Two simple changes that helped increase my happiness and improve my sleep

Three of our key values at Buffer are “Always choose positivity and happiness”, “Have a focus on self-improvement” and “Live smarter, not harder”. As a result of these particular values, in the last few months I have tried to be quite deliberate about living as fully to the values as I can. Specifically, it has meant finding ways to work on improving my happiness and the quality of my sleep. I wanted to share a couple of neat small techniques which have helped me.

Forcing a smile and feeling the flow of gratitude and happiness

"It is not joy that makes us grateful. It is gratitude that makes us joyful." - David Rast

sa, one of our awesome Happiness Heroes at Buffer, Tweeted the above quote, and I have found it to be very true. I think there’s a clear link between gratitude and happiness, and this is an interesting correlation to take advantage of.

This morning I was walking to a meeting, and for some reason I didn’t feel as upbeat as I like to be. I was walking along, perhaps a little more sluggish than usual. I think my head was tilted down towards the ground, rather than feeling calm and confident and looking straight ahead.

As soon as I noticed how I felt, I decided to experiment with something. I’d discussed with Leo and others in the team the fact that smiling can actually be the trigger to feel happier, rather than needing to feel happy in order to smile. Leo had written on the Buffer blog about what happens to the brain when you smile.

So, I simply opened my mouth slightly, and started to force a smile. Even the smallest hint towards a smile changed my mood right away. I then adjusted my posture, looked up to the amazing clear San Francisco sky, and smiled wider. I then felt gratitude that I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in this place, and be able to live here in this magical city. These few minutes completely transformed my mood.

I’ve noticed that for myself, I have a habit of walking around with my mouth closed, and this makes it a little less natural for me to easily break into a smile. I’ve started to open my mouth more, and somehow this has helped me smile more (and make me happier). This seems to help me a lot.

Reflecting on why I woke up many times during the night

Back in March we introduced a perk at Buffer where everyone in the team gets a Jawbone UP. Since then I’ve become quite interested in my sleep and how I can improve it. I have always struggled with sleep, and sometimes convinced myself that I’m the kind of person who doesn’t need that much sleep. When studying I would often get by on 5 or 6 hours sleep. The fact is, however, that when I get 7 hours sleep compared to 6, I can feel a big difference in my focus and productivity during the day.

So in the last few months I started to experiment with all kinds of different things to improve my sleep. I tried wearing earplugs, going for evening walks to wind down, opening a window to cool down my room, etc. A key thing I found out by having the Jawbone UP and seeing the statistics of my sleep, was that I frequently wake up in the night. I then realized that I often wake up to go to the bathroom. Once I discovered this, I tried to stop the waking by drinking less before sleeping. This didn’t seem to stop me waking up, however.

I then began to start thinking about what happens when I wake up and go to the bathroom. When going to the bathroom of course I turn the light on, and this immediately starts to wake me up further. It also naturally led to me washing my hands, and in that process I found myself looking in the mirror and noticing sleep in my eyes. I’d therefore wash my face. By the end of this, I was almost completely awake.

Since I had conceded that I might not stop the waking, I decided to try something else. When I awoke, I simply stayed lying in bed and didn’t get up to go to the bathroom. I didn’t really need to go to the bathroom that bad. Interestingly, this small adjustment has improved my sleep massively, and has led to the difference you can see below:

With the same amount of time in bed, I can get around an extra hour of sleep, just by avoiding getting out of bed to go to the bathroom. It blew my mind how that small change could have this impact. And of course I sleep every single night, and so this leads to better focus and productivity every single day. Wow.

These are just two interesting small techniques I discovered while reflecting on my happiness and my sleep. Are there any small changes like these that you use to help you succeed or feel happier?

Photo credit: Diogo A. Figueira

Focus on the line, not the dot

Yesterday I noticed the Who’s Hiring? thread pop up again on Hacker News. If you’re hiring, it’s a great place to share that fact. Since around half a year ago, we’ve been actively hiring and so I’ve made it a task of mine to post to the thread when it appears on the first of the month.

As I sat down to write the listing for Buffer in the thread yesterday, the writing came very easily. At the same time, those words I wrote on that thread have had a huge impact. The listing itself gained 11 points and was placed 2nd out of all job listings. In the hours that followed, I have received over 30 emails from super interesting people interested in joining the team.

One thing I realized is that the blogging is the reason that this happened. I’ve now written over 70 articles on this blog, mostly around 700-800 words. That’s over 50,000 words I’ve written, and I would guess that by writing that much you are only going to get better. That’s why it came so naturally for me to write that job listing.

