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"Managing energy, not time, is the key to enduring high performance as well as to health, happiness, and life balance...We must learn to live our lives as a series of sprints Ė fully engaged for periods of time Ė and then fully disengaged and seeking renewal..." Jim Loehr, Ed.D., and Tony Schwartz
Intervals for Fitness Ė and Life
Last month I explained why I prefer intervals over steady state training (article 112, Tabata vs. GXP). A sprinter by nature, I prefer to see the finish line Ė and relief -- dead ahead, not somewhere down a winding road or over the horizon. Just thinking about uninterrupted endurance training makes me tired. Itís boring as well. On the other hand, I find the stress and rest of interval training energizing. Itís interesting, challenging and fun.
Performance psychologist Jim Loehr and author/reporter Tony Schwartz, his partner in LGE Performance Systems, have developed a program to apply the principles of interval training to corporate executives and people in all walks of life.
"The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal," Loehr and Schwartz write in The Power of Full Engagement (Free Press, 2003). "Instead many of us live our lives as if we are running in an endless marathon, pushing ourselves far beyond healthy levels of exertion."
"We must learn to live our lives as a series of sprints...," Loehr and Schwartz counsel.
Overload, which simply says to increase strength or endurance you must continually challenge yourself to do more than you have before, is the basic principle of fitness training. "We build [other capacities] in precisely the same way that we build physical capacity," Loehr and Schwartz maintain.
As in fitness training, however, we often forget that stress and rest go together. Stress alone is a dead-end street. It diminishes capacity. For growth to occur in any realm, we must allow time for rest and recovery.
"Any form of stress that prompts discomfort has the potential to expand capacity Ė physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually Ė so long as it is followed by adequate recovery," Loehr and Schwartz write.
The demands of the workplace are greater than those endured by athletes, according to the authors. Thatís true, of course, when we remember that athletes spend 90 percent of their time training, compete 10 percent, and have time off between seasons. At work, however, we are required to perform five or six days a week, with a few weeks of annual vacation.
Rest and recovery are actually more important for performance and satisfaction on the job than on the athletic field, according to Loehr and Schwartz.
Ever since the running boom of the Ď60s, steady-state or continuous training (20-30 minutes, three to five days a week, at 60 to 85 percent of maximum heart rate) has been accepted as the best way to build fitness. Jim Loehr, whoís worked with hundreds of world-class athletes, has found that interval training, which involves short to moderate periods of exertion alternated with periods of rest or reduced effort, is preferable. "The underlying premise," Loehr and Schwartz explain, "is that a greater amount of intense work can be accomplished if it is interspersed with periods of rest."
As confirmation, the authors cite a joint study conducted by Harvard and Columbia Universities, where researchers found that a series of sprints lasting 60 seconds or less followed by complete recovery [work/rest options are practically limitless] "had a profound positive impact" in just eight weeks. "The subjects exhibited significant improvement in cardiovascular fitness, heart-rate variability and mood," Loehr and Schwartz write. "They also evidenced stronger immune systems and lower diastolic blood pressure."
Thatís no longer a surprise. What is new is application of the principle to improve performance in everyday life.
"In our experience, any form of linear energy expenditure Ė physical, emotional, mental or spiritual Ė is suboptimal for performance and potentially destructive over time," Loehr and Schwartz write. "Full engagement requires the capacity to respond quickly and flexibly to whatever demands we face in our lives, but also to shut down and restore equilibrium quickly and efficiently."
Interval training Ė sprinting, walking up and down stairs, bicycling, etc. Ė is a key part of their "Corporate Athlete Training System." But, as weíll see, less conventional intervals are at the heart of their program for managing energy and optimizing performance on the job.
The Creative Process
Loehr and Schwartz frequently ask their clients where they get their best ideas. "In the shower" or "jogging" are common answers; almost never "at work."
They quote one of the most prolific and productive of men, Leonardo da Vinci: "It is a very good plan every now and then to go away and have a little relaxation...When you come back to work your judgment will be surer, since to remain at work will cause you to lose the power of judgment."
