You can be busy and also be in great shape
Fitness isn’t solely the realm of fitness professionals, like trainers and bodybuilders. In fact, some of the best health and fitness advice I’ve heard has come from people who weren’t fitness professionals — in particular, from businesspeople, productivity coaches, and lifestyle bloggers.
As I’ve explained before, it’s still entirely possible to get into amazing shape even if you work 60+ hours a week, and you can lose weight even if you have a slow metabolism. I’ve done it, friends and clients of mine have done it, and all of the people quoted in this article have done it.
Here’s how the world’s leading business people and productivity coaches stay in amazing shape, even when fitness isn’t their top priority. They do it by combining habits and lifestyle choices that reduce the friction that could derail them from their fitness goals.
Minimize the Number of Decisions You Have To Make
You’ve probably heard the story of how Steve Jobs wore blue jeans, running shoes, and a black turtleneck every day. He purportedly did this in order to reduce the number of decisions he had to make every day, conserving his mental energy for more important decisions.
Knowing exactly what he would be wearing every day also helped him build momentum in the mornings — since he never had to take time to decide what to wear, it was easier to get off to a running start every morning.
If you’ve ever wondered how some people seem to stay in amazing shape with very little apparent effort, this strategy is a big part of it: they minimize the number of fitness decisions they have to make by having a few things they do the same way over and over.
The most common expressions of this strategy are working out at the same time every day and eating the same thing for breakfast every morning. Fitness and productivity guru Tim Ferriss famously experiments with different breakfast routines, eating the same thing almost every morning for months at a time before switching to a different breakfast.
There’s no need to take it quite that far, however. Most people who use this strategy don’t eat the exact same thing for breakfast every day; instead, they’ll have two or three breakfast options that they rotate between, and often they’ll do the same for lunch.
As for workouts, they should be done at the same time every day not only to minimize decisions but also because your body becomes entrained to your workout time. Your energy level will start to rise in anticipation of your workout. A related application of this principle is to have two or three pre-defined workouts that you rotate between on a set schedule — so that you never have to “decide” what workout you’ll do on any given day.
Focus on a Few Big Wins
Finance and productivity guru Ramit Sethi, one of the cofounders of PBWiki, urges his readers to focus on a few big wins over large numbers of small wins.
You can probably see how this builds off the previous strategy of minimizing decisions. As Ramit explains, humans are cognitive misers — we only have so much mental bandwidth with which to make decisions.
However, Ramit goes beyond just saying to make fewer decisions, and makes the point that the decisions you do choose to focus on should provide ongoing benefits in return for a one-time action, as opposed to one-time benefits.
In finance, the prime examples of this are saving money on your rent, car payments, insurance, and phone bill — and not getting bogged down in trying to save money every single day by not grabbing a coffee at Starbucks, or not ordering an appetizer when you go out to eat.
In fact, Ramit makes the point that when you nail the big wins, you can let yourself enjoy many of life’s small pleasures, guilt-free. There’s no need to be perfect.
A prime health-related example would be that many people make an effort to walk more, often scheduling a time to take a walk every day. Someone applying this strategy would instead move to a more walkable neighborhood, knowing that they’ll naturally walk more once they do.
Another example: instead of trying to pick the lowest-calorie option for every meal, just eat less often. If you eliminate between-meal snacking, and eat only two meals a day, a few days a week, you’ll be cutting out a lot more calories than if you stress about eating white meat vs dark meat.
Keep Your Kitchen Clean
There is a certain class of habits that are more important than most, because when you get them right, several other things fall into place. Habit-building experts call these keystone habits.
Health expert Darya Pinot Rose, author of Foodist and the blog Summer Tomato, identifies keeping a clean and organized kitchen as one of the most critical keystone habits for living a healthy lifestyle.
Why? Because when your kitchen is clean and all of your cookware is easy to find, you’ll cook more. And when you cook more, you’ll eat a healthier diet, save money on food, and generally be more mindful of what you’re putting into your mouth.
Buy Perishable Ingredients to Force Yourself to Cook
Do you know what helps people achieve their goals? Motivation. Do you know what are some great motivators? Deadlines, and having to forfeit something if you fail to reach your goal.
These are called forcing functions — as tech entrepreneur Dan Martell explains, the smart use of forcing functions enabled him to build multiple successful businesses while raising children, all in just a few years.
So what’s a good forcing function to make yourself cook at home? Having perishable ingredients on hand — like vegetables, or meat that’s kept in the fridge (not the freezer). Once you buy these, it’s use-it-or-lose-it.
Once a week, buy some perishable ingredients from the grocery store and take note of how much they cost. You’ll be far more motivated to cook, knowing how much money you’ll be wasting if you let that food go to waste.
Meditate Every Day
Meditation been shown to reduce anxiety, improve focus and subjective well-being. That means it has both direct and indirect benefits for your health.
On a direct level, less stress means you’ll sleep better, have lower levels of cortisol and systemic inflammation, and will, therefore, get sick less often and be less likely to get cancer.
Indirectly, lower stress levels mean you’ll make healthier decisions and generally be more capable of delayed gratification. As productivity expert Chris Bailey explains, meditation improves mindfulness and effectively gives you more time in the day by helping you focus better.
Mindfulness will naturally lead to better food choices. And of course, more time in the day means more time to sleep, exercise, and cook.
It doesn’t take very much meditation either– just five minutes a day is enough to produce a noticeable effect if you’re consistent. In fact, it’s surprisingly easy — and rewarding — to meditate every day.
