How To Use Algorithms To Reach Your Goals Without Feeling Like a Robot

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Having a routine used to feel like shackles. As a free spirit, I did not see value in interrupting spontaneity for structure. I still don’t really like to be told what to do, even if it is by myself.

For these reasons for much of my life, I resisted structure and consistency. At the same time, I often didn’t feel like I was making consistent progress towards my goals. I wanted to publish a blog post more than once every few months but didn’t have a system in place for how this would happen. I wanted to get more sleep but I didn’t have a bedtime ritual that I honored.

I realized that cultivating a structured routine would likely enhance my life.

Luckily, I followed through on this instinct and the results have been somewhat revolutionary. I now sleep for 8 hours, almost every night and publish on my blog once a week. I have gained confidence as I trust myself to follow through on the things I set out to do. And yet, sometimes things start to feel too rigid. I begin to feel like my creative impulses are stunted and pleasure is traded in for the sake of the routine.

So, while creating structure has been valuable, it is a constant balance of staying consistent with the things that matter without becoming a rigid robot. Today, I’m excited to dive into the systems that keep me on track with my goals and also my top strategies for making sure it never feels too robotic.

First, let’s first dive into the strategy that has been so vital for keeping me on track with my goals. I use a checklist of implementation intentions (basically behavioral algorithms) to create a structure to my days (more specifically, the morning and evening as these are the times of day most of us have the most control over).

Below is a sneak peek of the first part of a google doc that shows the current algorithms/habits I’m running in my life.

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As mentioned above, I use Implementation Intentions as they are one of the most well-validated tools in the behavior change arsenal. It’s a great way to turn your goals (aka the outcomes you want), into daily action (aka the process that will lead to your intended outcome).

It’s basically using algorithms to guide your actions. The formula is if X happens, then Y happens. What’s great about this approach is that in one simple process it ensures you’ve covered the most vital components of a successful habit plan; when you’ll do it, how you’ll do it, and what environmental cue you’ll link it to. Setting an implementation while motivation is high is also a way to pre-commit to a clear plan for your future self ( who likely won’t be as motivated).

Here are some additional examples of algorithms I run in my life

  • If I wake up, then I drink a big glass of water

  • If I brush my teeth, then I sit down to meditate for at least a minute.

  • If it’s 10 pm, then I shut down all my devices and dim the lights.

For the above reasons, I recommend you use algorithms to reach your goals of any kind. And yet, I also think it is vital to find a balance between flexibility and rigidity.

So, here are my top suggestions for how to use algorithms without feeling like a robot:

  • Make Sure It’s Pleasurable!

Ideally, with any habit that you create, there is a longterm benefit. You are often doing it for your future self. I usually don’t want to go to bed early, but I know the next day will be 1000X more enjoyable if I’m not sleep deprived.

One way to motivate yourself to stick to your algorithms is to find a way to also make it enjoyable in the moment. This adds an immediate reward and that will make it much more likely you’ll stick with the formula.

Here’s an example from my meditation habit. A while back, my meditation routine was feeling a bit dry. I didn’t want to sit down to my cushion and rushed through the whole process. To change it up, I decided to add some trancey music and burn a ton of incense. Suddenly I felt like I was in a cool ashram in the 1970s. This added a richness and sensuality to the habit that actually makes me crave it.

What are some ways you can make your habit more pleasurable in the moment.

  • Have Flexible Structure!

Use the idea of floors and ceilings to ensure the habit algorithms are adaptable enough for the variance of your days. I always tell clients to create one version of the habit that you could do on your worst days (think the days that you have to catch a 5 am flight..) and then think of the ideal version of the habit. The tiny tiny version (“the floor”) is in your pocket for the busy, hectic days that you’ll be tempted to skip. The ideal (“the ceiling”) is for the best-case scenario days when you have time and energy. Float between these two versions. This allows you to be consistent even as life happens. It can also be helpful to think of a version of your routine that is possible to do when you travel (this may be the “floor version” or another mobile version of your habits).

  • Update Your Algorithms To Fit Your Current Lifestyle!

Remember, your habits are there to nourish you and improve your life. If your daily routines are no longer feeding those means, it may be time to run some new “algorithm experiments”. Different life phases will need different structures and habits. When you go through a big transition, like a move, having a baby, etc. , expect that your self-care plan will also need to be revamped. I find it useful to create a list of the algorithms I’m currently using in my life so that I can review it and update it as needed.

What algorithms are you currently running in your life? How do you balance consistency and flexibility?

Light is the New Coffee

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In a wellness market flooded by the latest gurus promoting expensive programs and products, I’m increasingly interested in focusing my blog on highlighting the freely available, nature-based elements that impact human health.

One of the most obvious and underrated of which is our relationship with light.

A while back I wrote a post extolling the power of spending adequate time in darkness (aka avoiding screens at night). I’ll recap the basics here but for a deeper look at the dark side of the light equation and its importance for human health, start with my first article.  

Since I wrote it, screen addiction has been discussed ad nauseam in the media and we’ve likely all been saturated with messages regarding the hazards of blue light at night, so I won’t focus as much there. In this follow-up piece, I’d like to discuss the underrated power of exposing yourself to adequate natural light during the day. Despite its reputation in the media, blue light is not the problem. It’s the timing of blue light exposure that determines whether it is poison or medicine: bright, blue light is beneficial during the day and detrimental at night.

I’ll begin with a brief background on circadian biology, which explains why light matters.

How does our body keep time?

We evolved being exposed to predictable and alternating periods of light-dark every 24 hours. Our brains and cells evolved sensors to attune its physiology to the natural light-dark cycles in order to determine biological time.

