We learned early on as cross country athletes how to recover while moving.
Our coach demanded we keep up a brisk pace between sprints or hill workouts. No matter how much I wanted to stop and put my hands on my knees to breathe, he would constantly nag to keep us moving.
As it often does, this pain paid off. During tough races, we could use downhills or flat stretches to recover, even just slightly, for an uphill push or final sprint. Being able to recover while moving made us superior athletes, even if the rest of our workouts were similar or even slower than our competitors.
I started thinking about this concept a few weeks ago because I was in a funk. I was frustrated with my work, overwhelmed with emails and to-do list items, and constantly tired. I started thinking “have I hit a limit? why can’t I do [this] or [that] anymore?”
Less than a week later, I had emerged from the funk, feeling fresh and on top of the world again. A break wasn’t necessarily required, although that would have likely been even better. What was required, instead, was listening to my body (and mind) and pushing the negative inner talk away.
This wasn’t my first time through this cycle – I’ve been at this work consistently for five years or more. I’ve become more aware of the peaks and valleys, which come and go over the course of a year. At this point, I think of them as a natural part of working hard on creative projects.
I can’t yet feel a down cycle coming on, I can only tell when I’m in the thick of it. But when I discover myself there, I’ve found a few ways to manage, and achieve some recovering while moving in my work.
I want to make sure I’m mentioning right off the top: being able to recover while moving is NO excuse for not taking a vacation. Taking time off, expanding your perspectives, learning new things – these are necessary for long-term success.
But sometimes a vacation isn’t possible, and it’s difficult to plan far in advance for your down cycles. That being said, taking vacations is a really healthy practice, and can help you regulate stress.
If you can, find ways to turn your weekends into vacations as well, especially when you start to feel like you need some recovery time. Turn your phone off, turn down notifications, and remove email on the weekends. With the gmail app for iOS, you can even turn accounts on or off without removing the whole app. I remove my work account from my phone when we’ll be taking a weekend ski trip or hanging out with family, so I have no chance of being distracted.
Truly free time from the expectations of work on weekends will help you recover faster.
The negative self-talk that comes for me as part of a down cycle can be really destructive, because it feeds on itself. I’ll start doubting my work, or my impact, and almost immediately I can find thirty thousand examples to support my claim.
When I recognize I’m in a down cycle, I try to journal daily. I pick up a pad and pen or use the Day One app on my phone or iPad, and just jot down how I’m feeling. I work through problems I’m having at work or things that are leading me to doubt myself. It’s amazing to reflect on these thoughts after I’ve emerged from the funk, and see how off-the-mark I was. Sure, some of my work was below my expectations, but what’s new? There wasn’t some sort of major deterioration in my ability.
Clean out the cruft
The build-up of emails, to-do list items, and project context can lead me right off the cliff and into one of these down cycles. I find myself exhausted, despite plenty of sleep and almost no exhausting activity, because my mind is just so damn cramped.
If I’m feeling down, I revisit what I’m working on. Am I still excited? Almost always, that’s a yes. I’m still very passionate about what I’m working on. If I’m not – that would be a good indicator of burnout or a deeper problem.
Instead, it’s normally that I’m excited, I just have too many thoughts colliding in my head, and too many expectations hanging around my neck. A quick trip through my Wunderlist and inbox helps me spot long-tenured work that needs doing. Sometimes I can even find emails that just need to be archived, or to-do list items I can completely drop. Maybe there are parts of a project I’ve been putting off, and can delegate completely. Almost instantly, I can feel some of the weight come off.
While work is something I love, it’s still important to have other activities I enjoy that I can work into my regular schedule. Those activities become something I’m wholly engrossed in, such that I completely forget about work for a while. If it’s a regular part of my weekly schedule, I’m building in micro-breaks from work that give me a breather and another place to feel accomplishment and progress. Rock climbing for me has become a great cross training activity, and I now spend 2-3 mornings a week at the rock gym.
For others, it’s fiction reading, writing, running (I find that too cerebral), or trivia at a local bar. Whatever it is, make sure you’ve got protected time on your schedule for it each week.
I hope to be at this a long time, making a big impact while maintaining a healthy life around my work. Relying on vacations or sabbaticals is not enough – we need to build in ways to recover while moving. I hope this is a helpful place to start!
P.S. Every week, I send out a short newsletter with links to my favorite articles. When I write a new essay, that will be included as well. Sign up to get your copy.