Most of my readers are either already in, or are in school working toward a high stress job career in a highly competitive discipline. That or you’re the parent of one of the above and probably worried about what the pressure cooker will do to your offspring.
When I say high stress, I don’t mean investment bankers or lawyers that work 80-100 hour weeks. I have never done that and I have no idea how anyone does.
I’m a data scientist, and I’ve worked all my career in startups. This is in general a higher-stress industry but rarely to the soul-crushing extremes you hear about in medicine, finance, and law. The problems are hard, deadlines are generally tight, but it rarely exceeds 50-60 hours per week and no one yells at you.
The First Thing To Remember About High Stress Jobs
The most important thing to remember in a high stress job is to recognize that you CANNOT put off taking care of yourself. If you’re neglecting key areas, it’s likely damaging your health – quite possibly in an irreversible way, prematurely aging you, and ultimately degrading both your happiness and your effectiveness on the job.
For many people, the long hours and the high stress are a consequence of failing to take care of their health, rather than the other way around.
They think that they don’t have the time or energy to maintain their health because of work, but often the reason they don’t have time or energy is BECAUSE they neglect their health.
Now, there are probably cases in which case you have no choice but to work huge numbers of hours, but for the majority of even highly competitive jobs, it’s more about performance than time on the clock. And for almost everyone, performance is determined by how healthy, rested, and energetic you are.
Manage your energy first, time second. Most of what I say below is largely what I recommend for optimal focus anyway and my readers will recognize most of it, but it bears repeating and special emphasis for those in competitive careers.
One thing that holds many people back, including myself at some points, is the idea that exercise takes a lot of time. If you’re aiming to be really fit, then that’s somewhat true. However, you can maintain decent fitness with consistent, short workouts.
You can do a decent workout with weights or something like high-intensity interval training in about half an hour, though if you warm up, shower, etc. it may be a bit longer.
To make it even more simple, you can do something like the 7 minute workout, or 16 minutes of Tabata training at home with no equipment – which is what I do most of the time.
The key is that it needs to be intense and consistent. With heavy resistance training, 3 days a week might do it. For everything else, 4-5, or even 6 days a week are probably better.
Don’t Lean On Coffee
I know a few of you metabolize caffeine so fast that you can drink a bucket of espresso right before bed and still sleep like a baby.
However, most can’t. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, but I I have more than a cup or two per day, or drink anything after noon, I have trouble sleeping or don’t sleep that well.
It’s not always that noticeable until I stop drinking coffee entirely, and I’m always amazed at how much better I sleep and therefore how I don’t really need coffee to get started the next day.
I’m pretty sure it’s not just me. I have coworkers that I see chugging coffee at 3pm, and they are usually the ones who mention that they’ve had trouble sleeping.
My point here is not to disparage coffee, so much as to caution you not to rely on it to get you through the day. Odds are it’s just covering for poor sleep and health habits, and actually making the sleep worse.
Maintain A Good Diet
One unfortunate thing about stress is that it makes us more tempted to eat junk. This is multiply unfortunate, since, short-term boost aside, this will degrade your performance and amplify the physical damage that stress wreaks on your body.
To stay healthy and keep your mind and body operating well, avoid processed and highly glycemic food and drinks. I recommend some variant of low- or slow-carb with a lot of good fat and protein.
Diet is a big topic, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here. You know or can easily find out what you need to know, my point here is just that you especially need to follow through if you’re under a lot of stress.
Be Obsessive About Sleep
Can’t emphasize this enough. No matter how many hours your getting, you’re not sleeping enough if you routinely have trouble getting up in the morning or are persistently tired throughout the day.
I know in some cases this can’t be avoided, such as if you’re a new parent, but most people have the time to get enough sleep, they just aren’t disciplined about it, or their sleep quality is poor.
Not overdoing coffee is part of this, but so is avoiding blue light from computer screens, getting to bed on a regular schedule, and making sure your bedroom is completely dark, etc.
Again, I can’t tell you every detail about how to fix this, but the knowledge is easily accessible and you should be taking this very seriously.
If you’re tired, odds are most of your working hours aren’t actually that productive. Why spend two hours tired when you could accomplish the same or more in 30 minutes while well rested?
Competitive careers can be interesting and rewarding in a lot of ways, but they can wreck you if you don’t keep the upper hand. If you prioritize your health and energy first, rather than grinding out the hours, odds are you will perform better without having to sacrifice more important things.