The Five Principles of Productivity (Expensive Life-Coaching Series)

Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography on Unsplash

I have two questions for you:

  1. How do you stay productive and reduce stress as you work towards your life goals?
  2. If you could hire the best life coach to help you do your best work, what would they encourage you to work on?

You might want to check in with yourself before you read any further. You likely already know, in some great sense, what you need to produce better results.

But it might also help to see what an expensive life-coach would say.


Vas Narasimhan, close up. Photo by Erik Tanner for the NY Times, Sunday, August 4th, 2019

I keep coming back to this interview with Vas Narasimhan, who is the CEO of Novartis, the global drug manufacturer.

Not because Narasimhan is the son of Indian immigrants, grandson of Indian Villagers, who took the position as part of a career trajectory dedicated to public health.

And not because Narasimhan is “deeply concerned” about our ability to respond to a pandemic.

But I keep thinking about what Narasimhan said about working with a coach on four principles in his work and personal life.

Near the end of the interview, after discussing the mental demands of being a CEO of a company with 100,000+ employees and $52B in net sales, David Gelles asks him, “How do you deal with all these stressors?”

And Narasimhan replies: “I’ve been working with a coach on four principles: mind-set, movement, nutrition, and recovery.”

In other words, Narasimhan’s high-powered life-coach helps him with the basics of thinking, exercise, food, and sleep.

Brilliant. A few notes on each:

(1) For mind-set, Narasimhan says that he “sets intentions every day” and that he works in the mornings to be clear about what he’d like to accomplish that day. “What is the impact that I want to have?” he asks.

Benjamin Franklin did a similar trick: at the beginning of each day, he’d ask, and write in his journal: “what good can I do today?” And then, each night, before bed, he’d ask, again in his journal, “what good have I done today?”

Orienting towards the good. Our Native American friend Clouds-On-Fire recalls his grandmother saying, “If you don’t share the goodness in your heart with people with good hearts, then what good are you?”

A slightly separate tack: when someone asked Gary Vee if he takes drugs (because he’s so amped up all the time), he responded that it’s his gratitude that gives him his energy. The gratitude to be alive, and the perspective that this is the only ride he’s got; that his loved ones are ok for the day.

Personally, I use morning journaling for a centering intention and generating gratitude by listing what I’m grateful for. It also helps me to “not sweat the small stuff” and stay focused on the big-ticket items in my work day.

(2) For Movement, Narasimhan says he’s a “Peloton addict” and leaves it at that — but I’ve been working on movement as well.

One of my favorite sensationalist headlines ever: “Sitting is the New Smoking”: Ways a Sedentary Lifestyle is Killing You. (It turns out, sitting and smoking don’t make the neatest analogy for pre-mature death or the impact of your decisions on others).

But in my experience (and reading of research studies),we need more small breaks with moderate movement. A ten minute walk can do wonders.

This works well with the Pomodoro Technique as well, where you “sprint” for 25 minutes, and then down-time (with physical movement) for five.

(3) For Nutrition, Narasimhan says that he’s “convinced that your glycemic status impacts your overall ability to make good decisions and handle stress,” and that he asks himself if he’s eating for performance, or eating to enjoy.

Michael Pollan’s Food Rules are a good primer on this. Eat more fiber. Eat more real food. Avoid processed foods as much as possible.

(4) And for Recovery, Narasimhan says he tries to sleep seven to eight hours a night, and takes vacations with his family.

There’s a lot of ways to improve your recovery time: disallow blue lights from screens after dark, get to a schedule and stick to it (mostly), start winding down and resting earlier.

And micro-naps. Take more naps.

And to this list I would add a fifth:

(5) Breathing. I wrote about the importance of breath, with links to breathing teachers here. But I guess breathing is a kind of movement of the diaphragm, if you’re doing it right — so maybe it IS covered above.


That’s all, folks!

I am legitimately curious about practices that help you stay productive, reduce stress and work towards your life goals — and interested in hearing the stories behind how you discovered these practices!

Drop me a line on Facebook — @swanwaters or on Instagram at seanwaters_ or on email :

Hope this helps,





Educator and artist, I work with lifelong learners who want to build better frameworks for living the good life.

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Sean Waters

Sean Waters

Educator and artist, I work with lifelong learners who want to build better frameworks for living the good life.

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