Leaders & Teams

Sustainable High Performance

Over the past decades we have seen how a never-ending stream of new methods and technology has been introduced to help us handle our work, be more effective and save us time. Do you remember when email was introduced? It was supposed to save us so much time now that we didn’t have to send fax messages... We all know where that has led us.

How to thrive over time when working in an always-on reality

Do you recognize the feeling of being overwhelmed by the number of things you need to handle? No matter how many hours you put in, there always seems to be new things to address and more demands on your time. In a series of articles, we will explore how to navigate wisely in an always-on reality, and how to structure work so you can perform sustainably over time.

Supplement outer technology with inner technology

Technology is very useful, when used wisely. However, in our new always-on reality, we cannot expect technology to create a balanced life for us. We need to find our own ways to structure work so we can live well and thrive in a high-pressure work environment. We could say that we need to develop inner technologies (focus, emotional intelligence and conscious prioritisation) so we can cope with the reality created by the outer technologies.
Having explored this topic myself and worked with thousands of leaders over the past 15 years, I have learned a few key principles and techniques that are helpful when navigating in our always-on reality.

Below are some brief introductions.


Be aware of your multitasking habits

As our technology gives us the possibility to engage with multiple tasks at almost any given moment, there are plenty of opportunities to try to be ‘more effective’ by, for example, answering emails while attending meetings. But be aware here; research shows that our brains do not cope well with multitasking. When trying to juggle multiple things at the same time, our brains use more energy to complete the total number of tasks[1]. Multitasking also tends to activate our stress response and we are more likely to make mistakes.

Start paying attention to your habits around multitasking. Do you keep switching between different tasks, or do you try to complete one before starting the next?

Do your devices have notifications turned on, and do you check your messages every time you hear a signal?

Notice what shifting your attention back and forth between different things does to your concentration and energy level.


Train your ability to present and focused

You might have noticed that when you try to focus on an important task, your mind often has a tendency to wander off in all kinds of directions. Research actually shows that about half of the time, people are thinking about something other than what they are doing[2].

To be effective in a world full of distractions, we need to work on our ability to refocus and be present with what is most important at this moment. The good news is that this is a trainable skill. Over the past two decades, contemporary neuroscience has found that so-called mindfulness meditation works as a kind of mental fitness centere, improving our ability to focus as well as to regulate emotions[3].

Previously, mindfulness training may have been associated with spirituality, but thanks to thousands of research projects these techniques are now moving into the mainstream as a totally secular form for mental training.

Being mindful basically means being present and attentive to what is going on, and the core idea of mindfulness, or attention training as you can also think of it, is to practice the ability to get into that state.

Apart from improving our ability to focus, mindfulness training has also been shown to have the positive side effect of calming us down. In a high-pressure work environment these can be very useful abilities.


Build micro recovery into day

When it comes to physical exercise, we know that to become stronger over time we need to put stress on our muscles but also allow our body to recover on a regular basis. But, when it comes to mental activities, we tend to forget that our brains also need breaks to perform well over time. Many of us even use our breaks to check our messages and social media, never giving our brains a chance to slow down.

Sustainable high-performance builds on finding the right balance between activity and downtime. We can improve our resilience and endurance by giving both our mind and our body regular breaks during our workday. Going outside, getting fresh air, and taking short walks in nature have been shown to have many positive effects on our wellbeing, energy and cognitive functioning. It’s the same with any other physical movement, such as taking the stairs or doing some easy stretching at your desk.

But micro breaks do not have to be a physical activity. We can give ourselves a short mental break even when sitting in front our computer. The key here is to free our brain from outer stimuli for a few minutes, just resting our attention on something that is calming. Practical ways to do this can be to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths down in your belly. You can also try walking a bit more slowly between your meetings or really feel the warm water when you are washing your hands.

Learn what works for you

At first glance, these practices can seem a bit unnatural, especially if you are used to working and moving at a high pace. But research shows that these simple things help activate our so-called parasympathetic nervous system, helping our body into a state of restitution for a few minutes[4].

Allow yourself to be creative about what a micro break could look like for you. The point to remember is that we are not wired to perform well for hours on end without a break. Taking micro breaks on a regular basis throughout our day is supportive for our wellbeing and also helps us to be a more focused, creative and open-minded version of ourselves.

I invite you to start experimenting with some of the ideas presented here. In coming articles, we will unpack these ideas and share some further tips on how to integrate them. By developing our inner technologies for coping with a high-paced world, we can be more impactful, as well as more sustainable over time.


[1] Daniel J. Levetin, The Organized Mind

[2] Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, Harvard University

[3] Lazar, et al. Neuroreport 2005

[4] Tchiki Davis, University of California Berkley

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