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R.I.P. Karoshi - Reclaim your life

About the "no time for lunch" syndrome

No time for lunch.

Before I became independent, I used to work in International Finance. With clients and negotiations around the globe, my working days took usually 12 to 14 hours. I skipped lunch very often. My assistant reminded me late in the afternoon "It's almost 17 hs. and you have had no breaks. You have not had lunch yet". "Oh, yes, thank you. I forgot. No time. I'll grab a coffee and cookies before next meeting".

When I started working as executive coach I realised skipping lunch is endemic. Many of my clients are highly educated people who are "too busy to take a break". They usually have a long list of "reasons" and "excuses" for skipping lunch: I cannot miss my meetings, other people book meetings over lunch, I have too many deadlines, etc.

It is puzzling. If we are educated adults who know exactly what are the basic health needs, why do we deny our bodies fundamentals of self-care as a short pause or time to eat, drink and recover?

Basic energy management.

The natural biological rules are simple. Our body represents existence in its primary form. It is through our body that we exist and sense ourselves and the world around us. Our body is what is alive. We function with energy that gives us the capacity to work. Energy is finite, but is renewable. We function in cycles of spending and recovering. To recover we need food, exercise, recreational activities, contact with other humans and sleep. Human beings aren’t machines designed to expend energy continuously.

So, what's wrong? Our prevailing work culture is at odds with the idea that we need rest. Downtime is typically considered time wasted. If we are not productive or effective we are not valued. So we prop ourselves with coffee and use up our own stress hormone production to keep on going. Non-stop spending.

I was planning to write a long list of healthy habit tips, like "prepare your lunch in advance, book your agenda, close your door, go outside". But you all know these tips. The problem is not lack of knowledge. It's within us. If we are so smart and productive to occupy a leadership position, how come we are not capable of organising minimum self-care?

It's not your boss' fault. It's that crippling fear.

When I hear clients deny her basic needs their stories resonate. I remember what I did many years ago. I felt I couldn't stop, or do less. It was "impossible". If I didn't do my job as legal counsel, terrible things could happen. Our business could loose its license, a 500 Million deal could fail. Worst case, we could go to jail!

With a lot of distance, I see my black and white thinking. Yes, terrible things could happen. But only because I had conformed to an absurd structure that made me believe there was such a dependency on my delivery that if I were to fail, things would fall apart.

In some corporate cultures, self-care is viewed as being shameful and self-indulgent. As if self-neglect and excessive overwork were considered signs of strength and sacrifice. We are allowing fear to control whether and how we take care of ourselves. Breaking free from these beliefs will allow us to think clearly and act independently.

It always comes back to the same necessity: go deep enough and there is a bedrock of truth, however hard. - Mark Sarton.

Self neglect may be a coping mechanism. Let's be honest: what makes us think we are so indispensable that we cannot afford to take half an hour to eat, or build in a 15 minute break?

We may not aware of our own self-sabotage because the effects of our behavour may not show up for some time. But we've seen many colleagues end up in a burn-out for lack of self-care.

Maybe we are expecting that other people will take care of us. I'm sure you have asked for more resources and you have come up with processes or systems that help you better manage your time and you are looking for a way to "make more time".

Others are stuck in the perfectionism trap and cannot let go of imperfections. Or we are postponing changes because we are still "researching the perfect solution". Maybe we are so attached to our routines that logical changes seem impossible. Or we have not empowered others to take decisions and everything falls back on us.

If you look deep enough, maybe what you'll find underneath the busyness is nothing more than fear. Fear of not performing. Irrational beliefs. "If I take breaks I will loose my job". This may or may not be true, what is really sure is that your health will deteriorate if you don't. And if your body is not functioning, your performance will go down and you may really loose your job.

The truth is that self-sabotage is a complex process. We develop excuses to avoid facing painful decisive actions.

I invite you to rebel against your own excuses. Taking care of your own body is your sole responsibility. Self-reclamation is also a process. Start small. Day by day.

Only you can set the limits. Your basic human needs go first.

I am not proud of my old overworking habits. In fact, I'm a little ashamed. But I'm happy I learned the lesson. Now I consciously manage my tendency to "do too much" by planning downtime, scheduling "discovery and creativity dates" (I make time to paint, walk in a park, visit to a museum), and I try to see people whose energy resonates with mine. And guess what! My clients that took the decision to take care of their bodies found out that the world didn't fall apart when they started to reclaim their right to healthy breaks.

We’re meant to switch between spending and recovering energy.

Let the robots work non-stop. The distinctive capacities that will make us valuable in the AI era are Creativity and Collaboration. To develop both, we need to take healthy breaks, engage in real connection with others and find opportunities to exchange new ideas.

Prepare for AI. Invite a human for lunch and enjoy your break.

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