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Maximizing Wellness By Simplifying

This summer has taught me a great deal about being more effective in every part of my life.

I don’t get to do this very often, but the other night I had some quiet, reflective time to myself, and I got to thinking about my life, my health, my practice, my kids, and how it all tied together. I want to use this week’s “Wellness Wednesday” to share some of my thoughts with you because I believe the health implications of this kind of thinking are significant.

The Effect of Major Events

There were four major events this summer that impacted me deeply:

  • I took my daughter hiking in the mountains of New England.
  • I took my son on a trip to Costa Rica.
  • My dad passed away at age 83.
  • I got a phone call from a friend, who simply asked, “We haven’t talked. Are we still friends?”

I don’t know if you would call me a workaholic, but I tend to be pretty driven, especially about my work. In between all these events, I still worked like I have always worked, keeping my goals and vision out in front of me. Dad’s death rocked me to my core, even though it wasn’t a surprise (we all knew it was coming). I did pull back a little bit at work to make more time for my mom and the kids, but maybe not enough. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the phone call was a warning sign to me. It was the orange-and-white-striped highway sign letting me know that there was a lane closure coming up ahead.

So recently, I “pulled over,” if you will let me continue with the analogy. I had an evening to myself, and I had a long conversation with myself where I reevaluated where I am in my life and where I am going. As much as I may hate to admit it, there are some places where I need to simplify. I don’t necessarily know what that looks like yet, or how it will play out, but I’ve always heard that recognizing there is a problem is the biggest part of finding a solution. So, I have a couple of key things I wanted to share with you from that conversation.

Stress Will Ruin Your Life

First of all, stress will ruin your life — not in just a short-term, make you not want to get up in the morning sense, but in the long-term, burn out your major organs sense.

Saying goodbye to my dad came with a certain level of stress in the grieving process, and the logistics of caring for my mom, my sister, and our families. In my love for them, I want them to be comfortable and peaceful during this time, so it’s not a bad thing, but not all stress comes from bad things. Caring for loved ones, being excellent in your work, raising a family, managing money, serving in church — these are all good things that add a certain amount of stress to your life. Again, just because an activity is not bad, fearful, or frustrating doesn’t mean it does not contribute any stress to your life. A certain amount of stress is necessary to sustain life, but what is so important is how you manage it.

Unmanaged stress will age you prematurely. You can literally see it all over people’s faces: the dry, creased skin, clenched jaw, thinning hair, and stiff, sore joints. Even though stress originates in the mind and emotions, it triggers a cascade of neurotransmitters that affect every other system in your body: unmanaged stress can burn out your adrenal glands, cause acid reflux and ulcers in your digestive tract, and flood your body with the fight-or-flight hormone, cortisol. A short burst of cortisol is useful when you are in danger, but most of us leave the cortisol faucet on all day long, spraying our organs with corrosive acid for hours and days at a time. That will do permanent damage if you don’t get it under control. You will also find your body storing an inordinate amount of fat around your torso. Your spare tire might actually be more closely tied to your anxiety about work than to the donut you have on the way to work.

Simplify Through Time Management

I’ve found some effective ways to manage my stress over the years, but I still see ways that I need to simplify my life. Time management is so crucial to stress management. Not over-committing — learning to say “no” to good things — could be the difference between being healthy in my 60s and being tired and stiff in my 60s.

This is where priorities come into play. What do I consider more important — my family or my work? My (almost non-existent) social life or my work? Speaking opportunities or my daughter’s games? Sunday evening family gatherings or church events? Saving or investing? Having a super-nice car or having all my bills paid on time? Growing my practice or spending more time with my current patients? It’s a never-ending balancing game, and my vision for my life is the centerpiece of all of those decisions.

One of the biggest causes of stress is not having a clear vision for your life because you have no grid for making decisions. I have struggled with this for most of my adult life in one area or another. Some decisions are clear because I know who I am and what I do, but others are more difficult, especially when I have to choose between two good options. I don’t know if you’ve seen this in your life, but I very seldom have to choose between a good choice and an evil choice. No, I usually have to choose between two good, positive options, like having dinner with friends and spending time with my kids. If you don’t have a clear, laser-focused vision for what you want your life to look like, you will vacillate between two good choices. That indecision leaves an open loop in your life that you never close, and open loops never give you relief from stress. As long as you have two options open, you will always disappoint someone.

Priorities Are The Framework For Simplifying

As I was thinking about all these issues, I realized that there are still ways that I can simplify my life. At this stage, relationships are more important to me than building a big practice or having a ton of money. I will never regret the time I spent in the mountains with Taryn or the time I spent sliding down the waterfall with Tristan in Costa Rica. I will never regret the time I spent by dad’s hospital bed or the time I now spend with mom. But what about my time with friends and colleagues? Where does that fit? What about the time I volunteer at my church? And what is beyond that? My association with the Blue Zones organization presents me with opportunities to widen my sphere of influence. That could be a positive or it could be a negative, and the factor that will decide that is how it would affect my higher priorities. There will be seasons in my life where I have time to do more public speaking and teaching, but can I handle it in this season without hurting my higher priorities?

