How to Build a Mental Fitness Routine

Over the past two years, I’ve realized how important it is to dedicate time to mental health exercises — everybody recognizes the importance of exercise for physical health but very few people have a specific mental health training regimen. Sure — many people meditate, but what about beyond that? I had no idea there are plenty of small tactics and techniques available. Most seem fairly trivial, but amplified over time have a massive impact. I find it super liberating to realize that happiness can actually be worked for over time. How awesome is that? Surprisingly, most of what I found is required to be happy had little to do with external factors (money, friends, family, material goods, etc.) and much more to do with healthy and positive internal mental processes. I’ll talk about a few of these hack and exercises — a lot have come from personal experiences, discussion with ultra high powered individuals through (Tools of Titans is a favorite), and a number of other self-help type programs. This is basically a “How-To Guide” to be a high performer in life and maintain happiness at the same time. I’ve broken up the article into:

  • Morning + Evening Routines
  • Mental Exercises for Happiness

Optimizing your day over time works wonders. If you don’t have a gratitude practice — and take time to appreciate the little things, it will be impossible to appreciate the big things when they come. I’ve found if I can dedicate a bit of time in my morning and evening to a standard mental fitness routine, I’m infinitely more productive / happy during the day. When my state is primed with positive energy — everything seems to flow positively.

Morning Routine

Vipassana Meditation: Everyday I target 45 minutes of Vipassana Meditation (often times I only have time for 20–30 minutes, but 45 is my ambitious goal). If you need to stretch your comfort to hit your goal and start to dread meditation, then do shorter amounts — even if only for five minutes. You want to look forward to your practice so it becomes a habit. Vipassana technique is specifically concentration of breath, a long focus on sensations in the body, finishing with loving kindness for yourself and all beings. I got into meditation on a daily basis using the Headspace app for assistance. I generally aim for the 45 minute unguided session, but there are tons of different guided meditations at different time intervals that you can personalize. The tracking system for accountability and building momentum is awesome no matter where you are in your meditation practice. The most important thing is to try and commit to practicing everyday. If you want more info on how to use Vipassana/what it is, you can find here:

*If Headspace isn’t for you — the “Calm” app is free. Another free meditation that comes highly recommended: Tara Brach’s Smile Guided Meditation recording from the summer of 2010.

Make the Bed: “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.” This is sooooo important. Building attention to detail requires mastering the little things — if you can master the little things, you have a way to start a massive project when you feel overwhelmed. Mastering life is about breaking down problems into a continuous set of little things, through which you are able to be continuously present.

Cold Shower + Max Rep Pushups — Priming Your State: Cold therapy increases immune function, boosts fat loss and elevates mood. From Rick Rubin: “Often, exercise will make me feel better, meditating will make me feel better, but the ice bath is the greatest of all. It’s just magic — sauna, ice, back and forth. By the end of the fourth, or fifth, or sixth round of being in an ice tub, there is nothing in the world that bothers you.” You can practice cold therapy every time you shower. I generally take a standard shower and wash my body and hair and then spend 30–60 seconds at the coldest possible temperature to finish. I use hard deep breathing and close my eyes to tune out the cold sensation (I’ve slowly built up to over a minute). It’s funny, but this will actually heat up your core and you’ll be surprisingly warm when you get out of the shower. It immediately wakes you up and primes your state for the day to come. After the Cold Shower, I generally do a single set of max rep push-ups. This can be any exercise — the point is to get your blood flowing and continue to charge your emotional state with energy to start your day.

Journal + Caffeine Concoction: This is right out of the Tim Ferris playbook and something I find has given me some of my strongest results regarding my happiness level. Journalling is sooooooo important for becoming aware of internal feelings, fears, desires, boosting creativity, reducing stress, practicing gratitude.. basically for “Knowing Yourself”. I generally prepare my morning “Brain Activator” — some type of healthy caffeine drink and journal for 5–10 minutes. An example of a “Brain Activator” recipe is listed below:

Dragon Green Tea / Pu-Erh Black Tea (1 tsp each) / Turmeric and Ginger Shavings / 1–2 tablespoons of coconut oil (added after the tea has steeped — this can be substituted for grass fed butter or MCT Oil)

For journaling, in a similar manner to Tim Ferris, I alternate between two methods. 1) 5 Minute Journal, 2) Subconcious Free Flow Writing. The format for both is as follows:

5 Minute Journal — Part 1: Gratitude (Choose the Positive Narrative). “We keep track of the wrong things — How many times we’ve been rejected, how many times it didn’t work, all the times someone has broken our heart or double-crossed us or let us down. Of course, we can keep track of those things, but why? Are they making us better? Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep track of all the times it worked? All the times we took a risk? All the times we were able to brighten someone else’s day? When we start doing that, we can redefine ourselves as people who are able to make an impact on the world. It took me a bunch of cycles to figure out that the narrative was up to me.”

