Our ability to be productive and get stuff done can be affected by our body’s physical and mental condition, aches and pains, and our energy levels. Taking steps to improve or maintain these aspects of our health can help us be more productive for a variety of reasons. So what can we do to improve our productivity?
IMPROVED FOCUS AND ALERTNESS
Being able to maintain focus for a prolonged period of time means you can stay truly productive for longer – going back a few years to school exams and that dreaded revision beforehand… Your teachers may have told you to take a break every 45 minutes – this is because beyond the 45 minute mark is the point of diminishing returns for focusing the human brain – for most of us at least!
All this means is that you benefit most, and are sharpest, during the first 45 minutes of focus. This is one of the reasons why taking short breaks from intense work is beneficial – it allows you to reset that timer and be at your most productive for another 45 minutes. As an adult, we don’t always have the opportunity to split our work into 45 minute segments, so improving your ability to sustain focus will help you get more tasks done to a higher quality.
LESS VULNERABLE TO ILLNESSES
Do you regularly lose a week due to the common cold when winter comes around? How about when you have a few late nights? For me in my young(er) years, in times of stress and inadequate sleep, the dreaded tonsillitis would rear its ugly head, causing a sensation not unlike the rubbing of sandpaper in my throat every time I swallowed. It was enough to stop me from focusing on anything but the TV!
Getting ill might mean you miss a few days at work, you miss out on a fun weekend, or fail to get planned tasks done – none of which are good outcomes. Missing a day at work may mean you’re missing out on money you planned to have. A fun weekend may be just what you need to improve your mental health and de-stress, and being ill could cause you to miss that opportunity. Tasks at home like washing and cleaning might be missed when you’re ill, so they must be done at a later point, taking up time that could have been used for another task, or better yet – relaxing.
Emotion is known to have a strong influence on attention, namely by affecting what keeps our attention, and by motivating action and behaviour. These means of control are linked to the learning process, and emotion Studies that explore The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory. There are many factors at play that determine whether emotion helps or hinders learning and long term memory retention – the anger or confusion at struggling to understand a subject can be motivational by elevating a desire to comprehend it, triggering a person to put more time and effort into trying to understand the subject. Therefore it is not necessarily the case that positive emotional states lead to better productivity.
What is important here is that the surrounding systems are maintained so that when a challenging task is encountered, giving up is the last thing on your mind. Therefore, generally having a positive mood will help a person feel able to deal with everyday stresses, and it was Henry Ford that said ‘whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.’ Taking time to improve your mood will help you think, always, that ‘I can!’
We all know the feeling of getting in from a long working day, aches and pains niggling away at you, with a head full of tasks we planned to do – but instead we fall down on the sofa with an exasperated sigh, only to rise for dinner and bedtime! These are indications that your energy levels are running low – and the problem here is that it takes effort to rectify the problem!
One of the biggest aspects that affect your energy levels is likely to be your diet – are you eating enough? Are you eating good quality food? Are you eating too much? No-one really likes to think they are eating unhealthily, but the long term impact of poor food choices are unavoidable. Fast food tends to be packed with salt and sugar, packet food tends to have a number of preservatives in addition to the added sugar – they want you to buy the product again, and companies achieve this by having nice tasting (but usually unhealthy) additives to get you to come back for more. The ‘Supersize Me’ documentary by Morgan Spurlock is a brilliant illustration of the impact that fast food has on the body, and should be mandatory watching for everyone – images from the programme stay with me to this day, and are enough to keep me from eating fast food on a regular basis – it’s powerful stuff!
The next item on the list is the quality of sleep! Sleep deprivation can kill, so this gives us some idea of how important sleep is to our functionality! There is still much we do not know about this state of being, but studies show that poor sleep quality a study that shows the association between sleep quality and time with energy metabolism in sedentary adults, and that sleep deprivation can impact not only glucose metabolism, but the hormones involved in the regulation of metabolism. As this is how we get our energy, anything that negatively impacts the process will negatively impact your energy levels – so try to keep a regular bedtime and regular hours of sleep!
