My top 60 life habits and hacks (2018 Edition)

Physical health, mental health, and productivity.

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

This is the last post in my 4 part series, and it covers the 60 most important habits/hacks that I cultivated through 2018. These are tactical habits meant to complement the broader philosophy for life that I discussed in part 3.

The habits are grouped into physical health, mental health, and productivity.

1. Physical Health

Physical activity has been shown lead to better cognitive ability, better grades, and better mental performance. It is a prerequisite to everything else, and for this reason I view it as my number one priority.

I break it down further into three buckets: sleep, nutrition, and exercise.

1.1 Sleep

If you can apply will power to just one thing in your life, it should be to control when you go to sleep and when you wake up.

Less sleep makes you less productive the next day, and accumulation of sleep deficit will compound to dull your mind and introduce larger health problems. Say no to just about anything which will prevent regular and healthy sleep. Do not compromise on sleep.

1.1.1 Sleep Planning

  1. Your sleep should be part of your schedule, not an afterthought. Put your intended sleep time on your calendar and treat it like a scheduled event
  2. Its easier to improve something if you can measure it. So track adherence to your plan and the the quality of your sleep through an app like Sleep Cycle. It works just by listening to your movements and you can leave your phone on the nightstand next to the bed. Here are my results from 2018:
I’ve been making slow improvements in my sleep quality throughout the year. Biggest take away? It’s good to be in New Zealand.
Consistency of sleep is critical. Once one can achieve a disciplined approach to when they sleep then it becomes easier to add 10, 20, or 30 minutes of sleep. Establishing the initial rhythm is the challenge.
I still use weekends to “catch up” by about 30 min of sleep per day, but I hope to create a consistent enough schedule where that is no longer necessary.

1.1.2 Sleep Environment

3. Eliminate all lights. Put electrical tape to black out the little LED lights on your chargers and electronics. Your sleeping area should be completely dark

4. Install black out curtains or wear an eye mask if external lights are present

5. If you have noise where you sleep then wear ear plugs and do whatever you can to eliminate that noise

6. Schedule your phone to go into “Do Not Disturb” mode at least an hour before your scheduled bed time and an hour after your wake up time

1.1.3 Waking Up

7. Use your sleep app to wake up during the right part of your sleep cycle. Waking up in light sleep vs deep sleep can make a big difference in the morning and the benefit cascades throughout the day

8. Use Hue Philips smart light bulbs or similar. It integrates with the Sleep Cycle app to slowly and gently turn the lights on as you begin to wake up

1.2 Nutrition

9. Track your nutrition using MyFitnessPal until you understand your intake. The knowledge will help with decisions you make for the rest of your life

10. Use a macronutrient calculator to better understand what your caloric intake and macronutrient balance should be. Build a basic plan around it

11. Use a kitchen scale to measure consistent portions

12. Be particularly ritualistic with your breakfast since you have maximum control over your morning meal. For example, I weigh exactly 102g (3 servings) every morning of Kay’s protein cereal. This provides 360 calories and 36 grams of protein, holding off any hunger until lunch. No deviations

13. Eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the same time each day. Delaying one meal throws off the others, which can promote mindless snacking and interfere with your sleep schedule

14. It’s easy to reject a dessert when it’s on the menu but a lot harder to deny it when it’s on the table in front of you. The best way to avoid eating unhealthy foods is to just not have unhealthy foods in your kitchen

15. I’ve started eating freeze dried food (example) as a healthy meal alternative. It is never (cold) frozen, has no preservatives, comes in many varieties, is cost effective, and ready in a minute just by adding hot water. The only reason not to eat it is the social stigma, but I really don’t care what other people think if it works

Formerly freeze dried Chicken and Noodles after 1 minute of adding hot water. Tasty, convenient, and healthy.

