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Managing Your Inner Thermostat

At any point during the day, you may need to boost your energy level or calm down. One of Canada’s top high-performance experts shows how you can take control

The essentials

Energy is our most vital resource. Too often, however, we act as thermometers, letting our energy level simply adjust to the temperature around us. In my work with Olympic athletes and managers over the past 35 years, Peter Jensen has helped high performers become thermostats — individuals who consciously set the temperature in any situation to maximize performance.

Some of these same skills can be incorporated in our daily routines to help us energize when feeling sluggish or avoid the “choke zone” by controlling energy bursts during high-pressure situations.

Turning Up the Thermostat: Be Mindful, Take Breaks, and Minimize the Drain

Sometimes you may feel you need energy. You say to yourself: “I've got to get to bed at a decent hour tonight”, and then the telephone rings. On the other end is someone who brings out the best in you. You haven't seen them in awhile and they're in town. “Let's get together. We're going to do this and we’re going to do that.” You hang up the phone and are in a totally different place. You're energized.

You can get people to phone you at critical points in your life but maybe you need to learn to phone yourself. Because when we’re disengaged, we’re distracted. In Happy Money, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton point out that any time spent focused on a single item rather than a variety of items is vital because it generates way more happiness even if it isn't a pleasant task. My friend, educator Andy Higgins, has said, “Focusing on everything is focusing on nothing.” Staying focused on the present moment, being mindful, is beneficial for happiness.

What else can you do to revitalize? Start by understanding the link between glucose and working memory. Glucose is the primary source for the body's cells including the brain. When it becomes depleted, we exert effort on difficult thinking and reasoning. Sian Beilock is a brain researcher at University of Chicago and author of the book Choke. At a workshop I was leading before the Olympics, she said, “Operating when all the glucose cylinders are empty is a really bad option especially for people who have the most cognitive horsepower with the most potential to begin with.” Read the biographies of Edison or Einstein or Madame Curie; you’ll discover that they took many naps. 

You have to pre-plan these types breaks and get rid of the things eating away to your energy. Tony Schwartz, who wrote The Power of Full Engagement with sports psychologist James Loehr, made this point: “You have to get disciplined about breaks and take one every 90 to 120 minutes. And take a break that meets one of the basic human needs.” If you're working on something that’s intellectual, don't take your break involving intellectual activity. Go for a walk in the park or phone your mother, which would satisfy an emotional need. A break doesn’t have to be long. It's amazing how the body recharges in as few as five to 10 minutes. But when you do take a break, make sure to not hang out with someone who only sucks energy out of your system.

Act when you can make a difference and let go when you cannot. If you can't sort out the things you have control over from the things you don’t have control over, you're in for a hard life

Minimize the drain. Ceaseless striving is acting when no amount of effort can make a difference. Imagine if I insisted that you change what you had for breakfast this morning? No amount of effort would work. This is what is involved in situation mastery: acting when you can make a difference and letting go when you cannot. If you can't sort out the things you have control over from the things you don’t have control over, you're in for a hard life.

The second thing that can drain our energy are the stories we tell ourselves. Too many times people think the voice in their head is like God talking to them. The problem with the stories we tell ourselves is what they create in us. We have the stories we tell ourselves, then the parts of the stories we imagine, which evoke all sorts of feelings. As far as the body is concerned, images are events, so it reacts to images they way it reacts to events. The good news is that within every emotion is the energy to transform and move forward. Transform that energy into something productive.

What will you do with that disappointment? What's the setback teaching you? It's saying you have something to learn or change or improve or let go of. Because if you had what it took, you wouldn't have had the setback in the first place. Most of life’s lessons are not friendly and how we talk to ourselves is critical.

I remember an incident when I first started working with mogul skier Jennifer Heil, who won a gold medal in Torino and a silver medal in Vancouver. It was a Sunday and I was home with my wife in Toronto; the phone rang and it was Jennifer. I said, “Where are you? You're supposed to be in Japan.” She said, “I am in Japan. I’m on top of the mountain.” “Well did you qualify for the final?,” I asked. “Yes, I did.” So I said, “What's the problem?” She said, “Peter, I have to ski in 20 minutes and it still doesn't feel any better. My stomach's still a mess with butterflies. I thought these things would go away if we started working.” And I started laughing and said to her, “Jennifer, you need those butterflies big time because that's the energy that will  get you through the mogul run. But you have to do what Jack Donahue, our national basketball coach, used to say years ago. You’ve got to teach your butterflies to fly in formation. You have to get that energy working for you. Don’t worry about the run but focus on what you want to do in the run.”

Turning Down the Thermostat: Breathing and Analysing

Which calming techniques can we use when we get into tough situations? Some would certainly involve breathing that can help you quickly drop your arousal level. One of the figure skaters I worked with, Elvis Stojko, could lower his resting heart rate to about 50 beats in two breaths. 

Babies are world experts in breathing. Watch a baby asleep on its back and you’ll notice only one movement: the mid-section, which goes up and down. Babies breath from the diaphragm, the muscle we were intended to breath from. 

Most of us breath way too high in our chest and it really becomes a gas issue. When we breath high in the chest, we have too much oxygen and too little carbon dioxide. This leads to an imbalance. Too much oxygen physically adds to the jitters; it actually helps create them. Carbon dioxide is like a tranquilizer. So we need oxygen and carbon dioxide in roughly equal amounts.  

The wonderful thing about breathing techniques is that they can be practised anywhere. If you're stuck in traffic you have two choices: learn to fly or breathe. The centering exercise, which you can download below, is one really effective breathing technique that can quickly lower your arousal level. It comes from aikido, one of the martial arts. 

Another approach is acting “as if.” How much have we achieved by acting "as if"? Almost all of us got our confidence by acting as if we were confident. When you start to act as if you have time and walk like you have time, you start to actually get time. There are two dimensions to time: the clock that you can see and psychological time that you’t see. Someone put it this way years ago: “The length of a minute depends on which side of the bathroom door you're on.” Whenever I feel rushed, I intentionally slow down and get more done. It's strange but true.

 

Peter Jensen is founder and CEO of Performance Coaching, a corporate training firm, and author of The Inside Edge and Igniting the Third Factor. He teaches in Queen’s Execution Education programs.

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