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

The exercise habit

This morning, my alarm sounded at precisely 5:50am. Within a few minutes, I was up and had my running shoes, shorts and a t-shirt on. Minutes later at 6am, I opened my MacBook Air, switched to the desktop with TextMate open and got coding. I worked for just under one hour on some important new functionality for Buffer. At exactly 6:59am, I pushed the few commits I’d made to our Git repository. I then took my octopus card and Fitness First card out of my wallet and put them in my pocket. I put my wallet in the gym bag I’d packed the night before, and headed out of my apartment door. I got the lift down from my eighth floor to the ground floor, cheerily said good morning to the concierge and headed out of my apartment building.

Once outside, I very specifically walked across the street to the 7-11. I entered the shop, said hello to the lady and went to the back where the fridges are. I knew exactly what I would buy. I grabbed a can of red bull and a small bottle of Volvic water. I went back to the counter I’d walked past, put both on the surface and waited for the lady to key in the items. I had my octopus card ready on the scanner to make the payment, and as soon as I heard the beep to confirm the payment, I cracked open the red bull, and walked away with the red bull in my right hand and the Volvic in my left.

I set off on the 3 minute journey to my gym, and sipped the red bull on the way, a little caffeine to enhance my performance during my weights session. As always, I finished the red bull exactly as I approached the Hopewell Centre where the gym is located, and tossed the empty can in the bin as I walked past.

I headed to the escalator, and when I reached the top I walked over to the lift which takes you to the 16th floor where Fitness First is. As always, when I got into the lift I opened up my gym tracking app on my iPhone and checked what my first exercise for the day would be, and how much weight and reps I did last time. As I got to the top, I knew exactly my first exercise and how much I’d aim for this time. I walked out of the lift and headed to the counter to exchange my Fitness First card for a locker key and towels. Once I got to the changing rooms, I put my bag in locker number 115 along with the octopus card and locked it. With the Volvic in hand, I was ready to start and headed straight to the bench for my first exercise: 12 reps of dumbbell bench press, with 30kg dumbbells.

After I’d finished in the gym, I went straight home and had my usual breakfast of 4 Weetabix. As soon as I’d finished, I opened my MacBook Air, turned on the Pomodoro app and set the timer ticking for 30 minutes. I spent 30 minutes replying to emails from my “to-reply” label in Gmail, and then stopped when the timer went off. I quickly packed my bag and headed to Caffe Habitu, ready for a productive rest of the day.

The power of habits

Almost all of this pattern is now completely habitual for me, Monday to Friday each week. I alternate the gym which I do Monday, Wednesday and Friday with running or swimming on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The rest, however, stays the same. It requires very little mental energy for me to choose what to do, and it requires almost no willpower for me to force myself to accomplish the routine.

By 9:30am, I’ve done an hour of coding on the most important task I have right now on Buffer, I’ve been to the gym and had a great session, and I’ve done 30 minutes of emails. It’s only 9:30am and I’ve already succeeded, and I feel fantastic. The rest of the day is a breeze. I continue to code, and I slot in a 30 minute Pomodoro to fill my Buffer, a 30 minute Pomodoro to read a startup book (right now it’s Delivering Happiness) and one other 30 minute Pomodoro for emails later in the afternoon. I usually also meet with a startup founder here in Hong Kong during lunch and help them with their current biggest challenge. If I start the day like this, I almost always have a very productive day, and in our daily standup team Skype call I have plenty of good progress to share.

Exercise as a keystone habit

The interesting part is, this routine has taken me quite some time to build up. Looking back, it all started with just the exercise. I managed to create exercise as a daily habit around one and a half years ago when I was based in Birmingham in the UK. Over time, it became such a strong habit that there is no way I would skip it. If the rest of my routine falls apart, I will always achieve the exercising.

Right now I’m reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg and everything suddenly became very clear. Exercise is what Duhigg calls a “keystone habit”:

"Typically, people who exercise, start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change."

Have you considered starting the exercise habit? Do you exercise regularly? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Photo credit: Tomomi Sasaki

Exercise: a requirement for sleep?

Recently I have struggled to get to sleep at night. When I need to be up at 8 and working away on either my own projects or exciting client projects by 9 it is vital that I wake up refreshed and ready for a challenging day. So why am I having trouble sleeping?

Busy lifestyle pushes exercise aside

In the last few weeks I’ve found myself a lot busier than usual - client projects and multiple side projects of my own.

As a result, I’ve not been exercising as much as I usually do. I am now starting to think that exercise is not something that can take a lower priority when things get busy.


I’m mentally drained from the day’s work, but physically I have just been sat at a desk all day and I have too much energy to fall asleep. This distinction is important. In order to sleep well, I am starting to realise I need to be both mentally and physically tired.

Does exercise have an impact?

After around a week and a half away from the gym, one evening I decided enough was enough and I went and swam 50 lengths. The result? I got back, went to bed at 10pm and I was asleep before I knew it, and slept right through. I felt refreshed and ready to get on with things again the next morning.

A simple search on Google reveals many results similar to this one:

Exercise is important for a healthy life. People who are physically fit have a better quality of sleep. A healthy body and a relaxed mind will increase your chances of being able to fall asleep and gain the benefits of a good night’s sleep.

Quality of sleep

That point could easily be overlooked in that last quote. It mentions quality of sleep. So what is quality of sleep? The way I see it, generally quality sleep is sleep when you’re not stressed. So in order to get quality sleep we need to feel we’re happy with what we’ve accomplished in the day - be it work or much needed renewal. Another component could be our environment - I live in central Birmingham and it can get noisy at times, though I don’t feel like this affects my sleep as much as the other factors.

Time to make a few changes

I think I need to get more exercise, otherwise this is going to become a real problem. It should be easier to motivate myself to exercise when I know that sleep, and ultimately my energy levels throughout each and every day as a result depend upon it.

How do I fit it in?

The only thing now is, how do I fit in the crucial exercise I need in order to fall asleep each night? Do I need to exercise every day, or will once every two days give me the chance to stretch myself physically enough in order to be able to put my head to the pillow without being awake for hours? I’m going to start off by trying to exercise every couple of days, alternating between cardio and weights as I have done in the past. I’ll probably write about how it goes soon.

Have you had trouble sleeping before due to not exercising? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Photo credit: Colton Witt