When I was in college, I used to get so tired mid-day that I would sit in the back of class and take a nap. (In fact, there were some classes I went to specifically to take a nap). By the time I had my big-boy pants and a big-boy job, not much changed: lunch at 12pm and, by 1:30pm, my head was bobbing and weaving like a heavyweight boxer. No one likes feeling so tired they could fall asleep on a bed of nails. Worse, having poor energy levels interferes with work. Low energy levels kill productivity and cognitive abilities.
When I converted from full-time work to full-time freelancing over 19 months ago, I knew I had to get my proverbial shit together. I couldn’t struggle through fatigue just to “log in my hours” anymore. If I did that as a freelancer, my clients would stage a mutiny, and I’d be dancing for nickels by a freeway off-ramp.
Turns out I’m not the only one who wants to maintain my energy levels all day without drinking a metric ton of caffeine: a quick Google search of “how to stay energized all day” gave me over two million results.
Worse, the statistics on low energy and the subsequent decline in productivity isn’t pretty.
The costs of low energy levels
Let’s paint a picture of this “worker fatigue” landscape in the ever-hectic 21st Century. According to a study of the connection between health and work productivity, low energy levels are a pain in the wallet.
From an EHS Today article on the study: “Of the nearly 29,000 employed adults interviewed, 38 percent said they had experienced ‘low levels of energy, poor sleep or a feeling of fatigue’ during the past two weeks. Total lost productive time averaged 5.6 hours per week for workers with fatigue, compared to 3.3 hours for their counterparts without fatigue.”
Hmm… but does that really make a difference?
“For U.S. employers, fatigue carried overall estimated costs of more than $136 billion per year in health-related lost productivity — $101 billion more than for workers without fatigue. Eighty-four percent of the costs were related to reduced performance while at work, rather than absences,” according to the article.
(Here’s the actual study.)
Gotcha. So while it might not seem like much, low energy levels hurts your overall performance and costs the company—and yourself—money. So much so that, nowadays, innovative companies like Google, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Zappos, and Ben & Jerry’s have allowed employees to take naps to maintain their energy levels and improve worker productivity.
What can the rest of us do to stay energized throughout the day? And more importantly, how do we maximize our energy so we feel fresh, alert, and active while doing the work and hobbies that we love?
Read on for the best tips to feel great all day long. Start incorporating these into your daily life and you’ll reap the rewards almost immediately.
Sleep at least eight hours a night
I rank sleep first for a reason.
We need sleep. It supplies our energy and it recovers our body and mind after a long day. But despite its importance, our average amount of sleep is falling like a lead rake. In 1910, the average American slept 9 hours every night. Now, it’s down to about 7 hours.
Causes like electronic devices and the increasing stress of modern-day life have lead to the decline. Worse, a lack of sleep is linked to an increase in almost every type of major health problem: high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, heart attack, and cancer—just to name a few—even when confounding for poor or strenuous working conditions that may create long shifts.
And when it comes to poor energy levels and lousy productivity, sleep depravation is public enemy number one. Something as simple as sleeping four to five hours a night for one week would have the same effect on your cognition as a blood alcohol level of 0.10 percent. Bottoms up!
According to another recent worker survey, 23 percent of employees admitted to experiencing some form of insomnia at least three times a week during the previous month. As a result, at the macro level, lousy sleeping patterns actually costs the U.S. economy over $63 billion per year in lost productivity.
And if that scare tactic doesn’t work, consider this: a lack of sleep makes you fat. In a study of over 6,000 participants in the International Journal of Obesity, Japanese researchers found that shorter sleep duration was correlated with a higher body mass index and a bigger waist.
Here are some tips for better sleep:
- Stop drinking caffeine after mid-day (or switch to decaf).
- Drink less alcohol because it hurts sleep quality.
- Stop using electronics an hour before bedtime.
- Create a pre-bed ritual to get your body and mind ready for sleep.
Eat nutritious food
You are what you eat.
