Joel Gascoigne

Startups, life, learning and happiness

I'm Founder & CEO of Buffer. This is where I share lessons I'm learning.

6 things I do to be consistently happy

Written on 18th August, 2012
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Now that it’s almost two years since I first had the idea for Buffer, and with the year and a half before that which I worked on my previous startup, I’ve started to notice a few patterns amongst the ups and downs that come with building a startup.

One of the most important things I’ve learned during this time is that I perform the best when I’m happy. It really does change everything. If I’m happy then I’m more productive when hacking code, I’m better at answering support, and I find it easier to stay focused.

I’ve found that there are a few key habits which, for me, act as great rituals for enabling me to be consistently happy. They also act as anchor activities to bring my happiness level back up quickly whenever I have a period where I’m not feeling 100%. So here are 6 of the things I do:

1. Wake up early

One of the things I love about running my own startup is that I have complete freedom to experiment with my daily routine.

Through experimentation, I’ve found that waking up early every day makes me feel most invigorated and happy. It gives me a great start to the day, and this almost always leads to a great rest of the day. Over time, I’ve found I crave that “early morning” feeling, a time I can do some great work and be super focused. Gretchen Rubin from The Happiness Project mentioned something similar a recent article:

"I get up at 6:00 a.m. every day, even on weekends and vacation, because I love it.”

Waking up early every day requires discipline, especially about what time I sleep. Right now, I have a sleep ritual of disengaging from the day at 9:30pm and sleeping at 10pm. I now love all aspects of this ritual and with it in place I awake at 6am feeling fresh.

2. Exercise daily

"We found that people who are more physically active have more pleasant-activated feelings than people who are less active" - Amanda Hyde

In the last three years, I’ve gone from dabbling with exercise to it becoming something I do every weekday without fail. At first I had no idea what to do at the gym, so I asked my brother, who’s a personal trainer. I then went a few times with a good friend and soon I was hooked.

Over time, I developed this into a daily ritual so strong that I feel a pull towards it, and by doing it consistently I feel fantastic and can more easily take on other challenges. I recently discovered that exercise is a keystone habit which paves the way for growth in all other areas. I’ve also found that it helps me to get high quality sleep each night.

3. Have a habit of disengagement

"The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal" - Loehr and Schwarz, The Power of Full Engagement

As I mentioned earlier, a key way I am able to wake up at 6am is through my ritual of disengaging in the evening. I go for a walk at 9:30pm, along a route which I’ve done many times before. Since the route is already decided and is the same every time, I am simply walking and doing nothing else. This prompts reflection and relaxation.

Various thoughts enter and leave my mind during the walk, and I’ve found this to be very healthy. Sometimes I think about the great things I enjoyed that day. Other times I will realise a change I should make in order to be happier day to day. I also feel calm and relaxed by the time I return from my walk, and I can therefore go straight to bed and fall asleep sooner than if I been engaged in my work and had closed my laptop only a few minutes earlier.

4. Regularly help others

One of my most fascinating discoveries about myself so far this year, is how happy it makes me to help others. For some time I had been consistently meeting founders to help them with their startups without realising that it was making me so happy. Then when I read Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard I connected the dots of when I was happy and the activity I was doing: helping others.

I read Ricard’s section on the link between altruism and happiness and everything clicked. Since then, I’ve been consistently helping many startup founders and it’s brought me much happiness through both the challenge of finding ways to help each person, and the feeling that comes when I help the other person discover ways to make faster progress with their current challenges.

If you’d like to get startup advice via email or Skype, get in touch.

5. Learn new skills

"Being in the moment, focusing completely on a single task, and finding a sense of calm and happiness in your work. Flow is exactly that." - Leo Babauta

One thing I’ve found during my time working on Buffer, is that a key reason I’ve been happy for most of that time is that I’ve consistently had new challenges to take on. It may seem odd that new challenges can equate to happiness, but it is the times when I’ve slipped into a few weeks of working on something I already know well, that have led me to feel less happy than I want to be.

I think a key part of why learning new skills can bring happiness, is that you need to concentrate in order to make progress. The “flow” state has been found to trigger happiness. In addition, when learning something new you are able to learn a lot in a short space of time due to a steep learning curve. For example, in the last two weeks I’ve started learning Android development from scratch and I’ve personally found incredible the amount I know now compared to nothing two weeks ago.

6. Have multiple ways to “win” each day

Since the above activities are habitual, many days of the week I actually accomplish all of them. If I succeed with all five, I have a truly amazing day and feel fantastic. I have goals for Buffer, and I have goals in my weights routine too. In addition, I try to schedule one or two meetings or Skype calls to help people each day. I do this based on learning from around a year ago through an interview Tim Ferriss had with Matt from 37signals. I’ve mentioned it before on my blog, but it’s so good that I want to repeat it:

"If your entire ego and identity is vested in your startup, where there are certainly factors outside of your control, you can get into a depressive funk that affects your ability to function. So, you should also, let’s say, join a rock climbing gym. Try to improve your time in the mile. Something like that. I recommend at least one physical activity. Then even if everything goes south — you have some horrible divorce agreement with your co-founder — if you had a good week and set a personal record in the gym or on the track or wherever, that can still be a good week."

So if I start my morning with a gym routine, work on Buffer during the day and help two people during lunch, I have 4 chances to have a great day. It almost always works.

Are there any key activities or habits you’ve found bring you happiness? I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: iko

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