Another way to boost your energy levels is to engage in regular physical activity! A meta-analysis of the effect of a single exercise session on energy and fatigue demonstrated that a study that explores the effect of a single bout of exercise on energy and fatigue states: a systematic review and meta-analysis, and the studies involved used a minimum of 21 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.
So – you can understand the ‘chicken and egg’ situation here, right? You don’t feel like you have the energy to exercise, and a solution to getting more energy is to exercise… I know it may seem really unhelpful, but this is where willpower plays a huge role. You must find it within yourself to engage in that activity even though you feel like you can’t – now I’m not saying go out and try to get a personal best; if you are feeling depleted then this is likely to result in injury – however many of us (myself included) find that once you have summoned the effort to get out the front door, or down to the gym, you surprise yourself by finding energy you thought you didn’t have.
Stress comes in many forms, and it is important to note that stress itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Short term stress prepares your body for future stresses, and stress can induce changes in neuronal structure – this is essentially adapting to the stress, so isn’t always a bad thing.
Chronic stress is a different beast. Human and animal studies on ‘uncontrollable’ stress have shown that stress generally impairs memory tasks dependent on the hippocampus, as well as impacting the formation and structure of neurons, and reduces the volume of the hippocampus itself! Stress of this kind leads to a variety of psychological issues including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and post traumatic stress disorder.
We need to bust this kind of stress as often as possible to help stave off these conditions and optimise brain function. Feeling upbeat and positive can help you feel like you can take on the world, and that positive attitude helps you maintain productivity levels.
TIPS ON HOW TO LEAD A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE
The challenge of living a ‘healthy lifestyle’ is an idea that intimidates a lot of people – and lifestyle is the right word. It is easy to think, as many people do: ‘I’ve done my exercise today, so that means I can go out drinking tonight!’ While there is some value in this perspective, the World Health Organization Europe branch does not advise limits for alcohol consumption because the evidence suggests it is best for your health to not drink at all. I would say that the main thing is to ‘get your engine up and running’ – let’s use a car analogy to demonstrate:
A car that has been left on a driveway and not used for 6 months, on the face of it, should be worth more than a car that has been used everyday for 6 months – less wear and tear, less mileage etc. However, this fails to take into account the nature of the car, and it’s working parts. The battery will be flat if unused for 6 months. Parts that need lubrication will begin to corrode. Engine fluids start to break down. The act of using the car regularly means the processes that need to happen in order for the car to function are done regularly; lubricating the necessary parts, and charging the battery as it goes.
So this is what I mean when I say ‘get your engine running’ – getting your body to activate the systems that have developed over the course of human evolution. People can watch their diet to stay in shape – but that won’t actually be improving their fitness in any meaningful way, because the systems that are involved in fitness are never activated, never stressed, and therefore never improved! So getting some exercise in your day and eating poorly is certainly better than eating poorly and not exercising.
Particularly with aging, The NHS suggest that Physical activity and exercise can help you stay healthy, energetic and independent as you get older. It helps maintain bone density, muscle strength and flexibility, motor skills, and so reduces the risk of injury. It helps to improve insulin sensitivity, reducing risk of diabetes. It helps stave off depression and dementia, and reduces risk of heart disease, stroke, and many types of cancer. More time spent in good health means more time can be spent getting stuff done!
Sticking with the car analogy – the fuel you put in your car determines how well it runs, and for us, that means food!
There are certain autoimmune issues that essentially force people into a particular diet in order to function, but if you are lucky enough that this is not the case for you, then a balanced diet is what you should be aiming for. The government recommends 5 pieces of fruit and veg a day, and around 2 litres of water – so if you aren’t hitting that target, it’s a great place to start. Drinking water is absolutely essential; most of us don’t drink enough and are perpetually dehydrated! We need water for every process in our bodies, and use it to excrete toxins that our body needs to get rid of, via urine and sweat.
