In March2014, I was having coffee with my best friend. We hadn’t seen each other in a few weeks, because I had been on back-to-back business trips. She mentioned that I looked tired and thin, and asked when I had last been to the doctor. I told her I had made some appointments and kept having to reschedule them because of last-minute flight changes. She reached across the table, grabbed my wrist, and said “Not good enough. We’re going today.”
By the end of the day, it was confirmed that I had a large gastrointestinal carcinoid tumor –a type of slow-growing cancer that at advanced stages can cause a blockage in your intestinal tract. I remember the shock and shame I felt as the doctor explained that this had been growing inside of me for years, getting larger as it fed on my body from the inside.
Of course, I had felt the sharp pain in my abdomen during all that time.I had certainly noticed that I was more tired and would get nauseated more easily. What was more important to me, however, was all the work that needed to get done. I was building a startup. That was more important than any one person– including me.
I was incredibly lucky since after surgery and a mild recovery protocol, I was pronounced cancer-free. However, I learned that I had a genetic predisposition to developing these types of tumors. Unless I changed something, I wouldn’t stay cancer-free forever.
Six years later, after making some simple tweaks, both my business and my health are better than ever. Here’s what I did:
While this may seem drastic, the first thing I did –right at the hospital –was turn my phone on silent. It has stayed that way, with very few exceptions, ever since. I also disallow notifications from every application.
While this puts the burden on me of checking my email accounts, messaging, task management or other applications –like Uber and Postmates –manually, it removes the false urgency and increased stress of instant notifications.
Once my notifications were under control, I thought through when the last time I’d taken any time away from work was. As a remote employee, I quickly realized that I had managed to sneak at least some work into my schedule every single day for the past seven years–even if it was ostensibly on “vacation.”
To combat this, I took a week vacation retreat and left my tech behind —including my cell phone –and have done this for at least one week every year since.
As a tech entrepreneur, I’ve traditionally not had typical office hours– especially as I’ve managed remote teams around the world, with 24-hour, 365-days a year service level agreements. It is easy to fall into the trap of answering messages as soon as they come in.
The best way I found to combat this for me was to remove the “work tech” on weekends. In my case, I do allow things like game consoles, e-book readers and televisions, but disallow phones –except for strictly navigating or people coordination purposes –and computers entirely.
There’s nothing like a health scare to make you realize that spending time with your family is way more important than whatever you’re doing at work. The balance is hard to find, however, as you generally need to work hard to ensure that your family is supported and taken care of.
To deal with this, I started scheduling date nights and exercise slots on my calendar,with the agreement that anything that makes it onto my calendar is “unmissable.” Soon, these became a habit that didn’t require active scheduling,but I leave the time there anyway to ensure that nothing encroaches upon them.
What is it about these things that have made me more successful? Harvard studies show that lower stress levels give youa better ability to focus–which in turn helps youproduce work faster and with fewer mistakes.
Whatever you do, remember to take care of yourself. There’s only one of you.
You may realize thatsleep is key toproductivity, but research also points to its importance for leaders.
Your sleep routine may be downright essential to your work and the success of your business. Eti Ben Simon, a neuroscientist and postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science, points to several studies that track sleep’s impact on productivity, including one by Christopher M. Barnes and Nathaniel F. Watsonpublished in February 2019that looked at how sleep can help maximize employee effectiveness.
Team leaders’ lack of sleepcould even diminish their perceived charisma in the eyes of their employees, according to another study by Barnes, along with Cristiano L. Guarana, Shazia Nauman, and Dejun Tony Kong,published in May 2016.
“A good night’s sleep is important for every system in our bodies from our brains to how we’re motivated, to how we deal with stress, all the way down to our immune response–which is very relevant right now,” says Ben Simon.
Sleep “istied to optimal functioning,” saysAric Prather, an associate professor at UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, who has studied the subject for 15 years. Sleep plays arole in emotional health and physical health andis critical for a strong immune system, he says.
So, how can you get your best sleep? The experts have some suggestions:
Prather and Ben Simon each cite the importance of a more or less fixed sleep schedule, sevendays a week. That means going to bed at the same time every night, especially when your body begins to signal that you’re tired,and waking at the same time every morning.
To ensure you have a good transition into sleep, create a wind-down routine,Prather suggests. “Cue your body that night is here,” he says.That may mean turning off your devices, stopping your intake of news and information, and taking a shower or bath to ramp up your parasympathetic nervous system and bring on sleep.
“The goal is to let your body let go of all the engaging and angsty things that happened throughout the day,” he says.
“It’s important to keep regularity in the hours you go to sleep and wake up,” says Ben Simon. “When sleep corresponds to a rhythm, I like to give the analogy of riding your bike with the wind at your back: When you’re in sync with your rhythm, the quality of sleep is better.”
Waking up in the night is normal–especially when worries may intrude on good sleep–but tossing and turning in bed as you try to fall back to sleep hinders restfulness.
“If you’re not able to sleep, and you’re awake for 20 or 30 minutes, you want to get out of bed,” says Prather. Tossing and turning have the potential to counter the conditioned arousal that lets your brain and body associate your bed with sleep. To reset yourself, Prather suggests getting out of your bed. “Try to wind yourself down again. Read, watch a little TV. Something until you begin to feel sleepy again and then get back in bed,” he says.
And try not to worry too much. Anxiety and sleep are bidirectional,Ben Simon notes.”If you’ve had a bad night, you’re likely to have a worse day,” she says. “If you have a bad day, you’re likely to have bad sleep. If you get better sleep, that’s enough to reduce anxiety the next day.”
This is a big one for founders and company leaders to keep in mind: The way you help structure your employees’days can set the tone for their nights.
“I would recommend that employers let employees know sleep is valued here,” says Ben Simon. She suggests not sending your team emails late in the evening with the expectation that they will respond immediately and not setting meeting times so early in the morningthat they might cause your team to losesleep. “The most important thing is to prioritize sleep,” she says.
Supporting your team’s ability to get good sleep canhave a huge impact on your company’s culture and bottom line.
“I do a lot of work on sleep and the immune system, and we really have shown fairly conclusively that when people get, say, less than less than six hours of sleep per night on average, they are significantly more likely to get a cold,” Prather says. “It’s very, very clear that sleep is a crucial piece to protecting you from infectious disease.”
That has been important for long time, but now it’s even more essential–and potentially lifesaving.
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