I have a desk job. I have worked in front of a computer for the better part of the last 10 years. Even my free time was spent in front of the screen for much of my life. So naturally I have health issues related to that. A few years ago I started worrying a lot more about my health and about the fact that I was so sedentary. Not only did I take a more disciplined approach to exercising and eating healthy, but I also took a better look at my working habits.
The first step for me was inspecting how much, when and how I worked. I found that on the one hand I felt very unproductive, while on the other I felt overworked. I wasn’t working that much, but it was very scattered – tinkering with something here, writing something there, sketching a bit on the subway, recording things on my phone while outside so I wouldn’t forget them. This made it feel like a lot of work. I was always worried that something was missing, that there was something I could, or should, be doing.
Taking steps to solve this – and I have not yet managed to completely solve it – has had a tremendous impact on my overall health, especially my mental health. I started heavily scheduling my days and committing to deadlines so that I would have to force myself to stop working and to add artificial pressure to the hours I did work. During the last 6 years “biting more than I can chew” has been my default state.
My first piece of advice is to work from home. At least for a time (I’m posting this amidst the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak so it might be the perfect time for you.) Take that time to find out how you work best, and thus how you live best. The phrase “work-life” balance is in the Zeitgeist, but I find it often misleading. It hints at something that I don’t find any less healthy than being in a shared office: letting non-work related things interfere with your work. What I feel people really want is to simply work less.
So that shall be our focus for now: how to work less (while getting more done.)
First, a definition. When I use the word “work” in this article, I don’t necessarily mean your 9-to-5 job. I mean the thing that most requires your attention, the thing that drives you, that keeps you going. The thing that, if you had to hypothetically, stay at home for 2 to 3 weeks with nothing else to do, you would just do naturally. It could coincide with your job, it could be profitable for you. If it is, great. If it isn’t, don’t worry. This will in one way or another apply to everything you do.
My proposal is not some whoowhoo work-life balance thing. No. Quite the opposite. Make your work your absolute number one priority. Let nothing interfere with it. It must be sacred. This is why the first step is to work from home. When you do that, not only are you in full control of your schedule, but you’re also in control of any disturbances.
1) Make work the very first thing you do in your day
“But my morning routine…” NO!
“But my breakfast…” NO!
“But my…” NO!
“But I have kids…” then your kids are your work. If you don’t think kids are your work, think again. If you want to do something before your kids wake up, then wake up earlier. Continue reading.
“But my partner/mother/father/whoever is sick and needs my care…” then that’s your work. If you want to do something before that, then wake up earlier. Continue reading.
Note that your work doesn’t need to be the same all the time. Yes, life throws curveballs at you. You make the curveball your work and you deal with it. Make it a priority, don’t let it just happen to you. You have to happen to it.
Create a habit of waking up and getting shit done. The time after waking up is a time where your mind is still rested, at ease. It’s empty. It didn’t yet have time for distractions to creep up, and random thoughts are yet to appear. Usually you will wake up with one thing on your mind: make that your work for the day. Make sure you take care of it. If you don’t, you’ll never stop thinking about it and it will disturb you for the rest of day or until you do it. If it’s something that cannot be done, because you need to be at a certain place or at a certain time, then write it down, make an appointment with yourself or whoever else. Make sure you will not miss it, and then move on. Free your mind of that task so you can devote your thought to something you can do right away.
There is also a way that I’ve found to help me focus on one task in the morning: do that as the last thing you do before bed. Now I know this won’t work for most people. I honestly don’t do it that much. But if I have something that I’m struggling with, I will employ this method. Note that it shouldn’t be literally the last thing you do (i.e. don’t work until you fall asleep.) It should be the last active thing you do. You should stop once you’re feeling tired, and then just Go. To. Bed. You can read a book in bed, or stretch, or whatever helps you wind down, but don’t do something that demands attention like answering emails. Actually don’t look at a screen at all, but that’s a different article.
If you’re doing this, it’s important that you take a long break during the day. Don’t work literally from your first waking minute to your last. You might get a lot of stuff done, but the title of this article has the word “healthy” in it, and in the long term you’ll end up burned out. So structure your work into two chunks: one after you wake up and one before you go to bed. Again, the late night work is something that might not work for everyone or every time, but it is a tool you can use and experiment with. Your work chunks don’t need to be long. Use as much time as you need and have available. It could be one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. Or two hours in the morning. If you’re doing this with your job, then doing four/four or six/two could work. Just experiment.
If you work in a team and have mandatory work hours, then adjust your sleep schedule accordingly. If you must start working at 9, then wake up shortly before 9. The important thing to understand is that you are in control of your life and can simply change things. You can change your sleep schedule, you can change your habits, you can change your appointments, and you can even change your work (you might think you can’t, but you can.)
Pactice deep work. I recommend reading “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. The premise is simple: a focused life is a good life. This will help you get more done in less time. Read. Implement.
