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Decompress quickly to maintain performance

Dr Kate Booth and Dr Laura Kirby


If you are like the leaders and teams we have spoken to lately, you are wondering how you can sustain your energy and performance despite ongoing uncertainty – and potentially greater uncertainty as we face into a slow return to work and “normalcy”.

For some the current period will be remembered for quiet, iso-baking, decluttering and binge watching, if not boredom. For many others, it is a time of high stress, high stakes, and uncertainty, with many feeling on the verge of burnout. Large projects tend to have an end date, after which we might crash and recover (post-deadline cold, anyone?)  For now, there is no specific or consistent end date.  

Knowing what works for your body and mind to decompress quickly so that you can recharge and maintain performance is valuable in any self-management toolkit. 

What do we mean by decompress? Decompressing is about entering a mental and physical state that allows us to recharge our energy levels, to reframe our thinking, and to continue to perform.

Decompressing quickly helps us to sleep better, to recognise and handle our emotions more effectively, and to avoid burnout.

It’s a strategy that will ensure we take a sustainable approach to managing our wellbeing during this time – an essential capability when it is not clear how long we will need to manage the present challenges. 

Managing ourselves well also sets a powerful example to our staff. Walking the talk is much more effective than just telling our people to look after themselves. 

The inability to switch off might even cause more stress. Our internal conversation often runs: “Why can’t I sleep? I should be asleep. I need to be asleep right now. I can’t function tomorrow if I don’t sleep now!” Not decompressing effectively prevents our bodies from doing exactly the thing we want and need most.

While practising mindfulness works for some, everyone is different. Here are some alternative ideas that might help you to decompress:

1. Work hard, play hard: Handle the adrenaline of stress by changing the type of activity you are doing, not necessarily its intensity. Exercise reduces stress hormones and triggers release of ‘feel good’ hormones, endorphins. Choose an activity that is readily available, and physically and mentally absorbing, where your mind needs to focus on the activity, rather than thoughts from the day. Some quick and easy ideas - count the houses you pass while running, follow an online home workout, learn a new dance routine, or play table tennis or handball with the family in the home garage.

Following James Clear’s advice (How to Build Good Habits), make it an easy habit - lay out your running clothes the night before, or dress in the morning for the exercise you will do in the afternoon. Put your ear phones near the front door. Commit to meeting a friend to exercise alongside (subject to physical distancing rules in your location) and promise yourself you’ll still go even if they cancel.

2. Release: It might sound crazy but when the intensity really starts to bite, for some of us having a good cry, a round of boxing with the punching bag, or other emotional outlet can release the pressure valve enough to start to wind down. We are then better ready to re-gather, take some deep breaths, and commit to what’s next. One leader recently described how playing a sad movie is a sure way to bring an emotional release from work stress surrounding COVID-19. Notice if forms of release you have tried in the past are ultimately counterproductive to your overall coping e.g. alcohol, risk-taking behaviour. Are there alternate release activities available that might make you feel better, faster, and without the downsides? Then consider a follow-up question: How might you be kinder to yourself?


3. Use yourThird Space’: As Dr Adam Fraser describes it, the Third Space is that moment of transition between a first activity and the activity that follows it. The Third Space is where you transition between different parts of your life - whether from work to family or beyond both to personal down time. These parts of our lives all require different things from us. The Third Space is a simple technique that allows us to compartmentalise, helping us to decompress from one activity in a matter of moments, to be ready for the next one. 

Integrate this strategy at the end of your working day to set up better separation between work and home – even when the two are not physically separate. You might like to try turning to look at a blank space or out a window while you go through these three steps:

  1. Reflect on your day. When we are in the grip of stress we can tend toward a cynical bias. Answer these three questions in your reflective pause instead: ‘What went well today? What did I achieve today? How did I get better today?’ Don’t agonise over it, just pick something.

  2. Rest: Calm your mind and recompose so you don’t move onto the next task with racing thoughts. Depending on time available, this could be as simple as dropping your shoulders and taking a few deep breaths, doing a word or number puzzle, or going for a quick walk around the block. 

  3. Reset: Align your mindset with what is coming up next – what is your intention? Do you want to enjoy time with your family? Think about how you need to behave to fulfil that intention.

4. Notice: This is a simple cognitive technique designed to help you stop your thoughts, ‘empty your head’ and prevent your mind wandering back to any intrusive/stressful thoughts.

By activating all your senses, you move focus away from the buzzing thoughts in your head and calm your attention. Doing this exercise before bed will help you to psychologically switch off from the day and relax the brain so that it can actually fall asleep. 

  • Pause for a moment

  • Look around and notice five things you can see.

  • Listen carefully and notice five things you can hear.

  • Notice five things you can feel in contact with your body. E.g. your watch against your wrist, the air upon your face, feet upon the floor, back against the chair etc.

  • If necessary, repeat (for 4, 3, 2, 1 things).

5. Body Scan / Muscle Relaxation: To relax and slow the body and mind a popular technique is to follow a narrator’s voice to mentally scan your body from head to toe. Example resources include the Smiling Mind and Headspace apps. Like Noticing, this technique is particularly helpful for getting to sleep – for a quick resource, search for “guided sleep meditation” or "progressive muscle relaxation" on YouTube.


6. Connect: Human connection is one of the fundamental protective factors for our resilience and mental health and an essential part of our decompression toolkit. Take time to reach out to others, whether by phone or free video app (such as Zoom, FaceTime, Google Meet), or over the dinner table. Try to talk about topics other than covid-19 - a book you’re reading, your plans for home, a walk you went on, to deliberately expand and divert your thinking.

We might feel we don’t have a choice in meeting what the world presents us – but we do have a choice in how we manage ourselves and to help ourselves to avoid burnout. Recognising when we need to decompress and having an easily accessible set of strategies to do so are crucial in maintaining the stores of energy, patience and creativity we need to navigate uncertainty.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn in May 2020.


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