My year of health and wellbeing
Addition not subtraction.
Every year, my wife and I set our goals; each of us always has an overarching goal. This year mine is health and wellbeing.
I’m 28 and at a place whereby I feel I’m doing the right things in a lot of areas but not here. Over the years I have been vegetarian as a bet (6 weeks), tried gluten free and adjusted my diet a number of times. My mother in law often quietly teases me for my ever-changing tastes. I’ve really got in to running, then out of running, back in to sprints. Early morning starts, evening runs. Had debilitating stress, sleepless nights for months on end. You get the idea; chances are you’ve experienced any or all of the above.
Back to my story, it’s early 2014 and I’m focusing on health and wellbeing. My initial question was how do I quantify that? I immediately decided not to. Normally I would look at the output, put expectations around what output I should have, then expectations around how long it should take me to get to that output. Then I’d do a stretch goal, aim for the moon style, and then… I wouldn’t hit it.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same result. — Einstein
Mulling this idea over, that trying for a specific outcome requires specific inputs. Rather than setting expectations on my output, focus on excelling at the inputs. Rather than say focus on weight, focus on ability to perform at the gym, rather than focus on calories per day focus on eating healthy at each meal. Knowing the input will change the output. It also was a much more positive approach, I was focusing on adding things to my life to improve it, not taking them away. The irony being the positive kind of pushed out the bad. You’ll see this as I carry on with my story.
If in a day there are only three meals to eat, and I lock in a healthy breakfast and lunch I’ve knocked out the potential to have had a non-healthy lunch for example.
As opposed to watching calories, the word itself has negative sentiment, no calorie is a good one. So why pay attention to it.
This approach has worked and made the journey a lot more fun, asking myself what cool stuff can I add to improve my life? A question exciting in itself. And just brought a massive sense of positivity, excitement and almost a curiousity in my approach.
This set me off on a journey this year, which I’ll share with you, in the hope that you find something that resonates and helps. I’m going to start with fitness — physical health.
We joined a gym after moving to New York late last year, the first time I’d actually belong to one. I was mainly doing it to support my wife but I started to get in the habit. As I formed this goal of health and wellbeing over the new year I realised they offered a free personal training session. So I took them up on that when I got back. Very un-kiwi, but also very unlike a southern lad (a kiwi from the south island of New Zealand).
The session started with a benchmark, of course you’ll see my notes above around measuring, it had a few insights but really I wasn’t too interested. What I enjoyed was that I was learning new exercises, different ways of testing my body. Like many of you reading this my main job is fairly sedentary at a computer, in meetings and inside. I aim to try get up most hours and walk around during but the day but it’s certainly not the farm lifestyle I’d grown up in.
Back to my thinking of adding things, I decided to lock in a personal training session each week, meaning over a year I’d get 40 or so training sessions, whereby in each session I was learning something, pushing and pushing myself. That’s a total investment of about $4k. A lot — but if I learn life changing habits that’s a meaningful investment. Very meaningful.
(6 months in, I am genuinely still learning stuff, as my fitness progresses so does my ability to complete new exercises, all of which are a step up from my last set).
After each session where we did a new exercise I would challenge myself to get good at that in my own time in a couple of weeks, things like pushups (I struggled to do 12 — can now do 50.. just), squats, pull ups… well I’m still working on those. With a coach we all learn faster, this is helping me learn new & better ways of keeping fit.
My session is set to a time that I can’t really shift (or have an excuse to) it’s 9am each Saturday. There’s absolutely no reason why I can’t make that. It’s actually great as each time I leave feeling energized, which sets the tone for a nice relaxing weekend with friends and family.
As my confidence had grown and I was enjoying it — I began pushing myself too far. I went off on a bit of a rampage, exercising 3-4 days a week plus the session. I was barely making the sleep time to repair my body from the exercise which meant I was plateauing. Eek, not what I’d set out to do.
I’m going to come back to this, as I need to tell you something else.
This is another one, we would eat probably 50% healthy, 50% not, and there were a few drivers of that.