2) Take care of yourself
So what should you do in between breaks? Your 9-to-5, for instance, in case you devote your early hours to a hobby or side business. Go for walks. Do chores. Exercise. Meet friends. Do some hobbies. Take a nap. Relax. Etc, etc.
A must, however, is to get out of the house. (I hate that I have to have to say this, but since we’re in the middle of a pandemic right now, don’t go out if you’re sick!)
Go for walks daily. Be in nature daily. Even if all you have in your area is a small garden or park, it will be enough. Simply taking time to relax in a place not made by humans and allowing your mind to take in the odd shapes, the asymmetries, the fractal patterns, the earthy colours, the sounds of birds, of water and wind.
Exercise. You can even kill two birds with one stone by exercising outside. It doesn’t really matter what kind of exercise you do, as long as it keeps you physicaly active, strong and supple. If you don’t know where to start, check out this easy 1-hour at-home training plan by my movement teacher Joseph Bartz: https://josephbartz.de/essays/en/basicworkout1.html. Once you finish this, there are other plans to keep progressing your practice.
Supplement this with regular movement throughout the day. Don’t remain in one position the whole day. Change positions. Take short breaks to move. Focus especially on the spine. Move it in different directions and angles (if you follow Joseph’s plans you will be introduced to a few unconventional spine movements. You can repeat them throughout the day.)
Get a standing desk. Or improvise one. If you do any work on a computer, then this is a must. Find some boxes and place your setup on top of them. Or find a low coffee table or other kind of low furniture to put on your existing desk. Or find something to lift your desk up – some sturdy stools or a stack of pallets. But you shouldn’t necessarily stand the whole day either. Again, variety is the key. Change positions throughout the day.
Sit on the floor (this one is courtesy of Joseph Bartz). If you work on a laptop, place your laptop on the ground or on top of a low object like a coffee table, cushion, etc. Find a semi-comfortable position to sit in and work until it starts to feel uncomfortable. Then change. The goal is to get your body used to being in a wide variety of positions, and also to get into a whole dimension that is often missing (the floor contact.) Eventually the positions will get more comfortable and ideally you’ll be able to hold them for a long time. You can also use a small cushion under your butt or any part that hurts. You can also squat – deep squat that is. Get used to holding it while working. Place your laptop a bit higher – on a chair for instance.
Meditate. Meditation is like training your mind to obey you. Just like gaining more control over your body, gaining control over your mind can be equally, or even more, powerful. This will help you stay focused throughout the day and allow you to keep distractions out while you’re working.
Talk to people, even if online/on the phone. Having such a weird schedule might make social life harder, but recognize that since you are in control of your time, you can make time for other people whenever necessary.
Step 3) Sleep
I won’t go too deep into sleep. It’s a huge subject that I’m not an expert on. What is important to remember is that this too is something you have full control over. It might not seem like it is, but you just need to will it. Take the time to find how you sleep best.
Some things to investigate:
Circadian rhythm. This is your natural waking/sleeping cycle. Most people’s circadian rhythms don’t last 24 hours. That means that without a clock your day would be, let’s say 23 hours, or 25, or 26 hours long. Knowing this you can adjust your sleep schedule accordingly, not only for one day, but over the whole week. The amount of sleep one needs also varies, and thus changes your timings. That means that you will need to adjust eventually, or end up waking up in the middle of the night and going to sleep during the day (a valid strategy, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!)
Sleep cycles. These are the cycles your brain goes through during sleep. They are usually around 90 minutes long. During each cycle, brain activity down and then up. Wake up during during the cycle and you’ll feel groggy, low on energy and tired. Waking up at the end of a cycle is ideal, since your brain is more active, your blood pressure is higher and your body is warmer.
Biphasic sleep – sleeping twice a day. If you figure out your ideal sleep duration (according to sleep cycles) and have a stable week-long sleep schedule, then you might want to divide your sleep in two sessions. Remember when I talked about being fresh and clear-minded when you wake up? Well, what if you could reach that state twice a day? Great! I’m not talking about taking a power nap, but rather a proper sleep. At least 3 hours each time.
No alarm. If you must use an alarm then there’s one rule you cannot escape: NO. SNOOZE.
For “No alarm” to be complete you have to follow the most important rule of all: go to bed when you’re tired. Don’t keep pushing off sleep. You’re telling your body that it’s fine to be overworked. When you’re tired, go to bed. Yes, that means that when you’re feeling drowzzy at 6pm you can go to bed. Yes, you’ll probably wake up at 9pm or something. Use that fresh time to go back to work. Then when you’re tired again, sleep again.
With all that said, I know that a lot of these are impossible for most people, for whatever reason. This is also what I have tried or researched, but your situation is different and thus will require different solutions. But if this gets you to at least experiment with one or two things, I consider it a success. The key is experimentation. Find what’s right for you and what fits into your life.