For me, healthy living consists of sleeping well, a clean diet, frequent exercise, journaling, meditation, and socializing. Once in a while I let stress get the better of me and this causes my life to start spiraling and sliding out of control: deadlines start getting missed, emails pile up, I lose sight of my goals and life just gets overwhelming. It’s not pretty. Like any engineer, after such times in my life I do a post-mortem of what went wrong and time and time again I’ve found one or more of these crucial habits disappeared causing others to disappear in a chain reaction.
Quick disclaimer: when it comes to healthy living (however we choose to define that) I find it’s much easier to list out the things I should be doing as opposed to actually doing them, and even easier to suggest others do them. As is the case with many things in life. Regardless, I have a growing list of habits which keep me sane, decently healthy, and relatively happy. It’s important to note that stress will always be there - it’s a part of life. These aren’t techniques for removing or avoiding it - instead they help me manage it and keep perspective on what’s actually important and worth worrying about.
Sleep is foundational
One of the first things to break down once my life gets busy is a healthy sleep schedule, which I define as 7.5-8 hours a night with a consistent bedtime and wakeup time. Though it may seem like a lot, it’s an investment which pays dividends. I’ll leave the task of summing up the research to Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep (or a summary, and a scathing rebuttal) - but what I can say is he’s not joking around. On a healthy sleep schedule, I find I have more energy, the days seem longer, I’m better able to deal with and understand emotions (my own and others). Productivity comes easier, I look forward to activities more, and I don’t get as frustrated. My body recovers from workouts more reliably, I don’t have to drown myself in coffee, and life just seems better.
Without sleep? The opposite. I’m crankier, I feel rushed and behind on tasks from the minute I wake up even though I have 16+ hours to get them done. Events are harder to schedule, I have to drink cup after cup of coffee, and worst of all I have that incessant fuzziness in my brain that sucks the joy of life right out of me. Programming is difficult and reading is a chore. I put off going to bed, since I woke up so late. I then find it hard to fall asleep from all the coffee - pushing my sleep schedule back further, perpetuating this cycle further. It’s not good.
- Pick a schedule and stick with it. 11p-7a works best for me, though it varies by season. I try to maintain it on weekends as well, barring special occasions.
- No caffeine after 5p (it has a half-life of about 6 hours - do the math).
- Blackout curtains, earplugs, and an eyemask during the summer.
- No electronics after about 9pm. Minimize texting, email, and internet before bed.
- A wind-down routine: light reading (no epics or research papers), drawing, music, audiobooks, meditation, and light cleaning all work well.
- No riveting conversation right before bed. Otherwise I spend half the night thinking of that perfect joke I should’ve timed better.
- A cooler bedroom works best for me - though this varies by person.
- No nightcap. Contrary to popular belief, alcohol does not help sleep but actually ruins it.
- No phone use in bed. I keep it out of reaching distance to remove the temptation, and it’s set to Do Not Disturb mode throughout the night (and day).
- Melatonin for getting my sleep back on track if necessary. I take about 1 mg at a time, and rarely more than 2 nights in a row.
Ideally for me exercise is a 1-hour weightlifting or running session, 6-7 days a week, though the recommended amount is roughly half that. Most of what I know about weightlifting comes from Simple Science Fitness and my running began with the Couch to 5k iOS app. I’ve since run two half-marathons and am currently training for a full marathon - something I never imagined myself doing.
Working out is non-negotiable for me. Much has been written about the benefits, but again - I’m able to personally see them appear (or disappear) in my life time and time again. Attention to and control over my body makes me feel like I have more of a say over my life choices. A well-timed workout on a long day provides an incredible boost of endorphins leaving me more energized, motivated, and confident in myself. It means I’m actually tired when it’s time for bed, improving my sleep. And it makes me want to eat a balanced diet for maximum energy and recovery.
I also want to take a moment to highlight running as one of the first habits that noticeably changed my life for the better. Growing up, I hated any and all exercise - running, sports, swimming - all of it. After finishing the C25K program, I realized that 1) I had control over my own body, weight, and appearance 2) I can set goals and actually achieve them and c) running is actually a lot of fun, if done responsibly. Responsible running means slowly working your way up, finding good running shoes, and not pushing through pain. A gym membership is great, but not required - running can be (and should be, weather permitting) done outdoors and weightlifting can be replaced with bodyweight training.
Food is fuel
It might be third on the list but it’s just as important as sleep and exercise - they form a critical triangle together. I’d call myself a vegan but we’re not quite there yet. Instead I’d describe my diet as mostly plant-based with the occasional meal with fish or chicken (1-2 times a week). Cheese finds its way into my diet here and there as well. Eggs and milk are almost entirely out. I’ve chosen to go plant-based for ethical and environmental reasons but increasing veggies and reducing meat will make anyone’s diet healthier.
Regardless of your view on meat & animal products the best one-liner summary I’ve seen thus far is by Michael Pollen:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. His book Omnivore’s Dilemma provides a deeper look into the food industry and choices we do actually have when picking what we put into (or onto) our bellies.
