It’s 3 weeks into the new year, how are your resolutions looking?
Have you already fallen off the wagon? Are you starting to slip?
Or are you still going strong?
Do you have confidence you’ll keep it up all year?
Most people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions.
Most people mean well, but they simply don’t have the tools to keep them going. They rely on willpower which is limited and not a successful strategy for long-term change.
Thanks to Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, this is slowly starting to change. Habit research is moving it’s way into mainstream culture.
And I’m happy to see more and more people are applying it to healthy living.
Brad Feld recently wrote about sleeping more.
Eric Barker has written several posts about sleep and exercise.
This NY Times article got passed around the web like it was the elixir to everlasting life.
It’s been interesting to watch tech culture slowly shift away from marathon all-nighters to a more healthy lifestyle.
There is plenty of research that shows that sleep, nutrition, and exercise make us smarter, more productive, and to state the obvious all-around healthier.
Over the past decade, I’ve invested heavily in getting better in all three of these areas. It has taken a lot of work to find what works for me, but the outcome so far is nothing short of amazing. Compared to my junk-food eating, sleep-deprived, couch potato friends and coworkers, I feel super human.
This might seem off-topic for a product blog. But it’s not.
I care about building great products. I want to explore how to do my best work. I want to help you do your best work. And I believe that starts with a healthy foundation.
In an industry where we have to consistently produce enormous amounts of high-quality work on short timelines, this topic seems more important than ever.
Don’t worry, I won’t be preachy. I don’t believe there’s one right solution for everyone. I firmly believe, to each their own.
But I’ve managed to develop good habits around sleep, exercise, and nutrition that have managed to stick. These aren’t areas in which i’ve always been strong and it definitely took work to get here. But I see enormous benefit from having done so. And so can you.
What kind of benefits?
First, I cram a whole lot more into my day than most people. Even when I had a full-time job, I maintained about 3-5 coaching clients on the side, I was (and still am) working towards a graduate degree (albeit slowly), I blogged regularly here, I ran A LOT (running on average 2 marathons, and 6 half-marathons per year), and I volunteered with Team in Training.
Second and related to the first, I have energy all day long – physical and mental energy. If you still get afternoon lulls or are just wiped out in the evenings after work, you have no idea how amazing this feels.
And third, I am able to be fully present and engaged in all of my actviites. I know people who do a lot, but they are just barely getting by. They are overstretched. They are stressed out. I’m generally relaxed, engaged, and totally present in whatever I’m currently doing.
Sounds great, doesn’t it?
So how do I do it?
I’ve gotten here iteratively and I rely on these three principles to make it happen:
- I invest in my health, treating sleep, nutrition, and exercise as if they were my job
- I build habits and daily routines to conserve willpower.
- I focus on making a little bit of progress each and every day.
Let’s look at each.
Invest in sleep, nutrition, and exercise as if it were your job.
Most overachievers stay up late (sometimes pulling all-nighters) to get stuff done. They stop by McDonald’s for a quick meal to save time. And they exercise when they have time. In other words, rarely, if ever.
I do the exact opposite.
I treat sleep, nutrition, and exercise as if they were my job.
What does that mean?
It means I go to sleep at 10:45pm every night. I wake up every morning at 6:45am. I go for a run Monday through Friday before I take a shower, without exception. And I eat a high-fat / low-carb diet, avoiding sugar and bread.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a robot. In two weeks, I plan to spend two days at Disneyland for my birthday where I’ll eat churros for breakfast, popcorn for lunch, and ice cream for dinner. I’ll probably skip my morning run since I walk an average of 12 miles / day in the park. And I will probably stay up way too late the night in between the two park days.
But for the most part, I stick to my routine.
I’m not naturally a regimented person. In fact, I’ve designed my entire life around having the flexibility to do whatever I want when I want.
So for those of you thinking to yourself that you aren’t disciplined enough to do this, keep reading.
Don’t rely on willpower.
It’s not about discipline. It’s about habit. If you rely on your willpower to make these types of change, you’ll fail. Not because you aren’t amazing. But because you are doing it wrong.
