When it comes to the pursuit of high performance in consulting and business, I don’t think there is anything more important than one’s mental health, physical health and general well-being.
The consulting lifestyle can result in burnout pretty fast if you are not careful. I have experienced this first-hand too many times to mention. Most weekends are a struggle for me since I am constantly trying to manage fatigue. Moreover, in the world of go-go-go, with constant competition and information overload, it is easy to forget that at the end of the day our main goal in life, in my opinion, is to ensure our own well being and that of the people we love.
The consulting lifestyle is very demanding, many people complain and most eventually leave. You have to be incredibly shrewd in striking a balance to successfully ride the management consulting career roller coaster while taking care of yours and your family’s well-being.
And what can be more important than your personal well-being? If you don’t have it, your career successes will be bleak no matter how high you will reach and you will not enjoy the special moments that the consulting lifestyle sometimes offers, such as visiting the most amazing places in the world and meeting the cream of the crop of your country’s business world.
Michael asked me to document my self-developed and tested well-being routine. He was not the first one asking me for this. For some reason, more often than anything else, people ask me for advice on how to maintain health and well being. If I was to believe what people say, “specialize in the area where others seek your counsel,” I should be a health and beauty coach. Just joking, of course, as much as I care about health and beauty, this is not exactly my area of greatest expertise, just an area of interest and moderate success.
Trying to cope with demands of my own consulting lifestyle, I developed my personal well-being routine that I tried and tested over the years. There are 8 crucial elements in my well-being routine. I have included some pictures to help you understand some of the things I do.
Well-being routine step 1 – Sleep at least 7 hours a day
I find I am heavily dependent on sleep. If I don’t get 7 hours, I can barely function. I feel dizzy, weak and struggle to think. I am generally a slow thinker and lack of sleep makes it very tough for me to function. As a result, I make it a priority to be in bed by 10pm and to try to get 7.5-8 hours of sleep per day.
I care about my career and sometimes I do cut my sleep. As you probably know, the consulting lifestyle often demands it without necessarily caring about what you personally need. However, I will not be willing to cut back on my sleep on a regular basis, for any amount of money and no matter how much I prefer consulting to other career paths. The only reason I will be willing to do so is if my loved ones needed me to do so, such as when you have a baby you have to make your baby the priority.
I know some people in investment banking and in consulting who sleep way less than the required minimum amount of hours, but I would never agree to this as I know how much damage it causes, particularly in terms of accelerated aging and the resulting damage.
I also do not know if their work actually is better, since building models at 4am in the morning and lack of sleep makes it difficult to pick up mistakes. And one mistake can destroy one’s reputation, erasing years of sacrifice and incredibly hard work. It just does not worth it. I have seen this happen.
I also wake up early, at the same time every day. What I try to do is to go to sleep at 10pm and wake up at 5.45am on workdays and at 6.30am over the weekend.
Mornings are crucial time for me. I live by the motto, “Early to bed, early to rise makes man healthy, wealthy and wise”. I am hoping this applies to women too!
In the past I struggled tremendously with waking up. I would just put off the alarm and go back to sleep. I could not fight myself. I tried so many things. I even would put my alarm in the kitchen, under the pot, to make it a tremendous effort to find it and turn it off. And yet I would still end up in bed.
Then I decided that no matter what I will wake up at 6am. I did so for a year, firstly struggling every day to not miss the 6am wake-up time.
Eventually I reached a point when I wake up in the morning without effort. My body knows when I will be waking up so it is ready to be awakened. The downside of this is that I cannot sleep after 6-6.30am any longer. As per above, on weekends I set my alarm for 6.30am, but more often than not I am up around 6am naturally and cannot go back to sleep.
But, to be honest, the upside of not hitting snooze 5 times before I can drag myself out of bed 1 hour after my planned awaking time, and with tremendous effort, is totally worth it.
I use two more tricks to help me get better sleep and to fall asleep faster. Firstly, about 30 minutes before bed I drink water mixed with Magnesium Citrate Powder. I use a brand Calme Naturel, with organic raspberry-lemon flavor. If you decide to try it, make sure you don’t buy Magnesium with Calcium. It should be only Magnesium. Calcium has an opposite to calming effect, it actually excites you, and so you should not be taking it before bed.
Secondly, once I am ready to actually go to sleep, I meditate and it helps me fall asleep peacefully and faster. More on how I meditate is below.
