Performance

High Performance Recovery: Step-By-Step Guide, Principles & Questions, Lower The Bar, Design For Fulfilment, The Long Game

 

“I’m just heading off for a swim.”


It was lunch time on a beautiful, sunny, winter’s day.


This was from one of the most experienced, senior executives I know.


For a long time, I’ve admired them in both their accomplishments and conduct. The decisions they’ve made, the organisation they’ve built and the impact they’d had on tens of thousands of lives (including mine) and organisations over decades of work.


But at the heart of the reason why I’ve sought their counsel over the years, is that they speak about their proudest achievement as being the relationship they have with their children. And all of this through accomplishments, curveballs and crucibles.


It struck me in this brief exchange that here was someone who’d created a habit of maintaining energy, health and wellbeing through it all.


But this conversation seemed in stark contrast to others I’ve had recently.


At work, the end of the financial year has been and gone, goals have been reset and the meaty, challenging projects are well underway.


In personal lives, the chaos seems to be mounting in the lead up to Christmas, squeezing in final plans and starting to decide what 2023 looks like.


“No more weekends free until next year.”


“Just got to make it through to the end of term/semester/year.”


“I thought we’d be post-covid by now.”


“I just have a mountain on my plate at the moment.”


Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy looking forward to the breaks and time off too and absolutely feel lost in a full schedule at times.


But recovery is a practice like many others, which means it’s best done before you really need it.

Why recover at all?

We’re drowning in a firehose of information about tactics and tools for rest, relaxation and recovery.

I’ve come to realise that the important question here is not “What can I do to recharge?”.


Instead, let’s go back to Simon Sinek’s model and start with why:


“Why do I want to recharge?”


“Why is recovery important to me at all?”


“My recovery is in service of …?”


For me, recovery is about being the best husband, father, brother, friend, son I can be. It’s about living my purpose of helping people bring all of who they are to everything they do. It’s about expressing my values of Love, Gratitude, Humility, Exploration and Contribution in as many moments as possible.


It’s the old “oxygen mask” theory – if I fit my own first, then I can help others.


From Why, I can then ask How?


“How can I architect a recovery practice that will last me a life time?”


“How can I do this in a way that is so valuable and important to me that I never miss it?”


“How will I start?”


I wrote recently about cold baths and how I use them but I thought I’d use this article to bring more structure to how to quickly develop a personalised recovery practice.


One that will “refill the cup” and be thoroughly enjoyable in its own right.


How will we do that?


Well, before we get to the principles and activity, I want to highlight a couple of points.

Recovery isn’t doing nothing

So often recovery gets misinterpreted as sitting on the couch eating Tim Tams and binging Netflix. (Or is this just my fantasy?)


But it turns out that the opposite is true. Sport calls it active recovery.


Counter-intuitively, I often need to do more. Not just more exercise, more massages or more retreats, but specifically more of the things that truly matter to me. (Use this 3 min Momentum exercise to explore what truly matters to you. You might find it useful further down this article.)


If I can combine what matters (people, places, experiences, values, purpose…) then that’s my recipe for getting energised.


More on exactly how to do that below.

Ambiguity is the enemy

Another thing to note is that very rarely are we lacking information. Anyone I talk to nearly always already knows what they should be doing.


So how can we architect recovery so we actually do it? How can we make it specific enough to take action? And how can we make it valuable enough to truly enjoy it?


That’s what the following principles and questions are for.

Principles and questions to build a recovery practice

Principle: You already know what works

Don’t let the learning curve get in the way of getting started. You can explore new things later.


Question: What activity has energised you in the past?


Let’s start with that.

Principle: Set the bar so low that you can’t fail.

The hardest part is getting started. We want to do the first rep rather than be discouraged by not living up to a thousand rep ambition immediately. We can get to those later.

Question: What is the smallest possible increment you can do of the activity above?


Examples:

  • Reading: read one page
  • Strength: do one rep
  • Running: walk around the block
  • Swimming: do 1 lap
  • Cryotherapy: do 3 mins
  • Mindfulness: Notice 1 breath
  • Time with friends: Send them a voice memo telling them you love them
  • Music: Play one song

In my experience, if I just do a single rep, then I’m nearly always inclined to do more. But I’m also willing to accept that one might be enough on a given day and that it’s still infinitely better than none.

Principle: Design for fulfilment

Make the recovery activity so valuable that you truly want to do it, rather than seeing it as a chore. By combining the answers to the questions below, we enrich the experience so much that we’ll love it and prioritise it.

Question: Who is someone important that you could do it with?

Examples:

  • Partner
  • Child
  • Parent
  • Sibling
  • Friend
  • Colleague
  • Client

Question: What’s an environment you love that you could you do it in?

