Not having sufficient energy or motivation undermines everything else in the guide since most productivity interventions require some level of energy and commitment to execute. If I feel depressed, no amount of verbal self-encouragement or TED talks is going to get me to do my homework or check my to-do list. If I'm anxious, a behavior mechanic that is suppose to spur me into action might backfire and cause me to want to curl up into a ball. This section of the guide is basically how to live a healthy life, because even if health weren't the most important part of your life (which I believe is), without it you certainly would have a really hard time getting things done. Time to get healthy.
Sleep, Exercise, & Diet¶
Diet, exercise, and sleep are the trifecta of energy management. The summary is that if you eat right, exercise regularly, and sleep well, you will pretty much have enough energy to get all the things you want done.
Sleep is so important because it's the only time your body and mind gets to rest. Studies on sleep deprivation indicate a swath of intelligence and mood impacts in participants 1. You spend 8 hours a day sleeping, so any marginal improvement of sleep quality and duration has very high yield.2
When I started measuring my sleep with my Fitbit, I was appalled by how little high quality sleep I got. Compared to my peers and family, I'm a really sensitive sleeper. I can't share beds with people, and I have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep. Seeking ways to improve my sleep quality yielded some subjectively high results in memory, focus, and mood.
Start with the basics. Make sure your bedroom has the right lighting, temperature, and noise levels. White noise machines and earplugs help with the noise, black curtains help with the lighting3, and fans and heaters can help maintain an optimal temperature.
Install flux on your computer and configure Night Shift/Night Mode on your phone to filter out blue light at night that is detrimental to sleep quality.
Design a sleep hygiene routine. I have a physical post-it on my wall that is a series of steps to get me in the mood for bed. It helps because I'm pretty mindless by the time I'm sleepy, and may end up doing dumb things instead of getting ready for bed (browsing reddit, checking my phone, playing video games, etc).
Here's my post it:
- Drink 16oz warm glass of water. (3 mins)
- Fill bedside thermos and water bottle (5 minutes)
- Brush teeth (5 minutes)
- Floss/Mouthwash/Retainers (5 minutes)
- Bathroom if necessary (5 - 10 minutes)
- Take melatonin pill with some water
- Pack for next day (5 minutes)
- Stretch if necessary (10 minutes)
- Read on bed. (20 - 30 minutes)
- Pee if necessary (2 mins)
There are some good research on general sleep hygiene, like avoiding caffeine after 2pm or avoiding eating before bed. Sleep is something worth experimenting with. Some people take melatonin before sleep, which may improve your sleep. Other people try out different mattresses, pillows, or sleep equipment.
Similar to a sleep hygiene routine, it's also useful to develop a consistent morning routine. Here's mine:
- Wake Up
- Drink a glass of water
- Brush my teeth
- Wash my face
- Take my vitamins
- Put on facial lotion
- Get dressed
- Pee again if necessary
- Head out
Some things I've found useful for getting me awake:
- Drinking water: I find myself to be moderately dehydrated by the time I wake up and if I'm particularly dehydrated I'll develop a headache.
- Exposure to blue light: Blue light has the same wakefulness-inducing effect that we try to avoid at night with Flux. I find that exposing myself to blue light helps with producing wakefulness in the day. There are numerous studies that show the positive effects of blue light on wakefulness, mood, cognition when used in the morning.
- Small dosage of caffeine in the morning: Either in the form of a pill or coffee helps me wake up.
Naps are shown to significantly improve memory, attention, and focus.4 Subjectively, I cannot function without naps. Some people subjectively disagree, but the potential upsides are worth the experiment with designing naps into your lifestyle. Cat naps (~20 mins) are ideal, and you don't have to fall into deep sleep to reap most of the benefits.5
There are numerous scientific studies that praise the benefits of exercise. Not only does regular exercise increase most verticals of intelligence (working memory, executive function, attention)6, it also helps elevate mood7. The recommended prescription is 30 minutes of exercise a day, something that sounds easy on paper but extremely hard to do. Fret not if you can't be a health nut the next day. Even one hour of exercise a week has significant benefits over no exercise, so seek out to get some running in. If you're extreme (which I'm not), you can get confer a good yield of benefits by doing the 7 minute workout.
There seems to be a lot a disagreement around what people should eat, but no reputable set of dietitians ever disagree on the fact that you should avoid processed foods, avoid added sugars, eat in moderation, and eat lots of vegetables. Eating too much, or too little, or the wrong foods, and you could feel too miserable to get any work done. Far fewer people do this than I imagine, and it's definitely worth making this lifestyle change to feel better. Poor diets can result from poor planning, stress eating, or eating out too much. Saving $5 dollars and eating at Panda Express is not worth the lethargy you'll immediately experience, crappy sleep you'll get at night, and the stomachaches you'll get in the morning. Eat wisely.