Well-being routine step 2 – Have programmed decisions
All of us have a limited number of attention units that we can spend every day. We can spend it any way we want but once it is spent we start making bad decisions and become unproductive. Based on research reported over many sources, including this New York Times article, we can make only so many decisions in a given day before decision fatigue sets in.
That is why we seem to be unable to make good food choices at dinnertime or always find excuses not to go to the gym in the evening. There is only so much will power available in any given day and we spend most of it, if not all of it, by the time we get our tired heads home.
The way I try to deal with this is by making certain decisions once and for all. I call them “programmed decisions”. I make them once and I use them as rules. I do not need to think about them again since I have already carefully researched them before deciding they will be a programmed decision.
As you can see, I designed my programmed decisions to enhance my mental and physical well-being, as much as possible. I listed some examples of my programmed decisions below.
I always wake up at 5.45am on workdays and at 6.30am on weekends, and go to bed at 10pm every day.
If I am up between 5.30am and 6.30am on weekends I don’t go back to bed. I know I will not fall asleep and will just waste my time. I just start the day earlier.
I always drink a glass of water in the morning, to get my blood flowing, followed by healthy breakfast.
I drink a minimum 6 glasses of water a day.
I eat a minimum 6 small servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
I always listen to podcasts or audiobooks on my way to work and from work, to use time productively.
I try to work in 1.5-hour blocks and take breaks in between.
I try to be extremely productive at work so I can have more free time to build my future after work.
In addition to avoiding downsides of decisions fatigue, programmed decisions help me simplify my life. My consulting lifestyle is already quite hard, in fact most days I have to really push myself to deliver on all the deadlines, so I want to make other aspects of my life as easy and streamlined as possible.
Sometimes I break some of my programmed decisions, but this does not happen often. The key to remember here is as long as you do it most of the time, you are fine. You will sometimes break your own rules, it does not mean you are off the wagon. Just do the right behavior the next day and you will be right back on track.
The programmed decisions that I allow myself to change, sometimes, are consistent. Good examples are not drinking alcohol and not watching too much TV. I think the reason I allow myself to break those sometimes is because in my mind those are programmed decisions for most of the time, not for all the time.
Logically I understand that life is short and sometimes I should let myself just do whatever I want to feel happy. However, there are certain programmed decisions that I break only once in a blue moon, under extraordinary circumstances, and I am very tough on myself if I do break it. Good examples are drinking 6 glasses of water or eating 6 servings of fruits and vegetables. Those are non-negotiable.
Well-being routine step 3 – Exercise
Exercise is crucial for me. I do yoga at least in the morning and I try to also do it in the evening. You will need to buy a yoga mat. Here is the type of mat I use.
That is the only equipment you need to get started and it costs just a few dollars.
I do 12 sun salutations at least once a day. It may be difficult to do at times. I found it helpful to count from 12 to 1, instead of from 1 to 12. Somehow it is easier for me mentally. I know it sounds a little strange.
The more you will do yoga, the easier it gets. If you never did yoga before, you most likely will discover that once you start, you can no longer live without doing it.
I learned to do sun salutations many years ago from a video I bought. I no longer have that video. So I searched through YouTube and found this video. I think it will be useful to learn the basics.
You will notice that yoga is a combination of meditation and exercise. It is mental and physical exercise. I liked this particular video because it is very much designed for beginners.
Yoga always takes a priority in terms of exercise. If I only have 10 minutes to exercise, I will do yoga. In fact, yoga is not negotiable. I have to do it every day. Otherwise, I just don’t feel comfortable in my own body. I feel I need to stretch, which is a feeling I am trying to avoid during the day when I am surrounded by clients and coworkers and have to concentrate like crazy on tasks at hand.
I heard the same feedback from other people who regularly do yoga. It improves your physical well-being so much that you can no longer live without it. That is why yoga in the morning is not negotiable.
However, if I have additional time, which given the craziness of my consulting lifestyle usually only happens on weekends, I do a cardio workout. I usually don’t have time to go the gym, so my favorite cardio workout is following a YouTube video. The most effective video I found so far is Denise Austin: Ultimate Fat Burn Workout.
If you come across a better cardio-workout, please let me know in the comments. If I have time, I do this full video in the morning and in the evening.
Well-being routine step 4 – Eat healthy food
I am still experimenting with diets, trying to figure out what is really healthy and what is not, what my body needs for ultimate performance and well-being. I think everyone is different so you need to avoid using generic advice and figure out what works for you.
