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The No. 1 habit that sets successful people apart from everyone else, says psychologist: It's a 'nonnegotiable'

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The path to success is often paved with grit and exertion — at least, that's what we're told. 

Millionaires and Olympians alike tout the importance of outworking your competition and pushing past your limits.

While this might be true, exertion isn't what sets high achievers apart from everyone else — recovery is, says Sarah Sarkis, a psychologist and Exos' senior director of performance psychology.

At Exos, a performance coaching company, Sarkis and her team of dieticians, physical therapists and other health experts teach NFL players, executives at Fortune 100 companies like Intel and Humana, and other professionals how to thrive in high-pressure environments.

"We mistakenly associate success with constantly having our foot on the gas, and we have complicated feelings when it's not on the gas," Sarkis explains. "We think we're lazy, unfocused or undisciplined when none of that is true."

Recovery, or rest, is often the "last thing on our minds" when we feel overwhelmed, stressed or just plain busy, she adds. But, the people who prioritize rest are the ones who are "at the top of their game" and "the happiest."

Past research has shown that working without downtime decreases productivity, reduces creativity and can exacerbate stress. 

How to recover like a pro

You don't need to overhaul your schedule to incorporate rest into your routine. 

Sarkis encourages her clients to start with an audit of their energy spending: How and where are you spending the most of your time and attention? What activities feel draining, and what energizes you?

"You have credits, and you have debits: any time you do something that benefits your mental or physical health, like sleeping or exercising, you get a credit, but any activities that are a detriment to that, like working late or skipping a meal, are debits," Sarkis explains. "If you tally up the credits and debits in your daily routine for a week, you will see patterns emerge, and can identify areas of improvement." 

Ultimately, it's helpful to look at recovery as "a game of how well you're putting credit back into your energetic system," she adds. 

Consider therapeutic activities like meditation, yoga, journaling or going for a walk outside, and schedule it in your calendar, like you would a doctor's appointment or a meeting with your boss. 

Whatever you need to do to hold yourself accountable for taking a break, it's worth it. Those who commit to a regular recovery practice are the ones who reap the most benefits, Sarkis says: "It needs to be a nonnegotiable, consistent part of your routine."

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