7 Habits That Revolutionized My Life13 min read
There are habits that have made my life happier, healthier, and more productive. Over the past couple of years, I have tried countless new habits. Some have stuck, some haven’t. Here are the habits that pack the biggest punch, that have made the biggest difference. I tried them out so you don’t have to. Here are seven habits that drastically improved my life.
Many of these habits I learned while researching this post are backed by scholarly journals, including Nature, where articles claim these habits improve and lengthen your life. That’s pretty cool. As always, however, remember that there is heavy confirmation bias going on in this post. Read the articles and form your own opinion!
1. Wake up Earlier
First things first, everyone shouldn’t wake up early, I’ve found it works very well for me. But, what I am saying, is that you will benefit from waking up the earliest in your normal waking range. What is the normal waking range? Well, I’m not sure, it varies from person to person. It seems about 50% of our sleep wake-time is genetically determined.2 That means, however, that the other 50% may come from other things, such as our environment or our own volition.
I argue it is better to shift your chronotype, your wake-sleep cycle, earlier.
For example, I feel like my “built-in” wake-time is between 5-9 am, that’s the way my circadian clock works. In the past two years, however, I have chosen to wake up at the earliest part of this rhythm. Between 5 and 7 am. Most recently, around 5:30 am. Even shifting one hour earlier, can provide significant benefits.
There are a couple of reasons why I think it’s better to wake up early:
Getting things done before work
Work, for most people, starts early. I prefer to not rush before work. I also prefer to get some of the more annoying tasks done before work, that way, when I get home, I can just relax. It’s nice to come to a clean home. It’s nice to have done your exercise for the day when you come home.
At a minimum, I make my bed, shower, and have breakfast.
Avoid sleep inertia at work
An interesting study took fifteen young men, between 15 and 29, and had them perform various cognitive tasks within a couple of hours of waking. One of the tests was was to see how many simple summation problems could be completed in two minutes, such as 19 + 25.
The results revealed something the researchers termed, “sleep inertia.” What they found was that performance was sluggish until the 2-4 hour mark after waking. Their performance wasn’t optimal until 2-4 hours after waking.3
Imagine, you roll out of bed at 8:30, grab a quick bite, and arrive at work at 9. You might be suffering from sleep inertia, or reduced cognitive potential, until your lunch break!
Performance may be better
In one study 367 students were surveyed about proactivity or willingness and ability to take action to change a situation to one’s advantage. The study showed a strong association between earlier chronotypes and higher proactivity scores.4
In another study, looking at high school students in Germany, eveningness (going to bed later and waking up later) was a negative predictor of overall GPA.8 I didn’t look at US high school studies purposely, as the ridiculously early start time makes their studies non-viable in my opinion. In Germany, at least, you get until 8:00 am to start school, while in the US it’s 7. I was a swimmer so would often have to swim before school, waking up around 4:30 for a 5:30 swim practice. The American Academy of Pediatrics, now backed by the CDC, actually recommends US schools to start at 8:30 am or later, “most American adolescents start school too early.”9
Health may be better
- Early risers seem to consume less alcohol, have fewer caffeinated drinks, and smoke less5,6
- People who wake up earlier may have less morbidity and higher physical mobility7
Bottom Line: Try and wake up as early as you can within your natural sleep cycle.
2. Read 30 Minutes Per Day
The most important reason to read, in my opinion, is to learn more. A reading habit cultivates a positive feedback loop of learning and getting better that is supremely awesome.
Also, the most I’ve ever been interested, enthralled, and captivated by a story has been when reading, not when watching TV or a movie. The final Harry Potter Book and the Red Rising Series are books that were so well written, so interesting, that I remember wanting to do nothing else, missing lunch even (something I rarely do), just to read, just to find out how Harry finally beats Voldemort (sorry for the spoiler).
There are other, less exciting, reasons why reading is a good thing. One 2013 study showed a consistent reading habit, consistent cognitive activity, is associated with slower late-life cognitive decline.12 This supports a theory called the cognitive reserve hypothesis, which posits mentally challenging tasks help to maintain and build brain cells and connections between brain cells.
Some other benefits include:
- Increased vocabulary
- Increased knowledge
- Improved writing ability
So pick up a book! Fiction is perfectly fine. I usually read 30 minutes before bed, it also has become Pavlovian for me at this point, helping me fall asleep.
Bottom line: Try to read at least 30 minutes per day.
