If You Want to Improve Your Life But Don’t Know Where to Start, Start Here…

I spent 30 years on yo-yo diets, from the age of 13 until I was 43, gaining weight, using some gimmick diet to lose a few pounds, but then gaining more back.

I spent 30 years on yo-yo diets, struggling to control my weight, obsessing about foods, and very unhappy about all of it. From the age of 13 (which is too young to be worried about such things) until I was 43, I would gain weight, feel like a failure, pick some gimmick diet, lose a few pounds, but then rebound and gain even more back. I was exercising, but only inconsistently, skipping months at a time.

At the age of 23, which I should have been in decent physical fitness, I once pulled a muscle getting out of bed because I had spent so much time doing nothing that my muscles atrophied. I could just barely handle my own body.

When I started a family, I was trying to be a good dad by spending lots of time with my children, but I wasn't taking care of myself. I was on a cycle of eating the wrong things, guzzling coffee to stay awake, and not exercising.

At one point, I thought I was having a heart attack and checked myself into the hospital. It turned out to be too much caffeine causing heart palpitations. I was grateful I hadn't had a heart attack, but worried that I was relying on coffee so much.

Then my cholesterol reached a dangerous level and my doctor prescribed statins for me.

I've discussed in other articles how I had an epiphany about taking care of myself, and most of that was focused on exercising to improve my fitness. I made one decision in particular that provided for me the most benefit: I decided that, if nothing else, I would find a way to exercise every single day.

I don't remember exactly how I came to this, but I know I'd read other books that talked about it (especially Covert Bailey's Fit or Fat). Rather than choose a huge goal for myself like run a marathon or swim across Lake Erie, I just wanted to be consistent. Once a day, 365 days a year, year after year.

That was my goal.

What Happened When I Focused on Daily Fitness

Over the course of the next year, I lost 40 pounds, improved my cholesterol dramatically, re-started my creative writing passion, took up accordion lessons, and — best of all — began to believe that so much more was possible for myself.

Fitness didn't help with all of those things directly. Some of them came about because I also began to eat better, cutting out lots of sweets and processed foods. Some of them came about because I was sleeping better, and cut back on caffeine and soda pop.

Most of all, once the habit for daily fitness became ingrained, I realized I could exercise and do other things with my life without risking the exercise habit. I truly had more energy for other activities, and enjoyed doing things because I felt better overall.

I am convinced that starting a habit for daily fitness leads to other life-improving habits once your fitness habit becomes second nature.

Why is Fitness the Best Place to Start Improving Your Life?

Why start with fitness when the reason dear to my heart has nothing to do with fitness? Like what if what you really want to do with your life is to learn to play the clarinet well enough to join the local symphony orchestra?

Improved fitness leads to other habits such as sleep, nutrition, and daily planning. Your body will respond in several ways to these combined efforts, putting you on a positive cycle of good feeling and satisfaction in your accomplishment. The energy boost is noticeable after just a few weeks of daily activity. And once you have been doing it for a few weeks, you begin to believe in yourself that you really can stick to it. That confidence can be leveraged for other activities.

Why a Fitness Habit Can Be the Easiest to Acquire

Fitness culture pervades the larger culture we are in. There are fitness centers in most communities that are affordable for most people (Planet Fitness, for example, has $10 per month memberships).

Your fitness habit doesn't have to be a big thing, like training for a marathon. You can walk or jog or do calisthenics in your house. Fitness activities can be fun — and should be — and expand your social connections.

The best thing to do is whatever is the most convenient. For instance, jogging is one of the best exercises and is also one of the most convenient. You need shoes and proper clothing for the weather. It might take you five minutes to get dressed. You take a 20 minute jog around the neighborhood. Then cool down and stretch for ten more minutes. That's it. You're done for the day.

What might not be as good a choice is to decide that ice hockey is the best habit for you. The skates are expensive. The equipment is expensive. You have to share in the expense of renting the ice. You have to coordinate the schedule with nine other players. And to have a decent game, you'll also need two goalies, which is probably the most difficult thing to find of all. That's an extreme example, but I'm just making the point that as awesome it may be to play hockey, it may not be the best choice for you to acquire a daily fitness habit.

