Crossroads Conversations: Three Rules for Life


The word conjures syringes, lab coats, and mad scientists doing sinister experiments on private islands beyond the reach of international law.

Not that those things aren’t awesome, but this week on the Crossroads podcast, Alaric talked about a simpler yet very powerful way to hack into your biology. You can alter your body chemistry with diet, sleep, and exercise.

That sounds like a cop-out. Aren’t we just wrapping canned health advice in a fancy label? We aren’t just being cute, though. Changing the way your body works by adopting certain habits is very much the same as hacking your body manually, and is usually more effective. For example, you can inject a compound into your body to produce a desired effect, such as heightened energy and wakefulness. The compound will decay and your body will go back to normal, or often suffer a withdrawal, causing you to suffer opposite effects before returning to normal.

On the other hand, you can train your body to create that compound naturally. To be fair, our bodies can’t create every compound, but you would be surprised at how many it can. For example, our bodies create cannabinoids when we eat certain foods, generating a buzz similar to when you smoke marijuana.

I’m not trying to dissuade you from looking into more advanced forms of biohacking. I for one am fascinated by the subject. The point is that there are very simple things you can do to achieve huge results, so it would be silly to jump to complicated methods for achieving very little before taking advantage of the low-hanging fruit.

With that, I present my three rules for life. I’m obsessed with self-improvement, but of everything I have learned, there are three decisions I believe will improve your life more than anything else. They are simple things anyone can do, but don’t mistake simple for easy.

Wake Up At 4:30 A.M. Each Morning

The actual time isn’t set in stone, but the majority of people will benefit by going to bed earlier and getting up earlier each day. The more time you move your sleep schedule back by, the greater the benefit. I settled on 4:30 as my goal time when I found out my two personal heroes, Amelia Boone and Jocko Willink, both set their alarms for that exact time. Maybe it’s arbitrary, but if two of the most productive people in the world do it, I’m not going to argue with it.

People talk about being morning people or night owls, and there’s probably something to that in terms of nurture. If you have already created a habit of doing productive stuff at night, that will overwrite your biology. That is, you definitely can be productive at night, but you’ve created a situation where your psychology and your body are working against each other.

Your physiological state changes throughout the day, so that no matter what habits you’ve set, your mind is primed to be most alert and analytical in the morning. The earlier you wake up, the more of the morning you are conscious for, so you spend more of your waking hours in a heightened mental state. At night, your physiology is trying to put you to sleep, even if you aren’t consciously aware of it–if you’ve already set the habit of working at night, you probably aren’t. You don’t feel sleepy, but that’s only because your brain is fighting to stay awake while your body fights to shut it down. This makes nighttime hours inherently inefficient, so you might as well sleep through them and get the benefit of a good night’s rest.

On that note, people need anywhere from six and a half to eight hours of sleep each night, depending on their physiology. If you are trying to get up at 4:30, like world-class performers do, you should be in bed by 10:00 by the latest, and the majority of people should be going to bed closer to 9:00.

Don’t Eat Carbs

I’ve been talking about the keto diet a lot lately, so I won’t rehash this one too much. The point is it’s more than just a diet choice. A lot of people use it to lose weight, and it can be effective for that, but the benefits of having a clear mind and consistent energy levels throughout the day are at least a powerful.

The keto diet is all-or-nothing, and is really more a lifestyle change than a diet. When you’re under your carb threshold, your body enters ketosis and you reap the benefits. If you eat more than 20 grams of carbs a day, more or less, you get none of the benefits. Eating 10 grams of carbs instead of 30 makes all the difference, but eating 30 grams instead of 200 makes no difference at all, at least in the context of entering ketosis.

That’s why I consider keto a form of biohacking, much like waking up earlier. When you maintain a no carb lifestyle, your body chemistry changes in a powerful way and functions at a different level all the time. With a more traditional diet, your body is still operating on the normal principle of storing fat and being lethargic, it’s just storing more or less fat depending on how much you eat.

Sleep is the same way. Waking up at 4:30 once in a while won’t change much. When you go to bed and wake up at consistent, early times each day, your circadian rhythms line up, and your brain starts to secrete chemicals that put you in an ideal productive state.

Exercise Every Day

I mentioned on the podcast once that I used to think I lived a sedentary lifestyle, because I didn’t realize most people consider walking an hour and a half carrying a heavy backpack each day to be exercise. Top performing athletes do preach the importance of rest days, but I think this gets misinterpreted. Having a rest day, for them, means making sure they don’t run five miles at least one or two days out of the week. It doesn’t mean you need to be a coach potato in order to recover.

Even if it’s just walking around the block, everyone should do some kind of movement every single day. If your at the point where walking around the block is heavy exercise for you, you might have to work up to this, but it should be the goal. More important than what you actually do, in my opinion, is the mental shift: exercise isn’t something you put on the to-do list and get out of the way. It’s a constant part of being alive. It’s a part that conflicts with the modern sedentary lifestyle, but a little can go a long way.

