Please note: I updated this post six months after turning 30 to clarify my thoughts.
This is not my version of the path to happiness or enlightenment, but simply the best lessons I've learned that help me to achieve my goals. I read a lot of these lists and think they're great, but it's important to recognise three things:
1. Take this with a pinch of salt, as they are only simple explanations and some of the nuance may be lost in the writing.
2. Not all advice/methods will apply to everyone.
3. If you read something you think is good advice for you, try to action it straight away. Merely reading things will change very little - it's all about the action.
Okay, are you ready? Let's go.
Every list should start with nutrition. Everyone knows, "You are what you eat" but I like to emphasise, "If you shove shitty food down your throat, you feel like shit." I don't yet know what the perfect diet for me is - it's been a five-year experiment of trying to find the right balance and I'm still not there. So I have no idea whether you should be on paleo, vegan, keto, or 5-2. You're going to need to figure it out for yourself, but I have learned a few things I'd like to share:
- Eat less sugar. Everyone studying nutrition agrees with this one so give it a go. I try to do three to five "no sugar days" each week. This means looking at ingredient labels a fair bit, because sugar is added to everything. The key to succeeding on this one is, "don't buy it! If it's not in your house then you won't eat it!"
- Eat less complex carbs. These make me feel groggy as fuck, so I've reduced my intake of bread, pasta, rice, etc. And now, no more afternoon lulls!
- Time restricted eating / intermittent fasting. This has been shown to reduce inflammation and increase lifespan. It basically means not eating/drinking anything for 12-16 hours (overnight) each day. It's not too difficult to do.
- Drink more water and less booze. My main issue with booze is that it's loaded with sugar and then the drunkenness leads to poor food choices.
- There is also your microbe biome to consider as well, in your gut and everywhere else. Don’t take antibiotics unless you have to. They are indiscriminate killers of healthy and unhealthy bacteria. I've always heard you should go on a probiotic course during and after a course of antibiotics. And of course, eat more kimchi! These act as your prebiotics and help develop a healthy gut by providing the right foods.
- Learn more from: Ben Greenfield, Ronda Patrick, Robb Wolf, Gary Taubes, Mark Sissons, Dave Asprey - I listen to a lot of these guys' podcasts and then test my body, similar to Tim Ferris.
I used to think of myself as a brain on a body, almost as two distinct items, walking around without the body impacting me too much. It was almost like an inconvenience that my consciousness was trapped in this meat vehicle. I never considered the impact exercise could have on my thinking and wellbeing. Well I was wronger than wrong. You have physical requirements and these must be met daily or you're going to struggle mentally as well. If I feel low, I often exercise, as it boosts my mood and gives me energy.
We don’t all have to do Cross Fit; going for hikes in the countryside or swimming in the sea works too. It's always calming to work out in nature and it puts you and your ego back in place. I find watching the sea crash into rocks, and then seeing how these rocks have been shaped over hundreds of thousands of years, puts my tiny day-to-day concerns in their rightful place. High intensity exercise has helped me reduce my aggression/anxiety and cycling to work is my favourite way to commute.
Stretch or do yoga most days to maintain a good range of motion. Mix up your exercise. Don't just run. Try swimming or doing some HIIT workouts. Work on cardio and don't just do weights. They all feed into each other and make you stronger at different things and unless you're a specialist, there's no reason to only do one type of exercise!
TLDR: Build exercise into your routines and focus on it daily, even if it's a rest day. This helps me focus on the present and not get lost in repetitive, negative thought.
3. Sleepy sleepy
I used to view sleep as wasted time. Why sleep when I could be doing other things like partying, reading, or writing? There is some truth to this, but the importance of sleep for wellbeing and ensuring you make the right choices the next day is paramount. Poor sleep leads to poor diet and exercise choices. I still don't enjoy sleep that much (I don't like switching off my consciousness!) but I ensure I get what I need.
