My personal journey to a balanced and healthy lifestyle is a work in progress. Case in point: It’s the weekend and I have a Neo-citron in one hand and a tissue in the other. Having contracted a second miserable cold this season, I’m finally clueing in that my body is trying to get my attention. I believe that sometimes the very things we struggle with most can also be those areas where we can make the greatest contribution. And I think this is perhaps why the art of recovering to balance has become a major focus of my own personal development and the work we do with the leaders we coach.
While almost any leader will agree that it’s important to maintain a healthy balance between work and other aspects of life, very few of us actually model this very well, much less actively encourage it in our employees. Many of us treat work-life balance as an ideal but not a necessity or even practical, given the demands we face. Worse still, many of us wear our lack of self care as a kind of badge of honour.
There is a growing body of credible evidence that tells us that driving ourselves to work long hours without sufficient rest and renewal is contributing to a serious erosion of our health and our family life. And further, what the research also clearly shows is that is actually hurting our productivity and performance.
This is well expressed in the title of Tony Schwartz’ book on personal and organizational performance, The Way We’re Working, Isn’t Working. Schwartz pulls together a rich body of research – from nutrition, to physical conditioning, to emotional health, to cognition – from subject matter experts from around the world. In compiling this data, he weaves a compelling story of both the costs of the way we work today and the proven benefits of shifting our focus from managing our time, to managing our energy and our health. His work goes beyond physical health to look at the enormous benefits of caring for ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Two simple insights that changed everything
The first great aha for me in my own journey back to balance was when I finally really understood that balance is an inside job. That realization came when I decided to leave my demanding 24/7 job and start working for myself. After radically changing my external circumstances, within a few months of starting my own business, I found myself right back where I was before I left – working 12 to 16 hour days, exhausted and overwhelmed. Finally facing that the common denominator in this situation was me, was both painful and empowering. I learned that balance has more to do with my internal conditions – my attitudes, perspectives and personal health and vitality – than it has to do with the external circumstances of my life. It brought a new level of inquiry and awareness into how my personal beliefs, fears and habits were creating and recreating imbalance and with that awareness came the ability to create change.
The second shift came more slowly. It was the realization that balance is an act of recovery. Try this experiment. Stand up and try to balance yourself on one leg. If you do this, you will notice that for the most part, you are not still. Instead your body is making dozens of tiny adjustments to keep you in balance. You may also notice that in very rare brief moments you attain a state of stillness and ease. I have found that my sense of personal balance is a lot like that. Recovering to balance has been a process of experimentation – of making continuous small adjustments back to a sense of equilibrium. This process of experimentation was not an act of will, but the incorporation of a number of small habits and rituals in my life to support me to live the way I want to live.
Many of these ideas have come from our own reading and research and they have all been tested in whole or in part by me, my partners or our clients.
1. Sleep seven to nine hours per night.
If you incorporate nothing else from this article, this one change to your daily life will create transformational results. Sleep is almost inevitably the first thing that goes when the demands of our roles become intense. Recovery starts here.
The National Sleep Foundation, a U.S. non-profit dedicated to raising awareness of the importance of sleep, recommends between seven and nine hours of sleep per night.
As research into sleep advances, researchers are connecting sleep deprivation (commonly defined as fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night) to a range of chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, hypertension and depression. The Harvard Nurses’ Health Study which followed 80,000 nurses over twenty-five years uncovered a strong link between chronic sleep deprivation and increased risk of a range of diseases including breast cancer, colon cancer and heart disease.
The impact on cognitive ability of sleep deprivation is extreme. In other studies, subjects who slept less than six hours a night over a two-week period demonstrated a decrease in performance that was equivalent to forty-eight continuous hours of sleep deprivation. Harvard’s Charles Czeisler found that averaging four hours of sleep for five consecutive nights has an impact on our memory, attention and speed of thinking that is equivalent to being legally intoxicated.
The good news is that studies of athletes, musicians and business professionals point to dramatic enhancements in cognitive and physical performance, emotional stability and efficiency with getting between seven and nine hours of sleep regularly.
So resist the urge to check your email before you go to bed. That additional two hours of work you are doing in the evening instead of sleeping is actually putting you further behind. Choose sleep instead and your overall productivity and performance will improve dramatically.
The National Sleep Foundation offers these tips for sleeping smart.
- Establish a regular bed and wake time.
- Avoid nicotine altogether and avoid caffeine close to bedtime.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Exercise regularly (but complete the workout at least 3 hours before bedtime).
- Establish a consistent relaxing “wind-down” bedtime routine.
- Create a sleep-conducive environment that is dark, quiet and comfortable.
- Discuss the appropriate way to take any sleep aid with a healthcare professional.
For more information on sleep and insomnia, visit www.sleepfoundation.org.2. Reclaim the first hour of your day.
2. Reclaim the first hour of your day
How you spend the first hour of your day can have a huge impact on the way the rest of it unfolds. Do you wake up to a harsh blaring alarm, screaming kids, general chaos? Do you go for a high octane cup of coffee in place of a balanced breakfast? Do you check your email within a few minutes of dragging yourself out of bed or do you rush into work to get a jump on your day?