To do this, I list something I am grateful for in 4 categories and really dive into the way it makes me feel. I can’t say enough about how important this practice is. Most Type-A people are always thinking “I need to achieve X, my TO-DO list today has so many items, I’m not good enough, etc.” It’s foreign to actually spend time thinking, wow.. look how lucky I am, how much I’ve accomplished, what a great person I am. The four categories work like this… (you can literally write down a sentence each — but do it with feeling. Imagine a strong light going through your body and feel how lucky/grateful you are). 1) An old relationship that really helped you, or that you valued highly. 2) An opportunity you have today. Perhaps that’s just an opportunity to call one of your parents, or an opportunity to go to work. It doesn’t have to be something large. 3) Something great that happened yesterday, whether you experienced or witnessed it. 4) Something simple near you or within sight. The gratitude points shouldn’t all be “my career” and other abstract items. Temper those with something simple and concrete — a beautiful cloud outside the window, the coffee that you’re drinking, the pen that you’re using, or whatever it might be.

Tony Robbins: “Feel the gratitude deeply/ physically. When you’re grateful, we all know there’s no anger. It’s impossible to be angry and grateful simultaneously. When you’re grateful, there is no fear. You can’t be fearful and grateful simultaneously.”

Part 2: “What would make today great”… This is similar to point 3 above, but I dive a bit deeper into my emotional state. Maybe being really positive in a meeting today, or spending an hour to complete a budget, or going out of my comfort zone and facing my fears during a presentation, or calling my Mom with maximum happiness. Explore the emotional side of what makes your day awesome with a few sentences. Focusing on making it happen, see it as though it’s already been done, feel the emotions, etc. (this can be done with more than 1 item if you want)

Part 3: Daily Affirmation. This should relate to some of your goals which are outside the scope of this practice (which you can start to define through the second journalling practice). Lately I’ve been obsessed with two categories — conquering fear and getting rid of negative thought/cynicism. So my favorite affirmations are “I’m pro-bravery” and “I radiate Love”. I take a minute to really feel these throughout my whole body. I can’t overstate how good this makes you feel!! By this part of the morning routine, you’re ready for anything and so focused and geared up you can deal with massive challenges without getting emotional or distressed. Here is a link to an app, so that you can do this electronically on your way to work if easier (now there is no excuse)

Subconscious Free Flow Writing (Morning Pages): This is the other method of writing I use to get a bit deeper into my mind. I do 5MJ day 1 / Free Flow day 2 and then alternate. Try for a few pages of longhand writing. Go for uninterrupted flow, and don’t stop to edit. Step one is to generate without judging. Chances are that you’ll surprise yourself. Don’t worry about what you say, what others may think or rereading your work. This is one of the best ways I know to generate creativity and find solutions to your problems. I will generally try and free-hand for 10 minutes minimum. I LOVE THIS PRACTICE. For ideas on what to free-hand, see the link below… I go through this list one-by-one over time. When I find a question is really hard or stupid — it usually means I need to focus here because I have a blind spot.

Good Deed for the Day: Each morning, express heartfelt gratitude to one person you care about, or who’s helped or supported you. Text, message, write, or call — just say something nice. DO THIS EVERY SINGLE DAY IN THE MORNING. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to reignite an old relationship or how much people will appreciate it.

Evening Routine

Aim for no back-lit devices 2 hours before bed (TV or Cell Phones). Kindle is fine. (*Update — I’ve actually learned this is a major problem and totally messes up your melatonin production, but not using computer and mobile is not really an option. Try this instead — add to your Mac to minimize blue light.) I also bought a pair of UVEX Skyper blue light blockers (these are only $20). I started wearing these when the sun goes down around 2 hours before bed. Totally worth it to maximize your sleep.

1 Minute Journal + “Sleep Tea”: My sleep concoction consists of 2 TBSP Apple Cider Vinegar / 1 TSP Raw Honey and hot water. You can also substitute for Chamomile Tea if you don’t want the sugar. In addition, I take: a magnesium threonate supplement, theanine supplement, glutamine and a high quality probiotic for digestion. Aim to take this on an empty stomach. I usually drink this while writing the following:

  • “what mistakes did I make today”
  • “what did I do that was right — and in what way could I have improved my performance”
  • “what lessons can I learn from that experience”
  • List Anything Amazing That Happened Today (Reinforce your gratitude practice wherever you can)

30 Minute Meditation: I use a combination of Vipassana / Meta / “Just Note Gone” (Described below). My evening meditation focuses more on feeling “loving kindness towards myself and then others”.

