10 Areas of Life: From Introspection to Resolutions (Part 1: Physical, Mental, and Financial Health)

These two questions have always intrigued me:

  1. What is a good life?
  2. How does one go about living one?

The first question quickly unfolds into a philosophical one: Happiness maximisation? Fulfillment optimisation? Sustainable fun? Experiencing beauty and pursuing ultimate truth? Does this answer depend on metaphysical nature of reality, or if we really have agency? Where do values and morality fit in? What about others? Is individuality just an illusion? What exactly do we mean by life? Why is good the pre-supposed metric to optimize? …Let’s save this discussion for another time?

Meanwhile the second question also invites a multitude of answers. One framework that’s helped me approach this is (until I come up with a cooler name) the 10 Areas of Life.

Useful for:

  • Reflecting on the current state of your life. Particularly relevant now, given how unusual and awkward 2020 has been.
  • Setting resolutions. Whatever goals you’ve entertained, chances are it fits under one of the 10 Areas.
  • Answering “how have you been” more thoroughly when catching up with friends.

 


 Three points to note on the framework.

First, recognise that the 10 areas continually change depending on your life stage

  • When I was in high school, Adventure and Friends were the same thing.
  • When I was in uni, I had Studies instead of Career.
  • When I was working full time for a not-for-profit, I don’t think I even had the Financial category.
  • When I was single, I had Dating instead of Partner.
  • Later in life, Partner and Family will probably merge.
  • Some might also add in a Spiritual/Religious area of life.
  • …etc

Second, the 10 areas aren’t equally important. The importance of each depends on individual preferences and circumstances.

  • Those that grew up distant from their parents tend to place more importance on Friends.
  • The growing class of digital nomads probably care more about Adventures than most others.

Third, the 10 areas aren’t mutually exclusive. And they are 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 have a neat relationship.
  • Friends, Adventure, and Mental Health are also closely intertwined.

 


The 10 areas are rather self-explanatory so you could stop reading here.

But in case there are any areas that you want to further improve, below are some of the most important insights I’ve learned on each.

Not in any order of importance.

The 3 health areas are what I call “sustainability enablers”. They point out the minimum baseline to having a good life.

 

1. Physical Health

Tech isn’t yet advanced enough to abandon our biological bodies. So, for now, physical health is a pre-requisite for living a good life. Besides, when you’re healthy, everything is better. Food tastes better, the sex is better, you feel more switched on, and have more energy to spend quality time with people you care about etc. 

To me, physical health consists of 3 main areas: nutrition, sleep, and exercise.

1.1. Nutrition

Supposedly nutrition accounts for something like 80-90% of your health outcomes. 

Questions for introspection:

  • Have you been consuming a balanced diet?
  • If not, what’s been stopping you?
  • How well have you been avoiding the bad stuff? (sugar is biggest enemy, then heavily processed foods, then fried).

What I’ve learned:

  • I’m well aware that my weakness here is my sweet tooth. So rather than setting a broad resolution to “eat healthier”, I’ve set it as “maximum 1 sugar item per day.”
  • If it’s difficult to eliminate, then first try substituting. Replaced cookies with nuts, replaced soft drink with sparkling water. And sometimes when I crave sugar, I’d just have a spoonful of honey. I still have much to improve on, but I’ve come a long way.
  • There’s 6 types of human hunger. 80% of the time I feel like a snack, I’m really just thirsty or bored. So now I satiate myself accordingly, without over-eating/snacking.
Source

1.2. Sleep

Some facts:

  • Sleeping a few hours less means you lose 60-90% of REM sleep as most of it 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.

“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)

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 mark of strength and determination. Now I realise it’s a symptom of stupidity. Work smart, not just hard.

But despite knowing its importance for health, and for memory, I still find myself sleeping late. I suppose it’s poor discipline and cognitive dissonance.

Questions for introspection:

  • 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?

What I’ve learned:

  • Rather than setting a goal of “sleep before midnight“, now I have a goal of “no screens after 11pm.” Try it. Besides reading and writing, there’s not much else to do and you’ll soon be taken over by the sleep pressure.
  • I’ve found smart alarms helpful – they wake you up in an optimum window based on your sleep cycle. I use one called Sleep Cycle (see below).
     
I also learned that I snore a lot more when I’ve had alcohol…

 

1.3. Exercise

Depends what you care about: fitness, strength, appearance etc.

Questions for introspection:

  • Have you been exercising?
  • 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?

