I am privileged to have my basic needs covered. Generations before me ensured staying alive is not one of my main concerns. I stand on the shoulders of giants, and so do billions of people. The modern danger for many is not survival, but living a life too comfortable. Comfort is a hell of a drug; it feels good in the short term, but it does not create lasting fulfillment. Too much comfort transforms small issues into annoyances and stressors. Eventually, too much comfort leads to a preoccupied mind.
Injecting a small dose of toughness is a good detox from the excess of comfort. Do it often to develop tough habits. They are tough because they require effort to acquire and maintain.
My 3 tough habits
I adopted the 3 habits below at different times over the last 10 years. All of them were challenging to acquire, and some of them directly attacked my identity.
1. Work out first thing in the morning.
In middle school, my mom had to pull me out of bed at 8:00am to go to class. In high school, I always missed the earliest classes in the morning. I failed one subject because I just didn’t go to any 8:30am lesson for 6 months. I failed 7 out of 12 subjects during my first year in college. I didn’t prepare or take any of those 7 final exams because they were too early. It forced me to do extra work in my second year to pass 19 out of 19 classes. In my first job as a software engineer, I had to be at the office at 9 am. I was often late and I felt miserable and non-functional.
During school, college and my first job, I still managed to do well. But well is not the same as excelent. It was when I co-founded Nativoo and moved to Rio de Janeiro that I was faced with a harsh reality: the only way I could build my company and ALSO enjoy one of the most magical cities in the world was by waking up earlier. Any other choice would have not passed Bezos’ “Regret Minimization Framework”
I decided to workout in the morning, before work. Looking at it now, it just seems like a silly, easy thing. But oh boy, it was not for me. During the first month, I felt sick every morning at 7am: disoriented, dizzy and nauseous. The same question went through my mind over and over: ”what the hell am I doing here?”. It only felt good when it was over. During the next few months, the “feel good” hormones kicked in earlier and earlier in the session. And then eventually, I crossed the sweetest spot: not working out in the morning became more difficult than working out. That was when I felt the habit was rock solid, and it’s been 10 years since then.
Below are the three main benefits I get from consistently working out early in the morning:
- Health first. No matter what curveballs the day throws at me, I have already invested in my health.
- High energy. I feel strong and energetic to power through my day.
- Detox. Working out clears any sort of stress or annoyance that’s on my mind.
2. 36-hour water fast once a month.
I always struggled to put any mass on my body. I have an ectomorph metabolism with a thin bone structure. As a kid, I was very tall and skinny for my age, and I got some lightweight mocking in school. Gaining weight was a good, reasonable thing to do for me, and the answer was a higher calorie intake and strength training. Because of the mocking, I overdid both the eating and the training. Eating often and enough became an obsession.
A few years later, things seemed to work out for my goal: I was happy with my body. The mirror showed a strong body and nobody mocked the skinny kid anymore. So far, so good.
Fast forward a few years later, I got more interested in health beyond just fitness. Through study it became clear that I was eating too much from a long-term health point of view. But my no-calorie-leaking identity was at odds with the healthy identity I wanted to build. The old me was afraid of being mocked again. It was not an easy pill to swallow. And while I was unsuccessfully trying to convince myself, I got lucky.
One day, I got food poisoning that forced me to stop eating. 24 hours had gone by with 0-calorie intake when I started to feel better. Then, I had this random thought: What if I gave the gym a try right now? My immediate response was that I would pass out. After all, I had never worked out without having 3 - 5 meals during the 24 hours prior, and a snack before the session. Right when I was about to dismiss the absurd plan, I thought: ”When will be the next time that I will have this opportunity?” If I wanted to replicate this exact moment, I would have to go another 24 hours without eating. And that didn’t seem compelling at all! I was already very hungry.
For the sake of just doing something different and not having to pass through this hunger-feeling ever again, I went to the gym. And I did not pass out, although it was a grueling workout. Then, 48 hours went by. The same thought came to mind. And I Googled: Can you die if you work out after fasting for 48 hours? And the most voted answer in Quora was probably no. So I worked out for 1 hour. If you agree with me that deadlifts are hard, then try to 4x10 deadlift your own weight with -5000 calorie deficit over the last 48 hours. The session was brutally hard, there is no other way to describe it. You are asking your body to do the last thing it wants to do. However, during the session I found the magic spot in which, after a while, your body realizes that you’re gonna take it for a ride whether it wants it or not, and so it may as well support instead of complain.
It was hard for me to believe that I had just worked out with a 2-day empty stomach. I felt the awe one feels when one destroys a strong self-limiting belief. I went happily without food for a total of 72 hours, and learned the most important lesson: it’s not about how I look or my weight but about how strong I feel. That was the missing piece that I needed to create the right habit routine: it was not just fasting, but squatting, deadlifting, bench pressing and rowing while I fasted that created a positive feedback loop.
