Building Resilience Into Our Lives

06/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Apr 18, 2012

One evening, a managing partner of one of the big accounting firms came into my office. In his late 40s, he was, nevertheless, so stiff that he could hardly bend his body to sit in a chair. Decades of long hours at work, high stress, and constant demands had taken its toll. He had lost all resilience, physically, emotionally, and mentally.

For many of us, life seems to be about getting as many things done as possible. The shelves of any bookstore are filled with volumes, large and small, that give us all manner of advice about how to work and live more efficiently, how to do more in less time.

Certainly at our work, the more productive we are, the more we are rewarded. Economic theory says that an increase in productivity leads to a better economy and, supposedly, a better standard of living. And many people seem to carry that notion over to the rest of their lives, operating, if unwittingly, under the assumption that the busier they are, the happier they will be.

In the quest for greater and greater efficiency, greater and greater productivity, we often rely on the thinking behind the highly refined processes of modern manufacturing. Use the minimum amount of materials. Use as little time and energy as possible. Reduce complex tasks to automatic processes. Make every moment and every movement count. Keep inventory low and rely on just-in-time deliveries. Monitor and control every parameter. Don't let chance occurrences interrupt the process.

And then something unexpected happens and the whole machine stops. Machines stop because they can't respond to the unexpected. They are mechanical and have little or no resilience.

You and I aren't machines. Our lives aren't about maximizing output and minimizing costs. This is a poverty-stricken attitude and leads to such absurdities as "Those who have the most toys wins."

What life is about is a mystery, but it may be fair to say that, for many of us, it is more about maximizing potential and minimizing disaster. We want to live our lives as fully and completely as possible. We want to develop skills and abilities and our fullest potential. Above all, we want to experience life. When we raise children, our primary concern is that no disaster befall them. We want them to experience the fullness of life as a child, as a teenager, and as an adult.

And, to do this, we need to build resilience into our lives and theirs.

Life is full of chance occurrences, whether on the scale of earthquakes, financial meltdowns, war or epidemics, or an accident, a missed plane or bus, an unexpected meeting, or a hole in a sock.

We need to be able to meet chance occurrences, recognize and understand context, see what is unique in each person and in each situation, adapt to different conditions, and respond in a different ways. We need to build in safeguards and redundancies so that we receive feedback in time when something is going wrong and we have the resources to adjust and respond. We need to be able to recognize chance occurrences and explore their potential.

How to build resilience? For many of us, it's a matter of time, quite literally.

When the accountant described his life, my first suggestion was for him to take some time each day, a half-hour, say, and sit quietly, just resting in the experience of breathing, to meditate, if you will. He couldn't imagine squeezing an extra half-hour into his day, so we settled on five minutes. After a couple of weeks, he was open to extending that to ten minutes. Then something strange happened. He found that the more time he took to sit quietly, the less stressed he felt, the clearer he could think, and the less he reacted emotionally to the ups and downs of work and life. He was developing resilience. On his own, he extended the practice to a half-hour. Ironically, he got more work done in less time.

It doesn't take much, but when we give our system a chance to recover from the demands of the day, we build resilience. Yes, it may feel like we are sitting there doing nothing, but in that doing nothing, a lot is happening.

Another bit of advice I give to clients is to build open time into their days and lives. One executive complained that he never had a free evening. People would ask him to come to dinner or a party, and, since he wasn't doing anything, how could he say "no." I asked him to take out his calendar and put a big red X through at least two evenings a week, two evenings a week when he was unavailable because he was busy -- busy doing nothing.

One other strategy is to schedule blank spaces into your day, a half-hour here, an hour there. When you come to that blank time, you can do whatever you want, take a break, go for a stroll, answer phone calls or emails -- it doesn't matter. Because you have that time in your schedule, however, when the unexpected inevitably happens, you will have some time to take care of it, without throwing the rest of your day or week into chaos.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back, but to bounce back, we have to have something in reserve. Here I described how we can build resilience with time. The same ideas apply to money, energy, and other resources. Living at the edge may be exciting. But the unexpected always happens. When it does, our capacity for resilience may make what might have been a disaster into something we can take in stride.