How focusing on the dot feels

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You see, what I’ve found is that if I ever stop and try to focus too much on any single article, and try and have a massive impact with one specific article, it becomes very unfulfilling. Although there are one or two article which have had a tremendous impact for me, I had no idea at the time I was writing them.

The way I see it is that when you focus on the dot, you focus on your impact between one workout and the next. You focus on your writing between one blog post and the next. You focus on the quality of your code between one line and the next. This is mostly going to result in disappointment.

As Jess Lee theorised in Why Startup Founders are Always Unhappy, if we focus on a single point in time, we are likely to be less happy.

How focusing on the line feels

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I find one of the most exciting things to be thinking about the line I’m creating with my gym routine. Since I started measuring my bench press performance, I have increased the weight by fifty pounds in six months.

With almost every exercise I do at the gym, I put the weight up by a tiny amount each week. This happens every single week. One week to the next doesn’t feel like huge progress, but if I just extrapolate that trend out, it means that within a few months I am going to be lifting a further twenty or thirty pounds on the bench press. There’s no way I’ll be able to do that without having a higher muscle mass, so therefore in a few months I am going to be in better shape.

Start thinking about being a line

So, my conclusion from all of this is that personally I am much more focused on daily habits and consistency than any single point or any future goal.

Mark Suster said that he invests in lines, not dots. His advice for us as entrepreneurs is to treat our fundraising strategy as a line, not a dot:

dont allocate two months of each year to hardcore funding activities but allocate a regular amount of time each month to it like any other job function.

Ira Glass has a fantastic video which hints at this idea too:

There is a gap. That for the first couple of years, that you are making stuff, what you are making isnt so good. Its trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but its not that good.

The most important, possible thing you could do is to do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Because its only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap.

Are you focused on dots when you might make more progress by focusing on lines, by thinking about consistency? I’d love to hear your comments.

Photo credit: FullyFunctnlPhil

6 things I do to be consistently happy

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, lets 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

Want to be happy and successful? Bring happiness to others

For the last 3 months I’ve regularly been meeting startup founders here in Hong Kong to try and help them with the biggest challenges they have. It’s been truly enjoyable and fascinating. I feel I’ve had a positive impact on many, and at the same time I’ve learned a huge amount and made some great friends I’ll definitely stay in touch with.

I’ve been meeting 3-4 founders most weeks and almost all of the meetings I had were 45 minute slots during lunch time. This worked very well as I needed a break and to get lunch anyway.

After doing it for a little while, I started to notice that in the afternoon after I’d met a startup founder I was always extremely happy.

A lesson from the happiest man in the world

I’m currently reading Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard, who has been called the happiest man in the world.

Ricard discusses the “joys of altruism”, relating altruism to happiness. He mentions a series of studies which found a very strong correlation between altruism and happiness:

"The satisfactions triggered by a pleasant activity, such as going out with friends, seeing a movie, or enjoying a banana split, were largely eclipsed by those derived from performing an act of kindness."

He concludes the section with the following concise explanation:

"Generating and expressing kindness quickly dispels suffering and replaces it with lasting fulfillment."

When I read this, it hit me. This was exactly the reason why I was happy. Helping someone for 45 minutes during lunch is a far better way to be happy than watching a funny video or procrastinating on Facebook for 45 minutes.

Hiten Shah: bringing happiness to the startup world

"You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want." - Zig Ziglar

Every email Hiten sends has the above quote in his signature. He is the person who I’ve seen best embrace the methods Ricard talks about.

The amazing thing about Hiten is that he truly helps anyone. When I first had contact with Hiten two years ago, I was nobody. However, he took an hour of his day to jump on a call with a stranger in the UK.

I’ve found Hiten is one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. He seems to have really ingrained this idea of constantly helping others, and I imagine it may be at least partially triggering his happiness.

Taking this approach to the level that Hiten does is something which I have always aspired to since we first spoke. This is also main reason I started meeting founders here in Hong Kong.

Building a startup around this philosophy

"Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success." - Albert Schweitzer

At Buffer, as a whole team we try to internalise this philosophy. Every day we have a Skype call at 6pm where we help each other to work on personal improvements which will make us happy. We know that if we can simply be happy, we will produce great work and be productive.

On the other side of the equation, we also try to apply this to our approach with user happiness, largely inspired by Zappos. In general, we try to make this all we do. We sit down, we type, and we try to bring happiness to others. We do this hours on end with email support, and we do this by writing thousands of lines of code to create an amazing experience.

What are you doing to make others happy? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Photo credit: Jill G

Use the happiness advantage

Looking back to the start of Buffer, one of the things I think may have helped a lot with gaining traction fast was to involve users in the validation process and tell these people how crucial their feedback would be. There are a few different things involved, but overall the best way to describe it was to simply make them happy.

