I was on a roll two weeks ago.
I had managed, somehow, to find a prolonged and sustained flow. My work felt easier and more free than it usually did, and I hadn’t avoided sitting down in my chair to begin in a while.
But I’ve been in the zone like that before. And while it’s never not special, it wasn’t a surprise. What was compelling to me was how I felt like things were going right outside of my work as well.
I would get up in the morning around the same time each day and work out, but not in a forced, burdensome way. This was a new phenomenon for me.
After weeks of chipping away , my pantry was down to only healthy-ish foods. The saltiest and fattiest food I could possibly stuff myself with were some Planter’s peanuts. The same went for my fridge, where I had eggs, english muffins, sauces, water, and…not much else that could ruin my macros for the day. My house was clean, but not overly so.
It was the perfect environment for diligent bursts of work-from-home work, and not much else. I’d leave to exercise or attend the occasional meeting.
And so, the roll felt really nice. I was in the pocket.
But then, I left for ten days. I went on a work trip, where I lived and worked out of a hotel, and experienced wild variance in my routine and resources.
I expected to come back and need to start from scratch. Build up tolerances and routines from zero, and really claw at my work to get back my momentum. But instead, I came home to a house I left clean, with everything in its place and ready to go again. I adjusted a few things, replenished some supplies, and I was off! I just can’t express how rare a thing this was in my life prior.
I was intensely curious about how I had pulled this off. How I had done it in the first place, and how I was able to drop into it again after a hiatus and continue. I realized it was because I had finally started, almost by accident, to set up systems that allowed me to succeed without constantly thinking about trying to succeed.
They were things I had started doing so consistently that they no longer felt like This Is My Great Attempt At Being Better–which is how my self-development attempts previously felt. So effortful. So much pressure for things to go right.
But no–this time, I laced up my sneakers in the morning and went for a run. I pressed the “Start” button on the washing machine before I walked out the door. I drank a bottle of water and had an apple and took a shower and used that new moisturizer someone told me to try. The old me might have tried to write a 1,600 word article about how I made a spreadsheet and painstakingly collated it to find the right moisturizer. But now I was just…doing it, instead. Much better.
It’s not that systems were put in place and never had to be checked up on again–quite the contrary. It was a large working network of systems and processes that needed maintenance. Trips to the grocery store with intention. Laundry and dishes washed at regular intervals. Email inboxes regularly sifted through for important items. To-do lists written out and cranked through–daily. Exercise–even when I don’t feel like it.
It’s a continual yet relaxed checking in on all your systems–making sure everything is still up to date and humming like a well-oiled machine. Maintenance is the name of the game.
But my favorite part about all of this is that it didn’t feel like work. In fact, it felt fun. Exercising and eating apples literally made me feel more energetic, more open, more ready to take on the world. It’s a freaky thing to describe, and I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t felt it. I feel closer to an optimized life–and I’m just getting started.
It’s about opening yourself up and gaining the ability to experience the great things in life unencumbered.
I want you to experience this, too. See if my experiences mean anything to you. Here are a few ways you might be able to start changing the way you look at things.
Do what you know you should do
Here’s a straight up true fact: you should work out. I should work out. We all should work out. Its benefits are objective, not subjective.
I went years of my life without exercising consistently. I knew this was not the best way to live. But I had made some complex system of excuses, between “it would be too difficult to start,” “I don’t know what to do,” “I never worked out in that way before,” and, of course, “I don’t have time.”
This line of thinking didn’t even allow me to start considering the matrix of possible benefits–from mental health to productivity and stamina and general health improvements.
In the hours and even days after a workout, I feel considerably better. I bounce around with more energy. I stand and sit up straighter. I feel better and more confident in myself. I don’t slink away from mirrors.
And it’s crazy how wide-reaching the positive effects are. In that “after workout” period, I’m less likely to reach for a fatty snack. Somehow I fall into a positive feedback loop of actually thinking apples and greek yogurt are delicious, and that water is really the only liquid you could ever need.
(It’s almost like my body has finally gotten a taste of what it feels like to be operating at a healthy clip, not being dragged down by sugar and trans fats, and is desperate to make sure it continues as long as possible.)
