Your art and your work shouldn’t come at the cost of your health. If you want to be successful at anything, you need to be able to sustain your level of effort in order to be productive, consistent and prolific.
However, many people advise the opposite. It’s all about the grind, the hustle and the relentless pursuit. But no one ever talks about the mental and physical implications of this approach, or indeed how to maintain it.
Almost without exception, people who have gained success in any given field devote time to their health in one way or another. They recognise that, in order to sustain themselves, they need to take care of their body and mind.
Too Little, Too Late
A quick online search reveals story after story of artists and entrepreneurs who say that they needed to address their health and fitness at some stage, even if they totally sacrificed it in previous years. Almost unanimously, people regret not looking after their health in the long term.
So why make the same mistake? It’s better to learn from those who have gone before. Yes, you need to work hard if you want to have success in your industry, but the level of your work and your output needs to stay consistent over a long period of time if you want to have any chance of maintaining success.
While I’ve always been conscious of my health and fitness, there have been periods in my career when I have sacrificed the state of my health in the pursuit of my goals. When I worked as a producer/engineer at a recording studio, there would be days where sessions could last 16–17 hours.
That’s a long time to be hunched over a screen with almost no break in between recordings, drinking caffeine and surviving on crappy sandwiches, meat pasties and sugary snacks (judge away).
I’ve also worked full-time office jobs. Here I’d spend 8–10 hours, again, sat behind a desk in front of a screen. Then I’d rush home, only to spend the remaining hours of the evening and night hunched over another screen in pursuit of my art, fitting in a half-decent meal where possible.
None of these approaches were sustainable, and left me periodically burnt out or ill (just ask my family and friends, it’s become a bit of a running joke).
After years of repeating the same patterns, I decided it was time to figure out an alternative, more sustainable approach. The endless grind is possible, but not without a clear plan for maintaining your health. It doesn’t need to be complicated, either.
The reason I wanted to write this post, is simply because not enough people are talking about this issue, and I feel that it’s an important topic. In fact, many artists, business people, entrepreneurs and so on, constantly promote the opposite. They talk about sacrificing sleep, eating fast food, neglecting exercise and working constantly day and night. In my opinion, this is dangerous advice.
I understand the concept of making temporary sacrifices to achieve your goals, but I don’t think health needs to be one of them. In fact, poor health could actively threaten your ability to sustain productivity and to perform in the future.
Second of all, I argue that if people need to work more than 8 hours a day on their goals, they’re simply not working smart enough. I know that’s controversial to many, but it’s the truth.
History has proven that the most successful people who have ever lived worked intensely for an average of four hours per day. I know this goes against common convention, but if you don’t believe me, feel free to read anything by Tim Ferriss, or the research of Cal Newport. This was the case for Albert Einstein, Carl Jung and Jerry Seinfeld, among many more leaders in their respective fields. If it works for them, it’ll work for me.
You can even get a lot done in just two hours a day with a clear mind and the right strategy.
Desk Job Health Risks
As an artist or knowledge worker, there are a number of potential health pitfalls to be aware of every day. I’m going to list what I believe are the most threatening so that you can attempt to avoid them where possible. Be warned, if you don’t pay attention to these, they will creep up on you over time (trust me).
#1 Poor diet
With so much work to be done (particularly if you have a day job to boot) it can be all-too-tempting to reach for an unhealthy snack or some fast food.
Many people head for the nearest sugar hit because their bodies are unable to derive enough energy from their poor diet. Refined sugar (also known as poison) is one of the biggest health issues of our time. We’re not built to digest it, and it’s quite literally killing us.
#2 Lack Of Rest
Quality rest is intrinsically linked to diet, as healthy food is a requirement for healthy relaxation and sleep.
Rest and good quality sleep aren’t just important, they’re essential. I’m not going to discuss rest at length here, as it’s a topic that has been indulged ad infinitum. Each week there seems to be a new theory on sleep. One ‘specialist’ will say that you need 10 hours, and the next will say that you need no more than 4.
Everyone is different. Casey Neistat managed to be pretty productive on 3 hours a night for 12 months while daily vlogging. In contrast, Arianna Huffington just can’t get enough, and even wrote a whole book on the subject.
If I don’t get more than 6–7 hours of sleep per night, I start to get ill. Perhaps if I delved into even more probiotics and green breakfast smoothies I could reduce this slightly, but it’s pretty much inevitable, so I’m forced to work around my limits.
#3 Poor Fitness
Lack of regular exercise will lead to poor cardio performance, which ultimately leads to an array of other health problems.
It would take way too long to list them all here, but there’s no need to. You don’t need to go very far to hear about all of the dangers that lack of exercise can cause.
#4 Lack Of Movement
I know it sounds overly simple, but this really is a major problem for modern humans. We were designed to move. Our ancestors didn’t sit around; they were moving constantly. Evolution shaped our bodies to allow us to walk long distances, run, hunt and gather food.
