Want to Change Your Habits? Change This One First

This post is the fourth in a series of six I’m doing in partnership with the Cherry Marketing Institute. As always, opinions and wacky ideas are my own.

If there was one habit you could do that would keep you on track with all the rest of your habits, what would it be?

I wrote about this idea a few years ago, when for me this habit was reading — filling my brain with positive, inspiring ideas each morning kept me excited about improving lots of areas in my life.

But people change. We go through seasons in our lives. And when it comes to my most important habit, I’ve changed my tune.

My friend and accountability partner, Jeff Sanders, was recently asked about his “anchor” habit on Mindful Creator podcast. His answer: energy. From the moment he wakes up, drinking a liter of water first thing in the morning, Jeff focuses on maximizing his energy levels, so that he stays motivated and capable of being the person he needs to be for his business and life.

As I heard this, I realized that — perhaps due to my association with Jeff — energy has become my anchor habit, too.

The Energy Focus

We often read about how willpower is overrated, how it’s depletable like a muscle and is only one part of the habit-change equation.

But let’s not ignore it entirely: willpower is a part of habit change, and it’s a big one. And sleep, stress, and nutrition — all of which clearly influence our energy levels — profoundly affect our ability to stick it out when we want nothing more than to quit.

Before I had kids, willpower seemed to be in limitless supply. I didn’t need to worry about time or energy; I had plenty of both. My idea of energy back then:

coffee energy

But this year, I’ve focused more on energy than ever before, and with exactly the results I hoped for — namely, an improved ability to create other changes. Here are the big things I’ve focused on to dramatically improve my energy levels:

  • Eating a whole-food diet with large amounts of raw fruits and vegetables. Essentially “raw til 4:00,” a more practical version of the 80/10/10 diet I tried last year. I’m still undecided about the long-term consequences of a diet like this, but without a doubt, I feel better and more energetic as a result of eating this way.
  • Moving more, sitting less. I’ve been doing a 6-days-a-week training program for the Richmond Marathon, upgraded my workspace with a standing desk (see “Sitting Is Killing You, Even if You’re a Runner“), and started doing a quick morning fitness routine called the 5 Tibetans each day. (The relationship between movement and energy is counterintuitive: as long as the progression is gradual, up to a point it seems that the more energy you use, the more energy you have.)
  • Meditating. Just 10-15 minutes a day, with the help of Headspace.
  • Sleeping better. Not necessarily more, but more efficiently. Sleep efficiency is defined as the percentage of time in bed that you’re actually sleeping — so if you’re in bed for eight hours but you’re only asleep for six of them, your efficiency is 75 percent. Efficiency is key if you’re the busy, achiever type, because from a productivity standpoint it’s much better to spend seven hours in bed sleeping soundly than it is to take nine hours in bed to get that same seven hours of sleep.

The better I sleep, the earlier I wake up — and having logged a quality 6 or 7 hours, I’m ready to go. Quality sleep is absolutely essential for energy (it’s when we recharge our nerve energy), and it’s the focus of the rest of this post.

Sleeping Better, Continued

Two months ago I wrote another post in this series with some simple tips for improving your sleep.

Since then, I’ve slept like a baby. Not because I’ve used all 7 tips, but more likely because I’ve finally adjusted to a much better sleeping position (on my back, instead of my stomach). The adjustment period was rough, but I consistently did two things that I believe helped me:

1. Eating lightly before bed.

It wasn’t until I started the raw-til-4 diet that I noticed what an impact the size of my dinner (and sometimes post-dinner) meals had on my sleep. Even when sleeping the night through, I noticed (albeit unscientifically) that the days when I was really dragging in the morning were the days when I ate large dinners.

This makes intuitive sense: if digestion is one of our bodies’ largest energy expenditures, and if we’re eating in a way that requires lots of digestion while we sleep, then although we might get a mental rest, we don’t physically shut down and recharge as much as we could if not for the digestive load.

2. Drinking tart cherry juice.

Although the digestion theory is admittedly unscientific and just a little bit woo-woo, here’s some actual science: tart cherry juice is a natural source of melatonin, which may help reduce insomnia and improve that whole sleep efficiency deal that I mentioned above.

One study that I mentioned in the previous sleep post is worth highlighting here: as published in the European Journal of Nutrition, adults who drank two daily glasses of tart cherry juice slept about 40 minutes longer, on average and had up to 6 percent increase in sleep efficiency. (More details about this and other research here.)

To give you another reference point: assuming you’ve allotted eight hours of in-bed time, a 6 percent increase in efficiency means you get 28.8 more minutes of sleep.

(And if you’re like me, your mind immediately goes to the next step: “That means I could go to bed a half hour later and still get almost the same amount of sleep …” This is my curse.)

Play Along at Home: The Tart Cherry Sleep Challenge

The Cherry Marketing Institute, who has partnered with No Meat Athlete to sponsor this series of posts, is encouraging people to take the tart cherry sleep challenge (you may recall the Recovery Challenge I did last year).

To do it: drink an eight-ounce glass of tart cherry juice, twice per day, for two weeks. (Or drink one ounce of concentrate mixed with eight ounces of water, or as a shot, twice per day.) Then compare your sleep duration (and quality!) with what you’re currently getting — activity trackers are making it more and more feasible to objectively do experiments like this.

I’ve been drinking one or two glasses of cherry juice pretty consistently since last summer, by drinking one glass immediately after my workout (when the natural sugar in tart cherry juice can most easily be used for recovery), and one just before bed.

Sleep Challenge Graphic FINAL

When I did the recovery challenge last year, lots of people had questions. I put answers to a few of the most common questions in a blog post (scroll to the end), which you can check out if you’re interested.

Enjoy the challenge, and if you take it, let me know how it goes!

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Comments

  1. Steve P says:

    Magnesium works great to help you fall into a deep sleep and be regular in the morning…Not that we veg heads need to be concerned with that 😉

  2. Great post – I’m sharing it! I’m especially intrigued by the 5 Tibetans. Something new to try!

  3. I was actually drinking tart cherry juice as I was reading this, haha. I just like the taste. I didn’t know it had so many benefits. Now I know!

  4. Michele says:

    I like everything about this post except the tart cherry juice. I took the challenge myself after Matt did and while the anti-inflammatory affects were great, I had a terrible allergic reaction which caused an itchy rash all around my neck.

    I have yet to find an alternative to all the claimed benefits of tart cherry juice.

  5. Is there a brand or brands people recommend for the tart cherry concentrate or juice?

  6. I may have to take the cherry juice challenge. I work 12 hour night shifts, so sleep is a huge struggle for me. I have a hard time sleeping during the day after work, staying awake at night when I’m at work, and then falling asleep at night when I’m not working. I’ve heard tart cherry juice helps with inflammation, so maybe it’s worth a try. Thank you for the tips! I’ll let you know how it goes!

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