It is probably not news to you that life during the pandemic was draining, and life now that restrictions have begun to ease perhaps even more so. Though there’s always the risk we might have our freedom curtailed to some degree again, the short sharp shock of ‘freedom day’, the rapid return to work post-COVID, and a life somewhat close to the before times, has been a slap round the chops for many of us.
I say this about myself as much as anyone else: even a few months of the old routine of the gym, work and a bit of socialising has left me run ragged. Everyone I speak to says the same thing: how did we do this? Why isn’t this normal anymore?
The key being, of course, that ‘normal’ is not something one can go back to, because it is not an objective place that exists. We cannot return to any previous state of being, especially after something like the year and a half we just experienced. The question then is: how do I square the person I want to be with the person I now am? How do I continue to excel, when the idea of excellence might need to change?
Enter: Tamer Rezk. A doctor, an NIHR Clinical lecturer in Nephrology at the UCL Division of Medicine, and an expert in the intersection of health and wellness. Always eloquent, I sat down with him to learn more about how we might need to reframe our idea of performance in a post-pandemic world.
So the conversation we're having today is about performance and self improvement. Predominantly when the world is easing out of a pandemic.
I think a lot of people are finding the exhaustion of returning to relative normality quite intense. I mean, I certainly know the things that used to be the basis of my week are now ten times more draining because these old stimuli - work, socialising - feel very new. To make sure that one can perform at old levels in a new version of the world, what are some ways that people can make sure they’re not burning out?
Perhaps we start with the thing you can control: yourself. A lot of my interest over the past few years has been physical wellness, physical wellbeing and the interplay of exercise, nutrition, and psychology, but very much for physical performance. As I got older, both personally and professionally, I've been much more interested in mental performance and self-development. There are a few people who talk about this: there’s Eckhart Tolle, in The Power Of Now, where he focuses on being present with the self, and how just filtering out the noise of life can help you 'perform'.
The understanding you don't need to 'perform', therefore, may lead to improved performance. With Martha Beck, a lot of the work that she does is about understanding the relationship between reality, your perception of ‘reality’, and your experience. If you start your week off with 10 things that are really going to trigger stress and worry you, it's very hard not to be exhausted, anxious, and feel you can't perform by the end of the week.
I think that's what has changed with COVID. I don't know that our responsibilities have changed. I don't know if the ground that you walk to the bus stop is more steep, or that running 5k in the park has suddenly become 10k. Distance has not changed. Time has not changed. I think what's changed is that your perception of reality has been affected by what - for a lot of people - has been a very traumatic 18 to 24 months.
There is definitely a difference between how one reacts to the world and the objective fact the world is actually relatively similar. But also, I imagine a lot of people are feeling this exhaustion because we have made a pretty snap return to relative normality without any processing of this trauma. We're all exhausted: people ended up working more hours, a lot of people working in professions that became a lot harder as a result of the pandemic. Here I am saying this to you, a doctor, who I think knows that acutely. So even if you separate the difference between feeling like it's harder, and it actually being harder, what do we do with the baggage being brought in to our return to normalcy?
If we want to talk about simple steps to help people process that grief and process that trauma, it would be about allocating time - either on a daily level, a weekly level, or monthly - to self-reflect, self-develop, and be able to deal with that.
One of the issues with COVID and the pandemic is that people are very digitally connected, and they relied on digital connections to exist. The digital space, for the majority of people, is not their best plane. For the majority of people, their nature is inclined to interacting with nature, animals and other humans.
So I would say that there are a few tricks. The first one is to perhaps identify if your emotions are related to how digitally switched on you are. And if that is becoming a negative pattern? Break that pattern. And that can be anything from how, for example, I used to reach for my phone first thing in the morning, and so sometimes I leave my phone in another room. Now my morning tends to be having a coffee, and just spending some time with myself. Not reading or meditating or anything but spending time with myself.
