“Health is when every cell of your body is bouncing with joy.”
I ate a lot of cake during the holidays. Or perhaps just a normal amount? I don’t really know what that is because usually, I don’t eat cake at all. My diet is plant based and mostly grain free and almost always gluten free. It’s hard to make a cake without grains. At least one that’s palpable and doesn’t taste like sawdust or what I imagine sawdust would taste like (but if you have a good recipe do let me know). I’ve also never really found a gluten free vegan cake I wanted to devour. Though occasionally I try because it’s still cake so how bad can it be? It can be pretty bad Dear Reader (but again let me know if you have any tips). Hence, I don’t eat cake very often. However, during the winter (in my part of the world) holidays I played a little fast and loose with the nutritional guidelines that I typically follow to stay healthy and well. Because it’s the holidays.
By New Year’s Day I was feeling the effects of said cake and so was my waistline. But the thing about getting off track is that it’s not always easy to get back on track when the wheels fall off. I was feeling sluggish and unmotivated. But it was the dawn of a fresh new year! A time for making resolutions! Getting excited about change!
So, like many folks around the world coming out of a food induced coma over the (again winter for me) holidays, I looked for inspiration on the world wide web to inspire me back into healthy eating habits.
My first stop was Netflix because I was still in a post-COP haze. Definitely not yet back in researcher mode. But ever curious, if a little lazy. So, there I go down the rabbit hole: not this, definitely not that. I start a few things but don’t get very far. And, then I found a series called Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones with Dan Buettner.
Now, I was no stranger to Buettner’s work. I first discovered him while listening to this conversation with podcaster and ultra-runner Rich Roll. The Blue Zones are five areas of the world with an unusually high number of centenarians (folks who live beyond 100). After discovering a trend of longevity in Okinawa, Japan, Buettner set out to explore other areas of the world with abnormally high levels of longevity, and found four more. He speaks more about his experiences exploring and investigating Blue Zones and the lessons he’s learned along the way in this Ted Talk.
In his work Buettner has distilled the reasons why people in the Blue Zones live longer with more life in their years to a set of principles and habits. Here are a few of them.
Movement: People in Blue Zones tend to move their bodies naturally. They walk a lot, often up and down hills several times a day, and they spend a lot of time outside. They don’t necessarily run marathons or go to the gym. Movement is just part of life.
Nutrition: Blue Zoners have a diet that tends to be plant based or at least leans that way. They eat a lot of fruit and vegetables and whole grains. In general they don’t eat too much either. They also tend to put a lot of care into preparing and enjoying their food. And in some Blue Zones a glass of wine is part of a daily ritual for winding down at the end of the day.
Outlook: People in Blue Zones have a sense of purpose to their lives. It might not be their work and often isn’t. But something drives them. They also value down time and prioritize doing things that bring them joy. They seem to laugh often and live in cultures where joy is prized. Many enjoy dancing and playing music together and just generally being around one another seems to bring joy.
Connection: Spending time with loved ones features heavily in Blue Zones where a sense of belonging is a key feature of life. They ultimately take care of one another.
I’d read some of Buettner’s books and was very interested in the concept of longevity and health in general but was mostly interested in my own health and wellbeing. However, what struck me this time around is that Blue Zones can be created which is exactly what Buettner and his team have done with the Blue Zones Project in cities across the United States.
And that got me thinking, if cities can become Blue Zones, what about communities of practice? Could the climate policy community become a Blue Zone? What if we started with the Loss and Damage community? So that’s my new project. To cultivate a culture centred around wellbeing. A culture which strengthens connection and encourages wellness. One that inspires joy. A place where love is the theme of each day: love for ourselves, for one another and for the world. I wondered: what might that look like? Where might we start? For me it started with a very hard look at how I live my life.
This all started a few years ago, really at the start of the pandemic when I had time and space to reflect on my life and how I wanted to live it. I followed a plant-based diet, exercised regularly and had a daily breathwork and meditation practice. I thought I was healthy and well. I thought I was living the principles of longevity. But the truth was my relationship to my work was not healthy: it had become my life. And it had been that way for a long time. I lived and breathed work in my waking hours. Dreamed of work while asleep.
Yes, I had love in my life, connection beyond work and things I liked to do but work was the centre of my life. I found it incredibly hard, and honestly, nearly impossible to shut down the part of my mind that wanted to focus on work all the livelong day. It was an endless reel: playing scenarios, thinking of ideas for new projects, mulling over challenges. It never ended.
So unsurprisingly, last year I burned out, something I’ve written about a few times now. But what I haven’t written about is how much it changed the way I worked. At first, I had to be very gentle with myself and couldn’t work more than a few hours a day. It was the summer so that was easier to do. As the summer turned into fall and I felt a little steadier on my feet, I worked longer hours but I’ve never gone back to where I was before. Nor do I ever aspire to do so.
I’ll happily work longer days at meetings when I feel more connected to colleagues and want to spend time doing the things I love. Because I am passionate about my work. But in general I don’t work more than seven hours a day any longer Because I don’t need to. I can get more done in those focused seven hours than I ever did in a stressed out, jam packed 12-hour day.
I worked that way in secret for several months. I was a bit embarrassed. No, not a bit, I was a lot embarrassed. I thought I must be lazy. And then when I watched the docuseries on the Blue Zones from start to finish on New Year’s Day I decided I had to be more open about my discovery if I was going to cultivate a healthy community starting with the teams I work with. I started with telling my trainer and wellness coach about my plans and she told me there is a lot of research demonstrating that working less can be much better for productivity.