How to Use Your Fitness Habit to Acquire Other Good Habits

As the fitness habit becomes truly habitual, you free up mental energy to improve other areas of your life. What I have found out is that I plan a fitness activity without stressing myself. I have several options that I enjoy — biking, jogging, calisthenics, yoga, walking and swimming — and I look for the simplest one to do each day. The habit is now so ingrained that I do it automatically, noticing gaps in my schedule each day and inserting the simplest activity to accomplish into the available time.

Remember, I had at one time gotten so out of shape that I pulled a muscle getting out of bed. I had gone months without exerting myself. Now, I rarely go 24 hours.

The planning and scheduling skills can be applied to the other areas. I've gotten so good at identifying available gaps in my daily schedule that it is no-stress to pick out a slot of 20, 30, or 60 minutes to use for music, writing, or managing my finances.

Granted, I'm not perfect about it, but I get to these things as needed and I don't have to halt all other life activities to get them done.

Fitness activities boost endurance, increase your mental capacity and relieve stress — all of which leads to abilities in other areas. Once the full effect of improved fitness kicks in, and finding time in your daily schedule becomes second nature, you will notice that you get more things done.

All you have to do is focus your attention on things you care about, and other areas of your life begin to improve as well.

And it will all be thanks to having acquired a daily habit for fitness.

Next Steps

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What If Nothing Matters To You Enough For You To Do Something About It?

How to figure out what will improve your life when you don’t know what matters to you.

What if you really have no dreams or plans for the future? Are you really stuck, or doomed, to keep living just as things are?

There is a lamp that has been lost on a beach somewhere. It’s like Aladdin’s lamp because when you rub the lamp it releases the genie trapped inside. But this genie is different.

The genie inside this lamp will grant you a wish, but he can’t just give you piles of money or great power (like the genie in Aladdin’s lamp). This genie grant’s wishes of the sort that you can actually achieve yourself if you put in the hard work.

The only trick is that you have to choose what it is you want.

You could be a strong and well-trained athlete who competes at the highest level, or become a talented and beloved musician entertaining people, or be a wildly successful business owner who delivers valuable products to the market for profit.

All you have to do is tell the genie what it is, and then he will tell you where to find your treasure.

Release the genie, sure; but what will you ask for?

But what if, when you released the genie, you didn’t know what to ask for. Instead of happily asking the genie to show you how to make your dream come true, this happened:

The lamp flashed red hot and then smoke poured out of its top. The genie appeared before you, seven feet tall, wrapped in fine silk, his skin glowing with the light of a blue flame. “What is it you seek,” he says. “I will grant you one wish allowing you to do anything you want in this world. But it has to be a thing dear to your heart.”

You look around to see if anyone is watching, stalling for time, because you’re not sure what to ask for. You no longer remember what it is you wanted to be when you grew up.

“Well,” the genie says. “What is it you want?”

You scratch your head and then say, “Honestly, I’m pretty busy already. I have my job. And I watch television after work so my evenings are full. Some weekends I go to the casino, or I go to the outlet mall to shop.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” you say. “I guess I’m good.”

Would you be able to tell the genie what you desired?

The amazing thing is that we all have a genie who will grant our wish. It may not seem like it from where you’re standing now, and the path may not be an easy one to travel in order to find your treasure. But the genie is there for almost every single one of us. He (or she) is waiting for us to answer the question.

Some people don’t know what they want.

The world can be a demanding place and many of us spend our entire lives reacting to circumstances. That’s how it was for me, even though I thought I was in control, I was just reacting.

My genie was there with me, the entire time, waiting for me — decade after decade — to answer the question. In the meantime, I was working a few jobs, solving problems for other people. And I started a family, which brings up a lot more things to react to, and there can be so many things in your life that you don’t believe for a second that you get to do what you want to do with your life. Your life seems like someone else’s life.