Examples:

  • Beach
  • Forest
  • Mountain
  • Home
  • Backyard
  • Cold bath

Question: Could you give the activity an important focus?

Examples:

  • Listen to a podcast about a topic that matters to you.
  • Talk about a book you love.
  • Make a plan for an experience that excites you.
  • Ponder a question you’ve been trying to solve.

Principle: Time is non-renewable

An intention to do something is not enough. Diarising or anchoring the activity to something you already do will increase your chances of success.

Question: When will you do it?

Examples:

  • Swimming at 11:30am on Tuesdays with mates has been brilliant for me. It’s been set as a recurring calendar appointment in my diary and one that I organise my week around.

  • I try to do a minute of mindfulness and mobility drills before coffee in the morning. Nothing quite like using my caffeine addiction for an incentive!

  • I’ve shared my cold bath example in depth, but basically 12:30pm every Wednesday is sacred time.

  • Meditation at night before bed.

Principle: Play the long game

Once you’ve booked in the time or anchored the activity to something you already do, open up to the fact that life happens and you may not hit the mark every time.

You might – and that would be great!

But don’t expect it.

Just start.

And if you falter, rather than beating yourself up, apply some love and kindness to the fallible person in the mirror and then start again.

Build your own practice in 3 mins

Here are the collated questions from the above principles:

  1. What activity has energised you in the past?

  2. What is the smallest possible increment you can do of the activity above?

  3. Who is someone important that you could do it with?

  4. What’s an environment you love that you could you do it in?

  5. Could you give the activity an important focus?

  6. When will you do it?

  7. Start

Given we all have the same 24 hours in the day, how well we recover may be the difference in how we show up each day and the kind of energy we have for the things and people that are most important to us.

My hope is that you can fill your cup long before it hits empty.

But if it’s already pretty low, then I’d urge you to start the process of getting it back to where it could be in order to have the impact and contribution only you can make in the world.



If you’re interested in the exploration and application of this kind of thinking, I’d love you to come along to my Momentum Workshop Live on 12 Oct 22 in Brisbane.


Or if you’d like to explore any of these topics for yourself or your team you can book a 15 min call here or you can click this link to download my 5 Reflection Frameworks Template >>

Practicing Discomfort – Cold Water, Benefits, Science, Safety, Architecting Recovery, Periodisation, Rituals

“…and have a great life.”


Breath work was over.


We’d followed Wim Hof’s breathing pattern on YouTube. His dutch-accented, closing words were already fading.


It was cold bath time. Full body, cold water immersion (9 degrees) up to the neck for 10 mins.


The tension in the room was rising.


“When you get in a cold bath for the first time, you’ll feel awful. Your mind will scream at you that you’re dying, that you can’t breathe, that you have to get out of there.”


“That’s completely normal.”


“And that’s where breath kicks in.”


“We’ll focus on our breath by counting. We’ll breathe in shorter cycles when we first get in. In for 2 and out for 2.”


“Then we’ll gradually extend that to Dr Andrew Weil’s breath pattern: in for 4, hold for 7, out for 8. We’ll maintain that for the remainder of our time in the cold.”


“I’ll be in the bath with you, so just follow my prompts for the breathing to focus.”


“This’ll be great!”


Suddenly along with the tension, there was a huge dump of scepticism.


“How the hell can this possibly be great? What on earth are we doing? Why did I agree to this?”

 

Why I love cold water

There are some people I’ll never convince to join me in a cold bath (you know who you are!). But I love water and I love cold water – baths, oceans, lakes or streams. I don’t know when it first started. What presumably kicked off as an ego-centric tough test with mates years ago, has become one of my favourite weekly rituals.


While sometimes I still dread getting in, especially if I’m feeling tired, distracted, or worried, I always feel good getting out.


When I combine it with breath work (like Wim Hof or 4-7-8), it’s like an extended mindfulness session.


And when I share the experience with friends then that’s the icing on the cake.


[NB: Breath, water and cold are a powerful combination. I never do this kind of thing alone. And you should always check with your doctor if you decide to try.]

 

Practicing discomfort

While the claims of cold bath benefits can be grand, the science is actually pretty thin (more on that below).


But if nothing else, I find a cold bath is an excellent tool for practicing both mindfulness and sitting with discomfort.


As I’ve said previously, mindfulness is the scalpel that sits between my reaction (which I can’t control) and my response (which I can choose).

Reaction:
There’s dread, anxiety, excitement, the physical jolt of the cold water, the tension in my breath and chest, the shallow breathing as I get in.


Mindfulness:
Then I focus on my breath.


