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How to Feel 20 Percent Better

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On a whim I decided to commit to three small changes for the remainder of Lent, not because I’m religious, but because I like the idea of temporarily renouncing things.

I kept the changes small because small is easy, and might still be worthwhile. First I renounced the scrolling of Twitter and Reddit, because I kind of got into that again over the winter. I just took five minutes to block them on my phone, and I don’t miss them. I also started drinking more water again. I’m not sure when I got away from actively drinking water, but now that I’m doing it again I feel more energetic. Lastly, I stopped pushing my bedtime past my old bedtime by 15 or 20 minutes. I forgot that I used to be more strict about that. Again, I’m not sure when that happened, but I was able to correct it in a day.

That’s it. There’s no attempt here to “reach my potential” or “turn the corner” or become a “new me,” I just decided to change these little things and keep them going at least until Easter.

My expectation was that such small changes would yield proportionately small benefits, maybe worthwhile enough to keep doing afterward. But I feel like I’m getting way more out of them than the small effort I’m putting in.

How I’ve felt since reminds me of how I felt when I was a bit younger. I’m sharper, more patient, more inclined to do things. The body moves more easily, the mind finds words more easily, intentions form more easily. It’s not quite an amazing change, but it really is significant.

Together my new habits take maybe 2% more effort — I have to fill up my water bottle a few more times, I have to turn off the TV and start flossing fifteen minutes earlier, and I have to choose something else to do when muscle memory has me pulling out my phone. Life has gotten much more than 2% better though. It’s more like 20%, at least. I have more time, and noticeably more energy. This is a really good deal.

Low-Hanging Fruit Isn’t Rare

It’s natural to assume that low-hanging fruit, anywhere it has real value, has already been picked through. By middle age or so, it might seem reasonable there wouldn’t still be any easy changes up for grabs that would make a large and immediate difference to your life. If there were, you would have grabbed them already. The worthwhile stuff you have left to do is all difficult, on the order of giving up junk food, becoming an early riser, or exercising daily.

I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that. We don’t track our lives like an accountant tracks a business’s every sale and expenditure. With personal habits, there’s no “efficient market effect” always scanning for easy wins and driving us over time towards optimal settings. Humans are complex, conflicted creatures, driven by ancient and irrational feelings of comfort and aversion. We’re always pursuing many different kinds of value and avoiding many different kinds of costs. We’re not exactly microchip-efficient in our use of time and inner resources.

Possibly everywhere

Now, it could be that I’m a very unusual case, and I was making several glaring blunders few grownups would fall for: wanton underhydration, masochistic social media habits, and a childish disregard for bedtime. Only someone as silly and distracted as I am would leave such juicy lobes of low-hanging fruit unpicked for so long.

But I doubt that. I think we’re all like this. Because there are so many factors affecting our well-being, and because we’re so irrational and habit-driven, a given person is probably only an arm’s reach from many immediate and significant improvements. What would happen if you simply dropped your usual after-lunch coffee? Would you struggle to get anything done, or would you sleep well for the first time in years? What would happen if you took five minutes to stretch every morning? What if you tried reading a novel before bed instead of Reddit?

You don’t know, but you could find out for very little cost, and perhaps gain something significant.

Outstanding deal

My hypothesis is that most people are just a few such small changes away from a ~20 percent leap in day-to-day ease and quality of life. Such leaps might come in the realm productivity, sleep quality, connection with others, available time, or some other element of well-being, just by trying out, in earnest, a few low-cost changes.

It’s not much of a gamble—to test whether life would get immediately better after quitting some small thing you know is bad for you, or committing to some small thing you know is good for you. Give it even a week of really doing it, and see.

A Thousand Buttons to Push

Of course, what makes the difference depends on the person. Our individual habits and oversights vary immensely, so a given intervention might do nothing, or it might change everything. Also, something that requires little effort to one person might require a major effort for someone else. Some possibilities:

  • Drinking water throughout the day
  • Abstaining from reading online comments
  • Trying to make your interactions with clerks and cashiers less rote
  • No longer eating those Werther’s Originals from that bowl in the staff room
  • Taking a daily vitamin D supplement
  • Doing a two-minute body scan once a day
  • Stretching while the kettle’s heating
  • Clearing your desktop at the end of the day
  • Reading a bit of a holy book or inspirational text every day
  • Doing ten pushups each morning
  • Giving visibly dirty household things a quick wipe when you notice them
  • Cutting out one daily instance of a caffeinated or sugary beverage
  • Going to bed fifteen minutes earlier
  • Refraining from taking your phone out at the bus stop
  • Restricting wine to weekend meals
  • Applying a good moisturizer after washing your face
  • Waiting till 10am to check email
  • Cleaning as you go when you cook, instead of afterward
  • Deleting an app you spend too much time on
  • Abstaining from swearing
  • Eating a raw vegetable once a day
  • Making a game of being a better listener than usual
  • Shining the sink at before going to bed
  • Putting away, every day, the random objects that end up on the kitchen table

Small stuff, but you don’t know the difference until you try it. Imagining what will “probably” happen isn’t a good way of testing it. Some things might not prove to be worthwhile, but many will, and the odd one will significantly improve day-to-day life in ways you’d never guess.

