How to eat, drink and sleep your way to a better day at work

Dr John Briffa's tips for being more energetic.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 03 Jul 2017

What’s the secret to success? Working hard? Grit and determination? Luck? It all helps. But it’s hard to have a productive day at work without a lot of energy. In the words of nutrition and health expert Dr John Briffa, ‘We’re a bit like a smartphone – these things are hugely useful to us, but only as long as they’ve got charge in the battery.’

Briffa spoke at MT’s Future of Work: Digital conference earlier this month to share a few words of wisdom about how you can ensure you’ve always got fuel in the tank.

Watch your blood sugar

We’re all familiar with the post-lunch slump. Come mid-afternoon it can be a real drag trying to focus on your work and getting very little done indeed. That’s typically caused by what you’ve just had to eat, especially if you’ve loaded up on bread-heavy sandwiches which can cause a spike in your blood sugar followed by a crash after your body releases insulin.

‘The problem with eating something like that at lunch – and I don’t judge because it’s probably filling and tasty and convenient – but the problem is there’s almost certainly going to be a surge of sugar after this followed by a surge of insulin that’s going to dump this person with low blood sugar in the mid-to-late afternoon.’

Getting home late and chowing down on a massive bowl of pasta before bed can be even worse. If blood sugar gets low in the middle of the night the body can release cortisol, which triggers a stress response. ‘For some people this can be pretty catastrophic because they can suddenly be awake at 3.30 in the morning. And in the dead of night most people are able to find something to stress about. They turn this over in their minds and can’t get back to sleep before the alarm goes off.’

So what should you eat? Well good sources of slow-releasing carbs include beans, berries, oats, chickpeas, lentils a non-starchy (i.e. not potatoes) vegetables. Then there are high-protein foods – meat, fish, nuts, eggs, seeds and the like.

‘The best diet for us in terms of optimising energy, wellbeing and long-term health is a diet based on relatively natural unprocessed foods. It doesn’t have to be every meal, but generally speaking when people edge their diet in this direction...they feel better, they function better and they get rid of a lot of chronic health issues that have plagued them for years.’

Check you’re not weeing like a wolf

It’s often said we should drink six to eight glasses of water per day to stay properly hydrated but in reality our necessary daily intake depends on our size, how much exercise we do and the weather. It’s not enough to wait until you’re thirsty, or worse have a dehydration-enduced headache.

Instead Briffa suggests monitoring the colour of your urine – ‘a really sensitive indicator as to the state of our hydration. The right amount of fluid to drink each day is the amount it takes to keep your urine pale yellow throughout the course of the day. If on the other hand your urine strays into darker tones and becomes noticeably odorous - in other words, if you start to make urine that you believe is what a wolf would use to mark his territory,’ then you’re not getting enough fluids.

Sleep when you need to, not to a strict schedule

Some people obsess over following a very strict sleep routine between certain hours, but that can be counter-productive. ‘That just doesn’t work properly for people generally because who can do it? If you do that you’ve got no life.’ Juggling family, work and other commitments means it’s easy to rack up on sleep debt. ‘But the best time to wipe that out would be as soon as possible after you’ve accumulated the debt and if you’re sticking to your ridiculous sleep schedule you can’t do that.’

That said, even if you’re not super tired, on days when you have got some free time in the evening it could be worth bringing forward your bed time by an hour or two. ‘When people do that they very often significantly revive themselves. That makes everything easier and it makes things much more sustainable.’

Put down the iPad

Being glued to your tablet or smartphone until the moment your head hits the pillow is seriously unhealthy, because of the brain-stimulating blue light they emit. ‘It massively suppresses melatonin, which is a key sleep hormone,’ says Briffa. ‘Too much light exposure in the evening, as many of us subject ourselves to, can mean a bad night’s sleep and doesn’t really get us properly rested for the next day.’ If you really can’t turn yourself away then you can download f.lux, which gets rid of blue light from computer screens, or activate your iPhone’s Night Shift mode, which will do the same.

Don’t try to do everything at once

It can be tempting to make all of these changes in one go – often in your annual January ‘New Year, New Me’ phase. But the secret to successfully forming habits is making it easy for yourself by focusing on a couple of straightforward steps. ‘Just doing a few simple things consistently tends to make a big difference to a person’s ability to live and work more successfully and sustainably,’ says Briffa. ‘I’m not saying you necessarily get superpowers from doing these things. But the ability to get more done, more easily and the ability to get more out of yourselves and your day? Absolutely.’

Dr John Briffa is author of A Great Day at the Office: Simple Strategies to Maximize Your Energy and Get More Done More Easily


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