Paddy Upton

The Smart Corporate Athlete

The Long Game

Part three: Ideas for winning the long game.

Psychologists who study survivors say that people who are rule followers don’t do as well as those who are of independent mind and spirit.

Navigating our way through the many unknowns of the current ‘pandemic’ feels like we’re building a new ship and sailing it at the same time – and this while we’re not sure of the exact course to plot nor how long the journey might be. A critical ingredient to pack is an endurance-survival mindset.

Like the independent minded and spirited survivors, now is the time to take even more control of our situation – both individually and collectively – rather than wait for someone to tell us what to do or for someone (or the vaccine) to rescue us. Many of yesterday’s rules of business and life are ripe for interrogation, renovation and/or relegation. Here are some ideas, not to follow, but rather to spark some thinking of your own.

Lessons from ultra-endurance athletes and survivors 

For over a decade ultra-marathon runner Ryan Sandes has been ‘one of the top endurance athletes in the world’ with a string of impressive worlds firsts behind his name. Like many of the world’s best athletes, the sport science principles of ‘periodisation’ and ‘active rest’ underpin his sustained success.

Periodisation is a process of balancing periods of high intensity training for races he aims to win (generally two per year), with lower intensity training for another four or five other events in which he wants to compete or do fairly well in, but not necessarily win. Ryan speaks of so many highly talented rivals who burnout before their careers really get going, mainly because they make the error of pacing themselves to win every event.

On the idea of business executives being on permanent full power for 11 out 12 months, year after year, especially given the additional demands of Covid, Ryan is clear, “It’s not sustainable. They might pull it off for a while, but they’ll burn out.”

It’s important to pay close attention to our mental and emotional reserves and to recognize the early signs of burnout. Leaders and managers would do well to pay even closer attention to this amongst their teams. Whilst taking a holiday might not be an option, given we’ve just come off one, there could be value in scheduling a period of deliberately reduced workloads (for say 1-3 weeks) to re-energise those in the ‘danger’ zone, and to do this a few times through the year. Sure, periodising workloads in business is a foreign concept, but these are foreign times we live in, and it may save some people from unnecessary illness, burnout or resignation.

Reality check: Many currently find themselves in a period of low energy, lower intensity and moderate work output. Consider actually planning a lower output period, rather than finding it happening whilst worrying that something is wrong.  

Periodising workload in business flies in the face of the mental model which says we need to be busy, because busy makes us feel or look productive, which is good. I contend this is as obsolete as the old adage in exercise that suggests ‘no pain, no gain’. That’s old school bullshit – being busy is not an accomplishment.

Active rest/ Effective cruise-control

After a really tough event, top athletes will engage in ‘active rest’. They don’t go on holiday, sit in a pub, at McDonalds or on PlayStation – they still actively keep their career moving forward, but they choose activities they enjoy most. Cricketer Dale Steyn goes surfing, which keeps him fit, helps his shoulder rehabilitation and even more importantly, makes him a happy, energised and mentally fresh person. Ryan Sandes keeps moving in the mountains , but he does it on a mountain bike – even though traditional thinkers judge and criticize them both for doing this. Active rest is a proven science that provides athletes’ mental and physical rest while still staying fit and keeping their careers on track.

Is it possible that business can adapt a version of an athlete’s ‘active rest’ day to help maintain energy and enthusiasm levels whilst avoiding burnout? I know this may sound strange, but stay with me on this.

Imagine planning an ‘active rest’ day once per fortnight where you commit to operating in relaxed and enjoyable ‘effective cruise-control’, which may include doing things like

  • starting work an hour later than normal, and using that hour to do something enjoyable for yourself, such as exercising, taking the kids to school or just chilling in a coffee shop
  • picking only a few tasks for the day, specifically the most enjoyable ones that are also important
  • consider not turning on a computer or not sitting at your desk. Spend the day connecting with colleagues (or clients) you don’t normally have the time for, learn something new, allocate time for creative thinking or innovation, or whatever helps advance yourself and the business
  • don’t worry about your to-do list filling up, when you die that list will still be full
  • managers, consider asking people in your team to come up with creative ways to have these battery-recharging ‘effective cruise-control’ days.

Imagine getting to a place where almost every working day happens in effective cruise-control, where you/ your employees are often relaxed, time is taken to really connect with others, where the longer-term and important things receive ample attention, where people spend a significant amount of time doing the things they enjoy, and were the business is still profitable?

Is it possible for your business life to be like this more often than just once a fortnight? In fact, what’s stopping you having this as the permanent way of doing business?

Imagine it. Then design it.

Finally, these suggestions of reduced workloads, ‘active rest’ or effective cruise-control days are not an excuse to be lazy and to be used as a cop-out from doing what needs to be done. The survivors of those airplane, shipwrecks, mountain accidents or cancer who give up, who wait for someone else to come and rescue them, who blindly follow rules or who don’t actively work at surviving, are the first to die.

The ones who face and adapt to their new reality, know that their situation can and will get better and who take responsibility for their attitude and actions, are the ones that survive.

Prepare for, and play the long game.

2 thoughts on “The Smart Corporate Athlete”

  1. Really enlightening. Especially when you are a small business and required to do, facilitate or train most aspects of your business. Burn out is a reality. Brilliant article .Thanks Paddy.

  2. Thanks for great article
    Do you think it would help my surfing by having a weekly cruise control
    day as I currently love charging every day on every wave
    Peace and love

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