The Role of Emotion (Pt. 2)

Part II: Overcoming Challenges

In my last post, I discussed some of the ways to achieve a positive emotional state to boost your productivity. I often find that if you’re able to find joy or curiosity in the work you do, you’ll do better work and be more productive overall: a win-win. However, in most professions, it’s important to be productive even when things are more difficult. Sometimes personal or professional factors combine to make us particularly high stressed and anxious or low energy and demotivated. Below, we will explore a few tips for still achieving productivity in these low energy days.

Document Everything

This requires a bit of proactivity, but I find it very helpful to carefully document as much of my work as possible. At the end of each day, I write down the most important pieces to be done the next day. When I do a piece of work, especially if it’s new or I need someone’s help to complete it, I document each step and any questions I had in a FAQ document I write for myself. When I complete a project, I’ll write a couple of sentences about what was accomplished in a document I can revisit when I encounter a professional evaluation. By keeping such careful documents, even on my worst days I usually have a sense of what needs to be done and can muddle through the tasks using the steps and checklists I’d created earlier. As I mentioned in a previous post, by treating the future versions of yourself as potentially less competent than you currently are, you build in a bit of a safety buffer for low motivation days.

Reward Yourself

As humans, we are hard wired to respond to rewards. Indeed there are neural structures specifically connecting components in our brain related to cravings, euphoria, and positive reinforcement. When we’re feeling low, we can try to take advantage of these structures for a bit of a short term boost. To do so, simply think of a simple small reward you would like and set some rules on what you have to accomplish to receive it. Depending on how tough the day is, you can make this game as easy or as hard as you need it to be. For me, on particularly bad days, I might reward myself with a square of chocolate (or a whole bar) for just opening a work document or responding to a few e-mails. As with many things, just getting the energy to get started is the most difficult part, and you might end up surprising yourself by exceeding that initial goal. Although, it’s totally fine if you don’t, just play the game again with another task and another reward. I’m sometimes able to get a fair amount of work done just through this repeated process.

Distraction

If I’m having a hard day, not due to low energy, but due to stress and anxiety, I can often use distraction as a tactic to make some progress. For me, music works well, a well chosen playlist on Spotify can calm the spiral of negative emotions that I’m fighting against and I can even sometimes achieve something of a flow state. This tactic works particularly well with a bit of proactivity (if you already have a playlist set up) as well as in combination with the first step above about documentation. With the music playing, I can just follow the instructions that my past self left and push a set of projects forward.

Take Breaks

Finally, I encourage yourself to treat yourself kindly and to recognize if you might need to simply take a break. Sometimes our work and expectations of ourselves build up to the point that the only way to really escape the low energy state is to take some time off. If you have vacation days (or sick leave), consider using them to give yourself some time to rest. Staycations are underrated as a means to regain the energy we need to progress. And if that’s not possible, at least occasionally allow yourself zero-days. Days where you don’t expect yourself to make progress on anything but just allow yourself to accomplish nothing. As with physical exercise, the rest days are just as important as the days where we push ourselves.

Where do I start with personal finance?

As I mentioned in my last post, it can be tough to know where to start with personal finance. If we stick with a basic definition of making sure that our wants don’t outstrip our means, though, there are a few good first steps. Ultimately, personal finance is just that, though – personal. These are often the best places to start, but everyone’s circumstances are different. 

1. Do a budget.

Measurement helps! Just knowing what you spend on is an important first step, and is usually the best place to start in personal finance. I think people find this stressful because they feel guilty about how they spend the money, or think that their budget categories should be targets. Not the case. A budget is an exercise in information-gathering. It tells you where your money is going. Whether you want to change that or not is up to you, but the place to start is to keep track.

Budgets don’t have to be fancy. Some people swear by YNAB or Mint. I’ve never felt comfortable sharing my bank login information with another app, so I use an excel sheet where I record what I spend, and it calculates the totals. Find something that works for you. Then, do it for a month or two, so you have a sense of where your money is going. No judgment or self-criticism at this stage. Just track the money so you can be aware, in the same way that when you meditate, you stay aware of your thoughts without judging yourself for them.