Bad food like processed carbs, refined sugars, and synthetic oils creates inflammation within your body and damages your gut lining. This will kill your mood and energy levels. From an article in Precision Nutrition: “Consider this: 60 liters of blood are pumped into your brain every hour, providing oxygen, removing waste products, and delivering nutrients. If that blood is nutrient-deficient, or carrying junk that doesn’t belong, it’s going to interfere with your brain’s function—specifically its ability to create necessary neurotransmitters.”
In other words, whatever nutrients you consume find a way to pass through your brain. “Most serotonin—the happy-making neurotransmitter—is made in the gut, not the brain. Poor GI health could prevent its production, meaning you’ve got less of those good, happy chemicals in your brain,” the article also says.
Worse, eating crappy food can actually make you feel worse. According to the study, high consumption of processed food was associated with an increased likelihood of depression.
Also, avoid skipping meals. Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering Human Strength, gives this powerful example of the effects on performance of eating breakfast versus not eating breakfast:
“All the children in a class were told to skip breakfast one morning, and then, by random assignment, half of the children were given a good breakfast at school. The others got nothing. During the first part of the morning, the children who got breakfast learned more and misbehaved less (as judged by monitors who didn’t know which children had eaten). Then, after all the students were given a healthy snack in the middle of the morning, the differences disappeared as if by magic.”
So eat regularly and eat healthy.
I avoid that whole “my diet can kick your diet’s ass.” Instead, here are a few super basic tips that will help increase energy levels:
- Eat one fist-size of vegetables with every major meal.
- Avoid processed carbohydrates.
- Avoid sodas and other sugary beverages.
- Eat more healthy fats: avocados, nuts, eggs, fatty fish, coconut oil, butter, etc.
- Drink more water.
Structure your day better
Imagine if you had a large, empty jar and a table covered with big rocks and small, tiny rocks. What strategy would you do to get the most rocks into that jar?
Easy. Put in the big rocks first. Then, you would fill the remaining cracks with small rocks.
And that’s exactly how you should tackle your workday: focus on the biggest rocks. Once you step into your office—or your pseudo-office for my freelance peeps—the first thing you should do is your highest-priority tasks. (Examples include mission critical deadlines, assignments, projects, high-complexity tasks, etc.)
Because you only have a finite amount of cognitive energy. In a rather interesting and delicious study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers asked people to sit in a room with a table with chocolates and radishes. One group was told not to eat the chocolates while the radishes were fair game; the other could eat either. Then, both groups took an unsolvable test. Guess who gave up quicker? The radish group.
By exhausting their willpower by abstaining from the chocolaty goodness, the radish group had little left for the test from hell. From the study: “These results suggest that the self’s capacity for active volition is limited and that a range of seemingly different, unrelated acts share a common resource.”
(I wonder how I would’ve done; I like radishes.)
Here’s the takeaway: if you start your morning by melting your cognition on trivial tasks and multitasking, you’ll have less mental energy for the harder, more-important stuff. Chances are, once you get to the high-priority stuff, you’ll do a worse job, too.
- Before you go to sleep or before you start work in the morning, create a list of things you need to do and sort them by priority.
- Chances are there will be one to three things that really pop out. Do those before touching anything else—email, social media, less-important tasks, etc.
- Avoid multitasking. Switching between too many tasks hurts productivity.
If you spend your entire day in a florescent box, it’s time to break out and get some real sunlight.
You need sunlight to, you know, live. Sunshine is the absolute best source of vitamin D, consisting of more than 90 percent of your intake, and researchers from Boston University found that vitamin D is critical in preventing a plethora of problems like diabetes, heart disease, and bone disorders.
It also improves your energy levels. Sunlight has been shown to reduce depression and fatigue symptoms of people with multiple sclerosis. And remember how important sleep is? Well, getting sunlight actually improves your sleep quality because it regulates your circadian rhythm and helps you sleep faster and deeper.
Sounds like a win-win to me. Just a few minutes of sunlight on your bare skin (without sunscreen) a few times a week is enough to give you great effects. If you plan to spend more time in the sun, however, use sunscreen.
