Sports psychologist Jim Loehr, 67, founded the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Florida, in 1991 with exercise physiologist Jack Groppel. Over the years he has helped many elite athletes—tennis pro Jim Courier, golfer Michelle Wei, hockey player Eric Lindross, basketball star Grant Hill—improve their game in part by teaching them how to set the competition aside ocasionally and focus on other aspects of their lives. With the insights he’s gleaned from the sports world, Loehr has been able to help Fortune 100 executives, law-enforcement officers, Hollywood producers, and even homemakers improve their own performances as they define them. Loehr’s most recent book is “The Power of Story: Rewrite Your Destiny in Business and Life.”
How do the athletes and executives you’ve worked with manage to balance the competing responsibilities of work and family?
The breakthrough for us was going beyond thinking about responsibility as simply an investment of time. Time can’t be expanded. If you spend ten hours at your job, that’s ten hours you can’t spend with family. But energy can be expanded. If you bring the best energy you can possibly muster, what we call full engagement, your family will know you care. You could also spend lots of time with them and still be unfocused, under stress, and making everyone feel nervous; there isn’t a sense that you value this time. But when you’re fully engaged, really feeling alive, there is a rich mixture of energy that is almost magical, and that’s the most precious gift you can give. If you manage your energy properly, it’s possible to have a lot of things on your plate.
Where does one find that energy?
On the physical side, it means getting seven to eight hours of sleep, eating a small meal or snack every three to four hours, drinking enough water, moving every ninety minutes, and exercising regularly to increase the oxygen transport to cells. You also have to invest in your emotional life, just like if you want a big quad or bicep. If you invest even one minute per day doing an exercise in gratefulness—like writing down everything you’re grateful for—you stimulate that muscle, it grows, and you begin to see the world through a prism of gratitude. Same with compassion. All of these elements create value in time.
Can you give an example?
We had a 41-year-old music-company executive who complained that he often felt tired and had lost his passion for work. When we looked at his habits, it turns out he barely ate all day, surviving on coffee in the morning and a salad or bagel for lunch. Then he was exhausted and hungry in the afternoon, so he snacked on sweets, then his wife cooked him a big dinner when he got home late at night. No wonder his energy level was so low! So we helped him develop new habits: a small breakfast to increase his blood glucose levels, a healthy lunch, and snacks in mid-morning and mid-afternoon to keep his energy up. He drank less coffee, more water, and had a smaller dinner at night. After a week, he began feeling a surge of energy throughout the day. He lost weight, his mood improved, and his passion for his work returned. We see this kind of thing all the time.
Do your corporate clients object to spending so much time on themselves when they have so many other responsibilities?
Sure. But we tell them it’s irresponsible not to take care of yourself: you are no value to anyone when you’re out of energy, fatigued, upset, frustrated. You think you’re a hero because you pulled an all-nighter at the office? Actually, you’re being irresponsible because you’ve compromised the entire next day. Even when life is hectic, doing a quick thirty-minute workout may be the most responsible thing you can do; you eliminate the toxic stuff left over from work, come home without being resentful that you never get to do anything for yourself, and you’re fresh and productive the next day. Whatever time you invest in that workout, or that time with your family, is returned to you many times over in increased happiness and productivity.
Can devoting yourself too diligently to your work—being overly responsible, in a sense—actually make you perform worse on the job?
Absolutely. In the short run, you can do well with a 100 percent devotion to work. But that imbalance catches up to you quickly. Over the years, we’ve collected data on people who have good balance in their life—taking care of their health, devoted to family while also committed to their jobs, giving back to their community. The research shows, over and over again, that when they have that balance, they tend to perform better. Their supervisors and peers can prove it, quantify it. Ask any performer, “Do you perform better if you’re happy and healthy?” They’ll say, “Absolutely.” But all these things are connected—they’re not at odds with each other. If you’re disengaged from your family, you’re usually also disengaged at work. It spreads.
But surely there are times when work becomes overwhelming and you have no choice, you have to make some personal sacrifices.
Yes, but rarely. It’s a very slippery slope. You think, “If I just sacrifice my health or my family to get to this position, this income level, this new house, it will all be worth it in the long run—it’s only temporary.” But that’s a tragic miscalculation, because you never quite get there. Even if do, you immediately look for another benchmark of success. So you say, “Maybe on my retirement I’ll get that balance.” But then your life has gone by and that balance never happens.
So there is discipline involved in not working, in taking time off, even goofing around.
Right. We think we’re disciplined if we work all the time, but we’re not. Actually, that shows we lack discipline—we have no recovery discipline. But discipline is really nothing more than habit. We need to create the habit of oscillating between periods of stress and recovery. Once those habits become ingrained, you can act in a responsible way—being disciplined both in your work habits and in recovering from that stress—without even thinking about it.
Many great athletes have rituals. A basketball player at the foul line might bounce the ball five times before taking the shot. A tennis player might spin the racket in her hand after a bad shot. These rituals invoke the desired physiological responses—lowered heart rate, slower breathing, relaxed muscles—and help you focus on the task and hand and not the crowd or the pressure. This is part of a recovery discipline, to gear up for the next shot. When it becomes a habit, you just do it automatically. Professionals can do the same thing. If your boss makes your blood boil, create a ritual of imagining yourself reacting calmly to his demands before you head off to work, or practice taking deep breaths when he walks into your office.
So rituals can help us live responsibly?
That’s always been the function of ritual, going back through the ages. Your own private rituals should be directly tied to your deepest values and beliefs, and responsibility is certainly a core value. You can’t be successful in anything until you establish the values that define success. Do you want to be an extraordinary mother or father? Someone who is responsible, has integrity, strong character, who is committed to a larger cause? Your rituals can help you achieve those goals. Exercising is a ritual; so is taking breaks. They help you manage your energy so you can be responsible to yourself, your employer, your family. Athletes call it being in “the Zone.” We call it full engagement. But everyone can get there. You just have to train for it, just like an athlete. Essentially, you are training yourself to be responsible.
What are your rituals? How do you get into “The Zone”?
One ritual I have is playing tennis every afternoon in the court at the Human Performance Institute. People may think I’m goofing off but I’m not. It’s my way of being disciplined—and responsible.
Paul Keegan is a contributing writer for Fortune and Money magazines and has written for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, GQ, and other publications.