I speak from experience when I say mental health in the workplace cannot be overlooked. I recently quit my job with a well-known mobile technology news and reviews website, Pocketnow. I was another casualty of burnout, an increasingly problematic side-effect of the long, relentless hours of an “internet job”.
At the time, having pigeonholed all my other passions (like DIY, coffee, and video games), I blamed my burnout on waning passion for phones and mobile tech. In truth, that wasn’t the case at all. Currently, all my friends and former colleagues are in Las Vegas, covering all the shiny, new gadgets at CES 2015. The only thing I want is to be there alongside them, doing what I love to do.
The true reason for the burnout is a combination of a couple things: extremely long hours, excessive (and sometimes impossible) workloads, weeks of unmanaged stress levels, and my lack of caring for my personal health, both body and mind.
Only after taking a step back, decompressing, and assessing everything that had happened did I realize how much impact I actually had on the entire situation, how my neglected health and stress levels were easily the biggest factor in my burnout.
Ever since leaving Pocketnow in November, I’ve been working similar hours with similar workloads. Sure, I’ve had the occasional stressful day, but my mental and physical health are in a totally new place. Much of it has to do with how I approach my days and what I do during each work day.
Below you will find 10 exercises you should use everyday to keep your brain and stress levels in check and get more done.
Listen to music
The first thing I do when I sit down to begin working each day is open Spotify. Without music, my mind wanders and I’m prone to give into every distraction. If there is some background music, however, I tend to get right to work, forget about what’s going on around me, and tap into a heightened state of focus.
That said, there should be parameters to the music you listen to while working. Certain songs or types of music can and will be distracting while working. Songs I know the words to, in particular, pull me out of my work and I often find myself singing or tapping along. Depending on the work I’m doing, this isn’t always a bad thing. But if I really need to focus and get some serious work done, I typically throw on some classical or instrumental music just to disrupt the background noise (or lack thereof), engage my mind, and buckle down.
I’ve sometimes been known to also throw on some white noise or nature sounds, such as rain on a tin roof or gentle waves.
Years of research has yielded tons of conflicting results on how music affects productivity, and you’ll likely find it affects your personal productivity differently than mine. Some say its the sound masking that helps or the mood spike you get from your favorite music that brings on an upswing in your productivity. Some find noise or music harmful to productivity.
The best solution is to find what works for you and stick with it. For me, it’s not always the same thing. If I’m not feeling the classical music one day, I may switch to death metal (yes, death metal) for a while and experience the most focused state I’ve had in months.
Silence all notifications
In a world constantly filled with dings, vibrations, and pop-ups, it’s unbelievably easy to get distracted. You can be in the zone, getting more work done in a few hours than you have all week. All it takes to ruin that productive streak is a single buzz from your phone.
After that initial break in concentration, it can take 20 minutes or more to regain focus. You may even find it difficult to fall back into that productive state.
Over nearly six years of writing, I’ve learned there are few things worse than being ripped out of writing an article mid-sentence. Every day, before I begin writing, I always silence my watch, phones, and tablet; I close the email app, Mailbox, on my Mac; and I make sure any other possible notifications or distractions are silenced.
Not everyone can go completely off the grid for a few hours while they work – especially those who work a standard nine to five. What happens if someone actually needs to get in touch with me? What if there is an emergency?
Fortunately, technology has come along far enough for such a situation. On iOS, Do Not Disturb has exceptions for contacts in your Favorites and for repeat callers (a second call from the same number in under three minutes). The latest version of Android (Lollipop) also comes with a similar feature. While silenced, you can allow priority notifications from starred contacts. Enabling these features while working will keep distractions to a minimum while not making you totally unreachable in the case of an emergency.
For Gmail, you may want to consider using Batched Inbox to only receive mail at set times each day.
Get a breath of fresh air
Not only does sitting for extended periods of time have a tremendously negative impact on your physical health (and even life expectancy), being cooped up behind a desk or in an office all day seriously affects your mental health, too.
Every so often, get up out of your chair and stretch. Get the blood flowing, disengage your mind, and decompress. As humans, we need natural light in our lives, and a single breath of fresh air can work wonders on your mental state. Step outside, take in the sun rays.
I use an app called BreakTime on my Mac and 30/30 on iOS to remind myself to take a five to 10 minute break every 55 minutes. I don’t always do the same thing on these breaks – I just get away from work for a short period and focus on something completely unrelated. Sometimes I’ll take a short cruise on my skateboard, play a game on my phone, step outside and take in some nature, or go find a light snack.
After the short break, you will come back to work feeling refreshed, less stressed, and in a better mental state to get things done.
Clean your workspace
After a few days of hardcore work, my workspace typically gets a little cluttered and messy. I’m okay with a little disorganization on my desk – I work a lot, I’m always working with different tools and building things, and I often drop things on my desk as a reminder to do something or to take care of a matter later. I like to refer to it as controlled disorganization.
