Lessons from the Routines of Famous Creators

I’m a big believer in routine. I think that a lot of what contributes to determining whether a person succeeds or fails in their endeavors is whether or not they have a routine in place – a system – that acts as a benefit or detriment to their progress.

So I was excited to find this visualization of the daily routines of 25 famously creative individuals by Podio and the one below from Infograph We Trust. Let’s take a look and see what learn from them.

Sleep

I’ve said before, sleep is super important.

When we look at the 25 people in question the average amount of time spent per day sleeping was 7.65 hours. Of course, this is a mean and of a relatively small sample size at that so take from it what you will. Within those 25 we have a few outliers such as poor Voltaire clocking in at only four hours of sleep per day and Mozart with a meager five. On the other end of the spectrum is Balzac with around ten hours of sleep per night.

Overall though the majority fall between the seven and eight hour range. This follow pretty closely with the current general guidelines on how much sleep is considered healthy. Stepping outside the chart itself, you’ll notice a mild correlation between amount of sleep daily and lifespan – not to say this implies causation, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

An important thing to take away from this for me is that to be a successfully creative it isn’t necessary to deprive yourself of sleep in the name of overzealous production. In fact, it would seem if given the option of spending more time on sleep or more time on creative work itself the individuals here at least were better off getting extra sleep rather than putting in more work hours.

Quality beats quantity here, and sufficient sleep appears to be an important factor in keeping to a high standard of quality.

I’d also like to note that five of our twenty five here were nappers, depending on whether you include poor insomniac Kafka or not. Napping doesn’t mean you’re lazy, and can actually be a big help in boosting your productivity and creativity.

Creative Work Habits

Our sample twenty five here don’t follow any apparent pattern of when they favored creative work. Some worked in the mornings immediately after waking, some worked late at night and others worked in little intermittent spurts throughout the entire day. Don’t assume just because some people say it’s better to do creative work in the mornings or evenings that it’s true for you. Experiment and find what works best for you then schedule your work times for when you feel most creative or engaged.

Another thing of note is that, with the exception of Kant and his hour or so of creative work a day, the majority of the twenty five in the graphic made their creative work a priority. It wasn’t just some extra thing tacked on to their day, it was clearly a major focus for each of them.

I don’t think this means that there’s any kind of magic number of work hours you have to put in on your creative endeavors, but I do think it’s strongly indicative that all these individuals were passionate about their creative work. It was a defining part of their lives, and they treated it as such. In other words, don’t phone things in.

While most of these individuals lived during times when the modern concept of exercise was essentially unheard of, it’s interesting how many of them included something that could be categorized as exercise very near to when they routinely engaged in their creative work. At least fourteen of them enjoyed going for walks around when they were trying to be their most creative.

If you’re feeling stuck or uncreative, try taking a short walk and letting our mind wander then coming back to things.

Leisure Time

It stands out to me that the majority of these twenty five creative individuals, though they clearly considered their creative work time an integral part of their day, weren’t chained to their desk/easel/piano/whatever.

For nearly all of them their leisure time either matches or exceeds their creative time. Being fair, this does include listed mealtimes and everyone has to eat, but it’s still telling that even the most creative people around are still able to get plenty of time to relax and de-stress.

For those on the list with day jobs in addition to their creative work, there always seems to be at least a small buffer of leisure time before they get into the creative stuff.

I can relate to that personally. I can never go from training a client or teaching a class straight into creative work like writing, I always like to have at least a little chill out time in between as a buffer. Keep that in mind if you feel like you have to go right from your other work into that creative project you’ve been working on – you’ll probably be better off if you take a little break in-between to recharge.

24 Hours

Out of everything, the most helpful thing to me in seeing so many famous creative individuals’ daily routines all together is that it’s a convenient reminder that we all get twenty four hours in a day.

Successful people and absolute failures alike each get the same amount of time everyday – the important variable is how that time is spent.

Hopefully if nothing else this has inspired you to take a look at your own daily routine to see if there are any areas where you can make adjustments to improve your creativity or well-being. If anything jumps out at you from these graphics, or you have a particular area in your daily routine you’ve recently changed and want to share it with everyone, leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Podio, Infographic We Trust

Why Behavioral Change is Hard and What You Can Do About It

Adventure Time - "Dude, sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something." by Jake the Dog.