1.3 Exercise

16. Work out first thing in the morning. It’s harder for you to become distracted or for other people to hijack your time if they are still asleep

17. If you’re not currently in a workout habit, start with just getting out of the house in the morning and walking for a few minutes. It’s easier to later go from 10 to 20 to 30 minutes than from 0 to 1

18. You can shorten but don’t skip a morning workout routine. Better to walk even for just 3 minutes than to do nothing. The moment you say “I won’t do it this day” then the easier it becomes to skip a second day

19. If there is a gym you can use, try to find one you can walk, run, or bike to. It feels counterintuitive to drive to a gym just to get on a cardio machine

20. Lift weights at least twice per week and build a foundation based on full body workouts such as squats, deadlifts, bench press, and pull ups. Avoid muscle isolating machines. This is best for both men and women

21. Record your lifting outputs so you can track your progress. This helps for both motivation as well as tweaking performance. You can use a fitness app or just your phone’s notes

Tracking my bench press workouts over a period of many months. Just like in business, tracking a metric lends itself for improvement.

22. Use something to count your daily steps. If you have an iPhone, the Health app already does it for you. Set goals for yourself. In 2018, I am averaging over 15k steps a day thanks to doing calls and meetings during walks

23. Find a quiet 30min route from your office and hold all possible meetings as walking meetings along that route. The light physical activity is good for your health and promotes engagement. It also helps you finish meetings on time since the walk is done

24. Hold as many of your calls while doing walks. This has allowed me to walk around 70 miles a week this summer. I did a marathon (26.2 miles) during the course of a business day without having to miss a minute of work or go to a special event

25. You can learn a lot just by tracking your resting heart rate as well as your min and max. I get this data automatically via my Apple Watch and iPhone

2. Mental Health

Many parts of mental health are the flip side of physical health. It takes mental strength to maximize physical strength, while physical strength improves mental strength.

26. Pursue a philosophy of life that works for you. This year I discovered stoicism and unlocked many of its benefits. Full disclosure: #26 is the exact opposite of a hack; it is a lifelong commitment and a disciplined approach

27. Avoid traffic by leaving early or late, or better yet, move to live near your job. You acclimate to the size of a bigger house but never to the pain of traffic

28. Walking on my own and without a smartphone is one of the few times I can disconnect and it’s the closest I have successfully come to meditating

29. I created a Google form with questions like how I was feeling, whether I worked out that day, and what was affecting my mood. I then bookmarked it on my phone and began filling it out each day and eventually once every 4 days. My data showed that my mood was consistent and what brought the most happiness (as prompted by a question in my survey) was my family, learning, and having the freedom to spend time thinking. What prompted the most negative emotions were feelings of lack of focus and uncertainty at work

For the last two years I’ve been recording my mood on a scale of 1–10. I view the consistency not as a lack of emotion but as tranquility.

2.1 Reduce clutter in your home and in your pocket

Eliminating clutter and carrying fewer physical things reduces attachments and lightens one’s mental load.

30. Get rid of as much stuff as you can at least once a quarter. If you don’t love it, wouldn’t buy it today, or haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it. Cleansing of physical baggage also reduces mental baggage. Strive for less

31. Use a thin wallet. It sounds silly but the thin wallet was a big life changer for me. I used to carry a standard bi-fold wallet in my back pocket but it was too big to sit on comfortably so I would put it on the table when at my desk and took it out while driving. I then got a thin wallet which forced me to get rid of non-essential items and now I can easily carry it in my front pocket. Not having to deal with the kinesthetics of a wallet is somehow a mental joy

32. Install digital locks and don’t carry any key you’re not absolutely required to use every day. My pockets have since thanked me

33. Use the KeyMe app to create cloud backups of your legacy physical keys. KeyMe will recreate your old keys from the cloud at a kiosk whenever you need them, so you can get rid of all those old keys you have kept “just in case”

3. Productivity

Most of the items on this list are not about being more efficient, but more about stripping away distractions so you can be more successful in what’s important to you. Let’s start by talking about habits.

