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

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

Creating a sleep ritual

My first post on this blog was one where I pondered whether exercise is a requirement for sleep. The post was actually triggered by my inability to sleep, and I wrote it in the middle of the night. Since then, I have made a number of adjustments and I now sleep much better, so I’d like to share what I’ve changed.

Why create a sleep ritual?

As an early stage startup founder, I’ve found the emotional ups and downs to be incredible. In my experience so far in building my latest startup, there have been many different events which have caused a huge amount of joyful moments, and there are undeniably times when you wonder how you are going to progress and how you are going to handle the sheer chaos in which you’ve chosen to live. It is easy to work long hours, become very unproductive and find yourself enjoying the moments less.

In my experience, you have enough against you if you’re running a startup that feeling exhausted for the majority of every day is not a wise idea. I’ve realised over the last few months that balance, however elusive it might sound, is very important. A key example is how crucial feedback and communicating with users is at the beginning of a startup. For me, I find that the emails I write are much better, and the energy I can put into responding fast and positively to Tweets is higher when I am well rested.

What is a sleep ritual?

I learned about rituals from The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwarz. Whilst habits are often seen as activities you have to force yourself to do, rituals are instead activities which you are pulled towards. A good friend introduced me to the book, and also helped me craft a new ritual to help me get to sleep at a good hour and in a good state of mind each night. It takes some time to convert a habit into a ritual, but once you have it becomes something that does not require thought or energy, and instead can provide you with vast amounts of extra energy.

I’ve adjusted this ritual over time, and it can be simplified to two important parts:

Disengage: An activity to allow total disengagement from the day’s work. For me, this is going for a 20 minute walk every evening at 9:30pm. This is a wind down period, and allows me to evaluate the day’s work, think about the greater challenges, gradually stop thinking about work and reach a state of tiredness.

Avoid re-engaging: After the activity, go straight to bed. Be sure that all devices are in a separate room to the one you sleep (and slient). Once in bed, do not read books which are related to your work in any way. For me, this means reading fiction.

Adjusting and improving the ritual

It’s important to start with something simple, so that you can keep to it and allow it to convert from being a habit you struggle with to a ritual you are pulled towards doing. Once you are performing the ritual regularly, you can start to add more good habits and let those become rituals too.

Recently, I have combined early morning exercise with my sleep ritual. The sleep ritual helps me get a good night’s sleep, and allows me to get up very early. I like early mornings, and I like to start the day feeling refreshed and confident. I’ve also been trying to make going to the gym a regular part of my life, and I’ve often struggled to fit it into my day. I now go to the gym as soon as I wake up, and this is perfect since whatever chaos my day brings, I can almost always go to the gym before it starts.

Allow imperfection

Don’t worry if you miss days. It’s important to avoid guilt, and instead learn what is best for yourself and try again. It took some time, but I perform my ritual almost religiously now during the week. However, I don’t usually do it at the weekends. If I miss it one day, it is often due to being overwhelmed by everything that is going on. In those cases, I’ve found becoming consciously aware of the reason I’ve slipped out of my ritual, and then making a definite decision to start it again has allowed me to reduce the impact of stress.

I know that with the ritual, whatever chaos the day has brought, I can feel fresh the next day.

Do you have a ritual which helps you to sleep well and feel good each day? Do you think it is something you’d like to try? I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simes

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