When you look for solutions on how to self-improve your life, why is it that you don’t pull out a biology textbook? After all, biology is the study of life. I bet it probably has something to do with reading figures like this:
Is This Ironic?
This image above is of one of our body’s main processes for producing energy, the Krebs Cycle. Given that we complain about not having enough energy throughout the day, then understanding how life processes like the Krebs Cycle fire up might actually be helpful, wouldn’t it?
But hey, I get it. The academic approach to understanding how life works is intense, if not painful. Not only is there so much information involved; No biology textbook ever ties in practical life lessons to their life science teachings. That’s not its intended purpose, and yet, it should be. One result of that lack of practical schooling is the self-help industry.
Now, a mentor of mine likes to scoff at self-help as it really should be a DIY thing, else it’s not really self-help…
But you know, I wholeheartedly understand what it feels like to not have any clue as to how to help your self. I mean how can you possibly do that if you never got the time to really study how “you” function?
Some say that’s just one of life’s great challenges, but with today’s wealth of information, this shouldn’t come across as such a complex mystery.
Getting To Know My Self
From figuring out what’s right to eat, to achieving a sound mind, throughout the previous year I focused a lot on understanding self-improvement from a biologist’s perspective.
I first went down the self-help industry route and ended up taking a year-long personal development course. Through that program as well as on my own, I read/listened to many books, articles, podcasts, and videos along everything health: Nutrition, exercise, sleep, work, stress management, psychology, philosophy, habits…
Ultimately I focused on one single principle: Our bodies are our lives. How do we manage it? What’s important to know?
Through what I studied as a biomedical engineer, and then as a business student, I came to realize one heavily studied path to understanding ourselves comes from simply understanding how our biology works. Get this: We are our own instruction manual. We just need to know how to read ourselves like a guidebook.
Today I want to share with you some work I did with a client and good friend of mine. We’ll call my client Nac. Nac is an ambitious 40-year-old male with a wonderful wife and two kids. Nac has incredible talent and is looking to bring that to the startup world. So far, he’s moving right along.
Thing is, Nac isn’t happy with his weight. When I first got to talking with Nac about improving his life, he quickly got to telling me that he was 60 pounds over his desired weight.
Nac works a full-time job. He wasn’t getting much sleep; less than 4 hours on most nights. To top it all off, Nac has been painfully accumulating years of personal and work-related documents he deemed were important but felt unable to make the time to organize. Nac has been transporting these docs back and forth between his home and office, expecting to find some point in time in which he will finally get to them.
One could say that Nac only needs to eat healthier, sleep more, make time to organize, then soon enough his life would start to change for the better. Thing is, Nac already knows all this. His desire is clearly there. What’s holding him back?
When I started out with Nac, I first explained to him my process of approach. This is it on a high-level:
- I told Nac that I would be showing him what he could do to healthily burn a lot of fat, get better sleep, and work smarter. After all, that’s what he wanted to know.
- I then told Nac that I would be explaining to him how all the practices and advice I was sharing with him would involve taking advantage of the way his body and mind work best.
Essentially, I would teach Nac a little of his own biology. This served as his guide to all the how’s and why’s of his path to improvement, as well as how’s and why’s of the obstacles he’s likely faced before.
Finally, I told Mike we’d circle everything around his one most important focus, weight loss. As we brought in his other major life improvements, I made sure to connect back everything with everything.
After all, our body is one single community of cells. One change will bring about other changes, albeit along with some natural resistance. That’s okay. The human body is a system, and there are many tricks to apply to one part of the system which can boost the rest. Nac’s awareness of this bests serves to his retaining momentum and successful implementation.
I will explain all of these connections as we move along.
Focus #1: It Takes 27 Days
I started with food. We are what we eat, so my first objective with Nac was to walk through his eating experience.
My primary interest in getting into Nac’s kitchen was to look at all the foods he ate, but ultimately the goal was to look at the entire experience Nac had every time he did/didn’t walk into his kitchen. This was incredibly important, as the experience Nac has with his own place of food defines whether he’ll feel he has the time to cook, clean, and enjoy the benefits of a homemade meal while under a time crunch.