3. Sleep 7 Hours Per Night
I’ve talked about sleep before. When you get fewer than 7 hours of sleep a night your performance and your health suffer.
Poor sleep quality has been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancer.13
Here are a couple of strategies to improve sleep:
- Be in the sunlight during the day, this will help keep your bodies natural clock at a proper rhythm (bonus if you if also exercise outside)
- Don’t consume caffeine after 2 pm, it’s got a long half-life that will affect your sleep quality
- Go to sleep and wake up at consistent times, this is the most powerful and beneficial tactic I’ve used. I nearly turned this into an individual “habit” for this post. I always wake up at the same time, my body will adjust when I feel tired and when I need to fall asleep. I have a consistent wake time and my sleep time adjusts in turn.
- Keep your bedroom quiet, dark, and cold
- Classically condition yourself for bed with a nightime routine. I brush my teeth and floss, watch an episode of TV, take a shower, read, and then fall asleep.
- Invest in a good matress, sheets, and pillow, it’s where you spend a third of your life.
Bottom line: Sleep 7+ hours per night, seriously, just do it.
4. Practice Mindfullness (and Kindness)
I have a huge post on this here, which I would check into if you are into this kind of stuff. However, I remember, until a couple of years ago, whenever someone said mindfulness or yoga or meditation or anything like that I would scoff, “that’s silly voodoo magic there is no way it actually helps,” boy was I wrong.
Mindfulness, specifically a positive mindset, has been associated with physical changes in the human amygdala and hippocampus.14, 15 Those are your emotion and memory centers.
In another study, 22 patients with a generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder were assessed before and after an intensive meditation program over eight weeks. 20/22, or 91%, showed a significant reduction of anxiety and depression with 18/22 showing that same improvement three years later with no further formal sessions.16, 17
Personally, meditation has changed my life and I plan to practice, at least 10 minutes a day, for the rest of my life. An interesting thing has come along with it, kindness and gratitude. I don’t know where the switch happened, I think it was sometime last year, but, suddenly, I am appreciating more things. I am happy more of the time. I am less stressed. I am sleeping better.
Another thing that seems to pop up, is I care more about other people. I actually put myself in other people’s shoes more often, I am genuinely interested in their lives.
This practice has not only improved my life, but my interactions with others are 10x better. Here is what I do:
- I meditate every morning after I shower for atleast 10 minutes, usually 20.
- I journal for 3 minutes every morning
- I write down four things I am grateful for before bed every night
Bottom line: Practice some form of mindfulness every day, it will change the way you see other people and yourself.
5. Spend Three Hours Outdoors Per Week
In 2019 Nature released an article that took nearly 20,000 adults and examined their time in nature, how clever. They found that at least 120 minutes outside was linked with significantly greater reports of good health or high well-being, with peak associations between 200-300 mins per week.11
Here is a quote from their introduction section:
While the quantity and quality of evidence varies across outcomes, living in greener urban areas is assosciated with lower probabilities of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma, hospitalisation, mental distress, and ultimately mortality, among adults; and lower risks of obesity and myopia in children. Greater quantities of neighbourhood nature are also assosciated with better self-reported health, and subjective well-being in adults, and imporved birth outcomes, and cognitive development in children.White et. al.
Wo, that’s a lot of stuff. It seems more nature, more green-time, equates to a healthier and happier life. This Nature article did a lot of the work for me.
So how do we take action here? Well, here are some ways I’m meeting the three-hour quota per week:
- Reading and studying in the local park once a weekend for two hours
- Running outside twice a week to the most green space I can find
- Walking to and from school through the park every every day, it adds about 5 minutes to my trip, but it’s another 5 minutes per day in green space
Occasionally I have the luxury of throwing in some extra fun outdoors activities:
- Going on a hike for three hours, quota done right there!
- Having an outdoor BBQ with family and friends
- Apple Picking, pumpkin picking, vineyard tours, or any other events listed after googling, “fun [season] activities near me”
Bottom line: Get three hours of outdoor green time per week
6. Exercise 150 Minutes Per Week
We all know exercise is good. The hardest part is actually doing it, and doing it consistently. I think many people picture exercise as being drenched and sweat and nearly dead, when, actually, it can just be a casual stroll.
Just in case you still don’t think exercise is good for you, here are some facts: exercise lowers your risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, dementia, and several cancers. Exercise improves sleep, cognition, memory, and bone health. Exercise can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve quality of life.
