Work-Life Balance Through Interval Training

At a ThirdPath Institute conference a few weeks ago, a great discussion arose around the fact that workloads tend to ebb and flow, and it’s important to know how to alternate between periods of peak effort and recovery. Before long, someone noted the analogy to high performance in sports, and used a phrase that piqued my curiosity: Corporate Athlete. I loved the term so much I jotted it down, thinking I might make something of it in my writing and consulting. Then I Googled it.

Oops. Apparently, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz have already made quite a lot of the term corporate athlete, having coined it way back in a 2001 HBR article (I was only 13 years late to the party!) and explored it in a series of best-selling books about engagement, energy, and business success. So much for my plan to unleash it on the world.

But I was all the more glad to find so much work already done on corporate athleticism, because it has a lot to offer my field: the challenges faced by working parents.

Loehr and Schwartz look at how the winners in the world of sports prepare for competition and then apply these techniques to managerial work. They urge executives “to train in the same systematic, multilevel way that world-class athletes do.” No, CEOs are not forced to run wind sprints (although some do). Rather, they are coached in a holistic program designed to help them attain – and sustain– the highest performance at their craft.

What strikes me most in the writing Loehr and Schwartz have done is their frequent use of the word “balance.” In particular, they see great athletes and corporate athletes achieving the right balance across three critical dimensions:

1. Mind and Body

2. Performance and Development

3. Exertion and Recovery

Of course, people trying to succeed both at work and at home are constantly thinking in terms of balance. But perhaps Loehr and Schwartz have given us a more nuanced way of thinking about what needs to be balanced. Using their dimensions, how might someone go about becoming a superstar Work-Life Athlete?

First, let’s think about that mind–body balance. For athletes, the classic mistake to avoid is focusing only on preparing one’s body for the game. Great coaches equip their players to win the mental game as well the physical one. Executives, by contrast, are too likely to grind away at intellectual tasks and overlook that their bodies must be healthy if they are to have the energy to perform well on the job. As Loehr and Schwartz put it, a successful approach to sustained high performance “must pull together [many] elements and consider the person as a whole.” It must address the body, the emotions, the mind, and the spirit.

For work-life athletes, mind-body balance suggests that we should get enough sleep, eat reasonably well, engage in some exercise – and make room in our lives for social interaction, “me time,” and perspective-seeking through reflection and meditation or prayer. You don’t have to be in perfect shape to be good at your job or effective as a parent. But if we neglect our bodies, or spirits, we may not have enough sustained energy for effectiveness in either work or family, let alone both.

The performance–development balance also has a particular relevance to the work-life realm. Athletes know that the vast majority of their effort is spent on development, preparing for the performance they must put in during actual competition. In business, it feels like the proportions are inverted: every day executives must perform, and only a tiny fraction of their time is set aside for “professional development.” But actually, the athlete’s understanding of the balance would make more sense for business people, too. Athletes in their development days focus on individual elements of their game and build their capacity in the fundamentals; on competition days, they pull all the pieces together and push performance to the maximum. Likewise in business, there are those high-stakes occasions when managers can only pull off what they are trying to accomplish by drawing on every competence they have; but between “big game” days, many assignments could be focused on honing particular fundamentals.

Now consider that working parents also have moments when their capabilities as work-life athletes are seriously put to the test and their performance has the greatest consequences. In those moments, they too need to pull together all their resources and abilities to make the right moves. And ideally, they would have prepared for those moments by deliberately developing individual elements in situations where the stakes were not so high.

Anyone who wants to sustain a performance edge needs to figure out how to keep developing new capabilities, and not just keep drawing on existing ones. If this can’t be accomplished through daily tasks, then it requires regularly scheduled time to be set aside. Whether it’s protecting 30 minutes every other day to read up on industry developments, listening to a language-instruction course during the morning commute, or trying a new recipe every week, turning off the performance pressure creates more openness to new approaches and heightens performance in the long run.

This brings us, finally, to the exertion–recovery balance that Loehr and Schwartz see great athletes managing so well. “In the living laboratory of sports,” they write, “we learn that the real enemy of high performance is not stress, which, paradoxical as it may seem, is actually the stimulus for growth. Rather, the problem is the absence of disciplined, intermittent recovery.” For example, in weight lifting, one stresses muscles to the point where their fibers literally start to break down. However, after an adequate recovery period, the muscle not only heals, it grows stronger. Without rest, one ends up with be acute and chronic damage.

In business, demanding projects, with tight deadlines and stretch goals, can be great – but can’t be unremitting. Occasional overwork is a necessity, at work and in the rest of our lives, but chronic overwork robs us of our resilience. This reduces our performance over time, and causes damage in our work and personal lives. Similarly, too many working parents go full-tilt, non-stop to tackle all they have to do without allowing themselves the recovery time needed for sustainable effectiveness. “Recovery” for the work-life athlete might not come when they jump from the demands of one front to the demands of another. It might require taking breaks from the jumping itself. A good start might be to arrange for some standing “no/limited contact” time slots with managers and coworkers (e.g., specifying that no one should expect a response to an email between 6:30 and 9:30 pm). For that matter, why not set “no screen” hours at home, when everyone stays off their phones, tablets, and other devices and is available to each other?

From a management standpoint, we need to rethink the notion that non-performance time is wasted time. Instead, we need to see that recovery is a key component of sustained high performance. This means we must resist continually increasing the time demands we put on our employees and expecting our employees to be constantly “on call” even after hours. We need to encourage our employees to take lunch breaks, relax on weekends, and actually take their vacation days, unplugged (and also do these things ourselves). By helping to strike the right balances, we can build the work-life athleticism we need when the stakes are highest.

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