Productive Downtime Is a Startup Leader’s Secret Weapon

How I learned to innovate thanks to company-sponsored partying.

Written by Joe Procopio
Published on Jan. 12, 2022
Productive Downtime Is a Startup Leader’s Secret Weapon
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I’ve been perfecting a leadership practice over the last 20 years that has produced some surprising gains in both productivity and innovation. I call it “productive downtime.”

At first, the concept might seem counterintuitive. But once you figure out how to do it right, the results can be game changing. 

As a leader, your primary responsibility is to maximize your team’s productivity. You need them to be efficient, you need them to be motivated, but most of all you need them to be working on tasks and projects that will produce the most impactful results to your business’s bottom line.

Getting everyone on your team to work a little bit harder doesn’t do the trick by itself. You have to think outside the box.

And to be clear, I dislike that turn of phrase as much as you probably do. What exactly is in that box? Why are we going outside of it? What do we do when we get there? In a vacuum, “think outside the box” evokes images of a clown show, and the fear is that you end up wasting time doing trust falls and not sharpening your focus on what’s going to produce quality results for the business.


Thinking Outside of the Box Means Resetting Goals and Milestones

The best leaders constantly strive to maximize time, because it’s usually their most scarce resource. But every single CEO and founder I talk to will tell you that the most wasted time comes from chasing the wrong goals and milestones. No matter how efficient and motivated your team is, the harder they chase the wrong goals, the more time they waste.

I’d rather have a single productive hour every day focused on the right goals and milestones than 12 hours a day focused on the wrong ones.

So how do you get that clarity?

On their own, teams usually stay in a cycle of diminishing efficiency. The work they’re doing isn’t producing the right results, but it is producing some results. And since no one wants to give up those gains, they push harder and harder to achieve diminishing returns. 

It’s like no one wants to pull over to check the map. But all that wasted time — and all the time needed to recover from the inevitable burnout — is time that should be spent resetting goals and milestones.

There are ways to trade reactive wasted downtime for proactive productive downtime. 

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The Think Week

This is something I’ve been using for years. Early in my career, the startup I joined would take a week every year and bring the entire company to a remote mountain resort for a few days to hold company-wide meetings and planning sessions. 

The younger folks like me would use these weeks as an excuse to do an intense amount of company-paid partying, and then we’d groggily push through the next day’s content. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for increased productivity and innovation, but I realized pretty quickly that I experienced huge productivity gains immediately following the week and for quite some time afterward.

And I wasn’t alone. I talked to my peers and discovered that the very exercise of thinking about the business while being far away from the business and 100 percent not practicing the business gave us a different perspective. The rules, procedures and protocols got stripped away, allowing us to develop fresh ideas to bring back to our business world and immediately step up our collective games.

Management didn’t know why it worked, but they knew it worked, so they kept doing it.  

Now I do this every six months — but I do it completely on my own, and I don’t go anywhere. Plus I don’t get drunk every night. You can do this with your executive team, your leadership team or your whole company, depending on your time and resource limitations.

Questions to Ask During Your Think Week

  • What if your business doesn’t exist in its current form, and you had to rebuild it from scratch?
  • What would you do if you had to start all over again?
  • What are you actually doing today?
  • What’s working, what’s not and what should be? 
  • With the above in mind, how should you adjust your goals and milestones?

In this version of Think Week — which I later learned was something Bill Gates did in the early Microsoft days — I step out of the business completely, and I spend time thinking about every part of it. 

I imagine my business doesn’t exist in its current form, and I have to rebuild it from scratch. Then I spend a lot of time thinking about what I would do if I had to start all over again today. Then I look at what we’re actually doing. What’s working, what’s not and what should be? 

I come up with new or adjusted goals and milestones. Then I take that back to my team.


The All-Day Reset

Retreats and all-day meetings are not a new concept. Companies and teams do them all the time for various reasons. In this version of the All-Day Reset, however, you want to take the goals and milestones developed during the Think Week and apply them to the team’s day-to-day operations.

Like the Think Week, this should be done outside of the day-to-day work environment, no standard work allowed, and it should be broken into 30-to-90-minute topic areas. Prepare for the day however you’d like, and document it however is necessary, but just don’t overdo the formalities. Creative thinking is more important than procedure. 

Make sure everyone not only understands the new goals, but that they’re aligned with them. Make sure the milestones are clear, and everyone is motivated to hit them.


The Cheat Code: 10 Ideas

Who has the time for retreats and all-day meetings, right? Again, I would implore you: Don’t use lack of time as an excuse to keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. 

But I’ll give you the cheat code, too. Every day, spend the first five to 10 minutes of your workday jotting down up to 10 ideas to make your business better. Do this before the strain of your day-to-day responsibilities starts to weigh on you, before the interruptions start and before your clear head gets filled with needs and complaints. 

These don’t need to be game-changing ideas. Hell, they don’t even need to be viable ideas. You don’t have to get to 10, but try to get to at least five every day. (You’ll find that the ideas keep coming once you break the seal.) What you want is space and time to make sure your goals and milestones are aligned with your vision and that your team’s goals and milestones are aligned with the business. 

Once you’re done jotting, you’re going to spend hours and hours — the rest of a long work day — managing that alignment, so take some time before each long work day begins to make sure your alignment is true.

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