Building Blocks to a Happy Life

In most cases, it really is that simple.

I’m a great worker. I haven’t always been that way, but a combination of better-defined goals and a genuine love for my job has made it relatively easy for me to sit down and crank out a solid six hours of productive work per day. But six weeks ago, I examined my day-to-day life and I realized that this was the only constant that I could point out – the only action that was reliably repeated day in and day out.

I believe that most highly successful people have routines. Moreover, I think that routines are a way of defining yourself – of prioritizing your life, of improving certain areas, and of maintaining others. A routine consists of a series of habits, and habits are the building blocks of a personality.

I don’t mean personality in traditional sense of innate behaviors or tendencies – qualities like shy or outgoing, quiet or loud, passive or aggressive. I’m talking about the personality that we mold and create for ourselves, the collection of skills and activities that we use to explain our lives. To a certain extent, the more of these you have, the more interesting you are and the more fulfilled you’ll be.

I call them building blocks because, if chosen wisely, each new habit builds upon the success of the previous one. Let’s imagine trying to build a tower with a set of blocks. If you’re trying to build a tall, stable tower, each block will need to be set in place with some sort of mortar. Try to put another block on top before it has time to dry, and you risk the chance of both blocks falling off – or possibly even toppling the whole structure, including the original blocks that you thought were safely in place.

If you want to aggressively pursue personal development – habit building – you need to figure out your ‘drying time.’ Knowing when a habit is set can take a little getting used to – it’s the point at which it becomes automatic and fluid, as if you were on autopilot.

If you’re lucky, your body will start to crave the habit – but this won’t always happen with every person and every habit. If the habit you’re building is a diet, for example, it isn’t necessarily the point when you start to crave healthy food – it’s the point that you easily and naturally make the decision to eat a healthy meal despite the craving for something bad.

For me – at this point in my life – it seems to take about two to three weeks for a habit to stick. I started the Paleo diet on June 19th and it was a pretty standard routine for me by the first week in July. Once that was set, I tried to add thirty minutes of physical exercise and an hour of reading per day – the combination of the two proved overwhelming and I accomplished neither. For now, in this early stage of habit-building, it seems that I only have the tolerance for adding one at a time.

Since then, I’ve successfully incorporated reading to my day-to-day routine and I’ve been finishing a book every other day or so. I’ve added two days per week of kettlebell classes and two days per week of powerlifting. Every other Tuesday, I go to a Spanish Meetup, and I plan to up that to a weekly activity next.

This kind of life change can be intimidating – for most people, knowing where to start is the hardest part. Though we all differ greatly in terms of priorities, abilities, and interests, I believe there are a common set of habits that each of us should share as a sort of human foundation – habits that sharpen our bodies and our minds, that expand our knowledge base and heighten our energy level.

Try incorporating these four building blocks first, then expand to other habits that move you closer towards your goals in life.

1. Read. A book is food for your mind – and the most important thing to do is to start eating. Start with trashy romance novels if you have to, as long as you’re reading something. I try to read one nonfiction and one fiction book simultaneously. Buy the next book before you finish the current one to ensure you don’t lose momentum. The smartest people I know are voracious readers – as Seth Godin says, “a house filled with books is a good place to live.”

2. Wake up early. Get up as close to the sunrise as possible while getting at least eight hours of sleep (I go to bed at 9:30 or 10:00 and get up at 6:30). Waking up early gives you a jump start on the day, and you’ll feel better if your rhythm more closely matches that of the sun. I’ve never met a highly successful person who told me their secret to success was getting up at 10am.

3. Exercise. The benefits of exercise are virtually endless and I won’t go into all of them here. The most important one, in my opinion, is the energy that it brings – energy that you can parlay into building other habits. The second most important is the confidence and self-esteem boost. A distant third are the health benefits.

4. Eat right. Everything you do is affected by what you put in your body. The food you consume powers your mind and the quality of it will either enhance or detract from your cognitive abilities. I chose the Paleo diet and I’m a firm believer in it, but you should look at a diet the same way we look at habit-building as a whole: start small and expand on it.

You can tune out a lot of the noise and just focus on a few simple guidelines.

