A health-first approach to productivity

 Productivity is a dangerous word.

As someone who has taught business leaders how to squeeze more value out of every day, I have seen first-hand how this approach can lead to both dramatically increased results and a penchant for neglecting the very source of those results – your own health.

A few years ago I fell in love with running long distances. I prioritised daily workouts, green smoothies and making time to get out of the office and into the woods. As my health improved so did my desire to scale my business. My energy and enthusiasm slowly began to pivot as I focused my best hours of the day on finding new clients, producing more content and attempting to keep up with other more successful entrepreneurs.

The pace of work increased. Working eight hours a day no longer sufficed, so I worked 10, 12 or even 14 hours. I voluntarily opted in to more work and continued to reduce my time for exercise until it ultimately fell off my priority list completely.

This isn't a new phenomenon. Work often wins, especially when competing against activities that fail to clearly produce a higher quarterly profit. The irony is that as we continue to choose work over working out; we increasingly reduce our ability to sustain the results we are striving so hard to produce.

Last year I found myself busy at work, generating great outcomes, which only bolstered my inclination to work longer and harder. I slowly began to experience increased anxiety, mild panic attacks and a growing sense of fear as my workload had no clear end in sight. While working late one night the stress peaked and I clenched my tightening chest. I was nauseous, light-headed, finding it hard to breathe and was convinced I was having a heart attack.

I was rushed to the emergency room where I was told that as a young healthy man I had suffered from a stress-induced muscle spasm, fortunately, not the dangerous heart attack I feared. This wakeup call was more than I needed to re-adopt healthy habits, refocus my efforts and reprioritise every bit of work I had committed to over the years.

Striking a balance between taking care of yourself and your most important work is the key to sustainable success. Though it may appear counterintuitive, adopting a health-first approach is the most effective strategy for increased productivity in your business.

Consider the following strategies as you adopt your own health-first approach:

Workout first
Early mornings are an ideal time to prioritise activities which you would likely procrastinate over later in the day. For most busy executives and entrepreneurs, this is the only time of day you may have available for the vigorous exercise your body needs.

If you find it challenging to guarantee time for a daily workout, consider rising an hour earlier. There are fewer distractions at sunrise and you will likely see a boost in your energy all day long from a powerful early morning exercise session.

Clarify the vital few
Ensuring adequate time for health-related activities is not as challenging as it may appear. In your business, as well as your health, there are only a handful of activities that produce the vast majority of the results. The key is knowing those vital few activities and prioritising them over everything else. Once you know what matters the only remaining challenge is execution. Schedule your vital few tasks and let the calendar dictate your success.

Cut extraneous work
We all do things that we don’t need to do. I refer to this superfluous work as nonsense. Anytime we complete a task that is unnecessary we are wasting the few precious hours we have available each day.

Being busy is not a badge of honour and it is all too common to confuse activity with true productivity. In your quest to achieve greater health and business prosperity focus on doing less, eliminating any and all extraneous tasks.

Break for mental rejuvenation
Stress is a mental game. If you overbook your calendar and commit to too many activities, you will carry the burden of how busy you are in your head. Spend a few minutes each day clearing your mind through meditation, yoga or quiet time. Achieving breakthroughs or intuitive leaps in your work, is significantly easier with a stress-free mind that is open to brainstorming, dreaming and casting a greater vision of success.

Remove not-so-obvious barriers
Stop going to unnecessary meetings. Alternatively, set a strict time limit on the meetings you attend. In many office environments meetings are cited as the greatest
distraction to individual productivity.

Getting more done, especially regarding complex projects, is dependent on having access to large blocks of focused time. Distractions like meetings or other work-related events that sound good on paper, but fail to provide tangible results, can be replaced with batches of focused time for your most critical tasks.

Schedule rhythmic work flows
The word 'hustle' is often used as a moniker for working 24/7 and is often touted as the solution to goal achievement. Hustle leads to burnout. Rhythm leads to sustainability and fresh new ideas. 

The balance between health and productivity can be described as an ideal rhythm of crunch and release. You bury your head in the sand and achieve as much as possible, and follow up with an intentional break from your work as you prioritise self-care.

When in doubt, start over
After a busy time at work is an ideal time to reflect and restructure your systems. Starting from scratch provides the best opportunity to begin again more intelligently, especially if your goal is to schedule your time in a way you have never done before.

If I was forced to choose between my health and the success of my business, I would choose my health because I know that this simple decision will directly lead to increased business success over time. Productivity can be a dangerous word but you have the power to reshape how you approach each and every day to achieve your greatest ambitions.

Adopt a health-first approach and you will, by default, find yourself adopting a highly productive business at the same time.


Jeff Sanders is author of The Free-Time Formula: Finding Happiness, Focus, and Productivity No Matter How Busy You Are (Wiley, 2018) which can be found on the AMBA Book Club. He is a keynote speaker, productivity coach, personal development fanatic and a plant-based marathon runner. On a mission to help you dominate your day, he speaks on how to form powerful lifelong habits, bounce out of bed with enthusiasm and tackle your grandest goals with extraordinary energy.