Let’s start with an interesting observation: so many “influencers,” “optimizers,” and “wellness” and “happiness” gurus don’t have partners or kids. Yes, strive to be healthy and excellent and all that, but sometimes the key to adult life—perhaps especially if you’ve got kids—is that you’ve just got to order a pizza and move on.
To be clear, this does not mean throw the baby out with the bathwater. Simply saying, “To hell with it all, things are crazy,” can be the first step toward developing a lifetime of unhealthy habits that are hard to unwind. But it is perhaps equally harmful to be overly rigid, unable to adjust or release from whatever healthy habits you may have.
(For what it’s worth, I think of myself as pretty healthy and my medical history would support that: my morning routine over the last year has been “struggle to make coffee and drink it.”)
Whether it’s sleep, nutrition, exercise, getting morning light, meditation, or any number of other behaviors, sustaining them over the long haul—particularly as a functioning adult with other obligations in the world—probably depends on three overarching principles:
- Do the thing as best you can.
- Don’t freak out if you can’t do the thing.
- But don’t let that be permission for forgetting about the thing altogether.
Let’s take sleep as an example. Sleep really is that important. You will get no argument from me on that. I am right there with the optimizers on the value of sleep. But it is also true that you can have poor sleep for an extended period of time and not suffer any detrimental long-term consequences. We know this because research shows that people who have children—the ultimate sleep disrupters—live longer than those who don’t. Not sleeping for a period of time still sucks and makes most people, myself included, feel like crap, but it is not going to kill you.
If you’ve got young kids or if you’re a medical resident or something similar, my hunch is that trying to be puritanical about sleep will do more harm for your mental health than sound sleep will do for your physical health. Does that mean you should release completely from trying to get good sleep? Of course not! You should do everything you can (within reason) to get good sleep, and if you still can’t, oh well, life goes on. Notice that this is unequivocally not the same thing as saying “sleep doesn’t matter” or “I guess I’ll just be okay not caring about sleep.” Sleeping is better than not sleeping. Not sleeping is better than not sleeping and freaking out about not sleeping. This can be applied to literally every health behavior.
A big part of the problem is that in today’s discourse there is an extremely unhelpful binary: On the one hand, there are those who espouse the value of “wellness” and “healthy habits” to the utmost degree, sharing allegedly perfect routines and nutrition and fitness protocols. On the other hand, there are those who scream “privilege!” and “healthism!” and then proceed to recommend tearing the whole thing down. What’s funny is that both sides tend to be comprised of people who spend most of their time in elite institutions or simply on the internet all day. It’s not such a representative sample.
For most people, the middle way is, by far, the best way. Healthy habits matter. Diabetes is not merely a creation of the patriarchy. Eating pizza multiple nights a week is probably not a great choice. But thinking less of yourself because you don’t do a hot-cold plunge or look at the sun every morning or sleep eight hours a night is every bit as dumb! So is pretending that what zip code you are born in doesn’t matter. (It’s one of the most important things.) But equally ignorant is saying that zip-code is destiny and individual behaviors don’t matter at all, which is also patently false, and often condescending. Neither extreme is healthy or productive, especially at the individual level.
Define what optimal looks like. Define what good enough looks like. Define what surviving looks like. Practice striving for the former, being okay with spending most of your time in the middle, and occasionally, getting through periods of the latter. This may be the healthiest mindset there is.