How to exercise yourself smart, make time for what matters, find good books, and improve your self-awareness
How are you guys doing? I’ve just wrapped up a wonderful couple of weeks clearing a coaching assignment that has been on my plate for a while before catching up with family and making the most of a late-summer heatwave. I’ve also been enjoying some excellent views of Jupiter and Saturn through my telescope the last couple of nights. (Sure, we all know what they look like, but there’s something about seeing Jupiter’s coloured bands or Saturn’s rings first-hand that is quite breathtaking.) Once September is over, I’m looking forward to having a clear schedule and some time to reflect and prioritise what to focus on once Autumn is here. In the meantime, here’s a few things I want to share with you this month.
The Power of Movement
Since watching the weightlifting events in the Tokyo Olympics, I have been geeking out on fitness info for the first time in a while, which led me to this short video about the link between exercise and cognitive performance. Contrary to popular belief, exercise has little impact on weight loss. But it is good for your brain. It helps you learn more efficiently, reduces stress and anxiety, and improves mood and focus. In short, regular exercise is one of the best wellbeing and productivity hacks around.
There are good evolutionary reasons for this. Historically, if humans were moving, we were evading a threat, hunting, or making something. All these tasks require us to pay attention to external stimuli, so exercise triggers our brain to be in focus mode. Conversely, when we are stationary, we switch into rest mode, which means sitting down to do work is terrible for our productivity. Hence, I am a big advocate of using a standing desk and taking regular short breaks to do brief movements like stretching or running up and down the stairs to reinvigorate your energy levels. (I am known for breaking into spontaneous stretching sessions in the workplace.)
Exercise also helps you learn more efficiently and breaks down cortisol (your stress hormone). If you’re not exercising to reduce the cortisol that builds up in your system over the course of the day, it stays in your system, which, over time, can increase your anxiety levels.
In short, exercise is like a wonder drug that is freely available to us all. So, if you want to improve your mental performance and you’re not regularly exercising, you might want to build some kind of movement practise into your lifestyle asap. Watch the video linked above for more detail on how to hack the natural benefits of exercise to give your brain a boost.
Avoid the Urgent
I will never understand people who live in permanent fire-fighting mode, seeming unable to look or plan ahead. I’m a big believer in the Eisenhower Matrix principle of distinguishing what is urgent from what is important and focusing on the latter, not the former. To paraphrase Amos Tversky, the wonderful thing about urgent things is that if you leave them long enough, they stop being urgent, whereas the important things remain essential no matter how much you try to ignore them.
Focusing on what is important long-term changes how you spend your time and where you put your energy. Only by focusing on the important over a long time horizon can we do our best work and accomplish great things. This short Jeff Bezos clip wonderfully articulates the power of prioritising the important over the urgent to elevate your game. When Amazon has a good quarter, it’s not because of the work they did in those three months; it’s because of the work they did two or three years ago.
Bezos admits it’s not natural for humans to focus so far into the future instead of the here-and-now. The reason, I suspect, is to do with dopamine. Focusing on the short-term brings more immediate (but lesser) rewards. But, if you can break this cycle, plan for the long haul, and accept the payoff for your efforts will be in the future, you can do great things.
For anyone who doesn’t know me IRL and perhaps found this newsletter via a tweet or a blog post and would like to know about me, here’s a personal essay I wrote a few months ago reflecting on my background, my career arc, and the journey that led me to become who I am today. I wish I’d written something like this earlier in my life, and I think revisiting it to add the next chapter every few years could be a valuable exercise. Writing it helped me crystallise what’s important to me when it comes to work and what I want to do with the next stage of my career. But, on the other hand, it may also be an entirely self-indulgent piece of navel-gazing, so take it for what it’s worth.
I recently found a great website for discovering new non-fiction books. The concept is simple. Pick a topic and this site will recommend five high-quality books on the subject, with short reviews of each title. It’s an awesome way to find some curated reading material on anything you want to learn more about without getting lost down an internet rabbit hole or being overwhelmed by too much information. After a recent day out with my son, I’ve suddenly become obsessed with learning more about the history of pirates, so I’m planning on dipping into a couple of recommendations from this site to satisfy my curiosity. Such a great learning resource (yarr).
Product recommendation: ThermaStick
I don’t know how I cooked before I owned a meat thermometer. Well, I do—it involved guesswork and inconsistent results. I’ve tried a few meat thermometers over the years, but the best one I’ve found is the ThermaStick. It gives accurate readings in just a couple of seconds and is a fraction of the price of most instant-read thermometers. Grab one and never have dry, overcooked meat again.
Free DISC Profiling tool
Personality inventories often cause far more controversy than they warrant, and people seem to either love or hate them. My take is that none are perfect, but they can all be helpful as they encourage you to reflect, and, whether you agree with what they say about you or not, they improve your self-awareness. I use various tools in my coaching work, but if you don’t already know your DISC profile and are curious to find out, here’s a quick online test you can take that gives you a basic report for free.
Book of the Month: Make Time
Written by two former Google employees, Make Time is a mercifully short book (as all good time management books should be) about taking care of what matters most every day. Their system hinges on having one (and only one) highlight for each day, then using various tactics to make sure you get it done. Your highlight might be a critical work task or something that brings you joy, like dinner with friends. Whatever it is, accomplishing it should give you a sense of satisfaction, so you finish the day feeling fulfilled.
The authors suggest various ways to figure out what makes for a good highlight, how to eliminate distractions so you can focus on it, and how to evaluate what approaches do and don’t work for you. They are also advocates of a short review at the end of each day. I am a big fan of weekly reviews, but lately, I have wanted to reflect and prioritise more regularly, so I have been trying the quick daily review structure outlined in this book.
This has helped me identify a couple of things that dramatically affect how well my day goes, which I was previously blind to (it turns out neither late nights nor delayed starts to my day are my friends.) Knowing this is helping me to avoid both factors so I can prioritise my highlight and have consistently fulfilling days. There’s a ton of stuff to try in this book that should help you develop a tailored system that works for you. Definitely worth the three hours or so it takes to read.
I recently listened to an episode of Ali Abdaal’s Not Overthinking podcast where he mentioned a question his therapist asked him that I thought was powerful and worth sharing with you guys as you can use it as a self-caching exercise. I’ve written before about how we subconsciously tell ourselves narratives that don’t reflect reality as a way to rationalise our behaviour and protect our ego. These narratives can hugely impact our lives and hold us back because they allow us to hide from what we most need to deal with.
So, if you ever want to figure out when you are BS’ing yourself to save your ego, ask: Why am I telling myself that story?
It’s such a deceptively powerful question because not only does it help you admit when you’re lying to yourself, it also makes you confront your reasons for doing so. Deep stuff, for sure, but this question is like a needle that can give you a shot of medicine precisely where you need it.
While on the subject of self-awareness, this quote resonated with me the other day:
“Being aware of a single shortcoming within yourself is far more useful than being aware of a thousand in someone else.”Dalai Lama
Until next month,
P.S. I am not paid to endorse any of the products I recommend in this newsletter. I just want to share the things I have found to genuinely improve my quality of life so you can make better buying decisions and avoid inferior products.