I spent much of last week on the road. Eager to get back home when my work was done, I took the red-eye flight from San Francisco to New York at 10 pm. I arrived home at 8:30 am and had to go straight to the office, after less than five hours of fitful sleep on the plane.
By early afternoon, I felt like hell. It took me the entire weekend to feel fully myself again.
Our most fundamental need as human beings is to spend and renew energy. Instead, in a world of relentlessly rising demand and chronic overdrive, most of us spend far more mental and emotional energy than we adequately renew, and far too little physical energy to stay fit.
The average American gets just over 6 ½ hours of sleep a night. In fact, more than 95 percent of us need between 7 and 8 hours to feel fully rested. Great performers, from musicians to athletes, average as much as 8 ½ hours of sleep a night.
It's during sleep — deep, sufficient sleep — that our bodies not only renew and recharge, but also repair themselves and grow.
All sleep helps. When I began to crash in the early afternoon following my red-eye flight, I took a 30-minute nap in the room we have set aside for that purpose in our office. The nap didn't give me nearly enough rest to fully catch up, but it powerfully revived me for the next several hours.
At the other end of the spectrum, exercise — especially hard, regular exercise — dramatically slows the physical decline that begins inexorably around the age of 30. Challenging our bodies physically signals them to grow. Being sedentary prompts them to atrophy. It's one or the other. There isn't any in-between.
Exercise also positively influences our cognitive functioning, and our mood. We ought to be exercising nearly every day, ideally for at least 45 minutes, including strength training at least twice a week. Less than half of Americans exercise even three times a week for as much as 30 minutes.
We serve ourselves best when we make the biggest waves between activity and rest, effort and recovery.
Just think about a muscle. If you want to build the strength of your bicep, you challenge it to the point of causing tiny micro tears — a signal to the brain that you need more muscle fibers to meet the next challenge.
It's during rest and renewal that the muscle growth actually occurs. Push too long or too hard and you cause damage to the muscle. Fail to challenge the muscle at all and it slowly atrophies. If you're beyond the age of 30, you'll lose approximately a half-pound of lean muscle mass a year.
The secret to optimal well-being and effectiveness is to make more rhythmic waves in your life. To build the highest level of fitness, for example, it's critical to challenge the heart at high intensity for short periods of time, and then to recover deeply.
The bigger the amplitude of your wave — the higher your maximum heart rate, and the more deeply you recover — the more flexibly you can respond to varying demands and the healthier you likely are.
The same rhythmic movement serves us well all day long, but instead we live mostly linear, sedentary lives. We go from email to email, and meeting to meeting, almost never getting much movement, and rarely taking time to recover mentally and emotionally.
Even a little intentional recovery can go a long way. It's possible, for example, to clear the bloodstream of cortisol just by breathing deeply — in to a count of three, out to a count of six — for as little as a minute. Try it right now. See if it changes the way you feel.
Paradoxically, the most effective way to operate at work is like a sprinter, working with single-minded focus for periods of no longer than 90 minutes, and then taking a break. That way when you're working, you're really working, and when you're recovering, you're truly refueling the tank.
Making rhythmic waves is the secret to getting more done, in less time, at a higher level of engagement, with a better and more sustainable quality of life.