Five Pillars for a Healthy and Happy 2014

In part I of my 2013 year in review, I took a self indulgent look back at the last 6 years of writing on this blog.

That exercise made me realize that the last two years, excluding the amazingness that my wife has brought to my life, have been a real grind. I’ll preface with the fact that I realize how fortunate I am to have the spouse, family, friends, health, career, etc. that I have; however, I don’t want that to be an invisible script of 1st world guilt holding me back from truly living a rich life.

Success shouldn’t be about deferring happiness in order to achieve something big in life. People are not standing at the end of some obligatory finish line to tell you, “Wow. You finally made it. Now you can just sit back and coast.”

The review process reminded me just how great of a year 2011 was.

  1. I spent a lot of time “just hanging out” with my friends, family and Alaina.
  2. My job pushed me in a way that led to arousal, control and flow rather than anxiety and boredom. I worked approximately 9 hours a day and left my computer at the office when I went home. When I got home, I still had plenty of energy to pursue other passions outside of work.

Achieving Flow

  1. I made time to train. Or I started running as a way to spend more time with the woman who would eventually become my wife. I can’t recall. Either way, the positive effects of physical activity are endless.
  2. I said “no” to the things that I wasn’t intensely passionate about, but I did make time for serendipitous opportunities like speaking at a Pajama Conference on overcoming fear and complacency in your life.

With that in mind, I set aside some time to think through how I can get back the happiness levels I experienced in 2011.

As I mentioned at the conclusion of Part I, I’ve started to think about my life from the vantage point of 5 separate pillars. As long as most of them are relatively sturdy, they’ll hold the roof (my happiness) up. But when one of the pillars starts suffering, and the other pillars have to sustain more of the load, that’s typically when anxiety, stress, frustration, anger, exhaustion and unhappiness start to take over. The result is that ALL five pillars (and my happiness) ultimately suffer.

Let’s take a look at *my* five pillars and the way in which I’m trying to approach each in 2014. Hopefully it will enable you to think through your own life, your plans for this next year and the things that contribute to your happiness. In short: these are my pillars; yours should be the things you want to have more control over to ensure a healthy and happy year.

Personal Relationships

Turns out, there was one—and only one—characteristic that distinguished the happiest 10 percent from everybody else: the strength of their social relationships. — Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

I have a great time with Alaina. Unlike my parents, who have vastly different hobbies and passions, Alaina and I like many of the same things. We like to cook together, train together and watch many of the same shows. She gets to watch the chick flicks, that are Rotten on the Tomato-Meter, when I work late/on the weekends. (They have a separate shelf, by the way). I also like to follow her around and pretend like I’m helping when she cleans.

The problem is that since getting engaged, and especially now that we’re married and live together, I probably put too much pressure on Alaina to meet my social needs for happiness. That’s a lot of (unfair) pressure.

This is where friends come in. Before Alaina, I spent a lot of time playing weeknight trivia, attending happy hours, going dancing on weekends (see: trying to find someone like Alaina), eating wings, drinking beer, watching football, and more. Alaina does a better job carving out time for these things; whereas, I often spend time I could be doing these things working.

Also, every time I head to my hometown to spend time with family I feel giddy with excitement and immediately transform into a good mood. Even for a short weekend, it provides a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of Houston and my career. Going home and spending time with my family always reminds me of what’s most important in my life.

Action: Put less pressure on my wife to fulfill my social needs. Carve out a bit more time (even if it’s just one additional week night every other week or a weekend afternoon) to shoot the shit with my friends. And make sure I visit my hometown to spend time with family when I need to escape and get perspective.

Physical Health (sleep, training = more energy)

There’s two big things I try to focus on here: getting enough sleep and working out/running.

The scientific benefits of sleep are innumerable. More sleep equates to more happiness, better health, and improved decision making. Not to mention that it detoxes the brain.

Even before I ventured down the entrepreneur path, I used to pride myself on how little sleep I thought I needed. If I only sleep from midnight to 6, I can cram 2-3 hours of more work into my day, I used to tell myself. Never mind that I’d constantly feel exhausted after lunch and struggle to focus on anything beyond mindless tasks and e-mail.

All told, by the end of two weeks, the six-hour sleepers were as impaired as those who, in another Dinges study, had been sleep-deprived for 24 hours straight — the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk. (NY Times)

I’ve recently started trying to shut down the computer and phone by 9:30-10:00pm and getting into bed with a book. I’m usually up by 5:45am to get into the office by 6:30am (love the quiet time before everyone comes in), but I may continue experimenting to ensure I’m getting 8+ hours of sleep.

Besides, building a start-up is a marathon, not a sprint. (See: The Importance of Sleep in a Start-Up).

I like to workout during lunch because it’s one less thing I have to do when I get home, but I’ve also considered using that time for power napping in my truck based on the energy boost, improved cognitive performance and health benefits that come as result.

Since joining BSX Athletics, I’ve definitely caught the endurance bug. I try to run on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday and mix in weights on Tuesday and Thursday.

Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning.  — Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, author of the book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

There’s probably just as much research showing the benefits of physical activity as there is sleep, but I’m less familiar with it. The reasons I run and lift weights have less to do with prolonging life and more to do with the fact that I know how it makes me feel.

When I’m running and lifting regularly, I feel better about myself and have more energy. Now that I no longer play team sports competitively, I also like the competition aspect of endurance training — mostly the competition with myself to keep imroving my times.

Action: Continue experimenting with different approaches to getting 8+ hours of quality sleep and ensure that I’m always making time to get 3-5 workouts in a week, which includes weight training in addition to my endurance efforts.

Mental and Emotional Wellness

I like to think that I’m pretty good at my first two pillars, but the next three is where it starts to get more fuzzy. I attribute that to the fact that overall they’re harder to sustain and require more mental bandwidth than the first two. Drinking a beer with buddies and going for a run are a lot of fun (for me). In fact, doing both contributes to my mental and emotional wellness, but there are lots of other stressors that can adversely effect my happiness as well.

This pillar really boils down to my mental state. Am I happy? Am I (mostly) anxiety-free? Am I being kind and empathetic to others? Am I being creative? Am I making decisions quickly and intelligently? Am I retaining information at an appropriate level? Am I able to motivate myself?

Being able to answer “yes” to these questions, most of the time, is critical to my success and happiness in 2014.

So how do I want to go about/sustain answering “yes” to these questions?

  • By reading both fiction and non-fiction books. Reading fiction improves empathy and the ability to understand the emotions of others. Reading non-fiction enables me to learn key lessons from people who’ve already done and experienced things I want to pursue, get better at and/or learn from.
  • Writing. Taking the time to put my thoughts down (whether it’s scribbling ideas on a notepad, transferring notes into a commonplace book, or writing on this blog) helps me to process my thoughts and feelings and draw actionable conclusions. All of this contributes to learning and…
  • self awareness, which is the foundation of change. Taking the time to read, write and think enables me to sharpen the proverbial saw. “It’s easy to put your head down and just work on what you think needs to be done. It’s a lot harder to pull your head up and ask why,” says Jason Fried in Rework. I’m hoping to schedule more time to look a things from a 10,000ft level this year.
  • Managing guilt. Every Sunday, I work with my accountability partner (Thanks, Eric!) to put together 3 things I want to accomplish by the end of the week outside of the day gig. I used to accomplish a lot outside of the office with respect to personal *and* professional development, but these days I’m often exhausted when I get home from a 10-12 hour day and just want to veg out on the couch with my wife. I’m already tough on myself so this invariably leads to guilt and a negative self concept (i.e. I’m lazy, etc.) — I’m hoping to put some triggers in place to start developing some quick wins, outside of the day gig, to overcome this debilitating guilt.
  • Increasing confidence. I used to have unwavering confidence, but now that I encounter non linear problems and new challenges on a daily basis, I often face uncertainty.  This uncertainty can lead to feeling stressed and overwhelmed. It’s one thing to fail, provided that you learn from it, but the last thing I want to do is let down my team. The key here is going to be reminding myself to treat everything like an experiment, to learn from my failures and to remember that everything is figure-out-able.

Action: Take a page out of Charlie Munger’s book and sell myself an hour each day (or at least 3x/week). Constantly remind myself that I’m my most valuable client and that if I’m taking the time to invest in myself, outside of the office, it *will* pay dividends inside the office.


Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning and purpose to our lives.  — Brenè Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

I rarely talk about religion on this blog and I don’t want to start now. My faith is important to me, but the nuances of that are mostly my business.

When I talk about spirituality on this blog it’s more in line with Brenè’s quote above and encompasses prayer, but also practicing gratitude, forgiveness, vulnerability as courage, and self compassion.

All of these things typically require re-framing (i.e. “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters”). The end goal for me to combat fear and let go of perfection. In last year’s yearly review, I quoted my friend Charlie Hoehn’s excellent post on “The Perils of Personal Progress“. The basic gist is something I alluded to at the beginning of this (now very long) post: There is no finish line. The satisfaction of achievement doesn’t last if you’re always looking for what’s next.

George Saunders, in his convocation speech at Syracuse University says it better than I could:

 “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

In the past, these goals, systems, road maps (whatever you want to call them), have been focused primarily on professional success, how to accomplish more and how to get ‘ahead’ (whatever that entails).

Egoism of a two-part year-end review aside, the spirituality pillar helps me re-frame and provides perspective. It’s the little voice at the end of a long day that says, “It’s just marketing.”

This video is also a great reminder:

Action: Make a conscious effort to spend less time focused on myself and more time focused on how I can help others. Spend more time in the present. Practice and/or re-visit gratitude daily. Do a much better job at these than I did last year! Potentially, use cell phone alarm or block calendar time to ensure this becomes a habit.


The best knowledge workers view their time like the best investors view their capital, as a resource to wield for maximum returns. — Cal Newport

I saved this one for last because it’s the one, in my own personal experience/history, that seems to have the ability to most easily derail the other pillars and adversely affect my happiness.

I don’t want to be one of those people who wears his workaholism as a badge of honor. I work a lot, and always have, mostly because I feel like that’s what it takes to get the job done in such a way that I can be proud of my efforts.