If this fails, it becomes all the more easy to order takeout or buy and eat easy-made, processed crap and lose out on money AND health.
The first thing I did for Nac was I walked him through every label of every food item he ate. I’ve read a lot about the hidden ugliness of processed food. I knew how to read through all the BS of foods branded as healthy, and I taught Nac the same. On top of that, I’ve spent a lot of time tearing through MANY of the core assumptions people have about food.
Assumptions like how we’re supposed to have three meals a day… entirely cultural.
It’s just about counting calories… not necessarily; calories aren’t the same across food, and eating is about more than simple quantity.
My favorite: Having a sweet tooth is just a natural craving to indulge in sometimes… No!
Sugar is just incredibly addictive! Both sugar and cocaine activate the same part of your brain, and sugar just so happens to be 8 times more addictive!!!
Did you know it takes 27 days for the body to actually starve to death? Comparatively, it only takes 3 days to die from dehydration. Insights like this brought Nac to better understand the context of hunger, which is really just a cue from the stomach that it normally feels it needs to be satiated; that’s only because it is used to having had food coming in at certain times of the day.
On top of all this, like everyone else, Nac’s been goaded by marketing into eating addictive food that tastes delicious but is really just nutrition-less crap mixed with salt, sugar, and fat. It’s all that salt, sugar, and fat that we enjoy, but as Joe Rogan nicely pointed out in his podcast, that’s all basically mouth porn.
Look, due to evolution, we’ve picked up a magnetized taste for these resources. Given they were so scarce yet valuable for our ancestral times of needing to store fat whenever possible, fat was a luxury, let alone sugar; once upon a time, we consumed on average of 4 pounds of sugar a year. Now its more than 168.
All that’s ironic too, given we’ve come to hate fat in general in spite of how important it is to our bodies. Salt too is critical for our bodies to function properly, but we’ve come to rely on it too much to give our food taste. Sugar, meanwhile, is just cancer to us. Funny thing: Your liver produces all the glucose you ever need.
If Nac had any food item with sugar in its label, it was out. If anything was incredibly high in sodium yet provided no other nutritional value, it was out too. We took out all the bad fats; I gave Nac the rundown on what fats are good and which are not, and why.
The result: a nearly complete kitchen reset.
That wasn’t the only measure we took. As we cleaned out Nac’s kitchen, we started organizing everything. One of our goals for Nac was to establish a healthy morning routine. To make that easier, we just dedicated a whole cabinet to Nac’s breakfast, which pretty much consisted of protein powder, tea with MCT oil, and/or black coffee.
Ultimately for Nac’s food, I left him with the simplest yet most variable meals of chicken, salad with healthy dressing, nuts, berries, broccoli/cauliflower, and tea/coffee, and my favorite, water.
I was basically putting Nac through a keto (or low carb) diet. This was great for Nac because I learned that he loved those foods and was happy to eat them, plus he could wrap his head around how he could burn fat without exercising just by getting his body to see its existing fat as his primary energy source.
Much as exercising is fantastic, it also kick starts your body’s appetite. While I would have loved for Nac to eat healthier and get back to exercising as he did in his former years, I understood his schedule made that difficult for him in his mind. Besides, I wanted to show him progress without encumbering him beyond his current willpower and capabilities. Exercise could come later. For now, the lesson was just about understanding his body’s processing of energy.
With that in mind, I taught Nac how to fast safely and without fail. After explaining to him all the health benefits, and actually going through a fast with him one Sunday, Nac came to understand why we don’t NEED to eat every day. The body has plenty of food for energy. It’s just stored as fat tissue!
Remember the Krebs Cycle from the beginning? Nac didn’t need to understand the intricate details of how our body produces energy. BUT when you get the basics of how the body burns fat for energy via the Krebs Cycle, then pair that insight with the way your digestive system works, you gain a well-educated perspective on how you can have the most energy throughout the day.