I have always exercised, but, when I first started medical school. I thought studying was more important. Taking an extra two hours to read a chapter of a book or do just a couple more practice questions were more important than going to the gym or going for a run. I was wrong, extremely wrong, and my grades showed it.
When I brought back in exercise, even in the days leading up to my exam when I felt like I didn’t know anything, my grades improved.
Bottom line: We all know exercise is healthy, do it. Consistent exercise is one of the best things I have done for myself, ever.
7. Cultivate a Beginner’s Mindset
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.Shunryu Suzuki
Many articles, and publications, reference this quote, but, I think it’s more helpful to go to the original story, why is Shunryu Suzuki saying this?
A student traveled far and wide to seek the wisdom of a Zen master. When the student finally met the master he asked the master many questions. The student then went into a detailed explanation of what he knew about Zen. The student spoke so much that hours passed before the master said a single word.
As the student was still speaking the zen master brought out a pot of tea and two teacups. One for the student and one for himself. He poured one cup for himself and then began pouring a cup for the student.
The tea filled to the brim of the student’s cup but the Zen master continued to pour. Tea spilled over the cup and onto the table.
“Stop!” The student yelled, “the cup is full, there is no room for more!
“Like this cup,” said the master, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations, how can I teach you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
The best advantage I’ve found with the beginner’s mindset is that you can constantly get better, constantly learn. If I am an expert or the best in the world, why do I have to learn more? Why do I have to get better?
Many of the best doctors I work with, some of who have been practicing for 30+ years, question their thoughts frequently. They attend conferences, they read up on recent publications, they ask their colleagues, even medical students, for help and advice.
Being a beginner helped me to discover twice now in the hospital something that my team didn’t see, it helped me to attack YouTube and content creation from a different angle, and it helped me to learn that riding an electric skateboard into a hole in the ground isn’t always the best idea.
Bottom line: adopt the beginner’s mindset, and keep getting better.
- Jewett ME, Wyatt JK, Ritz-De Cecco A, Khalsa SB, Dijk DJ, Czeisler CA. Time course of sleep inertia dissipation in human performance and alertness. J Sleep Res. 1999 Mar;8(1):1-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2869.1999.00128.x. PMID: 10188130.
- Randler, C. (2009). Proactive people are morning people1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39(12), 2787–2797. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2009.00549.x
- Differences between smokers and non-smokers in morningness–eveningness Social Behavior and Personality, 36 (2008), pp. 673-680
- Morningness–eveningness preference and eating disorders, Personality and Individual Differences, 45 (2008), pp. 549-553
- Is self-reported morbidity related to the circadian clock? Journal of Biological Rhythms, 16 (2001), pp. 183-190
- Preckel, F., Lipnevich, A. A., Boehme, K., Brandner, L., Georgi, K., Könen, T., Mursin, K., & Roberts, R. D. (2012). Morningness-eveningness and educational outcomes: The Lark has an advantage over the owl at high school. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(1), 114–134. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8279.2011.02059.x
- White MP, Alcock I, Grellier J, Wheeler BW, Hartig T, Warber SL, Bone A, Depledge MH, Fleming LE. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep. 2019 Jun 13;9(1):7730. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3. PMID: 31197192; PMCID: PMC6565732.
- Wilson RS, Boyle PA, Yu L, Barnes LL, Schneider JA, Bennett DA. Life-span cognitive activity, neuropathologic burden, and cognitive aging. Neurology. 2013 Jul 23;81(4):314-21. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e31829c5e8a. Epub 2013 Jul 3. PMID: 23825173; PMCID: PMC3772831.
- Faith S. Luyster, PhD, Patrick J. Strollo, Jr., MD, Phyllis C. Zee, MD, PhD, James K. Walsh, PhD, Sleep: A Health Imperative, Sleep, Volume 35, Issue 6, 1 June 2012, Pages 727–734, https://doi.org/10.5665/sleep.1846
- Hölzel, Britta K., et al. “Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience 5.1 (2010): 11-17
- Pruessner, Jens C., et al. “Self-esteem, locus of control, hippocampal volume, and cortisol regulation in young and old adulthood.” Neuroimage 28.4 (2005): 815-826.
- Peterson, Linda Gay, and Lori Pbert. “Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders.” Am J Psychiatry 149.7 (1992): 936-943.
- Miller, John J., Ken Fletcher, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. “Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders.” General hospital psychiatry 17.3 (1995): 192-200