As we learn more and more about the gut biome, more studies are linking gut microbiota to inflammatory diseases, and the a study that suggests gut biome is influenced by the food we eat. Refined carbohydrates, sugary and processed foods are thought to be linked with a study that discusses diets with dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity, so reducing the intake of these foods and replacing them with some healthy foods is a sensible plan – choosing whole grains foods and other healthy options where possible; that could be cereal, brown bread, quinoa, brown rice, brown pasta, and – you’ll like this one – popcorn!
Fasting is another practice that has been utilised – essentially starving the body of food for a given time period. We all enter a fasted state when we sleep, but those that use fasting as a dietary tool may skip breakfast to keep the fast going. The potential benefits of skipping breakfast (and intermittent fasting in general) include the promotion of weight loss, and improved metabolic health.
Habits are formed by learning and repetition, often as a result of driving toward a goal, where a trigger or ‘cue’ precedes a behaviour that helps to achieve the desired goal. So – the cue provokes the behaviour, and achieving the goal is the reward. As an example, stress may trigger someone to smoke, giving them temporary satisfaction or relief. Over time, this results in a pattern of behaviour that we don’t necessarily think about – and this is why habits can be hard to break.
What can we do about our bad habits then? As mentioned, we need to build a new habit over the old one. We need to identify the cue and the behaviour it triggers. Staying with the smoking analogy, stress is the cue, and is unavoidable. So we need to decide on a particular action or behaviour to tackle the stress. This could be to use an e-cigarette instead of smoking, it may be dunking your head in a sink filled with cold water, or dropping to the floor and smashing out press ups until the craving passes. By all means, try as many of these as you need, but stick with one that works for you – it needs to be consistent to develop the habit.
Then we need the reward – so a smoker may find that vaping gives the reward by satisfying the craving, though it takes longer for the nicotine to get into your system via vaping, so a smoker may find that they aren’t fully satisfied until a short while after vaping. Therefore, treating yourself to a small reward of some kind rounds off the habit forming process. This could be having a chocolate bar (or a healthy treat of course – dark chocolate is the way to go!), buying yourself a little nik-nak that you’ve had your eye on, or it could be watching TV or playing a video game for a short while. Whatever works for you – just make sure to keep an eye out for those triggers!
So how can we address multiple facets of our life simultaneously? For the short term, choosing one small thing to get under your belt can be a good first move to build some momentum. Start developing a daily routine by scheduling the one improvement in every day – this might be a ten minute walk, it might be eating a piece of fruit, or it might be getting to bed at a decent time. It can be really beneficial to have a spreadsheet for this; it works as a visual reminder of your tasks for the day, and ticking them off as you go can be a morale boost everytime you look at it.
After a week, schedule an additional improvement in, but in a different aspect of your life. Add another the following week. Repeat until you find yourself happy with where you are. You should end up with a routine that helps keep you in tip top shape, that was a slow enough change to your lifestyle that it didn’t shock you – this can sometimes lead to ‘dropping the ball’, backtracking to some degree, or giving up on the idea of living healthily altogether.
Let’s be absolutely clear though – this doesn’t happen overnight, a matter of days or even weeks. This can take months to get going with some serious momentum, so expect to take some time to achieve the lofty goal of living a healthy lifestyle. Expect to fail, expect to drop the ball a few times, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Keep trying, be disciplined, and you will feel the difference. I believe in you!
The benefits of maintaining a healthy lifestyle are numerous, and if done is likely to lead to a longer, more positive, more active life. It isn’t necessarily easy, but for those who find the idea utterly intimidating, it is worth knowing that it gets easier the further down the path you go.
Don’t discount the idea of starting this journey with a friend, family member or partner. Having someone along for the journey can be a great help in terms of support and encouragement, much like a running partner or workout buddy. It helps to keep the energy up and positive, and can help you push through those challenging moments.
The best results are seen when health is approached from a lifestyle point of view, trying to address issues across various aspects of your life. This means trying to improve diet, getting some exercise, and being mindful of mental health and ways you can fortify it – like regular sleep patterns. Only focusing on one aspect doesn’t make a healthy lifestyle! Good luck, and Godspeed!