I’ve been starting my day with a smoothie for the past four years and shall continue indefinitely regardless of how much it annoys my roommates and neighbors. It doesn’t require complex mental gymnastics early in the morning, I can buy ingredients in bulk, and it starts my day off right.
Always: almond/soymilk, cherry/orange juice, cup of oats, spinach or kale, protein powder, chia seeds, flaxseed, and frozen berries.
Sometimes: cocoa powder, ground coffee, bananas, frozen mango, cherries, peanut butter.
Never again: cereal, cookies & cream protein powder, ice cream.
Lunch, dinner, and snacks
I try to cook at least a few times a week. Nothing fancy: veggies, tofu, lentils, mushrooms, quinoa, pasta. Usually enough for a few meals. I try to minimize fried and greasy foods - ideally lunch is closer to a salad than a burrito (less of a carb crash and keeps the healthy flow going). I avoid most fast food, but the occasional NY pizza slice does find its way in.
I also snack a lot.
Often: Fresh fruit, lots of nuts, seeds, chips and salsa/guacamole/hummus. Kind bars or Clif bars, dried fruit, wasabi peas, dried seaweed, frozen berries and mango, chocolate, a cup of cereal, PB&J sandwiches.
Occasional: soy ice cream, chips, candy, nutella, anything from the Trader Joe’s dessert snack aisle.
Journaling, reflection, and goals
Once the physical needs are out of the way we’re ready to start taking care of the mental ones. Self-reflection is a way of looking at and processing the past, and goals point me towards a future I want to see. The two influence each other almost circularly - and journaling is a wonderful way for the two to meet and make magic happen. Just writing goals down and shoving them away in some text file doesn’t help anyone; I need to regularly go back and review them. Sometimes it’s to do a status check of where I am. Other times it’s to remind myself why I’m slogging through a difficult period. And occasionally it’s to erase some goals and replace them with others - the key is that there are realistic and achievable goals, and I’m working towards them. I find a good cadence for this is a check-in every two weeks, and a more serious session for review/planning quarterly. I tend to avoid setting goals around New Year’s or on my birthday but instead opt to start on regular, arbitrary dates whenever I feel ready. While I don’t have the most rigid structure around it, a good place to start is the SMART criteria.
Besieged by the ever-increasing evidence in support of the positive effects of mindfulness meditation, I’ve finally begun incorporating it into my life. This is probably my least developed habit: I have a long way to go before harnessing the full benefits but even at its current level it acts as a stark reminder of the difference between letting my thoughts define me versus simply noting and observing them, and the importance of taking a moment to take a step back and just let everything be. A great starting point is this New York Times article with audio sessions you can follow along with. Waking Up by Sam Harris influenced my thinking on the intersection of meditation and spirituality, and I intend to work my way through Mind Illuminated. I find the best time for me is right before bed, but to my understanding it varies by person - sometimes I find a midday session is great as well.
Sunlight and nature
As much as I love technology and cities and all the bright lights I find it essential to take the time to get away from it all and unplug. I try to spend at least 30 minutes outside in the sun every day, preferably in the late morning and in a nearby park or green space. I find myself coming back refreshed and oddly more cheerful than I left - and I’m not alone: The Nature Fix by Florence Williams opened my eyes to the myriad of benefits from spending time in nature and the complexity in replicating these seemingly simple effects in our cities and homes.
While a daily dose is important it doesn’t replace an immersive hike in a forest or a multi-day camping trip at a lake. The recommended time is 5 hours a month, but if I could have my way I’d be out there every weekend (working on it). It’s vital to escape the ever-increasing noise pollution, enjoy the sights & smells, and remind myself that I am capable of more than walking around on nice even sidewalks.
Friends, socializing, and having fun
Once both the physical and mental needs are taken care of, it’s time to go connect with others and explore this world! A critical ingredient in all of this is regular, unhurried time with friends and family. Whether as simple as dinner at someone’s apartment or a multi-week trip abroad: conversations and interactions are the way we learn, experience, and grow with the people we care about. Perhaps not everyone is into the social thing - that’s fine - but it’s still important to schedule in downtime and enjoyable activities completely disconnected from profit or obligations. Sometimes I struggle with this, but luckily my friends have a way of dragging me out to have fun. I also find having a generally healthy lifestyle allows me to be better prepared to enjoy the full range of experiences this world has to offer - even if they are emotionally, physically, or psychologically intense.
All of these habits tend to build on top of each other in a self-reinforcing upwards spiral of self-improvement. It’s kind of magical. When everything is in alignment for me (sleep, fitness, diet, reflection, journaling, social life) I find my thoughts are clearer, I’m more motivated, I embody a more positive attitude, and am generally more fun to be around. It’s not a coincidence. I’m extremely grateful I get to live in a society which at least offers the opportunity to develop these habits and this life structure. Unfortunately much of that ability comes down to money and flexibility - I hope someday everything I listed here is as accessible as our basic rights and freedoms. I would also like to see these methods and techniques taught in school - preferably in high school along with classes on personal finance management, filing taxes, and a deeper dive into our civic structures and responsibilities.
2019-11-21: added in link to Why We Sleep rebuttal