2. Build an emergency fund

Now you know where your money is going. Next, you need to be ready for the unexpected. Too often, people plunge into investing or tax planning, without getting this basic step right. If your car broke tomorrow, do you have the cash available to fix it? If not, set up an account and start saving up until you could. Otherwise, small problems can snowball. If your car breaks, that might mean you miss work, so your income drops too, and suddenly you are really pinched. 

Common advice for an emergency fund is about 3-6 months of expenses, so if you spent $2000 per month, about 6-12k. That way, if you lose your job, you could be unemployed for a few months while you look for a new one. That might sound like a lot. If you’re starting from nothing, focus on getting the first thousand saved up to start, to cover broken cars, emergency home repairs, or other short-term expenses. My wife and I keep about 6 months of expenses available across the two of us in a savings account. That might be more we need, but it helps us sleep at night.

3. Pay down debt (at least high-interest debt)

Now that you have the basics down–a budget and an emergency fund–there is a bit more flexibility on what you might choose to do next. If you have an employer-match retirement fund, where for every $1 you save they save the same, then you might want to take advantage of that. If not, paying down debt is important.

Debt isn’t always bad: borrowing to pay for education can be worthwhile, and sometimes borrowing to meet a critical need is unavoidable (though better to have an emergency fund!). Borrowing costs money, though: you pay interest. If you’re trying to save more, reducing how much you pay on interest is a great way to reduce spending.

To do that, you have to pay down the debt. Not all debt is equal, though. Low-interest debt (such as student loans), may not cost you very much, and so may not be a priority. High-interest debt, though, such as credit card debt or car loans, is much more expensive.

There is no silver bullet for debt repayment, but two strategies to consider. The financially best strategy is the ‘debt avalanche.’ There, you pay down the highest interest debt first, while making minimum payments on the others. This shrinks your most expensive debt first, reducing your costs.

Equally valid though is the ‘snowball’ method. For this one, you pay off your smallest debt first. The idea is that lets you reduce the number of debts you have fastest, which many people find motivating. That may not be financially the best option, but it can be psychologically the best option. If that’s what helps you get out of debt fastest by keeping you motivated, then it may be the best option for you.

I had meant to cover more about where to start in personal finance in one post, NT, but I seem to have talked a lot already. I’ll break here, but tune in for another post to come on what to do after you’ve got your budget and emergency fund established, and at least your high-interest debts paid off.

What is personal finance and why does it matter?

When you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or Maslow’s mountain as I charmingly heard it called recently, you typically start at the bottom and work your way up. Without food, water and warmth, it can be hard to focus on prestige or fulfilling your full potential. For me, that’s why personal finance is so important: it gives you the space and freedom to focus on the rest of the mountain.

So what is personal finance?

A lot of people get intimidated by finance. It can seem technical, with a lot of knowledge of markets and business needed. I’ve heard people say they wish they could get into it but find it too hard, or that it’s not for them. If we think of personal finance as a proxy for freedom, though, I think it gets a lot easier. For me, personal finance is just that; it’s about trying to build up enough of a surplus that we are not subject to the vagaries of life’s fortunes. 

If we accept that definition, then two things follow: successful personal finance is about increasing how much we have in reserve, or reducing our needs. Neither of those needs to be complicated. There are plenty of complicated details à la tax optimization, interest rate deductibility, etc., but you can get it 90% right without much effort, and then decide if you want to put the time in to get the final 10%.

It’s more than just money

That definition also means it isn’t just about money. Personal finance is intertwined with ideas of environmental sustainability and reduced consumerism. It isn’t just about making as much as you can, but also about making sure you’re focusing on what’s important, prioritizing the things you care about.

Today, it’s trendy to talk about retiring early. That’s fine if that’s what you want, but that has never had much appeal for me. What I want is the option to retire early; the option to leave whenever I want. If you can’t leave, you are shackled. In contrast, if you know you can leave, then you can choose to stay for all the right reasons.