In modern society, with all of our transportation and supermarket-style conveniences, there isn’t a great need to move, and this is detrimental to our health. We are losing flexibility and muscle function, and this is having a knock-on effect on our overall health and well-being. The sedentary lifestyle is unnatural and it’s killing us.
#5 Sitting: The Silent Killer
Speaking of lack of movement, I have to address sitting. I know it may sound crazy, but sitting is one of the worst possible acts for your health. Health professionals are referring to it as ‘the new smoking’. This is exactly why it needs to be discussed, because people simply aren’t aware of the dangers.
How many hours a day do you spend sitting down? Sitting for extended periods is especially likely if you have a full-time job and commute. Think about your average day for a moment — you may:
- Sleep with bad posture e.g. hips, neck, shoulders out of alignment
- Drive to work (sitting)
- Sit at a desk in work
- Sit down for lunch
- Drive home (again, sitting)
- Sit down to dinner
- Work on a hobby or browse the net at your computer
- Unwind, watch TV sat on the sofa
I’ve spent the best part of the last 10 years sat in a chair, often with bad posture. I start with good intentions, in a decent, balanced position (at least for sitting, anyway), but before long I realise that the hunch has once again set in.
The act of sitting exposes us to several risks, including:
- Forward/dipped neck
- Rolled shoulders
- Anterior pelvic tilt
- Lower back pain
- Muscular knots
- Other subsequent postural problems
Humans are supposed to have a ‘J-shaped’ spine, featuring a predominantly flat back and a subtle curve at the base. These issues are actually causing many people to adopt an ‘S-shaped’ spine, with a more pronounced curvature to the base. This shape is weaker and can cause a great deal of stress on the back and, therefore, much of the rest of the body. It’s the very reason you hear so many people complain of back pain.
For further reading check out this article on NPR that discusses the changes to the shape of our spines.
Staring at a screen all day and night is not good for your eye health. I’ve had to wear glasses for around 20 years now and sitting too close to a screen as a child was what got me here in the first place, so it’s a very real point for me.
When I started university my screen use increased, and when I moved into employment it went through the roof. I’m staring at a screen of some description for the majority of my day, and I don’t say that to brag. Unfortunately most of the tools that allow me to accomplish tasks and earn a living are behind a screen. I’m sad to say that I don’t see that changing much in at least the next 10 years (but I’m working on it).
One of the other pain points related to poor eyesight is that it almost always leads to bad posture. When people’s eyesight starts to suffer, they begin to squint, then they begin to lean in towards the screen, closer and closer. This happens more and more as their eyesight degrades, and their eyesight degrades the more they do it. It’s a vicious circle.
You may have noticed that when one area of your health starts to slip, it often begins to have an impact on several others. This is precisely why it’s so important to develop healthy habits, to save yourself from sliding down this slippery slope.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. There are some simple steps that you can take to avoid most, if not all, of these risks.
Step 1: Diet
The old saying “You are what you eat” has become a cliché for a reason. It’s a simple fact. You get out what you put in, and the same goes for your body.
If you want to be able to concentrate for extended periods, have plenty of sustained energy and come up with creative ideas, you need the right kind of fuel. Around 25% of the energy gained from your food goes straight to your brain. That’s right — you’re burning up a heck of a lot of fuel just sat there, thinking.
I’m sorry to say that the right fuel is not made up of fast food, sodas or candy. You’ll get a small rush, for sure, but these high carbohydrate, high sugar foods won’t sustain you for very long. Plus, you’ll crash, big time.
There really is no excuse for a poor diet, it’s just down to simple laziness. I’m not getting on a high horse here, either. When I make bad food choices, it’s because I’m being lazy and I’m letting my gut do the thinking for me (seriously, read into the microbiome).
The best way to combat this is to prepare your meals in advance. This is what athletes do to stay on top of their diets, their fitness and their cravings. Many people ‘batch’ meal prep. This involves preparing all your meals for the week in one go e.g. on a Sunday. They store their food in containers and simply reheat or cook when required.
If you’re really interested in optimising your diet, I recommend reading The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss and checking out the slow-carb diet.
Step 2: Rest
Many argue that quality of sleep is much more important than quantity, and I would tend to agree. I’d much rather 6 hours of deep REM sleep than 10 hours of light, interrupted rest.
Indeed, the whole point of rest is to enable you to perform at an optimal level. Only good quality rest and sleep will enable this.
Time and time again, the general consensus tends to revolve around 7–8 hours for optimal productivity. All of the reading I’ve done into world-class performers states that they get a good amount of sleep. However, as always, there are outliers.
Ultimately, it’s what works for you, but I would therefore preach intense self awareness. Try varying amounts of sleep and measure your levels of productivity. Don’t simply believe that you can get away with 4 hours, and then complain that you lack concentration.