That leads me on nicely to meditation: everyone bands around the word meditation, but there are many different ways to meditate which are separate to meditating with an app. That's identifying some time in your day where you have no focus, where you're just allowing yourself to sit and exist, and then see what simmers to the surface. See what are the things that you worry about, think about, and then remind yourself: I can deal with them in 10 minutes time. And I really think that it's very hard to quantify, but I think that sense of tranquility, that time for yourself, that centering experience, even on a small level of doing it five or 10 minutes each day is a very good anchor for a lot of people.
And I think those two things are kind of a very practical way of introducing into your life routine that can help you just take the edge off feeling that you are exhausted emotionally. Or processing some of that baggage that you're carrying. In order to process baggage, you have to allocate time and energy to it.
I’ve always found meditating hard, but it’s interesting what you say about how broad it can be: it’s the thing on your to do list that has no outcome, effectively, so it can’t give you anxiety about doing it right. It’s an action without a chance to fail or succeed. Is that helpful, when the world often makes sure everything we do is commodified?
In the western world that is the truth. In the eastern world they simply don't understand the way that we have to put a financial or monetary value to every action or event.
With meditating, I also find it very hard. I can do it five days in a row, and then I don’t do it for three weeks. Once you start meditating, the first thing you should do - bearing in mind that you're doing this to be better, to heal yourself - is you should also look at yourself with a forgiving, soft approach. You're learning a new skill, a skill that will last you forever. A skill that, if you’re doing it five or 10 minutes a day for a few years, may really change you just 1% and lead to a very different life outcome or life journey. It opens up different doors, different practices, different habits; it redefines personal relationships, professional relationships and intimate relationships. It's a small thing, but often it's that first bit of change that's very hard, and can lead to a lot of benefit.
Conversely, a lot of people may have come out of this last 18 months ago with healthier habits than they had before. That might be meditation, it might be they work out more, and now the world comes crashing back in. Now a lot of people are trying to figure out where one finds those windows of time for themselves. If people have found new healthy behaviours, what are some useful techniques for keeping those up, as well as finding new habits as the world returns?
A lot of people talk about getting back to normal, which is an interesting term. It’s like a patient who is diagnosed with breast cancer and has surgery, chemotherapy, reconstruction, and then their aim is to go back to normal. Normal is an abstract concept. We have no control over the past, and we certainly have no control over the future: we only have control of the present, and that label - ‘normal’ - puts a lot of pressure on someone.
I personally don't think life will ever be the same as pre-pandemic. I think we will always appreciate a party much more now, we will always appreciate going on a flight much more than we ever did. We will appreciate peace and tranquility in a way that we didn't appreciate. And I think actually what's happened during COVID is a lot of people have recognised and redefined the things that are important to them. And then as the world opens up, they have this battle of: 'is working 15 hour days, and going out four nights a week, or traveling seven times a year living in central London, is that what I want? Or because it's now become available to me again, is that what I should want?'
Martha Beck talks about how when you think of an activity, does it have 'shackles on' or 'shackles off': shackles on being something that cages you or restricts you, whether that activity is doing the washing, folding the laundry, going to see a friend that you don't really want to see, going into the office that you don't want to do. Shackles off might be reading a book, sitting in a garden in the sun for three hours doing nothing, having a glass of wine.
For me the very interesting example is the gym. Exercise was always a sanctuary for me, a sacred place, somewhere I would go to wind down. I would always feel better after. But actually I struggled during COVID, especially the second lockdown, where I didn't want to exercise. And then when the gyms opened up, I never got back to the same level of energy and enthusiasm in doing that. It had gone from a ‘shackles off’ to a ‘shackles on’ thing. So now I have to redefine it. I have to work out: Is it that the gym is not the right place? Is it other types of exercises? Maybe exercise is not the thing right now. Maybe my relationship with it is changing.
People have to go back and realise that, first and foremost, normality is a very abstract term and we need to live in the present. And then step two: just because your old life was an old life, is that really what you want now? Because that will really help you work out what practices you want to bring forward.