Want to make a big change in your life? Maybe you want to get fit or commit to learning a language or instrument, or even to start meditating.

At some time or another, everyone sets goals they hope to attain someday that will require significant changes to their lifestyles. Unfortunately though, most will fail to achieve those goals.

Every new year, gyms are crowded with well-intentioned “resolutioners” who want to become healthy, perhaps lose some pounds, and be a better version of themselves in the new year. By February the number of those who stick around will be halved, then by March that number halved again. Only a very small percent of those who started will stick around.

Motivated by Negative Emotions

A lot of the people at the gym are motivated by the things that make them upset or by a negative conscious. They’re upset about being overweight, feeling guilty for not exercising as often as they should.

The same goes for many other pursuits, even learning instruments – they focus too much on what they can’t do, or the guilty feelings for missed practice sessions.

Studies have shown that those seeking to make long-lasting changes are most successful when they are self-motivated and founded in positive thinking.

So don’t focus on the negatives – focus on the good that will come from that change, on how good it feels to know you’ve hit your targets along your way to that goal. Focus on the wins you have had – it’s better to exercise once a week for 15 minutes, than not at all.

Your inner dialog effects your success rate, your confidence and your moods. The more you can make it a positive voice instead of a negative one, the happier and more successful you’ll be.

Visualizations and personal mission statements have been shown to help people succeed in their goals and in changing the tone of their inner voice.

Practice visualizing succeeding in your goals and make time at the beginning of your day to recite your personal mission statement, like “today will be a productive day – I’ll practice Spanish and go to the gym.” Or “I’m hardworking and make awesome videos – I dedicate myself to making the best videos available.”

“The most successful people recognize, that in life they create their own love, the manufacture their own meaning, hey generate their own motivation.”
– Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Take on More than You Can Handle

Your willpower is finite and so is your time. Taking on too many goals at once will not only drain your willpower and motivation, but will lower your focus and ability to devote time to meet those goals.

Once one thing fails, it’s easy to slip into a negative mind-set and let it all fall apart.

People who seem to be able to “do it all” and “magically have time for everything” didn’t start out that way – they built it up slowly.

To ensure your goals will be successful, start with just one or two and add to it as you feel able to. Once meeting your first couple goals is so easy and habitual that you do it without even thinking, then you can add more.

Stay in Your Comfort Zone

A lot of changes will require that you do something uncomfortable. They will make you do things you don’t normally do, in the name of making you into a better person.

Practicing a language requires you get out of your comfort zone – you’ll eventually need to go out and practice speaking with other people.

Eating healthy foods, hitting calorie and macro targets, exercising all require that you get out of your comfort zone. It’s just easier to not do those things, and eating ‘bad foods’ make you feel really good right now.

An simple way to address the comfort zone issue is to break it up into small, swallow-able chunks and to congratulate yourself on the successes you do make.

Practice speaking in your target language for just a few minutes, and build it up from there. Same goes for exercising – don’t try to go all out and lift or run for an hour. Eating healthy food all day isn’t easy for everyone, so start with just one meal.

Once those small commitments aren’t painful anymore, then you can increase the time or difficulty.

“We avoid risks in life, so we can make it safely to death.”
-Philosoraptor

Make Things as Hard as Possible

Sure, you can keep track of how much you’ve spent on ‘entertainment’ in your head. And you can remember to practice playing your ukulele for fifteen minutes a day if it’s hidden in it’s case and tucked in the closet, right?

Right?

Nope.

We aren’t perfect, so the more we can make change easier to do than to not do, the better. Rather than fully putting away your instrument after practice, keep it somewhere in the open where it is easy to see and think “Yeah, I’ll just grab it and practice for a few minutes.” The hassle of taking something out of it’s case is small, but enough to discourage someone from doing it.

If keeping to a budget is difficult, forcing yourself to only spend cash on your entertainment will eliminate the need for (often wrong) mental math and keeps you on track to that big goal.

If you want to exercise early in the morning, keep your exercise clothes out ahead of time – set them out before going to bed so that it’s in your way and easier than not to put them on and go work out. Put your meditation and language-learning apps on the front screen of your phone so you’ll have that many fewer steps to comply.

