Improving Your Health by Becoming Superhuman
As I get older, I increasingly appreciate the importance of mental health and energy levels to overall good health. Without high energy levels, making daily decisions that impact health is more challenging. Do I make dinner or order in? Do I go for a walk or sit on the couch? Do I meditate or doom-scroll social media? So, it was with great interest when I recently listened to a series of podcasts on the Headspace App by Dr. Sahar Yousef and Lucas Miller from the University of California, Berkeley, who have put together a program called Becoming Superhuman.
While the program focuses on getting “your most important work done in less time and with less stress,” they tie it back to using these concepts to achieve the ultimate goal of having “more time and energy for your actual life.” To me, less stress, more time, and more energy equal the foundation for improving your health. Research has confirmed that the brain can change, with the benefits from their program accumulating over time.
I found most of their recommendations simple and relatively easy to implement. I nerded out over the holidays, relistened to the podcasts, took notes, and started experimenting. Below is everything I’m currently doing and why. Some may not be possible for you to implement, given your work or personal circumstances, but I hope there is something here for everyone. So here is what I’m doing to Become Superhuman:
- I no longer drink caffeine first thing in the morning.
- I start each day by writing down 1-3 things that are my work and personal “Most Important Tasks.”
- I have rescheduled my day informed by my chronotype.
- I have turned off all notifications on my phone and switched the display colour to grayscale (but have a shortcut to switch back to colour, because it is super hard to play Wordle without colour).
- I have started scheduling “Focus Sprints” into my day and use music to enhance my focus.
- I now take effective “Brain Breaks” during the day.
- I am experimenting with having an afternoon “Nappuccino” each day.
- I’m not changing my exercise routine, but now understand how it is helping reduce my cognitive decline.
No More Caffeine First Thing in the Morning
When you wake up, your body starts producing the cortisol hormone, increasing your energy and alertness. Caffeine interferes with the production of cortisol, and it is not as effective as cortisol as a stimulant. If you ingest caffeine during the first two hours of the day, its main effect is to increase your tolerance to caffeine throughout the day, meaning you need even more caffeine later to get the same benefits. This was a big wake-up for me (pun intended) as my daily routine included a cup of coffee first thing in the morning.
So, what have I changed? I wake up most days between 6 and 7 am, so my first coffee is between 8 and 9. Given that caffeine has a half-life of 8 hours, I now stop drinking coffee (and Diet Coke and tea) by 1 pm (aka Nappuccino time) so it doesn’t interfere with me falling asleep at night. I’m trying to limit myself to 2-3 cups of coffee during that time, and then I drink only water in the afternoon. I am also experimenting with decaf coffee first thing in the morning, as I have a whole coffee/water/cuddly dog/newspaper/meditation daily routine that I really like. But either way, I have noticed my caffeine consumption has gone down, my energy is more consistent during the day, and I am less likely to have caffeine later in the day that impacts my sleep.
Most Important Tasks (MITs)
Like most people, I loved checking my e-mail first thing in the morning. Before I knew it, a few hours had passed, and my inbox had fewer e-mails, but the most important things I should have been doing had not been done. I would also previously make long to-do lists every day and check off the items I got done, but I had a bad habit of keeping old to-do lists and never organizing everything into one place. Apparently, neuroscience works against all of us here because every e-mail or to-do that gets done, no matter how trivial, gives our brains a dopamine hit to keep us coming back for more. It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling more rewarded by getting many unimportant things done rather than getting the most important things done.
To avoid this, I now start each morning by quickly planning my day as follows (using my free Scottish accountant modified version of the Becoming Superhuman Daily Notepad, sold here):
- What are my 1-3 “Personal Most Important Tasks” (MITs) that remind me of what I’m working hard for?
- What are my 1-3 Work MITs?
- When am I going to complete my three “Focus Sprints” (see Focus Sprints below), and what will I work on?
