How to build resilience

I believe we have a resilience problem.

And the key reason is that we live in a world for which we are not designed. Of course, this is not the only reason; there are inevitably all kinds of factors involved.

But I want to outline what I believe to be the foundation of our resilience problem. 

Let’s go back to the start. Life originated about 3.5 billion years ago in the form of the single-celled organism. 3.5 billion is an unimaginable number

So allow me to provide some context. 

If the story of that period was written as a book, with one thousand years on a page, it would be a 350,000-page tome roughly the height of a forty-storey building. Homo sapiens arrive in the last 20-30 pages of this book.

We are relatively new to the world.

Evolution is slow; it takes millions of years for slight advantages to emerge and proliferate through natural selection.

In fact, biologically we haven’t changed much in the last 20,000 years. 

But the world in which we operate has changed immeasurably since then.

Graph showing human progress over 200 years

The last three or four pages of the book would be really interesting. The birth of society, democracy, Christ, the Roman Empire. All of these take place in the last few pages of our book.

The Enlightenment happens in the last paragraph of the last page, and since then we’ve moved away from a belief in God towards a belief in science. This change in our beliefs underpinned the industrial revolution and the incredible rate of progress that followed.

The world has changed incredibly in just the last one hundred years.

The trouble is that we haven’t.

We’ve remained largely the same as the tribes who wandered the plains of Africa 20,000 years ago.

There are three modern inventions that have significantly impacted our health and ability to be resilient.

The light bulb

The car

And the modern diet.

 

Yes, they’re incredibly helpful and allow us to do great things. But there is a hidden cost, often to our health and resilience.

The Light bulb

The light bulb gives us the ability to control night and day. For billions of years, when it got dark, humans went to sleep. Now, we can stay awake, working, checking social media and watching Netflix.

Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep highlighted the fact that we are suffering from an epidemic of sleep deprivation. We’ve never experienced this before so the long-term effects are poorly understood - like those of smoking in the late 1950s. But the impact could be equally catastrophic. 

 The Car

We don’t have to walk as far as we used to.

We exercise less, leaving our cardiovascular systems and muscles to waste, while we sit in chairs for 8-10 hours a day. We fix mobility issues such as lower back pain with drugs and reward ourselves for going to the gym by eating and drinking to excess. 

We’ve confused the difference between what hurts and what harms us. Doughnuts and booze feel good but harm you. Exercise often hurts but is good for you.

If you want to know how your body is designed to work, watch a child pick something up off the floor… The perfect squat. The same technique Olympic power lifters demonstrate.  

But how do most adults lift? By bending at the back because their hamstrings are so tight!

The Modern Diet

Most modern diets are abysmal. Capitalism has lifted millions of people out of poverty but it gives us what we want, not what we need. And we want the high fat, high sugar food.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense. The primal part of your brain, which controls a significant amount of your behaviour, hijacks your good intentions and tells you to ‘load up on calories because you don’t know when you’ll eat again’.

This model worked really well for millions of years. It kept our ancestors alive long enough to reproduce.

But in the modern developed world, where food sources are plentiful, we eat what we want rather than what we were designed to eat. And it’s led to obesity and a spike in type-two diabetes.

What’s the answer?

The answer is simple enough to understand but tough to implement. We all know the answers. Get seven hours of sleep, lift heavy stuff, get yourself into a state so you’re out of breath, and eat healthily so ‘if a caveman could find it, you can eat it’.

Simple doesn’t make it easy though.

The first thing is to consider your current behaviour. If you carry on behaving like this, where will it take you? What impact is your behaviour having on those around you? You lead by example at home and in the office. What sort of example are you setting?

Here are a few ideas I've found helpful in changing and channelling my own behaviour. 

Journaling

Each day, I write about the last 24 hours. What did I eat? How did I sleep? Did I work out? How am I feeling? What’s the most important thing I have to do today? What am I avoiding doing? What’s concerning me? Am I being a good parent/spouse/co-worker?

Self-reflection is the key to self-understanding. If you want to change, you have to know how your brain thinks and why you do the things you do.

Create Boundaries

Boundaries help me separate those increasingly blurred lines between my work and home life and I apply them in a number of ways. For me, a good tomorrow starts this evening. Going to bed early makes getting up early much easier. I go to bed at 9 pm, read a book and I'm normally asleep by 10 pm. This makes getting up at 5 am much easier! 

I created a process for the morning that has now become a habit:

5 am - Wake up and get up before I can think better of it! Brush teeth, splash water on my face and let my eyes adjust to the light. I'll read an article or ponder on some new information.

I don’t check emails (it's too easy to allow myself to become distracted by someone else’s agenda).

I'll meditate for ten minutes; use the Calm app to make it easy, and do some stretching. 

I'm at the gym for 6 am for intervals or strength exercises, depending on my goal. At 7 am I  shower, get my daughter up and feel ready to start my working day.  

Self-Reflection

I work hard to create standards and processes for how I live my life. Discipline isn’t an art or a natural gift. It’s a habit - and like all habits can be built or broken.

There are several components to resilience but for my money, the foundational one is looking after yourself. We are high performance, highly evolved organisms, like a Formula One race car. But we’re in a demolition derby - an environment for which, unless we are careful, we can be hopelessly unprepared.

 ____________________________

Nothing I have shared in this article is complicated. It’s simple - but that doesn’t make it easy. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it and we wouldn’t be struggling to manage the challenges we’re faced with in the modern world.

It works for me. What works for you? 

 

Last updated: 28 Mar 2019