Some of you might know that when I was 26 my neurologist suggested I had MS. My brain – the thing I had long believed was my super-power – was actually my kryptonite. Now, this won’t work for everybody, but I simply decided he was wrong. That there was another explanation. I decided to do my own research, and develop my own hypothesis of what was going on. I learned to listen to my body, and I reluctantly acknowledged that I needed to pace myself.
I have always been impatient with myself. The expectations that I set – expectations rather than goals – were always lofty and ambitious. And they came from a deep-seated confidence in my own abilities to make it happen.
Normal people had ‘just’ a full-time job… I had a full-time job, a full-time course of masters-level academic study and was building a business… Pace was synonymous with ‘fast’ to me. I was curious, and determined to learn everything I could about anything that was remotely interesting to me. As soon as a job wasn’t ‘teaching’ me anymore, I started looking for the next one.
I’m a bit older now, and not as veracious as I used to be. But I’ve also learned a few things about the power of setting the right pace – and how it can transform your effectiveness. I’ll share them with you here.
More haste less waste…
I used to believe that going faster meant getting there sooner.
Sounds logical, right?
Only there are so many reasons why it might not be true…
Exceeding the speed limit
You won’t get there faster if you are pulled over for speeding. In fact, it’s entirely likely that it will take considerably longer to reach your destination.
And while the speeding ticket is simply a metaphor for an unplanned stop of some kind, your body can do this to you. My diagnosis was a kind of metaphorical speeding ticket – slow down, look after your health, eat well, exercise…
Perhaps more importantly, you won’t get ‘there’ faster if you don’t know where ‘there’ is. Taking time to ensure you are clear about your destination is vital to an efficient journey.
Action with no clear purpose is only a good idea if you are ‘sampling the menu’. I did this early in my career. I switched jobs frequently (probably every 6 months) because I knew that wasn’t ‘it’ and I studied a multitude of different subjects at university because I was curious and wanted to see what the different disciplines had to offer.
Sometimes I completed a qualification, sometimes I didn’t!
Knowing where you’re going is great – but choosing an inefficient means of getting there isn’t the best idea.
True, sometimes the scenic route provides a welcome respite, but in effect this then becomes part of the purpose of the journey.
Ineffective navigation means taking a trickier path that delivers no real benefit to you, except frustration.
Think about the infamous (and biased) stereotype about the husband who won’t stop to ask directions… not only does everyone arrive later than planned, but there’s probably been an argument or two along the way!
Time saved before you begin by not planning the route properly is a false economy.
If you were planning a really important journey through a remote and sparsely populated region, I’m guessing you’d make sure your fuel tank was full (or your battery fully charged) before you left, right?
There’s literally no point in leaving if you don’t have sufficient fuel to get there. And the time it takes to do this is more efficient than running out of fuel halfway there with no means to do anything about it.
Whether it’s food, or sleep, or relaxation, or social interaction that charges you up – make sure you’ve got enough in the tank.
Setting the pace: Listening to your body
Unlike your car, though, your body doesn’t have a fuel gauge. It can’t give you an instant graphic readout that says exactly how many miles before you need to refuel. And it certainly won’t start flashing lights at you when you’re nearing empty… at least not literally.
A regular meditation practice gives you a opportunity to pause, stop replaying what went wrong about yesterday and worrying about what might happen tomorrow, and listen to your body. To be in this moment right here where your physical wellbeing has an opportunity to speak to you.
What would it say?
It might say “I’m achey” or it might say “I’ve got a slightly scratchy throat” or it might say “I’m tired”. Or it might say nothing… which I find is usually a good thing.
But if you don’t stop and create the space, there’s a real danger that you’ll miss the signs until well after the point at which you can do anything about it.
It wasn’t until I took a university psychology course* in neuropsychology that I began to understand the brain chemistry behind nutrition. Until that point I had honestly believed that diet was simply a matter of input and output. Calories consumed versus calories used.
And I guess that’s true if your goal is to lose or gain weight.
But actually, your brain and your body need nutrients to thrive. Just like your garden.
Many foods – particularly highly processed foods – are ’empty calories’. They’ll make you fat but they provide virtually no other nutritional value whatsoever. This is why a balanced diet is so important, fruit, vegetables and nuts are a great place to start.
And I know it can seem like there’s an enormous amount of conflicting advice out there about what is good for you and what isn’t, moderation and variety might be useful rules of thumb.
*This is also the class where I learned what metabolising alcohol does to your brain. No thank you!
Sleep is vital to effective cognitive functioning. It’s also important to a whole range of bodily processes, like digestion.
The average person needs between seven and eight hours a night, but there’s a huge range – some people function perfectly well on only four – but they tend to be the exception, rather than the rule.
Unfortunately, if you’re busy and ambitious, sleep time can seem like ‘wasted’ time. You shave a little off at each end… nothing bad happens… then a little more. Before you know it you’re burnt out and unwell.
Make it a priority to go to bed on time (whatever that means for you). Work will wait. It’s good like that.
Keeping your body active is important, not only for your overall fitness, but for cognitive functioning as well.
I’m not great at this – I prefer not to exercise. I’m jealous of people who get an endorphin hit from exercise… I never have.
However, I know it is important, and the only way for me to make this work is to schedule it. So every morning I have a 15 minute yoga routine, every lunch time I go for a brisk 15 minute walk, and every evening I do whatever it takes to reach 10,000 steps. This works for me – you’ll need to find your own sweet spot.
If you get bored exercising, make sure you’ve got something else to do – use a treadmill and watch TED talks while you ‘pound the pavement’. Use the time to practice mindfulness. Listen to an audiobook. Whatever it is that will keep your brain from focusing on how much you aren’t enjoying it.
Not pushing when you know you shouldn’t
I think if we’re honest, we’ve all done this at some point. We’ve heard the warning but continued on regardless.
Whether it’s the realisation that your throat is sore and you might be coming down with a cold, or the headache you suspect is indicative of burnout… heed it. It’s there for a reason.
No job, and very few other responsibilities, are more important than taking care of your physical and mental wellbeing.
This is the equivalent of putting your own oxygen mask on before you help others. You can’t give to others if your own cup is empty.
Hayley’s podcast is great, I strongly recommend you subscribe so you don’t miss a single one!
In Episode 25 she chats with me about what it means to be a Chief Executive – some of the things that people tell you but you don’t really understand until you’re alone in the hot-seat.
This is a side of me you won’t have seen, as I don’t talk much about my ‘day-job’ here on the Blog.
The First Time Manager’s Crash Course Part One and Part Two are out now on Skillshare.
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