Raising the Floor

I recently started eating the same breakfast and lunch everyday. This change, along with a few other small behavior changes, dramatically improved my work life.

Several months ago I was working at what felt like an unsustainable pace. The problem wasn’t the usual suspects of volume of work or hours, but rather a nagging mental and physical sluggishness that I felt were negatively impacting my performance. The biggest one: I was regularly exhausted by 3pm. On my worst days I found myself cancelling or postponing certain types of mentally intensive but not time critical exercises (e.g. long-term planning) because I didn’t have the energy for them.

For a while I attributed my sluggishness to a few external factors:

  • I have young children (one of whom is a newborn), so feeling tired is a constant in this season of our lives.
  • Parenting during Covid remains physically and existentially exhausting.
  • Most of my time is spent in meetings, in the same room, in front of the same computer screen.

These are all legitimate reasons to be tired, and 2 out of 3 felt very much out of my control. As a result I struggled to think of what I could do to improve my situation.

Then I read Atomic Habits by James Clear, which challenged me to think about my life in terms of behavior and outcomes. Most importantly it made me reconsider how my actions were setting my workday up for success or failure. In work and many other areas, I’m confident in saying the book legitimately changed my life.

Atomic Habits

The premise of Atomic Habits is this: if you want to change something about you, focus less on your desired outcomes and more on your habits. More so than what you say, what you regularly do represents the “votes” for the type of person you want to become.

An example is someone who sets the goal of writing a book. That’s an admirable outcome in theory but one that quickly becomes overwhelming in practice. Maybe you have the steam to write a few thousand words over several sessions, but writing a book requires the reps of doing that for years. Instead, Clear argues, it’s more actionable to focus on developing the habit of writing everyday. Once you’ve developed the space, discipline, and schedule to write everyday, writing a book becomes less a matter of “if” but “when.”

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” – Atomic Habits, Chapter 1.

I think about this quote all the time. I have desired outcomes in many areas - fitness, mental health, finances, career - but what habits am I practicing that are “voting” for those outcomes?

What if one of those outcomes is to feel less tired during the workday?

Bad breakfast sandwiches

Every morning I drive by a Dunkin Donuts while dropping my son off at school. Until a couple months ago I’d often stop at the drive thru on the way home and purchase a breakfast sandwich. My rationale was that purchasing a breakfast sandwich is easy, and “what do I eat for breakfast?” is a question I hate devoting energy to.

Here’s the thing: Dunkin Donuts breakfast sandwiches are bad. They’re unhealthy, non-satiating, and ~$5. While that’s not an overwhelming unit price, I’d argue it’s $5 more than you should pay for a bad sandwich. And paying $5 1-3x a week adds up over time.

Greasy breakfasts make me tired. When I’m tired I compensate by drinking more coffee. When I drink more coffee my near-term energy increase is often countered with an eventual energy crash.

Lunch introduced a similar problem. I have a limited time window between meetings. I like to cook, but it takes a while and there’s cleanup. Leftovers again? Go out quickly and buy something? “What do I eat for lunch?” is my second least favorite existential question. More often than not I’d default to eating the most convenient alternative, which was rarely good for my body or my wallet.

Turns out what I eat dramatically impacts how I feel1, which in turn impacts my energy and mental acuity. I suspected if I solved the problems of what to eat everyday my energy problems would similarly resolve.

I was right. For the last several months I’ve defaulted to eating the same breakfast and lunch everyday:

When I say “default,” I mean I still occasionally deviate to different meals when serendipity / inspiration / timing permits.3 But it’s rare, and if I feel tempted towards the easiest option of a fast food drive thru, I ignore it. I don’t even consider it. I trust in the system of coming home to eat oatmeal.

My energy is significantly better since choosing cleaner meals. And because I can make either oatmeal or salad in under 5 minutes, I love how much more time I have in the mornings and early afternoons. I have more uninterrupted time to finish work. Sometimes I exercise, sometimes I read. Sometimes I work on a blog post about eating oatmeal and salad in service of the longer-term goal of rekindling a writing habit.

