Sleep and Exercise Can Not Be Luxuries

Human beings generally don't make the best decisions when under a great amount of stress. Sure, you have your Chelsey Sullenberger's of the world who seem to do something amazing in the most stressful situations, but I don't think that's typical. For most of us, landing a plane on a river falls outside the scope of our job responsibilities but that doesn't mean we aren't faced with daily stress that can seriously impinge on our decision making.

Case #1: Me Being an Idiot

Take this observation from my own life, for example. For a couple months I felt like I was being slowly ground down by the incessant pressure of a more-than-full-time PhD course load, trying to grow two businesses, and organizing a TEDx conference. My stress level was high and in order to free up more time to (in my mind) successfully complete these duties I cut out the two things I could most ill afford to cut out -- regular exercise and enough sleep.

In hindsight it's easy to look back and kick myself in the head for making this decision. When pressed for time and attention it's easiest to cut out the things that appear to be indulgences in the name of being more productive. If I'm not sitting in front of my computer and trying to make things happen then I'm obviously not being productive or using my time wisely, right? Wrong. By cutting out the two things that allow me to have enough energy to do good work, that keep me in good physical shape, and help my mental well-being more than anything else I was actually just digging a deeper hole. I would get tired quicker, I would be shorter tempered, and I felt worse about myself as I became unhealthier. There may be nothing that saps motivational energy more than kind of hating yourself for what you're allowing to happen.

Why do we view things like exercise and sleep as indulgences? Maybe I'm the only one?

Improvement #1: Find Other Gaps In Your Day

White gaps are me likely goofing off.

I finally started to turn the corner with this issue when I worked to change my mindset about these activities. It wasn't like I was able to flip a switch and suddenly feel like I had time to sleep more and exercise more. It was more of a steady shift over time.

The first thing I did was start tracking how I used my time throughout the day. By tracking my various projects and responsibilities I could see areas where I could make better decisions throughout the day. The trick to this was that I wasn't tracking the time I was goofing off. When I would go back and look at the data for the previous week I could see big holes in the day and more than likely those were periods of time that were being used inefficiently. This exercise helped me realize that it's not like I was operating at 100% capacity and that the only way to find more time in my day was to cut into sleep and exercise. Hell no -- there were all sorts of spaces in my day where I could optimize how I worked!

Improvement #2: Conceptualize Sleep and Exercise as Productivity

The second thing I did was start thinking of sleep and exercise as truly productive time. I tried to start thinking of it as just as important as reading for class or conducting a coaching session. I tried to erase that division in my mind (and in how I track my time) between the obviously productive stuff I had to do and the seemingly unproductive but actually super-productive stuff I should be doing (sleep and exercise).

Does this mean I have the problem completely fixed? Of course not. But I'm definitely making steps in the right direction. I'm slowly training myself away from the snap decision to make more time in my day by cutting out the things that are actually foundational to my ability to be a pleasant and effective human being. Sitting down for a block of deliberate practice after having slept well and gone for a run means I'm much more likely to be productive, even if I have a shorter overall session, than if I cut those out and power through a longer practice session.

It's kind of obvious when I put it that way but since when does common sense and obviousness always win out when it comes to responding to stressful situations?

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar

Better Restoration, Better Work

I'm becoming more and more convinced the key to being more productive and having a higher level of well-being at work and in general is learning how to restore yourself skillfully. I first learned about this idea in the excellent book The Power of Full Engagementby Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr. They opened my eyes to the metaphor of viewing work as a series of sprints instead of a marathon. Most of us grew up hearing the story about the tortoise and the hare, right? Slow and steady wins the race. Instead, slow and steady leads to a grumpy, tired, and increasingly demoralized tortoise.

The Allure of the Lifehack

There's only so many ways you can tweak a workflow or utilize a new app to make yourself more productive. Lifehacks can be so alluring because the first couple you adopt have huge positive returns on your life with almost no cost. The problem is that you  quickly run into the problem of diminishing returns. It takes more and more effort to reach the same kind of benefit. Next thing you know you're cleaning your debit cards or creating a filing system for your socks. Trying to increase your productivity by actively focusing on your productivity is a path that will hit a dead end. Then what?

The Renewal Approach to Productivity

Attacking the problem from the other end, from a restoration viewpoint, opens up new avenues for growth. Systematic renewal builds up the raw material, the willpower, chutzpah, motivation, whatever you want to call it, to make things happen. To increase physical strength you introduce your muscles to stress. If you properly restore them by eating well and getting enough sleep you're rewarded with increased capacity to lift things. It works the same way with your ability to do things in general, too. You introduce yourself to stress by taking on scary projects, working under pressure, dealing with difficult clients or bosses, and pushing yourself to learn something every day. The part that most of us seem to forget, though, is that just like our fatigued muscles from going to the gym, we have to allow ourselves to renew after experiencing stress. If we do, then we will build our capacity to resist stress in the future. If we don't, we will quickly burn out.

Ideas For Becoming a Renewal Champion

Over the past few weeks I've been more mindful about the ways I renew. Here's a handful of my latest observations.

Create the Structural Framework

The first thing I noticed is that renewal is something I don't automatically think about. I have to build in reminders to my day otherwise I'll just fly from one activity to the next and then wonder why I'm exhausted by the end of the week. One structural thing I've done is utilize a timer and work in 25 minute blocks with 5 minute rest sessions (or the Pomodoro Technique, for you productivity nerds out there). The second thing is to leave my default meeting length in my calendar app at one hour. Most of my meetings don't last that long but by making it appear as though all my meetings each take up an hour block I usually have a few minutes to relax and recharge in between appointments.

Get Outside Your Context (and Literally Outside)

In addition to these two techniques, I've tried to spend more time outside. Research tends to show that spending time in nature is a great way to recharge your metaphorical batteries. Another thing I've learned is that it's important for me to get away from the context in which I've been working during my 5 minute renewal blocks throughout the day. Meaning, if I've been working at my computer then I shouldn't spend my 5 minutes of renewal also sitting at my computer. If I've been reading then I shouldn't flip over to another activity where I have to read, even if it's for my own enjoyment.

Set Limits (And Follow Them)

Finally, I've learned that perhaps the biggest key to building restoration into my day is setting, and sticking to, limits. The end of my workday shouldn't be when I've become so tired I can't keep my eyes open or my work is suffering terribly. Most days, I try to wrap up the main productive part of my day around 7 or 8 PM so I can eat dinner and ideally relax a little bit before going to bed. Granted, this isn't something I'm always successful with (considering it's 11:01 PM as I write this). However, I've definitely noticed the difference in my own energy levels when I'm the one in charge of deciding when my work is finished instead of my work deciding when I'm finished -- physically, mentally, and emotionally. This is something I think people with creative careers marked by longevity have usually mastered.


In a world of pervasive communication, 24-7 connection to work and entertainment, and a sometimes disturbingly masochistic attitude toward the sheer number of hours we should spend working, a healthy respect for restoration and renewal may help set you apart from the masses. Sure, feel free to keep tweaking your workflows and productive habits to improve the way you work. Just don't forget about the quieter counterpart to productivity, namely being quiet and taking a break.

Photo via me in my backyard