The Thrive Questionnaire//

The Thrive Questionnaire With Alexi Pappas

The Olympian opens up about her secret morning time-saver, her go-to stress reliever, and sleeping with her phone in a separate room.

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

TG: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

AP: The first thing I do is put on the clothes I’d already laid out and eat the breakfast that I prepared the night before. I have this phrase I created/live by: “Tomorrow starts tonight” — by laying out my clothes the night before, I save myself willpower the next morning. After I get dressed, I try to relax while I eat and visualize the day ahead until it’s time to head to the track for my day’s training. Sometimes I meditate. I don’t leave too much free time for the morning — just enough to eat slowly and thoughtfully, stretch, and get out the door for training without feeling rushed.

TG: What’s your secret life hack?

AP: Relishing! No, this isn’t about the condiment — but instead what it means is taking time every night to deliberately relish everything that went well that day. I call this “relishing,” and it’s a nightly ritual that has become just as important to me as brushing my teeth. No activity is too small to relish: I can relish something as simple as a really good cup of coffee I had that day, or bigger things like something that went well with work. The point is that we comb through the day looking for things to celebrate. Relishing is so helpful because, like many driven people, I tend to focus on what I want to do better and what I want to chase tomorrow. It’s important and energizing to also deliberately make time to celebrate what did go well, too. Relishing is my way of being as kind to myself as I am hard on myself.

TG: Name a book that changed your life.

AP: I love Wild Nights by Joyce Carol Oates, because it opened my eyes to the possibility of blending fiction with reality. I also really love The Inner Game of Tennis, because it taught me about how athletics is as much mental as it is physical, and that the best way to improve at anything is through imitation. 

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?

AP: No! I’ve been trying to keep my phone in a separate room — just one room over, so I can still hear the alarm, but at a certain point (ideally when I’m brushing my teeth) I put my phone on airplane mode, set the alarm, and plug it in — not to be touched until the next morning!! This has helped me tremendously with intentionally allowing myself to step away from the day at night and consciously greet the next day in the morning, when I am ready.

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?

AP: After the 2016 Olympics, I didn’t take a break. I was the fittest I’d ever been in my life and I wanted to carry my fitness over into the fall marathon season. So I trained hard and continued pushing myself, not ever taking time to stop and recharge after what had been the biggest race of my life by far. I didn’t think I needed to rest. Soon, I became desperate to maintain my fitness — and rather than being motivated by excitement and optimism, I was driven primarily by fear. Ultimately this led to a stress fracture and I had to drop out of the marathon I was training for. 

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it? 

AP: See above! I had to learn my lesson the hard way: Recovery is just as important as training. The only way I could move past my injury was to finally accept that I needed to rest. I had to respect the enormity of the task I just completed — competing in the Olympics — and take the proper time to recover. I came to understand that my willpower is a finite and depletable resource that I need to thoughtfully recover. I learned this lesson the hard way, but ultimately it has made me a far more effective person in everything I do, from my athletics to my writing. 

TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?

AP: I’m a big planner. Few things in life give me more enjoyment than crossing something off a to-do list. To that end, I keep all of my to-do’s listed in my google calendar, along with a large whiteboard weekly calendar in my office. I recap my daily tasks each morning to myself, and every Sunday night I take a look at the week ahead. When I start to feel overwhelmed, I zoom out and look at my schedule for the month. I ask myself: Are there any commitments here that I can de-prioritize and reschedule? But most often, when I’m feeling overwhelmed it isn’t because I actually have too much on my plate — it’s simply because I need to take a moment to prioritize my workflow and make sure my days are as efficient as possible. As long as I know I’m doing my best, I don’t feel overwhelmed. 

TG: What advice would you give your younger self about reducing stress?

AP: Be as kind to myself as I am hard on myself. Understand that willpower is a finite and depletble resource, and that it’s OK to need to recharge. The key is believing that the downtime is just as important as the time in motion, because it is. And, lastly, remember to RELISH! We see athletes do this all the time: After they score a goal, or even after something as minor as a good play or even a nice pass, they CELEBRATE! Why shouldn’t we do the same? Find things to relish every day and celebrate yourself. 

TG: What’s your personal warning sign that you’re depleted?

AP: When I start noticing that I have trouble falling asleep at night, that is the first major warning sign that something is amiss. I don’t mind going to be exhausted at the end of a productive day, but if my mind is racing and I can’t sleep, it means that my willpower is wearing thin. It means that I need to pump the breaks and take a zoomed-out look at how I’m spending my time. Also, little things, like unusual pimples or canker sores or other abnormalities on my face are usually the first sign to myself that something is off-balance.

TG: When you notice you’re getting too stressed, what do you do to course correct?

AP: I’m not a person who gets depleted or stressed by having a full plate of work — it energizes me. The only thing that wears me down is when I’m working inefficiently or if I’m spread too thin. So once I start to notice the warning signs I mentioned above, I ask myself: Do I need to reprioritize anything? Deprioritize anything? Once I take time to really answer these questions, I always instantly feel better. 

TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve your sleep. What did you do, how long did it take until it became effective, and how you sustain this habit?

AP: Getting in bed earlier! Sleep is incredibly important to me as an athlete and as a creative, so it’s absolutely something I prioritize in my schedule. I used to think that staying up until I was ready to go to bed that moment was the most efficient way to end my day, but then I’d just feel anxiety when I went to bed — I’d be thinking: “If I want that full eight hours, I need to go to sleep now.” So instead I started getting in bed 30 minutes or so earlier than I used to, and it’s incredible how much more relaxed I feel. 

TG: What’s your secret time-saver in the morning?

AP: Laying out my clothes and preparing my coffee and breakfast the night before. As I mentioned above, I have a motto: “Tomorrow starts tonight.” When I wake up to a preselected outfit and ready-made breakfast, it feels like I’m receiving a gift that I gave to myself. 

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