“I’m surprised you’ve been able to function normally,” my family doctor said as she went over the results of my blood work.
I had a nutritional deficiency so bad I should have been spending my entire days in bed, instead of working a full-time job, running my home business, and caring for my husband and three kids.
But in fact, I had been wishing I could stay in bed all day. I wanted it so badly, I began suspecting I had clinical depression. Except I didn’t have other symptoms. I was still vain (cared for my looks) and otherwise happy.
Fortunately, my work didn’t suffer. But household cleaning sure did.
My doctor’s words made me realize it doesn’t matter how much time management skills or productivity hacks we have. Unless we’re in tip-top shape physically and mentally, then we will always be under-productive. Working when you’re tired, stressed out, and malnourished is like chopping a tree with a dull knife. You may eventually succeed, but it will be much harder and take a lot longer than it needs to.
In this post, I’m going to cover the different elements to becoming the sharpest, most productive person you can be.
Let’s start with nutrition. We need food to survive and quality food to live optimally. As I have experienced first-hand, some nutritional deficiencies can cause fatigue, confusion, and brain fog — things that make your to-do list more daunting than it has to be. These deficiencies include the lack of iron, vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.
Scientists have found that the human brain uses massive amounts of energy. Brain expert and author of Brain Rules, John Medina, calls the brain a “pig” when it comes to energy consumption. The human brain needs plenty of glucose and oxygen. Glucose is a form of sugar from food. The amount the brain needs to perform optimally is roughly equivalent to the amount found in a banana.
You don’t have to have clinical nutritional deficiency to hamper your productivity. Just having a poor diet overall (which will eventually lead to nutritional deficiencies) seriously affects your ability to perform. Eating nutritionally-poor foods, overloading on sugar (which first causes a spike and then a drastic dip, in blood sugar levels), and missing meals altogether can lead to reduced energy, increased stress, cloudy thinking, and chronic tiredness. Not to mention, increased susceptibility to illness. You can’t be your most productive self when you’re sick.
To support your physical and mental performance, your body needs optimum nutrition, which includes plenty of omega 3 fatty acids (after all, the brain is 60% fat) and healthy sources of glucose in the form of complex carbs. The following sources of essential fatty acids and “good” carbs are considered brain foods: nuts, seeds, dark chocolate, fish, avocado, and whole grains.
Adequate rest is another critical element in human productivity. We simply cannot keep going, and going, and going, and going like the Energizer bunny.
Just when you need to be at your most productive, that’s when you need to stop working frequently. Take a nap, even. And most definitely, get enough sleep.
Makes sense that productivity methods like the Pomodoro technique recommend limited periods of work interrupted by short rest periods. Short naps — under 30 minutes — are said to be good for health and well-being.
When I was growing up in the Philippines, the belief was children should take naps to reach their maximum potential height (can you tell I wasn’t a napper as a child?). I don’t know if naps make you tall, but they have been shown to make us more alert, better able to remember and learn, and become more creative. A 20-minute nap has been found to be more effective at reviving a tired person than coffee or exercise.
Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Salvador Dali are only a few of the world’s famous nappers.
Night-time sleep is also important. Sleep deprivation significantly hampers our ability to think. What suffers? According to Medina, memory, attention, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and motor dexterity, among other things. When I haven’t had enough sleep, I’m cranky and my eyesight gets cloudy — not an ideal state for maximum productivity.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep every night. However, this can vary for each individual. For example, I tend to wake up after just 6 hours of sleep, unless I’m ill.
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Stress has a negative impact on productivity. It causes the release of hormones that make it difficult for children to learn. In fact, according to Brain Rules, emotional stability in the home is the single greatest predictor of academic success. This has led Medina to advise parents, “If you want your kid to get into Harvard, go home and love your spouse.”
Stress hurts adults’ brains, too, according to Medina. It impedes our memory, executive function (such as the ability to make decisions and carry them out), and even motor skills. To become more productive, eliminate as many sources of stress as you can. Learn to manage the stress that can’t be avoided. Meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, and positive self talk can help.
You may think you’re too busy to exercise. In fact, you’re too busy to skip it. Exercising increases the amount of oxygen in all the cells of the body, including the brain. Remember, the brain craves oxygen to perform best. Exercise can also help with stress management and promotes better sleep.
No wonder exercise has a consistent, positive relationship with how well our brains function. Exercise makes the brain work better, period. If you haven’t been exercising, getting started now on a combination of aerobic and strength training exercises, will improve your brain’s performance.
Still think you don’t have time to exercise?
The final critical ingredient to being your most productive self is not related to physical health. It has more to do with your emotions and psyche: motivation.
According to expert marketer and entrepreneur Dan Kennedy, lack of productivity is not so much a problem of time management, but of motivation. “Most people are just not sufficiently motivated to do everything that’s necessary to be super productive,” says Kennedy in Extreme Productivity Blueprint.
This explains how I was able to function “normally” even when I was in a state of severe nutritional lack. My motivation was so strong that I was able to get out of bed and get stuff done. That’s how powerful motivation is.
It’s also what Steve Jobs meant when he said, “Stay hungry.” Hunger is what motivates us to achieve and excel.
Next time you’re dragging your feet with a certain task, ask yourself, “How can I increase my motivation to get this done?” Alternatively, make a list of all your “reasons why”: Why do you want to have a successful business? Why do you want to achieve your income goal? Why do you want your dream lifestyle? Keep reminding yourself of your big reasons and you’ll stay fired up and motivated.
Those are the five ways you can become the ultimate, lean, mean productivity machine you’ve always wanted to be.
Which area do you need to work on? What do you resolve to do differently after reading this post?
Share your thoughts below.
Powernap photo by Tony Bowden