This is the seventh post in a series called Making it Count about getting things done and using our precious hours wisely1 .
So far in this series I’ve discussed the philosophy behind the pursuit of productivity and covered the ways in which I steward my time, attention, technology and the Internet. As I promised earlier in the series, I’m going to move towards practical implications of productivity as they play out in my day-to-day work.
Healthy, sustainable productivity
In this post I’m going to discuss what I believe is one of the key components of people who maintain a high level of healthy, sustainable productivity. I use the descriptors “healthy” and “sustainable” because you can be extremely productive in any number of ways and not all of them are good for you. People commonly employ substances (sugar, caffeine, narcotics, etc.) or sleep deprivation in order to get more done (or, at least, feel like they’re getting more done). Too much of a substance or too little sleep over time is unhealthy—something we’re all aware of.
The tricky part is that whether the levers you’re pulling are good or bad for you, the productivity gains are real. Unfortunately, it always seems easier and more convenient to make unhealthy choices, which creates a cycle of tangible productivity bursts followed by burnout or near-burnout—a pattern that takes it’s toll and almost guarantees severe burnout over time.
We’ve all experienced some pattern of extreme effort followed by some sort of crash. My goal in the last two years has been to figure out what healthy habits work for me to maintain a high level of productivity over the long run.
Health is a snake-oil business
The health and wellness industry is rife with conflicting advice and magic cures. From documentaries to diets and franchise fitness centers, there’s no end to what you can try to make yourself more healthy. What complicates an already overwhelming set of choices is that different paths work for different people, even when they’re seemingly opposed. Carbs or no carbs? I know healthy people on both diets. Strength training or sustained cardio? Same thing.
I’m no health expert, but one thing I’m sure of is that there’s not a simple, easy solution to being healthy. Exercising and dieting can certainly be enjoyable, but are always associated with some sort of hard work and discipline over time, which, for many people, isn’t fun in the short run (or maybe ever). The good news is that like any healthy habit, the returns outweigh the effort and become easier, especially over time.
Research and trial are the ticket
The surest way to figure out the right combination of sleep, exercise and diet for yourself is to constantly research and test out different methodologies over time. As humans we tend to always seek quick fixes, which is why it’s common for people to try a new regimen for a short while, see no results, and move on to the next thing. I’ve found that careful research combined with months of testing gives you actual personal evidence of the effects of whatever you are trying.
Personally, it’s taken me quite a long while to figure out a combination of healthy habits that work with my health goals, body type and schedule. (If you’re interested in what I do personally, feel free to ask in the comments.)
How sleep, exercise and diet affect productivity
Here are a few specific thoughts on sleep, exercise, diet and how they affect productivity. To stem the tide of snake-oil advice, I’ve chosen to briefly highlight actual research around these subjects (as opposed to things like anecdotal blog posts from individuals).
Sleep is the foundation of health. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, no amount of exercise or healthy diet will make up for what you miss when you don’t get good sleep, consistently. We all have to pull late nights from time to time, but the research shows that repeated sleep deprivation has serious consequences. Take a look:
- The researchers conducted experiments at MSU and UC-Irvine to gauge the effect of insufficient sleep on memory. The results: Participants who were kept awake for 24 hours — and even those who got five or fewer hours of sleep — were more likely to mix up event details than participants who were well rested. 2
- Among first-year [college] students, poor sleep — but not binge drinking, marijuana use or learning disabilities diagnosis — independently predicted dropping or withdrawing from a course.3
- The researchers found that people who sleep for shorter periods of time and go to bed later often experience more repetitive negative thoughts than others. This was also true for those students who described themselves as evening types.4
- “Insufficient sleep — due to inadequate or mistimed sleep — contributes to the risk for several of today’s public health epidemics, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. Getting at least seven hours of nightly sleep is a key to overall health, which translates to less sick time away from work,” said American Academy of Sleep Medicine President Dr. Timothy Morgenthaler… 5
- New research suggests that sleeping 7 to 8 hours per night is associated with the lowest risk of absence from work due to sickness.6
I included multiple points to reveal the fact that sleep affects far more than just our productivity. The bottom line is that the top priority in terms of all health is sleep. How much sleep, you ask? For people between the ages of 18 and 64, 7-8 hours of sleep is recommended.7 My natural rhythm puts me right at 7 hours per night and most mornings I wake up without an alarm.