Vague, Un-actionable Goals

We’ve talked a lot about how having vague goals practically ensures failure. When you have a big goal like “lose weight,” “learn guitar” or “become financially independent” it’s incredibly easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and paralyzed by not knowing what to do.

Take the time to make your goal specific and then explicitly list out the steps required to achieve that goal – this will go a long way to ensure your success. Once you’ve completed the goal and actions-to-goal sheet, put it somewhere easy to see and take a look at it from time to time to remind yourself that your goal is doable, and you know exactly how to do it.

Breaking down big goals into smaller, mini goals will help not to feel overwhelmed and will give you clarity. You know what you need to do and you know you can do it. The only thing is to actually do it.

Don’t Build New Habits

One of the easiest ways to achieve a goal is to incorporate it into who you are, to make it a part of your habits and being. Unfortunately, many people don’t take the time to do this. We want to skip the hard work of change and just reap the benefits – but it doesn’t work like that.

If your goal is to workout three days a week for an hour per session when you haven’t set foot in a gym for the past year, starting there is likely to fail. Going to the gym three days a week is something you aren’t used to doing and the time commitment will wear you out.

If you want to make meditation, language practice or instrument practice into a daily activity, the same idea applies – jumping into a huge time commitment will wear down your willpower.

Instead of taking on a big commitment that is a huge change, start with a small change. Meditate or practice for just five minutes per day. At the beginning, five minutes may seem ridiculously easy, but the point is to make the act of practice a habit. Once that is down, you can slowly increase the time.

Don’t forget to track your progress toward those habits, too. Using the Seinfeld chain method, keep a piece of paper on a wall and mark it for each day you successfully complete the goal task. Having a visual reminder of your successes will keep you positive, motivated, and ingrain this habit.

Focus on the act of complying, not with the results. Making the task become a habit and a part of your lifestyle will ensure not only success, but sustainable success. Results will follow.

Don’t Identify Triggers

Have you ever had a day when something is just off and when one thing is off it spirals downward until everything has gone wrong and you just give up?

Sometimes it’s easy to point to what went wrong – but often it’s not so easy. Say you went over on your calories at lunch and beat yourself up over it, then by dinner time thought, “ugh, I screwed up. Forget it, let’s eat pizza for dinner.” Maybe you did this consciously, maybe unconsciously.

Keeping a journal during your change and having regular check-ins once or multiple times per week will help you to identify triggers that caused you to de-rail your progress. Once you can identify those triggers, then you can work on creating a plan to deal with them. If you went over your calories at lunch – remember that it’s not a big deal, keep your dinner to what you planned. Remember that there will be bumps along the way.

Change is a Process

Changing your habits and behaviors is hard work. Humans are complex and even under ideal circumstances, they can fail.

You don’t exercise once and suddenly become a gym-rat or play guitar once and suddenly become a riff-master. It takes patience and persistence. Learn to love the process and the results will come.

The key to successful change is simple though: don’t give up. The path to successful change is never straight and often requires starting over and over. But that’s okay – failures are a way to start again with more knowledge than before (what worked? What didn’t?) Take a break if you need to, but then get back to it.

It requires an immense amount of courage to get out of your comfort zone and to become more than average. If you have any major changes you want to make in your life it’s important to remember exactly what you’re doing - you’re trying to become more than average. To become awesome – or epic.

If it were easy, everyone would be their ideal selves.

“The higher the mountain, the more treacherous the path.”
– Frank Underwood

How Mindful Meditation is a Workout for Your Brain

Meditation

You don’t need to be a monk to meditate, nor do you need a huge time commitment.

For the longest time the idea of meditation always conjured up images monks sitting cross-legged on mountaintops, cliffs, under waterfalls or some similar wilderness space all while being completely silent for hours on end. I thought it was a spiritual thing and the benefits were all just myths or pseudoscience.
However a growing body of studies caused me to take a second look at it and since experimenting with it personally, I highly recommend everyone give it a try.

What Is Meditation

There’s several different ways to meditate, however most of the scientific research focuses on mindful meditation, or Zazen (literally: seated meditation.) As such, that’s what we’re going to focus on in this article.

