Earlier this week I spoke to a colleague who, when asked how the start of his year was going, responded with “very dynamic”. This understatement of a still very young year made me laugh out loud, because it so aptly described what so many of us are currently experiencing.

As if we needed any further confirmation, the quiet time “between the years” has now well and truly passed. The new year is ramping up. With this, the calmness and mental space we all benefited from at the end of the last year seems to have moved further and further into
the distance. And even though many of us feel replenished and ready to hit the road at full speed, ensuring the rubber stays on the road at all times, may seem tricky to say the least.

How can we ensure we keep that all importanttraction? How can we slow things down in an effort to speed them up?

Pondering these questions made me think about the work we did with our clients over the past year – in particular three lessons that emerged and that are worth sharing with you:

Lesson #1 Performance and recovery are two sides of the same coin

As the pandemic continued its firm grip on the work/life merge, many of us were racing from one video call to another. Energy and concentration levels were often depleted by the early afternoon when an overdose of coffee seemed to compound the issue rather than solve
it, all the while the ever-growing to-do list continued to rack up one task after the other. – No chance for mental space. And very little chance for calmness.

So, how can you create time to think during an extremely busy workday?

Working with Loehr and Schwartz’s Emotional Energy Grid allowed us to support our clients to check in with themselves and facilitating conversations with their teams. The Emotional Energy Grid is based on the premise that we need to have the right energy to perform and that our energy levels are significantly influenced by our emotions. This, of course, implies that we can actively steer our way around the grid, which consists of four quadrants: Burnout, Survival, Performance and Recovery.

During the course of a day, or even an hour, we may naturally find ourselves passing through all four of these quadrants. Clearly, none of us wants to spend too much time in the Burnout zone and most of us prefer to be in Performance whenever possible. What we observed time and time again when working with different teams and leaders from completely unrelated industries is that the least valued of these quadrants is Recovery. To many of us it almost seems like a luxury to spend time there at all. And yet it is the Recovery zone that enables us to perform well as it helps us to re-energise.

The key is to tactically alternate between Performance and Recovery and through this deliberate action create time to think, reflect and recharge.

This carefully crafted balance between Performance and Recovery is highly individualised. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another. Importantly, it does not have to be that three week holiday, but recovery and time to think can be created through deliberate micro breaks throughout your day, like for example going for a short walk or catching up with a friend. – “Where will I find the time for this?”, I hear you think. Your challenge is fair and brings me to the second lesson I want to share with you.

Lesson #2 Sleep deprivation leads to cognitive impairment

When the pressure is on it seems easy to reduce sleep by an hour or two in favour of meeting a deadline. It is seductive to chase the end of that to-do list. But let’s be honest….When have we ever truly completed all tasks on that list? Not only that, this tactic unfortunately comes with quite a few, well documented side effects. According to the NHS UK website, 1 in 3 people do not sleep enough for their relevant age group. This has severe physiological effects such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure (hypertension) and diabetes. That part most of us are probably aware of.

How about the significant mental drawbacks resulting from a lack of sleep?

Eti Ben Simon and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrated in their work published in Nature Human Behaviour in 2019, a clear link between sleep deprivation and people’s ability to regulate their emotions to the degree that anxiety levels in the sleep deprived sample reached “scores that would normally signal a clinical anxiety disorder.” This, as you can imagine, has a significant influence on which quadrant in the Emotional Energy Grid we are most likely to spend our time in. It is probably not Performance or Recovery. What is more there, is a substantial amount of research showing that increased anxiety levels significantly impair cognitive performance. And I am not only talking about our memory or our linguistic abilities. Making the “right” decisions on six hours sleep or less is a tall order when our neurons are constantly in overdrive. “Ensuring you have a good eight hour sleep every night seems another great piece of advice”, you might think, especially with a never-ending list of deliverables. To me, it comes down to something a good friend of mine once said: “Then you just have to do less.”So, how do you start?

This question in fact brings us to the third and final lesson I want to share with you today.

Lesson #3 Mindfulness slows you down and creates clarity

It has admittedly, taken me quite a while to wrap my head around what mindfulness actually means. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. This awareness can come through a
moment of meditation, a mindful walk or just simply through down for a moment and taking the first bite of your lunch or the first sip of a hot drink with great awareness. Up until recently, I thought, I could only be mindful with a lot of time on my hands, the right yoga
matt and seating cushion and…let’s not forget an agreeable voice guiding me through a meditation. Clearly this was just an excuse because mindfulness does not need all of this.

We “just” need to be in the moment, paying attention to what is here for us right now.

This realisation has helped me to slow things down whenever they really felt like spiralling into a big snowball of actions. This has allowed me to gain greater clarity on what to prioritise and what to let go. At first, I did not even realise that this was happening. Only when I received feedback from colleagues that they felt I was much calmer and clearer in my thinking and decision making did I connect the dots.

So, this is it. This is my takeaway from 2021. And my responses to how we can all ensure we keep traction and slow things down to speed them up. I know this is hard. And I know I, for one, am unlikely to be able to do all of this successfully from the start. But I have to start somewhere without being afraid to fail.

As with everything, ensuring the rubber stays on the road requires a lot of experimenting.