We spend a lot of time focused on the details. Organizing our desks. Changing our approach to email. Changing our mindset. Trying new approaches to work. But these things shouldn’t come at the cost of the macro. The broadest strokes you can make. The things you should focus on in a life where you can sometimes only focus on a precious few things.
This is the 50th article I’ve written for RescueTime. I promise that—after this one—I’ll stop announcing milestones. But after 49 articles dipping into the micro, specific, or the experimental, it was a fitting time to throw out something completely different—perhaps my simplest and most impactful advice ever.
Something that I can feel confident promising will improve not only your productivity, but also your health, mood, longevity, skin, and your general overall happiness. Aggressive claims, but I’m comfortable making them.
Sleep. Diet. Exercise.
It really is that simple. It’s those three things in that order of importance.
Picture it. Getting eight hours of sleep. Increasing your cardiovascular and muscular health. Improving your balance. And then drinking a protein smoothie and an anti-oxidant green tea afterward.
Think about what grows from that.
So many things that take brain power and induce decision fatigue, are instead already decided. You wake up energized, rested, feeling at home in your body. Healthy. And not only are you ready to take on what the day has to offer, but you’re more likely to be in charge of what the day has to offer. Not chasing behind it, steps behind as soon as you wake up. It’s a different life.
If you nail these three things, everything else you could do is just the cherry on top. Optimization. 1% after the 99%. Of course, it’s a lot easier said than done. Each of the three present unique challenges in the modern world, with its ever-present gadgets and junk food.
Disclaimer: I am just some guy in California typing on a laptop. I am not an expert in any field. As always, consult your doctor before you make any changes more significant than eating an almond. Neither I nor the good people of RescueTime are to be held responsible for any boneheaded nutritional or behavioral errors you might make.
We all know the nightly struggle. We’re always tired. Sleep should come easy, right? But it almost never does.
The number of stories I hear from people in my life, the number that I could tell myself—it makes me think that nearly everyone in America is deeply and painfully affected by trouble sleeping. I don’t know if it’s possible to overstate the severity and reach this issue has. If there is one thing that we all need to fix, and fix now, it’s sleep.
And the benefits awaiting us if we’re able to fix it are so numerous it’s as if you’re stepping into another life entirely. After a good night’s sleep, everything feels achievable. After a bad night’s sleep, everything is miserable and discouraging.
Here are some things we can do:
Don’t eat before bed. Stop eating an hour or two before bed, and then try increasing that time by as long as is comfortable. The more time your body has to digest food and get that stomach gurgling process out of the way, the better.
Soothe yourself. Meditating before bed changed my life. Just something about giving the whole of my focus over to something calming, that helpfully features intervals of intentional silence, made sleep feel more accessible.
Cut out blue light. Everyone proclaims we need to decrease screens before bed. They’re undoubtedly right. But this one has proved by far the most difficult for me. I’m not going to act like I’m good at it, or even that I do it regularly, because I don’t. If you’re one of those lucky souls out there who genuinely enjoys reading paper books, lean into that. The rest of us will have to try and deal.
Set aside plenty of time to prepare for sleep. If you need eight hours of sleep (that’s exactly as many as you need, by the way), get into bed nine hours before you need to wake up. If you know your wind-down routine takes two hours, then congratulations—you’re going to be spending ten hours in bed.
Sleep may be the most important thing we can do. Read this book—the single best and most important treatise on sleep ever written—if you need more evidence.
While all three steps are difficult in their own way, diet might be the most intimidating, just because no one can seem to agree on what constitutes a healthy diet. And that’s not even mentioning the human proclivity for consuming sugar, salt, and fat, as well as easier access to these than any other time in history.
No doubt you’ve been told about the benefits about eating food that isn’t bad for you.
Let’s establish an ambitious baseline: five combined fruits and veggies a day, watch your overall calorie intake, and get a decent amount of protein and fiber. If you can achieve that, which is no simple feat, you’ll be an exceptional specimen relative to the rest of our population.
You can keep it as simple as you like. Dump protein powder into a shake and drink it down. Or shove a bunch of fruits and veggies into a blender and make a smoothie—same vibe.
Many like to espouse the benefits of meal prepping, or making a massive batch of something on Sunday that you can reheat daily. It takes a lot of time on meal prep day, but gives you more free time the rest of the week (in addition to making takeout less tempting).
I do all three. I have a daily shake with all sorts of healthy stuff in it, “cook” a few basic things (like frying eggs, or cutting up an apple) and then I often finish the day by warming up a serving’s worth of the fried rice I prepared that week. (I make what I call “a vat” of rice on most Sundays and just scoop eighths out of it each time.)
I love that fried rice. It’s like a perfect delivery system for 400 calories, six different types of veggies, and a hit of protein. And if you do it right, it tastes like thai takeout. Is it all fried in probably too much oil? Yes, of course. I’m not perfect yet I suppose. Though when I’m feeling extra health-conscious I break out that Pam non-stick spray that purports to be nearly zero calories per spray.
Don’t get too obsessed, just stick to the basics and you’ll nail it. And tell me you don’t feel better.
This is the one that takes the most convincing. The one that’s hardest to begin. It takes so much effort, after all. Doesn’t it? Isn’t it hard?
A lot of us have bad memories of exercise. The sport we didn’t want to play in high school. Gym class. Hating running because it was hot and sweaty.
Or maybe it was being intimidated by the gym. Not knowing what to do, or if you were doing anything right.
These are legitimate feelings. And they can make it difficult to get started.
But you have to break through it. It may not even be an exaggeration to say it will save your life to do so.
And there’s a remarkable thing that happens very quickly: you start enjoying it. I used to hate running. Now it’s hard to go a day without. Never thought I would be one of those weightlifting types. Now, you should see my YouTube recommended videos. People can change.
If you have no idea where to start, it’s okay. I didn’t either. I don’t know if any of us do. Refer to this for a basic dummy’s starter guide. Then, look into simple programs. Research online with an extraordinarily skeptical eye. Have anything you find triple-confirmed by reputable sources.
Many people out there, mostly dudes, mostly on sites like Reddit, like to get over their skiis by becoming immediately obsessed. They try to optimize exercise types, lifting schedules, the times at which they eat, the things they eat at those times. Lots of spooky vocabulary. Something about glycogen.
It’s enough to make you want to stop before you start. But you don’t have to be obsessed. As long as you get to the gym, work up a sweat, and sometimes feel sore the next day, you’re doing better than about 99% of the entire population.
And then, if you’re having fun and you want to take things to the next level, you can start trying to optimize. Start a specific program. Watch your results—but have fun with it.
Make it a priority
We’re in the business of improving our lives here. That’s always what I have in mind when I’m searching for new ideas and strategies to share with you. And I could tell you (and will continue to tell you) all the best ways to optimize your to-do lists, organize your desk, and any number of little things like that.
But the pound-for-pound best and most important thing you can do is to get your house in order. Sleep. Diet. Exercise.
If you want to improve your life, start here. Get these things dialed in. And after you do that, I guarantee you, you’ll be searching for things in your life that you still feel need improvement.
And that’s when the real fun begins.