Automatic Health: Lessons From Personal Finance

by | Apr 3, 2009
Healthy Breakfast

Healthy Breakfast

Probably the biggest misconception about health and weight loss is that it takes a tremendous amount of willpower to succeed. Another myth is that it requires a substantial time investment.  In fact, neither excessive willpower nor time are necessary to be healthy and thin. So isn’t it useless to trying to force them on yourself? I think so.

After reading a captivating article by Ramit Sethi on Tim Ferriss’ (The Four Hour Work Week) blog, I learned most people have the same delusions about personal financeas they do about health—-they think paying off debt and saving money require willpower and time. So we should not be surprised that the solutions for personal finance offered by Ramit are the same fundamental strategies necessary for investing in your personal health. Make no mistake about it, your health is an investment. And a pretty important one at that.

Today I am going to show you how the advice and reasoning Ramit uses in his article can apply to health and weight loss, and how automating these steps can help you achieve your goals. In future articles I will describe in detail how to implement each step. Be sure you are subscribed with either RSS or email so you can follow the series.

Choice Paralysis

Ramit starts by pointing out that we have dozens of choices to make every day when it comes to money. The same is true for health. Should I eat breakfast? Should I pack a lunch? Am I going to the gym?

“Faced with an overwhelming number of choices, most people respond in the same way: They do nothing.”

Clearly “nothing” is not a winning strategy. In both finance and health you must set your default activities so that you will automatically contribute to your long-term goals. Automation is the essence of healthstyle.

Establish a Foundation

Ramit says the first step to automating your personal finance system is to make sure you are getting the best deals you can from your financial institutions, meaning that you have the lowest possible interest rates and are not paying annual fees. Not doing this is equivalent to throwing money away.

In health the first step in establishing your foundation is having the tools you need to succeed. Since how you eat is the biggest factor in determining your long-term health and body weight, you must have the ability to eat properly. In our modern lives, this ultimately means you need to know how to cook for yourself. You will never get healthy eating at restaurants every day. This is the same as throwing your health away.

Therefore it is essential that your kitchen is supplied with the tools you need to cook, eat and store your food. This may seem obvious to some of you, but for many people the kitchen is a foreign and scary place. To assist both newbies and veterans in upgrading your kitchenstyles, I have put together a section of the Summer Tomato Shop called Kitchen Gear (go to the Shop then use the navigation in the sidebar on the right).

Kitchen Gear is grouped into categories that are meant to help you find exactly what you need. The Basics has all the essential items for a functional kitchen. Additionally, below each item I give a brief description of why it is on the list.

If you regularly follow my blog, however, you will soon find that I sometimes use items that are not in The Basics. Usually you can find these in Accessories. In general, Accessories are items that are not absolutely necessary for cooking, but they can make your life a whole lot easier if you have them. For example, you can peel vegetables with a knife, but a vegetable peeler makes it quick and easy.

Storage & Transport has products that help you mobilize your healthstyle, which is especially important if you work away from home during the day. There are also reusable grocery and farmers market bags available.

The Finer Things offers the top-of-the-line products that I wish I had (okay, I have a few of them). I have spent an embarrassing amount of time reading reviews of kitchen products and appliances, and these are the products I envision in my future dream kitchen. For those of you who can afford them, this is your list.

I feel confident in the quality of the items I recommend–I own or have used most of them. I also consider price in my recommendations and try to make this clear in my explanations. If, however, you feel you want an item that is different from what is on my list, you can still navigate to and purchase it through the Amazon links on this website to support this blog. My store is run through and almost always represents the best prices on the internet.

Automate the Basics

The next step in Ramit’s personal finance plan is to automate your bank accounts so that regular payments and savings deposits occur as soon as you get your paycheck (also automatic). This takes care of all your goals and gives you the freedom to make personal decisions with the rest of your money without worry, guilt or willpower.

If you are like most people the structure of your day stays pretty much the same all year long (particularly Monday through Friday). We wake up, go to work (or equivalent), come home, eat, spend time on personal things then go to bed. This structure provides us an excellent opportunity to optimize for health.