Taking that first hour as quiet time for yourself is a powerful gift to your performance for the rest of the day. You might want to try incorporating some form of early morning meditation into that first hour. My favourite first hour is 15 minutes of stretching, 15 minutes of meditation and 30 minutes of yoga. Some days I will do 45-minute easy run followed by 15 minutes of stretching and conversation with my running buddy.
If you have young children, give this a try. While it is true, that getting that hour is even more challenging when you have young children in the house; claiming it will reap even more rewards. It may mean getting to bed earlier and getting up before they do. No small feat AND worth every minute of peace. You will find you will be more relaxed and so will they. Your mornings will be less chaotic and stressful for everybody.
If you’ve ever watched world-class tennis players, they manage their energy and focus by returning to the ready position after every shot. They look loose, relaxed and ready. Getting your day off to a calm, relaxed start will put you in your ready position. While you may not have control of the challenges that present themselves during the run of the day; you can get control of how you present yourself to those challenges. This can have a dramatic impact on how your day unfolds.
3. Incorporate a mind-body practice into your life.
When you become disconnected from your body, you become disconnected from your life. Many of us treat our bodies as if they are simply mechanisms to carry our heads around. We dwell solely in that wonderful cognitive processor, disconnected completely from the sensations and signals from the rest of our bodies. A lack of body awareness is an invitation for unconscious clenched muscles, shallow breathing and unnecessary effort and strain. When you are not conscious of your body, you do not respond properly to its needs. The result is wasted energy, wasted effort and poor performance.
Mind-body practices like yoga, tai chi, Qi Gong and many of the martial arts are all excellent training in using your body and mind together. It is meditation in motion creating greater control over both your physical and your mental response to stress and challenge. What that means simply is that with a high level of awareness of how our bodies are reacting to our external environment, we are able to more effectively create internal conditions of calm and relaxation in the face of stress – that results in more optimal performance and ease, better concentration and greater relaxation.
In her book, “The Art of Effortless Living”, Ingrid Bacci, uses the 1976 Olympics as evidence for the effectiveness of mind-body training. That year, the Soviet Union won more gold medals than any other country. The secret to their success turned out to be the use of mind-body practices with their athletes, all of which included deep relaxation. They had discovered that athletes who spent as little as twenty-five percent of their training time in actual physical training and devoted the other seventy-five percent to mind-body training out performed athletes who spent their time solely in physical training.
4. Slow down to speed up.
In the same book, Ingrid Bacci tells a classic story about observing a flight attendant completely caught up in a futile struggle with her own efforts to go faster.
“As she approached down the aisle with her beverage cart, I noticed that her voice was loud, urgent and grating. She asked me what I wanted to drink, and I told her, “Orange juice, no ice please.” She reached for the orange juice carton, saw it was almost empty, and turned down the aisle to get some more cartons. When she came back, she hurriedly pulled open a drawer, stuffed the extra juice cartons inside, and then plunged a plastic glass into the ice bucket, filling it full of ice. I reminded her, “No ice please.” She dumped the ice, filled the glass, and promptly spilled one third of its contents onto my tray, my book and my lap. Without apologizing, she hurriedly wiped up the spilled juice and refilled my glass. As she rushed to put the juice cart down the aisle, she bumped it solidly against the base of my chair and had to retreat to free it.” The story does not end there but goes on for another page to describe a rapidly deteriorating day full of irritation, frustration, rework and inefficiency. We’ve all been there. Everything is hard, nothing goes right and the faster we try to move the worse it gets.
By taking the time to slow down – your breathing, your movements, your ticker tape mind – you give yourself time to realign and bring things into balance. You bring greater calm, focus and clarity to the task at hand and work begins to flow. Incorporating the habit of noticing and slowing your breath at intervals throughout the day will train you to slow down.
5. Take mini breaks throughout your day.
By carefully observing my own natural work rhythms, I’ve noticed a few things. If I am working on a complex project that requires focus and attention, my concentration is generally best early in the morning and when I can focus intensely for 90 minutes followed by a break. When I am working with my partners, I find that our focus and effectiveness begins to deteriorate after about 90 minutes. When we stop and take a break, we return to the task more focused and efficient. The same 90 minute rule seems to hold with our group work. Much more than 90 minutes without some form of deliberate break and the room will begin to lose focus and the benefits of the learning begin to diminish.
So I was not surprised to discover research that backs this up. In his book, Schwartz describes the results of two pilot programs deployed for Ernst & Young in which groups of employees were given the opportunity to regularly renew themselves in the middle of their busiest tax season. By training them to work in focused 90 minute intervals followed by breaks for rest, balance snacks or exercise, they were able to dramatically improve their productivity while working fewer hours overall. Their increased productivity, particularly in the late afternoon after a mid-day workout, enabled them to leave work earlier, spend more time with their families, sleep better and get more done.
The other lesson is that late evening work after working all day is a waste of time and actually counter-productive. After 8:00 p.m. following a full day of work, our concentration, energy and focus are so impaired that it is better to stop, relax and return to it the next day.
