I’ve been working as a nurse and Army Officer since the Summer of 2012 .
The year prior to graduating I became a mother for the very first time while completing my last year of nursing school. It was probably one of my top five hardest years of my life. I had to stop working in order to focus on school 100%, I was barely sleeping with a new born, trying to breast pump every 3-4 hrs in between classes all while studying at all hours of the day in order to pass my classes which I had struggled so hard to pass the year prior.
This was my second round of Senior year of nursing school, that’s a story for another day, and I literally had to finish that year perfectly or it would be my last chance to ever finish this degree. I had very high stakes and so I was willing to do anything to finish, even loose sleep, pump my body with as much sugar and caffeine as possible, with little to no support or community to do it in. My husband was amazing that year, helping me as much as he could with the baby, but he was also working night shifts at the time. All the good habits I could have adopted went out the door and it was survival of the fittest.
Have you ever been in that hustling phase of your life where you know you have to take out all the cards in order to succeed. Go to bed late, go to all the meetings, networking events, trainings, eat on the go, sit at your computer for hours upon hours writing reports, sending emails, following up, and connecting with the movers and shakers of your industry? All while you are trying to serve in your churches, volunteer at PTA meetings for your children, and schedule in date nights, even though you are pretty sure you’ll cancel this one again, just like the last ten.
You’ve been running on empty but you know that if you stop now, you’ll loose all this momentum you’ve created in the last few weeks, months, or years.
That’s how I felt as my career in nursing really began that Senior year of college. With a newborn in hand, I graduated after seven years of hustling in school. The real work didn’t begin until I jumped into my first full-time nursing job. I was so excited and willing to do anything to do my job right, and make sure I looked good while doing it. So I went all in just like I did through that last year of school. I spent hours upon hours writing case management notes, seeing patients, preparing medications, doing patient care, trying to manage a team, all while trying to manage my home, my family, and my spiritual journey. This went on for two years. In 2014 I had the pleasure of expecting our second child into the world. Life seemed so perfect yet going at the speed of light. We bought our very first single home and there was lots of work to do, but the pregnancy wasn’t going to stop me. I started immediately stripping wall paper off the walls, sanding, painting, and remodeling our home before my second baby could arrive, all while working full time, serving at my church, taking care of my toddler, and being present for my spouse.
I had no idea anything was wrong.
I was going full speed since 2011 but I didn’t know anything was wrong. I was young, naive, and I was pumping myself up with more caffeine and chocolates to keep me going. It wasn’t until I had the unfortunate event to work with a co-worker that would forever change the trajectory of my life. Work became more and more stressful as more and more responsibilities were put on my shoulders. My team no longer became a team, it was a complete solo act, and I started feel absolutely alone, unappreciated, overworked, and overwhelmed all while being eight months pregnant. As my final month of my third trimester came I knew deep down, when maternity leave hit, I would not be coming back to this job full time again, but I had no idea what I would do. I just knew I felt exhausted all the time, I was always angry, moody, and temperamental with my co workers, spouse, and my children.
It wasn’t until I was in my final weeks of maternity leave that I decided something needed to change. I wasn’t sleeping sufficiently since college, I was always on the go, and didn’t know how to manage my daily life efficiently and effectively in order to cope with stress. The depression and anxiety were slowly becoming my norm and didn’t know why.
I knew I needed to start taking care of me. That’s when my health journey started. In 2014 I decided to finally do something about how I was feeling inside and it came in the form of health and wellness.
My strong morning routines were birthed.
I started my health journey now as a new mom of two children, working per diem as a nurse, and trying to figure out what would be my next move. I decided to take that year to really start building myself up again after literally giving it all to everyone else.
I started to experiment with workouts, nutrition, sleep, meditation practices, and alternative supplements in order to start healing myself again.
Today I want to share five of those resources and tips that have helped me to reduce the stress, overwhelm, and calm the chaos, all while increasing my productivity as a mom, business owner, wife, and volunteer.
Now as a mom of three children, per diem nurse, Army Officer, and business owner, I needed more than ever a system I could follow to ensure my focus, increased energy levels, and productivity that ensured I was getting the results I needed in both my personal life and career
So let’s get right into it.
Nutrition is key
First routine I needed to adopt as I started to learn about the triggers that were affecting my body and mind was what I was putting into my body. I had gotten into the habit of eating on the go, stuffing my face with sugar and carbs to increase my glucose when I was running low all the time, due to eating all the junk food. My nutrition was horrible all through nursing school and after getting into the field. It was going to be a really bad habit I would have to break and break fast if I wanted to improve my overall mental health, performance, and productivity.
