One of the core principles I've been religiously following for the last 8 years is the idea of continuous optimization. It started pretty innocuously, you know, young teenager kid experimenting with self-improvement here and there. It was going semi-well until I started seeing the results for myself one day. This quickly got addicting, making me want to invest even more into myself. It was like finding a way to consistently make money playing online poker, except the results were always guaranteed. This went on for a few years, and then one day it dawned on me, something that should've been obvious from the get go:
The only sustainable and guaranteed path to self-fulfillment and happiness is to see yourself getting better every day.
It is precisely this pursuit that keeps getting me out of bed everyday. Almost everything people do otherwise is just a proxy to this ideology. Everyone wants to see themselves improving everyday, and at a wide array of things that too. Maybe people want to see themselves get better at their income potential, maybe their personal relationships, maybe even their social status. It seldom matters what you want to get better at. Ultimately, there is nothing more satisfying than investing in yourself everyday for the long haul and reaping the benefits of it forever.
So assuming you're sold on joining the cult of continuous optimizers, where should you focus your efforts given you could optimize so many things about yourself? Following the Pareto Principle, it stands to reason that a vast majority of the benefits can be attained by focusing on a few small areas, simply because the return on investment on personal development is hardly linear.
If you don't already feel strongly about one area of your life that could use obvious improvement, I would recommend taking a step back and focusing on the absolute fundamentals. People often get fixated on optimizing the wrong things, perhaps because they're easier to optimize. Or the addicting world of marketing and social psychology has led them to wrongly believe that some things are more important than others. Unless you take long breaks from the world and get into periods of deep solitude and extreme introversion (like I occasionally do), it can be very hard, often impossible, to figure out what gives you true happiness rather than just obeying what the world thinks will make you happier. Fighting for the same things everyone else is eager for — money, power, status, wealth, titles, cars, jets, yachts, etc. — is only going to enter you into a grand rat-race which you're never going to be able to win, unless you get incredibly lucky. This failure to "win" will put you in an eternal loop of frustration followed by one mid-life crisis after another, leaving you so lost after just a decade of playing the wrong game.
If you're under 30 (my primary target audience for this blog), these fundamentals are the basic underpinnings that will guarantee taking you to levels of happiness you wouldn't dare share with others for fear of attracting their jealously. I just wish I had started focusing on these fundamentals sooner, but it's unfortunate that no one teaches you these things through our conventional education system. After 8 years of trial & error, constant introspection, reading, people-watching, observation of cause and effect of people's frequently reported problems, and discussion with a number of people excited about this topic, I have distilled the fundamentals to just 4 F's. Focus on mastering these 4 F's and you will already be 80% of the way there. This is the 80/20 of what actually matters to most humans. Worry about optimizing everything else like making other people happy, reaching self-actualization, etc. only after you've mastered the basic 4 F's first.
This is not to say nothing else is important, but the following is a stack-ranked list of the 4 things I strongly believe have the highest returns over the course of your entire life. I currently dedicate a substantial portion of my efforts into optimizing these areas of my life everyday. Just a couple years into our marriage, and it was easy convincing Sowmya of these focus areas as well. Today, we optimize these 4 things together!
Food/Nutrition/Diet: Garbage in, garbage out. Nectar in, honey out. Much like a car, how your body reacts and performs is directly related to the grade of fuel and oil you feed it everyday. People feed so much crap into themselves and are then left wondering why their bodies fail them so frequently, often at the most inopportune of times. Rid your body of unnecessary and harmful things like sugared soda, artificial chemicals and additives, alcohol, drugs, smoke through pollution, nicotine, caffeine, and what not. Each of these substances provably reduces your body's ability to think clearly and perform at its peak, introducing a permanent drag on your life. Would you ever put sand or chalk powder into your car's fuel tank? Every single time I've reduced or eradicated one of these substances from my body, I've sprung up a few levels of happiness everyday. Forever.
So if there's only one thing you could focus on for the rest of your life, it's what goes into your body and how much of it. Tame your tongue, and take control of your body. Don't get distracted by the ever-changing landscape of food buzz words like organic, vegan, cage-free, free-range, paleo, ketogenic, etc. To begin with, attempt to stick to the boring basics as much as possible first. Water should be your primary liquid diet (roughly 2L/day). Chew your solids until they become fairly pulpy/mushy since effective digestion begins with your teeth, jaws, and saliva. Eat slower. Focus on consuming balanced amounts of the 5 food components: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals/fiber. Keep it so simple by limiting your intake to mainly plant-based and unprocessed foods, that your body has no qualms flying through it every day without friction. The more "boring" your food looks on your plate, the better.
