Six Healthy Choices – Time Management & Well-Being

“Mens sana in corpore sano
(A healthy mind in a healthy body).”

Time Management is about making conscious choices about how to use your time. Consistently good choices lead to health, wealth and happiness; while too many poor choices (we all make some poor decisions!) leads to frustration, fatigue and unhappiness.

There are many areas of life where making good choices matters e.g. dealing with email, handling projects, managing upwards etc. but our focus here is on Time Management theory and its relevance to our sense of well being.

Six of the best

When it comes to making choices that promote health, happiness and peace of mind, the science clearly highlights that there are six topics that are of primary importance:

  1. Exercise
  2. Sleep
  3. Diet
  4. Friendship
  5. Meditation
  6. Prioritising Positivity

Exercise – the best medicine in the world

According to the UK’s NHS website people who do regular activity have a lower risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and some cancers. Physical activity can also boost self-esteem, sleep quality and energy levels, as well as reducing the risk of stress, depression, and dementia. So exercise is a vital element of living a happy, productive life. Someone who is keen on sports will, no doubt, follow an appropriate training regime to prepare them for their preferred event. However, for those who aren’t sports enthusiasts, what is the minimum amount of activity that needs to be done to get these health benefits? There are two types of activity that can give great returns… NEAT (non exercise activity thermogenesis – so normal daily movement) and… HiiT (High Intensity Interval Training.)

HiiT involves alternating periods of short intense anaerobic exercise with less-intense recovery periods. There is no ’standard’ method or protocol, and HiiT sessions vary from 4–30 minutes. If it’s any longer than that it’s not HiiT – the idea is to ‘shock the body’ into a ‘healthy response mode’ and that means short, sharp intense workouts. These short, intense workouts provide improved aerobic capacity and improved glucose metabolism (so they help prevent diabetes.) You can get the same results from 3 HiiT sessions a week as from five, much longer, traditional training sessions. They can use any exercise that will boost heart rate e.g. exercise bikes, rowing machines, running (e.g. sprinting followed by jogging) or just body weight exercise e.g. press ups, burpees etc. There are dozens of routines on-line but two well-known (and scientifically robust) protocols are:

  • Professor Martin Gibala – McMaster University, Canada – 60 seconds intense work + 75 seconds moderate exercise for recovery for 8 sets (18 minutes total), plus warm up and warm down
  • Professor Jamie Timmons – University of Loughborough, UK – 20 seconds intense work (sprinting on a bike) + 2 minutes moderate exercise (gentle pedalling) for recovery, for 3 sets (7 minutes total) plus warm up and warm down

NEAT, is the idea that it takes energy to move even the smallest muscle; about 1.5 calories per minute lying still. Every extra thing you do (e.g. going to the coffee machine, walking the dog, doing the ironing, mowing the lawn etc.) burns more calories. This matters because sitting still for long periods is linked to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity – so sitting in your chair can kill you. The latest advice is to set an alarm on your phone to remind you to move every hour. Stand up to stretch, or make a phone call, or get a glass of water. Just make a point of moving more e.g. get a pedometer and set a goal for a number of steps (10,000 steps a day is the usual target that people set themselves.) The small movements add up, and this (non exercise activity) can make a significant difference to your wellbeing. So to sum NEAT up in a sound bite: “take the stairs.”

Sleep – Slip into silent slumber

As Shakespeare puts it in Macbeth, ‘Sleep… balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course… chief nourisher in life’s feast.’

In a recent study of sleep patterns in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (Pilcher et al., 2015) Professor Pilcher notes that poor sleep habits, which include inconsistent sleep times and not enough sleep, can lead to: weight gain, hypertension, increased hostility towards others and lack of self control.

While (Xie et al., 2013) discovered “hidden caves” inside the brain, which open up during sleep, allowing cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to flush out potential neurotoxins, like β-amyloid, which has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Good sleep is also associated with an improved memory, cell repair, healing and improved relationships. The research base also consistently shows that the vast majority of adults need 7-8 hours sleep to ensure good health.

Good sleep hygiene, as most people know, involves: going to bed at the same time every night, avoiding caffeine late in the day and allowing time to mentally wind-down before bedtime, making sure that the bedroom is dark and cool.

Diet – You are what you eat

The knowledge about how to eat well and the health gains from doing so are so widely reported that I hesitate to repeat the key messages, but for the sake of completeness, feeling good and being healthy means…

Not Smoking

Drinking in moderation

Minimising the intake of (appealing but damaging) high salt, high sugar, high fat foods such as: biscuits, cookies, cakes, white bread, crisps, chips, pizzas, burgers, processed meat like ham and bacon, ready made meals, fruit juices, soft drinks (a can of coke has nine spoonfuls of sugar in it) most breakfast cereals (many contain the same volume of salt as sea water) etc.

Prioritising eating fresh fruit and vegetables, salads, wholemeal bread, fish, chicken, unprocessed red meat and meals you cook yourself from fresh ingredients.