My point: I would pay a lot of money to be able to bottle and deploy that feeling at will. My productivity would soar, my quality of life would increase, and I would feel like a better and more worthwhile person. But we’ve already gotten pretty close to bottling the feeling. Just work out. The good feeling will come in about 20 to 60 minutes.
And these principles apply to all sorts of self-discipline: reading books, attending therapy, taking walks, eating healthier food. We know on paper that their worth is very nearly objective. And I’m telling you now what you already know: if you just start, the benefits are innumerable.
And think about it – exercising literally is maintenance. It’s hedging against the weight and the possible injuries and struggles of the future,
If I had never started on this cycle, knowing on a factual level the benefits it promised but lacking the motivation, I would never know these feelings. I would be stuck under a physical and metaphorical weight that would feel immovable and paralyzing. That I got out from under it is no personal achievement beyond maybe a coincidence, and there’s no guarantee it doesn’t come back and weigh me down again, but because I’ve seen the other side and am currently experiencing it without a filter, I can relay the message: it’s worth doing, and you should do it too.
Optimize on the micro level
There are little events and routines in our days that add to a narrative within ourselves: that things are stuck a certain way. That breaking out of any kind of stasis that we find ourselves in takes an effort that’s slightly too high to be carried out consistently. Basically, that our behavior has a floor and a ceiling –that we can’t stretch too high and achieve more just as we can’t fall too low into degeneracy. But these are lies we tell ourselves. And, in a weird way, a lot of the work of breaking out of this line of thinking happens in tiny moments that you wouldn’t otherwise notice.
Here’s an embarrassingly specific example: I like being able to reach into the fridge and grab a bottle of water and be on my way. I like it to be a quick and smooth process.
In other words, I don’t like going and getting a glass and filling it up in the sink. And if the tap water doesn’t get cold enough immediately, it’s inconvenient to me.
So I’m left with a predicament. Pointlessly buy plastic water bottles and contribute to the heat death of the Earth, all for a little convenience and a PH-level I’m used to? Or “inconvenience” myself with a slower method of filling up a lukewarm glass of tap water?
First world problem? Absolutely. It’s not even an actual problem.
But one day on a whim I bought a Brita filter. Then, I searched on Amazon for glass bottles–I’d heard those were the most environmentally friendly method of having transportable water regularly available. My idea was to recreate the feeling of having a fridge stocked with Poland Springs by filling glass bottles with filtered water.
And that’s exactly what I did. Now I feel like a positive, non-psycho Patrick Bateman with these clean, slick glass water bottles in my fridge.
It takes a little while to fill them all up with water from the filter (I have to fill the filter up too from time to time, too) and yeah, it could be considered a little annoying, but it couldn’t be more worth it.
Now, I know how little I’m hurting the planet compared to what I could be doing. I know how much goodness I’m giving my body compared to the sugary garbage I could be drinking. And it all just contributes to this feeling of positivity and health that seeps into the rest of my life. It feels so silly to type out, but it’s true! It’s to the point where I’m gratified and happy to fill up those stupid bottles every couple of days. Because I know that little bit of effort allows a healthier alternative to stay viable.
So, in your life, look for those micro pain points. Go super granular and not-really-a-problem, like I did. Attack and optimize enough of them, and you start to feel more positive and intentional in so many moments of your day. That adds up, and it’s important.
Set it and forget it
The real power of a system like this comes once you’re able to get into a multi-day, multi-week groove with it. The goal is to look up one day and not even realize you’ve been doing it.
Usually in our lives–certainly in mine–that experience is reserved for unhealthy habits that creep in and take hold of us.
Habits build on each other. Going to the gym that’s right next to the farmer’s market leads to a cascade of beneficial choices. Your YouTube algorithm starts to feed you healthy cooking videos and ads for cookware. You start to enjoy the taste of fruit again–not Welch’s Fruit Snacks, but actual fruit.
To see that experience play out for me in my life has been nothing short of astounding. And those systems I randomly set in place in an Effort To Be Better a few weeks ago? The ones that happened to stick, and happened to have positive repercussions for me, have gone a long way in developing the way I now think about the concept of affecting change in my life.
Give it a try yourself. See what happens.