- What “Less Important Things” do I need to do during my non-peak working times (see Chronotypes below)
As part of this change, I consolidated all my to-dos (personal and work) into ClickUp, an app we use at Zamplo. However, I find writing the MITs on paper helps me set my intention for the day and I get a dopamine hit from crossing them off as they get done. The key to implementation has been booking “Focus Sprints” into my work calendar so that meetings don’t get booked during my peak hours unless the meeting is one of my MITs.
I had heard about Chronotypes before, which dictate your energy peaks during the day and thus you can use your Chronotype to plan your day effectively. The three types are:
- AM Shifted (20-25% of people) – your energy peaks through the morning and then declines, and you prefer to go to bed early and wake up early.
- PM Shifted (15-20% of people) – you become more awake as the night progresses, prefer to go to bed late and wake up late.
- Bi-Phasic (50-55% of people) – you ramp up to hit a peak in mid-late morning, have a second peak in the evening, prefer to go to bed and wake up on the earlier side, but can have shifting sleep rhythms.
While I historically have been an early riser, it has always been with an alarm and often related to training for whatever goal I was working towards. Therefore, I wasn’t sure if waking up early was related to being AM Shifted or because I kept signing up for early morning cycling classes. To be sure, I took an assessment here to confirm my Chronotype (Bi-Phasic) and to feel less guilty about stealing the format from the notepad (yes, I paid for the assessment).
With the knowledge of my Bi-Phasic Chronotype and given that I naturally go to bed around 10’ish pm and wake up around 6’ish am while on holiday, I now plan my day as follows:
- 6-8 am: don’t drink coffee, have breakfast, read the paper, walk the dog, meditate, and do my lower back stretches or yoga.
- 8 am until around 12:30 pm is my peak to do analytical work requiring full focus, so my Focus Sprints get planned here and I avoid meetings.
- Around 12:30 pm I eat and then have a Nappucino.
- My energy dip is from around noon until 3 pm, so this is the best time to do administrative work/less important items.
- I have a Recovery window from 3-8 pm, and then I lose steam and start towards my optimal sleep window. I work out, make dinner, walk Gilfoyle (my dog) again, and have personal time (or work if I have to). This is also a good time for creative work, so I’ve written most of this blog post in the evening.
Per Lucas Miller, “sleep is the foundation of your health and performance,” so setting up your day to maximize productivity and being available for a good night’s sleep makes lots of sense. The other valuable thing I learned was that, on average, sleep cycles last 1.5 hours, therefore, you will feel more refreshed getting 7.5 or 9 hours of sleep than the typical goal of 8 hours. If I set an alarm, I now do it for 7.5 hours after I go to bed instead of 8, and I can confirm this has made it easier to fire out of bed in the morning.
My Phone Is a Tool for Me to Use, Not Vice Versa
According to Dr. Yousef, “very evil cognitive and behavioural neuroscientists (ok, the very evil part was me) have designed the look, feel, and the way a phone operates to make it addictive.” Research also shows that “if you allow yourself to be interrupted while doing something, it can take you up to twice as long to complete and leave you more exhausted.” This means you are less productive, have to work longer or feel stressed about not getting everything done, and have less energy to do the things you enjoy outside work. And this was totally me. I had a ton of notifications vibrating my phone throughout the day, and I couldn’t resist reading breaking news articles, reading texts, checking e-mails, etc.
Since I’m a bit technically challenged, the easiest thing for me to do was to:
- Turn every notification off on my phone (and my computer).
- Change the colour settings on my phone to grayscale. Fun fact: Instagram reels are way less addictive in greyscale.
I acknowledge that this is not the best approach because my partner and kids can’t reach me in an emergency, so I will figure out how to set up VIP access for them. In general, this has had a very significant positive effect on my life since I made these changes.
Focus Sprints With Focus Music
The idea of a Focus Sprint is to set aside a block of time during your peak productivity time to get your MITs done (this works equally well for personal and work MITs). According to Dr. Yousef, this is the “best way to get your most important work done in less time and using less energy.” The steps for setting up effective Focus Sprints are as follows:
- Set aside blocks of time for Focus Sprints in advance. This creates a hormonal response (adrenaline, cortisol, and glucocorticoids) that gets you ready to go. It also lets others know you are doing a Focus Sprint and allows you to set boundaries around contacting you during that time.
