In October 2014, I quit my job at an investment bank.
The reason, boiled down to one sentence, was this:
I felt like I had a ton of lessons to learn about my life and I didn’t feel my job was allowing me to learn them.
Since quitting, I’ve had a few adventures. I’ve had successes and I’ve had my fair share of failures. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learnt a ton of lessons.
This post is my first real attempt at sharing them. The lessons listed here are specific to health and wellbeing. UPDATE: I’ve now also written about work-related lessons and career change lessons that I’ve learnt since quitting.
4 health and wellbeing lessons I’ve learnt
1. Stress can be a real barrier to happiness
My job was stressful. Long hours and having to be constantly available via Blackberry made it pretty hard to switch off.
That was, of course, part of the deal – when I signed the contract, I acknowledged the fact that I would have to deal with stress. It came with the territory. I accepted stress on the understanding that I would be paid well, be involved in interesting and exciting projects and have opportunity for career progression.
The understanding was honored on both sides – I was stressed but received the reward and opportunity that I had been promised.
Stress wasn’t the reason that I left my job. I felt like stress was an inevitable part of my life and that it was just something that I had to learn to deal with. I actually felt like I had already learnt to deal with it pretty well. I figured that the stress levels that I was experiencing were normal.
Fast forward a few months and my viewpoint had changed completely.
Being job-free allowed me to relax. I escaped the stress that I had been experiencing and saw improvements in my happiness, outlook on life, physical health, mental health and numerous other parts of my life.
Soon I realised that what I had been experiencing wasn’t normal – I hadn’t felt normal for quite a long time.
To be more specific, I realised that stress had been holding me back in a few ways:
- My mental clarity had been really, really low. My mind had constantly felt cloudy and full of thoughts
- I often felt distracted, making it hard to enjoy the free time that I did have
- I found it pretty hard to concentrate for any extended period
- I struggled to think creatively. My mind was so full of thoughts that it felt impossible to escape and to think about anything new
- It was tough to learn things on a deep level. I didn’t feel able to take time to reflect on new ideas, so my learning was always superficial
Fixing the problem
If any of these things sound familiar to you, I’ve got good news! You don’t have to quit your job to work on them.
2. Meditation is incredibly powerful
I had always shared the same preconceptions about meditation that many people have – it has to be spiritual, it’s a religious act, it’s all air with no real tangible benefits.
Then I ‘accidentally’ meditated.
Whilst still at my job I had made some efforts to relax and quiet my mind. One of these efforts had involved a focus on my breathing that (unknown to me at the time) was very similar to common breath-focused meditation practices.
It had helped me relax, but I hadn’t maintained any kind of habit whilst at my job – I didn’t feel like I had time.
Upon leaving my job, I explored it further. I experimented with different positions of sitting, different lengths of time to spend doing it, different times of day to do it.
I became really fascinated by the results I was having (which I detail below) and started Googling around to understand the process better. Pretty quickly I discovered breath-focused meditation practices and saw some real similarities between them and what I had been doing.
I had been meditating! And it wasn’t spiritual or religious!
If I hadn’t ‘accidently’ meditated, I might never have tried it. My preconceptions may well have led me to continue to dismiss it completely.
I hope that this post inspires some of you to give meditation a try. Here are the benefits that I’ve experienced from meditating daily for 15-20 minutes:
- My mental clarity improved greatly. I saw a significant improvement within a week or so of daily practice and have seen continued improvement in the months since
- I became far better at focusing on the present moment, less distracted by thoughts of the past and the future
- My concentration improved immeasurably. I really can’t emphasise this one enough – I went (over the space of a few weeks) from being able to focus for a maximum of 30 minutes to being able to focus for much, much longer
- I rediscovered creativity. Ideas began to flow again, particularly in the minutes immediately after meditating. It felt like I’d removed some kind of blockage in my creative process
- I developed an awareness of my level of understanding of topics – I could tell exactly when I really understood something and could pick out the specific study process that had made it click. I began to learn things deeply
For those of you that are really paying attention, you’ll see that the above items correspond exactly to the ways that stress had been holding me back.
Was meditation the ‘cure’ to my stress? Nope.
Was meditation the only thing that helped with my stress? Nope.
Was meditation the thing that cleared my head enough to start making other changes in my life that helped reduce my stress further? Yep, for sure.
I believe that if I hadn’t started meditation I wouldn’t have made the majority of the other changes in my life (including those in this post). That’s how big an effect it has had on me.
3. Sleep well, whenever you can
My working hours varied hugely. Sometimes I’d be home by 7 and able to get a good 8 hours of sleep. Other times I’d be at work until the early hours and only get 3 or 4 hours of sleep. Often when I did get to bed it would take me a long time to get to sleep as thoughts would continue to bounce around my head.