When I want to make a change, I take the time to think about how i can turn it into a daily habit or routine. And I usually don’t get it right the first time. It takes multiple iterations.
A few months ago, I quit volunteering with Team in Training. It meant rather than showing up to a track workout with 60 friends, I was running on my own. I had to learn how to turn it into a habit.
I was following a training schedule and decided day-to-day when I would do a workout. Sometimes I’d get up early and do it before work. Other times, I’d go at lunch. And on some days I’d go after work. You can imagine this didn’t work.
I wasted a lot of time and energy debating about when and where I’d run. At lunch time, I’d delay and say I’d do it after work. Later that evening at home, I’d convince myself I’d do it after dinner. Then it was dark. And guess what? I never ran.
So I decided I was going to run every day as soon as I got home from work. No questions asked. Just do it. This worked for a few days. But then I got invited to Happy Hour. I went to Happy Hour.
I then decided I’d run every day at lunch. This was disastrous. I often forgot to bring my running stuff to work. I like eating lunch with my coworkers. It was just way too easy to never run.
Then I decided to get up early and run before work. I made a simple rule for myself: don’t shower until you’ve gone for your run. This worked for a really long time. Right up until winter when sunrise got later in the morning. Convincing yourself to get up and run on a cold, dark morning is really hard. It didn’t happen.
So now what do I do?
I wake up. I drink my coffee. I eat breakfast. I write for 30-45 minutes. And then I go for my run. Coffee (not the dread of a cold, dark run) gets me out of bed. By the time I’m done writing, the sun is up and I’m awake and excited to get outside. It works.
That was a lot of detail. I hope you are still with me. I want to make it clear. This is not easy. Nor am I saying wake up early and run. That’s what works for me.
What I’m trying to convey is that it takes time to figure out what routine works for you. When you try something and it doesn’t work, you have to ask yourself, why. What interfered? How can you design a new routine that overcomes that obstacle.
I went through similar processes to figure out how to go to bed on time, break my terrible habit of snoozing for an hour, and tame my insatiable sweet tooth.
You have to experiment. You have to iterate.
It’s a lot like building products. Try things. Learn. Try some new things.
Small steps every day are better than long sprints periodically.
And like building products, you have to trust that small steps every day lead to really big changes.
I didn’t change my sleep schedule, my exercise habits, or my eating habits all at once. I started with one at a time. Remember, I made these changes over years.
I started with food. I started by not buying sugar or carbs at the grocery store. But I ate whatever I wanted at restaurants. Then I switched to a healthy breakfast. Then I started eating salads for lunch. And then I started building out my rotation of healthy dinners. Over time, I incrementally moved toward a healthy diet.
I then moved on to exercise. And finally sleep.
If I were to do it all over again, I would actually reverse that. I’d start with sleep as you’ll notice a big change right away and the momentum will keep you motivated. Then I’d focus on exercise and then food. I find the more I exercise the better I want to eat.
If I had tried to do all of these things at once, I would have failed. Building a habit takes a lot of energy and attention. Start with one. A small one. And stick with it until it’s part of who you are. Then move on to the next one.
The habit of feeling super human.
This sounds like a lot of work. And it is. I’ve been experimenting in these three areas for a decade. And it’s been totally worth it.
In fact, I feel super human.
I sleep 8 hours every night. I go to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time 7 days a week. I run 5 days a week. I avoid bread and sugar like they are poison. And I feel amazing!
I also get a lot done. I’m present and engaged. And I feel great every day of my life.
And now, nothing about this routine is hard. it’s all habit.
It takes time to get here. But it’s well worth it. I highly recommend it.
Thanks for humoring me.
On Thursday, we’ll return to the normal programming here at Product Talk and look at the 8 decisions that have the biggest impact on building great products. You won’t want to miss it. Click here to get it delivered to your inbox.
This is awesome! Thanks for sharing.
Interesting ‘case study’ of how you essentially applied the principles of Dughigg’s book to your life. Since I assume you were forming good habits before the book came out, were you aware of what you were doing?
Teresa Torres says
I was already experimenting with what helped me build habits before the Power of Habit came out. But his material has definitely helped. The use of rewards is a particularly good insight from his book.