Think at London Business School: fresh ideas and opinions from LBS faculty and other experts direct to your inbox
What does peak performance look, feel and sound like to you? Perhaps it’s having energy to do more, or living a healthier lifestyle to do less, better. “Whatever your goals, visualise the end result,” says Jeff Archer, Managing Director of The Tonic Corporate Wellness, at an LBS wellbeing session. What’s stopping you from reaching your ultimate level of performance?
According to a 2016 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) report, wellbeing is only taken into account in business decisions to “a moderate or great extent” 43% of the time. In addition, almost two-thirds of employers approach wellbeing reactively rather than proactively. If this doesn’t send a strong message that we’re in charge of our own wellbeing, nothing does.
“When you move your health and wellbeing higher up the priority list and give it continual attention you perform better in every domain,” says Archer. It’s true. How do we expect to get the best results if we don’t feel at our best?
“But I don’t have time to think about my wellness!” I hear you cry. “Actually,” says Archer, “you have 168 hours a week at your disposal. The question is not whether you’re getting enough done in that time, it's how you manage your effectiveness.” It’s also about breaking bad habits. Some keystone habits have the power to start a chain reaction. Start by sitting in a way that’s better for your mind and body.
“Before you die your life passes before your eyes… It's called living”
Archer points at the screen, showing a diagram of the ideal sitting posture. It’s simple: sit up straight, roll your shoulders back, bend your knees at a right angle, keep your feet flat on the floor, feel a sense of lengthening through the spine. But how many of us sit like this?
When your head is perfectly upright it weighs the equivalent of a bowling ball, 10lbs. When your neck is bent forward, called “text neck”, the weight of your head increases. At 15 degrees it becomes 27lbs. At 60 degrees it weighs 60lbs, almost the weight of an eight-year-old child.
“That’s a heavy load perched on your neck,” says Archer. “The oxygen transfer from your lungs to the blood and the brain is more efficient when you sit correctly.” We can’t think straight when we don’t sit straight. Poor posture compromises brain function and can lead to injury. Research shows that slumping in your seat can also affect your emotions. Sitting upright lifts both the mood and the spine.
Deep down we know what we should be doing. How do we bridge the gap? Archer says: “Set periodic reminders to encourage you to sit and stand up. Visualise the benefits. What’s going to make the biggest difference to you?” For instance, I vow to check my posture because it prevents old injuries coming back.
With water, not caffeine.
We’re all made up of 60% water, give or take. Since your brain is about 85% water, even mild dehydration can bring on changes in your mood and a decline in your concentration. Research (Armstrong 1985) shows that when athletes are dehydrated by 5% of their body weight their performance decreases by around 30%.
We may not be athletes, but our lives are demanding and our time is stretched. Richard Jolly, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS, wrote that athletes must “visualise winning the next leg of the track and keep focused on that”. Archer says that to achieve results we should focus on what success looks, sounds and feels like.
“How much water do you consume?” Archer asks the group. The recommended daily intake of water is around two litres, and the mumbled response is that “controlling what we drink is hard when we’re on the move”. Life isn’t linear, simple or static – water isn’t always nearby.
Making good hydration a habit will help you even when you’re on the move, Archer explains. “Visualise the benefits: what’s going to make the biggest difference to you?” I pledge to drink less coffee and a little water more often.
Creating a cue, behaviour and reward structure, as outlined in Charles Duhigg’s The power of habit: why we do what we do and how to change it, will help your fitness routine and focus your mind outside the world of work.
Archer says: “The minimum amount of effective exercise you can do each week, based on an international study of 1,000 people, is one minute of intensive activity three times a week. The 20-week study improved the participants’ aerobic fitness.” He isn’t advocating doing as little as possible: he’s saying, find the right amount of exercise to suit your specific goals.
“Find motivation from the end result. There has to be an emotional upside for change to happen,” says Archer. Make your goal salient by picturing what would be better if you moved more. After back surgery, I’ve got a good reason to work out. “It keeps me strong and prevents further injury,” I tell the room.
“Action in any form makes a difference,” says Archer. From walking to meetings to opting to take the stairs, there are plenty of ways to nudge your move goal in the right direction. “Make sure your reason is strong, compelling, exciting. Whether it's a sporting event or a wedding, find a motive that frames your day-to-day decisions. If you have an activity in your daily schedule it will become a habit. These small, consistent, positive behaviours add up over time.”
“Food is all about choices: the right thing at the right time in the right quantity,” says Archer. “Eating is where the knowing-doing gap gets tricky. We all know what’s good but often fall back on old habits. Eating regularly and well is a simple tactic for feeling more energised at work,” he says.
“The fastest road to mindful eating is to pause,” says Archer. “What drives your lunch choices? That it tastes good, it’s fuel, it’s quick or just habit?” Pause before you eat to remind you that you have a choice. Pause for thought after you’ve eaten to decipher how you feel. “If your healthy-eating goal is to become energised ask whether you feel dynamic or sluggish after food.
“Design a goal that means something to you – whether it’s more energy, better sleep or improved mood. Then, take a leap of faith and gather evidence that it's working. Keep a short food diary, and before you know it you'll have a routine that works for you.”
“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself any time you want,” wrote Arianna Huffington in The Sleep Revolution. Sleep is, largely, in our control. You might argue that in fact the opposite is true if you have a newborn baby, a snoring partner or noisy neighbours, but Archer says achieving a good night’s sleep starts way before bedtime.
Connect what you do in the day to your sleep pattern, he says, and make sure you have a pre-sleep routine. “But I’m not a child!” shouts someone nearby. It’s a familiar response, Archer claims. “Most people have a pre-sleep routine without knowing it. Work out what you do five, 10, 15 minutes before you sleep. Set your own guidelines.”
Discover when you should stop interacting with people before it affects your ability to snooze. Time exactly when to stop eating, drinking, watching and reading. “Once you’ve worked out your routine, communicate your sleep rhythm with your loved ones.”
According to Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, Founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness at University of Massachusetts Medical School, mindfulness means “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present and non-judgmentally”. Taking time out is not always about being on your own and doing nothing, says Archer. It’s about channelling your efforts in the right direction.
“You’ve got to slow down to speed up,” he adds. Everyone has their own version of mindfulness. For me, it’s when I look up from whatever I’m reading when crossing the Grosvenor Bridge in London. For Archer, it’s when he runs.
“Be creative with your mindful moments. You might say you don't have time, but how do you expect to have creative thoughts if you don’t step away from the norm?”
A daily, weekly and monthly strategy underpins your ultimate wellness guide. Tie together points one to six by asking, “How can I reach my wellness goals?” An improvement in one area often has a ripple effect elsewhere, says Archer. For instance, healthy eating leads to better sleep, and taking time out makes choosing the right food simple.
“Small consistent tweaks in your life year after year will make an enormous difference. If you can formulate a strategy for achieving peak performance, you can apply the same strategy to any challenge you come across in life.”
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