This first tip derives from a study done by the Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center that stated that adding at least one daily serving of green leafy vegetables to your diet may be a simple way to promote brain health. The study results suggest that people who ate one serving of green, leafy vegetables had a slower rate of decline on tests of memory and thinking skills than people who rarely or never ate them. The study results also suggest that older adults who ate at least one serving of leafy green vegetables showed an equivalent of being 11 years younger cognitively.
How powerful is that?
The first change I started to make in my daily routines was adding these green leafy vegetables into my diet, but since I was such a bad veggie eater, I started to incorporate veggies like spinach and kale into my morning superfood formula I was already drinking every morning. It was an easy way to get my 1-2 servings right in the morning so I didn’t have to think about it the rest of the day. It was so powerful. The shift in energy, focus, and mental clarity was noted within a month of shifting my eating.
So what greens are we talking about? This could be kale, spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, beet greens, so many to choose from.
In our culture, breakfast has really turned into dessert. Growing up I remember eating cereal, muffins, donuts as a breakfast, and let’s be honest muffins and donuts are just cake. Majority of Americans are having cake for breakfast. So let’s bypass the sweets and dessert for breakfast and start your day with a hearty veggie filled smoothie or saute. The more enjoyable you make the experience for your palette the more likely you’ll stick with it, feel more satisfied, and be on your A game mentally throughout your morning, boosting your productivity.
If you want to get it in consistently, do what I did, and incorporate it into your daily breakfast, whether it be in a healthy home made smoothie, or spinach mixed into your scrambled eggs or egg cups that can be pre-made for the week. Definitely try to get it in earlier in the day if your like me and get busier throughout your evenings. You won’t have to think about it for the rest of the day.
As your body moves, your brain grooves
So now that you’ve had your veggie intake for the day, now let’s chat about the second tip, which is to get your body moving.
Incredible research from Dr. Wendy Suzuki and her team in NYU discovered that you can re-sculpt your brain with exercise, allowing it to grow new brain cells in the hippocampus and improving memory. In her studies, Dr. Suzuki explains that exercise “has immediate effects on the brain. It changes the neurochemical bath that your brain is bathing in; [she] likes to call it a neurochemical bubble bath that you’re creating with exercise because it is increasing positive things like serotonin and dopamine that are making you feel good and putting you in a good mood.”
In her studies she was able to take students and provide them simple exercise regiments they completed prior to going to class, and what they found was that “students who exercise before class in this particular study improved their test scores 17% and those who exercised for forty minutes prior to taking their tests improved an entire letter grade just by being active.”
How does this translate into adults?
Well, another similar study found that employees who exercise are 15% more efficient in their work than those who do not. They found that fit employees only need to work 42.5 hours per week to do the same amount of work that the average employee does in 50.
How many hours would you be saving on a weekly basis? What could these people do with that extra 8 hours per week?
Those eight hours could be time spent investing in your relationship, investing with your children, learning new things, like we're talking about today.
So what type of workouts are we talking about and how long do we really need to workout.
Start with walking.
Sarah Fragoso and Brooke Kalanick, in their book “Hangry: 5 simple steps to balance your hormones and restore your joy” recommend “taking a walk five times per week for forty-five to sixty minutes. Walking is the great hormone normalizer. This low-grade cardio exercise is best thought of as a restorative exercise-or movement our bodies were meant to do every day. Five walks per week is often the absolute game changer when you’re stuck in your progress with a tough hormonal issue like a low thyroid or PCOS and especially menopause.”
So if you do nothing else, start with your walks everyday, and see how your brain health, productivity, and energy starts to shift naturally.
A Social Media Cleanse
Number three in our list of sustainable and powerful morning routines is avoiding social media as soon as you wake up. In our social media culture now, a new study from IDC Research found that 80% of smartphone users check their mobile devices within 15 minutes of waking up each morning.
This is a pervasive thing in our world today that we've never experienced throughout human history. It's very new and we're just starting to get some preliminary and early studies on what is this doing to our brains?
Not only is grabbing our phones first thing in the morning affecting us, but it’s also affecting us throughout our days. Throughout our days a lot of times we grab our phone, scroll to an app, boom, hit it. You're there before you know it. Right? These 'just checks” become a few minute, half an hour, then hours.
Now here's the issue. Research from the University of California Irvine observed knowledge workers in real offices and found that an interruption, even if short, we're talking like a matter of seconds, this interruption delays the total time required to get back on track and to complete the task by a significant amount. It's something called attention residue. When you get distracted by your devices, it's not that you just go right back to what you're doing. It takes time to get back into that mental pattern where you're doing your work efficiently. So we're coming out with a net loss in our work. We can be accomplishing so much more with so much more flow if we have some parameters for us and our social media.
So how do we battle this addiction that our dopamine and opioid receptors in our brain are feeding off?
Alarms and chimes.