The part of the brain that manages routines is the basal ganglia, which is different from the part of the brain that handles decision making. That is why you can think about your life (higher reasoning) while simultaneously driving in traffic (routine), but only if it’s a drive that is, well, routine. So the more non-essential things you can put into routines, the more you can free your mind to think about what’s important. Conversely, many of the routines we have built are distractions and counter-productive, so we need to both build the right habits as well as replace the wrong ones.

3.1 Decision free clothing

I subscribe to the decision fatigue theory but I always thought it was weird for somebody to wear the exact same thing each day so I found a compromise. I just wear the same type of clothes each day and don’t think about it further. Your style will vary, but this is what I’ve done over the last year:

34. Monday-Friday I wear dry fit Callaway polo shirts. I have a bin of them in different colors and grab one each morning. Their benefits is that they never wrinkle, are comfortable, wick sweat (for all that walking), and dry quickly

35. On weekends I wear a comfortable t-shirt, which I also draw from a bin

36. I wear the same kind of Levi 541 athletic fit jeans every day

37. For exercising I have a bin of workout shirts and a bin of shorts. I of course also have a bin for socks and a bin for underwear

3.2 Smartphone Management

The smartphone has become such an integral part of our lives that it’s no surprise that 28 out of the 60 habits described here are smartphone related. Either you manage your smartphone or it will manage you.

3.2.1 App Set Up

If you put unhealthy foods front and center within your kitchen, you are more likely to eat them. This is because making unhealthy foods more accessible prompts us to eat them more. The same philosophy applies to smartphone apps, so make it as easy for your will power as possible by organizing your smartphone apps not in terms of what you use most often, but based on what you want to use most often.

38. Place the apps you want to use on your home screen and everything else on subsequent screens. I only have half my home screen filled and it has apps like Google Maps, Calendar, Camera, Notes, communication apps, health and fitness apps, To Do, Audible, and Podcasts

39. If you’re like me and use half a dozen different communication apps (iMessage, WhatsApp, Messenger, Skype, etc.) put them all in one folder called “Chat”. This reduces the multiple bidding for your attention to check each app… you’ll just catch up with all of them when you’re ready.

40. Create an “Entertainment” folder on the second page and drag all the apps in there that you use to pass time and for entertainment. The conscious selection of “Entertainment” and the need for a second click will make you think one extra moment before mindless app usage. My Entertainment folder has things like YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Video, Facebook, and Instagram. Since creating this folder, their use has gone down significantly

41. Remove news apps from your home screen. Reading constant sensational news will not make your day better. Cut down news in general. I first put my news app folder on my second screen and eventually got the courage to move it to the third screen. I haven’t regretted it since. Turn off news push notifications as well. Life will be better without their distraction

42. On an iPhone, remove all content from the “Today” view (the view when swiping to the right from home) except maybe weather, calendar, and battery life. Definitely don’t clutter it with news or other distractions. Before I got rid of it, I found myself swiping to view the screen for no valid reason

3.2.2 Apps I Heavily Use

43. I use a Getting Things Done type app to manage tasks. In particular, the Appigo’s ToDo app which syncs across my laptop and phone, but there are plenty of good alternatives. Become a student of GTD methodology in general

44. I use Apple Notes extensively, using folder for all aspects of my life to write down ideas. Folders range from health and fitness, business strategy, meeting notes, to books that I want to read next

45. I love Audible, but that wasn’t always the case. The biggest game changer in my life this year came from learning to listen at faster than 1x speed. At first I tried 1.25x and that seemed fast and I quit. I then forced myself to keep trying and within an hour it seemed completely normal. Then I moved to 1.5x with the same approach, and eventually 2x speed. I listen while walking to the gym, commuting, and downtime during walks. I have always been plagued as a slow reader but now I finished 20 books in just the first half of 2018, averaging a book every 10 days with under 30 minutes a day of listening

My Audible reading list as of July 2018. This has been a breakthrough year for me with 2x listening.

