Balance is a situation in which different things exist in mutually beneficial parts. If you look at how optimal outcomes are achieved in various situations it’s through balance. A thriving eco system, a myriad of ingredients coming together to create an amazing meal, the highest performing, leading football team… They’re all a balance of different parts coming together to contribute to a greater, impressive outcome.
The human self is very much the same. Too much work, not enough sleep, bad eating habits, little social interaction, a lack of physical activity and not enough ‘switch off’ time is a recipe for disaster. Let’s face it – striking a good work-life balance is hard. I used to feel guilty for leaving work before 7pm to go to yoga, or for taking a lunch break while work was piling up on my desk, or for not checking emails at 11pm… Eventually, I realised that these things didn’t make me a good at my job, but it made me a short term asset. The human body has needs and by ignoring those needs burnout is inevitable.
Performing and succeeding at work is very much about what you do for your job as it is about what you do for yourself. Finding balance in life, practising good daily habits will set you up to function at your optimum and will naturally enhance your performance in the workplace. Over the course of almost working 10 years as a designer in fast-paced, high-pressure environments, I’ve come to the conclusion that self-care is a prerequisite for success and that you cannot have one without the other.
Listed below are five things which I practice daily as part of my self-care routine. Doing these five things repeatedly and cementing them into habits has helped me achieve an ideal work-life balance. They have allowed me to appreciate my job more and have helped me integrate it into my lifestyle in a positive way.
1. I write lists and pre-plan my days
I prepare for my day the night before. I’ll run through what I need to do the following day in my head and make lists of really important things. My meals are pre-made, my gym bag is packed, my outfit is laid out and ready to go… This nightly routine means I don’t have to think too much or race around in the morning; it allows me to wake up slowly, giving my body and mind time to naturally switch from sleep mode to action mode.
2. I commit to a non-negotiable one hour minimum of exercise daily
The benefits of exercise are multi-layered. While the overall general health benefits are obvious, it also has significant benefits for the mind and counter-balances some of the unavoidable stresses that may arise in your daily work life.
Physical movement stimulates a number of neurotransmitters, such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin which assist in regulating your mood and alleviating stress. To add to this, exercise encourages healthy, deep breathing patterns counteracting oxygen deficiency that occurs when you take short, shallow breaths as a result of stress. High oxygen levels in the blood increases your energy levels, bolsters your immune system, lowers your blood pressure and improves your concentration levels.
Another benefit of exercise is it facilitates a mental reset and lets the brain ‘breath’. Consciously focussing on your body’s movements during an exercise is effective in silencing the mind and redirecting your thoughts away from the 101 things piling up on your desk.
3. I eat well 80% of the time
I think we all know that eating well is good for us – eat more veggies, eat less sugar and bad fats, eat regular whole food meals… I think we can also agree, however, that eating well is hard to do when we’re busy and even harder to maintain.
Developing good eating habits starts with a mind shift and commitment to respecting yourself and understanding that food is nourishment above all else. I don’t believe in diets or fads, but I do believe in listening to your body, understanding what types of foods it needs and what foods make you feel sick, tired, unfocused. What you should be eating will also vary depending on the activities you’re doing throughout the day and how you’re feeling. If I’ve had a big work out, I get cravings for protein to assist muscle repair, when I’m feeling a bit under the weather I eat lots of greens and vitamin-rich foods to bolster my immune system, when I’m running about in the middle of summer I crave fruits and veggies with high water content… Understanding the difference between eating and nourishing is key to optimising your energy levels, sleeping well, regulating your mood and generally just enhancing your overall well-being.
4. I know my limit and have a lil’ kit of coping mechanisms
I’m a people watcher. I instinctively spend a lot of my time observing individuals, their actions and their interactions. What I discovered a few years ago, however, was that I wasn’t great at observing myself. I couldn’t articulate everything that pushed my buttons, couldn’t verbalise where my breaking points were and therefore couldn’t put precautions in place to avoid burning out.
So I started on a path of acute self-awareness, acknowledging how certain things that occurred during the day had either a positive or negative effect on me. From there, I started focussing on encouraging more positive interactions and limiting negative situations. Avoiding all negative situations is unrealistic, but understanding how to react in undesirable instances and knowing how to put yourself back on track is critical.
By recognising what was going on internally and mentally I was able to employ some easy techniques to bring me back to a level-headed space. Leaving the situation at the right time and going for a walk for 5 minutes, going into the kitchen to make a tea and having a chat about something non-work related to distract the mind, escaping into the ladies and throwing down a forward-bend (yoga pose) to release shoulder and back tension (this is probably why people think I have a bladder problem…). Practising self-awareness throughout the day and especially during periods of high stress enables you to respond to issue more positively and rationally whilst empowering you to problem solve more effectively.
5. I try to get a minimum of 7hrs sleep every night
At the Worktech conference this year, Dr Fiona Kerr, a neuroscientist from the University of Adelaide, spoke about the cognitive benefits of getting enough sleep. Getting 7-8 hours of sleep daily is needed to allow your brain enough time for maintenance and cleansing, filing and memory connectivity and play time. A lack of sleep has detrimental short and long-term effects. For example, sleeping less than 6 hours a night compromises the ‘filing’ sleep cycle and reduces your memory retention of the day unfolded. Some things that you have learned that day can be lost into nothingness if you don’t allow your brain enough rest time to deposit those ideas/experiences into the memory bank. Long term, a lack of sleep can lead to bigger degenerative cognitive impairments such as dementia. Giving yourself enough time each night to go through the natural sleep cycles greatly improves your retention of information, clarity of thought, resets your mood and optimises your concentration levels. Plus, sleep is just generally delightful and who are we to not give into something so good.
In 1943, Abraham Maslow created the Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid, which, in a nutshell, outlined our human needs from our basic physiological needs all the way through to our self-actualisation needs (or, in simple terms, our need to reach our full potential). Maslow’s model outlined that we need to start from the bottom up in order to motivate ourselves to reach our full potential; if we don’t satisfy the lower tier basic needs, we won’t be able to be the best we can be. Self-care is about satisfying those lower tier needs first and achieving a real sense of balance- respect and nourish your health physically, mentally and emotionally – in order to unleash your maximum potential.