In mindful meditation, you focus on one specific thing – it could be a sensation or your breathing. The point is to focus on this one thing and when you catch your mind wandering, you gently bring it back to that focal point.

We train our bodies in a gym – doing reps to increase our strength and cardio to improve heart health. Meditation is like going to the gym, but for your brain. Unlike a gym, it’s cheaper and doesn’t require any fancy clothes and doesn’t have any potential for worrying about how you look in front of others.

Zazen is not so much about spirituality as much as it is about training your concentration and attention – the ability to be present, quiet your mind and focus on one thing.

Our brains have to process a lot of information – this information is like confetti being released from a ceiling and you are your brain trying to grasp on to each of them. Our attention is everywhere and it decreases our focus, productivity and increases our stress levels. With meditation, we learn to slow down and control that flow of information.

Meditation Works by Literally Changing Your Brain

Technology has enabled scientists to get a better understanding of what happens in our brains when we meditate and how it affects our brains. Thus far have been absolutely fascinating.

Using fMRI scans one of the biggest things scientists have learned is that it causes a decrease in beta waves, meaning our brains stop or slow down processing information.

In addition to controlling the flow of information, it also increases gray matter which has a huge impact on our lives, as I’ll describe below.

What Does This Mean For You?

Increased Focus

During mindful meditation, we are practicing holding on to a singular focus and bringing it back when our mind drifts – this practice enables us to be better at focusing even when we are not meditating.

Decreased Anxiety

This was a huge one for me, as I am prone to trouble with anxiety. Consistent meditation loosens the connections of particular neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex – commonly called the “me center.” This part of the brain processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences.

Typically, the neural pathways from bodily sensation and fear centers to the Me Center are strong – when you experience a negative or upsetting situation a reaction is triggered in your Me Center that makes you feel scared or under attack.

Meditation loosens these connections, meaning our reactions are more toned down and under control. Something
that would have previously lit up the Me Center would barely register.

As this connection is weakened, the connection in our Assessment Center is simultaneously strengthened. So, when we encounter a scary situation, rather than being gripped by fear and anxiety we are able to calmly and rationally assess the situation.

Decreased Stress

Meditation also helps reduce stress – part to lowering anxiety, but also in part by helping us perform while under pressure.

Increased Memory

One of the more fascinating discoveries is that meditation can help improve memory recall. Multiple studies have found that those who meditated were able to focus and remember facts better than those who did not.

Increased Gray Matter

Meditation has also been linked to increased gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. More gray matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer lasting emotional stability, less stress, and heightened focus. Even ore, it’s linked to diminished age-related effects on gray matter and reduces the decline of our cognitive functioning. How cool is that?

Not enough for you? How about increased creativity, lowered blood pressure, reduced pain, increased compassion, confidence, well-being and overall quality of life. If you suffer from anxiety or depression meditation is one of the most powerful things you can do to help.

Meditation is not a cure-all for every ailment, however it is incredibly beneficial. So why not give it a shot?

How to Meditate

In order to glean the highest benefits of meditation, you need to integrate it into your lifestyle. You’ll benefit from just two minutes a day, or if you are ready to jump into it, meditate for between 10 to 30 minutes.
You can go it by yourself, or you can use an app to help. I’ll explain both ways for you here:

On your own

  • Find a comfortable, quiet place and sit. You can sit on the floor or in a chair – whichever doesn’t matter. As long as your back is straight, you are comfortable and there will be no or limited distractions.
  • Rest your hands on your thighs or rest them together in your lap.
  • Close your eyes, and take a few slow, deep breaths. Notice any sensations you feel – the sensation of your back against the chair, your feet on the floor, the weight of your body on the cushion. Notice your muscles in your face, shoulders, stomach, and legs. Don’t try to change anything, just notice it.
  • Take another deep breath and relax your facial muscles. With another breath, relax your shoulders. Go on from head to toes.
  • Just breathe. Focus on your breaths, flowing in and out. The only thing going on in your mind should be “breathe in, Breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.” Count your breaths up to ten, and then restart.
  • It wont take long for your mind to drift, to start thinking about the things you have to do today or anything that troubles you or excites you. This is natural. Acknowledge it, don’t chastise yourself over it and bring your focus back to your breath. Pick up where you left off.
  • At the end of your meditation (you can set up a timer) take a final breath, and bring your attention back to the room. Notice how you feel now. Slowly open your eyes.

