es·sen·tial | \ i-ˈsen(t)-shəl
Adj: absolutely necessary; extremely important.
Noun: a thing that is absolutely necessary.
What is essential in your life?
How much time do you spend on those essential things?
Which essentials — things, people, activities, ideas — have a place in your life?
Which non-essentials — things, people, activities, ideas — take up too much room in your life?
Lately, I’ve been exploring how to better focus on the essentials of life after reading Greg McKeown’s best-selling book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. His book focuses on enhancing life by pursuing less but better; by learning to discern the vital few from the trivial many.
After reading Essentialism, I followed up by reading Stephen R. Covey’s book The 8th Habit. This book combination provides a powerful recipe for discovering life’s vital essence.
In the 8th Habit Covey writes of finding your voice and helping others find their voice.
What is voice?
It is your inner guidance for making the greatest personal contribution to yourself, to others, and to the world. It is achieved by harmonizing goals and activities in the four vital areas of life: Body, Mind, Heart, and Spirit.
While each area can be pursued individually, it takes alignment of all four areas to make a meaningful impact and leave a lasting legacy.
This is where the Essentialism/8th Habit book combination is powerful. You will not make a major impact by pursuing every nice or good thing. It takes focused effort on the best things, the vital few, to find the most value.
In this short article series, I dive into essentials of each vital area. Like a living organism, each area grows and develops under a unique set of conditions. Finding the right nutrient mix for each area will drive catalytic growth.
Part 1: Body
Imagine you just had a heart attack; now live accordingly
— The 8th Habit
Protect the asset [your body]
What physical exercise do you need to do to be your best self?
When you don’t need a mountain of motivation, all it takes is a simple prompt or reminder to get you started
Do you exercise every day? Is it a hit-and-miss affair? Does exercise sound like a foreign word to you?
Whatever your relationship with exercise, there is an exercise plan your body needs.
For the beginner or the lapsed exerciser, it’s the exercise plan that will get you started again.
For the physically fit, it’s the plan that will take your body to the next level. Or it might be the regimen that helps maintain your body, but takes less time so you can focus on other essential areas.
I could recommend a variety of exercising books, video tutorials, or instructor-led classes. However, rather than focusing on how to exercise, I recommend first learning how to change behavior.
Many people set exercise goals at the start of the new year. Perhaps you have. And many people — myself included — let those goals fizzle out by February or March.
How do you set a goal and stick with it?
BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits teaches several potent principles of habit formation. As the title suggests, one of the keys to habit formation is to make your new habit tiny.
By making a habit tiny, you make it easy.
By making it easy, you decrease the need for a mountain of motivation.
When you don’t need a mountain of motivation, all it takes is a simple prompt or reminder to get you started.
Subsequent celebration of your tiny achievement locks in the habit. You feel good about keeping a commitment. You feel good about doing something positive, no matter how small.
And then you do it again, and again, and again.
Once you establish a regular prompt, a tiny habit, and a celebration of your success, you’re on your way to growing a big habit. As the tiny habit becomes a positive, regular occurrence, it becomes easier to make it bigger and better.
How could this apply to exercise?
To start an exercise habit, you could start with a baby-sized exercise activity. Perhaps it’s one push-up (tiny habit) in the morning after you wake up (daily prompt). As you celebrate (say, a big smile in the mirror) each day, you’ll form a daily habit of doing one push-up. On days when you’re tired and unmotivated, you may not be ready to do 50 push-ups, but you can almost always do one push-up.
Grow new habits from small seeds rather than trying to transplant a tree
Once you’re used to doing one push-up every day, it will be easy to start doing two push-ups, and then three. The tiny habit, well-established, will be easy to gradually increase in frequency or intensity bit by bit. In this way, you grow new habits from small seeds rather than trying to transplant a tree.
