Courtney Reynolds is a 23-year-old entrepreneur. She is intentional about how productive she is with her time. Consequently, she's very mindful of her environment. Around fifteen days per month, she lives in Denver with her business partner, Val. While in Denver, Courtney and Val commonly work 18+ hour days. They are involved in several projects together. Their apartment has no distractions. There are no pictures on the walls. It's very simple. There are a few leather couches, and plenty of open space to shoot videos for any marketing they need to do.
During these trips, Courtney purposefully puts herself under a great deal of stress and pressure to succeed. There are always nearing timelines, high expectations, and big promises to make good on. She gets an enormous amount done, but at a high price. Working so many projects and such long hours is mentally, emotionally, physically, and relationally exhausting. And that's exactly what she wants while she's in Denver. Her intention is progress and growth. Yet, even at 23 years old, she knows the hours she works aren't sustainable. Consequently, she has a reset and recovery environment where she spends the other half of her month in Orlando, Florida.
Courtney's home in Florida is designed to trigger intense relation, rejuvenation, and even joy. The walls are painted warm and inviting colors, covered in beautiful art. The furniture and kitchenware are luxurious and inspiring. Moreover, Courtney is part of several social groups in Orlando which provide her leisure and deep connections. She often hosts people at her Orlando house. She sleeps ten to twelve hours regularly while she's there. She does have a small office at her Orlando house, which she uses a few short hours per day, mostly to just check-in and manage. For the most part, she's entirely unplugged and recovering. You'll often find her at Disneyworld, fancy restaurants, or other entertaining places throughout the city.
It's these regular recovery intervals that allow Courtney to push herself as hard as she does while she's in Denver. Proactive recovery is one of the secrets behind Courtney's incredible success at such a young age. Her strategic use of environmental design allows her to accomplish more in a month than many people do all year. When in Denver, her environment is optimized for productivity. Moreover, she herself is well rested, both physically and mentally, which enables her to push herself harder, longer, and deeper than most people.
Without even knowing it, Courtney has tapped-in to some deep scientific understanding. She's structured what I'll call, "Enriched" environments, which allow her to be fully engaged in what she's doing. Human beings evolved needing two key types of environments: high stress and high recovery. In both of these enriched environments, a person is completely absorbed in their situation. They are fully present and alive. In stressful environments, they're fully and 100 percent on. In recovery environments, they're completely off. Both these environments are enriching, fulfilling, and unfortunately rare.
The first type of "enriched" environment is by nature highly stressful: call it positive stress, or eustress. This is a very different type of stress than the common distress most people experience around the clock. Whereas distress leads to death and decay, eustress is the very experience needed for growth. Positive stress makes us stronger by teaching us to test our limits. This is how Courtney lives half of her month, pushing herself often beyond her limits.
But growth does not happen in stress, rather, in the state of rest and rejuvenation. Continually shift from highly demanding environments to highly restful environments creates the optimal environment for elite habits, thoughts, and choices. In both instances, complete absorption in the experience is required. While demanding environments require high levels of focus, recovery environments entail the rare skill of becoming completely detached from all the stresses of work, fitness, and the world in general.
In The Adrenal Reset Diet, authors Alan Christianson, NMD, and Sara Gottfried, MD, explain that unless we create the space to truly unplug, reset, refresh, and recharge--our body's natural and evolutionary response is to store fat rather than burn it. Elite health, creativity, productivity, relationships, and life require complete and regular recovery.
The science is compellingly clear about recovery. For instance, in fitness, the concept of "time-under-tension" explains that in order to grow and strengthen your muscles, you need to push them past their threshold. Running continual marathons isn't the path to sustainable health, sprinting and recovering are. The deeper you push your muscles, the greater the potential for growth--but only if your recovery is equally long and deep. Actually, the recovery process should always be longer and deeper than the laborious process. Hence, sleep, prayer, vacation, leisure, fasting, and meditation (the keys to resetting and recovery) have never been more essential because the world has never been more demanding. Somewhere along the way, this has been forgotten.
Similar to fitness, the best creative breakthroughs happen during mental recovery from rigorous and extended work. For example, neuroscience has shown that only sixteen percent of creative and mental breakthroughs happen while you're work. Creativity comes from making distinct and useful connections. Those connections can't be made if you haven't thought intensely and pushed yourself deep into a project or problem, then rested. The mental and creative pearl won't appear while you're at your desk, but while you're away from it. The best creative jewels are available only in environments far removed from the stresses and toil of your daily routine. Hence, vacation, travel, and complete unplugging have never been more needed than today. These need to be embedded in our regular life and routine. You may not be able to detach for a few weeks at a time, but you can unplug over the weekend and hit the reset button.
Very few people take the time to recover from work, technology, people, food, and life. As a result, very few people have the energy and clarity to truly exert themselves in environments of extreme but healthy stress and demand. You need both types of enriched environments to thrive in your work, relationships, health, spirituality, and all other areas of life.
I recently saw a friend of mine, Justin, with his three kids at a local park. They were at the park because a friend of Justin's daughter had a soccer game. His daughter wanted to watch her friend play and Justin was totally down to spend some quality time with his kids. I noticed that Justin didn't have his phone on him. He was completely with his kids, doing an activity that was important to them. It struck me that, at least in that moment, Justin was winning in life. He was living life on his own terms, according to his values. There was no fear of missing out. He was fully present with his kids, not semi-present while thinking about work or using his smartphone. He was with them. He was recovering and living life. No wonder he's so great at his job and in the other areas of his life.
The Next Evolution of High Performance and Achievement
It seems the "cutting edge" of self-improvement is based on psychological research of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Continuing to focus on mind-set, willpower, and goal-setting is an outdated and misplaced approach to success. It's not that these strategies are inherently bad. Rather, it's that the focus entirely wrong. Most self-help guides put all of the pressure directly on the individual.
The next evolution of high performance and achievement takes the focus off the individual and places the environment at the forefront. Thus, ironically, the future of self-help will not be focused on "the self," but rather, will be focused on the environment that shapes the self. At the core of this new thrust will be the installment of enriched environments.
While you're in an enriched environment, your desired behavior is automated and outsourced. You're fully present and absorbed in what you're doing, whether that's highly demanding work or rejuvenating recovery. Whatever you're doing, you're environment has been proactively optimized to enable desired behavior.
Conversely, when you're in an ordinary environment, your desired behavior is not automated and outsourced. In most environments, you must remain conscious of what you're doing, and thus, you must use willpower to act in desired ways. That's because most environments are optimized for distraction, not high performance or recovery.
Excerpted from the book Willpower Doesn't Work by Benjamin Hardy, published on March 6, 2018 by Hachette Books, a division of the Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2018 Benjamin Hardy.