In my work with high-performing women executives, I frequently encounter individuals who are so overworked and overwhelmed that they describe their daily experience as one of triage. Many of them feel completely disconnected from their bodies, and describe themselves as operating purely from "the neck up." They rarely have time for themselves, let alone for their relationships, parenting duties, social commitments and more. All aspects of their lives seem to create a perfect recipe for overwhelm, leading to further feelings of instability and disconnection — at work and in life generally.
I've come up with a five step process to help anyone feel more grounded and connected to the body and the mind, even in times of high stress. Even if you are overworked, you can keep yourself from becoming overwhelmed.
1. Start your day with five minutes devoted completely to yourself (before turning on your devices).
There is no quicker way to get cortisol and other stress hormones flowing than to check your work email the minute you wake up. Instead of stepping immediately into the digital world, take five minutes to sit in meditation, stretch out on your yoga mat, or set a quick intention for the day in your journal.
Acknowledge that you deserve this time (and more, if you can spare it). Five minutes of personal time is not going to make or break any work issue that has arisen overnight. Start your day with an intention to feel grounded, taken care of, and trusting of yourself. From there, you'll actually be more likely to maintain a sense of calm -- and focus! -- throughout the day. A relaxed mind is a productive one.
2. Eat (actually) good food.
From the first meal of the day to the last, set the intention to nourish your body and your mind with kindness. In other words, make healthy, balanced choices in terms of what you consume. Starting your workday during a busy, stressed out period with a high-sugar donut or a 1,000 calorie cinnamon roll is a recipe for blood sugar peaks and plunges throughout the day which will make it harder for your body to cope with stress.
Eat whole, unprocessed foods, and make sure to pack plenty of healthy snacks (nuts, fresh fruit, sliced veggies and hummus) to tide hunger over as it arises throughout the day. Aim for balance in what you eat, allowing yourself to enjoy your food choices, too. Trying to eat intuitively is a great way to connect your body with your mind, and to practice mindfulness in a regular and sustainable way.
3. Stay connected to your body throughout the day.
Recent studies have shown that taking periodic breaks once an hour throughout the work day leads to greater productivity. I suggest to my clients that they set a timer on their phones to go off every 52 minutes during the workday to remind them to stand up, get away from the computer and walk a loop around the office or step outside, if only for a few minutes.
Many of my clients use this time to tune into how they are feeling physically, and taking a quick check-in of their needs. Are you thirsty? Do you need a bathroom break? What about a quick stretch to relieve an achy back from sitting in front of the computer?
Staying connected to your body is a key way to stay grounded at work, even when you're stressed.
4. Use your commute home to decompress.
As a resident of New York City, I'm continually astonished by how many people are heads-down in the phones, answering emails and texts from work, on their commute home in the evening. This is time when you're expected to be out of contact with the office. In other words, it's time you can use for yourself that should not be wasted.
I recommend listening to soothing music, a meditation app like Simply Being, or an audiobook that is non-business related. Turning your brain to something unrelated to work gives you a minute to breathe, pause, and reconnect to yourself and your interests before arriving home for the night. Even if you're going to continue working thereafter, a short break can help you to recharge and reset.
5. Get as much sleep as you can, and create conditions for deep rest.
During times of peak stress on the job, many of us sacrifice sleep to accomplish what needs to be done. However, long-term sleep deprivation impacts productivity, overall performance, and, most importantly, our mental, physical and emotional well-being. Thus, it's critical to get as much sleep as you can, even during high-demand times (perhaps even especially during these times).
In order to wind down effectively, however, we all often need to adopt some key strategies before bed. This includes setting a bedtime ritual and sticking with it regardless of the time you go to bed. Consider a routine that includes taking a warm shower, turning off your phone for a half-hour to read a book (not on your iPad!) and turning the lights low to indicate to your body that it's time to rest. Blackout blinds and white noise can also be useful if you live in an urban environment. Use the tools that you find soothing on a daily basis to induce deep rest and ground yourself for the night.
By adopting these five strategies, even the most stressed out executives can find moments of peace in the storm of overwhelm. Be kind to yourself, take the time that you can for self-care and self-nourishment, and you'll find that your body, your mind and your spirit fare better throughout the day.