So, I started looking into it and discovered that indeed there is research. A lot of it. And some of the world’s biggest companies are enforcing shorter work days or work weeks and seeing spikes in productivity. In 2019 Microsoft Japan experimented with a shorter work week and found it led to happier employees and higher levels of productivity. And in fact, some research suggests that a five hour workday may be the sweet spot for productivity. What’s clear is the journey to a better work/life balance, less stress and more work/life balance is not one size fits all.
Here’s what’s worked for me.
Meditation and mindfulness: I’ve written a lot about how meditation and mindfulness have changed my life. Every morning I meditate for 15 minutes and do breathwork for 15 minutes and throughout the day I try to be as present as I can. This sets the tone for the rest of the day.
Setting intentions: I try to set intentions at the beginning of each day for how I want to feel each day. I try to also set intentions for each conversation I have, each meeting or workshop I join. It’s not always possible when jumping from call to call but I try to take a moment to centre myself. I also have a planner called Daily Greatness journal which prompts me to write how I want to feel every day. Some days it’s joyful, other days it’s nourished. I try to orient my day around cultivating that feeling. Yes, things need to get done but I can keep that goal in mind while I do them. Again, it’s a work in progress.
Daily movement: I love going to the gym but I used to skip it when things got busy. I don’t do that anymore. If I skip the morning because I have an early call I go in the afternoon. I find that I feel better when I get to the gym first thing though and I’m trying to make this a habit. Whenever I get there, I try my very best to go to the gym every weekday because if I don’t I know it will affect my mood and it’s also not good for my body not to move. That leads me to . . .
Taking regular breaks throughout the day: I don’t know who said it but someone coined the term some years ago: Sitting is the new smoking. You can learn more about that in this paper led by family physician Benjamin Baddeleley. Now, it might not be as bad for you as smoking a pack a day (but it might be, I’m not a doctor nor do I play one on television) but sitting all day hunched over a computer is bad for the body, the mind and the soul. I take a break every hour. This might sound easy but when I’m in flow, hours can go by and I wonder have I gone to the loo? So, I set an alarm to get up every hour, get some water, stretch, maybe even go outside for a bit.
Spending time in nature: Every day I go for a long walk, ideally during the day to get some Vitamin D, but often it’s in the evening. Spending time in nature nourishes me and refreshes me. I also get a lot of ideas when I’m walking amongst the trees.
Focus, focus, focus: I used to multi-task a lot. I would have ten or more windows open on my laptop, interspersing responding to emails with sending messages on my mobile on all the various apps I use to communicate with colleagues all over the world. I thought I was a good multi-tasker and I was being productive. One of the many lies I told myself. Because I wasn’t good at multitasking and I’m not sure if anyone is. It’s a necessity for many who are juggling too many things. For me, it just stressed me out and put me in a constant state of chasing the next dopamine hit. High on adrenaline. I don’t do that anymore. Though like most things it’s still a work in progress I must admit. I try to just do one thing at a time and focus on that one thing and then move on to the next. I check my emails a couple of times a day and I rarely go on social media. I feel so much calmer and happier that way.
These are just a few of the things I do. I encourage you to find what works for you. But I implore you to find something. Do something that cultivates wellbeing every single day. And to encourage those around you to do the same. In order to create a culture of wellbeing we have to move away from a culture of overwork and overwhelm. And that will take courage. Someone has to go first in order for us all to leave the grind behind. Let it be you. Let it be us.
The truth is my own journey has been messy and challenging. I’m trying to make time during the day for all the things that cultivate wellbeing but the truth is sometimes it’s hard to get it all in alongside my work commitments. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m still battling with the status quo bias that Professor of organizational management Adam Grant talks about in this article. The idea of an eight hour work day is socially constructed, an idea we’ve bought into over decades if not centuries. But one that is extremely pervasive. It takes courage to go first. To say this isn’t working for any of us and to be the first to change.
I was nervous about going public with my seven-hour day but after finding how much more productive I am when I work less, I’m introducing the concept to the teams I work with. This year we are committing to working less and enjoying life more. To spending one hour each day doing something that cultivates wellbeing. Even saying that out loud makes me a bit nervous. That tells me that I’ve got some work to do to shed the conditioning of an overworked and overwrought culture. If Microsoft and Google do it, why can’t the climate policy community? Aren’t we also worthy of work-life balance and overall wellbeing? Definitely, yes. In fact every human is worthy of a well lived life, one in which they are healthy and well and thriving. Isn't that what our work is about at the end of the day?
Last year we created a wellbeing circle in the Loss and Damage Collaboration and this year we’re going to (do our best to) curate it and once we have the capacity to do so, to organize monthly calls to create space for sharing lessons on our journeys to wellbeing, both as individuals and as a collective. We’ve also created an inspiration channel in our Slack workspace to share inspirational quotes, stories, blogs and articles.
It’s still very much a work in progress but I feel that we’re moving in the right direction after a very hectic and challenging last couple of years. I hope you’ll join us in creating a thriving community of healthy, happy people. I look forward to hearing tales of your journeys and I wish you all a year full of love, joy, happiness and, of course, well-being.
Erin Roberts is the founder and global lead of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. She’s working towards her healthiest year yet in 2024, a year for which she has chosen the theme of love. Her mission for this year is to help curate a thriving community of folks working to ensure that all humans and other species on planet Earth and the ecosystems that sustain them are thriving. This year her blogs will be dedicated to all the various ways we can cultivate and enhance both our own wellbeing and that of the teams and communities we work with. The topic of next month’s blog is love.
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