See, when you’re eating, your body prioritizes what new energy is coming in over expending what stored energy already exists. It makes sense that it takes energy to digest food, which is partly why having lunch, healthy or otherwise, will slow you down in the afternoon. With all this, it becomes clear why you should be thinking as much about WHEN you eat as WHAT, and that really changes the game for weight loss as much as it does for daily energy levels.
Focus #2: That Never-Ending Hangover
Okay, next up was Nac’s sleep. While good nutrition is essential, sleep is as vital to a more happier, more productive day. We all know this, yet still, our societal culture has only been slowly recognizing that. Meanwhile, we are still embracing the always-hard-at-work individual. Work work work work work…
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
More like you’ll be among the living dead when you’re not sleeping.
I wasn’t about to have a sleepover at Nac’s place, so any suggestions I gave to Nac had to really stick, as he was on his own when it came to how he approached getting to bed and resting.
The first question I had to ask Nac was simple: “What’s keeping you up at night?”.
For Nac, it was his schedule. Nac has to get up early to prep for work and take his kids to school. As for why he’s up until 1–2 in the morning: Nac pointed out that late in the night he feels this second wind of energy. Nac uses this second wind to complete work tasks for his 9–5 job plus all the things he’s doing for his startup.
Here’s where I brought in some need-to-know biology on sleep. For one thing, Nac is not running at 100% because he’s incredibly sleep deprived. The only reason he hasn’t noticed is this: he adjusted to the lack of sleep. His body, on the other hand, is basically on a perpetual hangover. This hangover is a key part of Nac’s bigger picture health problems.
For one, Nac’s lack of sleep is part of what’s causing his weight gain, as only during a good night’s rest do our bodies really get the chance to recover properly and allow the body to be more equipped to burn energy effectively for the following day. Burning energy takes energy! That sounds redundant, but it’s incredibly important to understand how the body needs a break from spending energy while awake so that it can then do so while asleep so that it then can do so when next awake.
I can see why that sounds kind of funny, but that point alone hit Nac with the incentive to sleep more.
Of course, I also had to address Nac’s little energy boost in the wee hours of the night. Bringing together all I read about biorhythms, Nac learned how he was not following his body’s own natural sleeping pattern. After crossing a certain time threshold, the body misses its best opportunity to fall asleep, and so it remains awake. Wide awake. There’s a reason for this, and it isn’t relative to our modern day living…
When we ignore our natural inclination to fall asleep in that key time threshold (around 9–11 PM, with small variations per person), our body will kick itself back into wake mode. That key time threshold, by the way, is based on factors that have been with us since the dawn-to-dusk of our time, literally.
Our body’s response to understanding why it was prompted to stay awake is based entirely on our conscious effort to stay up. Back in the caveman days, if a predator was nearby and it wasn’t safe to fall asleep just yet, the body would recognize the need for some emergency alertness. The issue here is: staying up every night shouldn’t be an emergency!!! The body can’t stand that kind of stress continuously, although it will if it has to. Remember, survival above all.
Our bodies haven’t evolved much at all from our cavemen days, so we still respond to our environment when cued to do so. Nac’s environment was another part of his sleep problem.
Lights from his phone, watching TV, and even general house lighting were part of what was signalling to Nac’s brain that it was still daytime and therefore time to be awake. Light makes it much harder for Nac to recognize his body’s natural biorhythm for sleeping. The simple fix here is to say that Nac should just lay off the light at night.
But that would be failing to address the core reasons why Nac is up so late: He’s working! More specifically, Nac feels he needs to work!
Now, you could try and say that Nac is just doing what he has to do for his 9–5 job, on top of whatever else he’s doing for his startup, but this doesn’t make a lick of sense for his health or performance! This brings us to the last focus point for Nac: Working smarter.
Working on Your Working Mind
First off, I’m not pointing blame at Nac or his place of work as being the perpetrator of Nac’s necessary off the clock performing. While I understand fully well that Nac is doing what he needs to do to perform his job well, two important things become apparent to me:
- Nac should be able to do all his “off the clock” tasks on the clock. In fact, I know he can.
Nac is incredibly sharp and could do his best work with one hand tied behind his back. Problem is, he’s actually working like he is. Time to free up his other hand, and give him another pair, one that’s not mine, as he wants an extra pair he can keep with him always!