Pick the Right Gym for You
Writing productivity coach Primoz Bozic stresses the importance that your environment has on your behavior.
One of his secrets to writing 5,000+ words a day is that he usually works out of his favorite coffee shop. The atmosphere at that coffee shop is perfect for getting him into the headspace for writing. The WiFi is strong, as is the coffee. The tables and chairs are at just the right height.
The same goes for gyms. You will work out more often, longer and harder, and enjoy it more when you go to a gym that’s just right for you.
This requires you to think through what you value in a gym. Here are a few possibilities:
- Location — usually as close as possible to your home, or sometimes your workplace.
- Space — more open space so the gym doesn’t feel cramped.
- Amenities — sauna, jacuzzi, towel service, etc.
- Equipment selection.
- Equipment availability — i.e. not having to wait to use the stuff you want.
- Clientele — usually either people like you or people who inspire you.
- Friendly staff.
Given how much human behavior is driven by convenience, I would argue that location is going to be very important for almost everyone.
This has particular relevance for me, as I recently doubled my training frequency from twice a week to four times a week.
How? I recently moved to a new apartment, and following that I switched gyms. Now instead of driving two miles, I walk two blocks to the gym.
Work Out When Your Energy Level Is Highest
There’s a lot of debate in the fitness world about what the best time of day to work out is.
A common line of thinking — one I used to believe in myself — goes that people should work out in the morning because training on an empty stomach will burn more fat.
A less common but more scientifically sound line of argument holds that you should train in the morning because it helps set your circadian rhythm, so you’ll sleep better.
Menno Henselmans has argued the opposite — there’s a fair amount of research showing that people lose more fat and build more muscle if they work out in the later afternoon or early evening.
However, all of this misses the bigger point: regardless of when you work out, you need to have the energy for it. That means the ideal time of day to work out is different for different people, as it depends on when your energy level is the highest.
Entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuck always works out with his trainer Jordan Syatt first thing in the morning, because that’s when he has the most energy and feels the most motivated to work out.
The optimal time of day will be different for everyone. For me, it’s mid-afternoon. For you, it might be noon, or after dinner. Find the time of day when you feel the most motivated and the greatest urge to move and make that your workout time.
Engineer Your Environment to Make Healthy Decisions Automatic
We usually think of fitness as being effortful, but that isn’t necessarily true. We all have a default set of behaviors we’ll follow when we’re not making an active effort to do differently.
We have default foods we’ll eat. There’s a standard amount of walking we’ll do most days. We probably won’t work out unless we make an effort to do so — but few of us do.
This set of default behaviors isn’t fixed, unchangeable. It’s not even inherent to you. Your environment has a lot to do with it.
For example, if you live in a walkable neighborhood, the default amount of walking you’ll do on a day to day basis will be much higher than if you live in an area where you have to drive everywhere.
Your default way of eating will be heavily dependent on what foods are available and can be eaten the fastest. Keeping healthy, ready-to-eat foods like nuts and fresh fruit available ensures that when you feel too lazy to cook, you’ll still have a healthy default option.
Finally, a simple way to reduce the “friction” involved in working out is to keep your gym bag packed and near the front door.
No Matter How Busy You Get, Protect Your Sleep Time
In the corporate world, it’s depressingly common for people to sacrifice sleep in order to work longer hours. In fact, many people perversely bear their sleep deprivation as a badge of honor.
Arianna Huffington fell into this trap years ago, and she now considers it the worst mistake of her life. In 2007, a particularly brutal spate of work-induced sleep deprivation resulted in her passing out at her desk, hitting her head, and waking up in a pool of her own blood.
After that incident, she began sleeping eight hours a night, no matter how busy she was. She credits prioritizing sleep with improving not only her health but also her productivity and the success of her business.
When you sleep well, you’ll have more energy, you’ll work out more, and you’ll find it easier to make healthy decisions. Paradoxically, even though it makes you move around less, sleep deprivation actually increases your appetite due to an increase in production of endocannabinoids.
In other words, sleep deprivation is a lot like getting stoned, except it’s less pleasant and perhaps even less healthy for you in the long run.
Figure Out What It Would Take to Guarantee Success, and Do That
Finally, if all else fails, you’re probably just not trying hard enough. While this won’t be most people’s first choice, most problems can be solved by simply putting in massive amounts of effort.
As productivity blogger Tynan puts it:
What would it take to make weight loss nearly impossible to fail at? Remove all unhealthy foods from your house, commit to only eating at home, plan every meal in advance, and make sure that you have a caloric deficit made up of only high-quality foods. If you follow that protocol, it is impossible not to lose weight.
If you’ve tried several approaches and you’re still not getting the results you want, it may be time to admit you just need to put in more effort. Many people use things like the 80/20 rule, or “working smarter, not harder” as an excuse not to work very hard at all.
If a goal is important to you, attack it from several angles at once. Eat more vegetables, cut out liquid calories, junk foods and sugars, exercise every day, and enforce a strict sleep time, and you will get healthier. Make the effort, and it just becomes a matter of time.
If that sounds too difficult, then consider that your backup plan, and use your desire not to go that far to motivate you to really stick to Plan A. Don’t be afraid of the pain of hard work. Instead, use it to motivate you to stay disciplined. The more you stick to your fitness program, the faster you’ll hit your goals, and the sooner you can ease up a bit.
Busier People Than You Have Done It, and You Can Too
As you can see, being busy doesn’t have to be an obstacle to being fit and healthy. In fact, successful people usually stay in shape using the very same productivity strategies that make them so successful in their careers.
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