Friendship – A problem shared is a problem halved

Human beings are ‘pack animals’. We are programmed to use survival strategies that are based on cooperation and teamwork. So we ‘need’ strong relationships for physical and psychological health in the same way that we need food. In fact, research shows that negative relationship experiences create stress reactions, such as raised blood pressure, that produce excess wear and tear on the body (Hauser et al., 1993.) So from a Time Management perspective it makes sense to make the extra effort to stay in regular contact with family and friends. This can involve phone calls, texts, emails and (of course) actually seeing people face to face! There is no reason, of course, why ‘Friendship Activities’ can’t be combined with other activities e.g. playing tennis or going to Yoga with a friend; meeting someone and enjoying a (healthy) meal.

Meditation – Wherever You Go, There You Are

Research suggests that practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression, insomnia, and the incidence, duration, and severity of acute respiratory illnesses.

Probably the most famous book (in the West) on the subject is: Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness meditation for everyday life by Jon Kabat-Zinn, so that’s a good place to start if you are interested in learning how to meditate. However the level of interest in meditation and mindfulness and its impact on ‘leadership’ has mushroomed in recent years, so there are plenty of texts and courses to choose from.

There are many types of meditation, but most have four elements in common: a quiet location with as few distractions as possible; a comfortable, relaxed posture; a focus of attention (usually a key word, or the sensations of the breath); and an open attitude (letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them.)

Whatever method is used it’s best to meditate at the same time every day, so that it becomes part of your normal routine. The usual recommendation is to build up to meditating for twenty minutes, twice a day, but even five minutes practice will bring benefits.

Prioritise Positivity

Prioritising Positivity is a key theme when making ‘healthy’ life choices. It simply involves organising everyday life around activities that bring pleasure. People who Prioritise Positivity are not just happier than those who don’t, but they also have better relationships, more resilience and are more mindful. This happens because they have more frequent experiences of positive emotions, because they consistently schedule ‘fun things’ into their routine. (Journal of Emotion – Catalino et al, 2014.)

Of course, Prioritising Positivity will mean different things to different people. It may mean seeking out activities that are ‘meditative’ in nature i.e. they create a sense of peace, or it may involve seeking out ‘exercise’ to experience excitement and challenge. For example, for some it might mean reserving Saturday afternoons for going to the park with the family (‘friendship’) or going for a run (‘exercise’) etc.

Reinforcement strategies – the classic responses

Procrastination, lack of motivation, the weight of deeply ingrained negative habits or competing priorities, can overwhelm any goal or objective and when it comes to healthy choices most of us have a reasonable knowledge about what we should/shouldn’t be doing – but we still don’t. That’s primarily down to will power and our ability to resist what we want/don’t want and do what we should instead. Sometimes we steel ourselves to overcome the inertia of inactivity then reward ourselves afterwards to such an extent that it cancels out our effort. So the question is how do we create good habits and how do we maintain them against all temptations?

Creating good habits means that some kind of reinforcement strategy needs to be in place to maintain the momentum to a successful achievement of improved exercise, sleep, diet, relationships or meditation. The most common methods for this are:

  • Breaking tasks into small chunks and just doing one bit at a time e.g. I won’t plan to mow all the grass, I will just do the small lawn at the front of the house. The key point here is that you don’t always have to be in just the right mood before you do something; you can just choose to use your will power and do the task, whether you feel like it or not!
  • Having a fixed time to work on the task e.g. going straight to the gym on the way home from work, or doing your yoga as soon as you get up in the morning.
  • Allowing yourself a ‘reward’ for achieving certain milestones e.g. buying a new shirt or blouse if (when?) you reach a set weight.
  • Telling lots of people about your goal so the embarrassment of a public failure motivates you to keep going e.g. announcing you will run a half marathon and signing up to a charity website so people can sponsor you.
  • Making it a team effort by joining a group who all have the same objective and can provide mutual encouragement e.g. weight watchers, a running club, reading group etc.
  • Fujita et al. (2006) suggest that self-control can be increased by ‘looking at long term goals’ rather than focusing on the here and now. So, someone trying to eat more fruit and vegetables should focus on the ultimate goal and how each individual decision about what to eat contributes (or detracts) from their goal to eat well.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how much of your week is spent on Prioritising Productivity – can you, maybe with just some small adjustments, engineer more joy into your life?

Review your physical activity levels. How much are you moving? Are you active enough, or is it time to commit to more structured, regular exercise, be that going to Circuit Training, taking up Pilates, getting on a Spin Bike, or starting swimming regularly?


Watch Jon Kabat- Zinn talking about the power of Letting Go
(4 minute clip)


If you think that you or your work team could benefit from our help then take a look at our half-day, in-house Practical Time Management workshop.


Or maybe our ‘one to one’ executive coaching services.

And to end with a quote from Hippocrates…

“Let food be thy medicine
and medicine be thy food.”