Protagonist rule #9: Take care of yourself

Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash
Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

Especially during my time in industry, a common saying among my a-type, hard-driving colleagues was “I can sleep when I’m dead.” The idea communicated was that the things you’re now spending time on are so important that you’re willing to give up everything else. Especially young, ambitious people, for some reason mostly men, have this tendency to focus all their energy and time on the one thing they’re pursuing at the expense of everything else.

Of course, when you’re in your early 20s, your body can take any abuse and you’ll be fine (remember partying those days?), but over time, things catch up with you and your body informs you that it can’t handle this in the long run. We all see the physical symptoms of increased fat percentage, bad cardiovascular state and so on. Many of us have stood in front of the mirror after a shower and decided that things needed to change.

The factor often ignored is our mental and emotional health. The number of mental illness cases has grown aggressively over recent decades. These days, somewhere between one in five and one in eight persons suffer from mental health conditions – especially young individuals.

Although both physical and mental health can be affected by factors outside of our control, as protagonists of our own lives, we can do many things to improve our health. I’m currently reading the excellent book by Peter Attia titled “Outlive.” His focus is on avoiding what he refers to as the four horsemen who tend to kill us in old age: heart disease, cancer, neurodegenerative disease, like Alzheimer’s, and type 2 diabetes. The key finding is that all these diseases tend to take decades to build up to a point that we become symptomatic. Rather than treating them when we’re diagnosed, the focus should be to structure our lives from an early age to avoid being affected at all.

When it comes to physical health, according to research, the most effective strategy is exercise. For all the talk about supplements and quick fixes, exercising to ensure we both have a strong cardiovascular basis and physical strength is by far the best thing we can do to improve our physical health. I exercise daily myself and use a mix of weight training, aiming to train all major muscles twice per week, and cardio every other day or more frequently. The latter can be running, swimming, biking or some other form of heart rate-increasing activity. Finally, I try to complement this with daily walks as walking keeps coming up as the most natural, low-impact health-improving activity.

Mental health is a difficult topic that still has a bit of a taboo around it in society, despite the large number of people affected by it. I don’t want to dismiss the many disorders, caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain or otherwise, that affect many people and that can only be attended to with medication, psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy or other forms of treatment. However, there are actions we can take ourselves, often referred to as self-care. These include, again, exercise, as it tends to positively influence our mental state, as well as the food we eat and proper sleeping habits.

In my case, I’m susceptible to bouts of depression and, especially when I’m very busy and stressed, anxiety. For me, the two main practices that help are journaling and meditation. Whenever I have the chance, I try to journal for 15 minutes every morning straight out of bed. It helps me reflect on my state of mind and get clear on my priorities for the day. I always end my journal entry by writing down three things I’m grateful for and three things I want to finish today.

Second, I meditate for 20 minutes right before dinner every evening or late afternoon as a way to settle my mind after a busy day of work. Although I’ve been doing this for years, I feel I’m not making much progress, but the act of simply sitting on a pillow and focusing on my breath helps me slow down and identify what the issues are that are keeping both my subconscious and conscious mind occupied.

All of these activities are known to every individual reading this. For some reason, however, exercise, healthy food, sleep, meditation and other activities we know are good for us are often deprioritized in favor of short-term benefits, ranging from staying at work a bit longer to eating tasty, but crappy, fast food that gives a short-term reward.

For me, the best way to overcome the resistance to doing this is through habit formation. If we rely on willpower to make sure we do everything right, we’re going to lose, as willpower is like a muscle in that it tires out rapidly. And we all know that willpower weakens during the day and is weakest during the evening. That’s why we sit on the couch watching some stupid TV program or Youtube video late at night even if we know we should get ourselves to bed. The moment something becomes a habit, you don’t need to think about it or force yourself to do it. It just happens. For me, the easiest habits to form are daily ones and that’s why I exercise, journal and meditate at almost the same time every day.

We can only function at our best if we are at our best. That requires that we take care of ourselves. This has two components: our physical health and our mental health. The two ways to best take care of those are exercise for physical health and meditation for mental health. Not doing so doesn’t only negatively affect our life expectancy and our mental state but also has adverse effects on our performance at work and elsewhere. There are infinitely many quotes I could use here, but I decided to pick one by Diane von Furstenberg: “It’s so important to take time for yourself and find clarity. The most important relationship is the one you have with yourself.”

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