We're like Pavlov's dog. Right? The chime goes off, the alarm goes off, the bell goes off, 'Is that my phone? Is that your phone?' We're trained. You think you're controlling your phone and your phone controls you. And so if you've got chimes and alerts for Instagram, and for your e-mail, and for Facebook Messenger, all of that has trained you to be distracted. So to take back control, take the notifications off of these apps, and even your email.
Be intentional everyday, and set times for your social media breaks and consumption and remove the phone from your vicinity when you are involved in deep work. Morning and evening phone-free time. I want you to choose execution first. Execute on your goals, accomplish the things that you want to get accomplished before you even pick up your phone.
Which leads us into the next topic of deep work.
Deep Internal Work
Things really began to shift for me once I started to really dig deeper into my mindset in the mornings. My tip number four is spend time doing your deep work as soon as you wake up. It’s were I began my focus, my gratitude practice, and becoming more intentional in my days by getting organized and setting intentions for each day. By setting the intentions each day I knew what to say No to and what to say Yes to because I had already decided what my goals were and the tasks at hand that would get me there. I started with a simple five minute meditation, I would feed my mind good books and would make sure to learn something new, I would journal by planning my days in my calendar, and then I would get to work with the hardest task at hand and get it done first. I knew that if I got the hardest task done in the morning, my confidence level was higher and I was more able to accomplish everything else on my list.
Brendon Burchard put it so eloquently when he stated “The fundamentals of becoming more productive are setting goals and maintaining energy and focus. No goals, no focus, no energy-and you’re dead in the water. Productivity starts with goals.” (High Performance Habits, p. 177)
It’s super important that you spend time in your mornings creating your priorities and working backwards from the end of the day up to your first move once you get into your car to drive to work. So many times we spend so much time just surviving, going through the motions, and even going on auto-pilot that we forget why we are even doing what we are doing. Are we working hard for our families welfare, are we saving up for a big vacation, are we trying to get a big promotion at work so we need to be on our A-game, are we trying to save lives and reduce deaths in our operating room, what is the goal of your life’s work, and put it on paper every morning. Without a vision for your life you are a fish dead in water. So don’t skip this step, because trust me when I say, that living life in limbo is the most life sucking job to have. As the scripture in Proverbs 29:18 states “Where there is no vision, the people perish…”.
Start your mornings with a greater vision for your life. Have greater ambition and draw out that map to get there. As entrepreneurs we can be pretty good as creating quarterly goals and talking about numbers, graphs, budgets, etc, but are we really good at creating a vision and then drawing the map to it? I think we could do better.
Many people talk about vision boards but they only get to the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creating and developing vision boards. Many think that if you just create one, all your dreams will come true, but how far from the truth this is. The vision board is just the first step, but then that must be followed by daily actions, daily goal setting, setting benchmarks, evaluating our progress day to day, and week to week, and pivoting when we need to, and ensuring others on the team are on board. Having a vision for our life is the end point, but creating the daily goals is our map to get there, and we should be spending time every single day creating, writing down, and reviewing those goals to ensure they are leading us in the right direction.
Sleep like your getting paid for it
Your morning routines are only as good as your night time game. Tip number five is all about your sleep. Your most productive morning routine starts with how well you prepare the night before, and sleep is one of those resources that will determine how well or badly you perform the next day.
Now let me say, it’s really hard to break through this belief in our culture that’s always pushing us to work harder not smarter.
Being in the military for the last sixteen years through the Reserves, ROTC, and National Guard, my trainings have taken me to various places in the main land, US, and also Islands outside the US. We were trained to work on sleep deprivation. We would work long hours, sleep 3-4 hours between doing fire watch at night and also being woken up at night to feed the fear inside of us in the middle of the night, it was engrained in me, that we work harder and faster and that’s how we get things done. I also grew up in a home with a father who’s almost all his life worked 2-3 jobs, and is now also an entrepreneur for the last ten plus years. I’ve seen him wake up at the crack of dawn and work until midnight most days. So in my mind I’ve always thought that the most successful people were the ones that ran on 4-5 hours of sleep/night.
But it wasn’t until I personally hit a wall after having my third child, that I learned the hard way on what true sleep deprivation can do to your brain. My third child was by far my worst sleeper, who literally didn’t sleep through the night until he was almost 18 months old. When I was approximately four to six weeks post partum, I was sitting on the couch with the little guy, leaning over half asleep as I breastfed for what seemed like the hundreth time. I barely had a break of being with a crying baby, he just couldn’t go without crying and I didn’t know why. As he began to cry again around six am, a horrifying thought crossed my mind to shake him. I was frustrated, angry, overwhelmed, exhausted, guilty and literally could not think straight. Thankfully the nurse voices in my head rung strong to tell me to put him down and walk away. My mother walked through my front door of my house at that precise moment and she was able to take him to give me a break.