Breakfast. One of the simplest things you can do to improve your health is eat breakfast, particularly whole grains and fruit. To easily begin improving your metabolism and blood sugar control, find a couple whole grain cereals you like and start eating breakfast every day. If you think you do not like to eat first thing in the morning, you are most likely dehydrated. Wake up, drink water, then eat breakfast.

Lunch. For many people lunch is the most difficult meal to make healthy because they do not prepare for it, get stuck at work with no food and end up going out and eating something unhealthy. But since you know you always eat one meal at work each day, this is something you can easily automate in your favor.

Each weekend you need to plan in advance what you will be eating for lunch all week. Make sure you cover at least 4 days, but five is better. There are several ways to approach this: you can bring ingredients and prepare your own lunch at the office, make a large batch of food on weekends especially for lunch during the week, or make enough food each night at dinner that you have leftovers for the next day. All these strategies are effective because they help you avoid buying your lunch.

Shopping. In order to accomplish the two above points, you need to set aside a little bit of time each weekend to go grocery shopping and plan (or at least consider) your meals. This time must be non-negotiable; ultimately it saves you time later in the week. For my personal healthstyle the weekend always includes a trip to the farmers market, but there are many other options if this is not realistic for you.

Effective shopping has several components. You must always have the basic stocks of items in your pantry, freezer and refrigerator. You need to shop regularly for staples (milk, for example) and fresh items must be purchased weekly. Details on how to shop for all these components will be given in future posts.

Dinner. People expect the most out of dinner. It generally needs to be quick (I’m starving!), simple (I’m busy!) and delicious (I’m picky!). Luckily, the changing seasons offer great opportunity to keep variety in our dinner menus without needing too many different cooking techniques. If you can get at least a few of the basic skills under your belt, you can make an infinite number of healthy, interesting and delicious meals. Basic cooking techniques will also be summarized in future posts.

Work exercise into your daily routine. Physical activity is essential for staying fit and trim, but it doesn’t particularly matter where you get it. The important thing is that you make it happen consistently by incorporating it into your average day. Personally I walk to work, take the stairs, and make it to the gym for cardio and weights whenever I can.

Whatever method you choose as your source of physical activity must be your default, and skipping your exercise must be the exception. If you prefer using a gym, make sure you have a membership, a gym bag and the necessary apparel to workout at all times. Don’t like the gym? Find an activity that you enjoy and recruit friends to join you. Even if you prefer not to engage in formal workouts at all, you can make an effort to increase your non-exercise daily activity. Some scientists think non-exercise energy expenditure may be especially effective for people who are trying to lose weight but dislike structured workouts.

Tweaking Your Style

Ramit’s final recommendation for automating your personal finance is to customize your plan for your personal circumstances.

We are all individuals and have different needs and preferences, especially when it comes to food and exercise. I do not recommend trying to incorporate every ounce of my advice into your life at the same time. Try the things that are easiest for you and see how they work. Once a few new habits are formed, you can try to tackle some harder ones. As you grow and evolve into your own healthstyle, you may find things that never worked for you before are suddenly feasible. Or you may come up with your own hacks to optimize your health and fitness.

This blog is meant to be a source for suggestions and guidelines, not dogma or a regimented plan. Discovering and improving your own strategies for success are essential for building a lasting healthstyle that reflects both who you are and who you want to be.

How will you upgrade your healthstyle?

Read more on How To Get Started Eating Healthy:

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18 Responses to “Automatic Health: Lessons From Personal Finance”

  1. Greg says:

    This is a great Post, very inspiring! Have you ever though about turning this into a book like those 4 hour workweek guys? It is so true about how when faced with so many decisions on a daily basis, most people just do nothing, and then are forced into bad choices. Its like a wave of apathy that has overcome us, not because we are apathetic, but because we have so many more choices and options than we ever have before in life. I guess it just comes down to carving out your own plan, but thats just the thing, you actually have to do it.