- Nac can organize his mind so that many of his efforts are not only simplified; he will also be able to make time for sleep AND get some necessary work done to move forward with his startup.
The question is how. If you remember in the beginning how Nac was carrying around documents that he was looking to put the time into organizing, but couldn’t?
We started there.
So at this point, Nac gave me a little insight into why he’s been holding back on sorting through all his documents. See, whenever Nac gets a new document he knows will end up in the big pile of things to sort, his mind immediately contends with his imagination to the sheer amount of time and effort it will take him to finish this momentous task. As a result, he gets overwhelmed. Knowing there are other items on his plate, Nac puts off the ever-mounting problem…
What I told Nac in response to this changed the entire perspective he had for his organizational work, his sleep, and his diet. Nothing crazy novel either. It’s really quite simple.
All I told Nac was to think about his life in the context of his present self and his future self. When Nac would put off his grunting task of sorting through his pile of piles, Present Nac was giving the task over to Future Nac. We do this all the time. Of course, Future Nac never really shows up, because as soon as Present Nac becomes Future Nac, he’s just Present Nac again.
The biology behind this is rather psychological, but I also went through with Nac the biology behind his present state of mind, and how it projects its own sense of future problem-solving. Essentially, Nac’s getting a flush of signals to his brain telling him to put off what’s causing him angst, as the rush of overwhelm is making him “feel” unequipped to handle the situation at present. Its fight or flight, and Nac keeps choosing flight.
Getting over that is easy: It’s all about batching. We made Nac’s big pile of piles into smaller piles that wouldn’t overwhelm his mind. This made the fight option in Nac’s mind a lot easier to choose.
With that, I gave Nac no room for excuses when I came by his place to help him out with this problem. We immediately started sorting out documents, and with that, his mind, and the way Nac brings in new information to it i.e. in the form of documents, and then some.
I knew that Nac’s mind was making a bigger deal out of the situation than needed. Part of the issue was his bias with having so many overwhelming experiences with looking at his growing pile. With a fresh pair of eyes, I could see he had a lot of documents, but I was confident if not arrogant about getting through it all, mostly because I didn’t want to feel the overwhelm myself of it growing anymore.
Granted, we really were working with a trove of documents! Nac had been planning to sort items from over a decade ago!
I taught Nac some essential organizing practices for the documents. For his case, we simply broke things down into 3 tiers. Tier 1 was simple: value/no value. The former was sorted by category. The latter was thrown in the trash.
An important process here was not getting caught into the nostalgia of items. We needed to be quick and emotionless about this first round of sorting. Nac could get feel more in touch with his important items after going through all the junk.
Tier 2 was refining. Taking each now categorized value pile, we broke things down into four new piles:
Not important/urgent, and
Not important/not urgent.
The idea is simple: put away all non-urgent and non-important items somewhere you know where to find them. Do the same for the non-urgent yet important BUT earmark them as “to-go-back-to” with a date. We put that date on Nac’s calendar.
As for the urgent and important and urgent yet not important, we dealt with those things immediately if possible (immediately equated to any task resulting in less than 5 minutes time), else pushed them to a newly established “do now” area of the room. This pile would be dealt with immediately upon sorting through the rest of the documents, or during any breaks from the grander sorting project.
Tier 3 was when we started creating a home for every document, and crafting a system for future documents which would turn the 3 Tier organizing process into a habit. This is where Nac and I took the extra effort of completely cleaning out and organizing an entire closet he had. This served the purpose of giving us space for the newly organized documents. The clean up also showed Nac that he could look at his entire home as a place with many sub-homes for things that were important to him.
Mentally speaking, this is exactly how one goes about consciously storing memory inside their brain.
Once all that was done, we moved onto Nac’s second home, his digital world. It’s a similar process in terms of how to organize files on a computer, but we took additional measures and looked at organizing and maintaining passwords more effectively, creating folders for bookmarks and the way to use them to consciously harvest any new information found and read online…
All this took several days, but eventually, we got through everything.