In a recent article, I encouraged you to write down the top five most important things in life. I still believe that if money ranks higher than your family, your priorities are backward, but now I want to go a step further.

I would like to suggest that if you have more than five items on your list, you have too many things pulling on your attention. Family, friends, faith, work, and health seem to be the maximum priorities most people can handle. If you enjoy a time-consuming hobby, it might become a burden unless you can effectively manage your time in the other areas. Because time is finite, any time you give to one part of your life has to be taken from another part. Your job is to decide how much time you are willing to give to each area. Bonus points if you can combine them — cultivating your friendships at church or around fitness seem to be workable scenarios where you can do two things at once. So is preparing meals with your family.

Now think about how much time you spend watching TV or surfing the Internet, and ask yourself which priority that fulfills.

Is Your Work Number One?

If you work 80 to 100 hours per week, it is time to ask yourself why. Are you working to satisfy your own ego? Because you are sure that no-one else could ever do it as well as you can? Are you working that much to avoid having to see your family? Are you hiding from a part of your life that is causing you pain? Are you trying to show your upcoming class reunion how important you are? Are you having to keep up with your snooty neighbors? Did you buy too much expensive stuff that you have to maintain? Are you really living? Or are you thinking about your personal life at work, and then thinking about work when you’re at home? I’ve needed to learn to focus when I’m at work, so I can relax and focus on relationships when I get home. I haven’t mastered this by any stretch of the imagination, but I know that it’s true, and I’m working toward it.

There is a theme going around in entrepreneurial circles that tells you to go 24/7 for up to seven years, and then retire rich, and you can write a check to cover for all the pain you left in your wake. I believe in hustling at work, but I also know that you need to go home and switch off your work face every night. The difference is focus. Give your work 100% of your attention for a set amount of time and go home.

The Priority Nobody Ever Remembers

Now consider this: quiet time for resting is the non-negotiable sixth priority, and to maintain a long, healthy life requires that you fit it somewhere among your top three. That’s a hard pill for driven people like me to swallow, but I’ve been to too many funerals for people under age 70. You need to sleep.

Simplify By Staying Healthy

One other thing I want to put out there for your consideration: sickness complicates life. Pain complicates life. Being tired and lethargic all the time complicates life. One way to simplify your life is to follow this formula: Move Right, Eat Right, Think Right, and Live Right.

Now, if you’ve never spent time working out, adding regular exercise to your daily plan will feel like a complication at first. But I think you will find that, by toning and strengthening your body, you will feel better, sleep better, have more energy, and keep a better mood. That will make other parts of your life better. Start the Move Right Monday exercise series for a month and tell me how you feel afterward.

By eating right, you will find that you have more energy to do the things that are important to you. Your thinking will be clearer. Your moods will be brighter. Can you see how that would positively impact other parts of your life? Again, eating right means that you will have to spend more time prepping meals — you can’t just throw a plate in the microwave anymore — but the payoff in wellness will more than compensate for the extra 15 minutes you spend before each meal.

And honestly, if you’re so busy that you can’t spare 15 extra minutes to prep a meal (not to mention spending an hour enjoying a leisurely dinner laughing with family and friends), you are a prime candidate for a life-altering health crisis like a heart attack, and you need to rethink that.

The Choice Is Yours, But There Is A Wrong Choice

You can heed the gentle messenger or you can wait until the harsh messenger puts you in a hospital bed. It’s your choice. I’m just letting you know what burnout looks like before you get there. Making small, simple changes now can prevent catastrophe.

I’m on a journey of simplifying my life, and I urge you to think seriously about ways you can simplify your life. You have 168 hours every single week; how do you want to divide them between your priorities? What is going to bring you the most value? What is going to give you the quality of life you want?

Ask yourself these questions, and I will, too. Let’s compare notes. What are you finding in your life that you can cut — that you need to cut? Share your thoughts in the comments on Facebook. I’d love to hear what you think. While you’re at it, take 8 seconds to share this article on your favorite social media channel. There might be someone in your circles that needs to read this, and you don’t even know it. Let’s get the word out.

If you live in the Naples area, I welcome you to stop by office behind the YMCA on Pine Ridge Road. Let’s talk about your health goals and how you can achieve them. And don’t forget to mark September 7th on your calendar. We’ll be having our next Fundamental Foods dinner at 6:15 pm at my office. I’m really looking forward to getting these started again. We always have a great dinner and a great conversation about maximizing our wellness. I’ll look forward to meeting you there.

“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.”  — Eric Thomas

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