As a staple, I drink at least 6 glasses of spring or filtered water a day and eat at least 6 servings of fruits and vegetables. I recently came across a Bulletproof diet. It is unorthodox and I am following it selectively, but I think there is something to it. I will report about my final opinion after experimenting with it more.
Here is the website where you can get a free chart with types of food they recommend to eat. So far I could not locate grass-fed butter, grass-fed meat or grass-fed eggs.
From the chart, I currently eat and drink the following items:
Beverages: coffee, Mighty Leaf green tea and bottled water.
Vegetables: Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, avocado (a lot of it), cucumber, spinach, cabbage, zucchini, green beans, carrots, butternut, eggplant (a lot of it), tomatoes and peas.
Oil & Fats: Chocolate (dark with 75-80 cocoa), fish oil, raw macadamias, virgin olive oil, raw almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts.
Nuts & Legumes: Olives (usually pitted cocktail olives), almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia, pecans, chestnuts, walnuts, pistachios (ridiculously expensive so a treat) and Brazil nuts.
Dairy: I could not find any grass-fed products so far, but I eat lots of yogurt, milk and butter.
Protein: Again, I could not find any grass-fed meat yet, but I eat a lot of chicken and turkey, some lamb, eggs, haddock and smoked salmon. The majority of my diet is chicken and recently I have been eating more turkey. I am eating so much chicken and turkey that I am now actively trying to eat other protein. I avoid processed food of any kind, including minced meat and sausages. I generally avoid red meat.
Starch: I eat pumpkin, banana (rarely as it feels too heavy), potatoes (also very rarely), oats (almost every morning for breakfast) and toasted whole-wheat bagels.
Fruit: Blackberries, lemon, raspberry, strawberry, blueberries (a lot of it), pineapple, tangerine, apple (rarely) and pear.
Spices & Flavorings: Rosemary, cinnamon, onion, garlic and paprika. I also use Indian spices from the local market that probably contains other ingredients I cannot identify. I use them sparingly, maybe a teaspoon for smell and flavor.
Sweeteners: The only sweetener I eat is raw honey. However, I am allergic to large quantities of it so you will not see me eating it often. I love honey as it reminds me of the time when my grandmother and I used to go to the market to pick up a fresh jar of honey and eat it at home with crepes, so I end up eating way too much of it and then struggle with itching of my skin for a while.
Cooking: I bake most of my food. I don’t have much time to do something elaborate so just marinade some meat and vegetables, put it in the oven for an hour and this is how I get a delicious and relatively healthy meal.
This is a picture of my lunch preparation for tomorrow: turkey with green squash seasoned with some spices, salt and a little broth. The picture is not good but it tastes good.
I experiment with healthy oven baking options. I try to avoid the prepared marinated meat in stores that you just put into an oven. I find they taste very bland and I don’t know all the ingredients. I buy the meat and use a combination of broth and vegetables to create a type of stew. I place a half-cup of water in the oven pan and cover it with an aluminum foil. If you do this and experiment with the combination of seasoning, vegetables and meats, the food is healthier and tastier.
I almost never eat out for lunch and never ever order take-outs, unless I am traveling. I think it is very expensive to buy food every day. It costs about $30 dollars with a tip to order a pizza. A sandwich and small salad bought during lunch cost about $10. A latte costs almost $6. If you add up coffee, lunch, snacks and dinner, this can conservatively cost about $30 dollars a day and about $150 a week for food.
Moreover, what you end up buying out is usually not healthy food. I did go through a phase of eating out (sandwich and soup at lunch) but luckily it ended quickly when I got tired of feeling physically sick every time I saw my credit card bill.
I also used to waste a lot of time during the lunch hour going down to get food, standing in line, picking up my food and then coming back to my desk. So much time was wasted for a very sad looking sandwich made by someone I cannot see. Moreover, I just could not trust the quality of the ingredients used, as I got sick a couple of times from the food I bought. So now I bring food from home.
This is a picture of turkey and sweet corn in my small lunch box. Maybe it does not look as pretty as the sandwiches neatly lined up at the store in my office, but I know it is healthy and tastes good.
As I mentioned before, people often ask me for tips on what I eat and how I exercise. I think this is partly because I have specific threshold for my weight and I never let myself go over it. I am about 5’9, my weight is around 48 kilogram, which is the weight at which my body is just right, it is not skinny but it does not have any fat, other than a very thin layer that makes me curvy.