The ideal amount of sleep varies from person to person – for me it’s 7-8 hours. Anything under 6 hours is what I would consider lack of sleep.
At the time I understood the importance of sleep and could see the negative effects that lack of sleep had on me:
- I would lack focus and struggle with complex tasks
- I would lack motivation
- I would be irritable and short-tempered
- Life would feel like a constant procession of things getting in my way
To some extent, sleep was out of my hands. I could try to work more efficiently to get out of the office earlier but sometimes that wasn’t enough. I felt like I was doing my best to get as much sleep as possible. But was I actually?
Getting my priorities right
Looking back, it’s pretty clear that I was underestimating the importance of sleep. I knew that having very little sleep sucked but I didn’t really appreciate how much it was affecting me on a physical and a mental level.
Whilst sleep was out of my hands to some extent, there were certainly some changes I could have made:
- On the nights where I got home at a reasonable time, making sure I got to bed early
- On the weekends where I avoided having to work, not worsening things by drinking way too much and sleeping really poorly
If I’d just made those two changes, I’d have eliminated the negative effects listed above from the majority of my days.
It’s easy, of course, to look back with hindsight and suggest changes that I could have made. The reality is that other things seemed more important than sleep at the time.
Many of you reading this probably feel that the amount you sleep is often out of your control. My tip for you would be this: remember the following benefits to having plenty of sleep:
- You feel more able to focus, particularly on complex tasks
- You feel more motivation and therefore end up doing better work
- You feel more sociable and less irritable
- You feel more present in the moment and able to enjoy the small pleasures of each day
Sometimes lack of sleep is inevitable. When you do have a choice in the matter, think about your future self!
4. ‘Hack’ the chemicals that determine your happiness
I was introduced to this idea by this great article on ‘hacking our happy chemicals’. The cliff notes:
- Our bodies produce four chemicals which have a major effect on our happiness and wellbeing
- Scientists understand the processes through which these chemicals are released really well
Why is this really interesting? Because our deep understanding of the processes by which the chemicals are released allows us to deliberately trigger their release. We can ‘hack’ these chemicals.
The main one that I focus on is dopamine.
Dopamine is most commonly associated with motivation and goals. It provides both the drive to complete goals (the motivation) and the pleasure upon completing them.
I certainly don’t analyse every decision about my happiness based on whether I expect to experience a release of dopamine (that would kinda take the fun out of life). I do, however, have a knowledge of some actions that I can take to maximise my body’s production of dopamine. When my motivation is feeling low, I can take one of the actions and often experience an immediate boost.
The actions that I take to maximise my body’s production of dopamine are:
Start each major task with a ‘micro task’
This allows me to overcome procrastination more easily and provides me with an instant dopamine hit. Instant dopamine = more motivation to get the rest of the task done
Set fewer results-based goals
Our bodies are used to the reinforcing pleasure of completing goals. We know that pleasure is coming, so often we rush ourselves to receive it as soon as possible.
If your goal is results-based (e.g. completing a task in full, producing a finished product), this can lead you to create a sub-par finished product. Your body expects to get the pleasure when the goal is complete, regardless of the quality.
One answer is to make quality the focus of your goals. Rather than focus on just completing a task, set yourself a goal of making the finished product great.
Although rushing can be unavoidable, particularly in a workplace, quality-based goals can help. You still get the dopamine hit!
Have a mixture of short-term and long-term goals
The short-term goals provide your constant stream of dopamine. The long-term goals provide you with structure and a basis for setting your short-term goals.
My long-term goals are aspirational – they will often be things that feel out of my grasp at the present time. This is to ensure that the pleasure that I expect upon completing them is sufficient to really motivate me.
Listen to new music
This article on why we love music has some really interesting insight on how and why music can lead our brains to release dopamine. Listening to music that we love leads to a release – our brains recognise the song and anticipate the pleasure that we have experienced from listening to the song in the past.
The amount of dopamine released may, however, decrease as we become overly familiar with the song – it becomes too predictable. That’s certainly something that I’ve experienced – I lose my love for some songs over time.
The key is to find music that is familiar in some way (perhaps the same genre as other stuff you like) but is also new and exciting. This allows your brain to experience the anticipation of pleasure (releasing dopamine) and be pleasantly surprised by the novelty and surprise of something new (releasing more dopamine).
You don’t have to stick to familiar music, of course. If you try something completely new you may find unexpected familiarity and love it straight away. Or it might take you a little while to develop a familiarity, but once you do you will have opened up a whole new area of music for your pleasure-seeking brain!
I’ve got a few more lessons to share – look out for posts in the near future.
In the mean time, I’m still learning (and I’ll never stop!). I don’t claim to be an expert on anything that I’ve written about in this post – I want to learn more! Please share your own insights and lessons in the comments below.