When we hear the word “sustainability,” we often think of the environment and things like renewable fuels, reducing carbon emissions, and protecting habitats. But the principle of sustainability is equally relevant to the human experience. Personal sustainability aims to ensure not only that humans sustain life, but that they thrive and flourish through efficient use of their limited personal resources like time, energy, and attention. This article will explain personal sustainability and why it is more important than ever to develop it. At the end of the day we all want to live better and more rewarding lives; this is achievable if you are intentional about it.

At its core, personal sustainability is common sense. Living and working in a way that wears us out is neither wise nor effective. Achieving personal sustainability is not complicated. All it requires is that we replenish our inner resources to maintain our physical, emotional, and mental health. The problem is that often we take a very short-sighted approach, not unlike what has happened with the use of environmental resources. We use our personal resources without factoring in how to replenish them.  

The demands we face in our daily lives often create a false choice. Long-term well-being or short-term achievements? A lot of times, we don’t pay attention to the state of our internal resources until they are depleted. For example, we can keep ourselves going with coffee and sugar for a while, but at some point our body will alert us to our impending breakdown with signs like feeling jittery and anxious, an inability to concentrate, or flying off the handle at small upsets. Left unchecked, there are even more serious consequences: depression, chronic fatigue, insomnia, disengagement from relationships, and impaired professional performance to name a few.

“Personal sustainability enables us to effectively utilize our time, energy, and attention.”

There are clear signs that in the U.S., one of the wealthiest countries in the world, good health is not a given. In fact, the statistics are alarming: 40 million (18.1%) adults over the age of 18 have been diagnosed with anxiety, 16.1 million (6.7%) with depression, and at least 121.5 million (48%) have some form of cardiovascular disease.

These figures are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more struggle with these problems, just not severely enough for an official diagnosis. The medical expenses caused by our declining health are enormous. And they also cause a massive loss of productivity. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of the United Kingdom, stress, depression, and anxiety accounted for 57% of all sick days in 2017 and 2018. And above all, illness and stress have a serious effect on our quality of life. They impair our ability to lead a happy and fulfilling life.

How can we develop personal sustainability? 

Personal sustainability is about “stress management” in the widest sense. It is about managing the strain on our system. Nowadays, the word stress has a very negative connotation. But stress in itself is not inherently bad. Mental and emotional strain and tension have some good aspects. They activate the critical sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS unlocks our energy and enables us to get things done. It activates when we wake up in the morning. When there is a challenge or threat, it focuses our attention on the problem. And it helps us push to the limits of our capacity to achieve our goals.

Stress is a natural part of life. It would not be wise to eliminate it completely. But it is important to understand that under stress we enter a state of high activation, which requires a lot of energy and resources and causes strain on all of our systems. As a result, there is a limit to how much stress we can handle.

Unfortunately, we have more and more stressors in our lives than ever before in the history of humanity. Why? Our world is becoming increasingly complex and fast-paced. We are expected to be always on; we immediately respond to messages, emails, and social media posts. There are often no clear solutions to the complex problems we face.

Most of the stressors we experience are minor, but unfortunately even minor ones build up and lead to chronic stress. This is when stress becomes harmful and begins to impair our health and professional performance. The good news is that there are a number of things we can do to prevent chronic stress.

“Most of the stressors we experience are minor, but unfortunately even minor ones build up and lead to chronic stress.”

The most important way to counteract stress is the arousal of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). It is called the rest and digest mode, but it is not an unproductive state. We are at our cognitive best in the PNS. It is the best state for complex thinking and creativity. And in this state, we are also more open to new ideas and innovation. It is not wasted time at all. 

Fortunately, there are many renewal activities that activate the PNS. A lot of these are basic common sense: sufficient sleep, regular exercise, and a healthy diet. You may know that spending time in nature has a restorative effect. That social time with friends and family can provide emotional support. That reading books, listening to music, and positive entertainment help us relax. Our challenge is that we are very busy, and it is not easy to find time.

A good personal and professional development program, like the Goleman Emotional Intelligence Coaching and Training Programs, can help you make renewal activities lasting habits. In this program, we use a process developed by Richard Boyatzis and Daniel Goleman called the Personal Sustainability Index (PSI)©. The PSI helps you understand your current stressors and renewal activities and chart a path toward living in a more sustainable way.

Our physical, emotional, and mental abilities are our most precious resources. That’s why applying personal sustainability is increasingly included in strategic planning in organizations from tech to manufacturing.  

I invite you to take a moment to reflect on whether the way you live and work is sustainable. Are you able to nurture your physical, emotional, and mental well-being? Are there areas that need attention? What can you do to address the challenges?

In parts two and three of this series we will explore how mindfulness practices and other Emotional Intelligence skills can help us further alleviate stress.

“Our physical, emotional, and mental abilities are our most precious resources.”