08/18/2014 02:16 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2014

The 6 Keys to Living the Sweet Life


"Live long and prosper." -- Vulcan salute

Most of us want a better quality of life, happiness, and longevity. If you had those, you could say you were "living the sweet life." But few of us bother to really take note of how we are progressing towards these goals, and too often get caught up in the details of "life" while ignoring how well we are actually living. Luckily, there is a simple trick to help you stay on track and turn your life into a truly sweet one, and all it takes is a humble sticky note.

At the most basic level, being alive means breathing, eating, sleeping, and moving. Stop doing any one of those, and you won't be alive for very long. But there's more to life than physiological function. To be truly alive, we must love, laugh, socialize, think, create, make, help, and give. To ensure your life is of high quality, you need to do all of these things with high quality. Doing so will help you maintain your physical, mental and emotional health, which in turn form the foundation for happiness and longevity.

To keep yourself on track, you can literally track your activity in these areas. To help you remember what to track, consider the five-letter acronym "SWEET," which stands for the five key elements of health: Sleep, Work, Eating Well, Exercise (physical and mental), and connecting with your Tribe. Sleep, Physical Exercise, and Eating well are the three pillars of physical health. Work, Mental Exercise, and Connecting are the pillars for mental and emotional health.

To begin tracking, you have to define for each pillar what it means to succeed on a daily basis. This definition of success is necessarily very personal and relative, but it's critical that you spend a few minutes to get this straight in your head or on paper in the most objective way you can. Here are some guidelines:
  • Sleep: Establish your sleep baseline and make this your goal.
  • Work: Good "work" is any activity which is enjoyable, which you are good at and passionate about, and which gets you into the psychological state called "flow." Set a goal for number of minutes working at tasks that fulfill this description. Note that this may or may not happen as part of your occupation.
  • Eat well: Get clear about what healthy food is and what unhealthy food is. If you eat any unhealthy food on a given day, you don't get to count that day as a success. Michael Pollan's Food Rules: An Eater's Guide is a great pocket reference.
  • Exercise (physical): Spend 20 to 30 minutes a day moving your body. To make this easier, choose things that you enjoy doing, and keep in mind, it doesn't have to be intense -- it could be a simple walk or cleaning the floors.
  • Exercise (mental): Meditation, playing an instrument, learning a new skill or language, or reading high quality books that make you think are just a few examples of ways to exercise your brain.
  • Tribe (Connecting): Spending time with people, in person, is important. Set a minimum goal around this in terms of minutes. Email and social networking don't count.
Here's how to track: on a sticky note or in a notebook, draw six columns, one for each pillar. At the end of each day, take a few seconds to think back on your day and put a tick mark in each column for which you have succeeded, according to your predetermined definition of success. This is strictly pass/fail. As Yoda said, "Do or do not. There is no try." At the end of every month, start a new sticky. That's all it takes. (You could also use a spreadsheet, if you are so inclined.)

Daily tracking is such a simple idea, and is really easy to do. Its power comes from the fact that it encourages you to review your day, and hold yourself accountable for your actions. After a short time tracking, you'll soon find yourself thinking ahead to your "sticky note time" when making decisions throughout the day (like whether to drink that soda, or whether to step out for a 30 minute walk). Likewise, as time progresses, you'll use your "sticky note time" to encourage yourself to take actions (like, setting up that lunch date with an old friend). The manual part of tracking is key. If your phone or wearable is automatically keeping track of your steps taken and calories burned, there's no reason for you to do it, and you'll lose the awareness you need to be able to break out of your defaults.

It's not uncommon, at least initially, to criticize yourself when you fail. Don't make that mistake. You are measuring yourself, not judging yourself. Cultivate a dispassionate attitude towards your failures -- you will probably fail more often than you succeed, at least at first.

Tracking provides a way for you to consciously build healthy habits. The key facility that tracking provides is awareness -- you develop the ability to intervene and change your actions in the moment, if they are not aligned with your daily goals. When this awareness itself becomes a habit, you begin to internalize the goals, to automatically think in terms of them, and to unconsciously consider them whenever you face decisions. Then you will truly be living the SWEET Life.

The ideas in this post are explored in more depth in this post on my personal blog: Living the SWEET Life, Daily.