I’ve recently spent a lot of time thinking about the conventional idea of success and if that’s what I truly want. Is it a monetary number in the form of financial freedom? Is it the flexibility and freedom to travel and spend more time with my friends and family (see #1)? This isn’t a static concept for most people and I think a lot about how my personal definition of career success changes often.

A couple of things I do know is that: I need to stop worrying about things I can’t control and I need to set some boundaries (i.e. I’m not going to work on weekends and I’m not going to let (insert here) distract me during the day) to ensure that I have more time for the other 4 pillars in my life.

Here’s some additional career-related things I want to explore this year:

  • Harnessing the expertise of other people – This overlaps the personal relationship pillar, but is something I definitely used to do much more frequently. Because I’m so busy (or at least I think I am), I’ve developed an invisible script that most leaders are too busy and won’t want to help/offer advice, but what does it hurt to ask? Not only would their answers expedite my learning, but by closing the loop and adding value to their lives, I have the ability to expand my professional network = win/win.
  • Embrace conflict – This doesn’t mean being angry or aggressive, but it does mean sometimes facing discomfort and asking for things I want, rather than automatically rejecting myself by assuming the worst case scenario and never taking action on something that would make my work life better.
  • Productivity systems – If I can be more productive during work hours, maybe I won’t have to work as many nights and weekends, which would consequently free up additional time for the other pillars I’ve been neglecting. Never mind why work doesn’t happen at work for a minute. That’s a problem, not a solution. Motivation and energy are dependent on other pillars (mental and physical health), so how can I manage my energy and set-up valuable systems I can rely on to keep progressing through important tasks?

What you do is more important than how you do everything else, and doing something well does not make it important. — Tim Ferriss

Action: Manage my time (and energy) in a way that enables me to ruthlessly focus on the 20% of activities that can provide 80% of the results. Test productivity systems and maximizing efficacy (doing the right things) over efficiency (doing things quickly) to ensure I’m tackling the most important task everyday. Consistently ask myself, “If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day?”

So there you have it. Nearly 3000 words later, this is how I plan on tackling the coming year.

I can’t imagine it’s going to be easy, but with renewed focus and a plan of attack, I’m hoping to have a productive AND HAPPY 2014.

I’ll leave you with one final thing that’s helped me out over the last 4 months or so. For days when I can’t figure it all out, something is beating me up, I’m losing confidence in myself and ready to fly off the hinges, I open the notes in my phone and read these 5 “reminders for perspective”:

5 Helpful Reminders for Perspective


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  • I absolutely loved this Ryan! Super helpful breakdown of all your areas — a great guide for ANYONE going into 2014 🙂


    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    J – Beezie! Thanks so much for commenting. It’s such a delight to have some love on ole girl again. As I mentioned in the post, I learn a lot through getting thoughts down on paper.

    Hopefully selling myself a couple of hours out of each week will enable me to start writing here a little more often.

    We’ll sync up soon. In the interim, don’t hesitate if there’s anything I can do to help you achieve your dreams in 2014!


  • Eric Conley

    Superb post Ryan! Such a mature and relevant post for many people.

    I have had success with a couple areas that I’d like to share with you:

    – 8+ hours is an ambituous goal given your current sleep. Could you maybe shoot for 7 and work your way up? Also, note that the pattern you sleep (i.e. from 9pm to 5am) is just as important. If you sleep from 9 to 5 during the week, but 1am to 10am on the weekends the additional hours won’t amount to much.
    – A simple tactic is to have an evening alarm. This has helped me get to bed on, or around, the same time most evenings.
    – Make your room pitch black — no LCD alarm clocks, electronics, etc. Consider a slight investment in sun-blocking curtains.
    – I have more tips/ideas/motivation here:

    – First, this pillar hit me the most. I love your active approach to improvement.
    – As we’ve discussed before, I’d recommend a gratitude journal. This catalogs all of my positive experiences. Sidebar, I used to do this daily, but it became more of a mundane task rather than a useful experience. I have since switched to weekly, and put less pressure on myself to fulfill. Lastly, I make it easy to complete — it’s on my desk at work with pens readily available.

    Cheers for the thoughtful 3,000 words. Looking forward to grabbing a beer soon.. post-January 🙁


    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    Eric –

    Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts.

    I suspect you’re right re: 8+ hours of sleep as an ambitious goal. 10:30pm to 5:30am is probably a good start. With what time I need to be into the office, the bedtime is the time that’ll likely have to move, but I definitely feel like I’m missing out/wasting good time I could be finishing something up by getting into bed much earlier than 10:00pm.

    By the time I’ve worked out, cooked, cleaned up the kitchen and watched an hour-long show with Alaina, it’s usually 9:00pm or after.

    And we do need curtains. I used to be more reliant on them for sleep; however, now I’m typically so exhausted by the time I lay down I don’t have much trouble getting to sleep. It’s getting *back* to sleep once I’ve woke up in the middle of the night thinking about work that’s tough.

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts. Looking forward to having lunch this week and discussing our year of unapologetic mastery. Ha!