As you progress, this process will become a lot easier. After a couple of weeks meditation you’ll begin to reap the benefits – a sense of calm and control, increased focus and less stress, among the many others.

When you meditate is up to you, however I highly suggest making it a part of your morning routine. I like to call it my start-up process. I have found that doing it first thing assists in feeling calm and focused throughout the day. However, you can also meditate before bed or midday – and you should if you are feeling particularly stressed. Just take a ten minute break to meditate.

Meditation with Apps

Calm

Calm is my favorite app for meditating. With it you have two options: guided meditation or a timer and doing it yourself. Two of the sets of guided meditation are free, while the rest are accessible for between $0.83-$1.66 per month.

The major benefits to Calm for me are the background white-noise options – you can listen to babbling brooks, a sunny meadow, or rain on leaves. I’ve found personally that having some form of white-noise while I meditate helps me keep that singular focus.

Calm App

Calm’s main screen.

Calm App

Calm’s Guided Meditations.

Additionally, you can choose the noise to signal the end of your session from a pre-set selection. I like them because most of them are non-jarring noises like a singing bowl or harp. Or, you can have no noise set.

Furthermore, Calm logs your sessions and helps keep you motivated.

Breathe

Breathe is a little bit different from Calm in that before you get to the meditation it forces you to take note of your current state by asking you some questions such as how you are feeling mentally and physically, and what words you’d use to describe them. From this, it offers up suggestions for guided meditations or you can go it yourself with just a timer.

Additionally, it has options to help teach you how to meditate, a list of guided meditations if you’d like to skip straight to one, and to see your progress.

Breathe App.

Breathe’s Main Screen.

Breathe App.

Breathe also teaches how meditation works.

Honorable mention: Headspace.

Headspace is also a cute little app that also teaches you about meditation and how to meditate. I like the app, however I feel that its use is stunted – your only option is to use the first 10 guided meditation sessions before you have to pay for more. There’s no option for “just meditate _ minutes.” However, if you like it the full version is not expensive at all.

Challenge

So here we challenge you to try meditation for just one month. Using the setup below, make this a part of your lifestyle by implementing it small chunk by small chunk:

  • Week 1: Meditate just one minute every day.
    Commit to just sitting down and taking one minute out of your day to meditate. Just one minute. You can do that, right?
  • Week 2: Meditate 5 minutes every day.
    Now that you made it through a week of one minute, time to increase the work. Try for just five minutes each day.
  • Week 3: Meditate 10 minutes every day.
    Again, if you made it five, you can do ten.
  • Week 4: Meditate 15 minutes every day.

Note and observe any differences you felt before and after meditation.

If you take up the challenge, come back and tell us how you felt in the comments below! If you are a seasoned veteran, we invite you to share your thoughts and tips as well.

Photo Credit: Sebastien Wiertz

Dominate Your Year with the Epic Annual Review Guide

Epic Annual Review Guide Cover

Cover of The Epic Annual Review Guide

New Years is coming up quickly and it’s that time of the year again that people begin making resolutions and goals to make themselves and their lives better. While I support people making goals and changes for the better, more often than not their efforts fail.

It’s common for folks to say “This year I’m going to get fit!” or some similar type of goal. On January 1st they get a gym membership and are excellent at keeping to their schedule for the first couple weeks, possibly even a month or two, but by March most of them have lost sight of their goals and are paying the gym for a membership they don’t use.

I used to be one of those people. There’s no shame in it.

But I wanted to be better – I was sick of the failures and tired of restarting the same goal over and over. After a lot of research and stumbling upon some awesome products, we’ve developed our own system for setting and attaining goals. One based on our research that looks at the big picture and breaks it down into a system to dominate life and goals.

The Annual Review: Our Goals, Productivity, and Habits System

What is an annual review? It’s a process of looking over the previous year and examining successes and failures, setting new big goals, and then planning the upcoming year taking into account the lessons learned. However, we like to take it one step further.

