How I turned Wine into Water, TV into Books, and Binge Eating into Weight Loss.
Give up everything — except reading, fitness, and enriching relationships.
On a recent call with one of the startups I advise, I brought up one of my favourite topics — “what are you reading and what would you recommend?” We exchanged book thoughts but it then transpired that neither of the founders really have time to read!
Of course I’ve been in their place many times myself — and, most recently, not even that long ago, so it really made me think how and why we get ourselves into this rhythm even when we know it’s not good for us.
In our modern lives filled with urgent distractions, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the really important things — proper thinking, enriching our bodies and minds, and the people who count (and typically don’t shout the loudest). This happened to me at the last two startups, places which made the chaos described in “It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work” feel eerily too close for comfort.
My typical routine was…at about 10pm, after the kids were asleep and dinner was starting to hit my gut, I’d begin to feel exhausted, my spine would literally start to wilt, and I’d normally go and ‘rest for a few minutes’ in front of the TV. This, coupled with low evening willpower, would send things rapidly downhill from there.
I’d end up getting sucked into the vortex that is the Netflix and YouTube behavioural scientists versus tired you, and always found myself on the losing end. The YouTube driven dopamine hits coupled with dropping blood glucose levels as insulin shuttled carbs into fat almost always then created a craving for sugar which I would usually sate with biscuits, chocolates, crisps — anything I could hoover up.
Very often, I’d get a second wind and would get a couple more hours of work done, ensuring that I wouldn’t then wake up until 7am — just in time to get the kids ready for school before shooting back off to work. If I was lucky, I’d get some time to read on the way to work, but more often than not it was emails not books.
Wine was also no help. Wifey and I don’t normally drink during the week, and lockdown 1.0 back in 2020 didn’t really change that. However, last August we moved to an amazing 18th century mansion which included a wine cellar and a wine fridge in the kitchen and, suddenly, we went from never having space in the fridge for wine or beer to having perfectly chilled alcohol available on tap. I was surprised by how quickly we switched to having a drink every evening — which only added to the fatigue.
Then in the early Autumn, YouTube paid me one back. Its algorithm recommended YouTuber Ali Abdaal whose sincere productivity videos really resonated with me. Most importantly, this led to a recommendation of James Clear’s book “Atomic Habits” which I immediately started reading and which ‘woke me up’ and helped me rediscover my identity as a lifelong learner first and foremost.
Long before I finished Atomic Habits, I’d dusted off my reading list and supercharged it with yet another discovery in the form of Roam Research, a note-taking tool that finally matched the associative rather than hierarchical way that my mind works.
In one week of furious reading and writing I rediscovered my love of regular reading, thinking, and journaling and resolved to never again lose this critical element of personal development and productivity.
We also discovered a really good alcohol free beer (Clausthaler Original) which helped us to enjoy a bit of taste without any of the fatigue or loss of clarity that comes from drinking alcohol and this broke our mild drinking habit, mostly turning us back to water drinkers with the occasional AF beer.
Alain de Botton said that “anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.”, and I can wholeheartedly say that I barely recognise the person who went into lockdown a year ago — and for all the right reasons.
Now, as soon as I feel tired or down or stressed in the evening, I don’t fight it anymore and go straight to bed, making a point not to touch my phone until the morning. Instead of slipping into bed next to my sleeping wife at 1 or 2am, we fall asleep together at 10–11pm and I wake naturally by 5 or 6am, giving me a couple of hours of time to read and journal at maximum alertness and having just woken from REM sleep.
Another major benefit is that, rather than finding myself tired and wasting time, punishing myself for being ‘lazy’ and eating rubbish to feel better, I now go to bed fasted, having had a productive day, but with just a hint of desire to have done a little bit more. That gives my subconscious mind something to ponder while asleep and I typically wake up filled with ideas, energy, and focus.
Spending the first two hours of the day reading, thinking, and writing before most of the world is even awake helps direct that essence into real productivity for the rest of the day, creating a positive feedback loop.
“But I work better at night” I hear you say, and that may well be true. I’ve always considered myself a night owl and would routinely work until the early hours before hopping into bed and waking up to hit the keyboard almost always exactly 6 hours later.
But the evidence is that most people think better in the morning and, as Henry Ford said: “thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it” —and doing more of it is critical to distinguishing yourself in today’s world of quick assumptions over deep reasoning from first principles.
One thing that initially remained hard to do was avoid all the other distractions waiting for me on my phone and go straight to Kindle. I suppose I should use a dedicated Kindle or even dead tree version of the books I read, but I find that a good book fires up loads of thoughts and ideas and I need the ability to easily highlight, add notes, and commit thoughts to my Roam — and that’s just easier on a single phone. But hey! It’s the morning and willpower is at its maximum.
So how did this also help me shed over 16kg and get back to racing fitness? Firstly, going to bed when tired cut out a lot of needlessly consumed rubbish and also starts my 16–18 hour fasts between supper and lunch, putting me into fat burning ketosis daily. Secondly, coming across the quote that “100% is easier than 98%”, helped me to completely cut out all sweets and junk without having to expend any effort. Finally, the positive feedback loop made me feel much better about myself, helping me to get back on my bike and rebuild my fitness level back up to normal.
The result of all this is that I’ve gone from reading a handful of books a year to pushing close to one per week. My weight has come down from 98kg at its peak in May 2020 to 81.6kg by April 2021 and I’m well on the way to hitting my ‘racing weight’ of 78–80kg in time for the summer mountain climbs.
Most importantly, my mindset is much more positive again and my outlook bursting with optimism at a time when everyone else is almost starting to lose hope of ever seeing ‘normality’ again.
So what I would say to busy founders is this— never let go of what probably got you to where you are. Without reading you can’t really grow, and staying up late to get ‘just a little more done’ sucks you further into the stress and anxiety of yesterday’s problems when waking up early the next morning could give you those hours back following the wonderful reset that is sleep.
Even Jeff Bezos proudly admits that he’s normally fast asleep by 10/11pm and who are we to argue with that.
So what was my book recommendation to Jamie and Harald? That’s easy — it was “Ask Your Developer” by Jeff Lawson. I haven’t been as excited about a book since reading “Atomic Habits” or “Enlightenment Now”, but Jeff’s book was so obviously going to excellent that I found myself recommending it while still reading the Prologue! The book was recommended to me by Emre Baran to whom I’m obviously grateful.