We’d just shifted countries so trying to figure out where to get food, how long food would last but also what food tasted good and didn’t I.e. chicken in the US tastes (to me) very bland, so often it’s with sauces, whereas in NZ I would have it straight.
Long days, with my gym investment and work schedule, I would run out of self-control and end up taking the easy option for dinner. There are many studies which show that self-control is exhaustible, the more you have to demonstrate it in a day the less you have. The way to overcome this is to build habits & your situation so that you don’t have to exercise it. This meant, though when I got home if we didn’t have the right ingredients, or something had gone off it was too easy to jump on Seamless and get some food.
Way too easy.
With this mindset of adding rather than limiting or constraining, I also told myself, eat as you need, but not so you feel full. So if I’m still feeling hungry, I’ll eat more healthy food, rather than starving myself through to the next meal which would then increase the chances I wouldn’t eat correctly. This was a change in mindset; in the past when I had focused on fitness I would look to constrain foods I was eating, rather than changing my diet through addition. Constraining meant I didn’t make changes, it meant I just ate less at one point, more at another.
Protein was the final one, I’d not on purpose shifted to less protein centric meals, so I added a protein drink any day I was at the gym, to help keep up my appetite. But also to push out any other unhealthy food I might eat. Adding the protein decreased my appetite and also gave me the nutrients to repair my body.
Finally, my wife and I have made more of an effort to overstock on food in the house, as if there’s food there we’ll eat it and we hate throwing out food. You see an extra $30-$40 of food from the supermarket goes a lot further than one cheap meal out. This has paid dividends not only financially but also in our meals. My thanks go to Esther for helping with that.
The other thing is where we run short and we’re busy, rather than ordering food in we’ll use Instacart to get food arriving as we get home.
Being a craft beer lover, this is always a favourite but with this habit I actually found easier to change. I would aim to only have drinks 2 nights a week, one usually socially one week, the other professionally — say at a networking event. I did stray a bit but this was one of the things that with other changes became easier, it became easier as we were eating in more — my wife would cook, so food was at home, or I had to rush home to start cooking and I was focused on getting quality sleep. When I have drinks my sleep quality drops.
Friday is drinks + eat out night. We still do eat out and have drinks — we just primarily do it on a Friday night. Then Saturday and Sunday are as social situations dictate really. It’s also the end of the week, rather than fighting that we work with it, knowing we will resupply the house in the weekend. It’s a nice way to segue in to the weekend — and because I have the gym the next day I keep it moderate.
Stress though, is also a factor, work here reduces the desire to unwind with a drink at the end of the day. My first take on this was technology related.
Tech induced stress: email, information addiction
This is oft mentioned these days, addiction to the phone, information and latest updates. I myself have inadvertently let this grow over time.
Here’s some examples, we have a global team so I get updates every morning back from New Zealand as to what’s happened overnight. Further, with a global business we get various updates to/fro. My habit used to be as soon as I turned my alarm off, lying in bed I’d check my email, read and even respond -> which is pointless as everyone is (or should be) asleep. Then it would be a battle to go to the gym if it was a gym day, or to re-invigorate myself for the daily challenges.
The other thing is information addiction, constantly checking, reading the latest news. What I would end up doing is late at night (even checking emails) was read blogs, research topics, go off on tangents. It would mean I found it harder to get to sleep and got less sleep — which then rolled on to the next day. Not constructive at all, especially when you keep in my aims with fitness and going to the gym.
So I did a couple of things, first I deleted all the apps which gave me micro news that I didn’t really need. Pulse, WSJ, Reddit etc. Then I removed all the games, so my phone app range was more business functional. I have other things to play games on, and set times to catch up on industry news — and an iPad for personal interests. No need to also have them on my phone.
Then, I removed the counter on my iPhone mail icon, so I couldn’t see how many emails there were and changed the settings so it only got emails when I asked it to.
That was great -> this was Phase 1. Which I did around March. It got me started. It wasn’t the answer, though, to get to that we have to talk about sleep.