May be giving you a raw deal

There are two main sources of ideas for this. One is noticing what other people make a point of doing, or not doing. There might be a good reason your friend’s stovetop is always wiped clean, or why some people make a big deal about getting outside early in the day.

The other source is returning to things you used to do, perhaps when you were a lot younger. Maybe some part of your perception of “being older” isn’t tied to the advance of time but simply that you no longer go for walks, or do the crossword, or carry a water bottle around with you. You can get these things back in a day.


Photos by Philippe Gauthier, Fumiaki Hayashi, Brendan Church, and Patrick Fore

Nigel February 28, 2024 at 2:47 pm

Based on this I just deleted Reddit, I was kind of shocked to look and see I had been spending nearly an hour a day on there sometimes

David Cain February 29, 2024 at 9:00 am

It’s amazing how great the loss can be without us noticing it. Imagine someone telling you a quick and easy way to add an hour of free time to each day — it would sound like snake oil, because it’s too good to be true. But it’s true.

Max February 29, 2024 at 2:52 pm

You might be amazed how much better you feel in a month! I bet it’ll seem really junky if you can keep away from it for that long. Kudos on making a great decision

Calen February 29, 2024 at 3:10 am


In graduate school I devoted a single hour of time one day to unfollowing all of my friends on Facebook. FB leveraged their updates to constantly send me notices and every time I logged in to see an update from one of them I’d lose at least twenty minutes to scrolling. I always felt depleted (and cheated) afterwards. And I tried to mute FB but it would always find a way to start sending me messages again.

One hour spent unfollowing everybody (and I mean everybody) and the notifications stopped completely. I regained about two hours of my time per day and regained enormous amounts of energy and focus. In terms of ROI it was one of the best hours I ever spent.

Every few years I do something like that which frees up enormous energy. The most recent was quitting caffeine. One day of withdrawals eliminated my weekly recurring headaches and saved me something like $300 per month.

Anyhow, thank you for this as always. I think people underestimate the power a single change has, like you mentioned. I’m glad you took the time to talk about it here.


David Cain February 29, 2024 at 9:11 am

We’re gettin truly insane ROIs over here. The wall street dudes should check out this opportunity.

David Cain February 29, 2024 at 9:13 am

Caffeine is such a huge one, and returns benefits on so many levels, not the least of which is sleep, which affects literally everything else in life. I can’t tell you how many people simultaneously report sleep problems, insist caffeine doesn’t affect their sleep, and refuse to cut it out.

Ecoteri February 29, 2024 at 1:59 pm

@Calen – I misread your first sentence to be “In Gratitude school….”. It made a lot of sense, you know? That you did this at graduate school is a much higher level of self control!

Kevin March 2, 2024 at 4:29 pm

This is a great move for anyone not yet ready (or unable) to go nuclear with their account. I did the same thing and it changed everything for the better.

Valerio February 29, 2024 at 4:11 am

It’s shocking how often and easily we forget what is good for us. I wonder how much of it can be attributed to “modern society” (whatever that means).
Alain de Botton makes the good point that religions repeat the same concepts over and over so that they get drilled into our skulls (well metaphorically obv), and that is something we could learn from.

Valerio February 29, 2024 at 8:18 am

Oh wait, I just realized I’ve read about de Botton for the first time on your blog. Oh well, that makes sense I guess.

David Cain February 29, 2024 at 9:14 am

I think de Botton is right on the money. His insight has really changed my thinking about religion and improved my life in big ways.

David Cain February 29, 2024 at 9:27 am

The book is “Religion for Atheists” for anyone interested.

Salisbury February 29, 2024 at 6:22 am

I completely agree that small changes have a disproportionate effect. To your list of possibilites, i would add not just “self-improvement” things, but to do something each day, even for a short time, that gives you absolutely genuine pleasure. This is something you’ll find you did when you were younger. So many of us just switch between trying hard to self improve or get our to-do list done, and avoiding-type behaviours, without any space for things we just love to do for no “worthy” reason.

David Cain February 29, 2024 at 9:23 am

Agreed, and good point. I think of well-being as being much broader than self-improvement. This works in so many areas. Play/enjoyment is a big one.

