Are you stressed, working 14-hour days and eating exclusively from a vending machine? Can’t remember what your partner looks like? Are your running shoes growing their own legs? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, stop everything.
In Dr Stephen Covey’s seminal self-help book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (15 million copies sold and counting), he writes about a man cutting wood with a blunt saw. The man goes at it for hours, barely making a dent, until a passer-by suggests he stops and sharpens his saw. “But I’m too busy cutting wood!” protests the lumberjack.
What’s this got to do with you? Step away from work and nurture your physical, social, mental and spiritual health, says Dr Covey, and you’ll do a much better job – no matter what you do for a living. Sharpen yourself up with these quick tips.
Go to bed [8 hours]
A study published in the journal Nature warns you’re more likely to make mistakes when sleep-deprived – because brain neurones actually fall asleep . Don’t become a statistic. “Avoid stimulating spices like garlic at night – and eat dinner early,” advises corporate coach, Susanne Rix (superworking.com). “Stop work at least one hour before bed and stick to a nightly, winding-down routine.”
Get physical [20 minutes]
“Exercise is equally as effective in managing anxiety and depression as pharmaceutical intervention,” says Dr Travis Kemp, an Adelaide-based organisational psychologist. “Yet it falls by the wayside when people get busy.” Don’t let it: in a survey by the University of Bristol, UK, 74 per cent of employees who exercised before work or during lunch breaks said they managed their workload better. Exercise wards off illness, as well: a Danish study, of more than 7000 people, found that physical activity during leisure time – not on the job – decreases the risk of long-term sick leave . You don’t need to do a 90-minute Bikram class, adds Rix. “Following four hours of intense concentration is an 80 per cent drop in concentration. You only need a 20-minute brisk walk at lunch to pick it up.” Yes, a lap around Zara counts.
Stock your fridge [1 hour]
With healthy stuff, not brie and M&Ms. A University of Maryland, US, study of more than 600 women unveiled a direct link between fast food and depressive symptoms . “With an intense lifestyle, you tend to eat crap,” says Dr Kemp. “People look for food that helps them feel better in the moment, but that type of food probably isn’t good for you in the long-term.” Once a week, fill your kitchen with lean proteins, low-GI grains, anything green and everything else that doesn’t come in a packet and you’ll be less inclined to call for pizza.
Give in to e-temptation [5 minutes]
According to research by Harvard Business School in the US, subjects who were told to resist the temptation of watching a funny video made significantly more mistakes on a subsequent task than those who were allowed to watch the video straight away . “Humour triggers endorphins,” explains Rix. “With that study, if the participants were forbidden to watch something, that’s lack of control. And lack of control lowers your self-efficacy; if self-efficacy’s down, your clarity is down.” Click away.
Call (don’t text) a girlfriend [10 minutes]
When you don’t have time to meet for coffee, just checking in with pals might help you focus. “Establishing and maintaining good, supportive relationships outside of work is very important to your work,” explains Dr Kemp. And relationships don’t need to be intimate or romantic, says Rix. “Just build friendships wherein you can openly communicate your deepest feelings.” If that’s with the guy who makes your coffee, so be it.
Daydream about sex (or love) [5 minutes]
How you fantasise can make you either more creative or more analytical, according to a study published in the journal, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin . Participants who imagined a romantic walk with their partners performed better at creative tasks, whereas those who pictured casual sex with someone they didn’t know scored better on analytical questions.
Book a holiday [7 days]
According to a report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, travel makes people happier than buying material possessions – thanks to the memory attached to the trip . Plus, more annual leave can lead to greater productivity: in Luxembourg, workers enjoy 32 days of vacation per year and the country’s economy is 27 per cent more efficient than the US’, where the average person takes just 25 days off annually . Combining your holiday with charity work is Rix’s suggestion. “Generosity and altruism trigger feelings of wellbeing, and feelings of wellbeing go hand in hand with clear thinking. If you feel lousy, you don’t think clearly.”
Get real [5 minutes]
Spend a few moments every day reflecting on what’s important in order to manage your anxiety levels, advises Kemp. “We know that ‘stuff’ doesn’t make us happy. What makes us happy is accepting that life is cyclical; it has its ups and downs.” That means making a conscious effort to go with the flow, rather than staying attached to specific things, outcomes or beliefs about how things should be versus how things really are. “In other words,” says Kemp. “Don’t get stressed out about things not going your way.”