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Exhausted? Burnt-Out? Lost Your Zest for Life?
Take a Tip from Elite Athletes: Rest

By Mike McCurley
Life Coach [See Profile on the "Coaches" tab on this web site.]

When watching the Olympics, I'm continually in awe of what the human body is capable of. I recently watched the women's 100 meter butterfly, and I was entranced as they made the world's most difficult stroke look like a jog in the park. I, on the other hand, can barely do a single stroke of the butterfly, and would certainly be confined to an iron lung if I attempted to swim 100 meters of it.

While I'm sure these athletes have a fair amount of good genes to thank for their jaw-dropping abilities, most of their success can be attributed to sheer determination and hard work. And a good training regimen.

As any elite athlete will tell you, just working hard won't get you into top physical shape. To improve endurance and performance, an athlete must push herself past her comfort zone and then, most importantly, let her body recover. Without the recovery phase, she's prone to injury and burn-out. Just as important, her performance would not improve. That is why interval training has become such an important component of exercise, for professional athletes and everyday fitness buffs alike.

That's all well and good, I hear you saying. But what does an athlete's training regimen have to do with me? I work at a desk job 70 hours a week, meeting deadlines, juggling clients, managing a staff, and trying to find time to be a good spouse and parent. I have no plans to go to the Olympics.

I'm here to tell you that you already are in the Olympics: your life. And it's not a sprint, my friend. It's a marathon that, with any luck, will last for several more decades. And the truth is that the same regimen that puts America's athletes in top physical shape-exertion followed by recovery-can help you improve your performance at work, restore your zest for life, and help you greet every day with the optimism and energy to do your best.

As a professional and executive coach, I frequently hear the same complaint from many of my clients: there just isn't enough time in the day to meet all the demands being made of them. While there is some truth to that complaint-we could all use a little more time and a little more money-the most successful person in the world has the same 24-hour day that they do. The difference is how they use that time and, more importantly, how they manage their energy during that time.

According to Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, in their book "The Power of Full Engagement," the key to peak performance in life and in work is to balance the stress/recovery ratio in four key ways: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Loehr and Schwartz, both of whom have trained elite athletes, draw on one of history's most creative and productive individuals, Leonardo DaVinci, who said "It is a very good plan every now and then to go away and have a little relaxation... When you come back to the work your judgment will be surer, since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose the power of judgment."

In other words, according to Loehr and Schwartz, the longer and more continuously you work, the less efficient and mistake-prone you become. Key to being your best during the work day is taking short breaks (10-15 minutes) every 90-120 minutes. How you spend those breaks is individual to you, and you'll want to come up with your own recovery rituals. If you're feeling stressed, a few yoga moves can be quite renewing. If you need socialization, go visit a colleague or call your best friend. Whether it's getting a shoeshine in the lobby of your building or taking a walk around the block, the point is to get away from your desk, think about something else besides your impending deadline, and get some physical and mental recovery.

You'll find that you come back renewed and refreshed and, very often, able to think more clearly and creatively.

Emotional renewal is just as important, say Loehr and Schwartz. When our days are filled with "must do's," we feel resentful and tapped out, and we wonder if life is nothing more than a succession of tasks and obligations. To achieve the emotional recovery our lives need, it's necessary to make "joyful activities" a priority, whether it's ballroom dancing with your spouse, art class, or just spending some quality time with your dog.

Every day should include at least one joyful activity that renews us and energizes us and reminds us that life, however finite, is a gift, and that we must cherish every moment of it.

But life isn't, or at least it shouldn't be, just about us and what we can do for ourselves. We must also be spiritually fulfilled. While many people find spiritual renewal in their religion, it is not necessary to be religious to be spiritually fulfilled. The essence of spiritual fulfillment is to tap into that which is larger than us, to have a purpose in life. As Nietzsche said, "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how."

Particularly for successful people who are feeling empty and spiritually untethered, very often the key to renewing their zest in life is to "give back." That can mean coaching a kids' sports team, mentoring a younger colleague, or just finding a cause that you believe in and working for that.

You don't have to solve world hunger or bring peace to the Middle East. But you will feel tremendously renewed by doing what you can to make the world-or just your corner of it-a better place. (Anyone looking for some inspiring reading, and to see how one highly motivated person can truly change the world, should read "Three Cups of Tea," which chronicles Greg Mortensen's journey from unsuccessful mountaineer to builder of schools in remote Pakistan and Afghanistan. "Mountains Beyond Mountains," the story of Dr. Paul Farmer's efforts to transform the treatment of infectious disease in the developing world, is similarly inspiring.)

Very few of us will make it to the Olympics, even as spectators. But that's okay. Our lives are plenty challenging already, and if we can give our body the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual recovery it needs, we'll be more than ready to take on the 100 meter butterfly that is our life.

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