Forced Healthiness: No More Working Through the Pain

Liam's running shoes

When the noted developer, writer, business owner and speaker Rachel Andrew asked for volunteers to answer a few questions about how major injuries or long-term illness affects creativity and productivity, I felt like I had to respond. Over the course of too many years, I learned the hard way about the price of not taking proper care of my health. I had thoughts and ideas to share that might help others avoid the mistakes I’ve made.

Following her research, Rachel wrote a great piece called Being Creative While in Pain: Working with Chronic Illness, which was published on the fantastic site that is 99U. More information about Rachel is online at What follows are my own thoughts on the same topic.

A Tale of Two Issues

I have two medical issues which affect my work. The first is a bad back. It’s gotten worse over the years as I get older and, particularly when I fail to effectively manage the flexibility and strength of my back (and core muscles) with proper stretching and exercise.

The second issue is sleep apnea. When I was in the process of starting my own marketing and design practice, I was transitioning out of full-time employment into self-employment. Over the span of about six months, I worked 12-16 hour days: 9-5 for my employer, then for myself from about 7-midnight and again the next day from 4-7, before heading into my day job. It wreaked havoc with my sleeping patterns and caused me to develop sleep apnea.

Downed by a Bad Back x 2

With respect to my back, I really do need to get up, stretch and walk a bit every hour. I also need to do core exercises on a daily basis. Failure to do so will put me out of commission, possibly for weeks. I went to the Emergency Room in an ambulance in February 2013 and subsequently could not sustain a full-pace work schedule for a month or so. Then again in 2014, while I avoided a trip to the ER, I did manage to land myself in bed for a week following severe back spasms.

Suffering Through Sleep Apnea

As my sleep apnea raged uncontrolled, I would drink 4-6 mugs of very strong coffee, 2-3 cups of tea and a soda or two every day to stay awake. And I would still fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow at night. I could take a nap anywhere, at any time. I could drink a post-prandial espresso and still be asleep within minutes of finishing dinner.

It would not be an overstatement to say that I was always on the verge of falling asleep. I could still be productive at work, but it took a mountain of caffeine to make that happen.

A Forced Change

My two medical conditions eventually forced me to make changes in my life. I say “forced,” because if I did not change, I am convinced that I would have suffered even more dire health consequences. I also say “forced,” because I should have chosen to focus on a healthy routine years sooner. I was an idiot for ignoring my health for so long.

Yet, I did eventually make some changes.

Addressing Sleep Apnea

While I scaled back the stupid-long hours soon after I started working for myself, I still suffered from sleep apnea. After about five or six years of near-constant exhaustion (and terribly loud snoring), I decided to address the sleep apnea. I went for a sleep test.

Following the sleep test (yes, I was plugged into all sorts of cords; no, it wasn’t that bad or scary), I learned that while the brain of a sleeping healthy person adjusts for breathing issues 1 to 3 times per hour, mine was making adjustments 58 times per hour. As I slept through the test, at almost every minute of every hour, my brain needed to do something to adjust for my breathing issues. So, although I was “asleep,” my brain was not getting the chance to actually shut down for a proper rest. No wonder I was exhausted!

To be clear, I was not waking up 58 times an hour. Yet, my brain still had to do something, somehow to make sure that a sufficient amount of oxygen flowed into my lungs. I didn’t need to understand all the bio-science to appreciate that I had a significant health issue.

And it was a health issue that could be comfortably and easily managed. Without medicine.

I now use a CPAP machine. I’ve named my CPAP machine Henry, which is short for Henrietta. Thanks to Henry, I now sleep very well and have plenty of energy for all of life’s challenges. I very vividly remember putting the mask on for the first time on that Thursday night in January. When I next awoke, it was morning! I slept the whole night through. I was so rested! I could not believe my energy levels after just one night of quality sleep.

Now that I’m on the CPAP machine, my energy levels have returned to healthy levels. I am a regular runner, on the treadmill in winter and outdoors in the other three seasons. As an anecdotal measure, I now drink 1-3 cups of coffee per morning (because I love the taste). The coffee that I make myself is much weaker too; no more rocket fuel.

Getting an In-Shape Back

With respect to managing my back issues, I no longer pull those “not getting out of my chair until it’s done” marathons. I also make time during the business day to exercise. I typically run at 1:00 pm or so, which helps me eat a lighter lunch and avoid the need for a post lunch caffeine blast.

Upon consideration, I think my new approach is healthier and more productive (we can’t really concentrate for hours on end, can we?), but it was a difficult transition.

Over the past few years, I’ve grown to truly appreciate the need for and value of proper exercise. It is now a work priority, so to speak. Pushing through the pain to get a proposal out the door or to get that website live is no longer worth it to me. I know that I will set myself back too much if I don’t prioritize the management of my health.

Coping with a Bad Back

The downside of managing a better work-life balance is that I no longer dedicate 12-14 hours of every day to my to-do list. Given that change for the better, I needed to find ways to be more effective with the time that I do have at work. To that end I have a few techniques that work well for me.

(1) I write my daily goals at the start of every business day. In addition to getting me focused right out of the box, it also helps me during the day when I get sidetracked. Is perusing Twitter really going to help me reach my billable target this month? Will checking out the football news right now enable me to read 15-30 minutes per day? Did eating such a big lunch make for a better afternoon run?

(2) I have a printed daily schedule. I write down the appointments for the day along with the specific tasks I aim to address that day, noting what time I will see to which task. My whole day is mapped out, including lunch, exercise, etc. That way, when I get off-track, I can glance at my schedule and know exactly what I am meant to be doing.

(3) I very much try to live in the moment. Admittedly, I don’t always succeed, but the purpose of my efforts is to help me make the most effective use of my time. When I am working, I want to concentrate entirely on work. When I am hanging out with my children, I want to focus on them. When I am going for a run, I want my mind to focus on getting in the best possible run. This change in mental approach (which has taken several years and continues to be a struggle) has been hugely rewarding.

Lessons from the Fire

As I look back at how I suffered with these two medical issues, I fully appreciate that I am to blame for the suffering and disruptions that they caused. I could have been proactive in dealing with both issues in a time frame that might have prevented them from becoming so problematic for me and for my family. I can’t get those years back, but I am committed to making sure that I manage my health properly now and for the rest of my life.