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8 Lifestyle Tweaks to Help Leaders Perform in the Achievement Zone

According to the recent global Pulse of Talent report, by the HR tech firm Ceridian, 9 in 10 middle managers have experienced burnout over the past year.

With interest rate rises, the cost of living crisis and the pressure to do more with less, managers are being squeezed from all sides. They are dealing with employees who are uncertain and senior leaders with high expectations.

All of these stressors are taking their toll on leaders. And it's going to be some time before things get better. Now is the time to look after yourself.

Staying in what I term the Achievement Zone requires practising techniques that improve our cognitive function. 

Keeping ourselves in peak physical condition strengthens our executive brain functioning.  This is the prefrontal cortex that sits at the front of our brain that is responsible for complex decision-making, regulating our emotions, problem-solving, time management, envisioning the future and planning. All of the things that leaders need to do daily.

Often, when I coach leaders I find they treat maintaining their body as an after thought. Not realising how it is negatively impacting their moods, their ability to make good decisions and avoid illness.

So let's take a look at some important areas that you can tweak to ensure you keep yourself functioning at an optimal level - making it easier to perform at your best in demanding situations.



1. Eat three regular Meals

A common error I see leaders make is that they skip breakfast or lunch thinking that it will give them extra time to do work. That may sound good in theory, but being hungry significantly impacts your decision-making abilities.
Eat at regular times and don't let yourself get to a stage where you are too hungry to function properly (but you keep pushing yourself, anyway).
Of course, the quality of your food is important, too. Don't settle for convenient processed foods or sugary drinks. Aim to eat whole foods with plenty of vegetables and fruit.

2. Prioritise Sleep

Another common practice is to 'gain time' by working late at night and reducing time in bed. Again, this might sound reasonable but not getting enough sleep takes a big toll on your brain.

Lack of sleep hinders the formation and maintenance of brain pathways essential for learning and memory creation, making it more challenging to concentrate and respond promptly. Adequate sleep plays a crucial role in various brain functions, including the communication between nerve cells (neurons).

Sleep deprivation can lead to moodiness, irritability, and a decline in brain functions, such as memory, concentration, and decision-making. Additionally, it weakens the immune system, making us more vulnerable to infections.

Commit to 7-9 hours of sleep and practice good sleep hygiene. Create a nightly ritual to get yourself ready for bed an hour before. This includes switching off your devices, listening to soothing music, keeping lights dim and taking a warm shower or bath.

3. Take a Nap

One of the benefits of working from home is that you can more easily schedule in a nap. 

Of course, we live in a western culture that doesn't value naps - but a short nap (20 minutes or less) increases alertness and cognitive performance for up to three hours afterwards. No wonder that creative geniuses like Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali used naps to spark their creativity.

To avoid feeling groggy, make sure you nap before 3pm and sleep for less than 20 minutes. Napping is also advantageous if you're not getting enough sleep at night, you are feeling irritable or having trouble concentrating after lunch.

4. Drink Enough Water for your Body Weight

The brain itself is made up of approximately 85% water. Water gives the brain energy to function including thought and memory processes. Water is also needed for the production of hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain.
A 1-3% decrease in hydration levels can negatively impact our focus, attention and memory.
Aim to drink 500ml of water a day for every 15 kilograms of body weight.

5. Oxygenate your Cells

Physical activity is beneficial for your brain as well. Engaging in regular exercise can enhance your cognitive abilities, including thinking, learning, problem-solving, and emotional balance.
It also has a positive impact on memory and can help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. Additionally, maintaining a consistent exercise routine can lower the risk of cognitive decline, including dementia.
As your heart rate rises during exercise, blood flow to the brain increases, resulting in an enhanced supply of oxygen and nutrients to your brain. 
The increased presence of oxygen stimulates brain activity, leading to improved clarity, concentration, and focus. It's comparable to providing optimal fuel for your brain's performance. By increasing oxygen levels, you can enhance your cognitive abilities and boost overall brain function.

Schedule at least three workouts for 30 minutes doing something you enjoy that increases your heart rate. This can include a brisk walk, taking a run, kick boxing or doing a high intensity workout.

6. Meditate Regularly

The benefits of meditation to your wellbeing and brain health are numerous.

Meditation has been shown to strengthen the areas of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, and self-awareness. Additionally, the practice can have a calming effect on the sympathetic nervous system. Over time, incorporating mindfulness meditation into your routine can enhance cognition, memory, and attention.
Aim to do 10 minutes a day. This can be as simple as listening to an app ( I love Hay House meditations) or a YouTube video. 

7. Get out in Nature

Spending time in the outdoors is a wonderful panacea for our busy brains.

Studies have indicated that spending time in natural environments can have a positive impact on working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attentional control. On the other hand, exposure to urban environments has been linked to attention deficits.

Engaging in a leisurely stroll through a park or along the shoreline can provide a much-needed respite from stress. If you find yourself lacking the time to spend outdoors, simply gazing at lush greenery or listening to the soothing sounds of nature can also bring relief.

Australian researchers conducted an experiment where students were asked to perform a monotonous task that required them to press a computer key when specific numbers appeared on the screen. Interestingly, students who looked out at a blooming green rooftop for 40 seconds during the task made significantly fewer errors compared to those who took the same 40-second break but gazed at a concrete rooftop instead.

The sounds of nature can also contribute to recuperation. Berman and colleagues discovered that study participants who listened to nature sounds like chirping crickets and crashing waves performed better on demanding cognitive tests than those who listened to urban sounds like traffic and the bustling noise of a busy café. 

 8. Tidy up your Space

It is true - messy desk, messy mind.
Our brains thrive in an organised environment. Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute have used fMRI and other methods to demonstrate that our brains naturally prefer order, and that constant visual reminders of disarray deplete our cognitive resources and hinder our ability to concentrate.
Moreover, their study revealed that when participants decluttered their workspaces, they experienced improved focus, information processing, and productivity.
If your desk is cluttered, take some time to tidy up and make it look and feel better. Throw in some colourful artwork and objects that make you feel happy. You will find it much easier to work at a desk when it looks appealing.

The Body-Brain Connection

Our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes have a significant impact on our biological functioning. Put simply, our minds play a crucial role in determining our overall health.

The scientific community increasingly agrees that a strong connection between the brain and body is essential for executive function.

It all starts with prioritising the well-being of both your body and mind. Taking proper care of yourself is of utmost importance.

It's a misconception to believe that to be productive you have to work continuously. Our brains and bodies need a break. Working through meal breaks when we are tired and hungry does not actually save time. We make more mistakes, poorer quality decision and treat people less well than we would normally.
Taking better breaks such as a walk in a park, a nap or a short meditation does wonders for our cognitive function. Optimising our brain health means we get things done better and faster. It also helps regulate our emotions, so we are less likely to be depressed or anxious and more likely to engage in positive interactions with others.
Which of these practices can you incorporate into your daily routine?
If you want help sustaining momentum in the Achievement Zone, then join my Leadership Mastermind.
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