This is the thirteenth article following The Irony of Quitting My Job to Take a Sabbatical, the first in a series on what I learned and what I’d recommend from quitting my job to take a six-month sabbatical (without another job in sight). Last time, I shared 10 ways to foster creativity in your daily life. Today, I’m sharing what I’ve learned to be the most important yet the most often neglected aspect of many peoples’ lives.
“The only really important thing, at the end of the day, is your health. If you haven’t got that, then all the money in the world isn’t going to bring you happiness.”
– John Caudwell
I used to be really good at prioritizing other things before taking care of myself.
This was not only mentally—in terms of self-esteem, self-talk and other mental traps I fell into—but also physically.
I didn’t exercise regularly during college and the first few years of work. Although I never indulged in too many sweets due to my savory tooth, I didn’t eat well. Likely too much pizza and tator tots, as much as I’d like to believe otherwise. During the most hectic periods of work, I’d continue working without getting up for a glass of water or bathroom break until hours later. I’d purposefully ignore my body’s signs. And so at some point my body stopped sending signals, which wasn’t a good thing.
A recipe headed towards disaster.
Many people (my old self included) put health on the back burner when life gets busy. And it’s little wonder. The tactic is convenient with generally no immediate consequences or any notice from others. Most people don’t notice the consequences of neglected health until years later.
Part of the blessing and curse is by design. The mind and body are amazing partners. They work together beautifully if you configure and maintain in just the right way. But when misaligned and neglected, they will destroy each other over time. For better and worse, our bodies adapt and take orders from the mind. When stressed, overworked and overwhelmed, the body adjusts to keep everything going as long as possible for survival.
This comes at a cost.
At some point, the body will run out of reserves. Some people reach the breaking point with a health scare before they get a break. Others find that once their level of stress goes down—such as after a test, a big presentation or interview—they fall sick. The body senses that the threat to survival is now gone, and so it has time to break down, to heal, to let you know whatever it is you’ve been neglecting.
My body luckily gave me an early warning in 2011. It was a mild but rare condition for my age, and it was enough of a spark to get my attention. I started exercising more regularly. My eating improved, and water and bathroom breaks began to take priority.
After the wedding, my diet and exercise slowly started slipping again, although they never returned back to the low levels from previous years. As is often the case, we need reminders every once in awhile—even for the lessons we’ve learned.
So when I found myself with an abundance of time and freedom that I never had before during my sabbatical, I was reminded that anything important you’ve been putting off comes to the front and center. The underlying level of stress for the past several years was now gone and my body saw its chance to signal. The years of stress from the busy-ness and staying in a career that wasn’t right for me took a bigger toll on my body than I realized.
It started the first week of my sabbatical.
I thought they were mosquito bites initially. The beginning couple weeks of my sabbatical, I took allergy medication to help with the allergic reaction to what I thought was from the typical casualty of summer nights.
The medication had a three-day masking effect on the real issue. It wasn’t until the middle of August that I stopped taking anything and realized there was something else going on.
Unbearably itchy, burning hives appeared everywhere from my temples, scalp, neck, chest, arms, stomach, back and legs. They began as evening drew near and worsened throughout the night. Some nights, I couldn’t sleep until nine the next morning. During the day, they abated slowly, and I’d have a brief period of relief until evening came again.
My whole body was seemingly going through a recurring allergic reaction to everything. And there was a noticeably more severe reaction after I had the good stuff—like chocolate, wine, cheese, tator tots (my absolute fav, in case you couldn’t tell) and other deliciousness.
The worst, I tell you, from a food enthusiast’s perspective.
But in the name of health, I went on a diet cleanse to figure out what was going on. Primarily broth, eggs, brown rice, veggies and chicken for about two months. Along with this, I tried many things—herbal cleanses, homemade personal care products, teas, vitamins and any other advice I got from others.
It took almost four months of healthier eating and supplements for the symptoms to finally disappear as randomly and unexpectedly as they had come. To this day, it’s still somewhat of a mystery.
Similar to the health scare in 2011 during the worst of my corporate years, this was a blessing in disguise. In the process of trying everything and anything to figure out what was going on, I learned a whole lot on how to better take care of my body. What was done in desperation in those months are now regular ways that I take care of myself now.
Recently I read a book exploring the sources of meaning to sixty individuals between the ages of seventy and ninety-seven. In a future article, I’ll share more of the key takeaways I learned from the book, but one of the main points is this.
Good health determines your independence. This is true right now, but particularly in later life when the years add up and bodies wear down.
The ease of the independence you take for granted in your earlier years—with a younger body’s ability to keep up and make sacrifices—differs drastically when you get older. The lack of health and resulting lack of independence then leads to further implications in old age; but we’ll get more into that in a future post.
Not only is health important in later life, it’s also important now. You live and perform better when you are healthy. It doesn’t mean you can’t do great work and live a great life with suboptimal health; it simply means that your work and life will be even greater with better health.
I’ve come to realize that health—both mental and physical—should be considered the upmost important priority in your life. While that’s no new revelation, it’s a worthwhile daily reminder as small, everyday actions you take add positively or negatively to the bigger picture. This is especially true as many of us often, and readily prioritize other things over our own health.
Nowadays my body sends signals eagerly and quickly, and that’s a good thing. When I eat badly during the day, my body lets me know within a couple hours. I feel the aftermath of not going to gym at least every other day. When I forget to take a supplement, I feel a bit sluggish later on. When I’m not thinking productively about a situation, I pause and take a deep breath. While I’m certainly not perfect and still enjoy my tator tots from time to time, I’m much more attuned to my body now.
How do your everyday actions prioritize your health? Are you taking the time to listen to your body? Health, both mental and physical, should be the most important priority in your life.
Up next, I’ll share my experience in minimizing the physical and abstract clutter in my life to focus more on meaningful progress. Wishing everyone a wonderful New Year’s Eve, however you chose to spend it. Cheers to a new day, another year!