Back to Basics

We often find ourselves trapped in how we feel. We wonder why we feel sad or depressed and while there is nothing wrong with how we feel, we still would like to not feel sad or depressed. On our journey to feeling better, while fighting those negative feelings we try to find the newest and best secret to “curing” how we feel. Hardly ever do we consider the basics, after all, we are grown ups who have their basics all figured out. Or at least that’s how we would think, if ever we thought about it, because truth be told, we tend to forget the basics.

There are a assumptions that I think aren’t true. The basics aren’t so basic. There is quite a few aspects to the basics. And there are some individual aspects that no one but ourselves can put a finger on. In addition to that, the basics may be the foundation of our lives, but it is not so easy to lay a good foundation. The basics are habits and implementing good habits is quite tough. So tough in fact, that most people do not have all the basics covered. But why look for the silver bullet, when the way to feeling better is so trivial? Because it is hard. And we aren’t even aware of the benefits that getting the basics straight could yield for us. And even if we do, we struggle with the implementation or we are going the way of least resistance and are hardly trying at all. I will not sugarcoat anything, we are either willing to put in the work, or we will continue suffering. It’s up to us to choose. With this in mind: Behold: The Basics.

Sleep

It is well known that the way we sleep affects everything in our lives. And there is many factors to consider from our bed time to the duration we sleep to our environment, to the rituals that precede our going to sleep. Changing my sleeping habit was quite difficult. I used to sleep up until 11am and switched to around 7am. But I clearly avoided the headaches that came with staying in bed for so long and I spent the time that I didn’t stay up and watch some more TV at night, reading and exercising in the morning. But what helped me was knowing how much sleep I need and having stable nighttime and morning routines.

The most important thing when getting our sleep back on track is to not make excuses. I often would get to bed on time and then not sleep so well and use that as an excuse to stay in bed. It is true: we need our sleep, but when I changed my habits I had actually been sleeping too much and I would be fine with a few nights of not so good sleep. Especially since there was one more thing that was the most important aspect. I needed to train my brain to fall asleep on time. Getting up earlier than usual consistently and hence making getting up early my new normal did this. Because when we sleep too much our brain doesn’t really get to sleep and the quality of our sleep deteriorates. But when we sleep only how much we need to, our brain knows that it needs to sleep properly and on time in order to get enough sleep. This makes the whole sleeping experience much more pleasant, because it stops becoming a drag and starts being a habit.

A few things that help getting to bed are a consistent sleeping schedule and a nighttime routine, that tells our brains that it is time to wind down. For tips on how to wake up more easily I recommend reading The Miracle Morning, for me the most effective is putting my alarm across the room and walking into the kitchen to grab a coffee as well as not returning to my bedroom, to avoid the temptation of slipping back into bed.

Exercise

I love running. Most of the time at least. But the reason I run is not primarily the physical aspects. It is the mental aspects. Running has reduced my stress levels, increases my confidence. It allows me to tune in with my body, become more mindful and breath more deeply. I notice how much happier I am when I am running consistently. And then of course there are the physical aspects of it being good for cardiac health and overall health. Not to mention all the happiness hormones it releases and how proud we get to be of ourselves after completing a workout.

It does not need to be running, it can be anything that you enjoy. I have a friend who likes doing hula-hoop. And I know that people like to go on long walks. Others like hiking, going to the gym or dancing. Others are in a volleyball or basketball team. Anything that gets you moving is a great way to stay healthy and have those feel-good chemicals released in our brains making us feel happier, helping us fighting depression.

If we don’t know yet, what sport it is you would enjoy practicing, it helps to try a few different things. Try all of them for 3 weeks (if you don’t do them daily, if you do them daily 2 weeks should suffice) then see which you liked best. You don’t even have to choose only one, you can do a number of 2-4 different things, depending on what these things are. When we run for instance it is actually very important to do cross training, be it a different kind of cardio or something to build our strength. Generally speaking having one main sport and then some supporting sports of the other kind (such that we do both cardio and strength training) is optimal. The mixing allows us to strike a healthy balance on a physical level and having a main sport is helpful for forming an identity.

I would advise to get moving at least twice a week. It doesn’t need to be your main sport each time, but everything less than that is not consistent enough, to actually yield the lifestyle benefits we are trying to achieve. And this advice is targeting people in active jobs or people who move around a lot in general and do two intense workouts throughout the week. A general rule of thumb is to work out more often the easier the exercise form we choose.

Nutrition & Hydration

These two make sense to mention as one basic when talking about it, but it also makes sense to track them separately (more on tracking later). This is also the section where I will talk about quitting negative habits, because many things to stop are related to nutrition and hydration. However always remember that it is a lot easier to replace a bad habit, than to just quit it without replacement.

They say you are what you put into yourself. And Hydration really is a no-brainer. Drink plenty of water and unsweetened teas. I tend to find my water quite boring, which is why I like to add lemon juice, fruits or cucumbers to my water to give it some flavor. Just make sure to not add sugar, as sugar will draw liquids out of your body. Another tip on hydration is to always have water (or tea) accessible easily, since reducing the friction that comes with having better hydration habits, will make it more likely that you will successfully build those habits (this is obviously a general concept, which is always worth mentioning and applies to every good habit, we try to build).

Things worth considering when trying to improve nutrition and hydration include the intake of alcohol and caffeine. It is well known that alcohol damages the liver and can cause addiction. Whereas caffeine can have an impact on our sleep, bloodpressure and our stress levels in addition to that many people say, they need caffeine to wake up, but when we have the basics of sleep down, we don’t actually need it anymore.

