I’m currently training a few guys to compete in this year’s l'Etape du Tour. If you’ve never heard of this cycling event, it’s a bike race for serious recreational and competitive cyclists to "enjoy" the hardest stage of the current year’s Tour de France. Generally limited to 10,000 cyclists, they will ride the same roads as the pro riders in the actual Tour de France.
I’ve been working on improving their aerobic capacity through a very structured training program of intervals. This is the combination of extremely hard, stressful efforts, followed by a recovery period. This hard, easy combination of training yields superior performance results compared to just hopping on a bike and simply riding a steady pace.
So I found the following article my daughter forwarded me from the Harvard Business Review by Tony Schwartz quite interesting, as he has applied this same principles of hard/easy interval training athletes do for the bodies to the mind and the way we work.
Tony suggests that instead of working during the day at the same “pace”, we should work at a higher stress levels for a period of time, followed by schedule rest to recovery. His point is that we live in a high stress environment all the time, with little relief, which leads to burnout, chronic fatigue, and poor work productivity. As a result we rarely push ourselves to our maximum to realize our full potential.
Having practiced and studied the benefits of stress and recovery on the athletic body, I never considered how this same logic could be applied to our brains. I think we've all experienced how ineffective we become at work when we pull the all-nighter to get that management report completed, or the customer proposal done on time, or a presentation completed because of an unrealistic deadline. And I also know I never do my best work when I’m mentally exhausted; just like I can’t perform my best physically in a cycling race without being sufficiently rested.
I’ve often heard and read how high performing executives have the ability to compartmentalize their activities, whereby they focus with extreme intensity on a single topic or issue without distraction before taking a break and moving onto the next activity. This aligns with the article below. Tony’s logic makes perfect sense as it agrees with how I train myself and other athletes and I see no reason why it can’t be just as effective when applied to how we work and think.
Enjoy the Ride....Rob
Stress Is Not Your Enemy
By: Tony Schwartz: president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of Be Excellent at Anything.
How often do you intentionally push yourself to discomfort?
I know that sounds a little nutty, but here's why I ask: Subjecting yourself to stress is the only way to systematically get stronger — physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. And you'll get weaker if you don't.
We live by the myth that stress is the enemy in our lives. The real enemy is our failure to balance stress with intermittent rest. Push the body too hard for too long — chronic stress — and the result will indeed be burnout and breakdown. But subject the body to insufficient stress, and it will weaken and atrophy.
Few of us push ourselves nearly hard enough to realize our potential, nor do we rest, sleep, and renew nearly as deeply or for as long as we should.
This is easiest to see at the physical level. In the absence of regular cardiovascular exercise — a form of stress — the heart's ability to efficiently pump blood drops an average of 1 percent a year between the ages of 30 and 70, and faster after that. Likewise, in the absence of strength training — literally pushing weight against resistance — we lose an average of 1 percent of lean muscle mass every year after age 30.
But those effects can be dramatically reversed, even very late in life. In one of a series of studies, a group of nursing home residents with an average age of 87 were put on a strength training program 3 times a week for 45 minutes a session. They were given plenty of time to rest between sets and to recover between sessions. On average, they more than doubled their strength in just ten weeks.
The principle is simple, but not entirely intuitive. The harder you push yourself, the more you signal your body to grow. It's called supercompensation, and the growth actually occurs during recovery. The limiting factor is mostly your tolerance for discomfort.
Think for a moment about attention. Absorbed focused lies at the heart of great performance. Unfortunately, our minds have minds of their own — they flit from thought to thought. It's also more difficult than ever to stay focused in this digital age. Never before have we had to deal with so many seductive distractions.
Training your mind operates by the same principle as training your body. By focusing on one thing for a defined period of time — say by counting your breath, or working at a demanding task, or even reading a difficult book — you're subjecting your attention to stress.
As your mind wanders, the challenge is to return your focus to the breath, or the task, or the book. Effectively, you're training control of your attention. The more intensely you practice, even for short increments of time, the stronger you'll get.
The alternative is shallowness. So much of what we do all day long requires little real effort, but yields only the most fleeting gratification.
For me, writing this blog is one way I intentionally push myself to discomfort for several hours every week. I don't relish pain any more than the next guy, and so to get past my resistance, I write at a set time, for 90 minutes at a stretch before taking a break. Working at a piece of writing forces me to think hard and searchingly, about a subject that matters to me, and then try to compose sentences that are lean, crisp, and clear, and say exactly what I mean them to say.
It can be frustrating and uncomfortable to think hard — especially early in the process. I often feel compelled to get up from my desk and eat something, or check my email, or do anything but keep writing.
Occasionally I succumb, but mostly I've learned to put off these indulgences, comforted by the knowledge that staying the course will ultimately make me feel more alive, more productive, and better about myself than I ever will by flitting between the day's more trivial tasks.
Completing a challenging piece of work, or a tough workout, or an intellectually demanding book, frees us to truly savor and enjoy the period afterwards — to experience time off not as slacking but as a fully earned opportunity for restoration.
Most of us instinctively run from discomfort, but struggle equally to value rest and renewal. We operate instead in a gray zone, rarely fully engaged and rarely deeply relaxed.
What practice could you add to your life to regularly push beyond your comfort zone — and then deliberately renew? Increasing the amplitude of your wave — from intense effort to deep renewal — is the surest path to a more fully realized life.