This is the first post in the 10 Areas of Life series. It’s a collection of the most important lessons I’ve learned, as well as the questions I like to ask.
Here, we introduce the 10 Areas of Life framework, and cover the 3 sustainability enablers: physical health, mental health, and financial health.
The 10 Areas of Life
Two questions have always intrigued me.
- What is a good life?
- How does one go about living one?
The first question quickly unfolds into a philosophical one: Happiness maximisation? Fulfillment optimisation? Sustainable fun? Experiencing the beauty of the world and pursuing truth? Does this answer depend on metaphysical nature of reality, or if we really have agency? Is individuality just an illusion? What exactly do we mean by life? Why is good the pre-supposed metric to optimize? Where do values and morality fit in?
The second question is very much dependent on the first.
Regardless of your individual definition of a “good life”, chances are they’ll include something along the lines of: family, partner, friends, health, finance, work, and experiences.
The 10 Areas of Life neatly packages these life aspects into a sort of checklist.
I use it regularly for reflecting on the current state of my life. Kind of like a life health check up.
I use it yearly for setting new year’s resolutions. Whatever goals you’ve entertained, chances are it fits under one of the 10 Areas.
I also find myself mentally referring to it to help answer questions like “How have you been? How’s life? What’s new?” when catching up with friends and family. With some of my dorkier friends, we even go through each of the areas systematically, one by one.
There’s 3 nuances on the framework to call out.
First, recognise that the 10 areas continually change depending on your life stage.
- When I was in high school, Adventure and Friends were merged into the same category.
- When I was in uni, I had Studies instead of Career.
- In between relationships, I had Dating instead of Partner.
- I know that in a few years, Partner and Family will probably merge.
- Some might also add in a Spiritual or Religious area of life too.
Second, the 10 areas aren’t equally weighted. The importance of each area at depends on your individual preferences and circumstances at that point in time.
- I noticed those that grew up distant from their parents tend to place more importance on Friends.
- Those living the van life would might place more importance Adventures than Financial Health.
Third, the 10 areas aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact they’re all very much interdependent. It’s important to remember that the visualisation is merely a convenient reduction and brute-force categorisation of one’s life.
- Physical Health and Mental Health are mutually reinforcing.
- Career, Financial Health, and Intellectual are highly correlated, and often causative too.
- Friends, Adventure, and Mental Health are also closely intertwined.
I think of the 3 health areas as sustainability enablers. They are a pre-requisite. A minimum baseline that needs to be maintained that allow all others areas of life to do well.
1. Physical Health
To me, physical health consists of 3 main areas: nutrition, sleep, and exercise. I’m a pretty lazy guy with physical health. So I take a Pareto-optimised approach to physical health. That is, I give disproportionate attention to the 20% of factors that make 80% of the difference. To this point, supposedly nutrition accounts for something like 80-90% of your health outcomes.
Lesson #1: Focus on reducing sugar intake
Sure there’s the usual sensible advice: eat more veggies, have a balanced diet, have more home-cooked meals etc. But what matters more than consuming more good stuff is reducing the really bad stuff. Especially public enemy number one: sugar. Then highly processed. Then oily. Unfortunately sugar is everywhere. Even in savoury dishes.
The worst way to approach reducing sugar consumption is having no goals at all. Second worst is having a near impossible goal like “zero snacks and dessert”. A bit better is having more specific goals like “no sugar. Even better is changing your environment such that willpower reliance is minimal.
If it’s difficult to eliminate, then try substituting. Swap out cookies for nuts, soft drinks for sparkling water, evening ice cream for hot chocolate.
Lesson #2: Most of the time you want to snack, you’re probably just thirsty
Understand there’s 6 types of human hunger.
80% of the time I feel like snacking, turns out I’m not actually hungry but just thirsty or bored. So drinking water or switching up what I’m doing usually does the trick.
Lesson #3: Intentional sleep deprivation is for losers
I admit (with much shame) that in my early 20s, I used to take pride in how little I slept. I used to think getting by with 3-4 hours of sleep was a character of strength and determination. Now I realise it’s a symptom of extreme stupidity.
“We glorify the high-powered executive on email until 1:00am., and then in the office by 5:45am…There remains a contrived, yet fortified, arrogance in many business cultures focused on the uselessness of sleep.” – Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker (2017)
Losing a few hours of sleep each night is disproportionately detrimental. For instance, sleeping 20% less screws up your sleep by a lot more than 20%. By sleeping a few hours less you’ll lose 60-90% of REM sleep – because this happens towards the later stages of the sleep cycle.