In fact, research has shown that sleep deprivation can cause people to experience the same cognitive function as if they were drunk. I, for one, can vouch for this!
You can help to improve the quality of your sleep with a healthy diet and by triggering your body into a resting state before bedtime. For example, an hour before you plan to sleep, don’t use any electronic devices, and make sure you eat well before.
Here are some good tips for achieving optimal rest.
Step 3: Environment
As mentioned above, sitting has become such a recognised problem, that corporations and whole countries (such as Denmark) have made standing desks a legal requirement. Many standing desks are even adjustable so that the user can alternate between different positions throughout the day.
If your work environment is more limited, there are a few tweaks that you can make. Specialised posture-correcting chairs are a good upgrade, but they can be very expensive. Many people opt for a more affordable kneeling chair or an exercise ball. Sitting on an exercise ball engages your core muscles and forces your spine to support itself.
To help with your eyesight, once again, take regular breaks to relieve your eyes and give them time to recover. Company health and safety manuals recommend looking up from your desk every 20 minutes and focusing on something at least 20 feet away. Granted, this isn’t always possible in smaller spaces, so get up and go outside. Also, make sure that you’re sitting at a suitable distance from your screen, with the top of the screen level with your eyes.
Most software applications and browsers enable you to zoom in in some way or enlarge font sizes to relieve eye strain.
Step 4: Regular Breaks
If you’re anything like me, you can literally lose hours to your work or your creative exploits. When I’m working on music (or anything else I’m passionate about) I can totally lose track of time — a point my partner likes to remind me of with rolling eyes.
While it’s a great feeling to get totally lost in your work, and you should definitely try to run with creative ideas when they land in your lap, it’s still important to intersperse this intensity with regular breaks. In general, human beings average around 40 minutes of optimal concentration — I know this is certainly the case for myself.
By breaking frequently, you can utilise your concentration levels to their fullest and still achieve the same, likely greater, level of productivity. Any longer, and research has shown that the results reveal diminishing returns i.e. you’ll be less productive and the quality of your work will decline.
To avoid this, be sure to move regularly. Take regular breaks on the hour, get up from your desk and walk around. Go out at lunch, and take a walk whenever you can to get the blood moving.
You’ll have more energy which will, in turn, enable you to concentrate for longer and work more deeply. Working more deeply, you’ll come up with more creative ideas and be able to problem solve at a higher level.
Not only is rest good for your mind and your creativity, but it’s also great for your body, too.
Step 5: Movement
Speaking of what’s good for the body, movement is essential. I know that sounds like an obvious statement but, as you’ll have read from my thoughts about sitting, it’s actually really surprising how little most people actually move nowadays.
We humans are constantly optimising and automating as many processes as possible, using technology to make tasks as easy and as fast as we can.
In terms of our overall health, however, this can be counterintuitive. We were built to move and to travel vast distances on foot. So much so, that evolutionary compromises have enabled our heads to stay still while walking so that we can maintain a consistent gaze on the path in front of us and the horizon beyond. We definitely weren’t designed to sit for long, and especially not in chairs.
You only need to observe the movement and behaviour of babies and young children to get a glimpse into the functional design of our bodies. You’ll notice how they sit on the floor with perfectly supported spines, that they can squat effortlessly for long periods and that they breathe from their diaphragms, not their chests. Unfortunately, these behaviours tend to fade as babies mimic the posture of their parents and those around them.
In short, get moving. Take any opportunity to get up and move around, and try to adopt a habit of extended movement every day. Walking and hiking are great for your physical health, your posture, and also for your mind. It’s no small wonder that many of our best ideas come when we go for a relaxing walk and take in some fresh air.
Jogging and running are also great, but they can be dangerous if you don’t have the right conditioning and technique. Tight hip flexors (often caused by sitting) can create an unnatural gait that causes strain on the joints, such as the hips, knees and ankles. In fact, most people run with improper technique due to a lack of education and poor equipment.
When running started to become more popular in the 1970s and 1980s, shoe manufacturers started producing running shoes with a larger, more absorbent heel (thanks Nike). But the heels are not designed to absorb that type of impact! The balls and sole of the foot act as shock absorbers which form a natural gait when running bare foot. Unfortunately many people do not make use of this natural mechanism, causing pain and injury.
Warning: You should only run if you’re fit and conditioned enough to do so. If you’ve spent a lot of time at a desk, your joints and muscles may be weak and unconditioned.
Step 6: Flexibility & Conditioning
It’s fairly straightforward to join a gym and start putting on muscle but, in my opinion, flexibility is more important for health and longevity. Becoming strong and flexible simultaneously is more challenging, but much more rewarding in the long term, and more applicable to daily life.
