Sometimes, a change happens in your life that is so gradual and slight that it passes by without you noticing. Other times, the change is immediate, and it hits you like a train.
These three books were my hit-by-a-train moment.
My life before reading these books wasn’t bad. I worked out regularly, took care of my body, and ate healthy food. I was studying at university; I was also doing independent learning on the side through LinkedIn Learning. I had decent work habits, including a color-coded schedule, where I organized my days in half-hour increments.
So I wasn’t doing too bad for myself. And I guess this is a precondition for the following tips. You need to be already playing an active role in designing your dream life. These books aren’t the type of books that will motivate you to get off your butt and conquer the world.
Instead, they offer advice to help you improve existing routines and habits. After reading these books, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. I had gained some incredible new knowledge, and I was buzzing with excitement to implement the advice in my life.
Looking back on 2020, I genuinely believe that my physical, learning, and productivity performance is a result of these books. They gave me invaluable tools to cope with the ever-changing environment that is COVID and significantly impacted the mindset that I’ve maintained throughout 2020.
Here are the three books I read in 2019 that made me unstoppable in 2020.
The Telomere Effect
— Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel
This book recommends practices for better living that most of us already know, like managing stress effectively, getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating healthy foods. However, the book differs in the fundamental principles and influencing motivators for following the practices of better living. There’s a chance you’ll live longer!
This assumption is made based on the research of telomeres. Telomeres are a shell that protects DNA during cell division. However, as you age, the telomeres get shorter until they reach a limit. At this point, telomeres stop reproducing, and the cells enter senescence, which is like a nursing home for cells. When too many cells start to enter the nursing home, the body begins to deteriorate, and later stage aging begins.
The book suggests ways to prevent telomere aging or even reverse the shortening process. These methods will effectively delay the onset of aging effects and prolong the body’s capacity to function correctly. The authors suggest four critical ways to slow down the aging process: managing stress, exercising, sleeping, and eating healthy.
Managing stress is essential because it turns on the body’s internal alarm system. The heart starts to beat faster, causing blood pressure to rise. In turn, this tells the body to release cortisol and epinephrine, two stress-related hormones. This state is essentially the fight or flight response.
In small doses, stress can make the body more resilient. But high levels of stress (chronic stress) are massively destructive on the body. Chronic stress can be environmental stimuli, like loud noises, poor relationships, or a toxic workplace. It can also be a mindset issue, most notably a stressor the authors call an anticipatory threat response. The anticipatory response is the tendency to operate under an artificially created environment that induces stressful thinking. It can manifest as anxiety about the future or regret about the past. These mindsets develop a sense of pessimism in the present.
Manage stress by practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness doesn’t need to be practiced through mediation, although meditation is an effective modality. Mindfulness is simply the suggestion to exist in the present by managing mind wandering, rumination and thought suppression. It is the cultivation of a healthy personal acceptance through the management of the mind.
Regular exercise is the second method to prevent telomere aging. Exercise is similar to small doses of stress. It causes strain to the body, but the body responds by becoming more resilient. Exercise is also an effective way to release stress and lower blood pressure.
Try to exercise every day.
Sleep is highly correlated to telomere length. Studies have shown that people with chronic sleep issues have shorter telomeres and vice-versa; people who have more sleeping hours per night tend to have longer telomeres. However, sleep is a function of length and quality. Therefore, merely accounting for the duration of time spent sleeping is an incomplete evaluation of sleep.
Not all sleep is equal. If people sleep for the same amount of time, their sleep can still differ along the dimension of quality. High-quality sleep is restful sleep. The easiest way to optimize your sleep for quality is to create routines for the body. The authors suggest that routine primes the body for a predictable set of protocols, thereby creating an expectation. This tip is easier said than done, but it is incredibly transformative.
Optimize sleep by leveraging bedtime routines.