Going back to that idea of going into the week with a list of anxiety-inducing things, I think absolutely there is an aspect of people needing to make sure that they don't set targets for themselves before entering the week. I think the other question, however, is what happens when those pressures come from an external source and how one deals with those? Because there are the aspects one can control as you said, and that's a fundamental part of it. What are the tools someone can use if someone else – maybe the office, maybe friends – is beginning to encroach on a routine and habits that you are managing to sustain otherwise? What are some good ways to establish boundaries?
This is very interesting question and also something that is very much in the self development theme. So why don't we do it by an example? David, why don't you give me an example.
Ok, so let’s do returning to the office. I'm the employee. And my boss has said to me: 'we're going back to the office this day'. And I say ‘actually, I would really like to have some sort of split, I'd like to be able to work from home a few days a week, if not all the time, because actually, I'm producing just as much work as I was before but with more freedom.’
So let's say I'm the boss. And I say, ‘dear David, we are expecting everyone to be back in the office from next Monday. I hope this is okay.’ What's your initial reaction? What's your initial emotion?
I guess my initial reaction would be the panic of a sudden return, the panic of feeling like it's going to be a quick switch on. And then my second thing would be the outrage of that not being a conversation.
When you feel that anxiety, it is often your body telling you that you're being faced by something that you are uncomfortable with. And some people have a habit of reacting straightaway to that. I used to be one of those people, but it was important I spent some time understanding why I reacted a certain way. People always make assumptions about what other people are thinking, what other people's intentions are. But that is an assumption. The only way to know is to email back.
You can email your boss back and say ‘Hi, Bob, thanks for your email, hope you're doing well. I am concerned that if I come back to the office full time, I may not be able to work and perform. From a personal perspective, I found working from home much easier. And it's been much more balanced in my quality of life.’ That's a difficult email to send back. But you're opening up a conversation with someone about exactly the thing that was taken away from you. You’re offering up your rationale. But also, the aim here is for me to be a better employee, and have a better work life balance.
And I would say that, I think in my own experience as well, in medicine, I think when you open up the forum and you explain your rationale, you often have a much better response than you're expecting. This is not to say that you don't have terrible bosses and difficult bosses. This is part of the skill of dealing with that stress or anxiety: what is reality, and what is a projection of what you think is going to happen? Because most people think - and this is again, something I was very guilty of - as soon as you get an email, you imagine what’s going to happen 10 emails down the line. But often that's not the case.
I don't want to default to the unhappy ending situation. But I do think that in that situation, that is the lovely resolution. But the alternative, which I think many people will face as we've seen from the great exodus from work over the last year, is that a lot of people won’t be listened to, or find employers don’t respect their dealbreakers, or won’t have a choice but to walk away. But maybe it’s not about work: maybe they’ve left their gym, or a relationship, or a friendship. If someone is facing a new normal, or is looking to build a new normal, what are some ways to stay anchored during an upheaval?
One of the things we're talking about here is that a lot of people have re-challenged their own destiny. Now we want to follow a path we sensed we weren't on. Martha Beck says that, when you're on the right path, it's very clear because you feel free: there's this sense of serenity that you get when you're going along the right path. And that can be very odd if you haven't felt that in the past. Or you've been in a career for 10 years where you've never felt that.
I think the first thing is that if you've already taken the leap and the step to break away from an old relationship, an old habit, or an old job, you've already done I would say 75% of the hard work. I would sit with that: people are often in a rush to move to the next best thing, but sit with it and work out why you left. With everything, whether it's an intimate relationship, or a personal relationship, or professional relationship, you also need that relationship to heal. You need that time to process things and identify the good and the bad, because that informs you to make your next decision.
A lot of this goes back to self-reflection, and saying: 'why did I leave my old job?' Because if you left your old job because you didn't feel valued in the quality of work you're doing, if you go for a job that is similar, but pays double, you probably still won't get that. If you left your old job because you didn't have the right balance of quality of life, and then you go to a job that has the same working hours, you may still not be able to negotiate a quality of life. So identifying the things that lead you to leave a relationship is not really much different. It's about listening to what your body wants - physically, emotionally, mentally - and then approaching the future looking for those things.