At the end of a month, Nac and I shared around 10 sessions, which averaged around 1 hour. The core of the lessons took one half-hour, with the other 30 minutes being a first practice in implementing what those lessons taught.
As to how those sessions went:
On the food side, I made the meals from the food he and I bought until he could cook them himself, which was in no time. On the sleep side, we simply tracked each others’ trackers and just held each other accountable in good spirit. After all, I’m prone to working late nights and YouTube. I wholly appreciate two-way accountability. With working smarter, once I got Nac started, he got the momentum to continue until he was done, which from everything I read on working smarter is the real secret sauce to everything.
As a result, Nac is now 13 pounds closer to his goal, getting 5–6 hours of sleep on average now, and is disorder pile-free. This was just the start. Nac has a ways to go before reaching his weight goal, getting more sleep, and reaching top CEO-level working productivity and efficiency. All that will come with time, patience, and continuous habit building.
Tying it all together, I put the lessons of Nac’s mind with his body to overcome disorganization in his work AND his kitchen. I gave Nac insights into the nature of his biorhythms to help him understand how important sleep was for his work performance as much as his fat burning. Finally, I showed Nac what a healthy body from food could do for his performance. The insight on using his existing fat as fuel for the day boosted his mental focus. Again, I brought in timing his food schedule with his natural sleep rhythm to maximize his slumber.
My goal is to bring this kind of insight into your own biological body in order to improve your life. While this may be actual help and not purely self-help, my focus is to showcase biological lessons that will ultimately guide you to help yourself. Truth be told, you shouldn’t need me to learn all that I’ve just shared. After all, I found all this information publicly available.
But again, I understand that it helps to have someone who is really interested in all this and wants to piece it together in a neat fashion.
If we were all savvy students of our biological life, we would spend much less time scratching our heads about why we can’t seem to:
motivate ourselves to exercise;
work happier and more productively;
let go of stress;
rid ourselves of negative thoughts when we least need it;
overall repeatedly fail the ritual of changing who we are, for the better, from the ritual of being who we are.
Here are some books and other sources I’ve dug into which tie in much of what information I ended up sharing with Nac. For your benefit, check out:
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
The Organized Mind by Daniel Letvin
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
Sugar Salt Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss
Biology by Campbell, Reece…
Kidding on that last book rec, although, if you were really motivated, I’d suggest just taking a dive into the nature of your own biology through Wikipedia.
What I’ve Learned Youtube Channel.
- This channel as a whole REALLY dives into the science behind everything from nutrition to sleep to exercise… pretty much all things biological. Absolutely informative. 1000% recommend.
A Brief History of Fat, and Why We Hate it
- A 20 minute documentary on our cultural perspective on fat and the irony of what that is so. Our fat cells are more than just storage units; as a whole, they communicate with the entire rest of our body like an organ! Insightful for bridging the importance of fat while still pointing the issues of our coming to consume ingredients like sugar in the quantities available today.
Why do we sleep? Russell Foster TED Talk
- I like how Russell busts up common sleep myths in this talk. He nicely summarizes what we have come to know about sleep up to this point in a way that’s comical and useful!
- CBC does a nice 10 minute summary of what the Sugar Salt Fat book by Michael Moss explains in more detail.
Your Brain Perceives Reality By Hallucinating
- This video is a very quick 5-minute talk about reality, and how we each view the world subjectively to our interpretation of what we sense. This applies to both our physical sensing of things as well as our mental perception of a situation or task at hand. Nac and I had a deep dive on this with respect to all of his self-improvement objectives.
- While most of my focus on Nac’s mind was with regards to organization and smarter working, one thing I only scratched the surface on here in this article was about Nac’s perspective toward his overall view of “I need to start improving my health yet don’t know how.”
Using what we know of our biology, we have the opportunity to essentially “re-master” what hundreds of thousands of years of our evolution has designed us into. A lot of engineering design today has taken its best ideas from the nature of things that already exist as a result of evolution. We know this as biomimicry. Think of learning more about yourself from within and applying that to improve your life as a sort of self-biomimicry.
I hope that sharing this scenario with Nac was practical for you.