I noticed a significant difference in my morning mood after a few weeks of creating predictability in my sleeping routine. I brush my teeth, pick out my outfit for the next day, settle into bed with some chill music, and at around 10:00 pm, I shut everything down and go to sleep. Then I wake up at 5:30 am and start my day. When I wake up, I feel more energized than before. I rarely experience any morning grogginess, I’m more excited to start the day, so I don’t spend time in bed scrolling through social media, and I assume my telomeres aren’t aging as fast.
The final method is eating healthy foods. The authors suggest a proper, healthy diet can protect telomeres because a good diet is often indicative of good metabolic health. So, the goal of eating healthy isn’t to be skinny or lose weight. Instead, the authors suggest a weight-based fixation often creates unnecessary stress and increases feelings of anxiety. Therefore, their approach suggests reducing indicators of poor metabolic health like excess belly fat, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance.
Focus on improving metabolic health by including high-quality foods in your diet.
The First 20 Hours
— Josh Kaufman
This book outlines the best practices to learn a new skill quickly. In the well-known book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that an individual requires 10,000 hours of focused practice to achieve world-class mastery of a skill. That’s a lot of time. With a simple calculation, 10,000 hours of practice can be completed in 3.5 years if you practice for 8 hours per day every day for 3.5 years. I’d say that’s out of reach for most people.
However, Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule is a heuristic for learning timeframes. It doesn’t consider levels of mastery. For example, if you want to be playing tennis at the US Open against the likes of Rafael Nadal, you’ll need at least 10,000 hours of practice. But if you just want to flex on the players at your local courts, The First 20 Hours suggests you follow the Rapid Skill Acquisition System. And commit to only 20 hours of focused practice.
So here’s how to learn a new skill in 20 hours by using the Rapid Skill Acquisition System. I’ll use a personal running example of learning a new language (Korean).
- Deconstruct the skill into subskills. We can break down every new skill into a sequential and progressive list of subskills. To learn Korean, I identified four main subskills: alphabet, sentence structure, common verb conjugations, and common nouns.
- Learn the subskills. We must learn the subskills thoroughly until practicing can become routine. When I learned the Korean alphabet, I needed to learn the shapes and strokes that created the letters. Then I needed to learn the sounds for each letter. Then I needed to learn how sounds interacted to create new sounds. After completing the learning in those three areas, I could practice reading and pronouncing words. The next step was to learn the following subskill, sentence structure, and so forth.
- Eliminate any distractions. To learn and practice effectively, you must be in an environment that is distraction-free. Remove anything that might interfere with your learning. Whenever I studied Korean, I put my phone in another room, turned off all the notifications on my computer, and focused solely on the learning at hand.
- Practice, practice, practice. The last step is to simply commit to deliberate and focus practice for a total of 20 hours. It doesn’t sound like a long time, and it isn’t. However, it is easy to neglect to practice the skill, especially at the beginning, when the learning barrier is high. Oddly, I found it challenging to practice toward the end after noticing significant improvements. Once I started to feel that my skills were “good enough,” it was easier to rationalize skipping practice sessions.
The next significant portion of the book discusses ten principles of rapid skill acquisitions. Essentially, the ten principles are guidelines to consider to maximize learning and reach the goal of acquiring a new skill in 20 hours.
- Be passionate about the skill you want to learn.
- Focus on acquiring one skill at a time. Spreading yourself too thin is not in the recipe for success.
- Proactively define your performance level goal. You must think about how you plan to use this skill in the future.
- Deconstruct the skill in subskills. Bite-sized chunks are easier to handle.
- Determine any tools required to perform the skill.
- Eliminate distractions during deliberate and focused practice sessions.
- Plan practice sessions in your schedule. The authors recommend 90 minutes per day split into practice sessions that are a maximum of 20 minutes long.
- Create feedback loops to monitor and assess your progress. For example, I’d try to talk to my Korean friend in Korean periodically throughout the process.