Since that episode, I have been doing 36-hour fasts every month, with 2 strength training sessions while fasted. These are the main benefits:
- Self-regulation. Our relationship with food today is more emotional than nutritional. In a long fast, you learn that what you call hunger is craving. You can’t nitpick your way out of craving; you have to kill it by brute force. Fasting is the annihilation of one of our most powerful desires: food. When you are on the other side of the fast, the main benefit is not just food regulation. It’s the broad emotional regulation you gain, for all emotions live together.
- Health benefits. There is a big set of health metrics that get better with fasting. I won’t get into them all, but I can mention the ones I observe directly: reduced chronic inflammation, weight loss, and blood sugar control.
- More time. You don’t realize how much time you spend eating and on food-related chores until you decide to stop eating.
3. Cold showers every morning.
The cold-shower pill was easier to choose than the fasting-pill, but it was much harder to swallow. Getting under the cold water proved to be very challenging, and I had a few false starts. I tried to do too much too fast, which actually got me sick a few times. Later I learned that I had exceeded the hormetic zone, as when you run for the first time and you go too fast, too far, and you are unable to move the next day. The experience is so painful that you won’t repeat it.
The key is to apply the fitness principle of progressive overload to water temperature (from mild to coldest) and shower length (from 30 seconds to 5 minutes). I found my acceptable entry spot at 6 intervals of 30 seconds, switching from hot to mild cold. I would increase it every week; 10 seconds per week, a bit colder. In a couple of months I was able to consistently shower at the coldest temperature of San Francisco’s water.
It’s been 3 years since I started taking cold showers. I have taken them in multiple locations: San Francisco, Chicago, Maine, Missoula, Seattle, Miami, Washington DC, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Cancun, Rio de Janeiro and Madrid to name a few. The coldest ones were Chicago and Maine in the winter. It was VERY cold!
- Superpowers. If you stay in cold water for 45 minutes, you will die. Your body knows it. And when you put it in the cold, it fights back. Then you leave the cold soon enough before you would have problems, and your body is in energy mode for most of the day. Most people will think you are crazy for doing this, which oftentimes it’s the best clue to know you developed a superpower.
- Quiet inner voice. There is no way that your inner voice will keep complaining about petty issues when you put it under cold water. Any negative self-talk will go miles away from the cold.
- Weight loss. Not that I’m particularly interested in this myself, but it’s very noticeable over a long period of time how exposure to cold water burns weight. I’ll venture to say it seems particularly good at burning fat.
Each one of these habits has its own specific benefits. But those are not exactly what this is all about. This is about being a person that builds the willpower to face a bit of hardship every day. Going further, this is about strongly believing in something hard. Sometimes, it is not that you don’t have enough willpower, but that you don’t have a strong belief.
A byproduct of handling toughness is that the bar for what stresses you is now much, much higher. Normal daily stressors will not preoccupy you. Seneca called this state “tranquility of the mind,” and he referred to it with a great analogy of people not being used to health as opposed to not being healthy:
“I could find no closer analogy than the condition of those people who have got over a long and serious illness, but are still sometimes mildly affected by onsets of fever and pain, and even when free of the last symptoms are still worried and upset; and, though quite better, offer their hands to doctors and needlessly complain if they feel at all hot. With these people, Serenus, it is not that their bodies are insufficiently healed but that they are insufficiently used to health, just as even a calm sea will show some ripples, especially when it has subsided following a storm.” Seneca.
By repeatedly exposing yourself to controlled doses of toughness, you are effectively applying hormesis to develop a tranquil mind. “Hormesis” is a characteristic of many biological processes in which there is a favorable biological response to low exposures to toxins and stressors. In my case, toxins are the workouts, the cold water, and the absence of food.
In the broader scope, the toxin is toughness, and the response is tranquility. A calm, peaceful mind within an energetic body is a superhighway for good decisions, creativity, and productivity. A preoccupied mind is a toxic environment for your performance. Embracing tough habits serves as a detox process for your mind.
What if life is already hitting me hard? What if someone I love just passed away, or I’m badly sick, or I just went through a tough breakup? When the dose of toughness I’m facing is already far more than the comfort I enjoy, then I don’t need to self-inflict with much more hardness. It’s crucial to be emotionally open and available to go through sadness and grieving, and to seek comfort when comfort is brutally absent. And probably life won’t ever be the same after our biggest tragedies. But “the work” during the journey makes us better prepared to deal with that change ourselves. And if we look around us, we may find that others are not as prepared, and we may be able to help. When possible, I try to be the calming force in the eye of the storm.
Sometimes, it’s not life hitting us hard. It’s us being too hard on ourselves. Remember: a daily dose of toughness is good but self-imposed misery is not. Dealing with hardship is necessary but not sufficient for a fulfilling life. Being rash in hardship is not good, either. Acting carelessly is a form of detachment from your mind, not tranquility of the mind.