Sleep is for the lazy. Diet? Eating well is too hard. Exercise? Nah, I’m too busy for that.
We’ve all heard this type of stuff. Most of us have a subconscious voice that says I don’t have time for that when it comes to our own health. It may not even be a whispering voice; it may be a badge of honor to sacrifice for work, because your dedication only proves how much more you want it than everyone else.
So some may want to skip ahead to the “real” productivity stuff like objectives and plans and habits. The reason we’ve had four chapters of what may seem like preamble is simple, however: all this stuff matters way, way more.
This section being the most important of all. Because there’s a better way than grinding yourself to dust.
Volume-based approaches are based around the concept of attrition, which is the idea that you can just throw more resources at a problem to solve it.
Yes, putting in the time (to a point) is necessary. But sacrificing your health for the cause is short-sighted because even if you want to put in a ton of hours each day, you soon hit a point of outright negative returns. You gain 10x or 100x in terms of overall output from investing hours into proper sleep, exercise, and diet than what you “lose” by not working those 2 – 3 additional hours a day instead. That’s because efficiency, intensity, and quality are all far bigger levers than volume. Let’s revisit these concepts now:
- Efficiency. How much work you can do in an hour. The more high-quality work you can do at a sufficient level of intensity in the same time frame, the more efficient you are.
- Intensity. How much mental effort you can exert. Directly related to short and long-term quality, in that strategically pushing yourself is essential to building skill.
- Quality. How good the work is. This ultimately dictates your monetary results, in that no one wants to pay for mediocre or weak products, no matter how many of them you produce.
- Volume. How many hours you work.
Too much work volume destroys your work efficiency, intensity, and quality. There needs to be balance to maximize your overall productivity. Otherwise you’ll just burn out.
Rather than list a bunch of things related to sleep, diet, exercise, and rest that you’re going to just tune out, I’m going extreme 80/20 here and offering my top three takeaways in each area. My main goal is not for you to accept any of this information wholesale, but rather to use at as seed to begin your own research. More importantly, my hope is that the takeaways plant one key in your mind: that you must think critically and closely examine not only what you’re doing, but where you’ve been led astray.
This is not as easy as it would first appear. There is an absolute epidemic of unregulated supplements and health advice, particularly in the United States, offering wildly outrageous (and equally unproven) benefits and “secrets” that Big Pharma/Big Industry Farming/Big Brother don’t want you to know. I am as skeptical as they come, and I’ve certainly been serenaded by the sirens’ call of a ropey diet or workout strategy or two over the past decade.
Unfortunately, the challenge does not end there: while not trying to rip you off per se (unless you consider stealing your long-term health a scam), extremely smart people have designed the modern world to hijack your evolutionary impulses and act against your own self-interests. Foods packed with just the right balance of fat, salt, and sugar, combined with a texture and mouth-feel designed from hundreds or thousands of tests, are offered with the swipe of a finger.
Which is all to say: don’t beat yourself up if you’re not where you want to be. It’s a process getting these things aligned, and it doesn’t happen overnight. This is all about progress and moderation, not perfection.
We’ll start with the most basic and overlooked productivity boost of all: a good night’s sleep.
Sleep is the most important thing in this entire guide. There is nothing you can do to be more productive than get a good night’s sleep. It is vital to cognitive function, muscle growth, consolidating skills, and a host of other things that we don’t yet understand.
The correct amount is whatever makes you feel refreshed and sharp. There are a few people wired to get less sleep, but this is a much rarer phenomenon than one might believe. Most people are just lying to themselves and essentially running around in a half-drunk state (see: aforementioned badge of honor; it’s culturally “cool” to need less sleep, ergo people voluntarily work at 10% capacity to demonstrate their work ethic, ironically being useless and value-sapping to every business function they touch). The bulk of the population generally needs around 7 – 9 hours a night. This is just a starting point; you need to find what works for you, then make sure you get that many hours as often as possible.
If you’re not making progress with your skills, exercise program, or just in general, lack of sleep is the likely culprit. And anyone who tells you that sleep is for the weak/lazy or suggests to cut it to do more work is a complete idiot who you should ignore.
