Making Waves

In My Humble Opinion: Tony Schwartz on training for stress — and recovery.

So the tan is fading, and you're already feeling nostalgic about your summer vacation. But tell the truth: did you ever really let go, chill out, and leave the office behind? or are you among the 47% of businesspeople who now take their laptops on vacation? did you slip away from the family once or twice each day to check your email (rationalizing that otherwise you'd be facing about 800 unread messages when you returned to work)? What about checking your voice mail? Or maybe you're one of those who never got away at all this summer. The pressure at the office was just too high — too much to do and too few hours to do it in. It's the 24x7 culture: Perform or perish.

The by-product of such behavior is that you're helping to fuel one of the fastest-growing industries in America. No, not the Internet. I'm talking about the legion of speakers, coaches, trainers, psychologists, workshop leaders, and consultants whom companies are hiring in ever-increasing numbers to help people like you cope with change, avoid burnout, and increase productivity.

Amid all this clutter, Jim Loehr offers a unique approach to the challenge of optimizing performance. Now 56, Loehr was a competitive athlete in his youth. In 1976, after earning his doctorate, he became one of this country's first sports psychologists. For the next 15 years, Loehr spent countless hours analyzing what makes it possible for world-class athletes to perform at their best under the most stressful conditions. Today, he is president of LGE Performance Systems in Orlando, Florida. He and I first met a decade ago, and I've been following his work — and occasionally working with him — ever since.

Loehr's first key insight was that the skill that athletes call "mental toughness" can be taught just as systematically as a golf swing. In addition, that skill can be strengthened just as predictably as a muscle can through weight training. Even more intriguingly, Loehr concluded that the traditional view of stress as something harmful and insidious simply misses the mark. The only way to expand the capacity of great athletes to handle stress effectively, Loehr discovered, was to expose them to stress in increasingly larger doses.

Loehr's biggest breakthrough was recognizing that, just as training for stress is critical to growth, so is training for recovery. If stress can be defined as anything that prompts the expenditure of energy, then recovery is the means by which energy is recaptured. Rather than viewing recovery as a passive function, Loehr argues that it is integral to high performance — yin to the yang of stress. A balanced relationship between stress and recovery — a rhythmic pulsing, not unlike that of a healthy heart — turns out to be optimal.

Loehr named this capacity for resilience the "ideal performance state," and he began developing techniques to help cultivate it. Then, in the late 1980s, he realized that the techniques that he was using successfully with athletes were also applicable to executives who operate in high-pressure, performance-driven work environments. These "corporate athletes" often felt the same relentless pressure as traditional athletes did, and typically they had to endure that pressure for longer hours, with shorter "off-seasons," and over many more years.

"In the vast majority of companies today, people lead very driven, linear lives," Loehr explains. "The body is meant to move, but businesspeople sit at their desks for endless hours, they often overeat or go without eating at all, and they work in a state of chronic anxiety, fear, or anger." Loehr's work, described in his most recent book, Stress for Success (Times Business, 1997), focuses on a deceptively simple solution: teaching people how to switch gears — physically, emotionally, and mentally — in a rhythmic fashion throughout the day. Creating such a program requires integrating and orchestrating disparate approaches — from fitness and nutrition to time-management and emotional-intelligence training — which other experts typically offer only in isolation.

Loehr and his LGE colleagues have worked with organizations ranging from the FBI to the American Heart Association, from Merrill Lynch to Estee Lauder. For me, the most compelling evidence that the LGE system works is how powerful it has been in my own life. I began using the system several years ago, during a period when a tough deadline demanded that I be more productive. My first instinct was to push harder, to work longer hours. Loehr convinced me that "making waves," or "oscillating," would be more effective.

The first change I made was to give up reading the newspaper for an hour when I awoke. Loehr helped me see that I was better off using that time, when my energy and capacity to focus were at a peak, for work. The next powerful change was to shift from eating a bagel and coffee for breakfast to having a protein drink. Instead of feeling a surge of energy followed within an hour by a crash — a pattern that I had endured for years — I found my energy growing steadily and my concentration becoming stronger. Next, I built in a break every few hours — which carved my periods of high concentration into more well-defined segments. Over time, by putting in fewer hours and fitting in some form of physical workout nearly every day, I became nearly twice as productive as I'd ever been.

Oscillating between stress and recovery is possible even in environments that are far more structured than mine. Jeffrey Sklar, 38, a partner at Gruntal & Co., a New York City - based brokerage firm, spends his days building relationships and selling ideas to institutions. A self-described compulsive achiever, he had long pursued a "work till you drop" philosophy. Last winter, Sklar spent three days at LGE's training facility in Florida. "Outworking most people had always been easy for me, but I realized that I was sacrificing efficiency," he says. "I had to learn how to keep running hard while also learning how to recover deeply and frequently."

Sklar began by following LGE precepts that call for eating frequently and strategically. Next, he reoriented his regular workouts toward interval forms of training — with shorter bursts of energy expenditure followed by a recovery period. He built a 15-minute deep-breathing break into the middle of his mornings — and he takes that break no matter what else is going on. At lunch, he takes at least a 15-minute walk, and at mid-afternoon he repeats his deep-breathing ritual. Since returning from LGE, he has not worked a single weekend. "Building more rest and fun into my life was psychologically difficult," he says, "but I absolutely feel like I'm in a better zone now. My business is also up 75% year to year, and a lot of that is about managing my energy better."

Loehr's program also includes rituals for separating his work life from his home life — at a time when technologies such as email and cell-phones often blur the boundaries between the two. Peter J. Cathey, 45, is the CEO of World Duty Free Inflight — a job that requires him to work long hours managing businesses in 56 cities on 6 continents and in every time zone. "My 35-minute commute used to be the most stressful part of my day," Cathey recalls. "Now, by following LGE's program, it's become a source of recovery. In the morning, to jump-start the day, I put on music that is upbeat. While I listen, I visualize what I want to accomplish and how I'm going to get it done. At the end of the day, I shift to music that makes me happy and relaxed. I can actually feel myself going from a high-stress, high-anxiety mode to a much calmer state. By the time I walk through the door, I'm not thinking about work anymore, and I'm ready to spend time with my wife - which is very precious to me."

One of the primary challenges involved in optimizing performance under stress is emotional resilience. For many people, reactive emotions, such as anger and fear, undermine productivity. For Phebe Farrow Port, 47, an executive at Estee Lauder who runs the company's professional-development programs, using LGE's rituals to deal with physical and emotional stress has proved especially valuable. "Let's say I take an emotional hit during the first of several meetings," she says. "Rather than trying to clear my mind, I take a few minutes between meetings to run up and down several flights of stairs. That shifts my chemistry and my mood. You can't will your emotions to change, but you can shift them by changing your chemistry. Later, when I'm feeling calmer, I can go back, think about what happened, and deal with it."

For Loehr, the ultimate challenge is to transform not just people but also the environments in which they work. "To create a culture of optimal performance," he says, "you have to address the management of energy at every level. What we've found is very simple: The more ways that people are encouraged to oscillate — to move between stress and recovery — the happier they are, the better they perform, and the higher their productivity becomes."

I'd tell you more about all this, but I've been working on these last several paragraphs for nearly two hours now — and I'm feeling a little burned out. It's time for a run.

Tony Schwartz (tschwartz@fastcompany.com) is a writer whose current work focuses on integrating work and life. Contact Jim Loehr by email (LGE@MentallyTough.com).

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