As for nutrition, I myself find it really hard to stick to a healthy diet. I am aware of how important it is, since obviously it affects our brains/minds and our bodies, but there is so much to consider when it comes to nutrition. The easiest thing is probably to not over- or undereat. This is crucial to stay healthy. Neither obesity nor anorexia are states that help us feel happy. Aside from that there is the generic advice to eat fruits and vegetables. I personally would advice to develop an awareness of “good” and “bad” foods. But before I get into that, let me say one more thing. Every diet out there claims to be the one and only. Therefore every diet out there should generally be taken with a grain of salt. I am not saying that if a vegan diet works for you, you should change your diet, but let’s be real, if you are on a vegan diet you are probably skipping this section anyways. But as with everything balance is important and it is important that we get all the macro- and micro nutrients that our bodies need to be healthy and functioning.

As a general rule of thumb we would like to consume complex carbohydrates such as quinoa and potatoes and fiber-dense foods rather than calorie-dense foods. In other words: avoid empty calories, and this may come as a shock, but rice and pasta are actually quite calorie-dense.

Some things to be aware of include sugar, maltodextrose, glutamate, yeast extract, the quality of fats and anything highly processed. Sugar, glutamate and maltodextrose make something taste quite good, therefore they are contained in countless spice mixes and convenience foods. Maltodextrose is really just another name for sugar. The thing with sugar is, that it makes very tired, by throwing off blood sugar level. It also draws liquid out of our bodies and contains no nutrients whatsoever. It also throws off the bodies PH which then needs to be restored. Glutamate has another name as well: yeast extract. It changes the brain chemistry and is suspected to be related to heart disease, diabetese and obesity. In order to consume healthy fats, we should try to focus on taking in unsaturated fatty acids (most plant based fats, fish and nuts) instead of saturated fatty acids (palm fat and coconut fats as well as animal based fats). Now, one of the worst things for a well balanced nutrition, is highly processed foods, not only do those often contain low quality fast, but they also lost most micro nutrients when they were treated to be conserved. So in the end they really only contain calories.

Personal Hygiene

Now we come into the territory where the needs vary massively from person to person. Still it is fair to say that clean clothes and brushed teeth go a long way in helping us feel more in charge and ultimately make us feel better. Taking regular showers, washing our hair and brushing our teeth before going to bed seem obvious to some, but who hasn’t skipped brushing their teeth after drinking a little too much? What woman hasn’t faced the decision of going to bed or taking her make up off first and struggled making the decision to take an extra 5 minutes to wash that make up off?

Some people may consider personal grooming to be part of personal hygiene. But the line is blurry. Do I really need to cut my nails today, to have the basics covered, or can I wait another day? I would suggest however to start building better habits around personal hygiene at the more obvious ones and once those are firmly in place tackle the things that are on the line between personal grooming and personal hygiene.

Tidiness and Organization

No one likes to live in a dirty place. No one likes to live in a place where non of the stuff is in its place. Again how tidy your space needs to be for you to feel at peace, is up to you. I like my space very tidy. A messy space can stress us out and can amplify the negative emotion we have. And it can make building new positive habits even harder. To make maintaining a tidy space easier it can be helpful to declutter and give the things we end up keeping a fixed place a “home” where they get put into. Tidying in and of itself isn’t usually the problem. the problem occurs, when we try to put the clothes that had been on the chair for a while back into the wardrobe and the whole pile of T-Shirts is falling out.

For me a planner and a to do list (be it physical or digital) belong into this category as well. While it may be daunting to see all the stuff we wanted to be doing, it is also very rewarding to tick things off that list and it is calming to know that everything we ever need to do is on a list and will not get forgotten. Just like every physical item I own needs to have its place so does ever to do that pops into my mind and every thought that I might want to retain.

Progress and Tracking

First of all: do not attempt to fix everything all at once. This will likely not work and fail. Some of these habits might domino, which is very nice, so finding the right first habit to build can be a great idea. But if we don’t have a habit that dominos, that’s fine. We can just take one or two habits to focus on for a while and once they feel like second nature, we can go off find the next one to implement.

Tracking is crucial. We often only notice how bad we eat, sleep and do other basic things in our lives when we are faced with raw data. That can be disheartening to see at first. But really all this means is that there is something to work on. I usually need those wake up calls. I need some data telling me I am lazy, unproductive and unhealthy. But even if you don’t need those wake up calls, you need the data, in order to track your progress. Sure, we see progress after a month, but that is often not enough. We can see progress after only a week or even just a few days. And in the beginning the goal should be to make winning streaks that are as long as possible and then start beating our own personal bests. This way tracking becomes like a mini game. And since it keeps us accountable, it also makes it less likely for us to slack off and loose the good habits again.

And finally: be patient and compassionate with yourself. I know that is hard. I know we want instant progress. But nothing that is really good, will come instantly. It takes a while. And that’s okay.

Some final Words

There are more areas in our lives that are important that could have been added to this list. Such as relationships, downtime, growing and challenging our minds and I am sure we could think of many more. It’s the same here as in the organization point: the line between what is truly basic and what is also important for a good life is blurred. I suggest starting to work on the obvious things and then make our way to the less obviously basic ones. Clearly without saying: “don’t see anyone until you have fixed your sleep rhythm” In the end we need to be sensible as well. Rash choices will have us yo-yo back exactly where we are now in a week or less.

These are the basics. And they are hard to master, because inevitable life is hard to master. And while they are important sometimes it is all about giving ourselves some space and backing off for a day or two to allow ourselves to be lazy for a little. Leading a perfect life starts by with mastering the basics, but even a perfect life is not made up of only perfect days and it is just as important to respect that as striving for a solid base and building the life of our dreams.

And with all that said: Thank you for reading aaaaall the way through to the end. I hope you found some value and I am happy to take questions and comments in the comment section. I wish you all the best for your journey.

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