Health experts argue that the key to success lies in the small, subtle habits we cultivate everyday. Eating nutrient-dense foods, getting enough sleep, exercise and so on.
We already know what it takes to keep ourselves fit, healthy and happy but it’s not that easy to implement these habits when competing priorities like deadlines, meetings, nagging bosses, and clients take up so much of our mental and physical energy for 10+ hours a day.
Which is why I won’t preach about the importance of eating more vegetables or exercising regularly. You’re smart and already know these things.
What I can give you however, are my proven tactics to navigating corporate life in order to avoid burnout and stay as healthy and energized as possible. If you can master these strategies in your day to day, you can avoid the energy leaks that happen during high-stress times at work. As a former cubicle jockey, I’ve put these tools to work! Here are the four most common workplace scenarios sabotaging your health and what you can do about them.
Scenario 1: You have a packed day of meetings and dinner with a client
It’s likely you were well aware this busy day was coming, so the best thing you can do to manage your stress and your waistline is to PLAN AHEAD.
Assuming you have at least 48-hours notice and every meeting will either have zero food options or only sugary kinds, have a day’s worth of meals and snacks packed and ready to go. If you prefer to eat out for everything, plan where you’ll order from, what and at what time so you’re not left making a last-minute decision for a greasy grilled cheese sandwich from the bodega across the street out of desperation.
The foods you select must meet the following criteria to ensure you are satiated between meetings, but not full to the point of a food coma. Remember: in this scenario your goals are to remain focused, productive, alert, and remain as healthy as possible.
1.) Nutrient-dense: Okay, I said I wouldn’t bombard you with tips you already know about but when you have a busy day, you can’t afford to leave your meals up to chance. Having nutrient dense meals, meaning approximately 1 palm of protein, 1 cup of vegetables, 1/2 cup of carbohydrates and a little bit of healthy fats – ensures you are eating well throughout the day, avoiding food comas and sugar crashes, and are on your game to impress your boss and your clients. While your colleagues struggle to keep their eyes open after inhaling a burrito, you come off focused, energized and 100% professional simply because you took the time to plan your meals in advance.
2.) Grab & Go snacks: Have a few snack options available with you that meet the criteria above. The most important aspect is that the options are grab & go friendly, can be eaten relatively quickly and with little distribution during or between meetings. My go-to options range from a green smoothie, 1/2 cup of greek yogurt with mixed berries; an apple, a few almonds, or 2-3 protein balls I may have made days before. Quick, easy, filling, and zero distribution.
3.) Avoid artificial sugar: This is the most important piece to your food criteria. Artificial sugars found in granola bars, peanut butter, chips and pastries are the DEATH of productivity. You can’t afford to have any energy leaks on this busy day so, make sure the foods you select have low to no artificial sugars in them. It’s one day of no sugar — you can do this.
Scenario 2: You put off an important project for the last minute and now are mega stressed.
Ah, procrastination at its best. In this scenario, it’s not uncommon for us to skip meals, forget to eat altogether, or grab the closest junk within reach. You have a deadline. A healthy salad is the least of your worries.
What we can do is to manage the stress in such a way that our waistlines aren’t affected from poor choices and high cortisol pumping through our veins.
So first thing first: Do not go into the office hungry.
Just like we don’t grocery shopping on an empty stomach, you don’t start working that way on a high-stress, critical day. The minute someone brings bagels and donuts to the office, you’ll be so depleted you’ll likely grab it to avoid passing out. And then the spiral begins.
Have some damn breakfast. Follow the criteria from the scenario above; that’s your best option if you want to do your best work in the limited amount of time you’ve given yourself. Believe me, I’ve tried this experiment many times in my corporate career. Taking shortcuts always backfires.
Next, schedule 15-30 minutes of moderate exercise. Whether it’s a walk around the block or a Spin class before work, this is one of the most crucial parts of your most stressful day. Not only will it help energize you, but it’ll curb the high stress and anxiety you’ll feel today. For me, working out first thing in the morning before a big project always helped me feel accomplished and clear headed enough to tackle anything. If all you have to spare is 10 minutes, use those 10 minutes to get as far away from your desk as possible. Move your body.
