Resilience: Simple Habits That Will Make a Big Difference

By: Guy M. Beaudin

You know a topic has hit the mainstream when the backlash begins. Here is what popular Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway wrote recently:

“Our message to executives who crack up is that it is their fault for not having enough of something that has become the corporate world’s favourite and most fashionable virtue: resilience. At the same time, we are hoodwinking companies into thinking resilience can be bought. So long as the programme is ‘holistic’ and ‘personalised,’ a CEO can be turned from a frail human into a superhero.

There is a better, more obvious and cheaper way. Instead of attempting to shore up the incumbent, we should change the job spec.”

Kellaway’s “practical” advice on changing the job spec is to “share the load” and “do less.” At which point in the article, I imagine most executives hit themselves in the side of the head saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?!”

I think we all agree that in an ideal world, we would change the job spec in both our personal and professional lives to make it less demanding if we could. But this type of advice is typical of much of what I hear—well-intentioned but impractical.

I am assuming that most of us are pretty thoughtful about what gets on our calendar and where we spend our time. But even then, we find ourselves overwhelmed and often depleted. In the spirit of being more practical (I hope), I will offer one idea to increase your resilience, and here I am indebted to the work of Dr. Jim Loehr on the topic, which is oscillation. His research shows that it is not the presence of stress in our lives that is the problem, but “Rather, the problem is the absence of disciplined, intermittent recovery.” The oscillation between stress and recovery is where resilience lies.

On this point, I agree with Lucy Kellaway: we have designed executive roles so that they are both a sprint and a marathon, and that is not sustainable. Practically, this means designing your day to provide you with oscillation in the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of your life.

Physical: The phrase “sitting is the new smoking” is a helpful image. But what it does not convey is the importance of movement throughout the day as a way to build resilience. You don’t need to buy a treadmill desk to do this; simply do not go more than 90 minutes without some type of movement, even if it’s walking around your office when on a call or doing some stretches in your chair. Eating five or six smaller meals a day will also do wonders for keeping your energy constant throughout the day.

Emotional: Know your triggers; develop rituals such as taking deep breaths when you feel the stress creeping up. Manage your interactions when you can. If you have a meeting you know will be stressful, book an easy one afterward or take some time for a noninteractive task such as returning emails. Better yet, go for a walk around the block. You will get yourself closer to your ideal emotional state instead of letting the tension build throughout the day.

Mental: If you find yourself distracted throughout the day and unable to focus, you are not alone. This is likely the single most obvious way we feel the lack of oscillation. Our ability to concentrate diminishes as the day progresses. Some of this can be managed by performing your most complex tasks in the morning, but that is not always within your control. An enemy of mental resilience is multitasking. Neuro-psych has proven conclusively that multitasking is a myth and not possible; the reality is that the brain can only alternate between tasks, which further depletes energy. Focus is like a muscle: the more you do it, the better you get at it. Building in oscillation before important meetings is another good strategy; book those first thing in the morning or after a lunch break, so people can bring their best selves to the decision making.

Spiritual: This is a tricky one to discuss in the workplace, but spiritual capacity in this regard is essentially about connecting with your sense of purpose, your fundamental values, and beliefs. For some people, resilience will grow from the perspective that comes from knowing that their friends, family, or community are the central component of their life and their identity. That certainly is a great buffer on those days when nothing seems to go right at work. For others, like a colleague I had dinner with recently, their purpose is the loyalty they have to their team and the importance they attach to creating a positive work environment. This has allowed my colleague to weather a less-than-ideal work situation: in times of stress he connects with the “why” of his work, which gives him the resilience he needs to stay engaged.

Any one of these techniques and strategies won’t change your life, but collectively they should make a difference. They might even work for Lucy Kellaway.

RHR International has partnered with the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute to deliver the Premier Executive Leadership™ program and Corporate Athlete programs, both designed to help leaders perform at their best in their professional and personal lives. For more information, please contact Joanna Starek at


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