“The single most important factor in determining your health is not your parents, or even your environment. It is the quality of decisions that you make every day.” – Dr. Daniel Amen (child and adult psychiatrist, self-help advisor, author and medical director of the Amen Clinic)
Let’s face it: we all know what foods are good for us, we all know we need to exercise, we all know we should quit smoking. We are bombarded with information and advice about how to get healthy. The problem is not a shortage of information. It is implementing it in our own lives on an everyday basis.
In fact, an eight-decade long study found that the single largest biological factor linked with longevity was conscientiousness. What seems like our permanent state of “health” is, in large part, the consequences of a lifetime of decision-making. We might tell ourselves that we’ll make better decisions tomorrow, but bad decisions quickly turn into bad habits. And as we age, the consequences become more and more magnified.
The question then is, how do we help ourselves make better decisions? We all know what we should be doing, but we often act in contradicting ways.
I find that my moments of poorest judgement come when I am in a weakened mental state. Have you ever noticed that you tend to make the laziest, most unwise decisions when you are tired, starving, cranky, stressed, or intoxicated? In these states, reaching for that donut may seem like the only thing that will help you get through your day. It is so easy to justify bad decision-making to ourselves, especially when in the short term, it may be easier or more fun than the alternative. Unfortunately, if we tend to indulge our cravings in this way, we might be asking ourselves 3 months down the line, “Where did those 5 lbs come from?”
There are several steps we can take to prevent ourselves from falling into these weakened states in the first place (in order words, ensuring that our brain is well-equipped to make the best possible decisions):
- Keep your blood sugar stable. Eat high quality, small meals four to five times a day.
- Get 7-8 hours of sleep daily. Six or less hours of sleep decreases blood flow to vital organs, particularly the brain.
- Eliminate toxins. Heavy drinking or drug use will impair your judgment, making you more likely to do things you might not normally. Not to mention, the carbs from alcohol probably aren’t going to make those fitness goals any easier.
- Lose weight. Did you know that the more weight you put on, the smaller and less efficient your brain becomes?
- Meditate. A UCLA study published in March 2012 found that meditators have larger amounts of folding in the brain’s cortex than non-meditators, enabling them to process information more quickly.
- Worry a little bit. The Longevity Project also found that those with the “don’t worry, be happy” philosophy were a little more inclined to slack on their health than those who worried a small amount.
The type of temporary satisfaction we seek by indulging our cravings or weaknesses may provide pleasure in the short-term, but before you reach for that bag of potato chips, ask yourself if the subsequent guilt and regret is worth it.
I strongly believe that I could not have made it through my first two years at Stanford without the early morning habit. At the beginning of freshmen year, I was constantly exhausted, underslept, and irritable. It was difficult to focus during the day because of all the activity around me. When I tried working late at night, I produced low-quality work.
I haven’t always been a morning person, but I slowly made the transition using simple tricks, tools and habits. I now wake up around 5 a.m. every morning, and those early hours are the most productive of my day.
A typical morning looks something like this:
5:00 a.m.: The alarm rings.
5:20 a.m.: Work-out clothes already on, I brew my coffee, cook an egg/feta/spinach omelette or whatever else I might be craving.
5:30 a.m.: I sit down with my breakfast and give myself at least five minutes to focus on my food and coffee. This intentional eating, coupled with a clear effort to set my intention for the day, sets a mindful and purposeful tone for the next few hours. I look over my schedule for the day, prioritize my work, and then begin, starting with the most important items first.
Note: I try to refrain from checking email/facebook/texts until around seven. No email needs a reply this early anyway. These early hours are the time for me to be alone with my work, without distraction. To reduce any kind of temptation, I usually set SelfControl for an hour and a half, having added Facebook, Gmail, etc. to the blacklist.
7:00 a.m.: Having already completed an hour and a half of completely focused work, I open my email and respond to anything pressing.
7:20 a.m.- 8:30 a.m.: This is the time I set aside each day for either yoga, running, or meditation. This time is essential for me to approach my day with a clear, stress-free mind.
8:30 a.m.: I shower, get ready, and head out the door.
By the time most of my peers are just waking up, I’ve already conquered a significant portion of my work. Additionally, instead of resenting my 9 a.m. classes for having dragged me out of bed, I am well-prepared. Rather than being groggy, I am focused and alert.
Of course, the one downside of this schedule is that I get tired earlier in the evening. Because I don’t always want to go to bed at 10 p.m., I usually take an hour-long nap between classes at some point in the afternoon. This re-energizes me for the rest of the day and enables me to work or socialize late into the evening.