Controlling what I can control

I’ve written previously about how one of the less intuitive yet hardest parts of management is the indeterminate emotional variability of each day. As a new manager I remember being surprised by how much a meeting or conversation could totally deplete my energy for the rest of the day. While my job still requires me to occasionally engage in difficult or emotional conversations, I’m no longer undermining my own stamina with my behaviors. Eating cleaner raises the floor of my energy.

“Eat clean and you’ll feel better” is far from novel advice. But the most meaningful part of this experience was taking a critical eye to the factors I could control instead of acquiescing to those I could not. Parenting is tiring, especially during Covid; can’t get around that one. In fact I’m often tempted to a drive thru breakfast because of that tiredness. But revisiting that problem through a more productive lens - and 20 minutes of weekly shopping - changed my days. And I can’t overstate how much simply changing what I eat everyday makes me a more resilient and available leader.

The benefits of changing my eating habits had the ancillary benefit of making me think about other potential improvements to my work routines. Some behaviors that stuck:

Mapping my schedule to my energy.

In January I moved all of my 1:1s towards the end of the day. I’ve learned that my creative energy is strongest before lunch, so I specifically reserve that time in my calendar for writing/reading documents or strategic planning. Because a considerable amount of my work is producing or reviewing written materials, I now find my creative output on these deliverables to be much more consistent and higher quality.

Building an exercise habit.

I alluded to this earlier, but I often exercise during lunch. I invested in a home gym during early Covid and can finish a quick workout in 20-30mins. I focus less on the length of my workouts than how regularly I exercise, and short workouts work better overall for my schedule. After I finish I take 5min to prepare my salad and I’m back at my desk in under an hour. These workouts have done wonders for my energy and mood during the latter half of the day.

Removing distractions during meetings.

I wanted to fix a problem where I felt like I wasn’t giving my full attention during meetings. The biggest reason was Slack - I get a lot of DMs and notifications and it’s often difficult to ignore the bouncing dock icon when I should be focusing on the humans in front of me.4 5 Mac OS allows you to maximize applications as a Space, and dock two apps side by side in a single Space. Moving an app to a Space is nice because it’s an immersive view, meaning it hides the OS X dock and application menu bars by default.

I now make it a point to take all of my meetings in a Space with Chrome and Google Meet6 side by side. I’m conscious of only using Chrome to view my calendar, type/view notes, or look up documents related to the current meeting. I now feel less distracted in my meetings, which not only allows me to participate more actively, but also model the behavior of respecting the time and attention of those I’m meeting with.

Footnotes

  1. Oh the joys of your late 30s. 

  2. Huge endorsement for frozen blueberries. Picked at peak freshness, indefinite freezer life, and simultaneously thaw within and cool a hot bowl of oatmeal. In my experience fresh blueberries begin to mold the moment you look away from them. 

  3. A common question I receive is “don’t you get tired of eating the same thing everyday?” Absolutely. And when I can’t take it anymore, I eat something else. But at this time in my life the benefits of sticking to these meals far surpass the cost of monotony. I also feel less guilty indulging a bit for dinner, which maps better to trying to feed a young child with a very opinionated palate. 

  4. I recognize that one obvious solution to this is “close the app,” but that just means the notifications start hitting my phone. I could mute those for the duration of a meeting (I don’t want them persistently muted), but that’d also require me to remember to unmute them. Honestly the least disruptive path for me is to keep the desktop app open but temporarily pay less attention to it. In related news, the flowchart of how Slack decides to send a notification is totally bananas. 

  5. I hate having a 1:1 when someone’s attention is obviously elsewhere. I don’t want to persist that disrespect for others. 

  6. Our company uses Google Meet. I break out Meet specifically into its own Chrome application, meaning it acts more like a desktop application. I like this a lot better than keeping Meet in a browser tab. Nothing is worse than not being able to find the browser tab in which a meeting is being hosted. 


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