned, you see people in a lot of joy.
And for example, you and I have been in some workshops, and when I was working on the reflection chapter in the book, there was this question that is in there around, when was the last time you felt like a kid, or what activity do you do that you feel the most childlike while you’re doing it? And when you ask that in a professional setting, people’s answers, they light up, and there’s that inner child that’s still in there. And that question—let’s say, we’re brought in. It’s a serious problem, and we’ve got to figure it out, and we’re there to facilitate it and workshop it. And it’s definitely serious, and we’ve got to do the work, and we’re going to have an awesome workshop. We’re going to produce a prototype. We’re going to produce an artifact. We’re going to drive outcomes. Pretty serious stuff. But if you sprinkle in these moments of what I’ll call time off from the deep work, from the actual serious thing, it actually improves the overall process because, again, it goes down to that creative process. You’re leaving some time for incubation and illumination, because then after that, you have verification, which is all about, okay, actually doing the work to see if that idea is worth a damn.
And in the first one—I mentioned it was four phases—is preparation, which is also deep work as you prepare to do things again. And so if you implement time-off practices into any of your workshops, look at them as investments and illumination and incubation for your participants. And also, it helps them rebuild enthusiasm if you go for a walk or you just say, “Hey, we take breaks seriously,” because I’ve been around facilitators that I don’t know what their reasons are, but they don’t incorporate meaningful breaks and rest within the workshop. And you can tell when it’s 3:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m., people are just like, they’re done. They’re checked out. It’s like forcing someone to just continue hill sprints over and over. And so that would be the first thing is ask yourself what moments in our workshop could benefit from incubation and illumination? And have fun with it, and whatever vocabulary you choose to use, I think your participants are going to appreciate that time off because I think when we think about workshops, meetings, seminars, conferences, the art of gathering, that can be tiring. And I think with facilitators that incorporate more rest, people can be less intimidated by it all. So that’d be the first thing, Douglas.
The second thing is facilitators—and you and I are facilitators. We do a lot of facilitation, and we know people that do more facilitation than we do. It is hard, and it is a lot of energy that is used to hold space and pay attention and document and solve problems and deal with conflict. It is no joke. And you could look at time off as time management, but I’ve been thinking about it more and more as energy management. And so I think to do your best work as a facilitator, you also deserve those intentional moments of time off to not only make sure you don’t get overworked and overwhelmed and burned out, but you’ll benefit, too. Maybe by stepping away for once, you’ll completely rethink one of your workshop modules; or you’ll reflect on some feedback that someone gave you, and you’ll level up, or you’ll come up with an entirely new idea for a workshop or an activity.
But I just wanted to make sure to say that, I mean, today you and I were wrapping up a design sprint and then doing prototyping, and there is definitely a part of me that’s like, “Yeah, I still have a few more things to do. But my internal compass is also talking to me, saying ‘That was intense, and you can now go into the garden and cook a nice meal and rest and be back at it tomorrow.’”
So those are two things I would think about and try to reframe it in your mind from a place of starting to eliminate this idea that you’re not effective if you’re not working. I think that’s something society is unlearning—I hope our book helps—is this whole concept of visible busyness. Just because you’re active doesn’t mean you’re effective. Whereas, I think a lot of people assume it’s true. And once you reframe and see rest as productive because it helps with recharge and illumination and incubation, you’ll start taking it as serious as your time on.
Douglas: It’s also, I believe, in the serendipity of if you can manage to do those things when you most need them, I think it’d be much more effective because it’s timely. And it’s sort of like eating before you. You’re just ravenously hungry. And I found the co-facilitator has been an interesting way to have those micro-moments where I can have some time off. I know how to be 100 percent on the entire workshop, and I found that to be, those workshops are much less draining.
John: I’m so glad you remixed it to that. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, Douglas. You and I have co-facilitated a lot, and I think that’s a really important message for the future of work as facilitation becomes more and more relevant, especially now in virtual work, too. Just having multiple facilitators not only provides that time off but you have a skill set that gives you strengths in certain activities. Let’s say there’s a meeting narrative. Let’s just go with the open, explore, close. There’s parts of your personality where you’re really great at the explore and the close, and maybe I’m just, like, a master of the open. And if we’re aligned as a team of facilitators, each one of us can be in our zone of genius more. And not only does it allow us to have these interstitial moments of “in the zone” and then kind of backing off and relaxing, it allows us to just do our best work. And I know what’s been really cool when both of us are co-facilitating: in my time off from facilitating, I’m observing you, which I’m able to give you feedback that is through the lens of a facilitator. Likewise, you’ve done the same for me. And so if you’ve been going it alone as a facilitator, hey, hats off to you. Deep respect. But try out co-facilitating.
Douglas: I think we’re at time, John, so I’m going to close it here and say thanks so much for being here today. It’s been so fantastic riffing with you. It’s always fun chatting with you. And I think we should let the listeners know how they can find you and the facilitation work you do as well as where can they find the book?
John: Totally. So if you want to talk about meeting culture and prototyping and the maker movement and all things running awesome meetings that are magical, voltagecontrol.com. You’ll find me on there somewhere. And in terms of the book Time Off, if you just type it in Amazon or Google, I’m sure it’ll come up. Timeoffbook.com will send you to Amazon as well.
And other than that, Douglas, it’s been an honor to not only talk about this but to stay in touch as friends and colleagues throughout many years now. So, I’m pumped you’re doing a podcast, you ask really good questions, and I’m honored to be on the guest list.
Douglas: Thanks for joining. And we’ll definitely encourage everyone to get a copy of Time Off because it’s really fantastic and it’s super timely.
John: Thank you.
Outro: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together, voltagecontrol.com.