The explanation, say the authors, is found in cycling back and forth between the left and right hemispheres of the brain in the course of the creative process. Five stages are widely recognized: first insight, saturation, incubation, illumination and verification. Two stages, saturation and verification, depend on logical, step-by-step, analytical left-hemisphere skills. Saturation is methodically gathering information. The final verification stage is translating the creative breakthrough into rational accessible form.
Saturation and verification, of course, occur when you are actively working on the problem. Theyíre on-the-job skills.
The other three stages, first insight (the initial inspiration), incubation (mulling over the idea), and illumination (the breakthrough), rely on intuitive, sudden-insight right-brain skills, such as the capacity to see things all at once and relate the parts to the whole.
Professor Betty Edwards, an authority on the creative process, according to the authors, says all three tend to occur when we are "thinking aside" or not focused on the problem at hand. "In each of these stages," she writes, "the creative work occurs at an unconscious level Ė and often after the left hemisphereís conscious, rational search for a solution has been exhausted."
"In short," Loehr and Schwartz write, "creativity depends on a rhythmic movement between engagement and disengagement, thinking and letting go, activity and rest."
The oscillating five-step creative process is new to me, but it rings true. I often have my best insights during one of my daily walks. As Professor Edwards would no doubt predict, my light bulb moments occur most often when Iíve been working a specific project.
A wise man (whose name escapes me) once said, "Donít trust any idea that comes to you sitting down." I believe it.
"The most important role of rituals is to insure an effective balance between energy expenditure and energy renewal in the service of full engagement," Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz write. A ritual is the equivalent of the rest period in interval training. Itís purpose is to restore energy and improve productivity.
Rituals are planned breaks of various kinds in the course of the day. Among other things, it could be listening to music, meditating, practicing yoga, walking your dog, eating a healthy snack or taking a nap. A ritual is not casual, however; itís a very precise, scheduled activity. Rituals arenít penciled in; theyíre built into your day. They become automatic, like brushing your teeth or taking your vitamins. Thatís why they are called rituals.
Itís counterintuitive, of course, to think of taking a break to get more done, but thatís exactly what happens. Rest periods in interval training make it possible to do more intense exercise. Energy renewal rituals do the same thing in other activities.
The authors give the example of a writer facing a very challenging book deadline. He was spending long hours at his desk, but still falling behind schedule. Concentration was a major problem.
Loehr and Schwartz recommended a shift from the mentality of a marathoner to that of a sprinter. "We worked with Peter to develop rituals that alternated periods of intense engagement with relatively short but highly structured periods of recovery," they write.
Rather then work straight through the day, they had him intersperse refresher breaks with focused periods of writing. He started writing at 6:30 in the morning and stopped to have a good breakfast with his family at 8:00. (Heíd been having a muffin and orange juice at his desk.) He went back to work at 8:30 and wrote until 10:00, when he stopped for 20 minutes of light exercise and meditation; he also ate some fruit and nuts before returning to his desk. He wrote until noon, and then went for a jog and ate lunch.
"During those 4 1/2 hours of focused morning work, Peter was able to write nearly twice as much as he had sitting at his desk for up to ten hours a day in previous years," the authors report. He did research and attended to other business during the afternoon, and spent the evening with his family
Without knowing it, Iíve been following the advice of the authors to good effect for years. I do slip up occasionally, however. Iím not as precise in my recovery rituals as Loehr and Schwartz recommend.
I always have a good breakfast and never miss a main meal, but I sometimes delay snacks and let my blood sugar drop, making it harder to get back to work. I walk for 30 minutes at mid morning (and in the evening with Carol), but sometimes get off later than planned. Now that Iíve read The Power of Full Engagement, Iím going to time my snacks and walks more precisely.
I also take a nap after lunch and after workouts. That wonít change, especially after learning that regular naps helped Winston Churchill cope with his awesome responsibilities during World War II. Loehr and Schwartz include a pithy quote from Churchill on the value of naps:
"Donít think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. Thatís a foolish notion held by people who have no imagination. You will accomplish more. You get two days in one Ė well, at least one and a half, Iím sure."
(For many more details on personal renewal and productive living Ė and fascinating case histories Ė pick up a copy of The Power of Full Engagement at your local bookstore or order from Amazon.com. Itís one of the best books Iíve read in a long time and has my highest recommend.)
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