“Do not judge me by my successes. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” – Nelson Mandela
We all know the increasing importance of resilience, the ability to recover and bounce back. As Harvard Business School professor, Rosabeth Moss Canter puts it, resilience is no longer a good-to-have skill; in today’s world, it is a must-have, crucial to survival and success.
Bonnie St.John is one person who embodies the term.She is a remarkable example of commitment and resilience. After a challenging childhood that included being a victim of sexual abuse and the amputation of a leg at age five because of a congenital condition, she went on to become one of the best one-legged skiers in the world , the first African-American ever to win medals in Winter Olympic competition, taking home a silver and two bronze medals at the 1984 Winter Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Also a Harvard graduate in economics , Rhodes Scholar, author, Director for Human Capital Issues on the White House National Economic Council,national media personality, and renowned leadership expert who has guided entrepreneurs and C-suite executives to reach their highest professional goals. So how did this self-described “one-legged black girl from San Diego” go on to achieve so much? St. John says it’s because she “just went for it.” She knows resilience on a grand scale.
“We have so much disruption in our lives—new technology, new customers, new competition, new processes and systems,” says St. John. “All of this disruption creates stress and mental exhaustion. But you can make tiny changes in your daily routine to help you deal with the big changes going on in your life.” A lot of information is available about how to deal with big life changes such as illness or natural disasters. These kinds of events can require complex solutions and take time to work through. But for everyday situations that can drain our daily energy and make us lose focus, Micro-Resilience offers quick and easy ways to help us cope.
As St. John was combing through the research on resilience and zeroing in on writing the book, another sport caught her eye.“The top tennis players do small recoveries between their volleys to recover their focus, drive and energy,” St. John says. “That was one of the key pieces of research that led us to think about micro-resilience, and how if these tennis players are more resilient because they’re doing these small recoveries, then couldn’t we all do that?”For example, research says that in the hours after exercising, one’s cognitive functioning improves in terms of generating more creative ideas during problem-solving tasks, and improving memory recall.“The typical way that we view exercise is we say, ‘I exercise four times a week for an hour, and I know I’m in good shape,’” St. John explains. “That’s what we think of as macro-resilience. We coined the term ‘micro-resilience’ to describe not what happens on average, but what’s going to help me today.”So, thinking about exercise on a micro-level, one might say, “I have a big project due today so I’m not going to fit a workout in. I’ll just exercise tomorrow.”“With micro-resilience, you would make the opposite decision,” St. John said. “It’s too important not to exercise, because you want your brain to be giving you peak performance.”
“The gold-medal winner gets up the fastest,” says Ms. St. John in this week’s MILE video.Yet, resilience is hard.It’s so easy to get distracted by all of the things that need to get done every day at your business. So, how do you stay focused when it’s so easily to get thrown? In her book, Micro-Resilience: Minor Shifts for Major Boosts in Focus, Drive and Energy, she explores quick and easy evidenced-based strategies for rebounding immediately in those daily hard-to-deal-with moments that attempt to throw us off balance.
1. Refocus your brain: While the nature of work has changed dramatically over the last couple of centuries, our brains haven’t had a chance to catch up.
- Focus zones: Create zones of focused effort in your day (like an “island in the stream”) to tackle tasks that require maximum accuracy and creativity. A focus zone can be a place, like a quiet corner in the office, or a time period, during which you block off all interruptions.
- Take notes: Whether at a meeting or during an important conversation, the age-old practice of taking notes conserves your mental energy, allows creativity to flourish, and supports memory-making. These notes don’t need to be preserved—the very act of writing things down and using them as a reference during the interaction is enough for the advantages to kick in. So, to keep brain fatigue at bay, bring back the humble personal diary.
- Time your decisions: Did you know that doctors tend to overprescribe antibiotics towards the end of the day? Making a large number of decisions in succession leads to severe mental fatigue—which compromises the quality of later decisions. To combat this tendency, make key decisions early in the day or just after recharging your batteries.
2. Reset your primitive alarms: Our brains are hardwired to react very strongly to any sort of threat. Here are a few ways to prevent this brain hijack:
- Deep breathing: While deep breathing is an often-suggested method of calming down, it’s important to get it right—because shallow breathing from the chest can actually worsen stress. To find your natural breathing rhythm, you must engage the abdomen: sit comfortably, relax your shoulders and chest, and then take deep breaths that expand your belly. Just a few minutes of this technique, done correctly, balances your nervous system and relaxes the mind.
- Smells and bells: Science has shown that certain fragrances have a powerful impact on your emotional state and can stop the brain hijack in its tracks. Is there a scent that sparks feelings of positivity in you? It may be from your childhood, or associated with a pleasant memory. Keep this aroma at hand and turn to it during high-stress situations.
3. Reframe your Attitude: It’s easy to get stuck in a spiral of pessimism. Here are a few ways to pull yourself out of that negativity rut:
- Dispute your beliefs: To help you see things from a different angle, the authors suggest the ABCDE approach – A: identify the Adverse event, B: clarify your Beliefs about it, C: list the Consequences based on those beliefs, D: Dispute your beliefs and consider the event in a new light, E: Energise the new belief by taking action. Remember, it’s tough to challenge deeply-held views, so be patient with yourself and invite others to help you talk through the issue.
- Reversi: This simple activity is a useful way of forcing yourself to look at new options. On a sheet of paper, write down an obstacle that’s holding you back. Now, on the other side of the paper, write the opposite statement. (For example, if the obstacle is “I don’t have the time to mentor others”, you would flip it to “I do have the time to mentor others”.) Try to support the positive statement with evidence; you could also ask trusted colleagues to join in the discussion. When you start out with a positive premise, the ideas and possibilities that emerge can be eye-opening.
4. Refresh your body
And first on the list of micro-methods to a healthier, more productive lifestyle is hydration. On an extra-stressful day, you may forget to have water altogether—but this is when you need it the most. Dehydration impairs your cognitive processes and creates brain fog, whereas adequate water intake sharpens your faculties, decreases response time, and boosts short-term memory. Staying hydrated is also essential to your overall efforts towards micro-resilience—without it, the earlier strategies are unlikely to produce the desired impact. Keep a bottle of water at your desk at all times (set regular hydration reminders on your smartphone if you like) and make it a habit to drink generous amounts of water during the most challenging portion of your workday.
5. Renew your spirit: The final framework of micro-resilience is the toughest.The main idea is to find your overall purpose, and then tap its power in small ways.First, examine your values and goals in an in-depth manner to come up with what gives your life joy and meaning; then, create a prioritised list of goals. You can then use these findings to recharge your spirit on a daily basis.
Once your purpose and priorities are clear, make them visible for ongoing micro-renewal: a screensaver, a decorative item, a vision board, a symbol… whatever speaks to you and fills you with inspiration. You can also tailor your schedule to be more aligned with your newly-identified purpose.Try to eliminate at least one item on your weekly calendar that does nothing to renew your spirit; instead, spend that time doing something you love. Even an hour of two can go a long way towards creating authenticity and purposefulness—which are integral to day-to-day resilience.