I know what you’re thinking: what if my job is exactly what I want to do?

Many people have their dream job, and there’s nothing more to say to you except go to it and enjoy.

But for the rest of us, what do you say to the genie?

If you don’t know exactly what your dream job is, or even in what general area of activity where your dream job exists, how do you tell the genie what you want?

We have to sit a while and think. And it can’t be the type of sitting that you’re accustomed to. You can’t watch television and call it thinking. You can’t play video games on your smartphone and call it thinking. And you can’t click through social media feeds on your computer and call it thinking.

The type of thinking you need to answer the genie is to sit quietly for extended periods of time and wait for you subconscious mind and conscious mind to agree on what it is you want to do.

Where your dreams are buried.

The subconscious mind is the part of your brain that remembers your dreams as a kid, or your plans as a young person for what you wanted to do with your life. It keeps those things that are dear to your heart and never lets go of them. But most of us have spent so many years reacting to circumstances that we’ve piled tons of useless information on top of our dreams and plans, and we need to spend some quiet time to sort through it all and remember.

For me, I wanted to be a novelist, and that’s what I’m working on now. But in the meantime I took jobs working with computers. Although I made a living and raised a family that way, I never fully embraced that career. It always felt like something was missing. It was that computer work was not dear to my heart. I was solving other people’s problems.

I did write novels all that time, but I was not in the field and heavily distracted by my job. I may have done better working in publishing, or teaching, or maybe I just needed to take more classes.

Instead, I kept working on computer problems because they were interesting challenges and paid good money. They just weren’t dear to my heart.

How do you sit quietly and think?

There are a multitude of distractions that will conspire to keep you from thinking. The basic principle is to get away from the distractions long enough for your mind to be assured it doesn’t have to react immediately to the stimuli. Give it a chance, instead, to think about your memories, your life, and your dreams.

Step 1: Make the time in your daily activities to do this. Trust that it will be okay to not respond to email or social media for an hour each day. If your phone rings, you will call them back, whoever it is, in a little while. I presume you make time to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. Make time for this, as well.

Step 2: Find a comfortable, quiet place. You’re going to sit or lie down for a while. Don’t distract yourself with the discomfort of the chair. If you have to get out of the house and do this to protect your time, choose a library or a church rather than a mall or a coffee shop. If you’re new to this, you’ll need to truly minimise distraction.

Step 3: Spend the time in this place, every day, day after day. It may take several days, weeks, or even more than a month to clear your head — even for a few minutes — of the distractions of modern living. More than anything, you are establishing trust with your subconscious to go ahead and discuss what is dear to your heart.

Tips for successfully thinking.

Reserve all judgment. This is a time to explore your memories, dreams, and aspirations. There is no use in complaining about circumstances or criticising yourself. Things just are. Let them be. Find what you want, then go after that.

You can sit still and do nothing, or you may want to use your hands a bit for writing or drawing.

Journaling is an excellent way to get in touch with your subconscious. I used this technique, and the first several months of journaling involved releasing a lot of anger through writing. I was mad at the world, but mostly mad at myself.

You may start with recording daily events, and then expand on thoughts and ideas that pop up into your head. This will eventually lead to memories and your dreams that are dear to your heart.

Doodling is another excellent way. It’s a lot like journaling, but you scribble and make pictures. If it seems like a fun thing to do, get yourself a thick book of drawing paper and a set of pens or pencils, and go doodle.

Colouring books seem like they would work, as well, to engage the mind without becoming yet another distraction. I think, especially, the repetitive nature of colouring may be useful for thinking.

How to know when you’ve spent enough time thinking.

At some point, you’ll discover the thing you always wanted to do or to be. Once rediscovered, that thing will rise up in your consciousness, and appear before you in conversations, dreams, and will want to stay with you.

You will have a choice, then, because the genie will be ready to tell you what you need to do to achieve that dream.

You can either tell the genie and begin this next journey. Or you can allow the distractions of life to bury those dreams, again, until some other day.

The choice, like your dream, is your own.