In the past my weight fluctuated between 42 kilograms and 60 kilograms. In fact I had both extremes in the space of 2 months! Somehow I gain and lose weight very fast.
Over the years I learned what I needed to eat to maintain a healthy weight.
I eat very good breakfast, usually toasted bagel with cheese and oats or eggs, full leaf green tea and fresh juice.
I eat a snack around 9am, usually a fruit.
I eat a sizable lunch, which is always a piece of protein (mostly chicken, turkey or eggs) and a lot of vegetables.
I eat another snack at 4pm, which is usually fruits, but sometimes nuts and dried fruit.
Around 6.30pm I eat yogurt and fruits.
I do have some indulgences. I like red wine, chocolate, ice cream and popcorn, but this is food that I only allow myself to eat between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, when it is television time.
Well-being routine step 5 – Keep a clear mind
I try to not think unless I need to. I listen to podcasts and educational audios in the morning, as I get ready for work and on my way to work. At work I am 100% focused on work. I listen to audio books and podcasts on the way back home. I further listen to podcasts and audios books at home as I clean and prepare my lunch for the next day and eat dinner.
I then focus 100% on finishing work that I have to do and sometimes I do some reading or additional learning. Between 7pm and 10pm, if I am home, I am always working or learning.
I also listen to podcasts and audio books when I exercise. So I actually let my mind wonder only when I am having a shower. Previously I used to spend a lot of time thinking until I realized that although I do think a lot as I go about my day, I rarely think of something that adds value (here I am referring to not getting much value out of letting my mind wonder). And when I did come up with great ideas, they usually came to me in the shower. So I eliminated mental chatter from my life as much as possible.
When I work I am obviously thinking about work and how to do it right and do it better. What I try to avoid is useless mental chatter. The kind of thing that is just noise in your head but never gets you anywhere.
I learned to be able to not think as I was practicing to fall asleep faster a few years ago. I would close my eyes and imagine a white wall, and no matter where I will look, all I could see is white wall, it would never finish in any direction. I have not done the white wall exercise for many years. Over time, as I would go to bed, I was able to just stop thinking without the help of white wall exercise. Later on, as I started practicing meditation, this ability to stop thinking on demand helped me advance in my meditation practice faster.
Basically I conditioned myself to think with purpose and to limit as much as possible worrying, complaining, being angry with people, and being embarrassed and other useless emotions.
The only time I actually allow myself to think is if I need to solve some kind of problem or if something worries me. It is always thinking with a purpose.
For example, earlier today I was asked by a senior colleague to do something at work that I was not sure I should do. It was not wrong to do it but it could potentially be frowned upon. I complied with the task but it was really bothering me. On the way home, instead of listening to the audiobook as I planned, I thought through this issue and came up with the action plan on how to resolve it.
Two weeks ago I had a similar situation. One of my colleagues made an inappropriate joke and I laughed at it. In fact out of the entire study team I laughed the loudest, the longest and hardest. Afterword I felt bad as it felt unprofessional. On the way home I decided to think this through and I realized that I should not feel bad. I was not the one making a joke and, even thought I laughed, it was not in front of the client, it was only with my engagement colleagues and everyone was laughing.
I took comfort in knowing that it would have been far worse if I had not laughed and looked like the odd person. So I resolved not to laugh at tasteless jokes but not to beat myself over a small mistake.
I used to try to ignore things that would bother me but over time I realized that you cannot ignore emotions. If something is bothering you, you have to think about it, work it out internally, come up with the action plan and the problem will disappear from your dashboard.
Well-being routine step 6 – Work in 1.5h blocks and take breaks in between
You probably heard about the importance of managing your energy, not time. Tony Swartz wrote extensively on this subject. I believe there is a lot to it so I try to focus for 90 minutes blocks and take breaks in between.
Sometimes I take breaks every 30 minutes if I am feeling particularly tired.
Well-being routine step 7 – Meditation
I re-discovered meditation about a year ago, and it is unbelievably powerful. I used to meditate for a year about 3 years prior to that but then life got busy and I stopped.
The most amazing side effect of meditation for me is the brilliant moments of clarity that I get during the few hours after meditation. I just get these moments of seeing things extremely clearly and being able to think on a completely different level.
And I just know that it is meditation that allows me to do this. There were many times when I was working on a client problem and an insight came up in my mind and I just knew that I would not get it without meditation.
I follow a very simple technique. If I am around a computer, I use the following guided meditation (start from minute 2 of the video).