Sleep deprivation is ability but inadequate opportunity to sleep. Insomnia is inability despite adequate opportunity. Lower socioeconomic kids get less sleep: noisy, longer commute times, parents up earlier and sleep later etc. Health outcomes, cognitive development, etc – effects compound.
Lesson #4: No screens after 10pm to sleep earlier and better
For years I set resolution goal of “sleep before midnight“. It never worked.
Now I changed it to “no screens after 10pm.” It’s been working brilliantly.
Try it. Besides reading and writing, there’s not much else to do and you’ll soon be taken over by the sleep pressure.
Lesson #5: Make exercise fun, rather than relying only on discipline
This is why I go to martial arts classes rather than self-training at gym. For years I had a resolution along the lines of “go for a run every morning.” And for years, I never achieved it. Now it’s simply “show up to martial arts class at least 3 times a week.”
2. Mental Health
It’s a shame there’s so much stigma around mental health. Perhaps this stems from the fact that most don’t know how to talk about it. Maybe people are afraid of appearing weak, or burdening those around with them with their issues. Some cannot handle the heaviness and awkwardness of the topic. Maybe people don’t like to bring it up because they wouldn’t know how to console anyway. Some are in denial. Some might not even realise they have a mental health issue.
Lesson #6: Mental health starts with self-awareness.
If nutrition is the key Pareto lever to physical health, then self-awareness is it for mental health.
Here’s what I do whenever I feel off-balance.
First, acknowledge when you are off-balance. It’s ok to not be ok. What’s important is that you are honest with yourself. Denial only initiates a downward spiral.
“The avoidance of suffering is form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.” – James Clear, Atomic Habits (2018)
Second, specifically label your exact emotional state. Not just “happy” or “sad”. Are you feeling resentful? Are you perplexed? Are you feeling free?
Third, carry out small wins to kickstart a flywheel of productive energy. Small win gives you a dopamine hit, which will make it easier to carry out another win, and so on. This will get you back on balance.
See Languishing: Neglected Middle Child of Mental Health for more on this.
Lesson #7: Practice conscious breathing
Conscious breathing is the single most effective way of managing stress and negative emotions.
Even one minute of “right now I’m breathing in, and now I’m breathing out” (and repeat) elevates makes an order of magnitude of difference. Try the Wim Hof breathing technique.
I have no hesitation to say that this has changed my life.
Lesson #8: Acknowledge and confront your deepest insecurities
They’re not going to go away naturally. Have those brutally honest, tough conversations with yourself. Whatever happened to you may not be your fault, but it is always your responsibility to take care of yourself.
“If you don’t heal what hurt you, you’ll bleed on people who didn’t cut you.”
Lesson #9: When comforting others, remind them you are there for them, but don’t ever say you understand how they feel
Some of the worst things to say to someone in pain:
“I know how you feel.” This undermines the nature and quantity of the individual’s unique experience. Even if you think you’ve been through something similar, it’s unlikely yours is the same as theirs.
“It could be worse, look on the bright side.” While this kind of toxic positivity is well-intended, it’s really dangerous.
“I couldn’t possibly know how you feel. I don’t know what I could possibly do to help. But I just want you to know that I care about you and I’m here for you.”
“That sucks. I’m glad you told me about this. Would you like to talk more about it? I don’t have answers but I’m always willing to listen.”
3. Financial Health
I call it Financial Health because much like Physical and Mental Health, it’s an enabler (but by no means a guarantee) to a good life. It’s a means to an end.
“Money doesn’t bring happiness, but it can prevent a lot of misery.”
I think of it in 3 subareas: increase income, manage expenses, and grow assets.
Lesson #10: Focus more on creating value rather than capturing it.
My philosophy to increasing income is pretty simple: create more value in order to capture more value. Too many people obsess over capturing value, rather than thinking more about how they might create more value.
Care more about how much you learn than how much you earn. Once you become more valuable, the earnings will follow. Play the long game.
Lesson #11: Salary obsessions are a distraction
No one gets rich from saving their salary anyway. Based on what I’ve seen around me, serious wealth comes from creating and owning businesses.
Lesson #12: Make sure your lifestlye expenses rises much slower than your income
Spend within your means. Otherwise you’ll have a perpetual leaky bucket problem.
Lesson #13: When it comes to expense control, focus on materiality
Everything has a cost of measurement. Don’t waste time tracking every expense. But just pay attention to the quick ’80/20 wins’. For instance, I realised that the easiest way to burn money is to eat out and drink a lot. I’m not going to cut this to zero as it’s important to socialise. But where I used to have 5 x $20 drinks on a casual Sunday afternoon, I’d now only have 1. That’s a week of groceries saved right there.
