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  • How To Be Productive When You’re Sick And You Have An Important Deadline

In 48 hours, I had to give a keynote in front of 450 people. Here I was, sick, lying in bed, and we’re about to launch a new product at Asian Efficiency which could change the course of the company.

With very limited time and capacity to be productive, I still needed to rehearse my keynote (that I have never given before), finish up product deliverables, review important marketing campaigns, lead team and employee meetings, and more. I wasn’t sure what to do.

What would you do if you were sick and you had an important deadline? Do you work through your sickness? Do you rest, recover and try to catch up later? Push a deadline?

Most typical advice will say to take a day off, rest up and come back when you’re healthy.

But I couldn’t cancel on my keynote. If I did, I would have to refund what they paid me and it would damage my reputation with the meeting planners that pulled a lot of strings for me to get this gig. We also had a product launch happening and we were already mid-way through and canceling it would negatively impact the brand and our clients who were expecting this new product. I had to figure how to get it all done while being sick.

At Asian Efficiency we help people make the most out of their time without having to sacrifice their health, family, and things that matter to them. It was time to eat my own dog food and test this even further. So here’s what I ended up doing.

1. Focus On One Thing

At Asian Efficiency we see people not get things done because their focus is all over the place. When people start their day tackling five different tasks, they often leave the office disappointed with nothing checked off. Even though they were busy and “doing work”, nothing got accomplished.

That’s why it’s important to prioritize and only work on one task at a time. This is how you get things done. One important task done is more impactful than five tasks half-done.

What’s even better is eliminating anything you don’t have to do. How often do we work on tasks that don’t even need to be done? Far more than we care to admit.

When I was sick, I knew I couldn’t do everything and it was a good reminder that I needed to get even more ruthless with my priorities.

Out of the 10+ things on my todo list before my flight, I asked myself this question: what are the things only I could do?

Once I asked myself that question, it became very obvious. The only thing I could do that no one else could was to give a keynote. Everything else could be done by someone else. So my todo list went from:

  • Prepare and rehearse keynote
  • Give keynote
  • Review marketing materials of product launch
  • Run daily standup meeting with the team
  • 1on1 meetings with key team members
  • (and a few other things)

To this:

  • Prepare and rehearse keynote
  • Give keynote

I was the unique talent for the keynote and everything else was delegate-able and postponable.

Once I had this clarity, I felt so much better. I could focus on just one big thing and have everything else done by someone else. I got on a call with the team, explained the situation and gave everyone pointers of how I would think through certain things. They were now empowered to take over.

You can do the same. Ask for help from others. It could be your partner, your team, co-workers, your parents…anyone. This is the perfect time to have them help you so you can focus on what’s most important.

I used to have trouble letting go of things but I’ve learned over the years that this mindset held me back from growing Asian Efficiency. So I had no issue with letting someone else run the meetings and review the marketing materials. It was also the perfect opportunity for the team to improve on their skills and at the same time, we became better at being cross-functional.

2. Sleep, Sleep, and Sleep

Sleep is extremely important for getting back on track and healthy. This is when your body will focus on repairing and recovering. With only 48 hours before my trip, I made it a priority to nap and sleep as much as I could. We have a course inside the Dojo on how to optimize your sleep and recovery so I remembered we had a simple checklist there that I could use.

My mindset was really simple: let’s tackle my todo list and whenever I feel tired, take a nap. Mid-way through rehearsing my talk for the 2nd time, I felt tired. So I grabbed my eyemask, lowered the bedroom temperature and made my room as dark as possible before I laid down.

When I woke up, I felt hot but a little better. I would go back to rehearsing my talk and repeat this process.

To prepare for a good night sleep, I followed my evening ritual and made sure I consumed more magnesium throughout the day. It’s a natural tranquilizer for the body and I’m a big fan of the Calm supplement. I would take 3 scoops a day to get around 1 gram of magnesium in. Most of us don’t get enough magnesium from our diet so this is an easy way to increase that and get better sleep.

The next day, after sleeping 8.5 hours, I woke up feeling pretty good and energized. I could still feel I was not 100% but good enough to get a day’s worth of rehearsals in and running last minute errands.

3. Go Sweat In a Sauna

The most recent go-to step in my recovery protocol is to go to the sauna. Detoxing and sweating in the sauna has so many health benefits. Where I live in Austin, two blocks away there’s a fitness and recovery center called Generator Athlete Lab. They have an infrared sauna that I usually go to twice a week. But once I got sick, I went in every day.

The sauna will raise your internal temperature just like when you get sick or go through intense exercise. It will stimulate processes in your body to help you recover from that and detox through sweating and eliminating heat. Normally I would last between 25 and 35 minutes in 150F (65 Celsius) but this time I could barely do 10 minutes.

But those 10 minutes had a high return on investment – it helped me recover faster. Tons of research studies have shown the benefits of saunas and I’m a big believer in it. Just be mindful to hydrate yourself a lot when you do go in while you’re sick. Which brings me to the next point.

