Look after your life fundamentals

A Zen Garden in pristine condition
A Zen Garden in pristine condition

Life is basically like having a houseplant. Obviously there are a few key differences like that humans get to go outside, and do things like play golf and write blogs. Okay, they’re not exactly the same but hey, it’s an analogy. What I’m saying is it’s the same ball park.

I’ve discovered over the course of my life that I’m not very good at looking after houseplants. I told this to my girlfriend and her reaction was to buy me a cactus. She thought it would be a good idea because a cactus can survive even when nature tries to kill it, and I’m not even trying.

A houseplant has a few basic things it needs to be taken care of, and if it gets those things, it flourishes. For plants, this means going a pretty green colour and lightening the mood of your home. Depending how flamboyant it is it may also produce some flowers. But, if it’s missing any of these needs, then it’ll wither and bring the mood of your place down like a regular Debbie Downer.

The fundamentals

A houseplant needs the following:

  • water
  • sunlight
  • nutrients

I bet you know when I’m going with this by now. If so, congratulations – you’re one smart petunia.

Humans have their own list of needs that must be looked after if we’re to blossom and glow radiantly. And if we don’t look after those fundamental things, we’ll wither and dampen the mood around us, too.

I think those needs are:

  • nutrition
  • exercise
  • friendships / relationships
  • progress towards goals

If I’m not eating healthily, or I’m not exercising, or I’m not talking to my friends, or I’m not making progress towards my goals, then that’s going to take a toll on my well-being. These things are needed pretty much daily. These are deep physiological and psychological needs that, if neglected, will exert a toll on your happiness and productivity.

The four+ pillars of success

It’s time for another of Matt Bowen’s Secret Imperatives for Prosperous Ascendency: look after your life fundamentals. Your body and mind is THE vehicle that you use to do everything you want to do in this life. Everything that you want to achieve requires a body and mind capable of achieving it. So if you want to maximise your potential, it makes sense to look after it, right?

In martial arts there’s a common misconception that people tend to have – people often see progress as collecting new techniques, learning new movements and acquiring new knowledge. It is to a certain extent, but really this is only a small portion of it. In reality, it’s all about the basics. A small repertoire of techniques and movements coupled with a deep understanding of them will get you very far indeed. And so it is in life.

I’ve read countless blog posts giving advice for self-improvement and life-hacks, but I think a lot of what’s out there massively overcomplicates what’s needed. You can learn new calendar techniques or shake up your workout routine or start eating acai berries or whatever – okay, great – but in the scheme of things this is the small stuff. Don’t spend too much time on the them if you’re neglecting your pillars.

  • nutrition
  • exercise
  • friendships / relationships
  • progress towards goals

Build them slowly from the ground up. Make them strong so that you can rely on their support. You don’t need to find the latest info on productivity or workouts if you’re not already putting the hours in. The small stuff goes on top of your pillars – not instead of.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

There’s a reason why people spend a lot of time on the small stuff: It’s more interesting. My number one hobby is making action plans for how I’m going to improve next. Yeah, that feels great. Almost as great as if I actually achieved them. And that feeling of designing the perfect spreadsheet to track my progress! That’s just the best. Then I pour myself a bourbon and watch Naruto.

Do I stick to the plan? Do I use the tools I make? Nah, not really.

It’s way more fun to think about your unachieved future successes, to plan them and sit on your bum reading blog articles (gotcha), than to put the hours in and look after your pillars. It’s hard work and let’s be honest: it’s not very exciting. You don’t need a fad diet or a new life system. You know what you need: you need a decent diet, some exercise, companionship and a feeling that you’re progressing in life. That’s pretty much it. Oh, and a dab of personal hygiene wouldn’t go amiss either.

And hey, maybe your pillars are different than mine. You could throw education, character, rest, etc., in there for good measure. Just identify the basic stuff you need in your life and look after it well. Keep your vehicle in tip-top shape, and when you’re killing time thinking about being productive and not actually being productive, be honest with yourself that that’s what you’re doing. But the pillars are where it’s at. You can build some pretty exciting stuff on a good set of pillars let me tell you. Or better yet, ask the Greeks. Or did they build ‘columns’? I forget.

If you’ve really got a handle on your pillars, okay, then you can spend a couple hours on the merits of buying a new blender to make goji berry smoothies. But you’re looking at a 1-2% difference in your performance maximum. If you’re at the top of your game, then that can give the edge. But the bulk will come from your pillars. It will come from working day in, day out on the simple stuff that you know you should be doing. It might be boring. It might be more fun to sit on the computer researching the perfect smoothie recipes. But there’s just no getting around it: the basics are the most important.

Unleash your inner rhododendron

I’ve got a pretty smart readership – you probably knew all this already. I knew it already. But I still waste hours on stupid stuff when, if I want to improve, I should be focusing on my life fundamentals. Eat better, exercise more, spend time with friends and family, and work more towards on my goals.

But if I’ve sown a new seed in your head, then that’s great. Water it and let it grow. Work hard and blossom like the rhododendron you are.

Don’t work too hard though – probably best to stick around and read another post.

Matt Bowen

Matt is a blogger, budoka and software developer. He sold his things, quit his job and moved to Japan to study Japanese and martial arts. Sometimes he writes about it.

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