Next Steps

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How to Renew Your Energy Levels and Renew Your Life

Out of shape? Not eating right? Too busy and too tired to care? Don’t know where to start? Try this.

Out of shape? Not eating right? Too busy and too tired to care? Don't know where to start? Try this.

Not that long ago, I was out of shape, eating food that was lousy for me, and I was too tired to care. But it all changed because of my father's dog.

The dog's name was Mr. Peabody, and the dog was morbidly obese. My father took the dog out for McDonald's sausage sandwiches every morning, and went back for ice cream every night. That dog was double a healthy weight, and had diabetes. The vet gave him just a few months to live unless my father could take better care of him.

My father loved that dog and immediately began changing their habits. Instead of going out for McDonald's sausage sandwiches, they went for a walk. Instead of ice cream every night, they went for another walk. And my father carefully administered insulin shots for the dog. Within a couple of months, Mr. Peabody was down to a healthy weight, his youthful energy returned, and we thought it was a miracle.

Of course it wasn't a miracle.

My father cared about that dog but he realized in the nick of time that he also had to care for the dog.

So it was for me

I spent many years slowly putting on weight until, at the age of 43, I was in a very unhealthy shape. I wanted to make a change and already I had tried every gimmick diet I could find. Nothing worked beyond a couple of months before my old habits crept back into my life. It was frustrating to the point of despair. I wanted to have energy to be an active part of my family, especially my kids' lives. Instead, I was risking my health.

In fact, my cholesterol had spiked and my doctor wanted me to go on statins. Things were not looking good for me.

Then I remembered Mr. Peabody

I remembered my father's dog, Mr. Peabody, and it hit me that my father took better care of that dog than I was taking care of myself. I decided I needed to care for myself the way my father cared for his dog.

I was able to lose weight, improve my physical fitness, and improve my health overall. I had more energy, slept better, and was able to work on passion projects in addition to doing well at my career.

Of course, this didn't happen overnight. It didn't even happen in a couple of months (not at all like it was for Mr. Peabody the dog). It took over a year. But knowing that it took me 30 years to mess up my health, I decided I would give myself two years to restore my health. And when I was able to declare it a success in less than two years, I felt like I'd really accomplished something.

Keeping up those routines for that long wasn't easy. So how did I do it?

The One Thing

The key for me was to connect my goal — improved health — to what I cared about — my family. With that, I was able to establish a healthy pattern of better nutrition and regular exercise.

I shed the weight I didn't need, lowered my cholesterol, and really adopted a habit for healthy living. Ten years later, that habit is still a strong part of my life and I'm happier than I ever have been before.

Not that I don't have challenges each day in keeping that habit. But I keep a firm hold on the source of my motivation — taking care of myself so that I can be a part of my family — to help me overcome obstacles as I find a way each day to keep taking care of myself.

Enough about me. What about you?

So how do you do this? What if your situation is entirely different than mine? What are you going to do?

The first thing is to identify what it is that you care enough about to want to change your life. It doesn't have to be about your own family. It could be a goal entirely of your own choosing, such as learning to be an artist of some kind, or taking up a sport, or starting a new career.

You can even have goals that have nothing to do with health or fitness. But I promise you that health and fitness have everything to do with achieving any goal because our bodies and minds perform better when we are in good health.

Still, the key is to pick your goal. Think about it, write it down, then sleep on it.

In the morning, if you are sure it's the right goal, then you can take the next step.

Once you have your goal, this is the next step

Congratulate yourself.

That's right. Take a moment and acknowledge how you have taken the first step in a journey towards doing something amazing for yourself.

Celebrate.

That's right, not only are you to congratulate yourself but I want you to celebrate. Buy yourself something nice, like a new outfit, or go see a movie, or some token of appreciation that will be meaningful to you.

Why?  

Because one of the most important things you must do to break free of your old, self-destructive habits is to replace them with new, self-improving habits. And the way to do that is to reward your good actions. Choosing the reason you are going to take better care of yourself is the most important action to take, and you must convince your own mind that it is a worthy endeavor.