Rocky February 29, 2024 at 6:24 am

Much of my quest of self improvement is wrapped around an ongoing struggle to get better sleep. Cutting back on screen time, hydrating, and “playing” with my sleep habits has improved my
sleep quality significantly.
My healthcare plan is pretty simple…
Tune into what makes it feel better and what makes it feel worse. Then act accordingly.
I’m going to duct tape your greater suggestion list to the end of my nose. Hopefully that will keep me on the straight and narrow.
This is a really beautiful post David!

David Cain February 29, 2024 at 9:25 am

Sleep is so huge because it affects literally everything else. I still have sleep problems but I have improved it a lot. Hydration seems to be helping. It’s not something I had considered.

Barbara February 29, 2024 at 7:09 am

Great post. Much food for thought here. Thank you.

Chris February 29, 2024 at 8:27 am

This post is a beautiful offering. It helped me a lot. I have tended to think in grandiose or at least grand terms, and this post reminds me that life happens in the details.
Thanks, David.

David February 29, 2024 at 12:09 pm

Another great article filled with insight, David.
You remain a long standing favourite blogger.

And I can definitely attest to the effectiveness of small changes overtime. They are rather amazing to review in hindsight.
It’s almost like magic and has me saying “I can’t believe how much better I feel for doing/not doing X”
Humans, we really do get in our own way so very often.
Thanks again for sharing your thoughand experiences

LC March 2, 2024 at 7:05 am

Adding another ‘i just deleted Reddit from my phone’ comment. I’ve been spending way too much time on it reading ‘inspirational’ posts and wondering why I never reach my goals.

Daniel McDougall February 29, 2024 at 3:35 pm

Hi David,

Thank you for this post today, I have been fighting with distractions making it back into my life and this helped me have a good day without news, youtube or facebook. Tomorrow I will start again and see if I can keep this habit going.

Regarding Lent, I decided to perform 50 burpees and 50 pull-ups each day except Sunday. I find the exercise easier when I know it is a commitment. “You said you would so you might as well get it done. After all, it only takes 15 minutes.”

Thank you for meeting for coffee / tea back in 2019 when I was on a road trip with my wife and kids. They had a good time at the library and I enjoyed our conversation.

Finally, I remember you writing about a friend who wanted to watch a live Haka from the All Blacks and ended up watching the whole thing on his camera screen. That has stuck with me and is a reminder to pay attention to the present.


David Cain February 29, 2024 at 4:30 pm

Hey Dan. There is something about framing it as a commitment that motivates in a way “intention” or “goal” doesn’t. It’s like you’ve decided that this is your fate, rather than your hope. Or something like that.

50 pullups is a lot! You’re going to be jacked by the end of it.

Gunnar March 1, 2024 at 5:05 pm

Thank you for this simple yet important reminder. I’m making March a month of small, positive changes.

Pipsterate March 3, 2024 at 4:58 am

An interesting thought I just had. So, for the last few weeks, I’ve been making an effort to get up earlier and go for a walk before sunrise, which has had a similar 20% boost to my life. Well, maybe more like 5% or 10%, but you get the point.

This post reminded me that sunrise isn’t too far off and I haven’t done a walk yet.

However, I just heard the weather out the window, and it sounds like there’s cold wind and maybe some more rain, so it’s possible today isn’t ideal for a walk, meaning I have a reasonable excuse to stay inside with my coffee. Which I admit is a prospect I feel some pleasure at.

Finally, the interesting part: The pleasure I’d get from staying inside with my coffee is something that wouldn’t even be available to me if I were still in the habit of waking up late and not exercising, because if relaxing indoors is my default state of being, something I don’t need any special reason to do, then that means it isn’t something I can take any special enjoyment in.

I think this is a pretty good reminder of why we fall into bad habits in the first place. The first time we do something bad we have a good reason for it, and it feels good largely because it’s an unexpected but justified reward for our otherwise responsible behavior. Then if we’re not careful, the reward becomes the habit. It becomes expected but unjustified, meaning the pleasure is enormously reduced. We want the feeling of being on break all the time, but you can’t take a break when you’re already on break, just like unemployed people can’t ever take a single day off work.

This is a pretty basic insight and perhaps not exactly “interesting,” but I think it’s the type of thing that bears repeating. Meanwhile, it sounds like the weather has cleared up a little, so I think I can take my walk after all.

Linda Myers March 3, 2024 at 2:25 pm

When I finished reading this post, instead of checking FB one more time, I put on my shoes and went for a 20-minute walk. Just the beginning, I hope!

Trish March 7, 2024 at 7:59 am

Great list of ideas—keeping it simple.
I must admit I was not expecting “Werthers”. Made me laugh and it hit home. Looking forward to better sleep. Thanks!

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