Now as we move forward in a slightly later stage of the startup where we have hundreds of thousands of users instead of just hundreds, and we’re really trying to perfect the product and drive massive growth instead of being in a validation phase, we’ve actually also switched back to a focus on making users happy.

What is the happiness advantage?

In the simplest terms, the happiness advantage I am describing is giving the users a real feeling of surprise and happiness through the product and the service provided. Mark MacLeod, the former CFO of Tungle and Shopify, described it very well in his talk on SaaS Math:

"You really need to shower your users with love. People buy technology from startups for one of two reasons. One, it’s technology that they can’t get anywhere else, or two it’s a level of service and support and love that they can’t get anywhere else. The startups that do really well and take off have showered their users with love. You send a request to support and you hear back right away. They’ve got a very active blog and they build a community. Every time an executive goes to a different city they’re having dinners for the users in that city. They’re building massive loyalty and those users are going out and becoming ambassadors and helping recruit more users."

Why use the happiness advantage?

Of course, giving this much attention to people who use your product does take extra work. It also takes a whole new mindset to genuinely appreciate every contact from users, and to cherish the conversation no matter whether they are delighted, confused or complaining. I truly believe, however, that this extra work is worth it in so many ways. Here are some of the benefits we’ve seen:

Early stage benefits

In the earliest stages, you very likely have a product you’re embarrassed about, but you’ve pushed it live anyway because you know how important it is to learn quickly whether your assumptions are correct.

There are many things against you, but the great thing is that you aren’t flooded with support emails and you don’t have many users. Therefore you can be in touch with all of your users individually, and you can not only learn a massive amount from them about the next steps for the product, but you can have a profound impact on them and make them true ambassadors of your product and brand. They can be your best friends.

What’s even better is that these first few users crave this involvement and know that the product won’t be perfect. As Leo has put it, the first users are a different breed, and you want to know them.

Later stage benefits

As Buffer has grown, we’ve tried many different things to try and continue to improve the rate of our growth. After trying many different things, we’ve eventually come back to using the happiness advantage as our key driver of growth. Marketing directly can’t compare to simply having users who love to tell others about the product. With this approach, we have a multiplication effect.

One of our biggest inspirations for a lot of the ways we approach things is Evernote. I believe they use the happiness advantage to great effect. Here’s how they describe their approach:

"The job of getting someone whos never heard of Evernote to use it for the first time is the job of our existing users. The job of our marketing department is to help our existing users do that job." - Phil Libin, Evernote

How we are doing it at Buffer

In the last few weeks at Buffer, we’ve been working hard on making use of the happiness advantage even at a larger scale now. We get over 100 emails per day, but we’re determined to answer them all swiftly and not only that but solve their problems and make improvements to the product as a result of the conversations we have.

For the last few weeks, we’ve worked hard at this new focus. Leo and Alyssa especially have done a fantastic job. We’ve now managed to achieve 50% of emails being answered within 1 hour, and 77% within 6 hours:

(The chart above is from the Reports feature inside Help Scout. It’s an awesome product and we certainly couldn’t do as good email support without them)

We are also starting to receive a lot of very positive Tweets about the experience from users, such as this great Tweet from Marci:

When I had an issue w/ @bufferapp 2day the co-founder personally helped me solve it!Great support. @tweetdeck…still waiting!

Marci Liroff (@marciliroff) June 7, 2012

It’s Tweets like this which confirm in my mind what Mark MacLeod says about users becoming ambassadors.

On Thursday, Leo, Alyssa and I had a great brainstorm about changes we can make this week to move this to 60% within 1 hour and 90% within 6 hours. We’ve made some adjustments to when we will do support emails and even to our sleeping habits to achieve this. I’m very excited about the impact we can have with this.

It involves the product too

In this article, I’ve tried to stay very focused on how interactions with users can provide massive benefits, and how focusing on making people happy can turn them into ambassadors. One thing that’s definitely important to mention alongside this discussion is that I definitely believe the quality of the product plays a key role too.

Not only is it important to have a great product that people are eager to share with others, it is also vital that when people have interactions with you and you tell them that you’re working on improving something, they need to see those improvements happen. This is what inspires confidence and creates long-lasting loyalty.

For this reason, at Buffer, we have just two focuses: making users happy (wowing them) and building an awesome product (with an aha moment). To ensure these two things are bound together, we all have input into the product development, and we all do support at some point every week.

Are you using the happiness advantage? I’d love to hear from you!

Photo credit: Chapendra