  2. MizFit says:

    This is a fantastic post, oh Tomato.
    Well thought out.

    I second the book? ebook?suggestion.

  3. FoodRenegade says:

    What an interesting comparison! And very useful.

    Thanks for participating in today’s Fight Back Fridays carnival.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  4. Mike says:

    I was happily reading along when I came across the part about breakfast. You mentioned that you recommend whole grains and fruit. Why the fruit? Is fruit as essential as whole grains?
    Secondly the breakfast part about drinking water confused me; why do you think that if someone is not hungry in the morning, that they are just dehydrated and need to drink water?

  5. summertomato fanboy says:

    Sounds like a plan! I haven’t really checked out your store that much yet, I’ll have to click over and see what you have….

  6. Karin says:

    I like the idea of non-negotiable time to do shopping, plan meals, etc. I’m curious what your top 5 non-negotiable times are: my guess is that your number 1 is the farmers market…….. #2?

  7. Amyjo says:

    I love how you drew the parallel between financial strategy and health strategy. There are so many successful methods that we apply to other areas of our lives that are entirely applicable to a healthy lifestyle as well. It’s great to see someone drawing inspiring parallels. Keep up the great articles. Love it!!

  8. Simon says:

    Thanks for this post and list of women personal finance bloggers. I wasn’t able to make it to the BlogHer conference this year, but attended the last two and found that the money blogs are trumped by the mommy blogs. There’s something telling in that statistic. Great idea to start the list and forum! I intend to attend BlogHer 09 — we should start now to get as many on this list there next year.

  9. Adam says:

    Great article! I’m a big 4HWW fan and I’m in the middle of Ramit’s book “I Will Teach You To Be Rich”. I’m actually a very anti-“selfhelp” kind of person but I can honestly say that 4HWW resonated with me and helped me start a business that changed my life. Now Ramit’s book is getting my finances organized. I was googling around for a book or something in the exact vein of this article.. Hopefully your article will be the beginning of my work in getting my health back in check as well. Gotta re-read it a few more times for it to sink jm though. Thanks again!

  10. Andrea says:

    Just read through a couple of your blogs andf really like your style as it is suggestive and does never make you feel you must take on any of your advice. It is also very practical which is often more important than it being the latest science based ‘diet’. I am sure people following your blog will be able to pick and chose hints and tricks and work their way to a healthier lifestyle.

    The above article in particular is good as it really reminds us how important chosing, cooking and eating healthy foods as often as possible is and that it is not a Mission Impossible.

  11. Dee says:

    To save time, I buy beans, grains, yogurt etc every 4 weeks. Market produce greens, carrots, string beans, cauliflower, bok choy, spinach every time I rotate my selections every 2-3 weeks. What I do with the vegs is whilst they’re still fresh (by the end of week 1) they are either cooked and eaten, or washed chopped and frozen to be cooked whenever. I always have frozen bok choy, or pumpkin or spinach . also I always have frozen cooked beans mostly stewed and soups just to heat and eat. I sometimes store plain cooked beans for bean salad. There is always a way out for the next meal for me, always have foods and different stages of prep. Meat , I try to clean , pre-season / marinade then freeze rather than just sticking in the freezer straight from grocery store. I buy bread every 2-3 days fresh from bakery.

    • thank you for your support of farmer’s markets, darya! i love healthy food, which is why i decided to become a farmer, but there are two things that we find get in the way of people buying our products: convenience and perceived price. unfortunately, because of huge government subsidies, grocery store food (especially meat) is unrealistically cheap. i so appreciate your advocacy of local farms and would love to see an article on the perceived costs of eating local, fresh and organic. is it really more expensive? if so, do the benefits outweigh the expenses? thank you again! you’re doing a great thing.

      • Darya Pino says:

        Thx for the idea. I’ve been kicking around a post like that for some time but haven’t gotten around to it. Will look into it again soon.

  12. Tamm says:

    Found this from another post on your blog- totally agree with “set your default activities so that you will automatically contribute to your long-term goals.” This aligns with research into willpower. Thanks for a good post!

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