Make sure to drink enough water. A lot of the experiences with brain fog are alleviated by drinking enough water. You should try to carry around a reusable water bottle with you (I find the larger the better), and aim to drink at least 64 oz of water a day.
There are different types of breaks, but I want to focus on the positive type of break that I call “downtime”. Downtime's purpose is suppose to help restore your energy and motivation. There is emerging research that points towards the benefits of having regular downtime (and the negative consequences of not having it, i.e. burnout). If some form of downtime is not as restorative as sleep or meditation, then I would strongly argue that you would be better off just getting that extra sleep instead.
I rarely find people who can get away with zero downtime. I certainly can't do it myself. I find that good downtime has the following qualities:
Low Stimulation: If you're mentally stimulated for most of the day, doing something that is low stimulation will help your mind consolidate the experiences of the day. Activities like doing chores, stretching, reading a book, meditating, or taking a walk are all low stimulation activities that I would classify as downtime. High stimulation breaks like checking Facebook, playing video games, or watching television can prevent your brain from relaxing.
Relaxing: Kind of obvious, but downtime is supposed to feel relaxing. It shouldn't make you feel bad, but people spend downtime playing video games that makes them so wired up afterwards that they are even more tired and unmotivated afterwards.
Stress, Anxiety, and Mental Illnesses¶
If you find yourself constantly unmotivated, or feeling anxious about looming deadlines, social interactions, or poor self-image, it's time to address the emotional side of energy management. If you're spending most of your mental cycles worrying or stuck in your own thoughts, then you're spending a ton of energy doing something that makes you feel worse! I have friends whose productivity tank to a tenth of their output whenever they have bouts of anxiety or depression.
Meditation If you consider yourself an “overthinker”, then meditation might be particularly useful for you. Meditation has a robust scientific backing to improve many portions of your emotional health and mental function.1 Personally I find meditation to be the equivalent to plugging a leaky bucket, in which the bucket contains my mental cycles and the leaks are the ruminating thoughts over trivial stuff.
Therapy It doesn't matter whether you're officially diagnosed with a mental illness, therapy helps everyone. If you do feel depressed, then it's even more important to seek therapy. Thanks to the outspoken individuals who destigmatize seeking psychological therapy, most Americans can now seek help from trained professionals.
Just to lay out the road on what to expect, finding a therapist is hard and potentially expensive, but I have yet to met someone who has regretted doing therapy. The way my friend lays out the process of finding a therapist is basically trying out many therapists until you find one you like, then working with them for a set period of time. The gold standard for therapy these days is cognitive behavioral therapy, so googling “cognitive behavioral therapist” on Google is not a bad idea. The process is confusing and grinding, and if you're struggling with mental illnesses, the process can feel so herculean to even start. But I urge you to do it! Tell a friend you're considering and they'll be sure to help you seek the help you need.
Support Groups Support groups make us more emotionally resilient to negative experiences 2. Find a support group that you can find emotionally confide with. Though preferable, these don't have to be physical interactions. There are a lot of support groups on reddit (r/depression, r/mentalhealth, and r/mindfulness are some that come to mind).
Hidden Addictions Addictions are compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences (source: Wikipedia). They sap mental and physical energy and withdrawal symptoms could be deleterious. Although we mostly think of addictions like drugs or gambling addictions, there are actually emerging research on activities that have similar biological effects as other addictions, namely internet/social media addiction, video game addiction, and porn addiction.
I subjectively found that reducing social media use, video games, and pornography use has strongly increased my levels of energy to do other things. The research is preliminary for these specific addictions but here are some resources worth mentioning:
Video Games: WebMD Internet: Research Paper NYT Article on Internet Addiction Pornography: YourBrainOnPorn r/nofap
Nutrition & Supplements I take legal nutritional supplements to help mitigate nutritional deficiencies I have and help me perform better cognitively. Since most of my work are cognitive tasks, the supplements I research mostly concern themselves with the brain.
- Caffeine (100mg): Caffeine is self explanatory. It's a stimulant that people quickly build a tolerance for. I take 100mg of caffeine a day in pill form because I don't like coffee that much.
- L-Theanine (200 mg): Colloquially known as “green tea extract,” l-theanine works synergistically with caffeine to counteract the side effects of caffeine like anxiety and jitteriness.
- Fish Oil: Most people don't consistently eat fish in their diets, so fish oil is a consistent supplement to promote brain health (and other stuff too). - Bacopa Monnieri (300mg): Bacopa monnieri moderately improves memory in adults. It has consistent and well-tested research to back up the claims but the onset of the improvements takes weeks so would only recommend this if you can consistently take bacopa monnieri.
For more information on supplements I suggest reading r/nootropic's beginner wiki guide or gwern's research on nootropics
I wear an eyemask but find that I have a harder time waking up naturally because sunlight doesn't begin pass through the mask to gently wake me up ↩