Before starting my first full-time job, my responsibilities consisted of sporadic classes, intense cram sessions for finals and publishing articles for Spoon University, a student org that literally gave out free food on my campus ?. College somewhat prepared me for the workforce, but I quickly figured out that being a legit accountant isn’t as whimsical as collaborating on articles about local coffee shops and homemade French fries.
In the “real world,” the work week becomes a wild sprint to Friday night, and the days in between slide from Microsoft Team meetings to incomprehensible Skype messages. Being a new grad is treacherous territory, and can include working overtime to meet deadlines, satisfy a client or finish that brutally complicated project you were assigned a week ago. I worked my first 60-hour workweek during “close week,” accounting jargon for winding up the financial books for the month. I was feverishly booking 50+ journal entries and hopping between huge excel files, all in the name of accurate financial reporting. ??
The reasons vary for 60-hour workweeks, but the time spent away from hobbies, friends and family are the same for everyone. I realized that with a little up-front planning and tenacity, it’s possible for anyone to be healthy and make kickass career moves, so here are eight hacks for being a good employee and a happy, alive human.
This tip saved my health during close week! On the Sunday before close started, I spent a sweaty four hours cooking pork stew, peanut butter granola, banana bread, chana dal khichdi, whipped cream and two heads of roasted broccoli. I was exhausted by the late afternoon, but meal prepping allowed me to eat healthy and save money when I had no time to cook during the week. I was also noticeably less stressed because I knew where my next meal was coming from (the fogged up tupperware in the fridge).
If you’re not big into home cooking or there’s not enough room in your fridge to meal prep, I still recommend planning out weekly meals. Even the thought, “What should I eat for dinner tonight?” creates friction when it’s 8:00 p.m. and you’ve got three hours of grinding ahead of you. It also helps to check out what restaurants or fast food places have coupons/specials – for example, Chipotle had free delivery on the Monday of close week and that fed me for two lunches.
The biggest struggle becomes making time for all these fabulous meals you cooked; it’s easy to forget to eat, but I prioritize my feeding time by blocking out time on my Outlook calendar. Most workplaces are flexible when it comes to lunch/dinner hour, so take full advantage of that!
I know this goes without saying, but please remember to take a shower. Even when work is chaotic, it’s still important to maintain personal hygiene. Brushing your teeth in the morning, showering, washing your hands before eating and wrangling your hair are obvious, but can get overlooked when you’re exhausted. I’m guilty of skipping showers during close, and I wouldn’t recommend that – feeling gross makes it harder to mentally focus and be productive.
Maybe it’s just a trope in the business world, but drinking excessive amounts of coffee in the A.M. and slamming down lagers in the P.M. is a way of life. I’m here to tell you this is not sustainable – no matter how enticing that cold beer is, with beads of juicy sweat running down the sides, your brain doesn’t need any more dulling. The secret ingredient for working long hours is sleep, believe it or not, which is impeded by drinking lots of depressants and/or stimulants. The best thing to drink is water, whether your vice is tap water, a sparkling glass of San Pellegrino or the flavored waters with no sugar added (my go-to are Propel and La Croix).
According to Dr. James Beckerman, M.D., “Water is the perfect, no-cost, no-calorie beverage, and it comes right out of the kitchen tap whenever you want it...don't look for energy in a drink.” He also recommends ways to spice water up, such as adding ginger, lemon balm and slices of citrus.
The light of day might seem insignificant or faraway when you’re buried in Excel spreadsheets and long winded contracts, but going outside for fresh air is a must. Unglue your eyes from the double monitors and get some Vitamin D in between meetings. During close week, I would stand in the patch of grass outside my patio, feet bare and faced upturned towards the sun. My neighbors probably thought I was a lunatic (sorry not sorry!), but I savored those minutes and let my mind rejuvenate.