BJ Fogg has many more valuable ideas that he elaborates in Tiny Habits. I highly recommend a study of the book. However, you don’t have to read the book to start experimenting with a tiny exercise habit. Pick a tiny habit, try it out, find what works, and let it grow.
Do it today!
What food do you need to eat to be your best self? How often do you really need to eat?
How do you set the ‘fat thermostat’ to a healthy level?
High calorie, high-sugar foods are in cheap abundance. We can eat all the time. We can access very addicting foods for very little money.
What foods are most essential for our bodies? Which foods are non-essential?
You can get lost in a dizzying array of scientific studies, popular opinions, and expert philosophies on diet. This makes it difficult to sort out what is really the most essential kind of diet.
Despite the varied advice, I’ve not yet encountered a health-centered diet that advocates eating high amounts of sugar or processed carbohydrates (if you find the Twinkies and Pepsi diet for better health, let me know).
As a result, I’ve resonated with the advice given by Dr. Jason Fung in The Obesity Code. His book uses recent research to dispel some of the persistent myths of weight loss. Primarily, the focus has been (in the US, especially) to lose weight by eating less and exercising more.
Dr. Fung proposes that while this technically leads to weight loss, it is almost always a practical failure. In his words, it’s like explaining that an airplane crashed because it didn’t have enough lift to overcome gravity. However, that is not a particularly useful explanation — a lack of lift is always the cause of a plane crash. Instead, we need to know why there wasn’t enough lift.
Similarly, it’s not enough to prevent rising obesity and Type II Diabetes by telling the general public to decrease caloric intake (eat less) and increase energy expenditure (exercise more). We need a deeper explanation of why it’s hard to eat fewer calories. We need to understand why people lose weight in the short term, but almost always gain it back in the long term.
Dr. Fung explains that body weight is like many other biological factors. Our body has complex systems for maintaining its biological equilibrium. Fat and body weight are no different.
Dr. Fung summarizes many scientific studies indicating that our bodies have a natural tendency to gravitate to a certain weight setpoint. The question is not how to gain or lose weight — our bodies will do that naturally. The question is how to get our bodies to get the setpoint correct. How do you set the ‘fat thermostat’ to a healthy level?
Weight setpoint is driven, in large measure, by high, consistent levels of insulin.
Dr. Fung’s hypothesis, backed by recent research, indicates that the weight setpoint is driven, in large measure, by high, consistent levels of insulin. High, consistent levels of insulin are driven by our high, consistent consumption of sugars and refined carbohydrates.
As I mentioned earlier, most of us know we should avoid consuming high levels of sugar. But most of us probably find it difficult to avoid sugar consistently. Among many recommendations, Dr. Fung has two major points that I will pass along here.
First, don’t be afraid to consume fat. Yes, that’s right. While there has been a big focus in the US in the last few decades on decreasing fat in foods, the corollary is that if you don’t have calories from fat, you have to add the calories from somewhere else. Where do these extra calories come in? They come in the form of carbohydrates and sugar. The long-standing practice of low-fat diets have inadvertently turned into a campaign for high-carbohydrate diets.
Fat-filled foods (that are also low in sugar and other carbohydrates) don’t cause a spike in insulin. They also do not induce the same types of cravings.
When was the last time you had an insatiable craving for a stick of butter, or wanted to snack mindlessly on Jimmy Dean sausage?
Do a simple thought experiment. The last time you felt a snack craving coming on, did you reach for a spoonful of butter or a high-fat sausage? Or did you go for chips, cookies, ice cream, or something else high in sugars and carbohydrates? Sugar is addicting. Fat, not so much.
Second, fast intermittently. Fasting is the least expensive, most essentialist type of diet that you can follow. It doesn’t require a shopping list. It doesn’t require much planning. It doesn’t cost anything. It doesn’t smell bad.
It does help lower your insulin levels. It does help you gain muscle. And it does help you lose weight.
