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  • Dr. Gavin Weeks

Five Habits for a Vital 2020

As the year comes to an end and last minute requests and endless activities drain our collective energy levels, now might be a good time to turn your attention to an oft-used but little understood topic in leadership – vitality. What does it mean to be vital? I think of it as being both energised and engaged: feeling alive but also focusing on what it takes to thrive. On the recent Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme I introduced the group to 5 habits for vitality. We explored these habits mainly from the perspective of energy but, as we discussed later in the week, they also transfer neatly into principles for leaders in the fast-changing world in which we find ourselves. So, as you think about the obligatory goals for the year, consider the ways in which one or all of these habits might help you make a sustainable habit change:


Move every day, on purpose

Humans need to move and, by the best estimates, most of us don’t move enough. A habit of daily movement is crucial, not just for long-term physical wellbeing but also mental health and cognitive agility. Doing something every day, amidst the busy-ness of working and family lives lays a foundation to build on. Chris Hauth, endurance athlete and coach distinguishes between exercise (moving the body without a particular plan) and training (a focused regime). I believe that all of us need a bit of both of these. Why ‘on purpose’ though? Movement is a practice. Keeping physically well and agile for the long-term won’t likely be achieved simply by upping our ‘step count’ from meeting to meeting. On top of this, the mental health benefits of exercise probably can’t be realised with the challenges and strains of work swirling around our heads.

PAY ATTENTION to your attention

The human mind is not built for concentration. When trying to focus on one thing it’ll drift to another. To borrow from neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, the mind forages for information in the same way that animals forage for food – always on the move. The constant bombardment of information only compounds this. New habits, and particularly new physical habits can be an antidote to this – learning something new requires focused attention. Trying to lift a weight whilst mentally rehearsing a client pitch is not the recipe for success.

Energise, recover, energise

Human beings aren’t machines. We need to recover. You will not sustain progress towards a goal without resting and recovering well, through the food you eat and through paying attention to simple needs like hydration and sleep. But this pattern of energy and recovery is also crucial during exercise: there’s pretty neat evidence that changing pace during training is a fast track to greater fitness gains than slogging away on a treadmill.

Push your boundaries

If you have something to push towards or a goal to focus on you are more likely to sustain a habit. Whether physical exercise or some professional goal, working towards something primes both preparation and effort. Improvement and growth comes from a willingness to push around and beyond what you consider to be your limits. This doesn’t necessarily mean pushing yourself to exhaustion, it might mean picking up something that you really struggle with (for a newly imposed Christmas tradition, I am learning to play my guitar again – I am not available for public performances).

VARY for vitality

Unless you’re training for a particular discipline, or your work depends on a very narrow range of skills, variety should be part of your practice. Particularly if you’re someone who struggles to keep up an exercise routine, variety will keep you in the game. Mixing up activities (running, walking, yoga, weight training, swimming, team sports) pays off in two ways. Not only will it keep you engaged but, crucially, it primes the kind of agility needed to maintain fitness and strength for the long term. Whilst I’ve deliberately focused mainly on sustaining physical vitality all of these things transfer to sustaining leadership vitality for the long-term. At Thompson Harrison we are integrating these ideas into our programmes with clients, helping leaders to apply them in their lives and workplaces. More on that in the new year! For now, wishing you a vital 2020!

Dr. Gavin Weeks

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