7 Keystone Habits You Can Start Right Now

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A push, a bang, a crack, followed by sharp, intense pain. The kind of pain you only feel when a bone breaks. That’s how I began my vacation.

This was the only week off in six months. I had a head full of plans and a list full of things to get done. All shattered in the blink of an eye. Rage, exasperation, frustration — they all hurt more than a broken foot. But I won’t let a broken foot stand in my way, I thought. I’ll turn this into a challenge!

Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.

Teddy Roosevelt

What if it wasn’t just the foot? What if I also lost my money? And my workout equipment. And all my apps, subscriptions, supplements… What if I had almost nothing, but still wanted to keep improving? Could I do it?

What started as a thought experiment soon turned into a minimalist approach to personal development. The following is a list of the most effective habits and routines I’ve added to my life. Some of them have been around for millennia and rightly so. Best of all, you can start implementing them right now — even if you’re broke, tired, or, in my case, crippled.

1. Wake up at the same time

This is the most underestimated habit on my list. I know all the productivity gurus keep telling you to wake up at 6 AM. Or 5 AM. Or two hours before the first rooster crows.

I say stop! It’s not about the hour, it’s about consistency.

For over a year I’ve been waking up at the same time every day and it’s a game-changer. I know staying up late during the weekend and pulling all-nighters seem like good ideas. Everyone’s doing it. But the research is clear:

Social jetlag is real. And it’s wreaking havoc on our health.

When traveling to a different time zone, your body needs about one day to compensate for every hour of time difference. Travel 4 time-zones away? Your sleeping rhythm will be back to normal after 4 days.

If you wake up at 6 AM during the week and at 10 AM on weekends, you are inducing the same jetlag. Your body needs 4 days to adapt. Which means you only start functioning properly on Friday. But that’s when you stay up late again. Same on Saturday. And so the cycle never ends. People doing this are living in a permanent state of jetlag, without even knowing it.

Waking up at the same time seven days a week has improved my mood, energy levels, and productivity. And a broken foot won’t stop me from doing it regularly.

Supporting literature: The Circadian Code, Why We Sleep

2. Drink Water in the Morning

Every morning, first thing after going downstairs, I drink 2 glasses of water. No matter if I’m tired, in a hurry, or have a hangover the size of Mount Everest. It takes no effort and it’s one of the best things you can do for your biological machine.

Our bodies are made up to 60% of water. It’s essential for all the biological processes going on inside of us. So we’re constantly depleting our water reserves, but rarely thinking of replenishing them. As a result, 40% of European adults aren’t well hydrated.

Sure, you may think of drinking water during/after a workout. You can see the sweat, feel your body heating up, and your brain is constantly sending signals to grab that water bottle.

You know when all those signals are ignored? During bedtime.

When you’re asleep, the brain is in maintenance mode. That’s why the thirst signals go unnoticed. But you’re still breathing and sweating and depleting your water reserves. And once you’re off to work, we both know you won’t pause to drink water.

That’s why you should drink at least 2 glasses of water in the morning.

3. Take Cold Showers

This is the most controversial habit on the list. But I still think you should give it a try.

I admit, the research on cold exposure is a bit shaky. Some studies report spectacular results. Others mention improved circulation, enhanced immunity, increased energy, and decreased anxiety. But I haven’t found any research that accurately reproduced them.

So why should you bother? Because it’s not about the health benefits.

I’ve been taking cold showers every day (except when I had a cold) for the last 3 years. And yes, my study of n=1 reports improved energy levels and mental well-being. But that’s irrelevant.

I take cold showers because it makes me feel stronger.

Stepping into the icy water every morning, just after leaving the warmth of your blanket, is one of the hardest things you will do. It’s scary and uncomfortable and tough. It’s unlikely you will face anything more difficult throughout the day. And succeeding at it will stick with you as a reminder of what you can overcome.

If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.

Mark Twain

Start your day with a cold shower and the rest will seem like a breeze.

Supporting literature: Eat That Frog!, Lifespan

4. Fast

Whenever a practice has survived for thousands of years, you should pay attention to it. Few things have been around to witness stone carvings and digital screens. Fasting is one of these.

Our ancestors didn’t grow up on 3 meals/day. They were forced to fast until they found something to eat. Now I’m not saying having a full fridge isn’t nice. But because of our modern eating habits, 4 out of 10 adults worldwide are obese.

