You Can’t Do It All (So Stop Worrying)
How science shows that it’s not about doing “it all” – it’s about what we do overall.
As a journalist who writes extensively about finding the connection between our mind, body and health, and who also shares publicly my personal story about recovering from an autoimmune disease, I’d love to tell you that I have found a single magical key to balance, harmony, health and longevity. I’d like to say that after a blissful nine hour sleep each and every night, I rise with the morning chorus of birds to perform an hour of yoga, followed by an hour of meditation. I’d love to tell you that all my food is made from scratch, that my relationships are always in sublime harmony, that my emotions are invariably in balance, and that my stress levels are infallibly low.
One of the most common questions I’m asked during interviews and public presentations is — how do I do it all?
The answer is — I don’t.
I’m constantly trying to find a balance between my health priorities, and the needs of my two small kids, my husband, my work, and spending time with my family and friends. Between the grocery-shopping, the clothes-washing, the house-cleaning and the meal-making; the meetings, the emails and the interviews; the errands, appointments and get-togethers, there are always things left undone. It’s taken three days to write this one sentence and since the birth of my second child almost six months ago, the concept of ‘me time’ is completely foreign. Being ok with that is still something I’m working on, and I take heart in a quote often attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading mindfulness expert who I interviewed a few years ago for my feature film The Connection — Mind Your Body, who says:
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
Having said that, this does not mean that I’ve stopped looking after myself. So to answer the question of “How do I do it all?” let me explain my approach to health by telling you about one of my favorite scientific discoveries.
In what is one of the most extensive studies of longevity ever conducted, a team of researchers at University of California, Riverside are analyzing data that was originally collected in 1921 by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman. Through the Depression, war, marriages, parenthood, grand parenthood and the full catastrophe of life, a group of 1500 men and women have been studied to see who lived long, who died young, why some were healthy, and why others became ill. Researchers have now published their findings in over 150 influential and often-cited scientific articles and book chapters. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the cheerful, positive thinkers who who lived long, hearty lives. Nor was it the marathon runners, or organic broccoli eaters. The healthiest people in The Longevity Project were united by one very distinct personality pattern though. They were diligent, thorough, hardworking, reliable, responsible, committed, and persevering.
In a word, they were conscientious.
Telling your friends that your new health mantra is “commitment and consistency” is not going to make them think you’ve uncovered a profound path to radiant health and enlightenment but the scientific evidence to support this approach is astonishingly robust. One study of 1000 people, known as the Hawaii cohort, found that if people were conscientious as a child, they were more likely to be healthy in middle-age. Another found that conscientiousness can predict slower disease progression in HIV patients. A meta-analysis (a study of studies) linked higher levels of conscientiousness to having a lower risk of death.
All in all, people who are conscientious stay healthier, thrive, and live longer.
When you think about why this may be, it’s fairly obvious. Conscientious people engage in a variety of important healthier behaviors. They smoke less, eat better, take their medicine, and are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, or drive without a seat belt. Conscientious people are likely to choose healthier environments and relationships, as well as have more successful careers, better educations, and higher incomes, all of which are known to be relevant to health, well-being, and a longer life.
Regular readers of my blog will know that I’m all about taking a whole-health, whole-life approach. This includes taking our medicine, eating our vegetables, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep. It also means reviewing our mindsets, beliefs and expectations, tending to our stress levels and emotional well-being as well as nurturing our relationships. But in our crazy, busy, modern lives we’re constrained by a finite reservoir of resources. There is a limit on our time, money and energy, and unless all we ever have to do all day long is focus on our health, then there’s absolutely no way we can possibly meet all the recommendations made by all the experts, all of the time.
So, to rephrase the original question about how to do “it all”, I think the key is to think about what we can do overall.
Nowadays, rather than trying to fit everything in, every single day, I look at my health behaviors over a span of time. One takeaway TV dinner a week isn’t a problem. One every day is. Working hard to meet a short-term deadline isn’t a concern, but months of stress from deadline after deadline is. One late night won’t do much harm, but years of sleep deprivation needs attention.
What we can learn from the long-lived men and women in the The Longevity Project is that when it comes to our health, we need to be discerning, dedicated, diligent, committed, and consistent. We need to be conscientious and if we are, then we have the power to shape our overall, fundamental patterns of living to lead a long, healthy life. By taking this approach, there is an ease that comes into our moment-to-moment health decisions, and we can stop worrying about doing everything perfectly, every single day.
Originally published at www.thewholehealthlife.com.