Going back to the idea of ‘shackles on’ and ‘shackles off’, there are obviously objective goods and objective bads, but the hard thing, I think, is learning how to balance a ‘shackles on’ duty that you don’t like, but you have no choice to do. If you hit a wall with a ‘shackles on’ duty you can’t discard quite yet, or ever, how do you find the motivation again?
Martha Beck has a very interesting story: she had three children, one of which had a learning disability. And she said how she used to resent having to do the motherly things, taking the kids to the playground, pushing them on the swings, making them cupcakes she didn't enjoy baking.
So instead, she bought ready-made meals from Whole Foods: healthy, organic non-processed. And she read physics books with her kids. And she read self-development books for the kids. And she played games that she enjoyed. And lo and behold, her children also enjoyed it because they shared 50% of her genetic material. It's changing this narrative on its head of the things that you should do, to doing the things that you want to do and seeing whether you will end up achieving the same thing.
I think this world post COVID has become one where we have realised that we have forgotten about the individual on a much more organic level. We've thought about individualism only as 'I want to achieve, I want to get here, I want to do this, I want to do that.' But we haven't thought: have I spent enough time developing myself? Am I projecting my perception of myself onto other people? And that is something that we were so used to doing before. And then when COVID happened, and we didn't interact with other human beings for sometimes months at a time, we realised that you didn't have anyone else to project on to. So you realise that you had to deal with those questions much more internally.
In practice, many people say 'I can't leave my job. I can't not turn up to my shift. I can't not turn up to the office for an important meeting.' But can't is a very strong word. Because COVID taught us you can. You just have to reprioritise everything. I think that's what people are going to be grappling with, as we’re coming back to schedules and routines. Have a sympathetic approach to yourself, realise that you're not going to ever go back to how you were because you're a different person. The world has been through a trauma, and we are never the same after a trauma. We process it, we grieve, we heal, and then we look at life in a different way. Work out in your schedule what serves you or what doesn't serve you.
Something I can’t stop thinking about is about a piece I read a few years ago about ‘the fuck off fund’: the idea of saving enough money to know, whatever you’re going through, you could leave it and sustain yourself independently. Perhaps something we need to get better at thinking about is building preventative resources rather than remedying things, and I think that goes back to what you said about meditation: focus on building tools to help with the future, rather than fixing things once they happen.
'I can't leave my job' is a very common thing that I hear. And I want to tackle it from a few angles. I’m a doctor who has been in the NHS since 2010, and someone who's thought on a few occasions ‘I might want to leave my job, because it seemed too difficult.’ Could I have left my job during covid? I could've. And I can tell you - having worked with a number of patients and clients from all different backgrounds, countries, and financial statuses - that it is not just people who are struggling financially who worry about losing their money, who worry they can’t leave their responsibilities. It's also the very wealthy. That fear is real, whether you're paying £300 a month in rent, or £30,000 a month as a mortgage. Both people feel just as worried that they can't leave that job.
A lot of people also feel they can't leave their job because of the role and the structure that their career has. If you don't know what you're going to do with your time, you don't know where you're going to commit that energy, and that resource. That's probably more scary than financial risk.
I also think that a lot of people stay in a negative feedback system of unhealthy habits, unhealthy feedback, and they don't understand that that is a pattern that can be broken. But people are understanding it more and more: I don’t know if it was the furlough scheme, which actually made people realise that they can have a life without a job, but a lot of people didn't get paid the same and a lot of people did get by. People just had to renegotiate their lives.
It sounds like if you can gain enough stability in the other pillars in life, you can reconsider if something is so crucial to you. Even if your job feels like it's completely in the service to a higher power.
As a doctor, I've realised the greatest debt you owe to anyone is to yourself. If you cannot take care of yourself, nurture yourself, love and support yourself? You can't do that for your partner, your family, and I think you can't perform and deliver for anyone.
I appreciate there are key things, and people need to behave with a collective impetus and a common vision of the macro, but I think people need to go back to the individual and figure out 'what's important for me? What do I want?' I actually think that's the beginning of collective society.
Originally published Nov 5, 2021.
Written by David Levesley.