It’s not a secret that we are productivity junkies – we have a lot that we want to do and learn, so it makes sense that we would invest time figuring out how to most efficiently succeed in attaining those goals. Our guide includes not only the process of learning from your previous year and planning out the next, it also includes productivity and habit systems to help ensure those goals get achieved.

Adam likes to do his yearly review around his birthday in August, as that is a more “true” year in his opinion. I don’t really have a preference, it’s just a happy accident that my birthday falls near the end of the year, so I usually spend the first week of December looking over how my last year has gone and planning the next.

When you choose to do your annual review doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you have a clear, organized game plan to conquer your goals and live an epic life.

So we thought it might be helpful to others to share our process. It’s based upon, and inspired by, Chris Guillebeau’s Annual Review – but somewhat more complex. In addition to the guide we’ve included a bunch of worksheets to help you organize your thoughts, set better goals and dominate them.

Conquer Life with The Epic Annual Review Guide

For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.
– Arnold Schwarzenegger

We all have goals and projects we want to complete. Things we want to do, things we want to make, things we want to become. The annual review takes a systematic approach to setting clear, measurable goals and then dominating them. Why not dominate life?

Achieving big goals and dreams can seem like a daunting task – but that is exactly what makes them so awesome, right?

The key to being successful in completing big goals or projects is breaking it down into smaller, easy to achieve steps and then following up with daily action toward those steps.

Everything needed for success is included in the annual review. Our system for conducting an annual review takes a look at life, who you are, where you’ve been, and where you want to go. Then it breaks down those goals into small, easy to swallow chunks. Finally, using a variety of methods and habit-building techniques, we ensure that progress is made daily toward those goals.

When you complete a big project it’s important to look back at the process as a whole. What worked? What didn’t? The same is true for when you fail. When you take the time to examine how things went and to point out what worked and what didn’t, you’ll have an advantage the next time you take on a project and doing an even better job.

So why not apply this to life? This is exactly what we do in the first part of the review. Then we look at what we want to achieve and create systems using tactics we know work, like building habits, along with applied lessons learned from previous successes and failures.

Dominate Life with the Free Guide

Ready to be epic conquer your goals? We’re giving this away for free, forever. You can get the guidebook, plus additional worksheets to help you work through your goals and implement systems for success below.

Don’t be good – be great.

Get the PDF – if you lovely folks want we’ll turn it into a Kindle or iBooks file too. Along with the files, get access to the worksheets here.

If you run your own annual review, let us know what you think – especially after your year has been completed. Did you do more? Did you achieve your goals? What worked? What didn’t? Would you do it again? Leave a comment letting us know!

The 80/20 Guide to Nutrition

Homework by Nathaniel Watson

Nutrition doesn’t have to be this complex – as long as you know what to focus on.

Nutrition is a complicated thing.

It doesn’t have to be, at least unless you really want to start getting into the energy pathways and biochemical stuff. If you’re just looking to lose weight, get a bit stronger, or just be overall healthier the nutrition knowledge required to get you there is actually pretty simple. The problem is the fitness industry in general (Yes I realize I am, de facto, a part of that industry but I’m trying to do better here) emphasizes all the complicated – and often expensive – aspects of nutrition first and ignores the things that matter most.

Nutrition and all the goals linked to it follow the 80/20 principle as much as anything else does. There are a minority of high return actions that will lead to a majority of your results and a majority of low return actions that will lead to a minority of your results – in other words about 20% of what you do will get you about 80% of your results, while the other 80% of what you do will only be worth about 20% of your results.

The best course of action then, with anything, is to focus on that 20% of actions first that will give you 80% of your results.

So What’s Really Important?

Going from most important at the top to least important at the bottom, I’d divide things up as follows:

  1. Calories

  2. Macronutrients

  3. Micronutrients

  4. Meal Timing

  5. Supplements

If you flip the list over it could be a ranking for things you’re most likely to see articles about in health & fitness magazines.

The problem is that complicated and detailed processes are sexy and make us feel like we’re doing something. They also offer people an out as for why what they’re doing now isn’t working. They follow a program for a week or two, possibly with poor adherence, don’t see the results they want and then see a magazine article telling them the secret to weight loss is five small meals a day while carb cycling and taking green tea extract.

‘Oh,’ they say to themselves, ‘no wonder I’m not losing weight. I’ll do that instead.’