TLDR: Sleep for the right duration, at a similar time most days, and the one I recently learnt: at the right intensity. No more blue lights late at night. Get an app on your phone: I use Twilight.
I think hormones and other chemicals control a lot of these "decisions" we make. So to help make sure you don't give yourself an imbalance that could lead to negative decisions that you're rational self does not want (see point 5 to set your goals), you must control the top three inputs in your body: Diet, exercise, sleep.
4. Constantly learn
The forth input I control (after exercise, sleep, and diet) are the books I read, video/TV I watch, podcasts I listen to, and people I spend time with.
I control the information my brain is taking in to understand the world. If I have too many negative influences, such as reading the news (I try not to) and having a moany friend, then I find I assimilate and regurgitate these negative ideas, either in thought or speech. On the other hand, consuming only positive, upbeat messages your whole life will fuck you up because life is tragic and horrible at times. Things will happen and you will not be prepared for them. Adult life has no safe spaces.
Generally with information, I tend to consume anything that makes me more curious about the world. I love curiosity and wonder and believe they are traits I need to develop and work on. I do this by learning about things.
Learning is one of my favourite uses of time and we are all lucky enough to be alive when learning is easier than it ever has been. We don’t need to trek to a library or travel hundreds of miles to speak to an expert. There are so many reliable sources on the internet and thousands of podcasts and books just a click away. You can now hear an expert in any field talk for hours about their craft in a podcast or audiobook. It's an amazing time to be alive!
Don't believe that certain people are not capable of learning maths, or anything else. I used to think I couldn’t learn a language but that was the wrong "fixed mindset." Skills are learnable and having a Carol Dweck growth mindset is useful for acquiring new skills. I just stick with it, practise every day, try my best to learn, and not get too annoyed at Katie's ability to learn the language with seemingly half the effort. Learning Portuguese was harder than most things I've tried, but I can now get by and slowly I am learning to speak Spanish.
With regards to controlling the information you take in, of course sometimes entertainment and switching off to your favourite sport, or Love Island, or whatever, is worth doing. But, and I don't need to say this, spending all day laughing at memes that you forget one minute later will negatively influence you. View it like a hit of a drug. It's okay in small quantities but doing too much is going to mess you up.
TLDR: Learn everyday, little and often. Use podcasts, YouTube, audiobooks and start something fresh. It takes time to learn but it's humbling and it feels good to push your abilities.
5. Build routines to achieve your goals
You need clear goals in life. Whether they are simple, like "be healthier, lose some weight, look better naked" or complicated, like "start my own company, be a better person, change the world." You have to define what you want before you can start building routines to help you achieve it. Your goals also need to align with your core values.
I use daily lists to define what I need to do, with triggers that spark new routines to hopefully turn them into habits. For example, I'm trying to learn Spanish and there are two triggers that I'm using. The first is that when I go for a poo, I use Duolingo and do ten minutes on the app. So most days I'm doing some Spanish learning. The second trigger is that when brushing my teeth, I listen to "Notes in Spanish" - a podcast that is helping me learn. So that's another five minutes a day. This otherwise wasted time adds up and is now utilised, adding up to nearly two hours a week of Spanish learning. It's not enough to master a language but it's also not nothing. It's very important to reward yourself, with a little pat on the back, to reinforce the new routine after you finish doing it as well.
We are the habits and routines we have, so if you want to change your life, start focussing on building positive ones that align with your personal ambitions. Also, recognise the negative ones, and the best way to remove a bad habit is to track it. If you're trying to save money, write down every time you spend a penny (literally, not figuratively). The same goes for losing weight - write down everything you eat. As soon as you start tracking, you can start to improve.
TLDR: Build routines that work towards your goals using triggers and tracking to help you achieve them! Don't forget to reward yourself once you have completed an action to help build the positive feedback loop.
