The 3 habits I recommend the most

Updated to Habits on May 3, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

This post was updated in 2023.

Enter most arched passageways in historic buildings made of stone and look up. Look closely and you will see one block is different from all the rest. That wedge-shaped piece is the keystone block. Keystones in architecture are used to hold the other blocks in place. In the world of habits and discipline, keystone habits are the building blocks that hold other habits together.

On the surface, most habits seem obvious. We all know we should drink more water, exercise more often and sleep more. The secret to habits – especially keystone habits – is not so much the act of the habit, it is the leverage they can give you on life. Like discovering a helpful app for your phone, adding a positive habit to your life can allow you to enjoy more success without more effort. I recommend these keystone habits the most because they have given me to most leverage over my life. I hope you enjoy the same leverage in your life. 

1. Do the hardest work first

“The people who achieve extraordinary results don’t achieve them by working more hours. They achieve them by getting more done in the hours they work.” – Gary Keller, The One Thing

It’s hard – if not impossible – to not think about what you need to do. Often referred to as the Zeigarnik effect, we tend to pay more attention to incomplete work over complete work.

For example, if you’re in a meeting with someone who you know deserves your apology, it gnaws at your attention and energy. The more you think about it, the more you are distracted. Make the apology and (often regardless of their response) you feel better and clearer almost immediately.

It’s like that with the habit of doing the hardest work first.

While most habits offer a single reward – exercise leads to better health, etc. – when you do the hardest work first you get the double bonus of completing the work, plus more motivation for what’s next on your list. 

HOW TO START: Before starting your day, block time (see below) for the hardest work of the day. Be as specific as possible (“email agenda to the committee” is better than “Deal with next committee meeting”) 

2. Block time

“My goal is to make sure progress is being made on the right things at the right pace for the relevant deadlines.” –Cal Newport

When I ask audiences how they respond to an appointment on their calendar for, say, a committee meeting, the responses are almost universal. They anticipate it, plan to be there on time, make apologies and try to reschedule if unable to attend. 

Next, I ask how, in the middle of a busy day, they respond upon noticing a task they added the previous week to a long to-do list. Almost universally they think about it, maybe work on it a bit, but mostly ignore it.

Appointments work. And when you block time for important work it’s like making an appointment with yourself.

Creating time blocks is an antidote to a frustratingly distracted day where it feels like nothing important got done. It’s all about doing the “Deep work” author Cal Newport defines as “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

The process is easy (I go into more detail in this article): as soon as you recognize a chunk of work that requires your full attention, block it in your calendar. And then ( this is the most important part) respect that appointment. If you get distracted or delayed, reschedule your time block—don’t delete it. The goal is to treat time blocks like you would with a team member or your doctor. Once you make the appointment, respect it.


“Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes.” – Charles Duhigg

As soon as I adopted time blocking everything changed. I had to think through what was most important for that day (and what was not important). My day became a series of appointments, rather than a miscellaneous list of competing priorities.

Best of all, every time block was focused time to get a specific task completed. I started wearing headphones more often to avoid hearing conversations in our office. I closed windows on my computer, turned my phone to silent, and checked my email less often. Best of all, I so see the progress I was making that that energized me.

HOW TO START: Block your calendar for the week with time slots for critical work. Use this visual to see where you might need more time, or have a conflict. The goal is deep undistracted work. If something comes up that conflicts with the time block, move the block.

3. Make your bed

“Your bed is a symbol of you. There’s something about having your bed feel orderly that makes your life feel that way.” –Gretchen Rubin

I always get a lot of smiles when I recommend this habit to a live audience. It’s like a secret habit so many people have adopted and come to love.

Fans of the make-your-bed movement are supported not just by the likes of Jeff Bezos, Adrianna Huffington, and Bill Gates, but also by research.

One study, at found “bed makers” are more productive and happier. Charles Duhigg, the author of one of my favorite books, The Power of Habits, wrote that making your bed is – “the kind of habit that leads to other good habits being formed.”

In a commencement speech at the University of Texas, Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Seal William H. McCraven, author of Make Your Bed: Little Things Can Change Your Life…and Maybe the World told students “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day,″ he said. “It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another. And by the end of the day that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed.”

HOW TO START: As soon as you get out of bed, turn around and make your bed. Do it for one week—it’s as simple as that. Practice the habit and notice how good it feels. 

Make your bed and 12 more great habits for the super-busy person
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Why $100,000 a year won’t make you rich

Photo by Liana Mikah on Unsplash