How to Play Life like LeBron Plays Basketball

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Being chronically overscheduled and overworked is an odd badge of honor many of us wear with a mixture of pride and self-pity. My own self-diagnosed fatal flaw, which lies perhaps at the root of the “I’m so busy” myth, is the tendency to treat everything like work.

Having friends over for a dinner party too easily becomes about how much cleaning and cooking there is to do to get ready. Preparing a talk that I volunteered to give can start to feel like a burden someone else imposed on me instead of an opportunity I wanted. Who better than LeBron James — someone whose profession is literally playing a game — to show us there is a better way to approach work?

LeBron James is by now among the older players in the NBA and yet by the end of the 2018 season was still clocking nearly the most minutes per game of any player while posting some of the most impressive statistics in the league. How? He has mastered the art of resting while working.

While few would call LeBron slow, his average speed during games in his last season as a Cavalier was a mere 3.85 mph, placing him in the bottom 10 in the entire league. This is because he walks just shy of 75 percent of the game, which puts him in the top 10 in the league.

LeBron saves his energy when he can so that he has energy left when he needs it. Instead of resting only while on the bench where he can’t contribute statistically to the team, LeBron finds the natural pauses within the game’s action to catch his breath until he springs back into action as arguably the greatest playmaker in the sport’s history.

Applied to the game of life, LeBron’s style of play presents a “third way” between blindly working through fatigue on one extreme and a “living for the weekend” mindset on the other. Instead of simply enduring work until a proper break is possible, what can we learn from LeBron about resting while working? To be clear, it’s not a matter of being lazy. Remember, LeBron’s statistics indicate he has become more efficient, not less, as his average pace throughout the game has slowed. Here are five practical tips for how to play life like LeBron plays ball.

Find rest by switching tasks

When I was in high school, the Chalco Hills cross-country course lived up to its name (at least the “hills” part since I never managed to discover what “Chalco” referred to). The deserted second half of the course featured a brutally long incline that hit right when we were the most tired and furthest from the support of cheering fans. The sole spectator along that lonely stretch, of course, was an opposing team’s coach who barked out the command to his squad to “switch muscle groups” as they made their way up the hill.

At the time, it sounded like the most ridiculous bit of advice imaginable — as if running with something other than our legs was an option. But physiologically, he was right: running uphill taxes a slightly different set of leg muscles than running on level ground. He was suggesting the possibility of giving one part of our bodies a rest, even if slight, while shifting the work to a fresher set of muscles.

That coach’s advice helps to break down the false binary division between grinding away beyond the point of fatigue until the job is done and quitting altogether. Sometimes in life, as in cross-country, there’s more work still to do, but we can work smarter by taking a break from one job to do a different job for a bit until we’re ready to go back to the first one.

I might have a sinkful of dirty dishes as well as a stack of bills between me and bedtime, so if I’m tired of being on my feet I can knock out the bills first before getting back up to do the dishes. When it’s not possible to stop working just yet, find rejuvenation in switching between tasks.

Take advantage of contrasting work

A study of hotel maids found that when workers are told that their daily work (such as scrubbing bathrooms and folding linens) constituted valuable calorie-burning activities, they started losing weight and gaining other benefits associated with working out. I suspect the inverse of the maids’ experience might also carry a grain of truth: we’ll likely feel more burned out by work if we don’t recognize those aspects of our jobs that are opportunities for a mental or physical break — just like the maids didn’t realize that parts of their duties were actually exercise.

For me, with four children ages 6 years to 7 months, life at home carries a physical toll. But my day job is in an office where I work mostly at a computer. I’ve come to appreciate sitting at work as a type of physical rest that I don’t get at home. Conversely, my day job entails a constant stream of responding to email, so at night I often enjoy being unplugged.

Locate the biggest contrasts between the various types of work you do — like sitting at a desk compared to chasing kids around the house — and take advantage of these differences as opportunities to rest from your other work.

Attend to the language you use

The language we use to describe realities affects the way we experience them. I can fall into the habit of talking about being “on duty” with my kids, but what a difference it is to approach this time as an opportunity to play with them, instead. Or, rather than feeling the pressure of making food to get on the table, I enjoy the work much more when I think in terms of baking with my kids.

Life isn’t all fun and games, and some tasks are best when knocked out as quickly as possible, but it can be a fruitful mental exercise to examine the language we use to name tasks and experiment with “gamifying” aspects of our life.

Capitalize on fringe hours

My wife recently read a book called Fringe Hours by Jessica Turner. As I understand it, the concept of fringe hours refers to finding the spare minutes in a day that might otherwise go unnoticed and unappreciated as real opportunities for rest and creativity.

For me, this is my bike ride to and from work. Commuting is a purely mechanical necessity for most of us, but I have come to appreciate the 15 minutes each way on my bike as a time to decompress between work and home.

It has also become one of my most creative times of the day. I write a lot of the lyrics for my band’s songs in the fertile space of time when nothing else is being asked of me other than dodging traffic. We can push back against a mindset of scarcity in which we tell ourselves there isn’t enough time in the day by locating the fringe hours or minutes for productive mental breaks from the immediate tasks of our day.

Gratitude is a game-changer

My dad used to tease me after soccer games as a kid that if we won I was all grins, but if we lost then all I could talk about was the minor injuries I had sustained during the game.

The state of my body post-game was likely pretty much the same, win or lose. But my attitude about the game was totally different. When we won, I might savor the bit of toughness I had summoned during the game to withstand a cheap shot to the shins. If we lost, I’d bemoan the lousy refereeing and poor sportsmanship of the other side. How much better off I would have been, regardless of the final score, to simply appreciate the chance to play in good health a sport I loved with friends as my family cheered us on?

The same is true of work: an underdeveloped sense of gratitude can poison even the noblest or most profitable or most stimulating job. In an economy in which so many people suffer the financial and mental health effects of unemployment, in an increasingly fragmented social world where more and more people feel isolated from each other, I realize I have a lot to be grateful for having work that challenges me and having family and relationships where I am needed daily. The most significant shift of all is choosing to give thanks for having good work to do in the first place.  

While we can learn a lot from LeBron James about how we work, it’s worth also stating the obvious: you and I aren’t LeBron James. LeBron is able to wait down court during free throws and walk on certain plays because his teammates, who know his value to the franchise, cover for him.

When experimenting with new ways to work smarter, keep a keen eye for signs if others are having to pick up the slack. Working smarter isn’t cutting corners; it’s stewarding well our physical, mental, and emotional resources for what’s important. For LeBron, that means scoring points and blocking shots. For us, it means staying fresh, hungry, and grateful to use our talents to serve the kingdom through our work and relationships.

Grotto quote graphic about how to work smarter: "Working smarter isn't cutting corners; it's stewarding well our physical, mental, and emotional resources for what's important."

Be in the know with Grotto