A lot of people subscribe to the mind-body-spirit concept. I certainly do. Even people who believe the mind, body, and spirit are all important, however, don’t seem to realize the parallels. The conventional wisdom is that your body is a resource that must be used sparingly. You can exercise a few times a week, but then you have to back off. To me, that’s the same as saying that because you solved a logic puzzle and meditated yesterday, you better refrain from thinking or feeling anything today. Sure, if you had a full day of difficult decision making and strenuous problem solving, the healthy thing to do would be to not exert your mind too much the next day. But do you need to refrain from talking to anybody for a day because the act of thinking up words might wreck your brain’s recovery?

If one of my rules had been to make sure you think or feel every day, you would have laughed. Why isn’t exercise every day equally obvious?

Crossroads Conversations: Ketosis

This week on Crossroads, Alaric talked at length about the infamous keto diet. Check out the upcoming podcast episode 5.5 for a scientific take on why the diet works, which he understands and explains far better than I could hope to. Today I’m going to talk about my own experience with the diet.

Trial by Fire

I’ve always been wary of fad diets, and when Alaric introduced me to the concept of ketosis, I was extremely skeptical. I think I only ended giving it a try because he presented it as a kind of experiment, in which I’d play the lab rat. Maybe it’s weird that that would be a positive spin for me. It probably comes down to me playing and reading the Witcher franchise way too much. I have a strange affinity for running experiments on myself.

Once I started the diet, and got through the initial keto flu, I was hooked. I’m not someone who needs or wants to lose any weight. I like to be active, but I’m not trying to break any Olympic records. There doesn’t seem to be much incentive for me to stick to such an extreme diet.

The feeling is my reward.

That’s why I’ve long given up trying to sell anyone on the diet. If you’re skeptical like I once was, fear not, this post isn’t going to end with any call to action or attempt to convert you. People like Alaric with a strong grasp of science can understand why the diet is beneficial, but to a layperson, I think it’s nearly impossible to explain why it’s worth it.

It’s the feeling of being alive. I would say more alive than normal, but I don’t think that’s right. I think being in ketosis is the feeling of being alive, and the feeling you get on a typical Western diet is the feeling of being rather less alive than is normal. There are little practical benefits, like clearer thinking and higher energy levels, but it all adds up to a simple feeling of vitality.

Once and Future Diet

I first got on the diet in 2016, and maintained a very strict no carb diet for about four months. After that I moved to Mexico, and things got a little more complicated. Though I’ve got on and off it in intervals since then, I’ve never repeated that golden four months of ketosis.

Inspired by Alaric’s segment on the recent podcast, I’ve decided to make another go at it. I won’t be as strict, at least not at first, for the same reasons I’ve been off of it most of the time I’ve lived in Mexico: I want to immerse myself in the culture of Mexico, which means eating non-keto foods from time to time.

My goal for now is to establish a baseline of eating zero-carb at home. Most days, I can cook my own breakfast and dinner at home while eating lunch out somewhere with Venezia. I’ll still opt for keto options if available, but I’m not going to make things difficult by being too draconian about what we can and can’t eat.

Normally people advise against a partial keto diet, at least at first. You’ll be putting in a lot of effort for vastly reduced rewards. I’m aware of that, but it’s what works best for me right now. I have an advantage in my abnormally quick metabolism, and I can compound that advantage by increasing the frequency and intensity of my workouts. Even if I have some carbs with lunch, an intense workout should go a long ways toward burning through the glucose and getting me back into a state of ketosis before too long.

The Crucible Method

My introduction to the keto diet occurred at an interesting time for me, and played a part in shaping who I am today in ways far greater than a dietary change typically would.

The summer I first tried the diet, I also took a spontaneous, solitary road trip up the West Coast of Canada. I’ll cover the trip in great detail sometime on Low Fantasy Adventure, but it was transformative in a number of ways. While journalling at a lonely campsite somewhere in the old growth forests of British Columbia one morning, I stumbled upon an idea that I’ve been refining to this day.

The Crucible Method is what I call my own personal method of self-improvement. I don’t know if I’ll ever write too much about it–there’s plenty of self-help books already, and as much as I love learning how to improve, I’m not much good at teaching it–but it’s served me well.

Originally, I was thinking about writing a book about the keto diet with Alaric. That never went far, but I’d been trying to figure out how to coach people through the fairly trying process of becoming keto adapted. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the process of getting on keto could actually be adapted as a universal process for dealing with just about anything in life.

My major revelation was that the keto flu is a feature, not a bug. It serves as an initiation rite of sorts, marking your transformation in a very real, physiological way. Though the keto flu is easier to notice than other transition pains, you face a very similar rite of passage when becoming “productivity adapted”, i.e. replacing bad habits with good ones, or becoming “morality adapted”, or learning to think of other people before yourself.

Instead of starting small and easy, you can jump into the crucible, burning away the dross in one short, however painful, ordeal. The beauty of the keto diet is that the beginning is brutally hard and then the rest of your life is easy. I’ll probably dive into this method in more depth later, but the basic formula is this:

Set the bar high at the beginning. Set it at the limit of what you think you can do, then move it a few rungs higher. Throw yourself into the challenge, suffer well, give it everything you have, and fail spectacularly. Then lower the bar a little, and accomplish what was once difficult with ease.