Try these simple strategies to get more sunlight everyday:
- Take a quick walk in the middle of the day.
- Eat your breakfast or lunch outside.
- Take your phone call outside.
- Park your car farther away from your work so you have a longer walk.
Jazzercise. Do people still do that?
Whatever. The important thing is that you do any type of regular exercise. I mean, heck, there are few things in life that give you such exponentially good and sexy health benefits: it burns fat, builds muscle, maintains your brain health, improves stress resistance, keeps hormones at optimal levels, elevates your mood, and—surprise! surprise!—improves your sleep quality.
It also boosts your energy levels. By simply doing some regular aerobic exercise like light biking, jogging, and swimming, you’ll improve your mood and energy via your endocrine system, which also manifests itself in better self-efficacy, ability to handle distraction, and cognitive dissonance.
Now, I’m not saying you have to look like Schwarzenegger to get these benefits. Start simple, and do things you enjoy. For extra credit, combine exercise with going outdoors. Go on a hike, jog, bike ride, or swim or even take a few pieces of equipment and get a workout in the park.
- Do 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise at least two times a week.
- Do 30 to 60 minutes of strength training at least two times a week.
- Ultimately, do things that you enjoy. Don’t jog on a treadmill because you think you have to. Go rock climbing, go swimming, play badminton, or whatever activities you genuinely like.
I had “naptime” in high school: it was called third period English. (Look at me now!)
But don’t poo-poo the benefits of a naptime. The National Sleep Foundation, for example, recommends a short nap of 20 to 30 minutes “for improved alertness and performance without leaving you feeling groggy or interfering with nighttime sleep.”
Instead of that usual energy dip in the mid-afternoon, taking a few minutes to close your eyes really jumpstarts your mental performance and learning ability.
But wait, what about an afternoon cup of coffee? Wouldn’t that be a worthy substitute if you don’t have naptime at the office?
Not necessarily. In a study conducted by the University of California, San Diego (my alma mater, by the way), researchers found that an afternoon nap improves your ability to perform motor, perceptual, and verbal tasks better than caffeine or a placebo. Those who took caffeine, however, had worse motor skills than those who napped or had a placebo. Caffeine takers could only say that they felt less sleepy than the other groups.
Maybe you’re thinking, I don’t work on a Tempur-Pedic Mattress like you, Anthony. I’ll get fired.
No problem. Below are some tips for both nap-friendly and nap-unfriendly offices.
- Take a quick catnap at work in the early afternoon if your work allows it. If your work says no, put on some headphones and listen to soothing music for ten minutes with your eyes closed
- If you work from home, you can choose between a quick nap of 20 to 30 minutes or a longer nap of between 60 to 90 minutes (which offers more pronounced benefits). Your call.
In The Ultimate Guide to HRV Training by Joel Jameison, he uses an analogy that your stress response is like a bank account. You can do things to increase your funds, like exercise, sleep, or eat healthy foods. At the same time, daily events, like stress, bad diet, traffic, or injuries, can drain on your account.
The truth is that everything—from eating a healthy meal to yelling at your phone when it freezes—impacts your stress levels in some way. And while I’ve talked primarily of the hard, scientifically proven things you can do to boost your energy levels throughout the day, I want to also discuss the subjective tactics we can use to stay alert and ready to go.
Here are two words that encapsulate these tips perfectly: slow down.
Enjoy things, smile more, laugh, and worry less. Work hard, yes, but when you get home, separate yourself from the office.
I have no proof of this, but I’m willing to bet happier people have more energy than unhappy people.
- Try a gratitude practice: everyday, write down three things for which you’re thankful.
- Put away the cellphone for a few hours everyday or one day per week. Don’t worry: the house won’t burn down.
- Enjoy more long, uninterrupted meals with friends and family.
- Spend more time in nature.
- Go for a relaxing massage once every few weeks.
- Take a cold shower. It releases beta-endorphins to help you relax, reduces inflammation, activates your parasympathetic nervous system for more calm, and helps you sleep better.
Give these a shot and let me know how it went in the comments below.