A few nights ago I came to the end of my first month back at interval run training. I say back, because prior to this, the last time I graced the springy grass track was over 10 years ago before I had kids. It has hurt me big time, because for many years I have just been running. Training for 10, 21 and 42km events that have seen my pace pretty much stay the same. Flatline. This year, I wanted to shake it up a bit and see if my legs could turn over a little faster. It seems they can. Going to intervals makes me anxious. I know its going to be hard and competitive. My heart and lungs will feel like they are about to jump out and run their own race. But what gets me to the end of each gritty set, is the finish line and a short breather. These days we run our lives like a marathon event with no rest and no finish line in sight. We just keep going without regularly stopping to recover and regroup, which dramatically impacts our quality of life and ability to stay at the top of our game. Research shows that our bodies work best with 90 minute cycles of work, followed by a brief break. This means focusing on whatever your task may be for 90 minutes, reaching the finish line and then taking a 5 minute breather. Your focus will be hugely improved, your energy levels will be stable and you will be amazed at what you can achieve. It cuts down on distraction when you know there is a finish line just around the corner. Start thinking about your life as a sprint event not a marathon. Sprinters give 100% because they can see the finish line.
It’s time to come clean. I have long been dedicated to eating well and exercising but for many years I have been downright incompetent at balancing my life to enable adequate recovery and renewal, to my own detriment. A sea change has been required for some time and having just returned from a three month adventure in Italy , it really could not have been a better place to recover and work on changing unhealthy working habits. I know that so many of you will relate to this and there is no doubt that our daily performance is greatly affected by how we design our work and daily routine. I know mine has been.
The past three months have enabled me to reflect on how I conduct my combined professional and personal life at a speed that is simply unsustainable. For this to occur I needed distance and quiet time to do this but reflection comes in many forms. Meditation and yoga are two very popular forms of reflection and stilling the mind and I have tried a handful of times over the past 20 years to embark upon both of these. I have tried introduction courses several times and each time finished the course feeling no more competent than before. So far, the well- known benefits of this age-old practice have well and truly eluded me. Mostly, because I didn’t allow myself the time and space to do so.
It is obvious to me now that one does not tackle meditation like an exercise program and that it is a ritual or routine that requires time and practice. Considering that people have been meditating for thousands of years, perhaps it’s not surprising that I haven’t been able to master it in a couple of decades.
The definition of meditation depends on the form you are practising, however, many forms involve training your mind to focus and achieving a state of being and awareness. The Australian Teachers of Meditation Association says, “In its broadest and most universal definition, meditation is a discipline that involves turning the mind and attention inward and focusing on a single thought, image or feeling.”
It is well documented that many successful people (including Ros Worthington and many others in this book) make meditation part of their day and find it essential to their health and for developing their ability to focus on the truly important things in their personal and professional lives. Meditation helps develop skills in:
- Knowing what your mind is paying attention to
- Working out where your mind’s attention needs to be focused
- Maintaining attention on what you want your mind to be focusing on
The difficulty with developing focus is not just the external distractions in our lives but also the internal chatter in our minds. It is very difficult to sit and keep your mind focused on a single thing when automatically your attention is often drawn to replaying the past, worrying about the future and other negative thoughts. Feeling relaxed and focused is an immediate positive side effect of meditation but it can also help develop mental strength, resilience and performance. Experts in this centuries old practice have various methods of meditation including focusing on the breath, counting and mindfulness. Although many people may associate meditation with spiritual practice, in a practical sense it is attentional practice.
If, like me, you have found meditation to be challenging, there is good news. In my research and practice over the past three months I have discovered that meditation doesn’t need to be lengthy. Sitting quietly admiring a view can do the trick nicely. Many have suggested that simply focusing intensely in a concentrated way for 30-60 seconds is better than trying to maintain focus over a long period of time, while your mind wanders here, there and everywhere.
Interest in maximising performance has been gaining momentum for a while but there is no doubt that times are changing. Amidst the incessant demands that we are subject to each day, people are more interested in things that bring balance, focus and harmony. Meditation (and reflection) is one of those things.
Craig Lowndes could be mistaken as a petrol head or perhaps even an adrenaline junkie. It’s true that he does spend a vast majority of his time skilfully driving powerful cars around a track at warp speed and there is no doubt he is highly competitive. These traits and skills have led to him achieving excellence , becoming a V8 Supercar champion and one of Australia’s most popular sporting heroes.
V8 Supercar driving requires 100% focus. Legendary British racing driver Stirling Moss describes competitive high speed driving perfectly, “It is necessary to relax your muscles when you can. Relaxing your brain is fatal.” Many researchers now believe that regardless of your inborn talent, it is possible to achieve excellence in almost any domain through single-minded focus and purposeful practice. The ability of Craig Lowndes and others like him to completely shut out distractions and have 100% focus on driving a high powered car around a racing track for hours on end, is integral not only to his success but also to his life. A moment of lost concentration and focus can ultimately mean severe injury or death to him and others. For the everyday person, the outcome of losing attention or focus is not usually life-threatening. But it is a reality that many of us juggle several tasks at a time and struggle to focus on any one of them for very long. Lack of absorbed focus takes it toll on the depth and quality of whatever we do and is an inefficient way of doing things. We often allow ourselves to be distracted by the urgent but not important tasks in our day and become very reactive rather than focusing intensely on our priorities. We get so caught up in the business and logistics of life that we don’t stop to consider what it is we really want or where to invest our time and energy to achieve those goals. Tony Schwartz, author of CEO of The Energy Project, believes that if more of us were able to focus, great performance in almost anything would be much more common than it is. Tony goes on to explain that, “Human beings aren’t meant to operate like computers: at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time. Rather, we’re hard-wired to be rhythmic. We’re at our best when we pulse between spending and renewing energy. Unfortunately, the need for rest and renewal gets little respect and the result is that we increasingly find themselves working at a pace that feels unsustainable. We’re in an energy crisis – and this one is personal.” The Energy Project has some great resources which have certainly made me stop and reflect on the way that I (don’t) recover and renew my own internal machinery. The Energy Project is offering a series of free Take Back Your Life in Ten Steps webinars, which will help to re-energize, refocus, and reengage you. Each month, Director of Product Development, Emily Pines shares The Energy Project’s expertise around ten simple practices featured in Tony Schwartz’ blog, “Take Back Your Life in Ten Steps,” onHBR.org that will enable you to achieve more in less time through renewal and recovery. In the first webinar that I recently attended with the Energy Project I immediately picked up a handful of tips that had me wondering why I hadn’t been utilising them earlier. Top tips included:
- Start thinking about life as a sprint event not a marathon. Sprinters give 100% because they can see the finish line.
- Take a break every 90 minutes to renew and recover from whatever task you are doing. The break doesn’t need to be mammoth, it can be as simple as a deep-breathing exercise, getting up from your computer for 5 minutes or taking a fuel stop. We all know how easy it is to work for hours on end without a break, so set a timer if you need to. This tip is crucial to our energy renewal and recovery.
- Work at increased capacity over shorter periods of time (90 minute cycles)
- Go to sleep earlier
- The value you create equals the energy you invest NOT how long you work
- Vacations fuel productivity
I especially liked the thought that we were left with. “Seize back your life – it belongs to you.”