Response:
Then, after a few breaths, I say to myself: “Welcome the cold.” I begin to invite the cold and the discomfort in. I start to notice the experience of the cold against my skin. Where can I feel it most? Can I break it down into single sparks of sensation in specific parts of my body?


Sometimes I’ll play music. I love listening to Ludovico Einaudi’s beautiful piano in the cold. My favourite track: Nuvole Bianche from his album Una Mattina. I’ve also experimented with trance albums like Paul Van Dyke’s Guiding Light. This can also be a practice in mindfulness – listening to the distinct notes in the music.


Other times I’ll talk with friends, or count newcomers through the breathing patterns.


It’s also pretty delightful just to sit in silence.


It’s taken a bit of practice to get to this level of enjoyment but when it comes to my diary management, this is one weekly ritual that I truly defend.


The benefits, science and safety of cold water

While I love my cold baths, the science is a long way from definitive when it comes to the benefits of cold water immersion.


Claimed benefits


There are many claims including:

  • improved circulation,
  • deeper sleep,
  • spiked energy levels,
  • reduced inflammation in your body,
  • and weight loss.

Most are unsubstantiated to date as far as I can see.


Science

Some studies I could find around cold and cold water benefits, basically conclude that it’s still too soon to know whether the claimed benefits above are valid.


Here are some studies that you might find interesting:

So while I’ve experienced some of the anecdotal benefits, I’ve come to see the primary value for me as being an extended mindfulness session in the middle of my week that helps me reset for the sprint to the weekend.


(If you’re interested, there’s a great list of mindfulness science studies here.)


Safety

The science is, however, pretty clear on the risks of cold water immersion:

And this is why all cold water facilities I’ve been to require a signed waiver. So know your limits and check with a medical professional if you choose to try something like this.


Architecting recovery and periodisation

Water polo drilled into me the importance of recovery. In fact, the better I performed, the more important it became.


If I wanted to survive, let alone benefit from, the compound effect of repeated, high quality, high intensity physical training, I came to realise that I’d better nail my recovery between sessions.


There are amazing stories of Steffi Graf pioneering the focus on recovery between each point in her tennis matches. When you’re applying recovery principles to that degree of detail, you know you’re getting to the pointy end of performance!


More formally in a physical training setting this is called periodisation.

Periodization is defined as the planned manipulation of training variables (load, sets, and repetitions) in order to maximize training adaptations and to prevent the onset of overtraining syndrome.

Periodization – Wikipedia

I think this is one aspect of high performance sport that is only just making it across into how we consider our time at home and at work.


It’s not just about how hard we work, but how intentionally we recover. This can give us huge gains of productivity or energy to invest in the people and situations that truly matter.


I view my cold baths, mindfulness and physical training as intentional recovery periods to be a better husband, dad, coach, colleague, brother, son and friend in my day to day.


Then, more tactically, I use them for specific situations.


Tactical cold

Recently I flew through the night from Singapore to make it home for a lunchtime work shop. I landed in Brisbane at 10:30am having had a grand total of 3 hours sleep. I raced from the airport to the cold bath, had 5 minutes in the cold, got to the workshop 15 mins early and then downed a long black coffee.


While my handshakes were cold for the participants, I couldn’t have felt better if I’d had 12 hours sleep in my own bed.


Active recovery rituals

An important note here: recovery is not about doing nothing.


As much as my mind might rebel at the idea, sometimes recovery means doing more. But it’s not just more of anything. It’s reconnecting to what matters and what brings me energy (a 3 min activity if you’re interested) and doing more of that.


Sport calls this active recovery and the principle applies at work and at home.


When water polo was my training, surfing was my recovery. When I was tired from an overnight flight, the cold tub and coffee were far more effective than having a 20 min sleep in the car.


So while cold water might not be your thing, I love to hear from you:

  • What are your rituals?
  • Do you have a way to practice discomfort?
  • How do you intentionally recover before you need it, so you can have the best chance of bringing the best of you to whatever situation arises?

Let me know in the comments.



If you’d like to explore any of these topics for yourself or your team you can book a 15 min call here or you can click this link to download my 5 Reflection Frameworks Template >>

Mindfulness For Performance – Importance, Definition, Practice, Examples, 19 Activities <1 min

 

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is not sitting in lotus position on a mountain top.

Below is the often-cited definition of mindfulness from Jon Kabat-Zinn (author and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts).

“Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Why is it important?

I wrote recently about mindfulness being a critical practice in performance settings. In situations of stress and pressure, mindfulness is the scalpel that sits between my reaction (which I can’t control) and my response (which I can choose).

By connecting to the present moment, I can focus on doing what matters (task-focussed attention) and align my choices, decisions and behaviours with importance (values, people, goals, objectives, purpose, impact).

