It was a rough six months.
I knew working at a startup would be stressful, but I didn’t appreciate how important it was to work smarter instead of harder. I was not sleeping well, I was eating poorly, I was drinking more than usual, and my exercise habits were falling off. My anxiety turned crippling for short bursts, and it wasn’t long before I noticed that the tension was getting the best of me.
I’d been a picture of physical and mental health for most of my adult life, so it took a while before I realized just how negative my headspace had become. If I was going to reverse course, I knew I would have to change one area at a time.
Coming Out of a Stress Fog
My situation didn’t change overnight. Once I started addressing the most noticeable hurdles to a healthy life, I began to feel like my old self again. But it was scary to realize how rapidly things can begin to spiral downward.
Here’s the cold truth: Many companies only care about their employees’ work-life balance when it impacts results. They want their team members to juggle the pressures of modern business, but they don’t necessarily pull back the reins or make accommodations to enable consistent performance.
Research from Harvard Business Review suggests that nearly two-thirds of workers believe their managers aren’t effective at providing holistic support — mind and body. Yet anyone who’s ever missed a night of sleep or worked seven days straight knows how difficult it is to perform at a top level when you’re constantly burning the midnight oil.
If you’re fed up with feeling exhausted, depleted, and strained, reprioritize your game plan and take the following steps. When you do, you’ll uncover a new way to manage your personal and professional lives.
1. Incorporate movement into every day.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 82% of large organizations offer wellness options to their people, typically focused on resources for exercise and stress management. If yours does, take advantage of it. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to do more of the work yourself. Either way, it’s up to you to take the initiative and get moving.
Vigorous, regular exercise that includes some weight training is your best bet for managing stress and staying in top physical shape. All exercise releases endorphins and relieves stress, but weight training is important for improving body composition and retaining muscle mass. It’s especially important as we age and if we live an otherwise sedentary lifestyle.
It’s never too late — or too early — to hit the Nautilus machine or pick up some free weights. That said, any exercise is better than none, whether that means walking a few blocks before work or sneaking in a few pushups during a lunch break.
2. View food as physical and mental nourishment.
The food you eat is more than a meal. It keeps your body operating, drives brain activity, and is responsible for more than half of the variance in body composition between individuals. A recent study published by Molecular Psychiatry shows that people who consume fatty and processed food on a regular basis are more likely to be diagnosed with depression.
Just as concerning: Only about 10% of the population eats the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables each day, according to findings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We may be eating a lot calorie-wise, but we’re not collectively opting for the right ingredients to thrive.
Pay attention to the snacking choices you make during work hours, whether they are supplied by your employer or brought from home. Meal prepping early in the week can be a cost-effective way to ensure you get a variety of lean protein, fresh fruits, and vegetables from meals and quick bites.
Avoid excess sugar and alcohol, as well as processed foods. It can be hard to kick an unhealthy habit, but your palate will adjust. Don’t be surprised if you eventually start to crave carrots and hummus instead of chips for your afternoon snack.
3. Tuck into a sleeping routine.
Not sleeping enough, particularly in Silicon Valley, has become a strange and unfortunate marker of success for many. Yet living in a state of sleep deprivation is one of the worst things you can do for your health and performance. Even if you feel like you are functioning after a night or two of suboptimal sleep, you’re increasing your likelihood of mistakes and hurting your ingenuity, not to mention setting yourself up for a nasty crash.
Elon Musk famously said that he worked 120 hours weekly for a while before recently pulling back to 80 hours. Sorry to break it to you: You’re not Elon Musk. While a small fraction of the population can thrive on four hours of sleep, the vast majority of us need at least seven hours to function optimally.
You can improve your sleep experience by going to bed at about the same time each evening. Make sure the bedroom is comfortable, and avoid electronics for an hour leading up to your bedtime. You’ll start to see a difference after just a few nights of finally giving your brain and body much-needed downtime.
4. Tune up your state of mind.
Mental health has claimed a place in the national conversation in recent years — and for good reason. As the CDC warns, companies lose up to $44 billion annually when employees are depressed. On the flip side, the World Economic Forum suggests individuals who get care for mental health issues deliver four times the economic value to their communities.
If your employer or insurance provider covers the cost of talking to a therapist, take advantage of the perk if you need it. Worried you could never afford to visit a professional? Meditation is inexpensive and can be helpful to many. Books on the topic can be checked out at your local library, and you can find additional meditation resources in the form of YouTube videos and free apps. Simply sharing your world and your worries with family and close friends can be beneficial to your mood, outlook, and coping mechanisms.
I’m fortunate that I was able to recognize how my stress was leading to unhealthy behavior and negatively impacting my life. Before things spiraled, I took the necessary steps to correct my course. Don’t let poor work-life balance push you to your limits. Take charge now and demand that your personal and professional relationships respect that. You’ll always do better and be capable of more when you put yourself first.