I was one of them. And I didn’t realize how screwed up my eating habits truly were until I started fasting.

All the research points in one direction: fasting is good for you. It can improve body composition, reduce inflammation, prevent chronic diseases, and even help fight cancer. You can do intermittent fasting, alternate-day fasting, or prolonged fasting — they all work.

So where should you start?

Try out different protocols and see what fits best with your lifestyle. For me, it’s good ole 24 h fasting. I usually do it once/week, depending on my work schedule. And I haven’t been overweight in 10 years. Here are the main things I learned:

  1. We don’t have to eat 3 times/day to function properly.
  2. We rarely eat because of hunger. It’s mostly habit or craving or social compulsion.
  3. Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day.

With a broken foot, I don’t consume as many calories as usual. And cooking with crutches is a pain. Both excellent reasons to do some more fasting.

Fast regularly to know your body better and care for it long-term.

Supporting literature: Lifespan, The Longevity Diet

5. Do Bodyweight Workouts

Are you looking for something that will make you think better, sleep better, and feel better? Something that’s available for free? That you can do anywhere and anytime? Bodyweight workouts are the answer.

In my early twenties, I focussed solely on improving my brain. I experimented with every possible way of improving it, at the expense of everything else. That changed when I found research showing that physical exercise beats all brain enhancing drug out there.

Working out regularly is key for a healthy mind and a healthy body. Several scientific studies have shown that being in shape improves working memory, cognitive function, and neuronal connections. Looking good naked is just a bonus.

Don’t know how to do bodyweight workouts? I’ve got you covered.

Here’s the routine Arnold Schwarzenegger did in his early days. And here’s a good article on the topic. You can also find a bunch of videos online showing you how to do it. All you need is gravity. Even with a broken foot, I can still do most exercises. And so can you.

Do bodyweight workouts to improve your brain and your body at the same time.

6. Meditate

This is one of those habits that got diluted by the recent hype around it. But meditation is by no means a new-agey practice. Like fasting, it’s been around for thousands of years. And we’re just beginning to understand why it works.

Several studies have shown that meditation can relieve chronic pain, help with depression and anxiety, increase attention, and improve social interactions. One study even claims it can cut the risk of a heart attack by 50%. But even if you’re not suffering from any of these illnesses, you should still give meditation a try.

I was skeptical at first. How do you know it’s working if you can’t measure the outcome? But it’s free and easy to do, so I gave it a shot. After a week of meditating 15 minutes/day I noticed a subtle, but clear shift: my anger buffer increased.

Whenever something upset me, there was now a pause between the event and my response to it. That pause wasn’t there before. I still sometimes react with anger, but now I have a choice. Which makes a big difference in my social interactions.

How do you start meditating?

The simplest way is to find a quiet spot, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. This is called mindful meditation. You can also meditate while taking a walk or working out.

The point is to fully focus on one thing. This can be your breath, your thoughts, the wind swirling around your fingers, or the swing of a kettlebell. Pick one and focus on it. When you feel your focus drifting, just return. That’s all there is to it.

Meditate regularly to improve the way you experience the world and the people around you.

Supporting literature: Waking Up, 10% Happier

7. Journal

I never understood the whole fuss about journaling. Why did people like Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein do it? I thought this was a thing for high-school girls. That’s because I was doing it wrong.

There are many ways you can use a journal to improve your life. But starting with Dear diary, today I fought with Susan over the last doughnut… isn’t one of them. A journal is supposed to help you think.

If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.

George Orwell

Two years ago I began keeping two separate journals. One I use to improve my thinking. In it, I write about daily problems, possible solutions, and imagine different outcomes. I write long-hand because it’s slower and allows for more time to think before writing things down. And writing things down forces me to think in a coherent way.

My second journal is digital. I only use it for important decisions. Each entry contains a decision, the reasoning behind it, and a termination clause. I revisit each entry about twice/year. This prevents hindsight bias and improves my decision making.

Use journaling to improve your thinking.

There you have it! Seven habits you can adopt right now to start improving your life. All backed by science and years of experience.

Pick one and you will see changes within a week. Adopt them all and your life will be transformed.

If a cripple with a broken foot can do it, so can you.

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