Not having enough sleep can have the same effect as being hung over, I am notable for having difficulty sleeping, always have been. I knew that this was going to be a multi-pronged approach. The compounding factor in this is that my wife is a light sleeper, so if I was restless it would wake her up. Not ideal.
No more phone in the bedroom
Rather than exercising the self-control, I stopped bringing my phone to the bedroom. I got a Sony alarm clock instead, no iPad allowed either, just my kindle and a book. This has a massive change, suddenly when I went to bed I’d get stuck into a book, rather than mucking around on my iPhone.
And as I was getting into my books, I started going to bed earlier, so I could read more. This meant I was in bed earlier, more relaxed and fell asleep earlier. I read something a while back that sleep before midnight means you can get an extra dose of deep sleep, sleeping after midnight you miss out on it. So this meant I was getting better sleep.
This has worked great, so just to remind, no phone in the bedroom, regular alarm clock, read a good book that you love.
The thing underpinning this is that reading is quite enjoyable, being able to relax and delve in to a good book is a great way to relax and unwind from the information age we live in.
(Side note: we already have a really good bed, which people do recommend for getting better sleep -> we splashed out and bought a king size, yes it’s big and 30% more expensive but it is worth every dollar. If you don’t have one I can recommend the luxe mattress from C&B)
Recently though, a package arrived, in it held what I believe may have been the missing component. You see I subscribe to the Tim Ferriss package on quarterly.co — and he also has a focus on health and wellbeing. This last package had a Dohm Sound Conditioner, all it is is a small machine that takes air in the bottom and blows it out the top, you can adjust the fan speed and thus the sound. This is popularly known as a white noise generator.
Now back post uni, I had tried a white noise generator before, the idea being that it plays a static (almost radio silence) kind of sound consistently, your brain gets used to it, the same way that living by train tracks do — you learn to not notice it. The method I’d tried in the past was playing a ‘white noise’ track on my stereo, it just didn’t work.
This time it did though. We switched it on, my light sleeping wife was skeptical but it worked. What it does for us is minimizes volatility in sound, occasionally it can be noisy outside, just regular street noise which in itself wasn’t that bad but the change in volume is what would stir you.
So now, I’m all primed for a night of deep sleep. Game changer.
But you know what really amplified both.
Alternating sleep ins
Before I went on holiday recently, I watched a Zen Habits video interviewing the SOMA founder Mike Del Ponte -> he talked about designing your mornings for success. That is, figure out what your perfect morning looks like and make that your daily habit.
From that, I realised a couple of things, my morning is designed around rushing to work, it’s designed around pressure from the moment I wake. Rather than thinking about the challenges ahead and what my key focus was on.
So here’s how I redesigned my week. Mondays & Wednesdays I sleep in, Tuesdays & Thursdays I gym (and also on Saturday).
Mondays I sleep in, as I usually have my lightest sleep as I anticipate the week ahead. So rather than try to force myself to gym, I sleep in that extra hour. Also, this works nicely a sleep in follows a gym day, meaning I get a nice long night sleep. The perfect balance.
A little change but it brought balance to the week, meaning both parts won. And that’s what I’m finding- the biggest step changes in health and wellbeing is where a change impacts any two of these, sleep, fitness, stress, eating. A change which impacts any two of those compounds very quickly.
My mornings also changed, I got up, would go to the gym, sit and enjoy breakfast, maybe read for a bit, then head in to work — fired up for the day.
This little thing that can feel like it does more negative than good. And what I’ve found — is that’s because it’s often misused. So I made a few changes, inspired by Jack Dorsey’s habit of cleaning his email each day, I started doing the same. At the end of day I clear my email back to inbox zero. So I start afresh. This only works though because of my other habit.
Translate email to lists, a classic Getting Things Done tactic which I often forget, when I read an email if there’s a next action step that I’m not taking now, I note it down. Then during the week review my list. Rather than letting the inbox dictate how I spend my time, I flip it on its head. This means I can clear my email very quickly, then in a separate setting, evaluate my list of to-dos, prioritize.