Then inevitably they don’t get anywhere on that plan and come across something a few weeks or a month later and decide to try that. They wind up feeling like they’ve worked super hard and tried everything and nothing’s worked, when really they’ve just bounced from one complex thing to another. It’s like nutritional busywork.

I’ve had people in consults at the gym complain about how they have so much trouble losing weight. When I ask about their nutrition habits they rattle off twelve supplements they’re taking and explain how they eat six meals a day timed at very specific intervals and avoid gluten like the plague – but it’s still not working. They wonder if they have thyroid problems or are just genetically predisposed to be overweight.

Then when I ask how many calories they actually get in a day, they say they have no idea.

Why people have a tendency to ditch the boring, unremarkable but effective things for the flashy, sexy but useless things deserves an article of its own. For now though, lets look at the order in which you should be focusing on things.

Calories

Calories are the most important variable in any kind of physique change.

I’m going to say it one more time because the ‘A calorie isn’t always a calorie’ rhetoric has been pretty loud lately.

Calories are the single most important variable in weight loss or gain.

Now I will concede that the primary thing calorie balance will affect is weight change. What types of tissue that weight consists of is largely determined by other factors like training and your macronutrient breakdown (which is why it comes next in the hierarchy).

It doesn’t matter what else you’re doing in your diet, if you want to lose weight but are in a positive energy balance because your’re getting too many calories on a daily basis you’re not going to get there. Trying to out exercise your diet is a bad plan as well – it just leads to running yourself into the ground trying to make up for all the junk you ate. You should train to meet a training goal, not to balance out your calorie budget.

If you have no idea where to start, you should head over to my article on calculating calories for different training goals and figure out where you need to be.

Macronutrients

Macronutrients – Macros from here out because I’m lazy – are the second most important thing after calories.

If you want a more in-depth explanation you can read my full beginner’s guide to macros, but the basic explanation is that macros are the basic units of nutrition – Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrates. Like with the letter ‘Y’ and its occasional vowel status we can also add Fiber and Alcohol as sometimes being considered macros depending on the circumstances and who you’re asking.

In the general sense your macro breakdown is one of the primary factors in determining if it’s muscle or fat tissue that you’re gaining or losing as a result of your calorie balance. While manipulation of them is not necessary to reach most physique goals it does make things much, much easier and more efficient.

Additionally, some of the more fine-tuning oriented physique goals like a body recomposition that don’t involve a lot of actual weight change are going to be more heavily influenced by what you’re doing with your macros than other goals.

I’ll have the second part to my macros article up soon which will go over in more detail how to arrange your macros for various goals and will update this article once it’s up.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients are next on the list in order of descending importance.

Where macronutrients are the big units of nutrition like protein and fat, micronutrients are all the little things like vitamins and minerals. I also include water here which we’ll get into in a minute. In general the primary distinction is that while a macronutrient has caloric value, micronutrients provide no calories.

If you live in a developed country chances are pretty low that you’re going to be deficient enough in any micronutrients to cause any severe health problems. As a result, it’s not as important to be concerned with them if your calories and macros aren’t already taken care of.

That being said, there’s a decent difference between your micronutrients being at sufficient levels to get by without anything like scurvy or goiters showing up and being at optimal levels. Everyone is going to be a little different in their needs here, but you should aim for eating a lot of fibrous vegetables and getting at leat one or two servings of fruit per day. Ideally changing it up as often as possible, don’t just eat bananas everyday because they’re convenient.

A multivitamin isn’t a bad idea but it’s not a replacement for fruits and vegetables. There are just too many phytonutrients and zoonutrients that aren’t going to get into a multivitamin (things like lycopene, flavonoids, and indoles). Think of a multivitamin as an insurance policy just in case you don’t get enough fruit and vegetables in a day.

I also include water here because, while water is definitely important in terms of survival, most people reading this aren’t going to be in danger of getting so little water they have severe health problems. Like the micronutrients there’s a difference between enough and optimal, but worrying too much about whether you’re getting 6 cups of water or 8 in a day won’t matter much if the other stuff we’ve gone over isn’t where it needs to be.

When it comes to water recommendations there are just too many variables like climate and activity levels to give any kind of catch-all recommendation for an amount. Instead I like Lyle McDonald’s recommendation of trying to have at least five clear urinations per day.

