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  • Brendan Stec

Self-improvement? Start with the little things

It's pretty tempting to get swept away with the grandiose visions you hold for the future. Thoughts about a career, a new house or apartment, a partner, a family member. These are big thoughts that dominate so much daily attention. But what about the little things - diet, posture, sleep, etc. - that are equally important but can fall to the wayside? Maybe you should be thinking a little more about them. Here's why:

Get enough sleep

Have you ever taken an exam on 3 hours of sleep? It feels like your brain needs to wade through a thick fog to solve any of the problems. There is little clarity or confidence. You have difficulty concentrating. It's not an ideal situation.

If you're paid for the quality of your work (not the quantity) like most of us, you take an exam every day. Day-in and day-out, you're solving complicated issues or dealing with difficult customers. You're working against the clock to get tenure or find funding for your business. You're depending on your brain to perform at its highest possible level.

If this is you, you can't afford to not get enough sleep. The risks of sleep-deprivation are just too high: anxiety, depression, weight gain, high blood pressure, impaired memory, impaired concentration, reduced motivation, and the list goes on. These are high prices to pay for a few extra hours to answer emails or surf LinkedIn each night.

Your mind and body need 7 - 9 hours each night to recover and prepare for the next day. Your brain needs rest to reinforce the neural pathways that shape your memories. Your body needs a regular circadian rhythm to effectively manage concentration and emotions. If it's late and your eyes are shutting, it's time for sleep. There's no other way around it.

Stand up straight with your shoulders back

For a long time I thought standing up straight had purely physical benefits: less back pain, a sharper looking physique, and clearer airways for improved breathing. But the real benefits are actually psychological, as explained in Jordan Peterson's bestselling book 12 Rules for Life. Think about individuals who walk around hunched over. They appear timid, defensive or lacking in confidence, a little like Milton from Office Space. Peterson's warning is clear: avoid this habit at all costs. People are extremely hierarchy-sensitive and will view your slouch as a weakness. They will treat you accordingly.

You could be struggling to find a job or still piecing together a failed relationship. You could be at rock bottom. You could have every reason to slouch over and appear defeated. But, according to Peterson, that will only attract more negative attention. People will be more likely to disrespect you or assume you have nothing to offer. And if you're not careful, you might start believing them.

The key is to reverse the trend. Stand up straight and you're suddenly a threat. You suddenly have some confidence and direction. Your body releases more serotonin, and you feel less anxious. You can be more like a CEO who walks by with her chin up and back straight, because she knows it communicates confidence to her employees. It's a small step towards something better, but it's a step that can't be ignored.

The importance of diet

Think about your body as a machine. Just as a high-performance machine requires the best fuel, your body demands the best food in order to function at a high level. Why? Different foods contain different chemicals, which are processed by your body in different ways to impact your energy levels and mood accordingly. For example, foods containing simple sugars quickly spike your blood sugar levels, leading to a quick boost in energy followed by an inevitable crash that can harm your productivity. So what do the experts suggest as the optimal diet?

Above all, eating a large, protein and fat-heavy breakfast is key. In the morning, your blood sugar is low from the 8+ hour overnight fast and should be replenished immediately. Re-energizing with protein prevents carbohydrates from being absorbed too quickly into your bloodstream, leaving you with more stable energy levels and even a small source of dopamine to improve mood. And breakfast is especially important for those with anxiety or depression, who tend to hyper-secrete insulin. More insulin means faster absorption of blood sugar, which can quickly lead to hypoglycemia and psycho-physiological instability.

Your diet affects how you feel (and therefore perform) because 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract. Studies show that individuals on diets high in fruits, vegetables, fish, and unprocessed grains are at a 25 - 35% lower risk of depression compared to those who stock up on processed and sugary foods. Essentially, these cleaner diets promote the growth of "good" bacteria in your GI tract that protect the lining of your intestines, limit inflammation in your body, and help promote more balanced energy levels throughout the day.

The bottom line: if you avoid processed foods (white bread, frozen food, chips, soft drinks), stick to vegetables and lean protein, and eat a heavy breakfast, both your emotional and physical well-being should noticeably improve.

Concentrate - don't multitask

If you’re reading this article, you probably do or hope to make your living as a knowledge worker. Knowledge workers are now the backbone of the American service economy: they’re paid to concentrate on hard problems, collaborate with colleagues and clients, conduct research, and lead organizations. Success as a knowledge worker is highly dependent on two abilities, according to Georgetown professor Cal Newport:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.

  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

If you can master these two abilities, Newport argues, you have a strong chance of pursuing successful and meaningful work in a future economy dominated by complex technologies and intelligent machines. That’s because these two abilities allow individuals to achieve deep work: activities performed in a distraction-free environment that allow maximum cognitive output. So what’s stopping most of us from achieving deep work? Usually it’s the ability to concentrate for long periods of time.

Emails beg to be responded to, Instagram pings here and there that you have a popular photo, and texts ring throughout the day. Network tools like social media and the Internet can constantly distract you and fragment your attention. Even when it's time to settle down and focus on something meaningful, after only a few minutes it's tempting to check emails or surf the Web. At a time when deep work is more crucial than ever for success as a knowledge worker, it seems that it’s harder and harder to sufficiently concentrate to make deep work possible.

You may be tempted to argue that you're someone who is a good "multitasker" and that deep concentration is not necessary. But research by Sophie Leroy shows that individuals who switch from tasks repeatedly perform worse on both tasks compared to those who finish all of the first task before moving on to the second task. Why? When you switch tasks, part of your brain is still thinking about the prior task, preventing you from devoting 100% of your attention to the task-at-hand. If you spend several hours directing your attention to one task, however, you avoid these switching costs on your attention and can maximize cognitive output. Prominent thought-leaders like Carl Jung, Adam Grant, and Bill Gates have all been known to practice periods of "deep concentration" at work in order produce the brilliant insights they're known for today.

Your mind can only concentrate at a high level for 4 – 6 hours a day. Master violinists, for example, rarely deliberately practice for more than 4 hours per day. This means you can achieve a lot more per hour if you can master the ability to focus your attention for extended periods of deep work. In Cal Newport's book Deep Work, he suggests working for periods of 90 minutes at a time with no distractions, reducing social media usage, and allowing your brain sufficient rest at night in order to move closer to this goal.

Final Thoughts

Life provides new battles each day, but that doesn't mean you need to approach each of them unarmed. There are some little things you can do - enough sleep, good posture, a healthy diet, and a focused mindset - that can get you a surprisingly long way. One of my favorite ways of starting a new good habit is using Jerry Seinfeld's "chain rule." Mark an "X" on your calendar each day you meet your goal. Soon, you'll see a growing chain of X's across your calendar. Now the most important part: don't break the chain!


Further reading:

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

An amazing article from Ryan Holiday on the importance of sleep

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