Professional, physical and mental health interact in ways we never imagined.
In order to succeed, we need to be kinder to our minds and bodies
Four hours a day.
The research suggests this is the optimal length of time we should spend working. Sadly business culture is in no hurry to challenge the 20th century formula that traps most professionals in the office for at least twice that daily.
For the typical digital worker, it’s possible to learn the basics of personal branding and break through as a freelancer, creating a lifestyle that brings both professional satisfaction and the opportunity to get more out of life. On the other hand, working less is simply not feasible for entrepreneurs with big dreams and the will to pursue them. Such a life demands attentive planning and a routine inspection of one’s physical and emotional health, in order to avoid complete burnout.
Unfortunately, modern entrepreneurs tend to have some very unhealthy habits.
It’s a frighteningly common story — in the first year of launching, founders live off fast food, sleep about four hours a night and spend their waking hours stuck at a desk getting very little downtime. For the most successful business owners, this creates the necessity to take a well-deserved break once revenue is flowing. For the not-so-lucky majority, burnout sets in too soon and a project that could have taken off has to be abandoned completely, along with dreams and any semblance of self esteem.
Entrepreneurship, at its most basic level, is a race against the clock; the central question is ‘what can be built before I run out of money and energy?’
Really committed entrepreneurs can remove money from the equation by finding temporary revenue streams to support themselves. All that remains is a question of energy, and the process of diverting as much of it as possible to the venture.
Looking after your body and mind is a skill. Like any other skill, it can be learnt and it can be practiced. For professionals with the desire to accomplish their dreams — whether that’s to build a transformative business or just to live a calmer, simpler lifestyle — cultivating this skill brings remarkable benefits.
What goes into your body?
Digital professionals are exposed to a remarkable amount of bad science and even worse journalism on the topic of diet and nutrition. The idea that there’s a magic formula for superb wellbeing is compelling. This is especially true for those who can afford the latest superfoods and fad supplements, but don’t have the time and energy to properly verify the claims being made — or to discover the catastrophic consequences for the environment when huge quantities of these goods are exported from developing countries.
The signal-to-noise ratio in online discussions about nutrition is abysmal, but that’s not to say there’s no signal at all. Health forums are abundant with advice on modern low-carb diets, cutting down on alcohol, drugs and sugar (perhaps replacing the latter with a naturally sweet herb like stevia) and limiting caffeine intake to the morning and early afternoon. The relationship between sleep quality and overall wellbeing is better understood as a result of these online communities, and the growing vegan movement has shown the benefits of at least reducing our consumption of meat and dairy. Finally, digital professionals who don’t regularly perform strenuous exercise are learning that overeating is a major cause of fatigue and eating less in general is probably more appropriate for their lifestyle.
What comes out of your body?
Companies are quickly learning that a gym membership is a very valuable benefit to offer employees, and offices equipped with an onsite gym are increasingly common. Exercise doesn’t just make us sweat; it also teaches us how to breathe properly, as does yoga, singing, martial arts, the Alexander Technique, and most meditation disciplines.
It might not be obvious, but breathing is a skill like any other. Learning to breathe really well helps with stress reduction, cognitive function and preservation of our cardiovascular and digestive systems — benefits that are hard to ignore. But technique is just half the battle — there’s also the question of what exactly we’re breathing in. In 2017, London exceeded its air pollution target for the year in just five days; for 2018 its performance was slightly improved, breaking the limit in one month. Cities in the USA are regularly described as giant parking lots.
For most digital professionals in the developed world, getting access to real green space and the bounty of fresh air it provides is no small feat. This is to say nothing of the fact that many talented programmers, designers and strategists are drawn away from rural or small-town life for the professional opportunities in big cities — sometimes with a heavy mental health burden.
Who looks after your body?
Doctors and Nurses are amongst the most trusted professionals in the world. The fusion of rigorous science and empathetic care that drives medical practice lengthens lives, alleviates pain and empowers us to fulfil our potential. It’s a troubling reality that access to healthcare is in crisis in both the USA and the UK, limiting the availability of this powerful service and prompting more people than ever to turn to the internet for advice.