46. This was also the year I discovered Podcasts (late to the party?). It became much more interesting and efficient at 2x speeds. I listen to Tim Ferris, The Knowledge Project, How I Built This, and a handful of others. I usually get my book ideas from Tim Ferris interviews. I particularly enjoyed his Tribe of Mentors series and I love the level of detail he gets into

3.2.3 Social Media Use

Social media can become such a time drain that some people decide to completely delete an app off their phone. But going cold turkey like this is difficult and unnecessary. It’s much better to just create incremental habit changes with significant benefits. Here are easy steps to try:

47. Turn off all social media push and banner notifications. There is no reason you have to know right now when somebody posted something. You can do a batch catch up on your own terms

48. Move social media apps like Facebook to your “Entertainment” folder on the second page. This way you are less likely to mindlessly click on it out of boredom on the first page of your smartphone (see also #40 for other apps)

49. Unfollow/unfriend anyone that consistently frustrates you or sucks you in to conversations you know are unproductive. This is equivalent of removing unhealthy food from your kitchen

3.2.4 Other Smartphone Habits

50. Turn off banner notifications for your emails (on iPhone Settings -> Notifications -> account -> Banners OFF). There is nothing urgent enough about emails that your phone needs to notify you each time

51. Don’s answer calls from numbers you don’t recognize. It’s unlikely to be good news, and if it’s important they will leave a message or email you

52. Speaking of voicemail, change your voicemail to say “I will respond faster if you please send me a text” — who wants to listen to a voicemail?

53. Use a call blocking app like Hiya to reduce telemarketer interruptions

54. Don’t check messages or the news on your phone in bed in the morning. To establish a habit around this, I make a rule that I don’t check my phone until I have shoes on. It’s silly, but it works (usually)

3.3 Other productivity

55. Use Calendly to schedule calls. This reduces unnecessary emails back and forth and manual invitations. Have Calendly ask for their number while they schedule so you always initiate the call and therefore should never be waiting

Calendly is a great resource for coordinating calls and meetings. My default invite screen has 15 and 30 minute options, and I also send out 45 or 60 min invites

56. Unsubscribe from all emails you don’t want to read. Don’t just delete them. It takes an extra moment but reduces your accumulating load of emails

57. Create comprehensive gmail filters for anything you can’t unsubscribe. This will significantly reduce your inbox. I have many. This is an example:

One out of many gmail filters I use to keep my inbox traffic lower

58. Schedule time on your calendar for unscheduled activities to promote proactive thinking and planning. Try at least 30 minutes a day

59. Default your web browser home screen to something helpful and not a typical news page or portal which can serve as a distraction. Use something that will instead refocus you. I am using the Momentum plugin

Hitting home or new tab as a habit to escape boredom? Create a home page that brings you back on track.

60. Don’t go out to eat if you can take a walk instead. Evolutionary, humans used to be on the move all day and food was scarce, so sitting down to break bread was one of the best ways to build a relationship. Now we are mostly sedentary and eat too much, so I advocate replacing social meals with social walks. Enjoy the scenery, exercise, and have engaging conversations

Other — A few mindsets that kept popping up this year

  • What is good for us in the short term is often bad for us in the long term. What is bad in short term is often good for the long term. What is the right decision is often the hard decision.
  • Speak as if you’re right. Listen as if you’re wrong.
  • Protect your time as the most valuable thing you have. It’s the only thing you can’t buy more of.
  • Don’t second guess your decisions even if doing so would slightly optimize the outcome. The energy and strain spent re-litigating past decisions doesn’t justify the gain on the whole.
  • We can’t control other people or outside events, so focus only on the things you can truly control. These are only your own decisions and actions.

This is the end of my 4 part series on Born to be Unhappy — How We Can Overcome Our Own Biology. I invite you to visit parts 1 through 3 (linked above) for deeper and more strategic frameworks on a path to a happier life.