If I don’t have access to computer, I close my eyes and focus on my breath for few minutes. Just follow air going in and out of my body. After that I start mentally saying a mantra.
Either “sooo” when I inhale and “hammm” when I exhale, or “ai” when I inhale and “ma” when I exhale.
If I get a thought, I ignore it and go back to mentally repeating the mantra. I meditate for about 10-15 minutes this way. Most of the time I do guided meditation.
Here is a link to the presentation by Jerry Seinfeld that convinced me to re-invest in learning how to do proper meditation and committing to practicing it daily.
He shares that meditation, specifically transcendental meditation, changed his life and allowed him to be as successful as he is. He said that now, at 60 years of age, the only reason he is able to deal with his hectic schedule and 3 young kids is because of the power of meditation.
I think you owe it to yourself to try it for 2 weeks once a day. Even if you just start doing it for 2 minutes at a time. I am convinced you will see results. If I am tired and I have to work at night, meditation is what helps me refresh my mind and pull in another 3-4 hours of solid work at high concentration levels.
In fact even today, on Friday night, even thought I had no work to do in the evening, the first thing I did after getting home is meditation. I felt like passing out from tiredness prior to it and felt like I just woke up after 10 minutes of meditation. This is the closest thing to magic I have ever came across.
When I go to sleep, I meditate and it puts me to sleep. Way better than the boring white wall exercise. The magical thing about meditation is that it assists you in achieving what your body needs to do. If you need sleep, you will fall asleep. If you need just rest, you will go into a deep refreshing rest.
I am sure I need to learn more about meditation to get even greater results so if you have any advice or resources please share it in the comments.
Well-being routine step 8 – Posture
Having good posture is not only important for a successful career, as it makes us look confident and in control, but it is immensely important for our health and well-being.
I do three things to maintain good posture:
- posture exercises
- exercises and stretches to release tension in neck and shoulders
- self massage
I will now discuss each of these.
I could not find the YouTube video I used a few years ago to learn the posture exercise I usually do. It is called W, where you hold hands in a 90th degree position and pull it back for 5 seconds at a time to strengthen the upper back muscles. It is very effective. I found this exercise being done incorrectly here (starts at 0.52 sec).
The correct way is that you have to breath deeply, then you have to hold your hands at a 90-degree position and squeeze your shoulders (pull hands back) and hold it for 5 seconds at a time.
However, I found a helpful video with another exercise I tried out and will now incorporate into my routine.
Exercises and stretches to release tension in neck and shoulders:
I usually just do stretches of neck and shoulders, but I could not find a good video to show it. However, I found this video, which I worked through and found helpful.
I could not find any great videos, but here is a useful one I found that will get you started if you have never given yourself a massage before. Do it as you watch it as otherwise this video is really slow paced and you will be bored out of your mind.
My recommendation, as you massage your neck and shoulders, stay away from your spine (don’t touch it at all). Massage the parts of your neck and shoulders where tension is the greatest and apply pressure based on what feels right.
I also liked this video.
Time to wrap up this long article. In this attachment I have shared with you a list I developed for myself to track activities that comprise some of my well-being routines and other activities I want to do regularly enough so I can make it a habit. I am a firm believer that what gets measured, gets done.
This list is in my bathroom so I can track compliance with items I expect myself to do. I mark each day all the activities I completed that day. Some activities are not done every day, such as affirmations and visualization, but I expect to see myself completing it at least once a week.
I think you should try it. Take it and adopt it so it reflects behaviors you care about the most. Then use it to track your adherence to these new practices. You need to make those a habit.
You will notice that some elements of my well-being routine (7-8 hours of sleep, programmed decisions, keeping clear mind and work in 1.5 hour blocks) are not on my list. This is because I already made those elements of the well-being routine a deeply ingrained habit. It is not negotiable. It became second nature. I only have items on my list that I know I may not do if I don’t track it.
Track it for a few weeks and those new powerful behaviors will become a habit. Most importantly, don’t let yourself off the hook easily. If you decided to commit to specific behaviors, hold yourself accountable for doing those. Decide for yourself how often you should do certain activities. Don’t have on your list anything you don’t think is worth your while doing.
It should be in a way so that if it is on your list, it has to get done.
Image from Marcy Kellar under cc by 2.0 / cropped, with added text
Image is from Rob Brown under cc by 2.0 / no edits
QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What are the best parts of your well-being routine, to maintain mental and physical health and high performance? Let us know in the comments.