Of course, it doesn't matter what you eat if you're not controlling how much of it you eat. Overeating has today become the central source of most people's unhappiness and long-term dissatisfaction. The amount of overeating I see around me, around the world, makes my head dizzy. You should be eating only just enough to get you hungry exactly 15-30 minutes before your next meal. Limit your intake quantity and watch your body's response through productivity gains and mental clarity sky-rocket. Being just slightly underweight has been my own secret weapon to achieving heavy-duty productivity and physical output for numerous years now.
Fitness/Exercise: If food determines your base level of body and brain output, fitness & exercise serve as a multiplier. After a point of improvement, your physical and mental productivity can only be enhanced further through fitness & exercise. This magic wand, especially in the initial stages, can quickly change almost everything about your life and make you really feel alive. I've been getting a ton of exercise the last 8 years or so and I have to say, it's been the single-most area of my life where the return on investment has far surpassed my expectations.
What is the single best thing we can do for our health besides not overeating? To begin with, start with a minimum of 2.5 hours of moderate physical activity per week. Going for daily speed walks in the middle of your work day is the easiest way to start. I personally like to climb Nob Hill via California St. during work. But remember, 2.5 hours is only the bare minimum. Ideally, you'd want to be at double that, or 5 hours per week. The more you exercise, the easier it gets. So you'll be able to exercise even more over time. I frequently get 10 hours of exercise per week. Last week alone, I was on my bicycle for more than 5 hours combined.
If you are even slightly obese or overweight, fitness (along with your diet) should be your #1 focus in life right now. That's where you will see the most bang for your buck both short-term, long-term, and for the rest of your waking life.
Finances/Money/Debt: Once you've got in your 2.5-5.0 hours of exercise per week into a regular rhythm for a few months, and are able to control your portion-sizes, what you eat and how rarely you get drunk, it's time to take a fine-grained look at your finances. If your finances are a mess, it's time to get that squared out asap. I find it impossible to be truly happy unless I feel like I'm in control over every single aspect of my personal finances.
What does this mean? If you're in any kind of debt, unless it's a mortgage that is clearly within your budget, your first focus should be to destroy that. By destroy I mean completely annihilate. Whether it be student loans, car loans, credit card loans, cellphone loans, appliance/electronics/gadget loans, or payday loans, it doesn't matter. Each loan is slowly killing you from the inside through interest like maggots. Many of these loans are misrepresented as "plans", so don't be fooled into that! Personally, I've not been in any debt (excluding a reasonably-priced mortgage for our income level) since 2010 and it's proven to be a great advantage over my fellow peers who are throwing away substantial portions of their hard-earned income to interest. Ignore that tantalizing "minimum payment" posted on the monthly bill — your minimum payment should be the full principle, nothing less.
Your end goal should be to get to a point in your finances where you can comfortably save (and invest) 20% of your net income every single paycheck. This is the bare minimum. If you're having trouble hitting your savings goals, try these effective savings tips from a younger me.
Frugality: Frugality goes hand-in-hand with finances. But it's more about reducing your expenses to just the bare minimum. It boils down to one single idea: stop buying expensive shit! It's about consuming less and knowing when to say enough. It's about being happy with what you already have and finding maximal use for it, rather than wanting something you don't have. It's about reducing your carbon and environmental footprint on this planet by outputting more than you consume. Start today by implementing some specific actions on being more frugal, and watch your happiness level soar in just a few months.
Finally, start a spreadsheet. Becoming more frugal can be as simple as manually writing down each expense on a free spreadsheet program like Google Sheets. This is what I've been doing for the last 3 years now, and it's been phenomenal the amount of insight you glean by just looking at your own expenditure daily. I subscribe to email alerts on all purchases over $0 on both our credit cards so I can manually enter it into our 2017 spreadsheet. The mere habit of having to put in some effort to write down each one of your expenses will automatically make you want to spend less over time. Sowmya and I sometimes both go many days without spending a single dollar (over our fixed expenses like housing and utilities). We take time to cherish and celebrate those rare days because it means we've successfully beaten this consumerist world of ours, even if for a day.
As I discussed in my previous post, Sowmya and I have started focusing our efforts on becoming more frugal this year and forever. We hope to see major gains in this area over the next 4-5 years. Step #1 is to stop buying shit online, and to significantly reduce buying food outside at restaurants.
None of the above 4 F's — food, fitness, finances, frugality — should come as a surprise to you. You've probably even heard people talk about these topics on separate occasions. Their simplicity makes it easy to overlook how important each one is in determining your overall happiness level for the rest of your life. But this is basically it. Master these 4 areas of your life solidly, and you aren't going to need to worry about anything else for a long time. But once you see the results for yourself, you'll start becoming greedy and wanting more. And this is the joy of a fruity addiction to the cult of continuous optimization.
If you feel like you've already mastered the above 4 F's, you might be interested in knowing what's next. What's the highest leverage focus area that would give you the 5th highest return on your investment effort? How about the 6th? Guess away!