6. Challenge your opinions
Hearing words and opinions that offend your ideas is great. You shouldn’t want to hide away from these challenging conversations. Diversity of opinion is very important. I love hearing someone say something contradictory to my beliefs. It makes me confront my own ideas and try to explain/realise the flaws in my or someone else's thinking. We all suffer from cognitive dissonance (and a plethora of other cognitive biases) so we don't always realise where our thinking is flawed. But if we constantly challenge our ideas we should get better at noticing these errors in our logic and get to some kind of truth. I find that most arguments are simply language games that occur when words or ideas are defined differently between groups or individuals (read Wittgenstein). Nuance is at the heart of most disagreements. Conversation is often the best way to learn where you are mistaken or to try and show another individual when their logic is flawed.
A new thing I'm trying to do is sit on the edge of the coin in every debate. Perhaps Trump does have some positives. Perhaps Brexit isn't the worst idea since unsliced bread. Looking at both sides of the argument shows the complexities involved in these social issues. It normally isn't as simple as you originally think.
This kind of reasoning prevents you from strawmanning an argument, and instead try steelmanning their argument.
TLDR: Hunt out the flaws in your thinking and cognition by listening and trying to understand other points of view. Don't create absolutes like "Meat is murder", rather sit on the fence in debates to see both views.
7. Be grateful and honest
Gratefulness is positively correlated to happiness. Everyone enjoys happiness, so be more grateful. Especially to your family, as you never know when loved ones will leave this earth, and how much time you have left with them. Be grateful for the privileges you have not earned and also for the ones you worked hard for. I do struggle with this one and can find that when I'm grateful, I'm less productive, but definitely happier. One thing I'm trying to do more of is to be honest with people and express any positive opinions I have to show my appreciation of them in that moment. Don't hold back expressing positive thoughts. Do hold back negative ones that aren't useful or are poorly timed.
Be honest and truthful as best you can. Spend 45 minutes reading and understanding Sam Harris' essay on Lying. This is the best account I've read on the damage done by lies and the power of truth to change the world.
TLDR: Be thankful for existing and utilise your time on this earth! Don't lie about things, you are merely enforcing a false reality upon people.
8. Thoughts are not facts
The number of conversations I've had with people without opening my mouth is amazing. I constantly argue my viewpoint against a person IN MY HEAD. I put words and often fear into my head when considering what others might say if I spoke to them about a particular subject/idea. Yet, most of the time, this isn't how people respond. I find we are so scared of imagined conversations that we don’t actually have the conversation. You're afraid to ask for that pay rise and you're afraid to ask if that person loves you.
Another similar thing I do is have a thought about a situation, normally negative, and then believe it to be true. Such as someone not replying to a text, leading me to think that they don't like me. It then takes evidence for me to shift this negative opinion. In reality they were probably too busy or forgot to respond. Don't assume malice when ignorance/laziness is more likely. Thoughts about people and situations are not facts. They are merely thoughts. Believing them to be true is as crazy as believing everything in your Facebook feed. Use the mantra "Thoughts are not facts" to remind yourself of this. "This is water" helps explain the filters we view the world through.
TLDR: Build the mantra, "Thoughts are not facts" into your thinking. You'll still have the thoughts, but try to disregard (most of) them using the mantra.
9. Don't expect people to change
It's incredibly difficult to change someone in the way you want to. You can lead a horse to water but don't expect it to drink. It might just shit in that thirst-quenching puddle instead. The most control you have is over your own behaviour. It's fun to discuss how "the man" and "capitalism" are bringing the world down but start by changing your own behaviour, rather than redesigning economic/political systems that will "fix" the world. You have responsibility for your life and taking extreme ownership will help you change the world better than any philosophising.
Lead by example and try to coach others along the way. But don’t expect your 90-year-old granddad to suddenly stop using that racist term when he has been using it his entire life. It's unrealistic to expect older people to have the same morality and ethical values as the youth. Indoctrination and close mindedness takes its toll on every generation.
TLDR: You can only change yourself and try to help others along their journey.
What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment, share if useful, and give me some feedback. Do you agree/disagree? What makes your list?