80/20 TAKEAWAY #1: sleep is important. Oh, wait, you thought there was going to be some super cool sleep hack? No. The most important thing, in a world of endless BS and misinformation, is to understand how important sleep is. If you can’t tell, I am deeply annoyed by the dismissive attitude people have toward sleep. Here’s the thing: sleep is literally the most dangerous activity in the world. This sounds laughable until you consider that it leaves you completely vulnerable to predation, environmental hazards, and dozens of other survival threats. Yet all mammals sleep. Given the literal existential risk it poses to your continued survival, sleep must be a mission-critical function on par with breathing. It’s literally worth dying over.
If you’re having sleep problems, you could do nothing else in this entire guide aside from improving your sleep and likely 2x your productivity.
By the way, just from a scheduling perspective, knowing around what time you’ll wake up each day (+- an hour or so) is huge for building routines and habits.
80/20 TAKEAWAY #2: if you’re not wired to wake up early, doing so on purpose makes you an idiot. There are lots of weird moralistic undercurrents tied to sleep; waking up early is one of them. Somehow, all the idiots suggesting this make it sound like this is the way to ascend to a greater realm of human potential. If you’re not a morning person, however, then all you’re doing is reducing your brain power by 50% or more voluntarily, which is of zero value to anyone. Everyone has natural wake and sleep cycles (circadian rhythms) where they feel most rested. Where you fall in terms of this spectrum is known as your chronotype. You might be on fire early on the morning, or you might want to set yourself on fire if you ever have to wake up in the morning. This is dictated largely by genetics; it is not something you can train away through willpower.
This is unfortunate, because all of society functions on a 9 – 5 schedule. Fortunately, if you’re self-employed, you can choose what times work best for you.
The reason behind humans having different wake-sleep cycles is evolutionarily elegant: if everyone was a morning person, we’d all be dead, because tigers would’ve eaten us in the middle of the night. Instead, with every hour of the night and morning covered, someone in the tribe could remain vigilant to possible threats.
80/20 TAKEAWAY #3: get a good mattress and sheets. We’ll pay $1000 for a TV, but when it comes to something that you literally spend a third of your life on, people are suddenly Scrooge McDuck. The difference in quality between a cheap mattress and a decent one is enormous. Well worth the cost.
First of all, with diet and exercise, check with your doctor before making any dramatic changes.
I’m not going to prescribe a bunch of foods to eat or some weird diet where you can only eat a special type of goat cheese cultivated from goats between the age of 726 and 926 days old (any older than that and the toxins will get you!!!!).
Ahem. I may have had a temporary aneurysm from all the shitty internet diets. If I see one more magical gut-healing food, I may scream.
The problem with diet is two-fold: the government’s dietary recommendations (speaking for the US only here, though my hope for the rest of the world’s regulatory bodies is fleeting) are pretty bad. The diet and supplement industry uses this as an opening to foist their equally crappy (or perhaps even crappier) alternative lifestyles on the public. Worse, they’ll offer their bullshit special diets as a panacea for everything from disease to depression.
I’m not saying a good diet can’t make you healthier or that good information isn’t out there. The good stuff is just drowned in a mountain of terrible fad diets masquerading as “science.” Which means the slickest charlatans who scream the loudest typically prevail. And that means you need an incredibly tuned bullshit radar to suss everything out.
Bloodwork before and after a dietary change is helpful for having context on whether the adjustments you’re making are having a positive impact on your health, though feeling better is also an obvious (and less cumbersome) evaluation method.
80/20 TAKEAWAY #1: avoid all fad diets, and instead find healthy, nutrient-rich foods that work for you (e.g. that you like and that make you feel good). There is no best diet. Dieting is an inefficient strategy that usually results in massive weight-gain. It’s almost always better from a long-term adherence perspective to find ways to incorporate favorite “unhealthy” foods in moderation (provided they’re not causing problems) rather than white-knuckling your way through life. Finding what you enjoy eating and what you can fit into your lifestyle is an ongoing process that takes time and a lot of trial and error.