So much for the philosophy of personal finance, though it’s a topic I could wax on about at length. When you’re trying to get better at something, though, it pays to have concrete steps you can take. Implementation intentions, as they are sometimes referred to in the literature. Given this post is already a bit long, tune in to my next post for just that. You can expect talk of nest eggs, paying down debt, plugging leaks, budgets, and more! 

The Role of Emotion

Part I: Engendering Joy 

My productivity is frequently tied to my emotional state. If I am approaching a problem with joy, excitement or curiosity, I’m able to pull long hours, push through hardship, and get a lot done without any sense of burden. When my state, by contrast, carries anxiety, stress, or fear, there is a lot more friction and it almost feels like I have to fight myself to get work done. I think it’s important in most careers to be able to be productive in both states and so in this post I explore my personal strategies for engendering the former and in the next for managing the latter.

Curiosity

I find a problem most engaging when I am studying it from a place of genuine curiosity. Many problems can be reframed into puzzles simply by asking questions like “I wonder why things work this way” or “I wonder how we can build x or understand y”. If I’m able to transform the problem like this, I can engage the part of my mind that likes to solve Sudoku or pick apart knots. This little cluster of neurons is surprisingly stubborn in its quest to solve problems, and isn’t as easily repressed when it encounters a difficulty. Challenge just adds to the game of it all, adding a new layer to investigate, learn about, and eventually solve.

Flow

A related approach to finding joy in work is achieving a “flow state”. Flow is a mental state coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and is often colloquially referred to as “being in the zone”. To achieve it, the author suggests three criteria as being necessary:

  • Clear goals
  • Immediate feedback
  • A balance between the perceived challenge and one’s perceived skill

To me, the third criteria manifests as the activity being just at the limit of my skill – where I am confident I can complete the task, but that I’ll have to learn and grow in some way in order to do it. While not all work is conducive to flow, you can often restructure your tasks into smaller milestones that let you achieve flow for some part of the task. In programming, instead of trying to build a whole system in one chunk, breaking the problem into smaller components, each of which can be written and tested separately is often more conducive to flow. In contrast, if you find yourself particularly reluctant to pursue a piece of work, as if one of the three flow conditions is broken and see if you can rescope the work to enable more flow. Perhaps you can ask your manager for more regular input for feedback? Or perhaps you can set an intermediate goal that will better match your perceived skill at the moment? Flow, when achieved, can feel like effortless productivity, and is well worth finding in some part of our lives.

Sensory Engagement

I think in modern life, living so much of it in our own heads as we do, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of our five physical senses (smell, sight, taste, touch, and sound). But when we look back and review our lives, much of our experience and memories are catalogued by these senses – the taste of that favorite pasta, the smell of the ocean, the sight of clouds in the sky. Another aspect of extracting joy from work can come from trying to better engage our senses in our work. When taking notes, I find using a constellation of multicolored fineliners gives me more visceral pleasure than just typing on a keyboard. After lunch, playing a favorite electronica playlist can get me back into the zone more quickly. In the video A Little Joy and Color in an Otherwise Unbearably Bland Life, John Green tells the story of how using a purple sharpie has brought joy to his otherwise monotonous task of signing 250,000 copies of his book. If you can, look for opportunities to engage your senses whenever you can in your day or your work. Light a candle, listen to music, savor a mint, get a mechanical keyboard, do whatever works for you to engage the more physical side of your mind.

Remember Your Why

Ultimately, whatever work we are doing and whatever we are trying to achieve, there is some purpose for it. Whether it’s putting food on your own or your loved one’s table, looking after your pets, or trying to make the world a little happier or a little better, we are striving for a reason. If all else fails, I can sometimes find peace and contentment in reminding myself about all of the reasons I carry the burdens that I’ve chosen. Sitting quietly with those images, for me particularly of the people in my life that count on me, allows me to tap a deep well of motivation that won’t allow me to fail them. It helps to keep an artifact on your desk, like a family picture or favored quote, to make this connection manifest. While not the source of motivation I rely on day to day, it’s a comfort to reach out and look for it from time to time and know it’s there when I really need it. 