Studies have shown that a cluttered workspace can actually spur creativity. Some of the worlds most creative minds are a tad messy and disorgaized. But order and cleanliness have equally helpful effects, such as “healthy choices” and a clearer mind. While I like a few too many things on my desk, when it gets too cluttered or messy, the only way for me to get any work done from it is to clean it off and reorganize. I sort items and put them in the proper place, dust, remove unnecessary items, and straighten. And I usually feel inspired to get to work and check some items off my to-do list afterwards.
Not everyone operates this way, though. Some prefer to keep a dedicated, clean and minimal workspace and a separate workspace for more creative, messy work.
Change your environment
In a previous article on the Todoist Blog, I talked about the effects of coffee on productivity. Obviously, everyone reacts differently to a cup of coffee; personal tolerances, varying caffeine levels, and time of day are only some of the variables.
Another side-effect of coffee that I mentioned, however, is the aroma. For many, simply the smell of coffee can be just as (maybe even more) helpful as actually drinking a cup. This is why, when I’m feeling a dip in productivity, I will leave home and work from a coffee shop. My brain relates the smell and scenery of a coffee shop with work and I immediately feel like buckling down and working through a to-do list.
Of course, coffee shops aren’t the only place you can go to get work done. If your work allows, try moving outside for a while, working from a park, or moving to a lounge. Just like taking a walk, simply getting out from behind your desk and working from another location – maybe even simply across the room – can help increase productivity.
Binge on entertainment in your downtime
One of the biggest distractions of my day is YouTube. I work on YouTube and I have a lot of friends who do, as well. As much as I like to call watching YouTube videos work, it’s also a huge producivity suck.
When I’m feeling a midday slump coming on, I will cease all work and get the urge to watch videos out of my system. I’ll go through a handful of videos, close the browser tab, and get back to work.
It doesn’t have to be YouTube that you binge on. Maybe it’s Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or an RSS feed. Whatever it may be, use it to your advantage. Gorge yourself when you’re taking a break or waiting on an email response. Watch and binge in your downtime so you will feel less drawn to it when you actually need to get work done.
Meditation is a practice not used often enough for many of us. I’m guilty of only having meditated a couple times in my life. As helpful as it is, it’s also difficult to stop everything and do absolutely nothing for 10 minutes. For me, it usually results in a nap that lasts way too long.
No less, meditation is a powerful tool. According to a Harvard University study from 2000, meditation can increase the size of the brain regions associated with focused attention, deep thought and memory, says Vivian Giang on American Express’ Open Forum. According to the study, meditation also helps alleviate anxiety, depression, fear and anger.
Take a quick nap
If meditation doesn’t work for you, a short nap might. While upper management may still look down on naps, the benefits of giving your mind and body a midday rest are numerous. Closing your eyes for 10 to 20 minutes can help boost retention of facts and creativity. Naps which range from 60- to 90-minutes are that much more helpful, as they typically allow one full sleep cycle (including REM). As I previously explained, however, naps between 30 minutes to an hour can leave you feeling worse than you felt before you napped, thanks to what experts call sleep inertia.
I usually avoid naps unless I’m feeling groggy and I have trouble keeping my eyes open. This is when I know coffee or a brisk walk outside won’t help. I set a timer on my watch for 15 or 20 minutes and kick back on the couch.
The difference in how I feel before and after these short naps is incredible. They’re a last resort, but I rarely regret a solid nap.
Check and organize your to-do list
Much of workplace stress can be attributed to a growing list of to-do items and not enough time to get them all done. While obsessing over a to-do list countless times per day can be detrimental to your productivity, maintaining shop and organizing one or two times per day can help you get a better sense of what’s done, what needs to be done, and the order items need to be completed.
I don’t mess with my to-do list in the morning. I try to get my following day setup and organized before I go to bed. But I do open it around midday to check off all completed items, add any new tasks that may have come up, and better categorize or organize existing items. I do the same thing when I’m around 75 percent done with my workday. And I make sure everything is in order before I go to bed again.
If I’m feeling overwhelmed, taking a glance at my to-do list and checking off a few items usually gives me a feeling of relief.
Alter the lighting
Lighting also has a major effect on your productivity. Warm lighting may be more cozy, but lighting with a blueish hue can spark productivity and, according to a study from October, have a similar effect to 240mg of caffeine. This should come as no surprise, as this blue light is often the culprit for keeping you up at night. Backlights on mobile devices and laptops tend to emit blue light, which inhibits the release of melatonin, fooling your brain into thinking it’s still daytime. Warm lighting, if bright enough, can have the same effect, especially in the evening hours.
It’s best to use these lighting techniques to your advantage. If your mobile devices are keeping you up at night, use applications like F.lux for Mac or Lux for Android, which will artificially add some warmth to the color of your display. Use blue LEDs to light your work station for a period during the day. And use natural light in the evening to help ease you out of a long work day.
This list certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all of exercises you can use to keep your productivity levels high. If you have some tips you want to share or thoughts on anything mentioned here, drop a comment below!