More specifically, our master clock (the suprachiasmatic nucleus nucleus) in the brain entrains with light-dark cycles, as our optical nerve is constantly scanning the intensity and spectrum of light. The body is most sensitive to short wavelength light (blue light) and least sensitive to long wavelength light (like red light). In addition every cell in the body has clock cells which make up the peripheral clock. Our peripheral clock cells are most sensitive to metabolism (or in other words meal timing).

Timing physiological functions with light-dark cycles in nature led to more biological success. Historically, it made sense to be alert and active during daytime hours when food acquisition, preparation, and the majority of feeding most successfully occur. It made sense to sleep and focus on tissue repair and regeneration at night.

The field of chronobiology is helping us understand that optimal health occurs when the master clock (light is strongest cue) and the peripheral clock (meal timing is strongest cue) are in sync with each other and both are in sync with natural cycles of light and dark.

In other words, optimum health occurs when our sleep, meals, and light exposure inputs align with the natural cycles of light and dark.

THE POWER OF DARKNESS FOR HEALTH

Here’s a quick recap of why darkness matters. Bright, blue light at night signals to your biology that it is daytime. One of the way it signals this to your body is by blocking the release of melatonin in your brain. Melatonin, known as the “hormone of darkness,” relies on light intensity to know if it should be produced or blocked. If your eyes are sensing blue light at night, melatonin release doesn’t occur. We are all likely familiar with melatonin as a hormone (and supplement) that helps initiate sleep.

Perhaps more compelling is that melatonin appears to be a POWERFUL antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and oncostatic (cancer-fighting) hormone that helps your body repair and heal at night. If you are deficient in DARKNESS, and thus deficient in melatonin, you won’t sleep as well but you are also lacking a powerful repair mechanism you evolved to expect in adequate quantities each day. Rather than spending your money on expensive antioxidant supplements (that likely don’t work), prioritize your daily dose of darkness instead.

How to actually make it happen!

  • Avoid looking at bright screens beginning ideally two hours before bed. Decide on a screen curfew time (at least one hour before ideal bedtime) and do your best to stick with it. Set a digital sunset alarm on your phone as a reminder. FUN FACT: TV screens (likely due to their distance from your eye) were shown to not decrease melatonin levels in the same way that personal devices do. Good news for us nighttime Netflix bingers :) Study linked here.

  • If you work a night shift or simply need to use a lot of electronic devices at night, consider wearing blue-blocking glasses. I like the Uvex brand, which you can buy on amazon. Additionally, download the f.lux program on your computer which blocks blue light as it gets dark: https://justgetflux.com/.  Nightshift is the equivalent for Iphone http://www.apple.com/ios/preview/.

  • Use dim red-spectrum lights for night lights. Red light has the least power to shift circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin.

LIGHT IS THE NEW COFFEE

Morning light is the original coffee. Bright light in the morning gives our bodies a signal it’s daytime (known as daytime anchoring), which elicits a cascade of alerting hormones that make us energized and ready for the day.

Today, humans spend 90% of time indoors. This is problematic as many of us are not receiving adequate light cues to signal to our circadian rhythms that it’s daytime. It’s easy to assume that that indoor lighting is brighter than outdoor light, especially on a cloudy day. This isn’t true. The brightest lit office spaces are only around 500 lux, while being outside on a cloudy day exposes you to about 10,000 lux (and as much as 30,000 on a sunny day).

The impact of low light exposure on mood is illustrated in the modern understanding of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the connection between low mood and lack of exposure to light in the winter. Too much time spent indoors is making it so that we are living in a chronic, low-light, “winter-like” environment. Studies have now found that exposure to bright light during the day positively impacts cognition, memory, energy, mood, and alertness (study here). Additionally, exposure to bright light during the day leads to better sleep at night and is protective against the harmful effects of blue light at night.

This means that most of us are exposed to inadequate, dim lighting environments during the day and too much light at night. In this environment, our bodies never receive a robust message as to whether it is biological day or night, which leads to circadian misalignment.

You can use light boxes or other high tech solutions but none are as elegantly designed for your physiology as simple sunlight. In the words of renowned light scientist Mariana Figueiro during her awesome Ted Talk on Light and Health, “Daylight is the ideal light source for the circadian system - it goes on and off at the right time, and is the right color and right intensity”.

Below are my top tips for harnessing the power of bright light during the day for optimal health.

How to actually make it happen!

  • The #1 practical way to get enough bright light during the day is by creating a morning walk habit. Go for at least a 10-30 minute walk each morning (ideally before 10:30am) and you will ensure you are getting adequate daylight anchoring each day. The most potent results happen within the first 30 minutes of exposure, so set this as a daily minimum for total time outdoors.

  • Get outside as much as possible during daylight hours. Particularly if you get groggy in the mid-afternoon, swap your coffee for a brisk walk outside.

  • If it is not possible to get outside during the day, consider using a light box of at least 10,000 lux in the morning. I haven’t used one myself but this looks like a good product.

*It’s important to mention that wearing sunglasses can reduce your bright light exposure by 7-15 fold, so don’t wear them on your walks where light exposure is the priority.

Like many topics, there are a lot of high tech, expensive ways to optimize sleep, energy, and moods. I argue that none are as potent and effective as intelligently using light-dark cycles to optimize your circadian rhythm. Light is an ally we co-evolved with. If we use the right spectrum and brightness at the right time, it has positive benefits on every system of the body. The best part is that it is free and democratically available as long as you have access to the outdoors!

As always, I’d love to hear about your own creative ways to optimize your circadian rhythm - feel free to post below!

If you need help improving your sleep and circadian cycle and are ready to transform your personal habits, I’d love to support you as your health coach. Click here to schedule a free consultation call.