The last three years haven’t been very healthy. In addition to raising a new daughter, I’ve been launching Strata and Startupfest and working with Ben Yoskovitz on Lean Analytics. It’s been rewarding, and fun, but it hasn’t been good for my waistline. I borrowed a joke from Emo Phillips last week at an event in Toronto: my body isn’t a temple; at best, it’s a poorly maintained Presbyterian youth center.
Nilofer Merchant calls sitting “the smoking of our generation,” and that’s not hyperbole. Lured into chairs by our online lives, we’ve become sedentary. Our children are growing, horizontally, at an alarming rate. And when we do get up, it’s often to sit elsewhere — over lunch, in a coffee shop, and so on.
In a series of conversations over the last few weeks, Nilofer and I have been discussing all manner of things, from the power of networks to how to change behavior. Her admonishment to get out and walk got me looking for other simple hacks that might help me be healthier.
For starters, there’s ambient logging. I’ve been wearing a fitbit for the last few months, and I noticed some spikes in activity when I thought I wasn’t exercising.
Checking my calendar, I realized that these coincided with conference calls. Turns out I pace. A lot. I’d rather be doing that outside, but it’s unfair to inflict background noise on others. I’ve seen ads (and a pretty compelling demonstration) for a phone headset called The Boom, which apparently cancels out all background noise. So hack #1: go on a walk for conference calls. At least when the weather has improved a bit. (You can read more about Nilofer’s TED talk here.)
This seems to be the inherent problem with life-logging. It doesn’t, on its own, change behavior. It makes you more aware (and sometimes changes what you do — putting calories next to menu items reduces calories consumed) but the hard thing is to tie metrics to action. Short of a fork that beeps when you eat too fast (and yes, such things exist) we need to tie information to action by correlating it with behavioral patterns.
I’ve also been trying to get better at working on tasks in chunks. From what I’ve read in various places, humans are good at 90-minute blocks of focus — maybe that’s why movies tend to be that long. According to the New York Times:
Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.
If that’s the case, hack #2 is breaking the day into four 90-minute chunks, and planning some kind of physical activity in between them. This also helps me realize that, no matter how well-intentioned my list of activities for the day might be, I can really only do three big things a day.
But why stop there? I should be picking smaller activities for the batches of short, more reactive, interruptive tasks like responding to Twitter or catching up on correspondence. Finished reading unread mails? Time for some push-ups. Written a short note? Time to stretch. So hack #3 is associate proportionate exercise with each chunk of work. Not sure if this works, but it sounds like an experiment worth trying, albeit one that requires a bit of office reconfiguration.
I’m also someone who writes and speaks a lot. I need to remember that old parable about having two ears and one mouth and using them accordingly. But when I finally do get a chance to consume something (like Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind) it pays off a hundredfold, giving me new angles and examples.
On the other hand, I had Lasik a couple of years ago, and it’s made it harder to look at screens for a long time, so maybe I need to push 5-10 blogs or PDFs a day into an e-reader, and consume them. And it has to be something without an Internet connection that interrupts me. So hack #4 is to invest in the modern equivalent of a newspaper, using something like Prismatic to select content and push it to a device with big fonts that’s easy on the eyes, like a Kindle.
If I’m breaking things into chunks, why stop at reading? For most of us, documentaries are the mental equivalent of exercise or healthy eating — we know we should be doing it, but we default to junk viewing and escapism instead. There’s so much good content on Netflix and other sources that I’d like one of my 90-minute breaks to be streaming a documentary.
The problem here is finding stuff I wouldn’t normally want to watch. I want Netflix’s suggestions not for me. If the point of this hack is to broaden my mind, I want to avoid the filter bubbles that reinforce my worldview.
I could get through 200 documentaries a year with that model. Hack #5 is to find a list of must-watch documentaries, and consume one a day.
Back to health: I spend a bunch of time in transit. When I go to a city for more than a few days, I’d prefer to ride a bike. It’s cheaper than cabs, and better for me. It’s better for the planet. And if I leave a bike behind in each city, donating it to a Boys & Girls Club or Goodwill, I’m making the planet a better place. So hack #6 is to find a way to use bikes instead of cabs.
(A smart librarian in Austin pointed out that David Byrne has been doing this for a while, and I tried it at SXSW, and learned a lot. I’ll write that up at Lean Analytics, as it’s chock-full of lessons for entrepreneurs, too.)
There are other hacks worth trying: I’m using Flux to dim my screen in the evening, which helps combat the chronic insomnia we get from staring at bright white lights. And I should probably use public transit in strange cities, instead of hiding in taxis.
Provided I can remember this advice:
Any suggestions for other things I should incorporate in the coming year?
This post originally appeared on Solve for Interesting. This version has been lightly edited.