Are You Protecting Your Most Valuable Asset (You)?

We tend to be so consumed with the rat race called life that we fail to pause and assess how we’re investing our time and energy—and how that’s affecting our health.

Properly caring for yourself should be the overarching priority in your life. It may be helpful to view yourself objectively as a machine that requires maintenance. If you neglect maintenance on a machine, it likely can’t do its job effectively. Your overall health is the foundation for your personal and work life.

The most effective way to build and consistently implement a quality maintenance plan for yourself is through the development of positive habits. You may have the best intentions, but if you’re counting on willpower to push you through to accomplishing your wellness goals, you’re playing a losing game. Willpower is a finite resource. The less of it you have to use, the better your chances of long-term success.

If every time you eat a meal, you have to make a number of decisions, you’ll inevitably retreat to unhealthy options. If you’re constantly battling to figure out what time you’re going to engage in physical activity, you’re inevitably going to quit (in many cases while you’re still paying your gym membership fees). You can apply this to any decision-making progress. The more you have to strain to make a decision and the more decisions you have to make, the greater the room for error.

On the other hand, turning your key activities into habits exponentially increases the probability that you’ll consistently do the things you need. And it will help you avoid being blown off course by the slightest wind. Instead of “pushing through,” you can program the machine (you) to do certain things regularly. Not “when I have time” or “when I’m feeling a little better,” but at the programmed times and days. Once it’s ingrained, you’re on autopilot, and willpower is barely necessary.

Easier said than done. But if you need some help trying to make positive changes, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is a great resource on the science behind habit formation, and it includes actionable tips on how to change your habits almost instantly.

Once your habits are formed, your positive activities become the rule, not the exception. Of course, there are times in life that require sacrifice. You have a newborn, you have a new job that requires more of your time, there’s an illness in the family, etc. And adjustments may be necessary during these times. But if your habits are firmly ingrained, how won’t be derailed indefinitely. Instead, you quickly return to the norm—your habits.

Below are the key categories that have the most impact on overall well-being. All of us suck at at least one, and most of us, more than one. But being aware of this is the first step in taking control of your time and life.

This is not new information. This is stuff we already know. But every once in awhile, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of what’s important.

Pillars of Health

1. Nutrition: You can spend thousands on the newest diets. But there are a couple of habits that will put you on the path to wellness. First, don’t bring the junk home. If it’s in your pantry or in your fridge, chances are it will end up in your mouth. If it’s not available, your willpower isn’t necessary. If you only have healthy snacks around and you’re hungry, you’ll eat the healthy snacks. Of course, they won’t taste as good as ice cream, but in time, you may take more pleasure in the health benefits than you do in the immediate gratification of good taste.

Also, commit to eating the healthy foods first. Eat the salad before you eat the white rice. Water-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables are generally the healthiest. The brighter the colors, the better: for fruits and vegetables, eat greens, reds, yellows, blues, etc. Grains are ok in moderation, but sugar is lethal.

2. Exercise: Your body needs to move. Exercise increases your energy levels, reduces the risk of chronic diseases, boosts your brain power and memory, and makes you feel happier. Need any other reasons to plug this into your routine?

3. Water: Drink plenty of water. It gives you more energy and enhances physical and mental performance among other benefits. We’re busy dong this and that, and before you know it, hours have passed and we haven’t hydrated. Like many of these habits, drinking water regularly is easy to do, but it’s just as easy not to do. So it’s important to create a mechanism that ensures you get enough. Some sources recommend half a gallon a day, some more. The bottom line is that making a simple task like regularly drinking water part of your routine can boost your health.

4. Sleep: You need it, so don’t try to be the hero who pulls regular all-nighters to get stuff done. If you’re having to do that regularly, you need to re-organize your life and your schedule. Some people need more sleep, some less. Women generally need more than men.

Getting adequate sleep decreases your risk of long-term health issues, including diabetes and heart disease, two of the most ruthless murderers ever. It also makes you more effective and efficient day-to-day: so with enough sleep, you’ll actually need less time to get what you need done.

5. Mental Health Maintenance: The mind and body are connected. A deficiency in one will likely affect the other. Anxiety and depression numbers are through the roof nationwide. A huge segment of the population is being medicated. Some truly need it. But some are neglecting themselves and using medication to mask the symptoms of a deeper lifestyle problem.

Try to live life in smaller compartments: focus on the present. If you’re fixated on the past or the future, it’s difficult to be happy.

Mindfulness is an excellent tool for training the mind. 10 minutes a day will make you happier, a better thinker, and a kinder person. Try apps like headspace or 10% happier for guided meditation.

If there are significant issues that you’re having a hard time working through, consider cognitive behavioral or another form of therapy. A quality mental health professional can help you gather the tools you need to tackle the issues holding you back, and you’ll be better equipped to confront problems in the future.

Gratitude is another key component of mental health maintenance. Spending even only a couple of minutes each day being grateful makes you a happier person. Be consistent and specific. Be grateful for your parents, your breakfast, the sun, your legs, the air you breathe. Focusing on the positive things you have in life puts you in a positive frame of mind.

And finally, acceptance is another key to happiness. Happiness = reality – expectations. The more you fight reality, the more miserable you’ll be. That doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to improve or change for the better. But if you’re agonizing over what’s out of your circle of control, you’re wasting energy and creating a negative mental state. Learn to accept what you can’t control and life becomes much more pleasant.

6. Socialization: Some of us are introverts, some are extroverts. But generally, there’s an innate human desire to interact with other humans. For shyer people, maybe it’s in a quiet place, one on one. For more outgoing people, bigger groups may be better. But isolating yourself may be hurting your health. Regularly scheduled time with those you love.

7. Spirituality: The type of spirituality you practice doesn’t matter. Do whatever works for you—there’s no right or wrong option. It should help you find and continually focus on your meaning and purpose in life. You should be living for something bigger than yourself.

Planning for Change

This all sounds great, but how can you make this work for you?

First, you may want to read The Power of Habit. It’s a leading work on the psychology of habit, specifically on how to break and create habits. It teaches you to recognize the cues for the activities that form your habits and the rewards you get from them. It also teaches you how to change your habits my manipulating that sequence. Again, think of it as programming your machine (yourself). There’s a code for doing this. It’s in that book. Go learn the code.

Next, the key to progress is action. The world is filled with people who know a lot, but accomplish nothing. The 12-Week Year by Moran and Lennington is a great book on goal-setting and planning, which helps spur action. Although it’s technically a business book, it applies equally to personal life.

A mixture of long-term and short term goals are helpful. Your long-term goals can be audacious, but your short-term goals should be easier to attain. Gain some momentum with easy to accomplish goals and build on that. And pace yourself. You should tackle only one major change at a time—trying to make too many changes too quickly increases the risk of failure and discouragement.

Also, writing out your goals is important. If they’re not in writing, you’re less likely to commit to them and follow through.

And telling others about your goals creates accountability, which makes it more likely that you’ll follow through.

Finally, prepare for setbacks. No one, no matter how disciplined is exempt from setbacks. Prepare for them mentally. Understand they’re a normal part of the process. And don’t let them derail you.

Protect the asset. It’s easy to get lost in being busy and to forget that the most important factor is your happiness is your overall physical and mental well-being. No matter how much money you make or how much you accomplish, if you’re neglecting yourself, you will pay the price. If you’re not taking care of yourself, it’s that much more difficult to be a good spouse, parent, friend, professional, etc. Put yourself first by developing the good habits that automate your maintenance program and reap the rewards.

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