- Practice in short bursts. Each burst should be under 20 minutes. I also used the Pomodoro method to measure my work and break periods.
- Emphasize quantity and speed. The goal is to learn as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. However, this requires the sacrifice of precision. Therefore, aim for proficiency, not perfection.
Why Simple Wins
— Lisa Bodell
The takeaways from Why Simple Wins are business-focused, but I’ve adapted them in my personal life to significant effect. Here are the key areas that I found were relevant to my life.
- Practice simplification. Bodell suggests that people often want simplicity, but will settle for complexity without realizing it. I’ve attributed the tolerance for complexity to be a symptom of our busy-for-the-sake-of-busy environment. We tend to create overly complex problems and solutions because there’s an inaccurate association between being busy and being productive. Therefore, Bodell suggests that people practice simplicity in any area possible. Through consistent practice, the realization of overly complex systems and opportunities for simplification will become more apparent.
- Simple is minimal, understandable, repeatable, and accessible. This takeaway was my favourite because it offers a simple framework to optimize for simplicity. The framework suggests making something minimal — remove the unnecessary that doesn’t add significant value. Second, make it understandable by removing barriers to understanding. Third, make it repeatable by defining a straightforward process of execution. Finally, accessibility suggests that it is easy to access physically or mentally.
- Create processes and use tools to simplify. On an individual level, processes are effectively the routines that you employ to optimize your day to day life for simplification. A reason to incorporate routines is to reduce the amount of decision-making required to start and complete a particular task. However, to maintain the integrity of a simple process, the routine should not include too many guidelines or rules beyond what is minimally necessary. Secondly, tools are an excellent resource to simplify things. A note app that contains all the to-do lists, shopping lists, exciting ideas, important dates, etc., is a perfect one-stop-shop tool. Again, the tools must remain simplified.
I’ve used simplification in a variety of areas in my life. The most impactful area in terms of effects on productivity, mood, and energy has been simplifying my daily routine. I was the type of person to schedule my days in advance in 30-minute increments. The structure was good for productivity because it forced me to adhere to a plan. However, the rigid schedule often made me feel stressed.
Now, I use a simplified routine. I’ve found that my productivity has remained consistent, but my mood and energy have improved significantly. My approach to my daily schedule is to set aside blocks of time for certain groups of activities. For example, I give myself 2 hours in the morning to wake up, meditate, workout, eat, shower, and get ready for the day. Then I have groups of 100-minute blocks to do work (20 minutes of work, 5-minute break four times). I don’t rigidly plan my working blocks. Instead, I allow myself to decide what I want to do, depending on how I’m feeling. If I’m feeling particularly inspired and creative, I’ll write. If I’m feeling focused, I’ll do readings and take notes. If my mind is distracted, I’ll put on some music and work on a Powerpoint or edit a video.
My new method follows the four simplification principles. It’s minimal — block of time looks much cleaner on a schedule than 30-minute increments. It’s understandable — the schedule is minimalistic but informative. It’s repeatable — rather than making a new schedule each day, I have a master template that I fill out. And it’s accessible. Finally, the processes and tools that I use are resources that help me get the job done but don’t add distractions or unnecessary complexity. For example, my schedule is always printed out in the morning and filled throughout the day. I keep the piece of paper with me whenever I leave the house just in case I need to write any quick notes down. Effectively, the paper schedule absorbs all the mental capacity that would be for scheduling.
If you’re going to gain anything away from this article, I would suggest the following key takeaways from the three books:
- Manage stress, sleep properly, exercise, and eat healthy foods.
- To learn a new skill, break the skill down into subskills and practice for a minimum of 20 hours.
- Simplification requires that something be minimal, understandable, repeatable, and accessible.
Mind Cafe’s Reset Your Mind: A Free 10-Day Email Course
We’re offering a free course to all of our new subscribers as a thank you for your continued support. When you sign up using this link, we’ll send you tips on how to boost mental clarity and focus every two days.