In both my military and post partum period, I lived sleep deprived, sometimes for months at a time. I experienced first hand the effects it has on the brain.
So let's look at what's happening in the brain when we're sleep-deprived, and the abnormal things that take place that lead us to less success.
In the US National Library of Medicine, an article published on “The sleep deprived human brain” in 2017, researchers found that the “One cognitive ability that is especially susceptible to sleep loss is attention, which serves ongoing goal-directed behavior. Performance on attentional tasks deteriorates in a dose-dependent manner with the amount of accrued time awake, owing to increasing sleep pressure. More specifically, attentional maintenance becomes highly variable and erratic (with attention being sustained, lost, reestablished, then lost again), resulting in unstable task performance.”
Researchers at UC Berkeley did brain imaging scans and what they discovered was that just a short sleep debt resulted in hyper activity in the parts of the brain known as the amygdala and the limbic brain. This part of the brain is related to survival. It's not really concerned about much else other than eating and having its way. They also found that there was significantly reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, that's responsible for executive functions, and distinguishing between right and wrong, and social control, and so many aspects of things that we need in order to be successful today. That part of the brain shuts down. That can diminish your ability to make healthy choices in your communication, in your food choices, in your relationships, and the list goes on, and on, and on, and on, all because of being sleep-deprived.
So how do we get more sleep and good quality sleep at that?
Let’s start with the most basic, screen time.
Let's create an evening success routine, because a great morning and a great day starts the night before, because that's the determinant of your energy and your brain function the next day. So have that screen-free time. Give yourself a 30-minute screen-free time before you go to bed, because according to Harvard researchers, what they found was that every hour you're on your device at night, you suppress melatonin for about thirty minutes.
Make sure you are getting enough sunlight early in the day. Having natural sunlight early in the morning helps reduce cortisol levels at night. When cortisol levels are elevated, it reduces the ability for melatonin to do its job in the evenings, which helps you sleep better and deeper. And if we go back to the nutritional piece mentioned before, nutrition, exercise, and sunlight all have effects on how well you produce the hormone melatonin naturally in your body, and just as a fun fact, almost 80% of your melatonin is actually produced in your gut, contrary to the belief that its created in your brain. So all of this is tied together.
Better health, increased productivity.
What’s common sense, isn’t always common practice
These all seem so trivial and superficial tips and tricks of the game, but honestly its areas that most people struggle in to keep consistent. Am I right?
When it comes to nutrition, we suck at eating our green leafy vegetables. When it comes to exercise, we are huge procrastinators, When it comes to our screen time and social media, we’ve become addicts. When it comes to becoming more intentional in our days, being goal-oriented, we fall off because it requires more attention and focus, and that’s what we lack the most in a more distracted society. And lastly, when it comes to sleep, we really need to start “sleeping on it”.
So today, ask yourself, and do an honest evaluation, how are you doing in these areas mentioned above?
From a scale of 1 to 10, where do you stand in your nutritional choices, your physical activity, your screen time, your intentionality and deep work in the mornings, and how’s your sleep?
As you begin to improve these five areas of your life, you’ll start to see the shift in your attention span, productivity, personal joy and peace, and greater clarity.
But as in anything in this life, don’t try to tackle them all at once or in big chunks, but rather, use your mornings to strategize and take smaller bites with these daily habits.
Author James Clear stated in his book “Atomic Habits”, “habits are shaped by the first choice we make. Habits are the entry point, not the end point. They are the cab, not the gym. Even when you know you should start small, it’s easy to start too big. When you dream about making a change, excitement inevitably takes over and you end up trying to do too much too soon. When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.”
So start with the first two minutes:
Throw some green leafy veggies into a morning smoothie.
Walk for 2 minutes.
Put an alarm in the evenings to count down the 2 minutes of no screen time.
Spend 2 minutes planning your day in your calendar each morning.
Take 2 minutes before bed to decompress and meditate or just close your eyes.
Any new habit or good decision only takes a few seconds to decide to do and the more you repeat that action, the more likely it’ll become a long standing habit.
Almost everything you do to take good care of yourself matters in increasing your high performance. Good sleep, nutrition, and exercise are huge enhancers of productivity.
“If you want to feel more energized, creative, and effective at work-and still leave work with enough oomph for the “life” part—the ideal breakpoint is to stop your work and give your mind and body a break.” (Brendon Burchard, High Performance Habits, pg. 185)
Let’s stop giving away our energy and most productive years to others. You come first. How’s that for a thought. When you serve yourself first, you can pour from a full cup and not an empty one. Take it from me, a mom of three kids, night shift nurse, entrepreneur, wife, and Army Officer, if you want to create change in the world, the change must start within you.