The challenges of 2020 have tested our endurance. As we find ourselves deep into the fourth quarter, still navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and attempting to refine our office re-entry plans, we can’t help but ask: Is this the last mile of this marathon? The 26.2-mile run has long been used as a metaphor to conjure up the most pressing, extended challenges of an individual’s professional and personal life. The origins of the race date back to an ancient Greek legend and, every year, runners who compete in today’s contests all over the world push us to reimagine what’s possible in our own lives.
We look to athletes to teach us lessons that we can lean on during times of extreme adversity.
We look to athletes to teach us lessons that we can lean on during times of extreme adversity. They harness the power of resilience, particularly in the last mile, and model best practices that can guide people through lengthy, arduous trials. By focusing their thinking on the present, prioritizing recovery and completing the stress cycle, professionals can thrive through the last month of an unprecedented year.
Narrow your thinking to the present moment
Leaders often focus on what will happen after they get through this marathon of a year. But in this ever-changing market — with the pandemic still a shifting, evolving reality — staying in the present moment can offer a competitive edge. Grounding ourselves in the here and now is imperative, even as we try to prepare for a post-COVID economy.
A positive, present mindset, she [Neely Spence Gracey] argues, is an essential tool for moving through the mental and emotional exhaustion of a marathon.
One professional runner, Neely Spence Gracey, explains her strategy in an article in Runner’s World. A positive, present mindset, she argues, is an essential tool for moving through the mental and emotional exhaustion of a marathon. “I just think about each step and each breath as it’s happening,” she says. “I also use trigger words or mantras to stay engaged and positive, so that when the race gets tough, I can focus on these thoughts to keep me going.”
Practicing mindfulness with an app like Headspace or Insight Timer can help you to cultivate Gracey’s mindset. In times of adversity, compassion meditation can serve as a powerful transformative tool. A 2020 study showed a link between a two-week compassion meditation program and resilience, and we all need more of it as we embark on the final month of 2020.
Understand the role of recovery in resilience
Even marathon runners know that they must pace themselves. If they push themselves too fast, they may not be able to make it through to the end. As mental health challenges rise with the waves of the pandemic, we need to prioritize strategies that help us build resiliency during prolonged periods of difficulty. Humans are hard-wired to require recovery periods, and time off is especially important at times of overwhelming stress.
Just as athletes need recovery periods while training and to respect their pace in competitions, professionals need time to recuperate and restore their energy.
In the Harvard Business Review, Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan explain that resilience is all about recharging. “We often take a militaristic, ‘tough’ approach to resilience and grit. We imagine a Marine slogging through the mud, a boxer going one more round, or a football player picking himself up off the turf for one more play. We believe that the longer we tough it out, the tougher we are, and therefore the more successful we will be. However, this entire conception is scientifically inaccurate.” The authors even cite a study that insomnia alone costs companies $63 billion a year.
Just as athletes need recovery periods while training and to respect their pace in competitions, professionals need time to recuperate and restore their energy. “Phygital,” or physical and digital, work environments have disrupted the traditional boundaries around work, making it harder for professionals to step away.
The most effective leaders will get creative about ways to prioritize recovery in an organization, to ensure that workloads don’t balloon into unmanageable expectations.
The most effective leaders will get creative about ways to prioritize recovery in an organization, to ensure that workloads don’t balloon into unmanageable expectations. At EQ Office, everyone benefits from “quiet hours” on Wednesday afternoons, when no one sends emails or schedules meetings. Some organizations give team members extra personal days or encourage individuals to build in buffer time before or after meetings.
Complete the stress cycle with two kinds of recovery
Understanding the role recovery plays in resilience can provide a foundation for avoiding burnout. Research shows that two kinds of recovery can be leveraged: periods of relaxation during the day — taking breaks and switching gears to low-energy or different tasks — and periods of recuperation outside work (on evenings, weekends, holidays and vacations.) To prevent burnout and continue to forge onward, you need both forms of recovery to complete the stress cycle.
To prevent burnout and continue to forge onward, you need both forms of recovery to complete the stress cycle - periods of relaxation during the day and longer periods of recuperation outside of work.
Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., and Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A., wrote the book “Burnout” to share the science that unlocks, rather than locks in, the stress that we accumulate both in daily life and in times of adversity. One of the key statistics that they share is that humans need to consecrate 42% of their time to rest. The vast majority of that time needs to be spent sleeping, but it could also include “stress-reducing conversations” with loved ones or close colleagues, and nourishing yourself with meals and a gratitude practice.
The Nagoski sisters explain that exercise is also an essential aspect of rest. “Physical exercise counts as ‘rest’ partly because it improves the quality of your sleep and partly because it completes the stress response cycle, transitioning your body out of the stressed state and into a resting state,” they write. They recommend 30 minutes to an hour of physical activity three to six times a week, to release stress and prevent burnout. At EQ Office, CEO Lisa Picard sees exercise as a cornerstone of recovery. “Taking the time to move my body, for me particularly, is really, really important,” she says.
Success is not just about the end of the marathon, it’s about the time when you ease off on your pace so that you can steady your progress, or when you support a co-worker in need.
Building mindful practices, prioritizing recovery and completing the stress cycle can carry people through even the most intense times at work. It’s important to remember, though, that professionals are facing hardships in every aspect of their lives. Success is not just about the end of the marathon, it’s about the time when you ease off on your pace so that you can steady your progress, or when you support a co-worker in need. In this environment, taking the time to recover and reset is a daily accomplishment to celebrate. The teams that thrive in 2021 will be the ones that have made the space for the restorative power of rest and recovery during this last mile, before embarking on the next marathon.