What I’ve learned:

  • Make exercise fun, rather than relying on discipline alone. This is why I go to martial arts classes rather than the 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

I wonder why this is not talked about more often.

  • Maybe the stigma around mental health stems from the fact that most people don’t know how to talk about it. 
  • Some are afraid of appearing weak, or do not want others to worry about them.
  • Some cannot handle the heaviness and awkwardness of the topic. They may be afraid of not knowing how to console someone.
  • Some are in denial.
  • Some might not even realise they have a mental health problem.

Questions for introspection:

  • What are your ways of 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 manage your mental health?
  • 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?

What I’ve learned:

  • 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.

  • Just as you put effort in to avoid eating junk food, be picky with the data/information you choose to consume (social media and YouTube). Increased rates of depression since late 2000s coincides with the timing of social media apps on smartphones. Social media can bring great benefits (connecting with people etc), but it can also bring harm if you are not aware of the way it’s been designed (addictive dopamine hits; social approval etc).
  • Label and acknowledge your emotional state. Not just “happy” or “sad” – be more specific (see below). Denial initiates a downward spiral. Plus, self-awareness makes it easier for others to help you should you need it.
Wheel of emotions
  • Be honest with yourself when you are off-balance. Sometimes it’s ok to not be ok.

“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)

  • Have those brutally honest, tough, awkward conversations with yourself about your insecurities. 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.”

  • Some of the worst things to say to someone in pain are: “I know how you feel” and “It could be worse, look on the bright side.” Instead try:

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 can listen.

“I couldn’t possibly know how you feel. I don’t know what to say. But I just want you to know that I care about you and I’m here for you.”

 


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.”

3 main areas: increase income, manage expenses, and grow assets.

 

3.1. Increase income

My philosophy is pretty simple: create and capture value.

Too many people obsess over capturing value, rather than thinking more about how they might create more value.

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?

What I’ve learned:

  • Rather than gross yearly salary, pay more attention to the effective hourly rate. A $150K strategy role at 40 hours a week may actually be better than a $250K finance role at 80 hours a week. Of course, depends on what’s important to you and career goals etc.
  • 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
  • Obsession over salary is a distraction. No one got rich from accumulating savings from a salary. Serious wealth comes from creating and owning businesses. (Note: To be clear, I’m not claiming to speak from direct experience, this just seems to be the case from looking at those around me that have made early riches).

 

3.2. Manage expenses

There’s only so much you can cut and save, so no need to spend too much unnecessary time on this.

Main thing is to make sure that your expenses don’t rise in direct proportion to your income.

Questions for introspection:

  • Do you have a monthly budget? How well have you been sticking to it?
  • What are the categories in your budget? Do you have a ‘learning & development’ category?
  • How well do you know how much you spend (approx) on various budget categories for each month/year?
  • 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 I’ve learned:

  • The way you categorise your expenses subconsciously affects the way you spend. I’ve found it helpful categorising my expenses into 3: Rent, Basic, and Adjustable (see below).
    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. 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. 
    – Note that L&D (learning & development) should be treated separately to other types of expenses.
I account for bonuses and investment returns separately
  • There’s 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.
  • Again, it’s worthwhile spending some energy to make sure you aren’t being stupid with expenses. However, you should spend a lot more energy thinking about how you can grow your income. There’s only so much you can save. For instance, when I first moved out to live alone I justified the sizable expense as a personal investment. I told myself: “I will use this extra space, time, and energy to read more and grow my business skills.” About a year later, I managed to get a pay rise equivalent to the rent – investment paid for itself.
  • It’s okay to live a little. For example, I’ve spent a lot on travel over the years (probably enough for a house deposit) but don’t regret a single cent :). While I do hear people saying they regret spending too much on going out, I’ve never heard anyone saying they regret spending too much on traveling. 

 

3.3. Grow assets

I don’t have much to add in this section because I’m still quite new to all this.

Questions for introspection:

  • 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?

What I’ve learned:

  • Interest from savings accounts are a joke. 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
  • Among the 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.
  • I’m surprised that many of my friends are just accumulating cash savings and not doing anything else with it. Not because they’re keeping it as dry powder to capitalise on a market dip, but because they are intimidated on getting started with other investment options. Ask around.
  • Be skeptical of your own on stock picking skills. What do you think you know that the guys that do it full time don’t?
  • 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.

 


Post is getting long so I’ll wrap up here for today and cover the remaining 7 areas of life in the next post(s).

Updated: Part 2 (Partner, Family, Friends)

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10 Areas of Life: From Introspection to Resolutions (Part 2: Partner, Family, Friends)

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