Scenario 3: A client is overworking you to the max. You are now experiencing major anxiety and it’s disturbing your sleep.
I loathe this scenario because not everyone is fortunate enough to have a boss that will set a client straight when they are pushing people to the edge (and over budget). What’s worse is that sleep deprivation leads to poor eating, more stress, less energy, and crankiness. In this case, I like to apply the Ten Minute Morning ritual.
Most overworked, cubicle prisoners glance at email or social media upon opening their eyes. This is a huge mistake. Instead, grab some pen and paper and jot down the following:
- Three things you’re grateful for
- A vision or intention for the day
- The top three priorities you must tackle for work, followed by the top three priorities for your personal life. This is your ‘must do’ for the day. Everything else is frivolous unless urgent.
Here’s an example:
Gratitude exercise: I’m thankful that I woke up on time to make breakfast and not feel rushed. Grateful I slept through the night. Thank you for the upcoming three-day weekend.
Vision/intention exercise: I am energized and productive at work today, completing my top 3 priorities and leading a great meeting this afternoon with my team. Everyone feels more inspired and connected to their work after, and we finalize the details of our project in that hour. The day ends with a great workout with my trainer and dinner with friends.
The top 3 exercise: Work – Draft product press release. Assign tasks and deadlines of product launch to the team. Finalize marketing plan. Personal – Yoga class at 6pm. Read 10 pages of new book. Take dog to the park.
At most, this takes up 10 minutes of your day. Before checking your emails, texts, social media (which we know will put you in a crappy mood), start your day by organizing your mental clutter, and clearing space for yourself. You are in charge of how your day goes and how you’ll feel, not your client or boss.
Scenario 4: You eat healthy all day until 2pm hits. Then, you binge on all the junk food in the office.
Ah, the classic afternoon-slump-makes-me-eat-like-a-two-year-old scenario. Even with the best intentions and all the nutrient-rich foods you’ve packed with you, this scenario can still creep up and lead you down the path of guilt, shame, and major crash-and-burn.
This really comes down to following a 3-step framework which I’ve found works wonders if you’re willing to practice and experiment. In other words, you won’t change this behavior overnight but you can mitigate it.
Step 1: Jot down when you give in to that donut left in the kitchen. Is it around 2pm during the afternoon slump? Is it after you’ve walked past it 800x and your willpower is exhausted? Is it when you’re really stressed and/or late to a meeting? Recognize it and jot it down.
Step 2: Acknowledge the reward. What is the happiness factor you achieve the moment you give in to that donut? Is it the sugar rush? Is it the taste of something sweet? Is it the mental break you get from your computer? Is it the break you get chatting with your co-workers by said box of donuts? The reward is usually NOT the food itself but you have to know what the reward is.
Step 3: Now, change the ‘reward’ system. The reward is what happy outcome you are trying to achieve. Perhaps that afternoon donut gives you a little boost to help you stay awake. Replace it with a walk outside with your co-worker. Perhaps the emotional eating and being a late to a meeting can be replaced with having healthier snacks in your cubicle that you can grab and go to your meeting. Once you know what the reward is, you can make a conscious choice about how to replace it with something else that will create the same happy outcome you wish to achieve.
While these aren’t the only scenarios affecting our mental state and bodies at work, they are the most common ones I’ve personally experienced and hear often from clients and colleagues. Notice that each scenario generally affects our mental state, which influences how we eat and if we find the time to exercise or not. It’s not about having the perfect program, trainer, or coupling that exercise with another. It comes down to having a system in place for when things do hit the fan. When we’re overwhelmed at work, the Russian squat program you found on Google isn’t going to help you navigate your day, stress or energy. Put a little effort into the right systems and rituals so when things get crazy, you know exactly how to deal with it and still be the badass professional you are.