These are just some of the tools that allow us to find joy in being productive. Are there any you can think of that I’ve missed? If so, please let me know. It’s also important to learn how to be productive when joy, for whatever reason, can’t be found and in my next post I’ll seek to outline strategies that work for me in those more challenging times.

Does technology support self improvement?

I just finished Reclaiming Conversation, by Sherry Turkle. Turkle worries that the rise of technology has weakened our ability to develop as individuals, to interact with others, and to participate in society, whether at work, at home, in politics, or in love. Today, we tend to turn to technology for everything, but it makes me wonder: does technology support self improvement?

Among other things, Turkle suggests that the always-available nature of social media and cell phones means we have an easy way to avoid dealing with the hard things in life. When we avoid the hard things, however, we don’t grow.

I’m struck by this, and think there is truth to it. Technology is a powerful tool, and applications like the quantified self movement have much potential to help us measure and improve ourselves. But there is danger, too. Sometimes, we grow through accepting and overcoming difficult things – the bitter. Meditation is hard, for example: there are no shortcuts. Only through acknowledging and working through that difficulty do we get better at it.

Siren call of entertainment

Does knowing that there is an endless world of entertainment available at our side in the form of a cell phone make meditation harder? I suspect it does, as do the patterns of behaviour we form when we constantly search for the next TikTok or Instagram post, shaping our very brain patterns to crave instant gratification. 

Turkle goes further: she suggests that the anxiety that is increasingly observed among young people is because they are never forced to reflect or look inside themselves, because they always have a phone to focus on instead. Absent that time spent looking inward, they struggle to build a strong sense of self or self-narrative, which means they have little to fall back on in times of stress. 

It’s an interesting idea. The fact that most of the people involved in building these technologies don’t let their kids use them has always unsettled me. The answer is surely not to stop all technology use, but to be intentional about it. To use it as a tool, not a crutch. But doing that is harder than saying it. I certainly find it hard to settle in to deep work, a profound book, or a meditation session, and I wonder how much of that has to do with how much technology I use in the rest of my time.

Do you use technology to support self improvement, NT? Do you worry it also interferes with your journey?

Making your own Rituals

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I sometimes struggled to get started with work in the morning. Prior to the pandemic, the start of the work-day was clearly delineated by walking into my desk at the office. The end was marked by the walk out and arrival at home. With the change to working from home, these delineations faded and the line between work and home life blurred, sometimes to the detriment of one or the other.

My solution was to come up with my own delineation, a set of actions I would take to start the workday and another set I would take to end it. The workday began with me brewing tea, taking vitamins and medication, and a quick 5-minute meditation. The workday ended with me making a to-do list for my tomorrow-self, taking a warm shower to decompress, and changing into more comfortable clothing. Most of the individual tasks I find pleasant, and thus in the morning I look forward to starting the ritual which inevitably leads to getting work done.

I recently realized that in creating these rituals for myself to create new boundaries separating work and personal time, I had also begun to classically condition myself to work. Now, my morning tea or vitamins almost immediately begin the process of bringing my mind towards focus for work. And my evening shower and new clothes are almost always associated with a release from the stresses of the day and diffuse / creative thinking. By making the first step in each of these rituals a pleasant one, it makes these quite useful mental modes more readily accessible.

Could this system work for you? Are there any rituals you can use to achieve certain mental or physical states, initiate long-desired habits, or build towards productivity goals? How can you start them with a pleasant or luxurious first step that you will look forward to each time? Let us know in the comments below if you discover something that works for you or already have a ritual that brings joy to your day.

Building a Morning Routine

We’ve talked a lot about habits on this blog already. One of the best ways to start building habits I’ve found is to set up a morning routine. When I first get up, I have a series of activities I do: the fact that I do it every morning makes it far easier to stick with it, and doing it in the morning rather than another time of day means I have a clear cue to prompt me, and rarely have a conflict or other excuse for not doing it.

A morning routine is my way of keeping a steady dose of exercise and other daily activities in my life, and frankly also getting them all done at once each day – I like the sense of having ticked a bunch of key items off my list before turning my mind to other things.