Not checking email before 10 am.
This is a new one, not checking email till I’ve already cracked the first couple of things in the morning. As previously mentioned I get updates from around the world on how we’re doing, current projects, these tend to send me off on a tangent — rather than working on what is the most important work of the day. If something is super important that needs urgent attention I’ll get a text and/or a call.
Vice versa, this goes for the evenings, once I’ve cleared my inbox -> if I know someone has a need to contact I say text me. Very rarely is it actually needed.
These little changes have meant I have more relaxing evenings, clear definition with my team around when I’m available to communicate and a process for if they absolutely need me. It means I have better at work and out of work time.
I’ve endeavoured to get more passive exercise in to my routine, that is where it’s not a set gym time, it becomes part of the way I do something. Getting a CitiBike membership is an example, I have to get to and from work each day but also around the city. Now I cycle, this is only a recent occurrence but the addition of some more exercise time by replacing an activity — rather than trying to add one has helped lots. I have dabbled in team sports and will probably add that in to the mix as my routine settles.
During Winter I will need to find something else, feel free to contribute ideas here on the right >
What brings me joy
Underpinning this, I keep asking myself what brings me real joy. Not little adrenaline rushes from information, but brings me joy. Discovering new ideas, spending time with my friends, reading a good book, watching Top Gear, design, podcasts, writing, doing great work. These are all things that bring me a lot of joy, so I make sure my week is composed of those. Some things I knew I enjoyed but didn’t really think about doing more of the things you enjoy. A blindingly obvious conclusion but I think with some bad habits, we end up spending a lot of unfulfilling time, wedded to email, scanning for updates, playing games which are fun -> but don’t actually bring joy. I suspect many of us are guilty of that.
Order from chaos
The irony with all of this is, I have dabbled in different parts in the past, I think we all have, but moving from New Zealand to New York, threw all of my life into chaos. Every routine I had down pat, every weekends daily habits were started from scratch. What I ate, how I worked, social groups were all new, different and had to be rebuilt. Underpinning this is setting up our new business, radical transformation in the kind of business building I’ve gotten good at (service to product).
This brings me through to July 20th. I’m a little over half way through my year of focus on health and wellbeing.
This stretch forced me to re-evaluate and set this as a goal, so whilst that was a challenge, this is the bright part out the other side. It’s helped me be a better husband, friend & entrepreneur. I’m constantly surprised at how interlinked one little change is to another, there are so many intersections, and that’s a great takeaway when trying to improve look at change intersections, where multiple variables are impacted.
I’m not sure what’s next in terms of to dos, but I know what it will go like, I’ll find a couple more things to try, try them, make them a habit and keep improving. Life changes, you have to change with it, that’s part of the fun — all you can do is change what you do, don’t stress about the rest.
Here’s a summary of the changes made thus far, in an actionable format:
- Think additively, you can only control the inputs, look to add and replace, not limit & takeaway
- Set gym time, get a coach to help you learn faster
- Balance gym with rest time, you can’t have one without the other
- Adding daily protein to my diet
- Overstocking on healthy food
- Have your Friday drinks + eat out, the best day for it
- Remove information addiction apps from your phone
- No email before 10, no email after work
- Clear your inbox every day, turn emails into task lists
- No phone in the bedroom, get an alarm clock
- Try a white noise generator
- Get a great book for your bedside table
- Sleep ins, plan your week so you get them too
- Add in passive exercise to your routine, walking, cycling, a sport, take the stairs
- Focus on the question — what brings you joy, keep answering it
Thanks to Victor @ Equinox Gym for pushing me, my wife Esther for her continual support, Quarterly.co & Tim Ferriss for their packages, David Allen for Getting Things Done, Charles Duhig for Habits, Leo Babauta for his Zen Habits, my team, friends & family.
Want to read more? My learnings are based on lots of little pieces, there’s no one set place to get all of these, but people to follow are @tferriss, @zen_habits.
What else am I missing? Share your post by responding, or tweeting me @bwagy. Or add comments on the right >