In this context, new strategies for wellbeing are ripe for exploration. The digital business community is especially enamoured with the promises made by nootropic drugs, evidence-backed traditional medicines, and experimentation with a variety of vitamins and supplements. Digital professionals are reading scientific literature and participating in online communities to discuss the claims being made about various nutrients and practices. The savviest explorers remain conscious that the advice of a doctor is significantly more authoritative than any claims made by profit-seeking organisations.
What does your body need to succeed?
Tech addiction is our new reality — especially so for digital professionals. This isn’t just a headline-grabbing term but a real addiction, as poisonous as any intoxicant and as obstinate as any disorder.
The terrifying truth is that even an avid gym-goer is not moving their body naturally and consistently while sitting behind a desk. Standing desks, kneeling chairs, office stretching — all of these are valid tactics for combating the problem, but none of them attack it at the root.
The root of our wellbeing crisis is not a particular set of behaviours, inputs or environmental conditions, but a problematic attitude.
People who are driven to succeed in an endeavour inevitably arrive at some variant of Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? — the philosophy of eliminating distractions, focusing only on what matters and dedicating every moment and every decision to the pursuit of the one most important goal. This idea is ubiquitous in business, and appears in some form or another in almost every entrepreneurial autobiography, management book and self-help manual out there. It’s an idea that works. It’s also an idea that leads to disaster if not properly understood.
Being driven to succeed can lead us to make poor decisions, like: working for an extra hour when we’re already too exhausted to function at our best; eating badly and inconsistently to save money and time in the short term; choosing to stay indoors all day to avoid distractions rather than getting the fresh air and natural light our bodies so desperately need; reacting emotionally to anything that looks like an obstacle, and constantly reassuring ourselves that we’re doing what we love and have always dreamed of — even when our minds and bodies are begging us to change course.
Making the boat go faster — dedicating yourself to your enterprise or calling — does not mean sacrificing the pleasures and moments of peace that are essential to keep yourself in good condition.
How do you learn to be good to yourself?
More and more digital professionals are discovering they can set up shop in Thailand, or other Southeast Asian countries, and benefit from a low cost of living, high level of amenities and prevalence of a calmer way of life.
In Bangkok, a street food vendor holds a Michelin Star. The northern city of Chiang Mai — perhaps the archetypal destination for digital expats and nomads alike — has a truly global culinary scene. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to call Thailand the food capital of the world, with the growing vegan and permaculture communities adding even more diversity to the inexpensive barbecues and fresh fruit sellers that line almost every street. Thailand offers a life in which food is totally painless; it’s always available, it’s always good and it’s very rarely expensive. There’s no diet healthier than falling in love with food.
Muay Thai — the National martial art of Thailand — is a form of kickboxing practiced by militaries and combat athletes across the globe. Yoga, martial arts and meditation traditions steeped in years of history are widely practiced throughout the country, with no shortage of teachers who are delighted to take on new students. The opportunities for trekking, climbing and exploring in the countryside are numerous and easily accessible, and even urban areas are ripe with lush green trees that make the city feel alive, even when human noise is absent. Many condominiums and apartment buildings feature small gyms and swimming pools, and most cafes offer fast Wi-Fi and plenty of outdoor seating space.
Thailand is the world’s number one destination for health tourism, with a medical service that’s incredibly affordable even without insurance. Digital expat organisations that help professionals move to Thailand arrange free and comprehensive coverage for their members, and the digital business ecosystem is a real life hub for the biohacking and experimental health communities that generally appear to only live online. ‘Western’ medicine has primacy in Thailand, but there’s no shortage of traditional and Chinese Medicine practitioners. It’s not unusual to meet medical doctors who have also studied alternative systems, making them some of the best professionals in the world to offer a frank discussion about the evidence and psychological factors behind a whole variety of remedies and practices.
Thailand is a country that makes it easy to establish a relaxing daily routine, with less stress and more sunlight than is typically available to digital professionals. Working four hours a day or dedicating every waking moment to the mission are both facilitated by putting down roots in the Land of Smiles.