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How Do Executives Survive?

Eight lessons your manager can teach you about thriving at work

Life as a senior manager is harder than most people think. Long hours, crushing workloads, multiple and constant pressures, and incessant conflict and unpopularity often come with the job. Yet executives are typically healthier and happier than the rest of us. How do they do it?

The myth of the fat, lazy executive

Some people like to stereotype managers as lazy fat cats who earn a living by passing on all the hard work to other people. Undoubtedly a few such individuals exist, but they are not typical. Managers work longer hours than most other occupations, with around 45% of all managers working at least 45 hours a week. The average manager starts each Monday morning with a to-do list containing around 200 items. Nor is the work always easy - by some estimates, the average manager spends 20 to 40% of their time dealing with conflict, and 50% of managers fail. The typical manager also has family responsibilities in addition to coping with his or her workload.

The ‘fat' part of the stereotype of managers is also overstated. American male managers have an obesity rate of 25%, while females have a rate of 20%, compared to an average of 25% for the rest of the population and 28% for the middle aged (probably a better comparison group). More importantly, managers are healthier and happier than the average for the population. How do effective managers meet the challenges of their roles while staying sane and in good health?

Eight rules for corporate survival

Research and observation show that managers with a high tolerance for pressure often draw on the following techniques. You can use them too.

1. Prioritise ruthlessly

Effective managers are clear about their key priorities, and develop systems for ensuring they get done. They're always looking for opportunities to do things more efficiently and better. Getting organised and prioritising is key to ensuring that you make the time you need to look after yourself.

2. Cultivate self-discipline

Psychometric testing shows that on average, managers are more conscientious and self-disciplined than the rest of us. This may help account for their ability to maintain relatively slim waistlines in the face of heavy work demands, because the highly self-disciplined are around 22 pounds (10 kilos) lighter than their more impulsive peers. More importantly, conscientious people are also significantly happier. You can deliberately cultivate your self-discipline (e.g. as described in the book Willpower by Roy Baumeister).

3. Be assertive and proactive

Most managers are more assertive and proactive than the average person. You need to be assertive and proactive to build and maintain healthy routines in the face of work pressures and demands from others.

4. Find exercise that works for you

Many managers comment that exercise is a key technique they use to manage work pressure. How do you consistently fit exercise into a hectic and unpredictable timetable? One solution is to find a form of exercise that you can do almost anywhere, anytime with minimal equipment (like bodyweight strength training or just running). Another is to take part in some sort of sport or activity that you enjoy and that provides the opportunity to socialise (e.g. team sports, dancing, or endurance sports) - multitasking is a key technique executives use to get everything done.

5. Keep moving

There is alarming recent evidence that suggests that sitting too long each day has a negative effect on your health. Managers often make a point of ‘walking the floor' and visiting people in different areas - find your own excuses for getting up and wandering around every hour or so.

6. Eat often and well

There is evidence that eating often is beneficial for your weight, health, and productivity (e.g. your judgement and ability to focus). For example, one study found that being hungry caused judges to become overly conservative in their decisions. Obviously regular snacking on chocolate biscuits isn't going to cut it - you need to stock up on healthy, office-friendly food (e.g. fruit, nuts and canned food).

7. Hold on to your friends

Morrissey was right - it's important to hold onto your friends. While not all managers are raging extroverts, many reference the importance of friends and confidants to their ability to manage pressure. Some people like to talk over work issues with someone who understands, and some like to talk to people from completely different walks of life, which helps them to forget about work for a while.

8. Keep perspective

If work is the only thing going on in your life, work issues can take on disproportionate significance. Many have learnt to their cost that it is unwise to over-rely on their work to meet their emotional needs - when head office cancel that important project you've poured your heart into for the last six months because someone thinks he has a better idea, they probably see your bruised ego as a minor consideration, if they think about it at all. Most managers complement their busy schedules with out-of-work interests that help them keep work in perspective. The managers that handle pressure most effectively are quite pragmatic about what happens at work - ‘it's just business'.

What's your favourite tip for surviving office life? Leave a comment to share it.

Photo credits: Ambro / Stuart Miles /

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