“How a 20 minute workout gave me the career boost I needed”

Posted by for Life

Writer Moya Lothian-McLean was on a quest to build up her biceps, but she gained much more than physical strength. Here’s she explains how her career was boosted by fitness as part of the new Stylist Strong campaign. 

Before I sat down to write this, I did a workout. Nothing fancy; just a 25 minute cardio circuit. By the end I was tomato-faced and dripping sweat onto the battered fitness mat I drag into the middle of my bedroom floor at least four times a week. The day prior, I’d given myself 24 hours grace from both the workout and the writing I had tabled to complete by the time Monday rolled around. 

Waking up on Sunday, I didn’t particularly feel like doing either. But this was the deal I’d struck with myself. So instead of rolling over and continuing to doze, I got out of bed, pulled on my kit and fired up my workout app. 25 minutes later I was awake, focused and ready to tick the next task off my to-do list.

Exercise… on a Sunday? Doing work… on a Sunday? Getting up before 12pm… on a Sunday? 

If it helps, I’m equally as horrified at how insufferable I’ve become since I started exercising in earnest three years ago. To someone who knew me in 2016, the idea that I could possess a work ethic built on consistency, routine and actually getting shit done, rather than just talking about it, would be shocking. The suggestion alone that I even have a work ethic would cause them to double take. 

Up until the age of 21, my approach to work, whatever its nature – paid, academic, basic life admin like registering for the GP so I wouldn’t, you know, die of a cold - was ‘procrastinate now, panic later’. Uni essays were cobbled together in feverish all-nighter stretches, submitted with only an hour to spare before the deadline struck. Preparing in any form for seminars was a myth. I was regularly late to my retail job because I simply couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed.

The concept of ‘hard graft’ was antithetic to me. Yes, the work I was required to do was completed but usually at the last minute, resulting in stress, little benefit or learning and an entrenched belief that I simply didn’t have it in me to stick to anything remotely resembling a schedule. There were two sorts of people in the world, I decided. Those who achieved their goals and met their deadlines having steadily worked towards them, versus those whose ability to procrastinate meant they caught up with five seasons of Game of Thrones in two weeks. Undoubtedly, I belonged to the latter set.

Yet here I am, three years later, with colour-coded spreadsheets and several nicely formatted task lists bearing witness to a remarkable change of character. 

While some of this shift can be attributed to a natural maturing in attitude as I skip through my early twenties, the degree to which I’ve pivoted from indulging my most sloth-like impulses on every occasion and leaving things to the eleventh hour, is staggering. And while it’s certain that being thrust full-time into the working world has caused me to up my game, that’s not what I credit for the about-face. Rather, it’s exercise that kitted me out with the professional skillset and work ethic I’d always thought would escape me.

A career boost was the last thing on my mind though when I clicked ‘Confirm’ on the Amazon order of ‘Jillian Michaels – The Collection DVD’ in January 2016 (new year, new me!). What I was thinking about, sadly, was aesthetics. How I wanted to shave a few inches off my waistline and ‘tone up’ my ‘problem areas’ (fitness also thankfully put paid to that area of thought but that’s an essay for another time). Since high school, I’d abandoned all sports, bar dancing up a storm on nights out. Although I’d been very fit aged 15, that had fallen by the wayside once compulsory PE lessons were no longer a factor and as chatting with mates on MSN became a greater lure than going for runs in the evening.

Recently though, I’d been feeling sluggish; I missed the sense of being at home in my body, being proud of what it could do. So I decided to give exercise another go, after previous false starts. Browsing the web, I landed on Jillian Michaels’ – a lauded American fitness guru - home workout DVD, which offered four different programmes, varying degrees of difficulty and initially required nothing more than a mat and two sets of dumbbells. Reviews were as glowing as I envisioned myself becoming after a month of Jillian. I paid up.

I kicked off with 30 Day Shred, a programme that ran for… yes, 30 days and increased in difficulty as time went on. Each workout lasted for 20 minutes and was comprised of three circuits, repeated twice. Jillian would coax you through each one, occasionally yelling encouragement or instructions from the tinny television speakers.

At first, they were – as expected – bloody difficult. I would frequently pause midway through, huffing and puffing. Sweat pooled on my mat, to the point where I sometimes slipped in it. But the beauty of the Jillian circuits was that she knew exactly how far to push participants. So just when I thought I’d reached breaking point, there would come a more dialled down exercise, like jumping jacks. And with each individual exercise only lasting 25 seconds, I was equipped with the knowledge that even the most taxing ones would be over quickly.

Day by day, I found myself rolling out the mat and putting in my requisite 20 minutes. One week passed, then another and suddenly 30 days had gone by and I was ready to move up a difficulty level. For the first time ever, I had not only stuck to a regular routine, I had finished a project by tackling it in chunks, 20-minute ones that I boiled down to one-hundred 25 second intervals, completed with gritted teeth. But completed, nonetheless.