Be extremely wary of fake healthy words like “natural” or “plant-based.” Hemlock is both natural and plant-based; it’s also lethal. Beware of pseudoscience, wherein people mention mysterious “gut bacteria” or “toxins,” but never get around to an actual, you know, biological explantation of what’s going on. A similar line of simplistic thinking comes from heuristics like “if it’s packaged, it’s bad” (the implication being if it doesn’t have packaging, it’s good) or These words, on their own, mean nothing.
Note that healthy versus unhealthy is not set in stone. Instead, it’s both person and dose dependent. If you’re allergic to peanuts, obviously peanuts are poison. The same applies (to a less extreme extent) for many foods; you may find that you feel lethargic or fuzzy-headed after having six cookies, but are okay after two. There’s a tendency to ignore this, with a weird dichotomy where we acknowledge that food can have an impact on our overall emotional and physical state, but refuse to totally believe it (e.g. there’s a subconscious story running that we “should” be able to eat whatever we want and feel “fine”). To combat that, I recommend remembering the effects of alcohol: have five beers and try to work. Everyone realizes this connection between our mental state and the alcohol; the same connection exists with carrots, steaks, peppers, lemons, candy, and pretzels.
What you eat directly affects your mental and physical state, both in the short and long-term. Just because the effects aren’t as immediate or extreme as alcohol or drugs doesn’t mean they aren’t present. Eat accordingly.
80/20 TAKEAWAY #2: Get enough protein. This not only helps from a satiety perspective (e.g. it helps you feel full), it’s also vital for building muscle and recovering from workouts. If you’re not progressing in the gym, lack of protein (or sleep) is the likely culprit.
80/20 TAKEAWAY #3: avoid seed oils. Industrial oils such as canola oil are extremely bad for you. Unfortunately, they’re also in basically everything, because they’re extremely cheap. This is the main problem with most processed food (along with the absurdly high sodium/sugar content and an extremely low nutrient to calorie ratio). Good alternatives are grass fed butter or extra virgin olive oil.
Learning to cook or outsourcing your cooking helps improve your diet because it makes healthy food much more palatable. There are many healthy foods that don’t taste nasty. Most, however, require some level of skill to prepare.
After sleep, exercise is probably the best thing you can do for your overall well-being. Not only does it help with longevity and cognitive function, exercise is effective for helping reduce depression/anxiety and some other forms of mental illness. As writers, it’s easy to get trapped in your head and feel lonely/isolated. Exercise helps significantly; even a quick walk can improve your mood (and it’s a great form of low-impact exercise, too).
Most research suggests that resistance training (lifting weights or doing calisthenics) is the most effective exercise from a health perspective, rather than cardio. That’s from a “looking good” perspective, too, which–let’s be real–is what most people are after. Muscle, particularly in the legs, is key to maintaining mobility and quality of life, particularly as we age.
80/20 TAKEAWAY #1: most commercial workout programs are way too intense for the novice trainee, both from a workout and adherence perspective. Strength training is very demanding on your joints, tendons, and ligaments, all of which take longer to adapt to a training stimulus than does muscle. Starting with a five days a week program (perhaps with thirty, forty, or fifty extra pounds on the frame) that grinds your body into dust is not only going to be short-lived, but it’s also likely to result in injury. The goal of all exercise is to extend healthspan and overall quality of life while preventing injuries. Anyone who claims that injuries are “just part of it” is an idiot and should be ignored. No pain, no gain is a terrible mantra. You will experience discomfort and soreness if your workouts are intense enough, but pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. The goal of building muscle and getting in shape is to prevent future pain and disrepair, not create it.
80/20 TAKEAWAY #2: good form is much more important than reps or weight. Contrary to popular belief, exercise is not automatically beneficial. Too much intensity for your level of fitness coupled with poor form is a disaster and can cause long-term problems. You can badly injure yourself with poor form. Focus on doing each exercise properly. You’ll not only get better results but you’ll also greatly reduce the risk of injury. It’s better to master a few basic compound movements than sloppily rushing through a sixteen exercise program. Go slow and learn fundamental movements correctly. Don’t let this deter you from getting started (or restarted), just be diligent and hyper-focused on quality rather than quantity.