Modern science continues to validate the beneficial effects of millennia old mindfulness practices on attention, memory, executive function, and cognitive flexibility – all great things for both wellbeing and performance.

 

How to practice mindfulness

What does that definition of mindfulness actually mean in practice?

In simple terms there are three parts to mindfulness:

  1. Focus: We focus on something (eg breath or sound).
  2. Drift: We inevitably drift away from the focus with thoughts, feelings or sensations.
  3. Come back: We notice we’ve drifted and come back to our focus.

Focus, drift, come back, repeat.

The beauty of mindfulness is that it can’t be done “wrong”.

It’s the inevitable drifting and coming back that are the reps in the gym that, with practice, can lead to the benefits described earlier and even change the physical structures in your brain.

Daily mindfulness examples

There are a tonne of apps out there (Headspace, Calm etc) to practice mindfulness in 10 min blocks.

But the reality is that there’s no need for an app. Mindfulness can be practiced in literally every moment of a day.

There are plenty of times when I just slam a coffee down first thing in the morning to stave off the effect of a child-interrupted sleep.

When I’m more mindful though, I sit with my coffee and really try to appreciate it.

  • How does it truly smell?
  • How does it truly taste?
  • What is the temperature of the cup on the palm of my hands?

For just a couple of seconds, I’ve purposefully focussed my attention on a subject and in the present moment, tried to truly experience it non-judgementally.

That’s it.

It doesn’t take up more time. It doesn’t require a special place. It just takes a choice to really engage with that moment.

I do something similar with my first glass of water each morning.

I hold the glass with both hands, and as I drink the water, I recite my values to myself in my mind: Love, Gratitude, Humility, Exploration, Contribution.

Building a practice for yourself

In helping people develop a mindfulness practice, my first question is:

What is something you do everyday (or nearly everyday)?

Like the examples above, it could be your first glass of water, a shower or a coffee.

This becomes the anchor.

The next step is:

How can you really pay attention to this experience?

It might be through any or all of your senses sound, sensation, taste, smell, sight.

With these two questions you’ve built yourself a personalised mindfulness practice that slots perfectly into your existing patterns and habits.

[If you want to explore more about building positive habits check out Atomic Habits by James Clear.]

19 mindfulness activities that take less than 1 minute

Below is a list of mindfulness activities and practices that I’ve tried over the years that I find useful in all sorts of settings including work, leadership, parenting, home, health, fitness and difficult conversations.

I use them as a situation requires but as you’ll see, opportunities for mindfulness are as varied as I’d like to make them.

Most are framed as questions to help to purposefully bring my attention to the present moment.

Breath

  • 4-7-8 breath. Breathe in for 4, hold for 7, out for 8. Repeat three times. (Pioneered by Dr Andrew Weil.)
  • Breathe through my nose: Do I notice the difference in humidity on the inhale vs the exhale? How far down my throat can I follow my breath?
  • Am I breathing with my chest or diaphragm?
  • Am I breathing through my nose or mouth?

Outside

  • Can I feel the sensation of the wind or sun on my face?
  • What sounds can I notice close by? What sounds seem further away?

At work

  • Wiggle my toes in my shoes: what sensations do I notice?
  • Sitting down: What is the sensation of the chair on the back of my legs?
  • Air conditioning in a meeting room: Can I notice the sound of the air conditioning in the room I’m sitting in? Are there different tones?
  • Can I take a mindful sip of water to pause before I respond to a question or situation?

At home

  • Shower: Can I notice the droplets hitting my skin? Can I separate them individually?
  • Washing up: What does the water feel like on my hands? How does the scrubbing brush feel in the palm of my hand?
  • Parenting: Where in my body do I feel the frustration at the toys not being put away? What are the sensations in my thumb when my daughter holds it as she falls asleep?

Exercise

  • Strength work: Can I notice the contraction of my muscles? Can I notice each of the individual fibres?
  • Swimming: Are the tiles on the bottom of the pool in clear focus? Can I notice the different colours on the bottom of the pool as light refracts through the water?
  • Walking/running: Can I notice the sensations in my feet? The airflow on my face?

Food and Drink

  • Food: What does the meal actually taste like? Can I separate the flavours? Can I feel the different textures?
  • Water: Can I notice the temperature? The texture?
  • Coffee/Tea: Can I notice the smell, taste, temperature, the steam rising from the cup?

As Greek poet Archilochus says:

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.”

And this list is really just a prompt and reminder to me to explore how I might bring mindfulness into my day.

I want to practice it daily so that when the pressure is on, I can use mindfulness as a tool to notice my reaction and choose my response.

I’d love to hear about any other favourite mindfulness practices you’ve tried or that have worked for you in the comments below.