Foundations—Building Your Life from the Ground Up
As we move through our lives, most of us are working to make our lives better: happier, healthier, and more meaningful. We may work on these elements consistently, or we may follow fads and have multiple false starts along the way. In the midst of our busy lives, it can be quite challenging to pay attention to what is needed to achieve our most basic goals in life. But without accomplishing these goals, we are considerably less likely to achieve our more lofty ones. How many of us pay attention to the foundation needed to work on those basic goals—the elemental pieces of a happier, healthier, more meaningful life? It’s not complicated—eat right and exercise, get plenty of sleep, keep your stress level down—but it is onerous. It takes discipline, proactivity, an open mind, and consistency. We have to be intentional about our foundations or they will not happen. Although everyone’s foundation may be slightly different, we all have basic requirements that include sleep, nutrition, exercise, and mental/emotional health. Many would also add spirituality to this list. But whatever our foundation consists of, it’s important to be specific and intentional and follow through on our goals for each of these elements.
The basic elements of a solid foundation
There are certain elements that are necessary to our lives, and the better we are with these elements, the more vibrant, healthy, and sharp we’ll be. While most of us acknowledge this fact, many don’t realize just how important these elements are in living our lives to the fullest. While this may not be a comprehensive list, the following elements are a good starting point from which we can develop a more complete list that is geared toward our individual lives.
- Sleep. What if there was a pill that would make you mentally sharp and more energetic, and as a bonus, contribute to your overall health? Everyone would take it, right? Well, sleep is that pill! More sleep has no downside and multiple benefits. It’s strange because it seems that few people get enough sleep. They’re too busy, they watch TV late, they eat or drink too much before bedtime, and they lose out on all these benefits. Sleep is also incredibly enjoyable—when’s the last time you had a long afternoon nap?—and doesn’t take much willpower. Revisit your relationship with sleep, and make it a bigger part of your life. You won’t regret it!
- Food (and drink). Food and drinks are in that weird category of being a foundational element for health, focus, and energy, but also being recreational, social, and pleasurable. Very few people eat and drink solely for the purpose of meeting the energy and nutrition needs of their bodies and brains, so almost no one is eating and drinking ideally. That being said, it is possible to have fun with food and still get all the benefits of their nutritional value. The answer is balance and moderation. Although it seems completely obvious, it can be incredibly hard to do. The challenge, particularly for those of us with compulsion issues, or addictive personalities, is to achieve that balance and moderation. We know what’s healthy and beneficial, and we know eating fun food is OK in moderation, but assimilating that practical perspective into our mindset is the key.
- Exercise. Exercise is another element like sleep. It’s good for us and is (or should be) fun. Yet, so many of us view exercise as a duty to slog through for the sake of our health, even when there are so many options that are extremely fun. Whatever we do for exercise, it’s vital to keep the fun in it. Running, for example—so many of us get into the mindset of “getting in the miles” or “keeping up the pace,” when it can be a way to explore, reflect, and chase. Think back to your childhood, when many of us would get home from school, change into shorts and a t-shirt, and literally run out the door. We didn’t think of our distance or how many calories we were burning. We chased each other, we explored the woods, we played games. If you can keep that mindset in whatever you do for exercise, it will just happen naturally.
- Mental and emotional health. This is a foundational element that has historically been seen as only something to be addressed when there’s a problem. When mental or emotional challenges or issues did come up, they were treated as an embarrassment or something to be ashamed of. The truth is that every single one of us should pay attention to our mental and emotional health—not only when we have problems, but all the time. We should treat our mental/emotional health the same way we treat our medical/physical health—with regular check-ins and activities that contribute toward its maintenance and improvement. Many see a therapist, not because they have any specific problem, but in the same way we see a doctor for a wellness visit. We can take advantage of mental health professionals to explore our psyche, motivations, and emotional context; it can only help us live a richer and more meaningful life.