80/20 TAKEAWAY #3: make it easy to get started. For some reason, people approach exercise like they need to exact karmic retribution on themselves for some unknown heinous transgression in a past life. So they travel to a gym 30 minutes away, select the hardest exercises possible, jack themselves up with horrible form, get no results because they didn’t do any of the movements correctly, then quit. This is the absolute worst strategy of all time. You can order a pair of adjustable dumbbells and a weight bench online for less than the cost of a yearly membership to a nice gym. Or you can get a pullup bar for $20 (note: if you get a pullup bar, make sure it’s permanently attached to the wall or doorframe; if it’s held up by pressure, it will fall with you hanging from it eventually. Ask me how I know.)
By contrast, working out at home is an excellent strategy, because it avoids the initial embarrassment of looking stupid or unfit, and it also turns a 2 hour undertaking into something that takes 30 minutes and can be done any time during the day. If you enjoy going to the gym or working out in classes, great; just don’t let the additional time and motivation it often takes to do these things be the difference between sitting on the couch and getting anything done.
Bonus: any workout you find in a magazine, or that a celebrity “did”…run. Those are 99% fake or terrible. There are not that many different effective workouts. Sorry. Remember our principle of progressive overload: you need a powerful enough stimulus to produce muscle growth, which you either produce via volume (more reps) or intensity (adding more weight). Anything not following this principle should be viewed with extreme suspicion.
Rest becomes more vital the higher you ramp up intensity. This goes for both cognitive and physical work: if you maintain too high an intensity level for too long, you will burn out or plateau. Your brain needs time to synthesize information (and your muscles need downtime to grow stronger), which cannot be done in a state of omnipresent activity. This is why many find the shower or walking to be such fruitful places for idea generation; as it so happens, these are often the only times where the brain is not inundated with work-related stimuli. Resting is not laziness or time wasted; instead, it’s a productivity amplifier.
80/20 TAKEAWAY #1: take at least one day off a week. Every major religion has some sort of rest day or built-in rest time. I am not remotely religious, but this is no accident. Consider that this was the case in an ancient world with zero automation. Having a day of rest meant the world essentially came to a standstill. But the tranquility and recovery afforded by this downtime were so vital that people still did it anyway. In a modern world, this idea seems hilariously outdated, but I’d argue given the absolute blitz of information we’re inundated with it’s more critical than ever.
80/20 TAKEAWAY #2: have stopping points. This can apply to all work, but at the very least it should apply to work-related communication. No one needs to hear from you urgently at 11 PM (or 4 AM; whatever your bedtime is). You are not that important. Have set times after which you unplug from work. This might only be an hour before bed, or it might be half the day. That’s up to you; just know that your mind needs some time away from the grind to wind down and process what you’ve done.
80/20 TAKEAWAY #3: walk and play. Take time to enjoy things. All animals play; humans are no different. If you need an excuse to do these things, and your circumstances allow it, get a dog. You will be forced to go outside and play by your new four-legged friend.
WORK AT TIMES OF PEAK FOCUS
There are no 80/20 takeaways here, because the header sums up the entire principle. You may be a morning person; you may work best at 2 AM. Whatever the case may be, organize your schedule so that you’re doing your most valuable and important work during these peak focus times to maximize efficiency, intensity, and quality. These peak hours produce 2x or 5x more output than a normal hour. They produce 10x more than an “off” hour. Don’t waste them, and don’t be blind to their power and think every hour of the day is the same. It’s not.
All of this is fairly basic, but if you don’t have good sleep, diet, and exercise habits, forming those should be your immediate primary focus. What works best is not some hyper-intense, fix-everything plan, but what you can adhere to long-term. You don’t need to be perfect, you just need to get a little better each day. Because it’s hard to muster up the motivation to write when you’re in a sugar coma on your bed and can barely keep your eyes open to watch Netflix.
As for how to form said habits, we’ll drill down into the system in Part 5.