- Create clear, simple steps with time estimates for what you will do during the sprint, write them down, and keep the paper visible during the sprint. In the beginning, double your time estimates until your estimating improves. Research shows you will be more efficient and motivated if you outline and keep the paper visible to anchor you while you work.
- Prepare your environment to focus: phone away, notifications off, and focus music on.
- Do the focus sprint, crossing off each step as it is complete for a nice dopamine hit.
- Take a brain break (see below).
I had tried using music to help focus in the past with limited success, but I found out I had been doing it wrong. Per Dr. Yousef, the goal is to create a cognitive association between your focus music and a focused brain state. To be effective, you need music without lyrics or with lyrics in a language you can’t understand (I’m currently listening to Bad Bunny), and you can’t listen to the music at any other time than when you are focusing. Multiple apps have focus playlists, so I go to either Headspace or Spotify for my focus-only music. When working with others, I use noise-headphones to block out background noise and to signal that I’m doing a Focus Sprint.
This is another thing I needed to correct. Previously, my brain breaks would be spent reading the news, scrolling Instagram, and watching YouTube. However, doing these things doesn’t actually give your brain a break. It is just a distraction from what we should be doing. An actual brain break helps us to regain energy to be more productive, so it shouldn’t involve reading, writing, calculating or listening to podcasts, all of which use energy. Based on Lucas Miller’s suggestions, my go-to breaks are now:
- Getting something to drink and/or eat (no podcasts playing in the background) – making coffee is especially good.
- Taking my dog for a quick walk in the park across the street, again with no podcasts.
- Closing my eyes, taking a few deep breaths, or doing the meditation techniques I’ve learned to help refocus my mind.
The concept of the Nappuccino is simple. You want to take a nap, but if you sleep more than 20 minutes, you will wake up feeling more tired than when you fell asleep. Caffeine takes about 30 minutes to fully kick in. So, if you have a coffee, set your alarm for 20 minutes, and take a nap, the combination of the nap and caffeine from the coffee help provide energy for the afternoon. Research shows that 20-minute power naps can increase alertness for up to 4 hours (but don’t take them if it negatively impacts your sleep at night).
I’ll be honest. I just really like the name Nappuccino. I’m not usually an afternoon nap person, but I thought I would give them a try. So far, Nappuccinos haven’t worked for me. Moving forward, I will likely not plan for Nappuccinos, but if there are days when I am tired in the afternoon, I will try using this technique on an ad hoc basis.
Exercise and Brain Plasticity
I also didn’t know why exercise is good for your productivity. If you do aerobic exercise consistently, you tend to fall asleep faster and improve your sleep quality. Physical activity also helps you maintain brain plasticity and prevents cognitive decline. The good news is that the volume and exercise types are very manageable. Maximum physical health benefits come from:
- 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (50% to about 70% of your maximum heart rate) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise (70% to about 85% of your maximum heart rate) per week; therefore, consistent aerobic exercise could be a brisk 20-30 minute walk each day (which also provides a brain break).
- 1-2 times a week of resistance training (preferably exercises that use multiple muscle groups).
From my days as a personal trainer, everyone would ask, “what is the best exercise,” and I would respond, “the one you will actually do.” Consistent with this, Lucas Miller suggests, “try to find an exercise that feels enjoyable to you.” An increasing amount of research is now showing we have been overthinking exercise, and keeping it simple in moderation provides the maximum benefits to your overall health, longevity and productivity.
I found the concepts behind Becoming Superhuman both relevant to my health goals and relatively easy to implement. Their impact has also been immediate and significant. My focus is improving my mental health and maintaining a consistently high energy level throughout the day, so this program nicely aligns with my goals. I also think everyone can benefit from at least one of the suggestions (likely more than one). I encourage you to Become Superhuman and begin improving your health whatever that means to you.
You will find the podcasts in the first half of December 2022 on Radio Headspace, starting with “What is ‘Becoming Superhuman’” and more information about Dr. Sarah Yousef and Lucas Miller (Founders of Becoming Superhuman) here.
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