The average weightlifter tends to train almost exclusively in the sagittal plane i.e. forward and back, up and down. There is no side to side, no turning or twisting, all of which happen to be really useful movements. Ask a powerlifter to bench press 60kg and it won’t be an issue, but ask him/her to make it through the first few moves of a beginner’s yoga class and you’ll start to see weaknesses.
If you’re going to be spending a lot of time in a stationary position, staying flexible and strengthening your nervous system is highly recommended if you don’t want to suffer from the typical aches and pains later down the line. Neck pain, shoulder issues, lower back pain and any number of posture issues can be prevented by strengthening the nervous system itself.
Stretching is great and, in particular, yoga. Any form of flexibility training will be highly beneficial. For example, if you suffer from anterior pelvic tilt, as I do from many years of sitting, lunges are a good way to combat this issue.
You may also experience tightness in the hamstrings, but that’s not necessarily the cause. If you’ve spent a lot of time sitting down, your hip flexors could be tight and drawing your hips forward, which actually stretches the hamstrings so that they become weak. You’re better off stretching your hip flexors through lunging to gradually release the tension in your hamstrings and bring balance back to your hips.
Squatting is also effective. For some fun at home (and strange looks), you can practice squatting instead of sitting while relaxing, reading or watching TV.
Step 7: Cardio Exercise
If you struggle with concentration, regular exercise is one of the best solutions, with the added benefit of being great for your general health and longevity.
Richard Branson has always maintained that it is the energy that he gains from daily exercise that enables him to be so productive, stay so focused and sleep well at night.
Personally, I don’t class walking as true cardio exercise. Unless you’re clinically obese, walking is movement, not exercise.
Running, however, is great, along with cycling and swimming. There are also a number of forms of weightlifting that can be fantastic forms of cardio, too, killing two birds. These include bodyweight exercises (such as freeletics) and ballistic kettlebell movements. Almost anything that can be incorporated into tabata training will also be a brilliant form of cardio.
Step 8: Strength Training
Once you’ve gained some greater flexibility, basic strength training will take your fitness and postural health to the next level.
If going to the gym is your preferred method, I recommend Stronglifts (5×5) as a proven system for progression. It will take you from total beginner to as far as you are willing to go.
Core movements like the deadlift, squat, bench press, overhead press and bent row will vastly improve your strength and posture, and have a massive impact on the rest of your health. However, the caveat with this type of training is that you should have spent time developing your nervous system first (most people don’t), and proper form should be adopted at all times or you’ll risk injury.
Also, as mentioned, these aren’t the best exercises for improving flexibility. As discussed earlier, yoga would be a much better alternative for developing core strength, flexibility and overall body awareness.
My personal favourite for strength building is the kettlebell, as it combines strength training with cardio (through ballistic exercises) for all round power and flexibility.
Kettlebells are relatively cheap when compared to a gym membership (you only need to buy them once) and they’re easy to store. You can perform kettlebell exercises anywhere, be it at the gym, at home, your garden or your local park.
I’ve stuck with kettlebells because they give me the biggest bang for buck, don’t take up much space and combine flexibility, cardio and strength forms of training. For more information about kettlebell training, I recommend researching the work of Pavel Tsatsouline and any of the training tips from Peter Hirsh and Steve Cotter.
A pull-up bar can also be a welcome addition to home training equipment, as this will further improve your posture and overall strength.
Keep It Simple
Staying fit and healthy isn’t complicated. Ultimately it comes down to regular movement and eating good quality food consistently. Staying healthy is important if you want to be successful in the long term. You can sacrifice your health in the short term, but it will catch up on you and threaten your success.
Athletes don’t go 100%, 100% of the time. They know that in order to perform at their best, they need to fuel themselves with adequate good food, rest and mental preparation.
Yes, you can go all-in. You can work all hours, sleep three hours a night, eat crap and totally sacrifice your health for your work or art. But good luck doing this for longer than three months before you get ill, or need some serious rest and recuperation.
Believe me, I’ve been there. I have frequently overworked myself to the point where my body tells me that it can take no more. I’ve never smoked, I don’t drink and I take care of my health, but sometimes I still spread myself too thinly. When I get out of balance, I get sick. Worst of all, I’m not really saving any time by working longer, because I end up losing time recovering from exhaustion or, worse, getting ill due to a lowered immune system.
It’s not worth it. It’s better to listen to your body and get plenty of rest when you need it. This helps me to stay consistent in my output. Yes, I still overdo it sometimes, but I’m much more aware nowadays, and that’s a start!
You don’t need an expensive gym membership, you simply need your body and a little motivation. The motivation part is hardest at the start, as with anything in life. Once you’ve experienced some consistent exercise and what it can do, you’ll start to crave it, and this positivity will continue to push you forward.
Most importantly, though, it will have a huge impact on your ability to focus and the quality of your work and, therefore, your success.