So what is my routine? It’s evolved over the years–I usually add about one new activity per year–but for now, it consists of:

  1. Two rounds of Wim Hof breathing (new this year – I read a book about breathing and was curious to try it)
  2. Five minutes of meditation
  3. 50 pushups and 50 sit-ups
  4. Stretching
  5. 200 strokes on the rowing machine

After that, my day really starts, and I shower, have breakfast, brush my teeth, and start work. I’m sure that’s not the right routine for everyone, and Wim Hof in particular has mediocre evidence for it at best, but it’s what is working for me. 

Suggestions for a Morning Routine

If you’re looking to build your own morning routine, I have a few suggestions:

  1. Start small. I have added about one activity per year for the last few years. I did 50 pushups and 50 situps for a year before gradually adding stretching, rowing, meditation, and now Wim Hof.
  2. Don’t worry if you miss some. For some people I think having a streak is very motivating, but I’ve found I inevitably break the streak at some point, and then my motivation plummets. This is something I want to do for the long term: if I miss one or two mornings, it happens. Underscoring Charles Duhigg’s arguments about cues and habits, it’s very much an all or nothing affair: either I do the full routine, or I do none of it. 
  3. Find a time that works for you. I’m a morning person: I get up early and I enjoy mornings. If you’re not, maybe you need an evening routine, or some other time of day. That said, find a time where you are consistently available. Even aside from my affection for mornings, the fact that I am sometimes out in the evenings would make it harder for me to stick to an evening routine. Find a cue that appears every day in your life, and tie your routine to it. 

Your routine might be totally different. Maybe you want to drink a glass of water, do some yoga, and then write in your journal. Up to you. But figure out what things you want to do every day, that will help you get better and better over time, and build your routine accordingly!

Contain Multitudes

“I am large, I contain multitudes” – Walt Whitman

I have often found it useful not to think of myself as a single individual with a single lifetime, a single set of goals, and a consistent level of competency and motivation. My favourite mental hack is to instead think of myself as a multitude of people, a myriad army of past and present me’s, one for each unit of time. Like a family or a community, this multitude benefits from helping each other progress and succeed, but we are heterogenous, and different versions of myself might well have different energy levels, different desires in the moment, or even a different perspective on the world. In this post, I’ll explore a few different ways this mental model helps me be more motivated, productive, and empathetic.

Motivation: Favours for Future You

Have you ever found it’s more motivating to help a friend or family member than to do something towards your long term goals? If your best friend had a flat tire, you probably wouldn’t have to overcome procrastination to go over to help them. However, if you want to get into shape, you might have to fight enormous inertia to get yourself into the gym those first few times. I find thinking of the future version of myself as a separate person is a helpful trick to find the energy (and even joy) in doing those chores that might otherwise be taxing. Cleaning the apartment, going to the gym, studying for another hour, etc, are all favours to future me, and since I’m a big fan of future me, it’s easy to do him favours.

Gratitude: Thank Past You

The converse of the previous point is that it helps to thank past you for the things they’ve done. Wherever you are in life, there’s usually something that some version of you from the past has done to be helpful. Perhaps you have a job or a degree thanks to the hard work of past you. Maybe you have friends you can talk to because past you put in the time building those relationships. Maybe past you read a good book or played a great game that gives you happy memories. Whatever it is, try to take the time to thank past you for what they’ve done. Building this kind of gratitude practice towards yourself can also help make it easier to be kind to the future versions of you.

Productivity: Be Your Own Boss

One thing I know I can’t always count on is the energy or motivation level of future me. Sometimes I feel like I can take on the world and sometimes it’s a struggle to even do the simplest tasks. Knowing this, every day I try to give my future self a leg up by outlining the most important things for him to do that day. That way, even if he wakes up not feeling very motivated, he has a clear path to follow and usually can make progress on the list. And, often, by just taking that simple first step (one he didn’t even have to think of himself), he’ll remember our collective goals and find the motivation to do even more. Or perhaps not … but that’s ok if most of us are working together to push the ball forward.


