When more is more: self-care is the new healthcare and path to peak mental performance

How can someone maximize their productivity and performance, sustainably, without compromising their current and long-term well-being? 

How can someone maximize their productivity and performance, sustainably, without compromising their current and long-term well-being? 

Entrepreneurs and small business owners are primary among the risk groups I study: advanced, high-achieving, exceptional professionals who are conditioned to strive for sustained peak performance, above-norm productivity, non-variable motivation, who are typically high in perfectionistic tendencies, who expect a lot of themselves and others – these are the ones who push for better, faster, longer, and harder, out of themselves especially. At the same time, this very same group is particularly resistant to asking for help, self-advocating, relinquishing control, admitting defeat, taking enough breaks, resting adequately, taking enough time off, practicing self-care, and ensuring self-kindness practices because these high achievers are typically leaders, founders, managers, and executives.

As someone who specializes in applied neuroscience and positive psychology for professionals, I often get asked by these entrepreneurs, small business owners, contract employees, gig-economy workers, and hard-driving executives how they can get more out of themselves (more upside) while avoiding downtime or burnout (less downside): after all, they’re usually the boss or their own primary factor of production and they can’t afford to be out of commission for any length of time. They typically have a family to feed, people who work with and for them, and shoulder many responsibilities beyond their careers. These professionals are also characteristically highly ambitious in their vocational and business goals and want to ensure they maximize their output, performance, revenues, and income. Time and again, I get posed the billion-dollar question: how can someone sustainably maximize their productivity and performance without compromising their current and long-term health, performance, or well-being? 

Here’s the crux of it: it is often the very same tendencies and traits that typically facilitate the success of entrepreneurs, business owners, and executives in business that often also leave them at the highest risk for things like overwhelm, anxiety, exhaustion, burnout, hypertension, depression, unhealthy coping mechanisms, psychological distress, and health complications associated with prolonged chronic strain, strife, and stress. Success traits can help, hinder, and even backfire if not properly considered, wielded in moderation, and sometimes even-tempered.

Stress is Subjective & Subconscious: Everyone Experiences it Their Own Way & Amount

In brain science, the term ‘allostasis’ refers to the process by which the body responds to and deals with stressors it experiences so as to return to a stable equilibrium of the various interdependent physiological processes and systems in the body (something called ‘homeostasis’). Because the brain is a ‘mind-body’ organ – both affected by and affecting the body’s physiological responses and thought processes – how someone perceives, mitigates, and copes with stress has a lot to do with their mental state and mindset associated with the various stressors they experience in their life and career. Each person copes, deals, or responds to their ‘allostatic load’ (wear and tear on them physically and mentally because of exposure to repeated or chronic stress) differently, and not necessarily even consciously. Some people will experience primarily ‘internal’ mechanisms of coping, such as changes to brain functioning or architecture, chronically elevated stress hormones, emotional dysregulation, hormonal imbalances, sleep disturbances, cognitive dysfunction, high blood pressure, hypertension, over-active sympathetic nervous system, to name a few.

In contrast, others will cope or compensate in much more subconscious, behavioral, or passive ways, such as by self-handicapping, doubling down on perfectionistic tendencies, procrastinating, attempting to multi-task, creating chaos or clutter in their external world so that it matches their internal sensations, as examples. A key thing to understand is this: what stresses one person out during the day, might be a mere blip on someone else’s stress radar – the experience of stress is both partly subjective and partly subconscious. 

Taking Back Control of Stress for WellBeing, Mental Performance: the Four Levers

Whether you are aware of your allostatic coping strategies or not, you definitely experience stress in your life and work, and you have developed (consciously or otherwise) mechanisms to deal with everything – some days more effectively than others, in all likelihood. The good news is this: while there are some components of our coping strategies we can’t control (things like experiences, genetics, development), there are knowable and universal contributing behavioral components – ‘self-care’ – we do each have near-perfect control over, namely:

  • What we eat;
  • Our sleep hygiene;
  • Our movement schedule and
  • Our mindset.

While it won’t be the ‘whole story’ of your allostasis and ability to cope with all that stresses you out at work and in your career, bundles of research show that when you pay concerted and strategic attention to these four components of your life, you become that much more capable of sustainable output at your highest level, while also mitigating and thwarting stress and your own allostatic load. Self-care isn’t just the new healthcare, it’s truly a recipe for higher productivity, motivation, performance, and success. The goal is to get to what positive psychologists call ‘flourishing’: when you’re functioning at your own highest potential, achieving your goals, feeling mentally and psychologically situated, enjoying yourself doing it (not that every day will feel like a cake-walk!), while simultaneously not sacrificing your health or wellbeing along the way. 

Some Top Brain-Savvy Tips for Sustainable Workday Performance

Accordingly, here are my top brain science-backed tips for each of these behavioral components, to ensure you’re striving toward allostasis and flourishing at work, life, and career.

