“How much discipline does it take to be healthy?” a friend recently asked me. “It’s not about discipline; it’s about making room in our life for self-care,” I answered after some reflection. “It is about creating a self-care space in your life that works for you and your unique circumstances in a way that will be comfortable and won’t stress you.”
Back in my days as a sales and marketing executive, “self-care” was neither a term in my vocabulary nor a concept I spent much time pondering. At the time, I cared about many folks: my family, my friends, my clients, my team, my bosses and my peers on the operating team, among others. I cared about always taking my clients’ calls, being there for my team when people needed me, getting to the airport in time for my flights and squeezing every minute out of my day to stay productive. Discipline ruled my life and self-care never seemed to make the list. Except for ever-increasing chronic back pain, I was generally healthy. And the back pain? Well, that was just normal, I thought – an inevitable part of my life.
My life at the time was not unique. Many of my peers faced similar issues: long hours on the road, conference calls in the car, room-service dinner at 10 p.m. while catching up on e-mail. Now, 10 years later, I continue to see the same issues in the lives and careers of my health-coaching clients, all busy executives and business owners with demanding jobs and family lives.
As we climb to new professional heights, our health frequently becomes subservient to our careers. And while many of us make an effort to work out at the hotel gym or eat a salad for lunch, these are hardly enough to keep us healthy. Career advancement frequently means more responsibility, larger teams, more aggressive business goals and more stakeholders, all of which cause higher levels of physical and emotional stress. These require greater energy, mental resilience, stamina, empathy and laser focus as well as calm and level-headed decision-making. Based on my health-coaching work, I find that the following five self-care strategies help my executive clients successfully keep up with these increasing demands.
- Get at least seven hours of sleep a night. Late-night meetings, early-morning flights and international calls make this a challenge at times, but do all you can to get at least seven hours of sleep. A good night’s sleep can do miracles for performance, productivity and sound decision-making. It’s the time when the body renews and detoxifies itself, getting rid of unhealthy cells and making new, healthy ones. We need at least seven hours of sleep to have strong immune systems that will effectively protect us from viruses and infections that corporate executives are exposed to because of high air-travel demands. The quality of sleep is as important as the duration. And while it is hard to maintain a steady bedtime routine while on the road, my clients find that 20 minutes of yoga stretches before bed lead to deeper and more nourishing sleep.
- Eat breakfasts rich in protein and healthy fats. So often I see executives start their days with foods that do not provide the steady fuel needed to match their daily mental and physical energy demands. Muffins, pancakes, bananas, a fruit salad, or cereal with milk raise blood sugar quickly only to lead to energy crashes a couple of hours later. They are full of empty calories and are devoid of protein, healthy fats and protective micronutrients that are essential for steady energy and a clear mind. If you are on the road, choose breakfasts made of eggs and vegetables, a quinoa vegetable bowl, or hummus with veggies and whole-wheat pita bread. Any of these options will give you lasting energy needed for top performance.
- Focus on what’s in front of you. Multitasking is the name of the game for most executives. Yet doing several things at once diffuses focus and concentration, and leads to an undisciplined mind. Ultimately these negatively impact productivity and our ability to make sound, well-thought-out decisions. I always recommend that my clients focus on one thing at a time, giving it their undivided attention without thinking or worrying about what comes next. It helps the mind stay focused and present. This works especially well in high-stress, high-intensity situations.
- Restore yourself with afternoon meditation. Long days on the road or even in the office require stamina. It’s not unusual for many executives to catch an early-morning flight and still be working at their hotels late into the evening. A 20-minute afternoon meditation between 3 and 5 p.m. relaxes and restores the body and the mind, giving a second wind. Follow it with an energizing beverage such as a cup of white or green tea or an Indian chai, and you will have renewed energy and greater stamina to fuel your evening.
- Supplement omega-3 and vitamin D. Mood swings, memory challenges and mild depression can easily disrupt our days, affect our interactions with colleagues and clients, and slow us down at the wrong times. Frequently these unpleasant annoyances can be reduced or even avoided by supplementing omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) and vitamin D. Most folks do not get enough omega-3 from food sources or enough vitamin D from being outside in the sun, so the right supplements can help restore the needed reserves, ward off depression, and improve cognitive function and memory, among other important benefits.
Without the support of self-care, our bodies find it more and more difficult to keep up as we push ourselves harder and harder down the disciplined route of demanding careers. Things start to break down until we may eventually crash. While a weekend at the spa or a relaxing vacation on a beach brings temporary relief and restores us for a bit, the problems frequently become systemic, putting us on a path to chronic disease. These five self-care strategies, when applied together, will help you get off that path and build the strong foundation of health and well-being required to support a flourishing and fulfilling career.