Racing through whiteout conditions, sub-zero temperatures, and gale-force winds that can cause the wind chill to reach −100°F (−73°C), the Iditarod dog sled race is as challenging an environment as a team could encounter. It covers 1,100 miles of Arctic ice and takes more than a week.
For years, mushers executed a common strategy: run for twelve hours, then rest for twelve hours. That changed in 1986 when Susan Butcher, a veterinarian’s assistant, entered the race. Keenly aware of her dogs’ biological limits and optimal performance rhythms, Butcher trained them to run in shorter spurts of 4-6 hours and then to rest for the same length of time. Racing at that rhythm both day and night, Butcher and her team won the Iditarod that year and went on to win it three more times.
Butcher’s training approach is like that of many top athletes in other sports: periods of intense work are followed by rest. Athletes understand that rest is a crucial part of the training. They push themselves to their physical and mental max for a time, and then give their bodies and minds the rest they need. This cycle of work-rest-work-rest helps athletes achieve peak performance.
But we don’t have to be athletes to use the same rhythms to reach peak performance. University of Chicago researchers have found that people who perform at the top of their game share a common characteristic—they are absorbed in the task at hand—regardless of whether they are performing brain surgery, shooting a three-pointer in basketball, or crunching the latest budget revisions necessitated by COVID-19.
Top performance requires full focus, and sustaining focused attention consumes energy. More specifically, our brain exhausts its glucose fuel, so without rest, our brain’s fuel gauge moves toward EMPTY. We’ve probably all experienced the symptoms, which include distractedness, fatigue, and irritability. While it’s easy to acknowledge the benefits of a well-rested mind while reading this e-blast, many of our schedules don’t reflect this truth in action. Consequently, we may be missing performance opportunities that would be our equivalent to hitting a game-winning bucket as time expires!
Here’s the good news: attention is a mental muscle that can be strengthened with the right cycle of work-rest-work-rest. As we begin this week, let’s give our attention muscle the reps and rest it needs to perform optimally. Here are two practices for us to consider.
Make the most of lunch.
Lunch provides a built-in opportunity for a mental break at mid-day, which is conveniently timed for minds that are desperate for rest. Sadly, many of us have fallen into the practice of working through lunch. This week let’s use our lunchtime differently. Enjoy our food. Call someone we love. Play our favorite game. Take a nap (seriously, we know leaders who do this and are better for it). Let’s give ourselves a true mental break!
Do an attention rep.
Just like exercises that strengthen our body, we can perform exercises that enhance our concentration over time. A basic move is to put our focus on a target—like our breathing. Notice its rhythm. In-out. In-out. In-out. As our attention roams (and it will), stop and acknowledge that our mind has wandered. This practice alone requires mindfulness, which is our ability to observe our thoughts without getting caught up in them. Then, we can immediately draw our focus back to our breathing. That’s the mental equivalent of a weightlifting rep, and it strengthens the connectivity in our circuits that powers focus according to researchers at Emory University.
Final Thought: Work-rest-work-rest. Let’s commit to the rhythm!