Read a lot of self-help books, as many of us did during the pandemic, and patterns start to emerge. (We’re not just talking about the titles getting more sweary.) In 2020, I boiled the advice of hundreds of books down to 11 rules that recur throughout history and are backed up by science. These were, in short: build small habits; plan clearly; accept disruption; postpone judgment; carpe your limited diem; be playful; be useful; learn to chill; write; let others help. Oh yes, and perfectionism leads to procrastination – a rule that still feels like a personal attack.
When I reviewed the latest in preventative healthcare a year later, I also found advice that could be reduced to a list that seemed almost tauntingly easy. A doctor ran through a list of DNA markers that made me more at risk for a range of diseases, as well as a few concerning numbers in my bloodwork. What could I do to put them right and alleviate my genetic risks? In every case, the answer came down to just four incredibly basic things: Better sleep, more frequent exercise, better nutrition decisions, more stress-reducing meditation. Add those four to the original 11, and you end up with 15 easy rules for the ideal healthy life. Right?
Wrong, because here’s the problem with being human: Awareness of what you need to do is a universe away from actually doing it. Yale professor Laurie Santos brought this point home in the happiness course I reviewed in 2021. “Knowing is not half the battle,” Santos says, upending a quote from the 1980s G.I. Joe cartoon. You can read all the happiness studies there are and still struggle to improve your own life, as Santos admits she does.
Or in my case, you can write repeatedly about the importance of sleep, test sleep trackers, and still struggle to get six hours in bed a night. (That’s thanks in part to being a night owl, a chronotype that science tells us we shouldn’t try to change, living in a lark world.)
Here’s how I would reduce those 15 rules to one: We are all basically meatsacks. No matter how smart we are, our brains are shaped by powerful evolutionary chemicals, and are often incredibly difficult to rewire. This may not be the most uplifting self-help notion, but it should encourage you to forgive yourself if you fail, and try again with more modest habit-changes. (How are those New Years’ resolutions going, fam?)
Still, we all know what a breakthrough looks like: the rare moment when you try some form of self-improvement and it actually takes. Perhaps the most honest thing a writer of self-help can do is outline their own successes and failures, while noting where the science stands, and the constant caveat that your mileage may vary. What follows, then, is nothing more or less than stuff I’ve written about that has changed my life in ways large and, as in the first instance, deceptively small.
Click on the titles for more details and the science behind each change. If we’re lucky, there might just be one or two things in this list that work for your meatsack too.
I don’t follow a specific diet plan, though I’ve tried many of them in the past. The most useful in my experience was the Whole30, a month-long reset button where you just eat plants and protein and don’t count calories or bother to weigh yourself. It helped in the long run by increasing the number of easy vegetable-cooking options in my limited repertoire. (Eggplant, asparagus, and sweet potato slices with olive oil in the toaster oven FTW.)
But there is something I consume religiously, multiple times a day. I fill a 30-ounce tumbler with ice and water, squeeze in half a lemon, and drink the ultra-cold result through a straw (to avoid harming the enamel on my teeth). It’s the most refreshing way I’ve found to stay hydrated, and one that seems to be winning converts the more friends I share it with. I find it cuts down my need for snacks by filling my stomach; these days I even find it preferable to alcohol at mealtimes. If you’re looking to replace sugary drinks (and UCSF pediatrician Robert Lustig’s famous sugar lecture often reminds me why that’s a good idea), iced lemon water might be just the ticket.
There are many great forms of exercise I’ve enjoyed over the years: Yoga; tai chi (which could use more love from the tech world); e-biking (in year-long reviews, wild distance rides, and hot bike summers); hiking, especially during the pandemic; snowshoeing in winter (with the perfect audiobook). The one that stuck, much to my surprise, was running. I started doing it daily during 2020 as a much-needed stress reliever, very gradually upping my distance (currently 7K a day) even while masked.
As with a lot of my habits, I track my daily 7K via the award-winning Streaks app, which helps keep me honest. But I wouldn’t have kept it going without a couple of obsessively-curated Spotify playlists that help me run at the recommended number of steps per minute – playlists I now listen to through the ideal pair of running headphones.
I knew the importance of breath from yoga and meditation, but James Nestor’s 2020 bestseller Breath was what really changed my behavior. In short: inhaling and exhaling slowly through the nose is key, even while exercising, especially while asleep. I never imagined I’d put a small strip of surgical tape on my lips at bedtime, as Nestor does, but was surprised to find it makes even my minimal amount of sleep much more refreshing.
As the creator of March Mindfulness, a tongue-in-cheek meditation contest now in its fifth year, I know the value of being light, playful, and experimental with this often-too-serious practice. Whatever helps you meditate regularly, especially amidst the chaos of a pandemic, is good! Personally, I find the drone of voices that tell you how to do it to be a distraction. Most days you can find me simply following my breath for five minutes at a time via the Mindfulness app on the Apple Watch, or using the Muse 2 (which listens to feedback from your brain with less hassle than the later Muse S).
Science tells us that giving our cells more time without energy intake is what helps them become hardy, removing disease-causing junk like misfolded proteins. But in our diet-obsessed world, fasting can too easily become associated with eating disorders. So rather than stick to a complicated intermittent fasting schedule, I follow the advice of Harvard genetics professor David Sinclair, whose studies suggest we can halt aging and maybe even live to 150.
