What Ike Eisenhower Can Teach Us About Rest and Recovery

What Ike Eisenhower Can Teach Us About Rest and Recovery

Last week, at the monthly Brighton Chamber of Commerce breakfast event, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow business owner about procrastination versus time for rest and recovery. He’d worked for 5 hours in the morning, then taken the afternoon off to watch the test match at Lords. It was a blisteringly hot day, and had he remained at his computer, he’d almost certainly have wilted.

Bravo I say! My own plan that day was to take a picnic to the beach, read my book, have a snooze and enjoy a G&T. But I left it too late, and the thunder clouds were gathering overhead before I’d made it out of the office. So much for enjoying the hottest day of the year!

One of the downsides of our noisy, hyperconnected world is we don’t make enough time for rest and recovery. And we no longer make it part of our everyday routines. This is something I’ve thought a lot about since reading Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s excellent Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.

This story of how the celebrated US General and former President Ike Eisenhower created space for rest and recovery offers us some fascinating insights into how we too can build rest and recovery time into our schedules while still operating at full tilt in our businesses.

On 6 June 1944, Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, signalling the beginning of the end of WW2. Code-named Operation Overlord, this was the first stage in the liberation of Western Europe and a major step towards the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Extensive planning began in 1943, and General Ike Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Commander of the operation. Operation Overlord was an intricate operation which brought together the land, sea and air forces of the USA, Britain, Canada and other allies. It required extensive planning and preparation, a process not made easier by political and strategic arguments with Stalin and disagreements between the Americans and British.

We can only imagine the stress Eisenhower was under, leading an operation of such vital importance. The consequences of failure are too awful to imagine.

So how was Eisenhower able to manage such a complex and high-stakes operation with so many moving parts?

Fortunately, we know a lot about Eisenhower’s wartime habits because his naval aide and former journalist, Harry Butcher, maintained a journal throughout. While planning Operation Overlord, Eisenhower would retreat to Telegraph Cottage, a small, secluded house situated on the outskirts of leafy Richmond and close to Richmond Park.

Eisenhower first started staying at Telegraph Cottage in 1942, when planning Operation Torch, the US invasion of North Africa. Frequently working 15 to 18 hour days, Eisenhower had, according to Butcher’s journal, become a man “whose problems frequently [kept] him awake at night.” Recognising that he couldn’t go on like this, Eisenhower ordered Butcher to find him a hideout so he could escape “the four forbidding walls of the Dorchester,” a very grand London hotel, where he stayed.

At Telegraph Cottage, Eisenhower would play bridge, paint, read cowboy novels, play golf and go riding in nearby Richmond Park. Shop talk was forbidden, and only a handful of people outside his immediate staff knew he stayed there. Later, his driver said: “If anything saved him from a mental crack-up, it was Telegraph Cottage and the new life it provided.”

What Ike Eisenhower Can Teach Us About Rest and Recovery


Research by German sociologist Sabine Sonnentag offers answers to this question. Over the course of her studies, Sonnentag discovered that there are four main factors that contribute to our recovery:

  1. Relaxation

  2. Control

  3. Mastery experiences

  4. And mental detachment from work.

Breaks, like the ones Eisenhower took at Telegraph Cottage were rich in all four elements and confer the greatest benefits.

Let’s look at each factor in a little more detail.

  • Relaxation is any activity that is pleasant and undemanding. It doesn’t have to be totally passive like watching a film or reading a book, but it shouldn’t feel like work or require conscious effort. Yoga fits into this category for me, especially if I choose a more restorative practice. So too does reading, watching a favourite Netflix series (Madam Secretary is my current drama of choice) going for a walk along the beach and writing this blog.

  • Control is an interesting one. This is about deciding how you get to spend your time, energy and attention. For people who feel they don’t have a lot of control over their working day, control can be restorative. When I left my job as a Chief Executive, one of the key reasons I chose to start a business rather than move to another CEO role was the desire for greater control over my time.

  • Mastery experiences are engaging, interesting and mentally absorbing experiences that you do well, or are in the process of learning. For people starting or running businesses, mastery experiences are important as they reinforce our self-esteem. Dancing and tennis are examples of mastery experiences I enjoy. I’m always looking to develop a higher level of mastery in both, hence why I have lessons. But I also find these activities effortlessly absorbing and relaxing.

  • Detachment, the ability to feel disconnected from our business and escape work-related interruptions, is an important factor when it comes to determining how much we recover during breaks. Disconnecting from social media and email in the evenings and on weekends is one way of detaching from your business. Regular weekends away - in addition to regular holidays - is another. That’s why I make it a habit to go out for the day on Saturdays. Because I know the detachment that comes from ‘getting away’ promotes greater mental recovery.

Going back to our example of Eisenhower, we can see how Telegraph Cottage played such an important role in helping him recover from the pressures of leading high-stakes operations like Operation Overlord and Operation Torch. The cottage provided him with a space where he could relax by reading cowboy novels and riding in the woodland. It gave him rare control over his time. He was able to exercise mastery in bridge, a game he played brilliantly. And he was able to detach from work in a peaceful environment in an idyllic setting where the ravages of war seemed far away.

We live in an era where the boundaries between business, work and life are often blurred. It can be hard to take time off, especially in the early days of starting a business and money is tight. But if we want to avoid the negative effects of burnout, it’s essential we find ways to leave the cares and pressures of our business behind and build rest and recovery into our everyday routines.

What Ike Eisenhower Can Teach Us About Rest and Recovery


Which ways of resting and recovery do you find most effective and why? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share let me know in the comments box below.


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