The most important thing I do every day. Almost (kind of).

This post started out in a more innocent time, but has become more relevant because of the global crisis. I have officially been on COVID-19 lockdown for four weeks now, and have to take my own advice here so as not to go stir-crazy.

The current post has its genesis in a relatively recent holiday. My wife and I spent nearly two weeks away from it all, or at least, most of it. For the most part we were in relative isolation, surrounded by nature. Scenes like this:


This was one of those near-perfect experiences. We rested well, but were also active. We slept much and often, but also spent hours trekking through the mountains and the bush, and still had time to do a mountain of reading (because otherwise it doesn’t qualify as a holiday in my book, so to speak). I’ve had holidays that were fun while they lasted, but left me with a hollow feeling, as if I have neither rested properly nor done anything worthwhile. This was the opposite.

What set this one apart then, were two factors:

  1. We were surrounded by gorgeous natural scenes and very few people.
  2. We were active every day, going on some taxing hikes and swimming in rock pools.

I returned from my holiday refreshed and mentally prepared for the blizzard of things I have to do this year. Yet, only one day after my holiday, I was sitting at home catching up on Netflix when I was shocked to realise that I did, in fact, feel like shit. There was absolutely no reason for me to feel anything but wonderful. I was well-rested, I was healthy, I was financially stable, did not have great stress, and I had a weekend of relaxing left with my wife before going back to work (which I was looking forward to).

It didn’t take me long to figure out why, because I could contrast my circumstances with those of two days before, when I was feeling great. Firstly, I hadn’t been out of the house yet, despite it being a gorgeous, sunny day. Secondly, I hadn’t done anything physical. So, opposite circumstances yielded opposite results.

I know this does not sound like a major epiphany. But as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about very abstract stuff and not as much on external circumstances, it was an important one. The lesson comes down to this: to feel mentally excellent, the easiest thing to do is to involve the physical. I am no stranger to physical exercise and train regularly, but usually in the evenings. I realised that to have an excellent day, I needed to feel excellent first thing in the morning.

To implement this, I came up with a little exercise programme I do first thing in the morning. It is important for me to do this before having my coffee, before checking my e-mail, or anything else. It’s not a massive work-out. My aim is to get thoroughly warmed up, to get out of breath and to sweat. There is an easy metric to determine when I have done enough: it is when the exercise stops feeling like a chore and starts being fun, and I don’t really want to stop.

The difference in my life is clearly measurable and significant. During the lockdown, there have been times when I have slept later than normal and entered the day with a fuzzy mind and low physical energy. The solution is to get out of bed (even when I’ve overslept) and get straight into exercise. I make the requirements for these sessions very low, and only require ten goblet squats for the session to be considered complete. Of course, I never stop there, but knowing that I can finish this in a minute helps me get started. When I start my day’s work, my mind feels clear and energised. If I could quantify my happiness, I would say that this simple habit has increased it by at least 10%.

I do still skip it sometimes because of sheer laziness or time pressure (mostly the former). Every time I do though, I regret it.

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