To sign off, I’d just like to encourage you to give it a try! Explicitly think of yourself for each future day and each past day as a different person. And do your best to help that community of people succeed. You might be surprised with the tricks you come up with to help them all.

The Different Types of Self-Improvement

NT, your post about foundational habits made me think about the different types of self-improvement. I tend to think of my growth in six categories. They aren’t mutually exclusive – self-improvement in financial health may reduce stress which helps physical health, for example – but it’s how I break down my goals, and I try to make sure I’m thinking about how I want to improve in each area. In another post I may share how I think about sub goals for each category, but for now, let’s just focus on the categories.

1. Physical Health

For me, this is the most basic of the types of self-improvement. Good physical health is a platform on which we can build. Exercise, diet, and sleep are the big three, but a lot of our choices affect our physical health. I think this is where a lot of people focus, but sometimes improving in another category can also help our physical health. A strong meditation practice, for example, may make it easier to stick to your gym routine or diet. It’s hard to silo self-improvement.

2. Intellectual Health

Another big one. Am I reading? Staying intellectually active, and not just playing video games or watching junk TV? Working to make sure I’m taking good decisions? This can be taking a class or just setting aside some time to listen to a podcast or talk about big ideas with friends.

3. Financial Health

Sometimes I merge this with #4, but I generally find it useful to keep it as a distinct type of self-improvement. This isn’t about getting rich: rather, it’s about financial freedom, about the ability to weather the vagaries of life and not stress about having enough to eat. Obviously this isn’t entirely within our control. No matter how financially healthy you are, you can get struck by disaster. There’s a line from Cato that everyone should have ‘an oil and wine cellar, many casks, so that it may be pleasant to expect hard times.’ That’s what I think of in this category – am I laying away oil and wine for the future? Starting a side hustle, increasing your savings rate, starting to invest, might all be worth doing.

4. Work/Career

Sometimes this category isn’t needed, if your goals for work mostly align to financial or intellectual ones. For me, I spend a lot of time working, and my work is one of the ways I try to have an impact. so, I often have goals specific to my career: types of projects I want to work on, people I want to work with, roles I would like to have, impact I’d like to have. Sometimes this can be about promotions or pay increases too, though I tend to focus on those less and try to get at why I would want those things, or what I am going to do to make myself more likely to get them. 

I also include skills I want to develop here, if they are work related: if not, they often fall under intellectual health.

5. Relationships & Community

I want to be a loving husband and friend. This is my category for connecting with the people around me: with my partner, but also with my friends and community. Being more thoughtful, supporting my partner better, calling my family and friends more, or maybe just getting out there and meeting more people all fit on this list. I also often include charitable giving and volunteering here, as a way I connect with my broader community.

6. Spiritual

For some people this category is about religion, and reading the Bible or Koran would indeed fit here. It’s important for the non-religious, too, though: are you taking the time to reflect and connect with the world? Meditation, nature walks, or reading ethical philosophy: all count. Finding your purpose, building self-esteem, or acting more ethically would also fit here for me. 

Depending on your goals, you may find different types of self-improvement works better for you. If you have a lot in one category, maybe it makes sense to break it into two, for example, or maybe charitable giving is more of a spiritual activity than a community activity for you. That’s fine – build your own! Writing this also made me think there are also categories of tools we can use to improve – mental models, apps, habits, probably others. A subject for a future post.

Foundational Habits

One of the frequently encountered challenges to building a productive life is uncertainty over which habits to build. In future posts, we’ll go over how to set short and long term goals for your life and break them down into a series of actions and habits over time. For this post, however, I wanted to highlight a set of foundational habits that should serve well in almost every life situation. These habits are good fundamental tools to have, regardless of the path you’re taking in life, but they also serve as a strong basis for learning how to build habits and can act as hooks to hang future habits on.