Give the Mind an Overnight Task / Review Your Goals: “Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious” — Thomas Edison. Do this right after meditation for a few minutes, before you get into bed. This is highly recommended for specific problem solving (ie. both Reid Hoffman and Josh Waitzkin use the technique). For example, if work related: What are the kinds of key things that might be constraints on a solution, or might be the attributes of a solution, and what are tools or assets I might have? Reid might write down “a key thing that I want to think about: a product design, a strategy, a solution to a problem that one of my portfolio companies is looking at,” or something else he wants to solve creatively before an upcoming meeting. Alternatively, you can use any of the questions posed in the “Subconscious Free Writing link above”. I will also review my Monthly Goals, read them, verbalize them and imagine them happening with feeling. I usually have around 10 goals related to career, learning, health and relationships.

Other Mental Exercises: To Be Incorporated Occasionally or in Addition

The above routine is achievable if you are willing to dedicate time daily, although if you miss out, it’s no big deal. Some of the items below can be added when needed, some I do everyday — some just represent positive principles to remember.

Mindful Moments — (Daily): Set aside time for three “mindful moments” — use meals or something you do everyday as a trigger. I set “Mindful Moments” on headspace to notify me with quotes three times per day. For each moment, I do a quick body scan and then .. “I wish for somebody to be happy”. I’ll either think of a friend or randomly identify two people nearby and secretly wish for each of them to be happy. I think — “people are all the same, like I want to be happy, everybody wants to be happy, like I want to avoid suffering, everybody wants to avoid suffering”

GO FIRST (All the time): “Always go first. . . . If you’re checking out at the store, say hello first. If coming across somebody and you make eye contact, smile first. [I wish] people would experiment with that in their life a little bit: Be first, because — not all times, but most times — it comes in your favor.” — Gabrielle Reece

Prime Your State with Powerful Words (Weekly/Monthly): When you are feeling down, take the time to prime your state with positive quotes, core values, etc. I have included all my favorite quotes from Tools of Titans below. If you need some positive motivation or are feeling down, spend a few minutes skimming through these. It’s amazing how good this makes me feel! This is something I aim to do weekly/monthly as needed.

Tip: Keep a handful of blank pages in your morning journal to build a quote section over the course of the journal (pulling quotes from reading, podcasts, etc.). That way, you can easily refer back to it and flip through when looking for some insight.

Dealing with Stress / Overwhelm (as necessary, but try to do monthly): There are two practices here that I love when I am stressed. This is when your daily/evening routines aren’t helping and you’re having some acute/painful stress and fear.

  • For a specific Fear: “The obstacle is the way” — Stoic Saying. If pain is examined and not ignored, it can show you what to excise from your life. Step 1: Write down the 20% of activities and people causing 80% or more of your negative emotions. Step two: Do a “fear-setting” exercise on paper, in which you ask and answer, “What is really the worst that could happen if I stopped doing what I’m considering? And so what? How could I undo any damage?” — see the link below for more details on this practice
  • For General Anxiety / Feelings of Self Doubt and Self Worth: Use Stargazing (From Michael Singer — The Untethered Soul). When you are struggling with just about anything, look up. Just ponder the night sky for a minute and realize, you’re sitting on a planet spinning around in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Go ahead, take a look at reality. You’re floating in empty space in a universe that goes on forever. If you have to be here, at least be happy and enjoy the experience. You’re going to die anyway. Things are going to happen anyway. Why shouldn’t you be happy? You gain nothing by being bothered by life’s events. In the end, enjoying life’s experiences is the only rational thing to do. You’re sitting on a planet spinning around in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Go ahead, take a look at reality. You’re floating in empty space in a universe that goes on forever. If you have to be here, at least be happy and enjoy the experience. You’re going to die anyway. In the end, enjoying life’s experiences is the only rational thing to do and thinking how small you are and your life is in comparison to the stars and the universe provides a lot more mental support and relaxation than you would think.

Mindfulness Buddy (Weekly): Find a “mindfulness buddy” and commit to a 15-minute conversation every week, covering at least these two topics: a. How am I doing with my commitment to my practice? b. What has arisen in my life that relates to my practice? End with: How did this conversation go? (I am looking to do this with somebody — ask me if you’re interested!!)