And Next?

Find a place to keep that thing you care about close and familiar. You can write it down in a journal every morning. Or write it down on a card and read it to yourself every day. Or, better still, build a vision board about that thing and hang it on your bedroom wall.

This sounds very elaborate but you are going to be struggling to overcome a lifetime of resistance to achieving your goal and changing self-destructive habits. Remember, the human brain is actually wired for efficiency, and so the easiest thing for your brain to do is nothing. Don't go get healthy food from the store. Don't get dressed and exercise. Don't go to bed on time but stay up late binge watching whatever the television plays.

You will need a reason to care for yourself that is near and dear to your heart. You will also need to remind yourself of that reason as you struggle to adopt self-improving habits and reach for your goal.

Finally, this is what you do with that thing you care about…

If you can do all that, you can use it to take the next step in your journey to save your life. Which I will talk about in my next article.

Next Steps

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Take a Break or Else: Discover the Secret You’ve Known All Your Life To Get Out of Your Head and Get More Done Today By Not Trying So Hard

This week in Self Improvement, we discuss taking a break. Specifically, it’s the ultradian rhythms that rule our daily lives, and how working within those rhythms can boost productivity, creativity, and your health and well-being.

It was wonderfully explained, in a 90s kind of way, by: The Twenty Minute Break: Reduce Stress, Maximize Performance, Improve Health and Emotional Well-Being Using the New Science of Ultradian Rhythms by Ernest Rossi (with David Nimmons).

Why Me

I was attracted to Rossi’s book because I spent decades trying to do too much in my day and powered through it with snacking and coffee. Once I checked myself into a hospital, convinced I was having a heart attack — but it turned out to be the coffee interfering with my heart beat. I since noticed peaks in my performance with extraordinary focus followed by distracted lulls. Nothing useful ever happened in those lulls. They frustrated me, and I finally I built my own pattern of walks-as-breaks to try to regain my focus.

This book explained what was happening to me and, more importantly, how to take advantage of the rhythms!

TL;DR

About every 90 minutes, you need to chill for 20. Let your mind wander. Lay down if you can, sit in a quiet place and close your eyes. Let go of your worries. If you fall asleep, fine. You probably needed to sleep. If you can’t do those thing (like when you’re at work) take a meandering walk and put it on autopilot.

Who Says I Can Take a Break

The Twenty Minute Break was published in 1992, so the information is not necessarily new. But it resonated with me, and the book is well-written and a fairly quick read, providing enough scientific background to make the case without belaboring the point.

Ignoring your ultradian rhythms leads to a build-up of stress in your day-to-day activities, which can culminate in an exhausted crash at the end of the day. Treating the symptoms of that stress with unhealthy snack foods, cigarettes, and binge eating or drinking at the end of the day compounds the problems. If your self-care is unhealthy and disrupts your sleep, as late-night eating or heavy drinking may do, you will enter a spiral of stress as you begin the next day tired, rather than rested, and you may cause greater health problems later on.

Rossi goes to great lengths to lay out a framework for the ultradian rhythms of:

  • Recognize the signs of a need to take a break
  • Use deep breathing to begin the recovery process during your break
  • Mind-body healing — allowing your mind to wander signals your body to recover from the stress
  • Rejuvenation and Awakening — once the body has recovered, the mind will come into focus

The Hard Part

Rossi explains how each of us has a unique rhythm, with our performance curve lasting from 80 to 120 minutes, and our recovery curve anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes. He proposes that you track your peaks and valleys for a few days to identify your own ultradian rhythm to optimize your day.

I haven’t done this yet. I’m still exploring how to take a break at home versus how to take a break at work, as well as recognizing the signs of impending performance drop (yawning, food craving, bladder issues, irritation, frustration, or anxiety) and how to deal with that at an interrupt-driven place of work.

The Good Part

Knowing that there is a specific physiological phenomenon that everyone experiences but which we all must deal with our own way. It’s kind of like everybody poops, and it doesn’t need to be a source of shame. Just go take your poop and get back to living life.