- Spiritual enrichment. Unlike the other foundational elements, spirituality is something we don’t need to stay alive, but for many, it makes a vital contribution toward a meaningful life. For many, spirituality means religion, but there are a variety of other ways to explore the spiritual side of ourselves. To me, spirituality is all about connectedness, and it manifests through meditation (connection to the moment and to the universe) and through connections with family and friends. Any genuine and loving relationship is a highly spiritual connection, and we can treat it as a spiritual practice—one that can significantly contribute toward a meaningful life.
Foundations in a busy life
Most people have a busy life in some way. For many, this means not paying attention to the elements of our foundation. One that is consistently ignored is sleep. We’re on the go from before dawn till sometimes late at night; we might have six or seven hours of time in bed, and that doesn’t always translate to six or seven hours of solid sleep. Food can get left by the wayside too. Meals grabbed on the go are not always those that are ideal for our bodies and minds. Other elements get similarly ignored or minimized. What can we do about this? You might say, I don’t have any choice—my life is busy and I like it that way. While it may be true that you can’t, or don’t want to, decrease or eliminate any of the commitments we have (although this also deserves some attention), we can treat our foundational elements as we would any other priority in our lives, and that means being specific and intentional about the way we approach them. That means working through them as we would any other responsibilities in our lives.
- Time commitment. Ideally, how much time do we need for these elements? If it takes, for example, five hours a week to reach our fitness goals, we should start there. If our sleep goal is seven hours a night, and we know we only sleep about 90% of the time that we’re in bed, our goal should be eight hours a day in bed. We should do this for each of our foundational elements, then itemize the overall time commitment of these elements.
- Schedule. If we’re busy people leading hectic lives, it’s very likely that we’re already intentional about much of our schedule, and we can do the same for these elements. If major portions of your day are given over to work or family responsibilities, schedule your foundational elements in the early morning, right after work, or after dinner, or try to engage in your foundational elements as part of your other responsibilities (e.g., coaching). If you have the possibility of small breaks in your day, try to fit them in when you can—don’t just think about your life in big unmovable chunks. Use whatever flexibility you have to incorporate these elements into your life.
- Timing our foundational elements to our energy flow. When we are thinking about reserving more time for our foundational elements, it involves more than just finding time for them—we have to engage in these activities according to our energy flow and concentration. We have to know when we’re most likely to be successful and plan to engage in these activities at those times. If we’re energetic first thing in the morning, we should try to get our exercise in before work. If we start feeling tired at 9:00, we should try to go to bed then. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, but that should be our starting point for planning, if possible.
- Priorities and being realistic. Like anything else we try to achieve in life, foundational elements will only happen if we make them a priority. They can’t always be the first to go if something comes up. It may feel like we’re being selfish if we make time for these elements instead of more time with our family. But attention to these elements will help us bring the best version of ourselves to everything else we do.
Your foundation is a priority
When we decide what is or isn’t a priority in our lives, and if, after a realistic assessment, we conclude that foundational elements are somehow not a priority, it’s important to reflect on the consequences of this perspective. We need to remember that these blocks of our lives are those on which all the other blocks are built. We can and should be realistic about what is feasible and create realistic goals, but if we get no sleep, eat crap, are a couch potato, and expect that we’re somehow going to be mentally sharp, energetic, and vibrant people, we’re fooling ourselves. Yes, we have to be realistic about what we have time for, but we also have to be realistic about what it takes to be the people we want to be.
It’s up to you to decide what kind of life you build, but if you have a solid foundation, you’ll be better able to build your best life.
As I move through this life
and it’s many facets,
sometimes I am feeling that I am careening
out of control, and off the shelf.
There appears no connection
to the anchor that holds me
and helps me to connect and to resurrect
who I am—my essential self.
But the fall doesn’t happen
and I seem to have made it.
A sense of control that helps me to hold
And keep it together—at peace.
The foundations I’ve made
to build upon
allow me to chance and explore circumstance.
Wonder to find, and worry to cease.
Sometimes I come back
and build on that anchor.
I shore up my rock, and I take stock
of me—who I am at my core.
I engage anew
with a fresh confidence
that’s based on my insight—a light that burns bright
that keeps me safe and wanting more.