Sinclair recommends a couple of over-the-counter supplements that mimic the effects of fasting at a cellular level: NMN and resveratrol. (A major 2021 study confirmed the anti-aging benefits of NMN, which is derived from niacin, and while cautioning that more study was needed, recognized that “no rigorous side-effects” have been reported; similarly no severe side effects have been found for resveratrol, which occurs naturally in grapes and other food.)
Having taken both for two and a half years, I find, like Sinclair, that they give me more energy and have reversed a number of gray hairs (something we can also do simply by de-stressing, according to a recent groundbreaking study.)
You may have seen studies that show writing a gratitude journal can improve your health. I still roll my eyes at that notion. That said, journaling in general is a form of therapy I can’t do without, especially when my daily entries are written, calligraphy pen-style, on the gorgeous ReMarkable 2 e-ink tablet. Once a month I drop those handwritten entries into my digital diary app, DayOne, which syncs seamlessly and securely to all my devices. DayOne’s “on this day” feature is a profoundly useful (if often cringeworthy) way to see patterns of negative thoughts and feelings. The more I’m aware that they recur across the years, the more likely I can resist them in the future.
The science of cannabis and psychedelic medicine has evolved by leaps and bounds these past few years. I’ve written about authors who microdose LSD and why it’s just as effective as other so-called smart drugs, and the respected mushroom researcher who promotes psilocybin’s therapeutic effects in small doses. (Think Nine Perfect Strangers, but with consent.)
But perhaps the most useful suggestion came from author and researcher Steven Kotler, who studies the science of the powerfully productive brain state known as flow. Kotler found that the chemical signature of flow in the brain is indistinguishable from the combination of coffee, exercise, and a small dose of cannabis. Your mileage is definitely going to vary on this one, depending on local laws. (Hello from California!) But in my carefully-curated experience, Kotler is clearly on to something.
I may not be the best at staying asleep as long as I should. But I have learned to enjoy and extend the trippy experiences that come at both ends of the night: brain states called hypnagogia and hypnopompia that science still barely understands. Dream hacker Jennifer Dumpert calls this liminal dreaming, and it may be the wildest, weirdest natural high our meatsack brains have to offer.
Taking a course in “neurosculpting” in 2019 left me with a few residual practices I still use: gargling to soothe the vagus nerve; literally “shaking it off,” Taylor Swift-style, to shift out of an anxious brain state. But the most important impression the course left was how hard it is to train the brain’s natural neuroplasticity to kick in. You have to be thoroughly relaxed, with at least 20 minutes of deep meditation, before even attempting to make any changes to that troublesome meatsack brain.
In a normal week, my most-used app is Todoist. It’s the one that most effectively implements productivity author David Allen’s simple and widely-used system, Getting Things Done or GTD. But every so often, I’ll spend a week noting how I use my time via the ATracker app. My categories: creating, reading, exercising, tasks, sleep, everything else.
Looking at the week in retrospect, without judgment, can help me lean in to the times when I’m most productive in each area rather than trying to shoehorn change into my natural schedule. And the simple act of timing helps me think more about exactly what I want to do in any given moment. Some week soon I may even have the gumption to further reclaim my time from the social media algorithms that dominate too much of it – by implementing Screenless Sundays and ditching apps Marie Kondo-style.
As the elders of the millennial generation are starting to learn, the 40s are a “decade of despair.” That’s not just subjective opinion, but a growing body of science; evolution seems to have primed all primates for a midlife crisis that helps them become wiser and happier on the other end. Knowing this isn’t close to half the battle, of course. But it does help you take a beat if the negative voices in your fortysomething head tell you to radically upend your life without a good plan. In short: It gets better.
The pandemic disrupted a lot of daily life. But it also offered clarity on the stuff that really matters, which is way less than we thought. Commuting, for many of us, isn’t essential; community is, for all of us. In the post-COVID-19 world, the list of things I’ll likely use less than I did in the Before Times includes sunglasses, office chairs, regular pants, and airplanes. And when it comes to the internet, there are things we could stand to do more – like truly unbiased research and bringing our online identities closer to reality.
The best form of time management may involve looking at life in terms of weeks, as one efficiency expert recommends – because we have so frighteningly few of them. Like any form of memento mori, the “four thousand weeks” method helps remind us that we have little time to do what’s most important to us. And even if we don’t figure it out with enough weeks left, on a long enough time scale, very few achievements truly matter. So just chill, and write that novel or paint that painting or record that music because it pleases you, not with any eye to history.
Self care is a political act and always has been seen as such, from Socrates to Audre Lorde. It isn’t about pampering, it’s about stepping back and taking stock of yourself so that you can jump back into the fray and more effectively fight for just causes. Though human nature is more filled with kindness than you might expect, and we are in many ways living through the best time in history, there is still plenty wrong in the world – much of it driven by the fact that extreme wealth tends to turn billionaires into assholes.
That won’t get fixed if we all stand idly by. So take the time you need to work on yourself, but remember that working for all of us is more fulfilling. As much as personal decisions matter (choosing alternate meat or alternate milk, growing your own veg, leaving no trace, not buying a car), it’s societal change that matters more.
Perhaps most pressingly, you could fight for universal healthcare, which is most definitely a thing that worked for me. Or for universal basic income, speeding the end of global poverty, implementing a cryptocurrency-based solution for climate change, or the late E.O. Wilson’s idea that we just need to leave half the Earth alone, or for a regulatory nudge as simple as requiring all gas stations to provide electric vehicle chargers. Band together, apply pressure to leaders, don’t stop – and your self-helped self could honestly help to change the world.