Getting the Basics Right
We all set goals to improve our health at one time or another, but these goals can fall by the wayside if we don’t focus our energy on the right things.
At one point or another we all set a goal to improve some behaviour about ourselves. Some of the most common goals are health related – a goal to improve our diet, to exercise more often, or to sleep 8 hours per night. Unfortunately, the biggest barrier to achieving our goals is usually ourselves, and more specifically, it’s often prioritising the wrong things.
In this blog post I’m going to describe what I mean by prioritising the wrong things, and then give some examples where people commonly fail their goal by choosing the wrong things to focus on.
For most goals there are a small number of factors which contribute disproportionately to the success or failure of the goal. You can think of these factors as being the 20% (as in, the 80/20 rule), you could think of them as the bigs wins, or keys, or anything else.
Don’t get me wrong – there are definitely factors outside of that small handful that meaningfully contribute towards succeeding in your goal, but they’re less important. If you’re focussing on anything outside that handful without first nailing those key factors, you’re putting your energy into the wrong places.
You can probably think of a few examples already, but I’m going to illustrate the point with three common behaviours people like to try improve.
I’m going to start out with the easiest example of all. If you search for diets on Google, you come up with literally dozens of named diets, all with their own unique claim to make you skinny, give you more energy, and reduce your wrinkles. These diets vary in complexity. Some have lists of food you can eat. Others just have lists of foods you can’t eat. Some others restrict the times you’re allowed to eat. Others yet are complex – requiring food scales, maths, or to buy only certain branded products from certain retailers.
All of these diets have one key thing in common – they encourage you to reduce your total caloric intake. The key factor that determines your success here is your total caloric intake for the day – if it’s less than your total expenditure for the day, you’ll lose weight, and conversely, if it’s more, you’ll gain weight.
Focussing on your fibre intake, not eating any carbohydrates, or only eating in an 8 hour window everyday are all fine, but if you’re not getting an appropriate number of calories to achieve your goal, you’re missing the forest for the trees.
The next example I’m going to look at is exercise. There are plenty of reasons to choose to exercise more – helping with weight loss, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, or being able to keep up with your kids are all common examples. Much like dieting, there are thousands of ways to exercise, and it’s easy to get caught in the minutiae of exercise and lose sight of the main point – the most important thing is getting moving (especially if you’re currently sedentary).
Of course, all the other things are important, but first and foremost, you should be finding a kind of exercise you like, and making time to get your heart rate elevated every single week. The World Health Organisation recommends starting with 75 minutes, spread over three or more sessions per week. Once you’re doing that consistently, then you can think about details like if you prefer to train fasted or fed.
The last example I’m going to use today is particularly close to my heart. Sleep is probably the most underrated thing you can do with your time, but people seem to see sleep as, at worst, an unnecessary nuisance to cut back on, or at best, as a filler between periods of wakefulness. Most people need 7 to 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night to function optimally, and most of us get nowhere near that much on a regular basis.
At the same time, the Internet is full of tips and “hacks” to improve sleep quality, efficiency, or to get away with sleeping only 4 hours per day and still being productive. These tips can often make a measurable impact, but if you’re wearing blue-light blocking glasses for an hour each night before bed and not creating an adequate sleep opportunity each night (where adequate means at least 8 hours), you’re probably putting your energy into the wrong things.
Wearing blue-light blocking glasses is great (I wear them), and making sure your room is the right temperature to sleep is fantastic (I try), but if you’re doing those and not making an adequate sleep opportunity, you need to refocus your energy on the most important factors.
While I firmly believe that the little changes you make do add up, you need to prioritise what you spend your energy on.