I’ve suffered from migraines since I first collapsed in the middle of my finals at Oxford. For those first years, they were clearly related to stress – you try having your entire university grade (and career prospects, as we thought at the time) being decided by eight exams over the space of two weeks! The migraines continued as I pushed myself in my master’s degree, through my summer internships, and then as I started working in a big corporation. I remember one day coming into the office on my first day back after the Christmas break and within a couple of hours, I couldn’t see the computer screen anymore (this is called an ‘aura’ that comes at the start of a severe migraine) and I had to go home. Another bad one was when I was in the middle of the dress rehearsal for my theatre group’s production of ‘Chicago’, while I was also packing up my flat and finishing up at work ahead of taking my sabbatical off work to travel in South America.
When I left that corporate job and, for a while, didn’t have an office to go to, I stopped setting an alarm in the morning and slept until I woke up naturally. I had more time to cook at home and I didn’t go out for after-work drinks. I also dedicated myself to ‘higher pursuits’ – reading books on the sofa, writing blog posts and planning my business. As I started to get more work and, soon, full-time contracts, that all fell apart and I very quickly got sucked into the cycle of pushing myself hard again and working long hours. When I ‘quit’ again after doing that kind of contract work for a couple of years, I went into a new phase of exploration, travel and meeting amazing people – but I didn’t exactly have a lot of money coming in as I shifted direction in the business. Finally, in the last year or two, I’ve settled into a balance of work that I love and that generates income on the one hand, while continuing my exploration and adventures on the other.
Through all these ups and downs, I’ve realised how complex your health and wellbeing really is. There are layers to it, just like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the bottom, you have your physiological needs, and this is where we usually focus our attention when we think of wellbeing. We decide we need to ‘eat better’ and ‘do more exercise’. But what does ‘eating better’ mean – with nutritionists disagreeing and recommending anything from low carb to clean eating, Paleo to vegan, how are we supposed to navigate this ourselves? The same goes for exercise: it used to be cardio, now it’s interval training and weights, then there’s yoga… In any case, all this talk of diet and exercise is only the very base of the pyramid and one small part of our wellbeing. True wellbeing is so much more than just the physical, spanning also your mental, emotional and even spiritual health.
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We need a wellbeing strategy!
I love a good strategy. There’s nothing I enjoy more than scribbling ideas in my notebook, drawing up a vision on my whiteboard, and planning action steps. (No? Just me, then?) Strategies can be helpful for so much more than just business and, with that in mind, I’ve put my mind to work on a possible wellbeing strategy.
The first thing to do, as with any strategy, is to get clear on your vision – what success looks like. And, just as when you’re reimagining success in your life beyond the narrow focus on work, you want to make sure that you’re considering more than just the basics of physical health. If you were to prioritise your wellbeing and achieve everything you’re hoping to achieve in this area, what would that look like? How would you look? More importantly, how would you feel? Why is this so important to you? How would other areas of your life be affected? How would your relationships with your family and other key people in your life change? How would you be able to approach your work and business? Having this clarity on where you want to get to and why is critical to being able to take the necessary steps and to having the motivation to get there.
Next, you want to look at what’s currently getting in the way in terms of your mindset – your limiting beliefs, your fears, your excuses. Examples might include “I don’t have time,” “I’m just not a sporty person,” or “first, I have to…”. Reframing these beliefs is key to achieving your goals – for example, “I don’t have time not to prioritise my wellbeing, as failing to do so will jeopardise my business and our family’s income,” “There’s no such thing as a sporty person (– or, as Nike says, everyone is an athlete!),” and “My wellbeing is my number one priority and needs to come before anything else on my calendar.”
Then you can develop the strategy for how you’re going to achieve your vision, overcoming those obstacles that you’ve identified and identifying the actions you need to take. This is where you want to consider all the different levels of wellbeing and not just the obvious physical aspects and basic health.
Finally, you want to implement that strategy and really anchor it in your day-to-day life. You want to turn each of the actions you’ve identified into a habit, something that’s completely non-negotiable – just like brushing your teeth every morning and night. Use time blocking in your calendar and make those appointments with yourself as sacred as your external meetings (if not more so).
To help you – and me! – to identify and prioritise all the different levels of your wellbeing and really put this at the heart of everything you do, I’ve created a guide. It encompasses five levels: Body, Head, Heart, Mind, Soul. I believe true wellbeing comes when we address each of these levels.
For example, if I’m pursuing fulfilling work, being creative and exploring the world, my heart and soul might be thriving – but if I’m neglecting my body, that base of the pyramid, then that’s not going to be sustainable and I’ll eventually crumble as my body gives in. On the other hand, I might be eating really well and exercising but the rest of the time I’m hunched over my laptop, stressing over deadlines and getting migraines every week – that’s not going to be sustainable either.
*Disclaimer: I am not a doctor and I don’t profess to be an expert here. This is not about curing illness and if you have any serious ailments then please make sure that you see an appropriate professional. In fact, that should be part of your wellbeing strategy.*
Tune in next week to explore my framework for designing your own wellbeing strategy.
Of course, this is just the beginning. In the coming weeks, we’ll be looking at how to go about implementing this strategy and how to build a business and career with wellbeing at its core.