4. Drink Lots of Water

When you go to the sauna, you should be drinking more water than normal because you lose a lot of liquids through sweating. When you’re sick you should also drink more to help the body recover and eliminate any waste.

Most of us don’t drink enough water. Whatever the amount you’re drinking right now, double that. When you’re sick, drink even more. Everyone’s needs are different but to put it in perspective I drink around 2.5 liters a day (85 oz) when I’m healthy. When I was sick I would go up to 4 liters (1 gallon). On sauna days, that would be even more.

To take it a step further, when you sweat a lot (or had a heavy night of drinking) you lose a lot of salt and minerals. The easiest way to replenish that is by adding electrolyte powder to your water. It’s why you see professional athletes drink colorful liquids to help them recover and perform better. Except they usually have lots of sugar in them which you don’t want when you’re recovering from an illness. You just need the extra salt and minerals which is why the electrolyte powder is so helpful. I would add a small teaspoon to every jug of water I had. The brand I personally use is this one by Vega Sport but any brand will do.

5. Take Your Supplements

I’m pretty good with taking my daily supplements. At home, I have this supplement rack that my housekeeper will fill up every week so it’s always full and ready to go. There are weeks when I’m skipping taking supplements because I just forget or I’m too lazy to check it off in my OmniFocus. Sometimes for multiple days in a row.

However, as soon as I got sick, I would get back on track to take my daily supplements. I wanted to empower my body with every vitamin and mineral it needed to recover.

To take it a step further, a year ago my functional medicine doctor told me to take Congaplex 3-4 times a day (4 capsules each time). It raises your immune system and I had another friend, who I trust very much, vouch for it.

At the time I got sick, I wanted to recover faster so I could not miss work as much. I had never heard of this supplement but I was desperate to recover from my illness so I took it. Every day I would take it multiple times a day and as each day went by, I felt better and better.

Was it the Congaplex that helped? That I cannot be certain of but at the time I didn’t have all the other steps of the protocol figured out yet. The only major things I did was sleep, drink water and take Congaplex.

I’m a believer of it now after I tried it a few more times. Every time I feel like I’m about to get sick, like an itchy throat or my body temperature was abnormally high while I was sleeping (something I can see in my Oura ring), I’ll take Congaplex twice a day and I haven’t been sick much since. This has made me a believer of it and it’s widely available over the counter. In fact, I take 4 capsules now as part of my pre-flight routine (before I leave my home) so I avoid any sickness I might get from being on planes and at airports.

6. Stop Doing These Three Things

As much as sleep, hydration and supplements are important for your recovery, there are a few things that can delay or stop it.

For example, most forms of exercise is a bad idea when you’re sick. Your body is already stressed from the illness so adding more stress from exercise will delay your recovery.

In fact, intense exercise will temporarily lower your immune system. If you’ve ever started a new exercise program after not working out for a while, you might have noticed that you’re more often sick around that same time. That’s because your body will focus on recovery after exercise which temporarily compromises your immune system. Over time, your body gets better at it but this is just a good reminder for you and me to not exercise when we’re sick.

The other thing to avoid is eating unhealthy food. I know this sounds so obvious but how many of us have eaten pints of Ben & Jerry’s, bags of Doritos and chocolate cookies when we’re sick?

Just me?

Mmm, okay. Well let me tell you now, that’s a bad idea! When we’re sick we want to nourish our body with healthy foods so it can recover faster. I love eating ice cream – especially when I feel sick and hot thinking it will help me cool down and the sugar will make me temporarily feel better. Try to resist it because it’s not the nourishment your body needs to recover fast.

Because I was in a time crunch, my next piece of advice will be a little counterintuitive. Normally when you’re sick, you want to relax and avoid anything strenuous like exercise. In the past, I would read a book and watch TV all day.

I will actually recommend you skip reading and watching TV. I would consider these passive forms of recovery. Instead, you should focus on active recovery where you’re putting yourself in an environment for your body to fully focus on recovery. These are the things I mentioned earlier – drinking more water, sleep, nap and go to the sauna.

Instead of watching TV (passive), use that time to nap (active). Instead of laying in bed reading (passive), go to the sauna (active). Especially when you need to be recovered by a certain deadline like I did.

When I was sick, I skipped all these three things. I encourage you to do the same.

The Recovery Protocol

That is my recovery protocol for when I need to be productive by a deadline and get back healthy fast.

48 hours later, I was on the plane, feeling 95% and on my way to Atlanta to give a keynote. I felt good enough to travel, give a talk and impact hundreds of people. Had I not followed my recovery protocol, I’m not sure I would have made it.

Going forward, I know what I need to do now to recover faster. This recovery protocol, which I’ve now documented in Evernote too and labeled as “Recovery Protocol”, is simple yet effective. The next time I get sick and I have a strict deadline to be healthy again, I know what I need to do now. And you do too.

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. Your story of how you started your blog has really inspired me.

    Keep on WINNING and IMPACTING your community by equipping them through KNOWLEDGE.

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