In general, taking breaks throughout the day is an obvious self-care hack. Stretching, walking your dog, going to the mailbox, a five minute yoga sesh, etc. are easy to incorporate into a hectic day. It’s important to realize that not every single second can feasibly be devoted to work, even if your day starts at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 10:45 p.m.
Staring at digital screens before bed is known to cause irregular sleep patterns and problems falling asleep in general. When you have to work past sunset, wearing blue light glasses can help decrease this digital strain. I have a pair of non prescription Calvin Klein frames, and while I resemble an espresso hipster, they get the job done. Once I finish work for the day during close week, I fall from my desk chair into my queen bed and am ready to GTF to sleep. Sans caffeine/alcohol and with the value add of the blue light glasses, I am snoozing in minutes, my only problems being the persistent dreams about work. ?
This hack is often overlooked, but everyone has nervous habits that rear up during times of extreme stress or busyness. For me, it’s chewing the inside of my cheeks (yes, that’s a real thing) and touching my face. Other people bite their nails, push down their cuticles or have another bodily tick that temporarily calms the nerves. Being aware of these habits - and having a game plan to nip them before your work week starts - is key.
I started chewing gum instead of my mouth tissue, and literally sitting on my hands so I wouldn’t touch my face. It seems elementary, but no one said breaking hard-formed adult habits was easy. ?? James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, writes about breaking bad habits and forming healthy, productive ones - his framework applies mostly to personal development and goals, but he also touches on detrimental physical habits as well: “Everything from biting your nails to overspending on a shopping spree to drinking every weekend to wasting time on the internet can be a simple response to stress and boredom….but you don't eliminate a bad habit, you replace it.”
For more of a scientific deep dive on habits, check out his article on the four stages of habits and how to change them.
A DVP might be the secret to balanced mental health during intellectual marathons. Events, both irksome and serious, always pop up at work that get your teeth grinding. Having someone to vent about these problems with is extremely helpful, especially when the pandemic is adding another layer of mental strain. Your DVP could be a significant other, parent, best friend or even online friends who are willing to listen to workplace intrigues. During close week, I started crying on Monday night ~10:45 p.m. because I couldn’t get two separate revenue and cost reports to tie out - I was snotting all over my keyboard and getting desperate, but I was lucky to have a support system to calm me down.
If you don’t have a solid DVP, writing in a journal is an easy way to externalize and view your problems from a different perspective. Taking five minutes to vent to yourself (and maybe not to a coworker, which could get dicey) is a healthy way to digest events as they happen. During close week, I used my spare time to write in a guided chakra journal, which was a constructive way to declutter my thoughts. The journal was focused on holistic spirituality, but the simple act of inscribing thoughts on paper was cathartic.
When you’re working 63 hours a week, doing a full cardio or yoga set everyday might not be reasonable - and that’s totally okay. Instead of pressuring yourself to stick to normal exercises, reevaluate and adjust your routine to what your schedule allows for. It’s still vital to move around and not be a sedentary baked potato, but biking 10 miles or rollerblading after work creates unnecessary time pressure.
I’ll admit that during close week, I didn’t do any heavy exercising (goodbye hiking, biking, canoeing and core yoga). Instead, I focused on stretching in between meetings and taking 3-4 strolls throughout the day. It was a boiling 100 degrees outside in Phoenix, but the short bursts of activity were invigorating and led to a clearer mind at work.
Working 60+ hours a week is challenging, but the amount of knowledge I learned was undeniable; and it certainly transcenda whatever industry or role you’re in. Lola George, a marketing specialist who worked in Chicago, also had 50-55 hour work weeks at a startup called Take 10 Trivia. “I prioritized my health by making sure that I ate healthy meals and snacks during the day, used aromatherapy at home and in the shower, and also journaling, meditating, praying and talking with loved ones helped me decompress," she says. "I also had to make sure I left work at work (no work email on my phone, phone on DND in the evenings, etc.).”
Being an adult and having real accountability is overwhelming, but if your body & mind are balanced, growth is exponential. Just remember that showers and meal prepping are your friends!