That means five trips to the bathroom per day where your urine comes out clear, not yellow or dark. If you can manage that you know you’re getting enough water for your situation.

Meal Timing

Meal timing is next step down on the ladder of importance, and one step higher on the ladder of things you’re likely to see people needlessly obsessing over.

I cannot count how many people, clients and otherwise, I have come across who were concerned with getting their meals timed exactly perfectly. This can range everywhere from the bodybuilding (and lately weight loss) apothegm of having to have five small meals a day as evenly spaced as possible, or to being concerned with whether they should eat their post-workout meal within 30 minutes or an hour of finishing – Thor help you if there’s a protein shake or pre-workout supplement involved in there somewhere.

This is not to say that meal timing can’t play a role in the effectiveness of your nutrition program, but most people put way too much focus on it. It’s like worrying about whether you should put summer or winter tires on a car that’s missing its engine.

Most people probably won’t need to worry much about meal timing. My personal inclination is toward intermittent fasting, and its a protocol I use with a majority of my clients. That being said everyone’s different and it’s complicated stuff. I’ll be putting together an article (or a series of them more likely) on all the details, but for now I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Get your calories and macros down and sort out your vitamins and minerals first.

Supplements

At last we come to the end of our list – supplements.

Supplements are big business and they feed into people’s quick-fix inclinations. As a result they wind up being an area people spend way, way too much time worrying about. In our car without an engine analogy supplements are the sound system. Nice to have, makes the trip easier, but it isn’t going to help get you from point A to point B much in and of itself.

You can do just fine with zero supplements but they can be helpful at times, so here are the handful I would recommend if you really want to do some fine tuning and have a little extra money to throw around.

  • Whey Protein – Not necessary since you should be trying to get as much of your protein from whole food sources (i.e., meat) as possible on account of all those zoonutrients, but I’ll concede it’s a lot more convenient and potentially more economical if you need a higher protein intake to use shakes to fill in the gaps.

  • Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) – Only really necessary if you’re going to train fasted. So if you’re on an intermittent fasting schedule and prefer morning workouts or just prefer training fasted for any reason then getting some BCAAs before and after will make a substantial difference. If you don’t fall in this category these aren’t really necessary.

  • Fish Oil – Fish oil & omega-3 fatty acids have strong evidence to support that they’re beneficial in a mild way to a wide range of areas including mildly reducing inflammation & blood pressure, strongly reducing triglyceride levels and mildly enhancing brain function. That means while not vital, it at least helps a lot things a little bit.

  • Caffeine – Caffeine obviously gives you energy and has been shown to improve performance in training sessions. I would not personally bother with an expensive pre-workout supplement that’s got a bunch of extra filler and costs an arm and a leg when you can get an equivalent boost to performance by downing a cup of a coffee or an espresso 30 minutes or so before training. I would not recommend this if you train later in the evening though since quality sleep is more important than a slightly enhanced training session.

  • Vitamin D – Vitamin D deficiency can be a problem depending on your habits and where you live, particularly in the winter. Being in Ohio I will occasionally supplement some vitamin D during the colder months since I’m indoors a lot more and mostly covered up. If you can, you’re much better just going outside and getting a bit of sun. It doesn’t take much to get enough.

  • Creatine – If your goal is to build muscle creatine can definitely help. It’s probably the single most researched supplement out there and is safe and generally pretty inexpensive. It’s not magic though, and some people have unpleasant side effects like digestive problems, so your mileage may vary. The one possible exception is if, against all better judgement, you’re a vegan or vegetarian then it’s much harder to get enough creatine from dietary sources and you’ll probably benefit more from it than others.

That’s it. That’s really all I’d recommend and conditionally at that. Please don’t run out and buy everything on that list because you probably don’t need it – but understand which ones might be helpful for you once you’ve got the rest of the stuff in this article nailed down.

If you prioritize things along these lines and focus on the high return variables like calories first, you’ll make a lot more progress toward your goal a lot more quickly. Just remember not to lose track of what’s most important and to stay consistent and you’ll get there.

Have any questions or anything to add? Leave a comment and let us know!

Photo Credit: Nathaniel Watson