Now I’m working on taking a break when I need it, and even thinking that I need to forgive myself for it. Instead, I’m praising myself for recharging my batteries so that my next performance cycle can be awesome!

There’s that saying, “Eat, Drink and Be Merry.” I think it should be updated to: “Poop, Work, and Take a Break.” We’ll all have a healthier, happier time in our life.

The Book That Got Me Started — Mindset by Carol Dweck


He could just be hungry, but maybe there’s more going on behind his focused eyeballs.

A Review of a Classic That Pretty Much Everyone Should Read

This is a review of a classic of the genre, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. This book explained the fundamentals of self-improvement to me and propelled me down a path of creative success.

At the time I read it, I was frustrated that my dreams of being a writer seemed farther away in my forties than they did as a teenager. I thought I had to be lucky to become a writer. I had been writing for two decades, and thought I was getting better. What I didn’t realize was that I was only writing within my limited abilities. I hadn’t figure out how to clear the hurdles in my way.

Not that success comes easily or quickly just by reading this book. Mastery of a skill takes time. It’s truly a long path to walk, mostly by yourself, and you must navigate the journey on your own. Mindset can give you the basic navigation skills you need to make the journey.

Without that book, I’m certain I would have had zero chance for success.

So What Is So Special About Mindset?

Dweck makes a compelling case of why the limitations in our life are often self-imposed. With numerous examples and convincing research, she demonstrates why some people master a given field and enjoy success, while others falter, struggle, and frequently fail. Why, you may ask? How?

  • From our early family and social situations, many of us learn that our intelligence and talent is determined, at birth, by our genes; i.e., we have a fixed mindset of our abilities.
  • Roadblocks and hurdles along a chosen journey will be rationalised as proving that our abilities are fixed. So if we struggle at soccer, flute, or the study of medicine, we give up, accepting those limitations.
  • People with a growth mindset find a way to achieve their goals. When roadblocks are encountered, they don’t see their own limitations; instead, they see a challenge to overcome, and find a way to learn what is needed, and continue their journey.

Fixed Mindset

If your parents ever told you that you were bad at math, or that you were just not meant to play soccer, or something like that, you may have been taught a growth mindset. They rarely mean to limit your growth. Rather, they don’t want you to feel bad about yourself, or feel frustrated with the challenges you will face.

But by protecting your feelings, they may be contributing to the destruction of your dreams.

You would not be alone if you developed a growth mindset. It is a belief that answers a lot of questions, and may give you a modicum of comfort. I think a great number of us struggle with this.

In fact, many businesses, when hiring employees, operate on the principle that people have limitations, and the key to success for them and the company is to find a place where they can thrive by doing whatever it is that they’re good at.

Is ‘Accepting Limitations’ the American Dream?

That is a limiting version of the American dream. Sure, if it’s a successful company and the pay and benefits satisfy your needs, you can live a comfortable life.

But you will be living someone else’s dream, not your own.

By accepting those limitations of a fixed mindset, you are more likely to give up on your dreams — for me, it’s to be a writer — and work on someone else’s dream — such as working a job at a company.

What Does a Growth Mindset Do?

A growth mindset sees a roadblock as the next step in the journey. It’s a road sign telling you what you need to learn next. They really are a gift, because they allow you to adapt to the shifting landscape of your field.

The trick is to figure out how to learn what is demanded by that roadblock, or if maybe there is another way around it. Often, you need help. You may need lessons or a coach.

The One Simple Trick of Growth Mindset

If that book were to be summarised in a single sentence, it is: When you realize you don’t know something, or how to do something, admit to yourself that you need help and then figure out how to get help.

But I urge you to read the book, because it is the compelling evidence presented in the book that helps you see your limitations in yourself, and how to go about getting the help you need in a given situation.

Take Care of Yourself

The new year is coming, so do something nice for yourself, and read Mindset by Carol Dweck. Then take the lessons to heart and care for yourself from now on.


This article was originally published on MickeyHadick.com, where you can sign up for deals on my books and other fun stuff.