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Res Extensa #30 :: The reward for keeping it simple
I've been having trouble sleeping lately. Regularly I wake up stiff or sore, or with back pain. I think it’s our mattress. Usually I sleep well once asleep, but occasionally I’ll wake up tossing several times a night. I can stretch it out once I’m up, but I worry about how much worse it’ll get over the years as I get older. And this non-restful sleep definitely impacts everything downstream. My days are noticeably better and more productive when I have those good nights.
I also have young kids, so high-quality sleep is an endangered species no matter what I do. I see the performance hack artists on Twitter talking about their daily routines, and often the biggest takeaway is "Must be nice not to have someone jumping on you at 5:30am, or dragging you outta bed at 2 in the morning.” Kids certainly make things challenging, but not impossible to improve.
So after seeing rave reviews all over the internet about the Eight Sleep mattress, I wanted one. The temperature regulation, sleep tracking, vibration — how could my sleep not improve with something so high-tech? Somehow I was ready to spend $3,000 to improve my sleep. And to be clear, I'm a big believer in sleep as a foundation for livelihood in every other area; we spend a third of our life asleep, so a few $K seems cheap to do it better. As a data nerd, I looked at the Oura ring. If only I could track my sleep quality at a molecular level, I could make it all better!
But here's the rub: there are dozens of simpler things I could try to improve my sleep, without involving the wallet.
For example: what time am I going to bed? Am I on my phone late into the night? What's the spin-down routine? Am I drinking right before bed? Eating junk and snacks? The dirty truth is that none of those have great answers. I regularly find myself up at midnight messing around on YouTube, or scrolling Twitter. And there's no consistency to the routine — sometimes I fall asleep early, sometimes 1am. What good is a $3,000 mattress going to do with this erratic behavior?
What's really in order is to try some basic improvements first. Shut the phone off at 8pm. Lights-out at 10pm. Do this more than 2 days in succession. Once a pattern of good habit is established, reflect on what the before/after comparison looks like.
We live in a perpetual cycle of schemes to get rich/healthy/successful without putting in the work. Performance wonder drugs, fitness hacks, longevity, investing tricks — in every category there’s a way to throw money, tools, and “tips and tricks” at the problem.
When tempted by quick (and typically, not-free) solutions, you should widen the aperture and see if there are some obvious basics you haven't tried yet.
In so many areas we look for the easy-money option — the total-solution-in-a-box we could buy or eat or install that'll cure insert-thing-here.
But when we zoom out and look at all the possible options — not just tools, toys, and technologies — there's always a simpler step to try first:
Want to eat better? Don't jump right into ketosis or 72-hour fasts. Start with eating a little bit less than your typical. Cut a few items out. Eat whatever you want at mealtime, but cut out the snacking or eating after 7pm. Cut breakfast.
Want to get into running? Go outside today and run 1 mile, or even half a mile. Do it again tomorrow. You don't need new shoes, apps, equipment, or a fancy training plan.
Want to lift weights? You don't need an expensive gym membership or a full-body workout calendar figured out. Create a basic calisthenics routine of push ups, sit ups, and pull ups and do it once a day for a week; do it right next to your desk if you have to. See how you feel first.
What to write more, or better? Start writing regular journal entries only for yourself. Even pick topics to riff on privately. Occasionally you'll end up with something you like enough to publish online.
Want to get more people to try your product? You don’t need a grand multistep strategy. Just build a rough prototype, make that phone call, keep asking for feedback. Ask for more referrals to others.
James Clear's concept of Atomic Habits describes the same idea: habits should be granular units of behavior you can execute and repeat without any intervention from new tools, expensive products, or clever treatments. The basics — the small "just go outside"-level activities we can do at any time to improve — are sustainable, atomic units of behavior. The problem with lifehack culture is that we get addicted to waiting for the next hack to keep progressing. Turning a basic behavior into a second-nature pattern of life sets a strong foundation for sustainable improvement.
Every category has a hit list of basics you might be avoiding. That excuse for a new toy or a gym membership is just so tempting1. But we don't need that kind of complexity to make progress.
I never did buy that mattress. I told myself that one day I could earn it if I consistently wind myself down at 10pm and don't touch my phone til 8am for a month straight. Sounds like a simple goal for a big reward. I still haven't made it a regular habit, but I do it way more often than I used to. Focusing on the basics has made a material improvement in my day-to-day quality of life. And for a lot less than $3,000.
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Don't get me wrong, there's self-deception at play, too. If the gym membership puts pressure on your subconscious to get out of the chair and throw some weight around, more power to ya.