OPINION | 'Sustaining anything starts with sustaining yourself'

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Helen Nicholson
Helen Nicholson
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  • Author Helen Nicholson takes a look at this year's International Women's Day theme, "gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow", from a different angle, proposing that it include "sustainability of self" as well.
  • "While I absolutely agree that sustaining the planet is vital to the long-term survival of our, and many other, species, before we can do that, we need to take a step back," writes Helen.
  • Helen also looks at the changes brought into our lives by the pandemic, and how we can learn from them and adapt to a new way of living. 


"Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow" is the theme of this year's International Women's Day, and a call for climate action for women, by women. The United Nations' originated theme was motivated by data that shows the connection between gender, social equity and climate change, in an attempt to acknowledge that without gender equality today, a sustainable future, an equal future, remains out of reach. 

While I absolutely agree that sustaining the planet is vital to the long-term survival of our, and many other, species, before we can do that, we need to take a step back. Sustaining anything starts with sustaining yourself. If you've ever heard the expression, "first put on your own oxygen mask before helping others around you" on a plane, you'll understand where I am going with this. 

I would like to challenge this theme and suggest that we expand it to include sustainability of self as well. Women have never been so thinly spread or so pressured by demands on all fronts. We are running on empty in our busy lives, and often only listen to the signs of burnout or lack of self-care when we suffer a health crisis. 

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The gift of Covid-19, in amongst the pain and suffering of the past two years has been an opportunity to re-set. If we go back to living our lives exactly as we did before the pandemic, then we are missing this opportunity. My favourite expression over this time was: "In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to."

Our previous way of living and working was not sustainable. Sitting in traffic for three to four hours a day never made sense, nor did the costs associated with it. Now, as we return to hybrid work, let's avoid that stressful wasted time and money. We've all seen the value that this extra time adds to our lives.

I was never a fan of open-plan offices pre-Covid, as I don't believe they promote "deep work" - the focused, undistracted form of work where you switch off your phone, turn off your email notifications, and you do one piece of work at a time. 

We used to spend most of our day task switching. Did you know that every time we do this, it takes our attention 15 mins to return to the original task? Deep focused work is now more important in the post-Covid world than ever before - as the new problems we face are going to require innovative solutions that shallow work will not deliver. 

It's unrealistic to expect people to sit at desks in open-plan offices and work from 08:00  to 17:00 every day. It's not a mindful or productive approach to working. If people have proven their ability to self-manage the past two years by working remotely, they won't have lost the skill overnight. 

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Wearing sleep deprivation as a badge of honour simply doesn't work anymore. It never did. We were simply in denial in the past. Sleep is now acknowledged as the "secret sauce" of high performance, after people like Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, who sleeps 8 hours a night claimed it is one of his most powerful success sustainability strategies. Our bodies need 7-8 hours of sleep on a daily basis. Without this, our immunity, our happiness and our ability to think and strategise are compromised. 

The old unsustainable paradigm in our work involved seeing "downtime" as lazy or unproductive time. The new paradigm is about understanding that if you want to increase your performance, you need to increase your recovery. Taking regular time out to recover has been one of my hard-won lessons. I always associated recovery with laziness. I now know that recovery is actually the secret to high performance, aging well and staying healthy. 

Harvard Business Review (HBR) studied tennis player Ivan Lendl, who was the world tennis champion four years in a row in the 1980s. After watching thousands of hours of footage, they noticed that he took five to ten seconds longer between shots than his competitors. His adrenaline and stress levels would increase automatically as he served or returned a shot, but between shots, he had a longer recovery period than his rival. During this time, he would play with his racket strings or hit his racket against his foot for five to ten seconds. His ability to oscillate his energy so dramatically during a game was his superpower for his sustained high performance. Initially, he didn't even realise that he had a longer recovery period than his opponents. When the research team pointed this out, he extended his recovery period by a few more seconds, and carried on his winning streak.

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I'd like to see your boss's face if you said that you need a "recovery" period between October and December, as you think you need an "off season". Most of us are lucky if you get 21 days' leave in a year. Recovery is not something that is valued or appreciated in today's world. Yet in many ways, women are the ultimate corporate athletes, as our demands are even more intense than professional athletes. What's more, most women start their second shift when they get home, tending to the home, partners and children. 

We are also expected to perform the whole year round with very little "off" seasons, and our decisions have a more profound impact as they affect many people's well-being. The pressure on women in 2022 is extremely high. If we're going to save the world, we need to prioritise our own recovery as an essential part of our resilience toolkit, just as athletes do.

The quality of your recovery will determine the quality of your performance in all areas of life. Let's shake off the outdated superwoman-esque paradigm. When we start getting more creative and intentional with our own sustainability, we'll add more value in our personal and professional lives, and be far better placed to tackle the planet's sustainability too. 

Helen Nicholson is the founder of The Networking Company and best-selling author of Mindfulness: How to Stay Sane in an Insane World. 

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