It’s clear from these studies that if productivity is your goal, using sleep deprivation to get more done does you more harm than good. I can clearly trace periods of high productivity in my life back to consistently sufficient, quality sleep.
- A new study found that engaging in a physical exercise regimen helps healthy aging adults improve their memory, brain health and physical fitness…”Physical exercise may be one of the most beneficial and cost-effective therapies widely available to everyone to elevate memory performance,” Chapman said. “These findings should motivate adults of all ages to start exercising aerobically.”8
- And they recommend regular aerobic exercise to stave off mild cognitive decline, which is especially important, given the mounting evidence showing that regular exercise is good for cognitive function and overall brain health, and the rising toll of dementia.9
- A new analysis by University of Georgia researchers finds overwhelming evidence that regular exercise plays a significant role in increasing energy levels and reducing fatigue.10
The connection research makes isn’t necessarily intuitive: if you want to increase your energy level, cognitive capacity and, as a result, your productivity, you need to exercise. As I said above, what works for you will vary by your body type, personality, etc.
I’ve personally found exercise to the absolute best way to maintain lots of energy. If I’ve been exercising consistently and stop for long periods, I can tell a marked difference in my overall performance.
- “Diet, exercise and sleep have the potential to alter our brain health and mental function. This raises the exciting possibility that changes in diet are a viable strategy for enhancing cognitive abilities, protecting the brain from damage and counteracting the effects of aging.”…Emerging research indicates that the effects of diet on the brain, combined with the effects of exercise and a good night’s sleep, can strengthen synapses and provide other cognitive benefits, he added.11
- What workers eat influences their health and their productivity, so it is in the interest of all the social partners unions, workers, employers and governments around the world to contribute in their different ways to good nutrition and a healthy diet at work.12 (from the International Labor Organization)
People’s body types are different and I’m not a nutritionist, so I’m not going to give specific advice here. The general principle, though is that food is fuel for your body. Your body needs a certain mix of nutrients to operate well, just like your car needs a certain mixture of gasoline to run correctly. If you use the wrong fuel, you’ll experience worse performance and damage over time.
Many articles online quote the World Health Organization as saying “adequate nutrition can raise your productivity levels by 20 percent on average.” I couldn’t find the original document study after multiple searches, but I will say that a healthy diet has absolutely increased my own productivity.
No amount of tricks, tools or hacking are going to drastically increase your productivity if you aren’t building the foundations that will give you more energy and increase your mental capacity.
The evidence is clear, but I can also affirm from years of testing and learning that sleep, exercise and diet play a significant role in my overall success.
1. You can read more about the series and view links to additional posts here.2. You can read more about how sleep affects memory on ScienceDaily.3. You can read more about how sleep affects performance of college students on ScienceDaily.4. You can read more about how sleep deprivation is related to negative thinking on ScienceDaily.5. You can read more about how insufficient sleep causes health problems on ScienceDaily.6. You can read more about how sufficient sleep decreases the risk of missing work due to sickness on ScienceDaily.7. You can read more about recommended sleep quantities on ScienceDaily.8. You can read more about how exercise improves memory on ScienceDaily.9. You can read more about how aerobic exercise staves off cognitive decline on ScienceDaily.10. You can read more about how exercise increases energy levesl on ScienceDaily.11. You can read more about how diet affects the brain on PsychCentral's website.12. You can read more about the International Labor Organization's position on diet and nutrition on their website.