And it does not make you as hungry as you might think. I’ve been amazed at how much less hungry I am at lunch time after I’ve been fasting as compared to after I’ve had a high carbohydrate, high sugar breakfast (Lucky Charms, anyone?).
I’ve also found that rather than going through a yo-yo of weight loss and weight regain, I’ve been able to stay remarkably consistent on my weight.
I won’t dive into all the details of intermittent fasting or other principles described by Dr. Fung, but I highly recommend reading the book to learn more.
If I’ve convinced you so far, try an experiment. Eat a lower carb, higher fat and protein dinner. Then fast (water or broth are still OK) until lunch the next day. By doing so, you’ll have minimized non-essential sugar, and focused on eating only the essential nutrients your body needs. You’ll have given your body a break from producing and responding to insulin.
Like any advice, every body is different and will have different needs. Ultimately, you will need to find and focus on the essentials of diet that are right for your body and health conditions.
But, please, no Pepsi and Twinkies.
Do you get enough sleep each night?
Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory, makes you more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?
— Matthew Walker
If you’d like this amazing medical treatment, you’ll be pleased to know that it is free of charge and widely available. Unfortunately, most people ignore it.
This amazing medical miracle is: sleep.
To focus on the essential in life, you do not need more time to do more and more. You need more time on the activities that multiply your abilities. Sleep is the best multiplier of ability.
As a confession, I admit that the majority of my adult life up this point has neglected sleep. In the past, I have consistently tried to minimize the amount of sleep I needed so I could pack in more activities. Sound familiar?
Lately, though, I have come around to the critical value of getting good sleep every night.
What brought me around? My journey to better sleep started with reading The Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington. It was sealed after reading Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. I’d recommend both books, but if you can only do one, start with Why We Sleep.
As I got honest with myself, I quickly realized that I usually lost more productivity than I gained by staying awake an extra hour in a day.
As I read these books, I started paying attention to my sleep habits and my daytime wakefulness. I asked myself a few questions:
How much time did I spend fighting sleep today?
How much time or productivity did I lose by being in a sleep-deprived state?
What did I do instead of sleeping that was so valuable?
As I got honest with myself, I quickly realized that I usually lost more productivity than I gained by staying awake an extra hour in a day. The simple math made it clear. Losing an extra hour of sleep to do more work almost always resulted in losing more than an hour of productivity later on.
I also realized the other benefits of more sleep: preventing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, promoting safer driving, improving the immune system, reducing weight gain, and more. After reflecting on these additional benefits, I’ve started rearranging my life to focus on more sleep.
I’ve gone from consistently sleeping less than 7 hours a night to sleeping at least 7 hours a night. Now, I feel better during the day, and avoid my mid-day productivity slump.
As you consider your own sleep habits, ask yourself the following questions:
- How many hours of sleep do I need to wake up without an alarm clock?
- How many hours of sleep do I typically get on an average night?
- What negative impacts to my mental state do I notice after losing sleep?
- How are my interpersonal relationships impacted by sleep loss?
- How productive am I during the day after losing an hour of sleep at night?
- When I stay up late, am I doing important, productive activities, or am I just passively consuming (food, Netflix, web surfing)? What would I miss out on if I went to bed earlier?
If you’re thinking of where to start — diet, exercise, or sleep — I’d recommend putting sleep first. Sleep helps reduce obesity, protects you from late-night food cravings, helps you exercise better, and gives you higher will power and self-control.
Sleep is essential. Do what it takes to get enough of it.
Last of All, Love Your Body
Think how amazing your body is.
Consider how complex your body’s systems are. Cells, organs, chemicals, energy, all working together to make you move, act, and think.
As you give your body the right exercise, essential food, and plentiful rest, don’t forget to give it a big thank you. Your body has gotten you to this point. Now give it the essentials elements it needs to take you to the next stop on your journey.
Focusing on the essentials for your Body is Step 1. What are the essential needs for your Mind, Heart, and Spirit?
Read the next article in the series Part 2: Essentials for the Mind.
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