Journaling

In order to improve, I need to better understand who I am. It’s for that reason that journaling has become my most important tool in seeking to improve myself. It gives me space for self reflection and to digest the experience of my days and weeks. And because I am forced to articulate them to a reader (if only myself) I am forced to make concrete what was previously just a wash of impulses and actions. Journaling also enables big picture thinking, where I fit my experiences and goals into the larger objectives of my life. Finally, it is a place where I keep track of my progress, whether it be for building habits or towards my larger personal and professional goals. Watching this progress bar increase is a satisfying reward which reinforces virtuous habit cycles.

So, how do you get started journaling? We’ll go into this in more depth in a future post, but the short answer is the exact technique you use doesn’t really matter. I would encourage you to buy a blank journal and use it exclusively for this, buy a nice pen that you like to use, and set up a system in advance that works for you. For a lightweight approach, commit to just writing the date down every day in your journal and writing at least one sentence. Sometimes this one sentence will seem boring or redundant, but sometimes inspiration will strike and you’ll end up writing for pages. It’s from such small commitments that long-lasting habits can be born.

Meditation

Another keystone habit is meditation. Like journaling, meditation helps me reflect and understand myself better, but more importantly for me, it helps reduce the noisy impulse driven part of my mind and helps build focus. This increased focus then allows me to sit down and truly complete tasks to which I’ve set my mind. Reams of papers have been written on the other myriad psychological and physiological benefits that meditation accrues.

Again, one challenge of building a meditation habit is knowing where to start. There are many different schools of meditation, including approaches like mindfulness, zen, and loving-kindness. I would suggest initially picking any school that resonates with you without spending too much time at the decision phase. They all have things to teach and the tools from any are useful in the others. I started with mindfulness meditation and found the Headspace app helpful, although others enjoy apps like Insight Timer or Calm. Like with journaling, start small with just a 1 minute, 3 minute, or 5 minute daily commitment and see where the habit takes you from there.

Exercise

Maybe you already exercise regularly, by going to the gym, playing a sport, or even just taking regular walks. If so, you already know the benefits that having regular exercise can make in your life. If you don’t, let me try to convince you by showing you what you’re missing out on. Exercise is good for the body, yes, but it has also been shown to significantly affect the mind. It relieves anxiety, reduces depression, and improves mental health. For me, when I’ve been knocked out of my habit cycle, the increase in mental health that comes from exercise has made it a great first habit to rebuild from.

Ok, but if you don’t exercise regularly, how do you start? My advice would be to take a broad and shallow approach initially. Try lots of different forms of exercise for one or two sessions and see which one fits you best. Maybe you’ll enjoy the social aspects of joining your local badminton club, or the clarity of thought that comes from a 5 minute run. Maybe you like the measurable progress of lifting weights at the gym or the connection to nature that comes from a short hike. What works for you will depend on a lot of factors, including what’s available in your area. Start small, but try a lot of things, and try to notice which ones bring you feelings of joy that you’d like to have again.

Reading

I stopped reading books for fun in university. I found it hard to keep up a good reading habit after spending my day working through a textbook or academic papers. Youtube and Netflix were just easier ways to decompress. It wasn’t until I’d been working for a couple years that I picked up a reading habit again and rediscovered its benefits. 

Reading is the main way that new ideas enter my life. Reading a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, exposes you to new points of view and new experiences. Because when reading (unlike when watching something) we also have time to reflect, these thoughts and experiences are better integrated into our own experiences and frameworks of thinking. Unlike television, reading also pushes our minds to focus and imagine, growing these skills for our future endeavours.

So, how to get started? After my long hiatus, I set myself the simple goal of just trying to read 4 books in the next year. It was such a small, achievable number, just 1 book every 3 months (that’s like 5 pages a day or so). I didn’t give myself any other restrictions on book length, genre, or even format (audiobooks were critical), but I did start a document where I kept track of the number of books I read and their names. And that was enough. In the first year, I barely scraped by with the 4 books, but every time I added a book to my list, it felt like a huge win. The next year, I set a more ambitious goal of 8 books, and blew through that. Last year, I managed to read 50 books and am aiming even higher. Starting small and building up in any of these habits is a powerful trick.

Best of luck in building one or more of these foundational habits! We’ll dig in soon on a more detailed look at each one and a more holistic set of tips on how to start a habit and stick with it.