Corporate athletes believe in periodization
Think of professional athletes. They typically spend about 90 percent of their time training, in order to be able to perform 10 percent of the time. Their entire lives are designed around expanding, sustaining and renewing the energy they need to compete for short, focused periods of time. At a practical level, they build very precise routines for managing energy in all spheres of their lives— eating and sleeping; working out and resting; mentally preparing and staying focused; and connecting regularly to the mission they have set for themselves. Since energy capacity diminishes both with overuse and with underuse, we must balance energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal.
Now visualize a former sprinter like Usain Bolt. Sprinters typically look powerful, bursting with energy and eager to push themselves to their limits. The explanation is simple. No matter how intense the demand they face, the finish line is clearly visible 100 or 200 meters down the track. We, too, must learn to live our own lives as a series of sprints: fully engaging for periods of time, and then fully disengaging and seeking renewal before focussing again on the challenges that confront us.
The concept of maximizing performance by alternating periods of activity with periods of rest was first advanced by Flavius Philo-stratus (A.D. 170– 245), who wrote training manuals for Greek athletes. Russian sports scientists resurrected the concept in the 1960s and began applying it to their Olympic athletes. Today, “work-rest” ratios lie at the heart of periodization, a training method used by elite athletes throughout the world. The science of periodization has become more precise and more sophisticated over the years, but the basic concept hasn’t changed since it was first advanced nearly 2.000 years ago.
It's a pity that leaders and managers today often build cultures around ‘continuous work’ - whether that means several-hour meetings, or long days, or the expectation that people will work in the evenings and on weekends. This undoubtedly compromises performance over time. On a broader scale, every one of the great industrial disasters of the past 40 years (think of Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez, Bhopal, Three Mile Island, etc.) occurred in the middle of the night. For the most part, those in charge had worked very long hours and built up considerable sleep debt. The disasterous crash of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986, in which seven astronauts lost their lives, occurred after NASA officials made an ill-fated judgment to go ahead with the launch, having already worked for more than twenty consecutive hours.
Companies and their leaders are often machine-centered in their thinking (focused on the optimization of technology and equipment) rather than human-centered (focused on the optimization of human alertness and performance). However, those who encourage people to seek intermittent renewal not only inspire greater commitment, but also more productivity.
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