[Warning: If you are interested in a calm, comfortable life, this blog will be counterproductive for you.]

Friday, July 18, 2014

Psychiatrist Confesses: Best Life Is Actually Stressed Life

I recently watched a video with profound and practical insights. It’s from the TED Conference (ted.com). If you don’t know about TED, then let me introduce you to perhaps the world’s greatest collection of informative, inspirational videos. World class speakers are each given 20 minutes at most—some only 3 or 6 minutes—to present an amazing idea.

This video has become one of the most watched videos in their epic collection.


Here’s my summary:

Dr. McGonigal confesses in the beginning that she’s been all wrong about stress. For 10 years, as a psychiatrist, she’s been helping people reduce the stress in their lives. Her belief was that stress was bad for you. And there are decades of research supporting that. But she and her colleagues were wrong.

A new set of studies has come out to overturning this foundational belief. The video gives more detail, but in short,  it is true that in some cases, living with high stress does result in more physical illness. But this is only true when the people under high stress believe that the stress is bad for them. Those with low stress did have better health than that high stress group. But the best health of all was enjoyed by those with high stress who also believed that the stress wasn’t bad for them.

In short, what you believe about your stress is the deciding factor.

My favorite part came at the very end of the video. After the talk was over the emcee asked her how this impacts our life choices, whether to choose the more challenging path or the easier path.

She said it’s better to choose a more difficult path that has meaning than living to avoid discomfort.

This encourages me and challenges me. It’s like a road sign reading “Stress Ahead” reminding me that an exceptional life is not an easy life. But with a clear purpose and healthy support systems, pursuing exceptional might turn out to be the best life.

Have you experienced this dynamic in your life—a season of high stress where you thrived rather than barely survived? What made the difference for you?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

4 Obstacles I Overcame Establishing A Morning Routine

In a recent post about my new morning routine, I didn’t mention all of the obstacles I’ve had trying to establish it. Many people asked how I overcame various challenges. Let me be clear, establishing a robust routine I stuck with wasn’t easy. I didn’t just decide and succeed. I’ve been working on this for a few years, failing and learning. Hopefully, sharing my journey can help you as you figure out a way around or through your obstacles.

My brain is on fire late at night and I love sleeping in. Ask my college buddies. I went to no classes before 11am and played, I mean studied until 2am most days. So my first attempt for a strong routine was a late night routine. But a nighttime routine didn't work for me. 

First, neither my job or my kids were okay with me sleeping until 10am. And I want to be fully engaged with both. Second, my wife wasn’t able to stay up crazy late and didn’t like going to bed alone. Third, my most frequent behavior, when I did stay up late, was to spend that time playing: TV, video games, novels, etc.

If you can make a night routine work, then go for it. I have friends who have a productive late night routine. Mornings aren’t intrinsically better than nights for reading, writing, praying, etc. But after trying both time slots, I found mornings to be much more productive for me. Do your own experiments and see what works best for you. 

One exception to this is exercise.  The science is clear. Exercising wakes your body up, including boosting the metabolism so you burn more calories and think more clearly for several hours after exercising. Sleeping slows those same processes down. Exercising at night means you lose some of the benefits and can have a harder time getting to sleep.

I understand being tired. I have a full-time job, sometimes do speaking/consulting on the side, have 4 young children, a wife I like to date, I am very active in Christian ministry outside my main job, I write books and blog, and try to talk with friends all over the world. I understand tired. In fact, last year I was diagnosed with medical exhaustion. Yeah, I’ve been that tired.

I had a big breakthrough when I decide to make my first priority increasing my physical energy. For a long while, I worked almost exclusively on habits like sleep, eating, exercise, and even took daily supplements prescribed by my doctor. If getting in shape, including exercise, is a new part of your routine, prepare yourself for at least 3-4 months of physical exhaustion. While you're in this phase, give yourself permission to do less of everything else. Don’t slack off the plan—taking breaks only extend this exhausting phase. Slowly, your body will improve and eventually you’ll have the energy to add other elements to your routine.

One more tip here, the first thing on my routine is something that helps me wake up. I read and think and pray. It wakes my brain up and gives me time to remember why I have a morning routine. I don’t think I could begin with a workout or writing.

Extra time in the morning doesn’t mean I’m sleeping less. Remember, a healthy body is foundational to be able to do the rest of the things I want to do. So that does mean I have had to reduce some of my other activities. Welcome to mature living—every new thing you want to add to your life means choosing something to subtract. For me, it was video games. I still love them, but I only play two limited games on my smart phone. And I’m considering stopping them both so I can add something else. 

It isn’t that I don’t still love video games. It’s that I’ve found other things I love doing even more. And if you don’t truly find something that valuable that you’d give up something else to do it, then maybe it shouldn't be in your regular routine. Make a choice one way or the other and own it.

Part of my job includes traveling. Every couple of weeks I wake up in a hotel. And even when I’m at home my start time changes wildly. Some days I have to leave the house by 6am and others I work from home with only a phone call in the afternoon. Some days I’m done by 5pm and some days I’m not home until after midnight. Literally every night I have to consult my calendar and change the time on my wake-up alarm.

Whenever I need to leave the house, I set the alarm for 2 hrs earlier. Different time every day, same routine. Here’s what I’ve learned: I never regret getting up early. But I have regretted taking a morning off. One trick I’ve used is to get up and just do the first item on my list, giving myself permission to go back to bed if I’m still too tired after that—I never do go back to bed, though.

Full confession: Some crazy early days, which are infrequent, I give myself permission to do a shorter version of the routine (e.g. 10 minutes of exercise rather than 30).

Build your morning routine in layers. You don’t have to jump from shower and shave to a two hour morning routine. What’s the most important first step for you? What single habit would add the most to your life? Start there. When that’s in place, you can add another. Planned well, each habit you establish will make it easier to add the next. 

My recommendation: If you don’t know where to start, improve your physical energy first. It will make everything else easier.

Take the long view and don’t beat yourself up, even if it takes years. Don’t be fooled. This is not a small life change. Respect the effort it requires as well as the benefits it provides. In fact, I’m probably not done improving my morning routine. There are two parts I still want to improve. Bit by bit, I’m working on living a more exceptional life. And you can, too.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

I Changed My Mornings And It Changed My Life

I’ve recently made a change that is having a wonderful impact on my life. Being able to blog regularly again is one of the smaller benefits, actually. I’ve wanted to for a long time, but had a hard time finding time to do it.

Then two months ago, I decided to craft a great morning routine. My days are full of distractions and demands and it’s hard to squeeze in some crucial activities. But have much more control over what I do just after waking up.

Great mornings make the rest of the day better. And better days add up to a better life.

Here’s my new morning routine:

  • Read, pray, re-focus my life for 30 min
  • Exercise for 30 min (I use the T25 workout videos)
  • Shower and dress for the day (and shave, etc)—this takes me about 20 min
  • Eat breakfast for 10 min—every morning I drink a protein shake, a healthy energy drink, and take vitamins
  • Write for 30 min (my blogs, my next book, etc)

Note: I don’t exercise on the weekends and I sometimes make a big breakfast for my family.

That’s two hours long. My old morning routine was only 20 min—that’s how fast I can do the minimum required: shower, shave, and dress. (Yes, getting ready as a man is much easier than for women—but let’s save issue that for another post.)

We are primarily products of our weekly habits. I want spiritual health, physical energy, creative expression, and a positive impact on the world. So I’m doing something for these important areas every morning.

What elements make up your definition of a great life? Put each element into your morning routine. On the flip side, are there parts of your daily routine that aren’t truly important to you? Are you wasting some of your precious morning routine on these things? 

You may notice that I don’t check email in the morning. That’s not because I don’t love my job. I have an amazing job. But I will spend the heart of every weekday on work projects. My morning routine is reserved for precious items that often get crowded out of my life. 

Thanks to my new routine, I’m losing weight without being on a diet (I also track calories throughout the day as well, but that’s another post), I’m growing spiritually, and I’m writing again. I’m much more satisfied with who I am and how I’m living. And all I changed was my morning routine.

You will enact your morning routine THOUSANDS of times in your life. What kind of life do you want? Craft a morning routine that matches that. Choose to do more than the minimum.