Also make sure you distinguish frugality with cheapness. Recognize when paying a premium for quality is worthwhile, and when it’s not.
Lesson #14: The way you define your expense categories subconsciously affects the way you spend
I categorise my expenses into 3: Rent, Basic, and Adjustable.
Rent (or could be mortgage in your case) could go under Basic but I prefer to separate it as it’s a disproportionately big item.
Basic are items you can’t really / don’t really want to cut: groceries, exercising etc.
Adjustable are the items that you have more flexibility over. Food for basic nourishment goes under Basic. But I consider dining out under Social category, rather than Food category. This way, when times are tough (such as earlier this year when, like many of you, I took a pay cut), you can quickly identify which expenses you should cut.
Also note that having a separate L&D (learning & development) line item makes me more relaxed with myself if I spend here. But if it’s any item I put under Materialism, I’d be a lot stricter with myself.
Lesson #15: If all your savings are just being held as cash, you need to have a good reason
One good reason is that you’re saving for a house deposit, and have no short-term appetite to be exposed to market uncertainty. Otherwise, interest from savings accounts are a joke.
I’m surprised when I learn that a friend is just accumulating cash savings and not doing anything else with it. Not because they’re keeping it as dry powder to capitalise on some investment opportunity, but because they are intimidated on getting started with other investment options.
Ask around. Learn about the different investment options depending on your risk appetite and priorities:
– some safer end options: hold cash (and get some fixed income returns)
– somewhere in the middle: ETFs, property, P2P lending
– riskier options: pick stocks, crypto
The whole point of capitalism is to direct available capital into productive use.
Lesson #16: Dollar cost averaging into ETFs has stood the test of time as the most optimal investment strategy for most people
Among the investment options above, dollar cost averaging into ETFs and investing in property (benefit of leverage and low interest rates these days) seems to be the more sensible risk-adjusted options.
Be smart enough to know that you’re probably not smart enough to beat the market.
Be skeptical of your own on stock picking skills. What do you think you know that Mr Market hasn’t already priced in?
Learn the distinction between investing and speculative gambling.
Focus more on building the habit of investing and learning, rather than immediate investment returns. Again, play the long game.
Physical health questions for introspection:
- How well have you been avoiding the bad stuff?
- When have you been better at doing this? Any common characteristics? Conversely, when have you been worse at following this?
- What have been the biggest hinderances to eating better? Lazy meals due to lack of time? Comfort food due to stress?
- Have you been sleeping well? (enough duration, good quality, and regularity)
- What are the common blockers? What have you done about it?
- How heavily do you rely on substances to get through the day?
- Have you been exercising? What are the primary motivates? Fitness? Strength? Apperance?
- Which aspects of it do you most enjoy? Least enjoy?
- If you have a desk job: how often do you get up to stretch? How’s your posture?
- How happy are you with your body shape? Which areas do you want to work more on?
- What are your exercise priorities for next year?
Mental health questions for introspection:
- What are your usual go-tos for managing stress? How effective is it?
- How often do you meditate? If you don’t, why not? What have you tried? Why didn’t it work?
- How much do you rely on others for your mental health? Do you think this is a healthy amount?
- How do you use social media? Do you feel better after using it?
- What do you do regularly to proactively manage your mental health (rather than just reacting to it)?
- How do you know when you are off-balance? What do you usually do about it?
- What are your insecurities? How do they manifest? How do you tame them?
Financial Health questions for introspection:
- What have you done this year to increase the value you are creating?
- Do you think you are being fairly compensated for the value you are adding?
- What is your strategy to create more value next year?
- What is your strategy to capture more value next year?
- How have you invested in yourself to increase your potential to create more value?
- Do you have a monthly budget? How well have you been sticking to it?
- How well do you know how much you spend (approx) on various budget categories for each month/year?
- What are the areas you’re willing to spend more on compared to others? What are the areas you’re more stingy with?
- What have you probably spent too much on this year? What strategies do you have to make it easy to reduce this next year?
- What are the categories in your budget? Do you have a ‘learning & development’ category?
- If you were to lose your job, for how many months could you get by?
- What does your savings / investment habit look like? Are you holding back on any investment options because you’re intimidated / don’t know how to get started?
- What investing mistakes have you made in the past? What are you doing to minimise reoccurence?
10 Areas of Life Series:
- Part 1 introduces the 10 Areas of Life goes into 3 sustainability enablers: Physical, Mental, and Financial Health.
- Part 2 covers the people and relationship elements: Partner, Family, and Friends.
- Part 3 covers the value creation elements: Career and Contribution.
- Part 4 (coming soon) will cover the experience elements: Intellectual and Adventure.
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