“To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” – Buddha
During a recent conversation with my brother he pointed out how difficult it is for people to be disciplined. It is not surprising people feel like they are not in control of their lives. With the long hours we work, the short vacations we get (if any at all), and the non-stop barrage of marketing and social media it is a wonder we have any energy or attention left over to get even the simplest tasks done. So, in the face of all of that, how can anyone wrestle back control of their life? The answer is surprisingly simple but by no means easy. It all boils down to three simple habits:
- Regularly get a full night of restful sleep.
- Exercise daily.
- Maintain a healthy plant based diet.
I know this sounds quite simple, perhaps too simple. But ask yourself, “Do I actually get a 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night, exercise daily, and eat a plant based diet?” I’m willing to wager that your answer to most, if not all of those questions, is no. In-fact, in the U.S., 35% of people don’t even get 7 hours of sleep, less than 10% of people eat a plant based diet, and less than 25% of people exercised at least twice weekly. I have no idea what proportion of people do all three, but from the aforementioned figures I’d bet it is incredibly small. I myself am still working on the plant based diet part.
The truth is that each of these habits has a major positive impact on a person’s life without regard to the other. Each results in significant health benefits that drastically reduce your likelihood of succumbing to various types of diseases and an early death. Also worth mentioning is that each of these three practices have been shown to improve people’s happiness in addition to the other health benefits.
So, let’s get down to it, how does implementing these changes allow you to take back control of your life? As it turns out each of these practices when instilled significantly increase a person’s energy. It is that energy that we use to fight through the day and remain disciplined in our choices that is in such short supply.
One way to look at discipline, without immediately diving into the science behind it, is as if it is a bank account (one of my favorite analogies). The Bank of Discipline needs deposits of energy on a regular basis to be able to meet all of the withdraws made throughout the day. Some of the most useful ways I have found to build that bank account is to get my rest, eat well and exercise often. It is also important to note that another way to keep a positive balance in the Bank of Discipline is to reduce withdraws from it. Naturally, if you are spending your time sleeping, cooking healthy food (it is far more likely for a person to eat healthy when they prepare their own food at home), and exercising then you are not being bombarded by outside temptations that serve to sap your energy.
This trifecta of habits give you a foundation to build the energy you need to take on the world. As some of my more skeptical readers might point out, it also takes discipline to create these habits. So, what is the best way to get started? As I pointed out in Resolute Resolutions there is a systematic way to change habits, and as it turns out it is very similar to what you need to create habits. As Pulitzer prize winning Charles Duhigg points out, you need to create a cue that catalyzes your action for the routine and a reward that solidifies the positive feedback loop.
Well it just so happens that sleep and eating have those components naturally baked in. With eating our cue is hunger. We then proceed to cook or order out, and when we are done our body releases chemicals that reward our brains for feeding our body. The trick with eating is to do it in a healthy manner, which is why I wrote How I lost 10 Pounds Without Exercising and Making Home Cooked Meals Convenient to show people a way to instill a habit that allows for healthy options without consuming too much time or energy throughout the week. For sleep there is a very powerful cue every day, the sun setting. We are biologically wired to respond to the setting sun by getting tired and going to bed. There are various tricks to maintaining a good sleep routine, but what my wife and I are finding works very well is a combination of not watching T.V. of any kind during the weekdays, not bringing our phones to bed, and having some white noise in the background. By eliminating the distractions and light from the various screens in our house we have been getting more restful sleep than we were before. Another addition that I recommend to everyone is a wake-up light alarm clock. The one my wife and I have is a bit old but it simulates the sun rising and has very pleasant birds chirping. The importance of this is to have the proper reward for going to bed and getting a good night’s rest. This device really optimizes that positive feedback from the reward.
With exercise it is a bit more tricky because there isn’t necessarily an obvious natural cue for people to exercise. Once upon a time people had to go out into the world to travel to work and perform some sort of manual labor to make a living. Long gone are those days. That said, we can still use ingrained cues from our ancestors to our advantage. Because we would start the day early with the rising sun we are actually biologically wired to get several benefits from early morning activity outside like extra weight loss, more energy for the day, better sleep at night, etc. In My Surprisingly Simple Superpower I wrote about how I would bike to work and in How Housing Can Make You Or Break You I wrote about the importance of living close enough to work to bike or walk there. Part of the reason I harp on living close to where you work is it allows you to take advantage of the morning time to get the exercise and activity your body craves.
In my own experience I have found that stacking my morning exercise with breakfast is a great way to increase the reward and further solidify the positive feedback loop. I prefer to eat oatmeal in the morning with fruit, muesli, and granola mixed in. Eating this after a morning exercise reinforces the positive feedback loop for the exercise. However, even if I switch it around and eat before I workout the workout has the same affect of positively reinforcing my good eating habits (i.e. oatmeal with fruit and muesli is a much better option than eggs and bacon to fuel your exercise and day). So by this method I get three positive feedback mechanisms before 9 am. I get the wonderful rested feeling from waking up after a full night’s sleep which is the reinforced with a light morning exercise, and followed up with a healthy breakfast. By starting my day in this manner I am practically guaranteed to have the energy I need to tackle the day.
I hope this helps get you started on your path towards better discipline to take back control of your life. Remember that how well you take care of your body affects your ability to make sound decisions and maintain your discipline.
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