Is it too soon to talk reset?
Do you feel like a bear coming out of hibernation? Are you torn between being impatient to put pandemic living behind you and wondering where you’re going to find the energy to re-engage?
As the world begins to re-open, it may be tough to get excited about jumping back into your life if your gas tank is empty.
In this final article of my five-part series on the Leadership Long Game, I share my top five recommendations for pressing reset and fueling your new normal. Whether you’ve already adopted many of these practices or you need a complete self-care makeover, pace yourself and your re-entry. This is about recovery from almost two years of disruption and upheaval. Give yourself time to get your groove back.
First, why these particular recommendations?
Each practice delivers multiple benefits, often enhancing many of your physiological and psychological systems at the same time;
Most give back more time, productivity and energy than they demand making them excellent investments;
Most can be incorporated in very small time increments and still deliver benefits.
1. Take care of the basics.
If your energy is low or you are feeling off, ask yourself, am I taking care of basics?
Sleep, move, eat. If you aren’t taking care of these, you are simply making life much more difficult than it needs to be.
First among these, is sleep. The benefits of seven to nine hours of quality sleep a night impact every system in your body. For the brain, sleep enhances your ability to learn, remember and make rational decisions and choices critical for long-game leadership. It recalibrates your emotional brain circuits supporting you to remain calm and composed. For the body, it restocks your immune system, rebalances your metabolism, regulates your appetite and lowers your blood pressure. If that doesn’t convince you, consider the downsides. Chronic sleep deprivation, usually described as under six hours per night, can have dire consequences to your health, performance and even your longevity.
Regular exercise fuels your resilience, endurance, strength and flexibility. But more relevant to your leadership long game is what it does for your mind. Among other things, like improving focus and concentration, regular exercise reduces the level of stress hormones in your system and replaces them with mood boosters like endorphins and anandamide. This results in a sense of calm optimism that is critical to the Leadership Long Game.
And finally, how are you fueling your body? More than almost any other field, nutrition has been corrupted by bad science and commercial interests and even the reputable experts can’t seem to agree. So, when experts differ, I ask myself, where do they all agree? This is best summed up by the simple advice given by author and journalist, Michael Pollan. Eat real food, mostly plants, not too much.
2. Take a few minutes to be mindful every day.
Mindfulness can cover anything from various forms of sitting meditation to mind-body practices such as Yoga or Tai Chi. According to a rapidly growing body of research, regular meditation practice can reduce stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression, improve focus and attention, improve pain management and decrease blood pressure. Further, some of these benefits were evident after just six to eight weeks of daily practice for a few minutes a day.
But none of this is why I include mindfulness practice in my top five. Meditation trains what I consider to be the single most important leadership skill you can develop – attention. Further it develops metacognition or the ability to observe your own patterns of thought.
Think of this capacity as a leadership superpower. It can support you to be more grounded, more present, more aware and more in choice about your actions and responses. As neuroscientist, author and meditation teacher Sam Harris puts it, “The real purpose of meditation is to gain fundamental insights into the nature of your mind; insights that change your whole approach to life.”
If you have tried and struggled to maintain a regular meditation practice, you’re not alone. I think it has to do with a pervasive difficulty in our culture with sitting still. For me, using a meditation app was the thing that finally enabled me to make it a daily practice. My current favorite is Waking Up with Sam Harris.
3. Use Intervals to Improve Performance
While the term ‘interval training’ is most commonly applied to exercise, incorporating short bursts of intense and focused effort followed by periods of rest into the way you work and live overall can have wide-ranging and profound benefits.
In studies of concert violinists to accountants and bankers, researchers have found that periods of intense focused work for around 90-minutes followed by short periods of rest, improve both productivity and performance. Pioneering sleep researcher Nathanial Klein uncovered that our physiology operates in “ultradian rhythms”, 90 to 120-minute cycles during which the brain alternates between periods of high-frequency brain activity followed by lower-frequency brain activity.
Giving yourself quality, uninterrupted periods of intense focus, particularly early in the day when your mind is its sharpest, followed by periods of rest, creates the conditions for peak performance. You’ve probably noticed a sag in energy and focus after a period of deep concentration. Most of us try to push through these periods believing, falsely, that we’ll get more done if we just keep at it. In fact, this degrades productivity and makes it more difficult for the brain to recover to a more focused state. Paying attention to these rhythms and being as disciplined about rest as you are about work can significantly enhance your productivity, performance and your overall sense of well-being throughout the day.
4. When it comes to social circles, work from the inside out.
An unexpected gift of the series of public health lockdowns was that for many of us, it clarified not only what was most important but who was most important.
The pandemic forced us to reassess our social circles. We organized into social bubbles and had to think through who we were prepared to risk hanging out with. This was not necessarily a bad thing. Being thoughtful about the people who matter most and taking time to nurture those relationships is healthy.
In the months ahead, we will all be under pressure to widen our social circles as things begin to open up. For both well-being and public health reasons, pace yourself. It might be helpful to think in terms of circles of intimacy rather one big amorphous blob of social engagements.
In the TV series, Grey’s Anatomy, the character Cristina Yang said of Meredith Grey, “She’s my person. If I murdered someone, she’s the person I’d call to help me drag the corpse across the living room floor.”
To have a person, you first have to be that person for your person. Cultivate and tend to those relationships as if your well-being depends on it… because it does.
As your circles widen, ask yourself, am I hanging out with people who care about me, who lift me up? Am I spending time with people I can learn from, who will challenge me and expand my view of the world? Am I only spending time with people who are like me or am I engaging with people from different backgrounds, stages of life and life experiences?
As you re-enter the world of full engagement, be thoughtful about your social circles and tend to them from the inside out.
5. Start small and let a little go a long way.
If there is one overriding take away here, it’s pace yourself. You don’t have to jump right into the party circuit and you don’t need to start every day with a three-hour wellness regime. Think small tweaks. Build slowly. What one small change can you commit to today, to improve your leadership long game? What can you do to add just a little more connection, energy and juice to your life? If you have difficulty incorporating new habits, see my post, Too Overwhelmed for Self Care? for tips on techniques for building healthy habits and dropping unhealthy ones. Make a little go a long way.
Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay