Apply the Brakes Before You Break
How many hours a week do you spend on work? Research from the Center for Creative Leadership shows that the typical smartphone-enabled executive, manager or professional is connected to work on average of 72 hours a week. But there are only 168 hours a week to begin with.
If a person is working for 72 of them, and sleeping, eating and bathing for 56, that leaves only 40 hours a week for accomplishing everything else. All the incoming demands can result in a constant triggering of the fight-or-flight syndrome. That's when the adrenaline surges to help someone, say, run from a saber-toothed tiger or lift a car off a child.
But when people live in a constant state of fight or flight that’s triggered by all the things they're trying to squeeze into a week, this can lead to really poor decisions and life-threatening health problems. When the body is in fight or flight mode, the blood pressure goes up, stress hormones spike and the blood thickens. A chronic state like this can lead to cardiovascular disease, anxiety, insomnia, weight gain, heart attacks and strokes.
The fight or flight response also slows the digestive system, lowers immune defenses and causes growth and sex hormones to drop. If can also lead to ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, higher rates of infection, cancer and premature aging.
The good news is that there are some easy things that people can do regularly that can make a big difference in their performance and long-term prospects.
The fight or flight response comes from the body’s sympathetic nervous system. Think of it as the gas pedal that makes everything go. The body also has a rest and digest response, arising from the parasympathetic nervous system. Think of that as the brakes.
Someone would never drive a car, using only the gas pedal. The brakes are needed for staying alive. It’s the same thing with the body. Make a habit of activating the rest and digest response throughout the day. Here are three ways to apply the brakes before breaking:
When I asked my yoga teacher what I should teach executives in a leadership development program I was running, she immediately said, “Breathing. Ambitious people don’t know how to breathe.”
She noticed that Type A people take short, shallow breaths from their chests. To activate the rest and digest response, focus on taking at least three deep breaths from your belly before and after every meeting or conversation throughout the day. Navy SEALS are trained to breathe deeply for four minutes several times a day. It helps them balance the gas pedal effect with brakes.
Research shows that the rest and digest response is activated by rhythmic, repetitive motion like breathing or walking. New research reveals that sitting is the new smoking. Sitting for eight or nine hours a day has an impact on life expectancy similar to the effect from smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
Rise and move at least every 60 to 90 minutes. Weave into the day some simple stretching between meetings or while on conference calls. It will boost alertness. Have that next meeting during a walk instead of by a desk.
Take more control over the 72 hours a week that a smartphone is connected to work. By reducing the constant stream of inputs, the chronic fight or flight response will be tempered.
It’s pretty easy to start. Upon arriving home, plug the phone into a charger in the laundry room and leave it there until the kids go to bed. It will feel a little weird the first few times (many people are literally addicted to looking at their phones) but within a week or two, it will feel good and perfectly normal.