          • Reduce the amount of “white carbohydrates” that you eat – pasta, bread, grains, potatoes, and corn. Replace them with rice and quinoa if you have to.
            • When you have that down, cut out the quinoa and rice. You should be getting your carbs from fruits, vegetables, and sweet potatoes.
          • Increase the amount of protein you eat.
            • Then, improve the sources of that protein. Grass-fed beef, free-range poultry, and wild-caught fish should be the staples of your diet.
          • Eat more vegetables.
          • Go organic on everything possible. Chemicals, hormones, and unnecessary antibiotics have no place in your food.

I have some helpful tips, tricks, and tools that I want to share, but we’re out of space for today. Keep an eye out for a “Part II” later this week.

Un abrazo,

Zack

Written from Boulder, Colorado

9 thoughts on “Building Blocks to a Happy Life

  1. amazing post, and I couldn’t agree more, especially about exercise. It definitely gives you more energy, scheduling it in as an appointment with yourself is key I find. And organic is definitely the way to go, feeling fuller longer with less and eating kale, collard, and swiss chard (the top three greens) is amazing. Love the Paleo tips, and reading tips as well. These are great (and I hope reading blogs counts too, although I’m sure it’s not the same). Your blog has truly changed my life. Thank you.

    Pink.

  2. I agree, waking up early is key. I even do that on the weekend, and I get far more done. In fact, if I don’t get up early on the weekend, then I feel like I haven’t really had a weekend off. I try to go for an early morning walk too, because the world is a much more tranquil place at 7am on a Sunday morning. Those are the times, that I really feel like I’m living in the moment.

    I also agree on doing things in steps or finder healthier alternatives. I love coffee way too much, but instead of giving up coffee, I switched to Gano Cafe. It’s organic, low acid and tastes better than my regular coffee. I get the energy I need, but without the crash later in the day.

  3. I think it’s all about ‘balance.’ Routine is good but you need spontaneity once in a while. I work a 9-5 job and I could easily just come home, watch TV and go to sleep – but I try to keep myself busy by volunteering and going to networking events as well – it’s also, however, important to learn to take some time off on your own and definitely agree that reading and exercise is important. Thanks for the post! 🙂

  4. Great article! I recently read the book Off Balance by Matthew Kelly and he talks about developing “core habits”. I wrote about mine here: http://exploringthejoyoflearning.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/core-habits/
    It’s funny how much my day is impacted when I don’t do some of the things on my list (especially food and exercise).
    Thanks for sharing- keep up the great work Zack 🙂

    (PS- Do you live in Boulder? My sister lives there- I love it! Great city.)

  5. I always love all of your posts – I always look forward to reading them as they motivate and inspire me ever time I do.

    As a teenager my sleeping habits are a little all over the place. One morning I’ll be up at 6:30am but the next day it won’t be until 10:00am that I wake, and then, I go back to waking at 6:30am.

    I’ll be the first to admit that waking up early gets me off to a good start of the day but have you any tips on how to maintain my early waking routine?

    After reading this post, the first thing I’ll be sure to do is write myself a routine for the week and for any circumstance I may be under (school holidays, holidays, school days ect.).

    Thanks for your yet again inspiring post and I apologise for this wall of text! 😆

    • Don’t apologize! I love reading comments.

      You have a huge advantage in being a teenager…you probably have to go to school Monday-Friday, and that gives you a set schedule to build on. The secret to getting up early is falling asleep early. The secret to falling asleep early is getting in bed early. I’m in bed by 9:30 – I know that sounds lame, but honestly, you’ll feel great doing it. Of course, I don’t keep that schedule on the weekends

      I wrote a post a while back about sleep habits, it might help: http://baexpat.com/2012/03/14/building-a-better-nights-sleep/

      Thanks again for stopping by!

      • Thank you for the tips and I’ll be sure to bookmark (and, of course, read it) that post straight away.

        I’m currently writing a post (hopefully scheduled for the coming Friday) about what I’ve learnt from your very blog and have suggested it to a few of my friends as it truly is my favourite blog to read as it helps me so much more than any other blog. 🙂

        Keep up the wonderful work!

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