I had a taste of self-discipline and it was surprisingly sweet. Sure, I was getting physically stronger. But there was a perceptible change in my mentality too. It’s well-documented that regular exercise boosts all manner of brain functions, from memory to focus but I had never banked on exercise to be able to alter what I considered a fundamental flaw in my personality – my inability to finish anything.

Here was evidence to the contrary. A tentative hope grew within me that perhaps, if I was able to keep chipping away at this physical project, maybe I was capable of applying the same approach to my other work? Just how long could I keep this up? I pressed play on the next level of the DVD and committed to another 30 days.

Flash-forward to now. Bar sickness or travel, there hasn’t been a week since 2016 where I haven’t managed to get at least three workouts in. If that sounds excessive, bear with me. Conversely, one of the major lessons transferable lessons exercise taught me, is flexibility. In an average week, I do four workouts, two of them 45-minute sessions focused on specific areas of my body, two of them just pure cardio. In a better-than-average week, I fit in an extra 20-minute total body session, just to round things off. But life often gets in the way – work, seeing my friends, dating (if I’m so inclined). 

If any of those – very enjoyable interruptions – happen, I’ve learned it’s fine to just bust out a quick 10-minute set or cut out a session. Skipping one or two workouts or having the odd occasion where I give less than-100% results in consequences of exactly… nothing. No one dies. I don’t lose the gains I’ve made. Muscle mass built up over three years doesn’t suddenly wither overnight, leaving me rubber-limbed and bereft. I simply pick up the baton again when I’m next ready and able.

Applying this rationale to my work has revolutionised my attitude towards it. I don’t have to exist within a binary of either being absolutely perfect or abandoning something in a fit of despair. If a project isn’t coming together the way I want, I switch my attention to something else or take a break and then return to it when I feel able. Writing an article, I don’t have to kick off with a lede that can win a Pulitzer – instead, I can start from anywhere I please, carve it up into digestible portions of work and tackle steadily, rather than in one mad rush.

I used to not be able to bear looking at my finished articles because I was worried about what I’d find but exercise has taught me to be thorough, to practice in order to sharpen form. It’s not a failing to find things to improve upon; nailing the basics and pushing yourself is how you get stronger, can lift heavier weights, can write weightier things.

Time management, always a sticky one for me, has become exponentially easier. Now I get how to factor in hours and have ceased previous bleating excuses. If I’m able to clear diary space for exercise, I can do it for other pressing engagements and I can be on time for them. I have finite hours and have learned to recognise what I want to prioritise doing with them, rather than spreading myself too thin. Learning how to construct a day around a routine keeps me grounded too, makes me feel driven and focused.

As a freelancer, my exercise schedule has shifted but it’s even more integral to keeping me on track. On a standard day, I’ll have breakfast by 9am and then do an hour of work while letting my food digest before cranking out a workout. That contract I have with myself – 60 minutes of initial work before exercise – keeps me from being overwhelmed by what’s on my professional plate, eases me into it but also breaks up my day and makes me feel like I’m being productive on several fronts.

‘I’m killing it!’ I think, proudly, stretching an exercise band around my glutes and dropping into a squat, as Jillian squawks alongside my workout playlist. That pride pushes me to run that little bit harder, work with that little bit more focus so I meet my set goals – and exceed them. Because… why not?

Above all, exercise has taught me to approach all aspects of my life like Aristotle’s infamous turtle. My physique, my muscle tone, my ability to heft larger dumbbells over my head and extend the length of my workouts – these weren’t achievements attained in a week, or two. I couldn’t tell you the exact day I was suddenly able to do a clapping push-up (even now, that skill comes and goes) instead of falling on my face or complete a cardio session without pausing. It all crept up on me, slowly and steadily until I knew I had finished one challenge – and was ready to take on the next.

Fitting that framework around my professional world, I’ve learned to wallow in beauty of the consistent grind, the joy in watching something take shape brick by brick, from making business connections to pulling the threads of a particularly difficult feature together. If there is an obstacle I come across in the course of my career, I face it head on. 

Jillian instilled in me a ‘this too shall pass’ understanding of situations. Put your head down and get through these 20 minutes. Put your head down and get through this period of intense effort. Then comes the endorphin rush, the reward, the euphoria of accomplishment. Then comes your money, your byline, your burgeoning platform.

Exercise has enabled me to piggyback my friends and run for the bus at a pace Usain Bolt will be impressed by and for that, I’ll forever be grateful. But my investment in a £14 DVD has been repaid 10-times over by the benefits I’ve reaped vis a vis my professional skillset. My work ethic has been built alongside my biceps; I’m ready to start flexing.

Images: Getty

Stylist Strong is a fitness brand specialising in strength training specifically tailored for women. Our classes are designed to build both physical and mental strength in a smart and informed way.

So, whether you’re a beginner or already have strength-training experience, Stylist Strong has a class to suit you. Come and try our strength-based classes at our own purpose-built studio at The AllBright Mayfair. 

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Moya Lothian-McLean

Moya Lothian-McLean is a freelance writer with an excessive amount of opinions. She tweets @moya_lm.

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