How to put in long hours (and not run out of steam)

The standard full-time working week in Australia is made up of 38 hours. Yet according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around 225,000 of the country’s 7.9 million full-time employees put in 70 hours or more.

Despite numerous studies telling us that such ‘overwork’ can have a negative effect on health and productivity, long hours are often the norm for small business owners – whether out of necessity or passion for the job.

The key to functioning properly under these conditions is taking care of yourself, says Dr Suzy Green – a clinical and coaching psychologist and founder of The Positivity Institute. Here, she offers several tips for working (and living) comfortably when putting in long hours.

Look after your health

If you plan to work overtime, you need a foundation of good health, says Dr Green. “It's impossible to sustain peak performance over a prolonged period without reenergising,” she explains. “I follow the acronym MEDS, which stands for Meditation, Exercise, Diet and Sleep. You need to regularly ask yourself: am I taking my MEDS?”

The first step, meditation, means different things to different people. It might involve sitting quietly, listening to a mindfulness app or doing a relaxing exercise, such as yoga or Tai Chi. Whatever the activity, the purpose is to give your brain a break from work. “We've known for a long time that you need to have a physical exercise regimen for optimal wellbeing,” Dr Green explains. “Now, there’s enough research to suggest that mindfulness should have equal priority.”

Next comes physical exercise, which Dr Green says is often neglected during busy periods. “When you think you don't have time to exercise, you really need to prioritise it,” she says. “If you’re stressed, aerobic exercise in particular gets the adrenaline out of your system and supports neural growth. The mood-boosting effects also lead to enhanced creativity.”

 

A good diet is also important. Dr Green recommends eating foods that will maintain energy levels – and not skipping meals.

As for sleep, research tells us that adults should aim for seven to nine hours each night. Any less and it could damage your wellbeing, as well as your work. A 2012 study found that fewer than six hours a night is a predictor for job burnout.

A healthy lifestyle helps Luke Scott, owner and founder of Revolution Personal Training, stay on top of his game when working overtime. “From Monday to Friday, I can be at the studio from 5.30am until 9pm, then head back for half a day on Saturday,” he says. “If I ever feel myself getting flat or tired, I’ll do a workout and it generally picks up my energy levels for the rest of the day.”

Make sure to take time out of your busy work day to relax or meditate

Make meditation or ‘timeout’ activities a vital part of your day

Take lots of breaks

When you’re busy, breaks are probably the last thing on your mind. But what if they could actually make you more productive?

During the day, our bodies move from a high-to low-energy state every 90 to 120 minutes. Towards the end of each cycle, known as ‘ultradian rhythms’, our bodies tell us we need a break, by giving us signals such as restlessness, yawning, hunger and poor concentration. If we ignore these signs, our energy reserves continue to burn out throughout the day. But if we listen to our bodies and take a break, the rewards can be tremendous. Studies tell us that disengaging from work for just a few minutes – perhaps listening to music or going for a walk – can dramatically improve our ability to focus on a task.

For Scott, having a massage is a great way to unwind. “It’s how I mentally zone out,” he says, adding that running has also been beneficial in the past. “My long runs on a Sunday were always pretty therapeutic and a way to clear my head and get some fresh air.”

Dr Green refers to such rest periods as micro breaks, but adds that macro and mini breaks are similarly important. “Macro breaks might be your once-or twice-a-year holiday,” she says. “Having something to look forward to can be a real mood-booster.”

A mini break, on the other hand, should be scheduled every quarter – even if it’s just taking a long weekend to rest and re-energise. “Another useful ‘break’ is the monthly monk day,” Dr Green continues. “Rather than working in your business, you work on your business. It’s a chance to look at the bigger picture and your long-term strategy, rather than just keeping the engine running.”

 

Create a life timetable

Exercise, meditation, breaks – how can you fit everything in? Dr Green is a fan of ‘life timetabling’. “Schedule your absolute responsibilities, such as picking up your children from school,” she suggests. “If you're a small business owner, nominate the hours when you want to dedicate your focus. And have some family and social events in there as well, such as dinner each night with the kids. This might mean putting some boundaries around your working hours.”

The purpose of a life timetable is to help you become clear about your values. “What really matters in your life?” Dr Green asks. “I usually get people to name their top five priorities and then draw up their ideal week. You might not follow it every week, but it’s something to aim for.”

Five tips to avoid burnout

  1. Develop an exercise regimen that fits easily into your day.

  2. Use a life timetable to schedule all professional and personal commitments.

  3. Be kind to yourself and acknowledge all the progress you have made.

  4. Make time for meditation or other activities that take your mind off work.

  5. Connect with a professional coach, colleague or friend to discuss how you’re tracking.
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