6. Eat and drink for energy.
The best and simplest advice I received about diet was in a book title by Michael Pollan “Eat. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (The book was good too!)
What can be discouraging about trying to eat well is how complicated the experts make it and how contradictory their advice is. It doesn’t have to be complicated. By following a few simple rules and being conscious of how much and when you eat, you can dramatically improve your energy and your health.
Some simple rules that can get you on the right track:
- Eat small portions, more often. You are aiming to keep your blood sugar stable so you are not suffering from spikes and drops in your sugar and levels. Keep your flow of energy steady by eating about five times a day. That’s breakfast, lunch and dinner and two snacks.
- Carry healthy snacks with you so you always have good choices when you are hungry. Never let yourself get too hungry or your energy get too depleted.
- Eat a balanced diet of protein, whole grains and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Stay away from processed food, sugary drinks and foods with the highly addictive combination of sugar, salt and fat.
- In other words – Eat. Not too much. Mostly plants.
7. Move every day; break a sweat five to six days a week.
For most of my 20s and 30s, I did not exercise regularly. I was not a natural athlete and I didn’t like to sweat. On weekends, I might go skiing or cycling, but even these were only occasional activities. Attempts to join gyms and get in shape were short lived.
When I turned 45, I was inspired by one of my clients to try running. I actually did not believe I was physically capable of running. I certainly wasn’t built like a runner. Inspired and feeling adventurous, I reached out to my dear friend Kelly, who had been running for years and asked if she would help me. We’ve been running buddies ever since.
We started running for two minutes and walking for two minutes. Those early runs were arduous and painful, but something in me wanted to keep going. At 54, I can easily say, I am more fit now than at any time in my life previous. I’m not sure exactly when exercise stopped becoming a chore and an act of will and became a habit, but it took a great deal of trying, failing and recovering. What I do know is that today, instead of having to push through the discomfort of exercise; it is now more uncomfortable not to exercise. Instead of needing to push myself to exercise, I feel pulled to do it. And the benefits are huge.
Clients who are successful at incorporating exercise into their lives seem to do two things:
- They find something they enjoy – walking, cycling, swimming; and
- They do it regularly enough and long enough so that instead of having to push themselves to do it, they feel pulled to do it.
For me, the secret was variety – incorporating a range of things that I enjoy so that no matter how I feel, there is always some kind of exercise I have the energy for.
8. Practice gratitude.
When we are not taking care of ourselves, our internal messaging is often about burden. The lie is that we have no choice, which can have us feel like victims. The weight of it is heavy and it sucks the limited energy we have left out of us and everyone around us. Every conversation opens with a complaint and there’s a loop inside our heads that keeps saying “Poor me.”
Gratitude is a powerful antidote. Oprah Winfrey popularized the notion of the gratitude journal. A simple practice of ending each day by writing what you are grateful for. Even on our worst days, most of us are blessed beyond measure. To take a moment to see and acknowledge our gifts, our privileges and our good fortune is a practice that is energy giving. It is a simple mental reset that sends you to bed with a fresh perspective and a sense of peace.
9. Practice forgiveness and recovery.
Perfection is the enemy of balance; it is also the enemy of performance. Perfect balance is not real; the act of being balanced means being in a state of constant recovery. Work at it slowly over time and reap the benefits of regular small improvements. Then, when you find yourself, as I did this weekend – benched and blowing your nose – you can say, “That’s OK, I’ll just begin again”.
Forgiveness and recovery are a powerful duo. You acknowledge the failure, whatever it is, as a natural part of the process and then you begin again. The quicker and more often you go from failure to recovery, the easier it becomes and the greater your confidence that you are on the right path.
10. Incorporate one habit at a time.
The worst thing you can do is to try all these rituals at once. This is doomed to fail. Instead, incorporate one habit at a time and when you no longer have to think about it, add a new one. If you are not getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night, start there because that will give you the capacity to incorporate the others.
My client, who inspired me to begin running, did so by shifting my perspective on discipline. I believed that I was not disciplined by nature, so therefore incapable of making the important changes I needed to make. I asked her, “Where do you get the discipline to train for a marathon?” She answered, “Discipline is like any other muscle. The more you exercise it, the easier it becomes.”
What I later learned is that what she was actually talking about is the important transition between discipline and habit. Tony Schwartz makes a powerful case for developing habits and rituals as the most effective way to restore health and balance to your life. Relying on an iron will and conscious control takes a great deal of energy.
Instead, he suggests replacing unhealthy habits with healthy ones. “We’re often better served by replacing our negative habits, formed in the more primitive parts of our brain, with positive rituals – highly specific behaviours that become automatic over time. The more these behaviours are repeated and routinized, the more they recur without conscious effort and the less energy they require. The less conscious will power we have to expend to make things happen, the more effective we become.”
Rituals are powerful and energy giving habits that support leaders to recover to balance – that grounded, ready state that fuels them to perform effectively. Rituals are also highly individual. I invite you to try these and create your own.
We also invite you to write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and share the renewal rituals that work for you.