    1. Eat for Micro-nutrient Density, Worry Less About Your ‘Macros’. While high-quality protein is a must in every diet, over-focusing on your macronutrient composition exclusively is a limited, if outdated, notion. You’ve likely heard dieticians tell you to ‘eat the rainbow’, and there’s a reason for this: micronutrients that are critical building blocks for all your functional neurochemistry, immunity, physiological functioning, hormonal regulation, and emotional systems are – to the human eye – typically colorful and ‘pretty’: something you might think looks quite appetitive on your plate and to eat. Think of a beautiful salad with a myriad of ingredients, reflecting a kaleidoscope of color. Typically, the more colorful a meal is, the more micronutrient-dense it is, and the more useful it is to your various brain and body systems. Your health, wellness, and ability to cope with stress, strain, strife, or exogenous stressors are directly proportionate to the availability of these foundational nutritional components in your diet and body. Typically, avoid eating things that are white, grey, beige, bland in color, all one color, or black. 
    2. The More Humans, Machines, or Chemicals Have Touched it, The Less You Should Eat it. Avoid processed, human-made, synthesized, colored, formed, stripped, formulated, injected, regulated, altered, hybridized, modified, chemically-altered ‘foods’. The closer in form and format the food item is to God’s original creation, the better it likely is for you. 
    3. Sleep More by Going to Bed Earlier – and Be Consistent. Sleep is magic. What happens in the brain and body while you’re sleeping deeply, properly, for a good length of time each night is utterly amazing. Your brain and body repair themselves, clean systems, grow, thwart disease, undo damage, prepare for the next day, and pretty everything up. While I don’t have space here to go into all the detail about sleep, I’d love to, suffice it to say I’m obsessed with sleep as a component of peak mental performance and of any treatment plan for the things that ail us. Want to do better in your work? Work longer? Be more creative? Feel smarter? Improve cognitive functioning? Learn faster? Have better health? Heal faster? Raise your immunity? Run faster, further, for longer? Look better? Look and feel younger? Be perceived as more attractive? Get more, higher-quality sleep. Enough can’t be said about the merits of ensuring just this. Aim for eight hours each night – if not asleep, properly tucked in so you can sleep. Because the business day waits for no one, the only way to ensure you get more sleep is to go to bed earlier in the evening. Aim for 8 p.m. so that you have lots of time in bed to properly power down, sleep, and wake up without an alarm having to sound. Invest in a good mattress and bedding; get the blackout drapes, sleep without disruptive kids, pets, or partners; keep technology as far away from you as possible (e.g. clock radio, mobile device, laptop); turn down the thermostat; wear comfortable cotton pajamas.
    4. Every Twitch Counts – Don’t Overdo it in the Gym. The temptation of high-achievers everywhere is to ‘work hard, play hard, workout harder’. This isn’t always advisable. If you’re training for something, incremental adjustments to your training schedule are key for ensuring an injury-free progression toward your goal – follow the advice of your certified coaches. Otherwise, overdoing it in the gym (or track or studio) has the potential to increase your stress response, activate an undesirable part of your nervous system, and can quickly counteract the good you were trying to do in the first place. Instead, be consistent, purposeful, but moderate in physical activity. Upshift slowly and incrementally in your training. Make sure to move every day, but pat yourself on the back for every set of stairs, every extra step, every pound lifted, every twitch you made. You’ll get there, but the key is consistency and moderation. Here’s a key insight: you know you aren’t overdoing it in the gym if you can come back tomorrow without too much lactic acid, pain, discomfort, exhaustion, procrastination, or having to talk yourself into it. Do only as much each day as will allow you to definitely come back tomorrow. Aim to exercise formally at least four days a week for thirty minutes – and again, not too aggressively!
    5. Eschew Fixed or Fragile Mindsets and Adopt an ANTIFRAGILE One. How you eat, sleep, and move is only part of your allostatic story: how you think is just as critical. Carol Dweck coined the terms ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindset in her now-famous 2006 book to describe how someone might be more resilient in the face of change, stress, or strife. A fixed mindset was characteristic of someone who wasn’t resilient and didn’t believe they could learn, grow, adapt, or change and didn’t possess the mental capacity or will to try. Those with growth mindsets were described as resilient and being more open to learning, adapting, changing, seeking feedback, and rising to challenges. In 2012, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote that the ideal quality of any system is more than resilient but is ‘antifragile.’ His concept was that a fragile system experienced shocks, chaos, or stress and broke (e.g., fragile mindset); a resilient system (e.g., growth mindset) experienced stress or shocks and stayed the same, whereas an antifragile system experienced these and improved. While I encourage you to read his book, here are some topline tips for you: to improve under stress, strain, strife, or duress, strive to 1) learn more, 2) try new things, 3) go new places, 4) embrace change, 5) accept challenges, 6) lean into some randomness, 7) experiment, 8) stay curious, and 9) be open to alternative ideas, methods, and pathways (e.g. divergent thinking). Lean right into stressors or strife as learning opportunities – not obstacles. As you approach each new challenge, remember ‘you either win or you learn’, and either way, you’re better as a result. As you adopt an antifragile mindset, you become your best-brained self, an inevitable (continued) success story in the making. 

Dr. Brynn specializes in conference keynotes and corporate training for optimizing professionals’ brains at work – specifically while working, selling, or leading. Her latest book ‘The Working Brain: Optimize Your Workday Performance will be available for preorder in Q4 through Amazon or wherever you buy your books. Check out drbrynn.com to connect; for brain booster tips, tricks, and tools; or for access to other free resources to boost your workday productivity and mental performance.