What the World's Top CEOs Do on Their Days Off

Are they just like you and me?

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Many of us look at business founders and CEOs as having reached the pinnacle of success and therefore the ultimate “Good Life.” They might have millions in their bank account, but contrary to popular belief, they’re not spending their days lounging on yachts or playing golf on exotic islands. In fact, the results of a recent Harvard study revealed that CEOs work around 62.5 hours a week, including weekends and so-called vacation days (compare that to the average American worker’s 44 hours a week). However, as more and more billion-dollar companies have started tapping into the secrets of wellness, many high-powered leaders are embracing the importance of unplugging and taking some real time off. That doesn’t mean they’re wasting it. 

From finding inspiration in travel to gaining new insight by quieting their minds, here’s how some of the world’s top CEOs utilize their days away from the office.

1. Richard Branson

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The billionaire business magnate and founder of the Virgin empire isn’t easily pictured behind a desk. But all that jetskiing, kite-surfing and hot air balloon flying have only helped his entrepreneurial skills flourish.

“Maintaining focus on having fun isn't just about rest and recuperation: When you go on vacation, your routine is interrupted; the places you go and the new people you meet can inspire you in unexpected ways,” Branson has said. “As an entrepreneur or business leader, if you didn't come back from your vacation with some ideas about how to shake things up, it's time to consider making some changes.”

He makes sure to leave his phone at home or in his hotel room, but tries to have a notepad and pen on hand. “Freed from the daily stresses of my working life, I find that I am more likely to have new insights into old problems and other flashes of inspiration.”

2. Reed Hastings

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Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings seriously values work-life balance. So much so, that he claims to take six weeks of vacation a year, and has even extended unlimited vacation days to all of Netflix’s employees. “I take a lot of vacation and I’m hoping that certainly sets an example,” he’s said. “It is helpful. You often do your best thinking when you’re off hiking some mountain or something. You get a different perspective on things.” 

So, for the record, the CEO of Netflix does not spend his days off watching Netflix. Hiking—who would have guessed?

3. Arianna Huffington

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If anyone knows firsthand the detrimental effects of burnout, it’s Arianna Huffington. In 2007, the Huffington Post founder and current CEO of Thrive Global faced a major medical crisis when she collapsed from over-exhaustion. Since then, she’s prioritized taking time to rest and recharge during regular working days and when she’s out of the office.

At Thrive Global, Huffington has implemented an ingenious computer program that auto-deletes every email an employee receives on vacation, citing her own experience going email-free while on holiday with her family in Greece. “It felt so different to be able to be fully present—for meals, for conversation, for taking walks, for all the felicitous things that can happen only when we don’t have our heads down on a screen. And the recharging I got wasn’t immediately burned off by a mountain of email facing me the morning I got back to the office.”

4. Ramit Sethi

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Ramit Sethi boasts a pretty impressive resume, wearing hats that range from personal finance adviser and serial entrepreneur to bestselling author and owner of multiple companies. The secret to his multifaceted (and multimillion-dollar) success? Taking off Wednesdays. 

“Everybody wants your time. So I started off just saying I’m going to block off an hour on Wednesdays. Then I extended it to two hours,” he’s explained. “Now, I worked my way up to having an entire Wednesday free.”

On his humpdays off, Sethi uses his time to catch up on reading, strategize and explore his “big picture.” Every Wednesday isn’t necessarily filled with strokes of genius, but that time off does allow for lightning to strike.

“Most days, nothing really comes from it,” he’s said. “I would say every quarter I get an interesting idea, and maybe once a year I get a big idea but that big idea can transform the business.”

5. Jack Dorsey

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Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has been known to take his out of office escapes to extremes. Last year, he went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Myanmar, during which he avoided meat, physical exercise and even eye-contact while meditating for nearly 17 hours a day. That’s, um, certainly one way to spend your vacation.

His regular weekends, however, sound less intense. “Saturday I take off. I hike,” he told audiences at a Techonomy talk. “And then Sunday is reflections, feedback, strategy and getting ready for the rest of the week.”

6. John Donahoe

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Veteran tech executive John Donahoe, who has helmed companies including eBay and ServiceNow, has recently been tapped as the new CEO of Nike, effective January 2020. He’s definitely got big shoes to fill (pun intended), but he’ll likely be prepared to take it all on thanks to his habitual “thinking days.”

In a 2013 blog post on LinkedIn, Donahoe shared his advice when it comes to “beating the chaos” and enhancing his performance.

“I take a thinking day approximately once every three months,” he said. “I’ll hide away in an empty office, stand in front of a whiteboard (and it must be a whiteboard) and map out what is going on in the external environment and what I see as the company’s most pressing issues in the coming period. I think about what I have learned, which areas require my attention and what changes I need to make—and remind myself not to worry about events over which I have no control.”

7. Tony Schwartz

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The founder and CEO of The Energy Project is a big advocate of digitally disconnecting. After experiencing a period of major overload, Schwartz checked into his favorite hotel for nine days and left his iPad, laptop and cellphone at home. “I was determined to eliminate temptation to the maximum extent possible,” he explained in an article for the Harvard Business Review

During his vacation, Schwartz learned to quell his cravings for information overload (the hotel didn’t even have any newspapers) and spent his time reading books unrelated to work, playing tennis and clearing his mind. 

“By the end of nine days,” he wrote, “I felt empowered and enriched. With my brain quieter, I was able to take back control of my attention. In the process, I rediscovered some deeper part of myself.” No Wi-Fi required.

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