Eat Mindfully (Daily): This is on my goal list for this month. At every meal — no cell phone, news, etc. Try and take your time to focus on every breath, the taste of the food, etc. Headspace has a great guided meditation on “eating”.

Gratitude Bonus: Expose Yourself to Darkness: Deliberately and regularly expose yourself to the stories of those who have been subjected to horror, misfortune, and darkness. Take a specific look at the section “Impossible Situations” under Books for a list of five books that will chill your soul and immediately make you appreciate your life.

Float Tank — Sensory Deprivation (monthly): I try to do this bi-weekly. It forces you into a meditative state with half the work (for most people — meditation can be hard). Floating also helps with recovery and rest. The basic concept is that floating reduces external stimuli as much as possible to help the body achieve a natural restorative state. Some people compare the experience of floating to meditation or yoga. A 2005 meta-analysis confirmed that floating is an effective stress-relief activity and that it was at least as effective (or more effective) than relaxation exercises and some types of meditation, while a 1999 study showed an increase in Theta waves during floating (the same waves found in REM sleep and meditation).

Just Note Gone” Meditation (As Needed): When self-directed kindness is strong, mindfulness becomes easier. With “Just Note Gone” we train the mind to notice that something previously experienced is no more. For example, at the end of a breath, notice that the breath is over. Gone. As a sound fades away, notice when it is over. Gone. At the end of a thought, notice that the thought is over. Gone. At the end of an experience of emotion — joy, anger, sadness, or anything else — notice it is over. Gone. This practice is, without a doubt, one of the most important meditation practices of all time. Meditation master Shinzen Young said that if he were allowed to teach only one focus technique and no other, it would be this one. Whenever all or part of a sensory experience suddenly disappears, note that. By note I mean clearly acknowledge when you detect the transition point between all of it being present and at least some of it no longer being present. If you wish, you can use a mental label to help you note. The label for any such sudden ending is “Gone.” If nothing vanishes for a while, that’s fine. Just hang out until something does. If you start worrying about the fact that nothing is ending, note each time that thought ends. That’s a “Gone.” If you have a lot of mental sentences, you’ll have a lot of mental periods — full stops. Suppose you had to go through some horrible experience that involved physical pain, emotional distress, mental confusion, and perceptual disorientation all at once. Where could you turn for safety? Where could you turn for comfort? Where could you turn for meaning? Turning toward your body won’t help. There’s nothing but pain and fear there. Turning toward your mind won’t help. There’s nothing but confusion and uncertainty there. Turning toward sight and sound won’t help. There’s nothing but turmoil and chaos there. Under such extreme duress, is there anywhere you could turn to find relief? Yes. You could concentrate intently on the fact that each sensory insult passes. In other words, you could reverse the normal habit of turning to each new arising and instead turn to each new passing. Micro-relief is constantly available.

Daily Affirmations (Use when you have a specific item you want to focus on in addition to your self affirmation in the 5MJ): “All you do is you pick a goal and you write it down 15 times a day in some specific sentence form. And you do that every day. You can do this verbally as well. This is similar to what I mentioned in the 5MJ morning routine, however, you can take a step further and really focus on affirming one or two very specific goals. I don’t have a specific number 1 affirmation I am working on right now.

Jar of Awesome (Implement if you are having trouble with the 5MJ on regular basis— From Tim Ferriss): “There is a mason jar on my kitchen counter with jar of awesome in glitter letters on the side. Anytime something really cool happens in a day, something that made me excited or joyful, doctor’s orders are to write it down on a slip of paper and put it in this mason jar. If you don’t regularly appreciate the small wins, you will never appreciate the big wins. They’ll all fall through your fingers like sand as you obsess on the next week, the next to-do, the next thing”. This is very similar to a daily gratitude practice in the 5MJ. If you don’t find yourself using the daily journal, just put this on the table with a note pad inside and write something down every time you notice it.

The Death Countdown Clock — Meditate on death (Try to put somewhere that it is a daily reminder): Think about the fact that life is not infinite. You are limited, remember that you are going to die. I keep the page below open in my internet browser. Any suggestions on a screen saver I could use here would be great… The point is to spur yourself into action and to let go of your negative thoughts by remembering life is not infinite. This improves gratitude and allows you to focus on the present moment. It’s amazing how amazing life can be in the context of death.

Hopefully this is helpful and inspiring — I’ve implemented a lot of these changes over the past two years and having a structured routine for mental health each day has sparked some pretty incredible changes in my ability to conquer fear, get outside my comfort zone and dedicate myself to longer term goals.