Engineering a Better Life: A Reader Case Study

Bruce LeeThis is a guest post from Mark’s Daily Apple reader Jack Oughton. This article and last week’s article from Primal enthusiast Jack Yee go to show that there are many different approaches to living a healthy Primal lifestyle. Maybe some of the strategies that have worked for others in the community will work for you as well. Enter Jack…

“It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.” ~ Bruce Lee

Unlike many of the contributors to Mark’s Daily Apple, I’m not a health and fitness professional. I haven’t got the time. I’m a freelancer, trying to design a happy existence around an incredibly demanding yet fulfilling job, and some semblance of a social life. And do this all as simply as possible.

And that’s why I reached out to Mark. I thought it might be helpful to share what I’ve learned in the last 7 or so years of doing this Primal stuff from the perspective of a “non fitness guy”.

I’d imagine not all of my approaches will be applicable to you, but some might. Take as many or as few as you like. 🙂

Effectiveness, Not Efficiency

So, my main aims are doing things as simply and cheaply as possible. Though wellness is a priority, I think there’s only a finite amount of mental and physical energy we can expend on it before we see diminishing returns, or it detracts from other areas in life.

Thus, I want to spend as little energy as possible on wellness, and get the maximum “bang for my buck”.

And this is where Primal rocks…

Engineering a Better Life

I take a minimalist approach. Inherently the ideas are simple – adding more seems counter to the philosophy of returning to our ancestral roots, right?

So, the first idea is to do away with is willpower (a finite resource that none of us will ever have enough of) and think instead about engineering circumstances to fit your goals. E.g creating an environment that encourages you to express your natural self and do the stuff you need to.

I’ve found it is easier to create an environment which “forces” you to do the right things rather than rely upon willpower. Because when you fight against yourself, eventually you lose. It also takes about 66 days to form a new habit/replace an old one, so perhaps thinking longterm with personal change is the best way to do it.

(Also at the bottom I’ve included books links around this idea of “environmental engineering” for those interested…)

For about two years I have worked from home and have tried to create a living space, workspace and “movementspace” all in one. After much tweaking, I think I’ve finally arrived at something worth sharing…

I wanted an environment that supported the following (not very inventive) goals:

  • Be Happy (by controlling my time and being able to play to my mercurial life approach)
  • Be Healthy (by eating well, moving regularly and getting incrementally stronger over the years)
  • Be Fit & Strong (as above)
  • Be Productive & Creative (with nutrition that nourishes my brain and an environment that nourishes my creativity)
  • And As Cheaply As Possible (spend as little time, thought and energy on this as possible)

But no, I’m not an “orderly person”.

One of my core values is chasing some kind of idealised freedom. Which means do what I want, when I want, within reasonable boundaries. Like Mark, if I want to skip a workout, I will. if I want to spontaneously workout, I will.

I’m also impulsive. I’ve never really adhered to a diet or workout plan. A while back, during an experiment with ketogenic dieting I tried to count calories and quickly lost interest.

Count Calories?

So I’ve found imposing rigid structure doesn’t work, but loose structure does…

In building any system I find that we usually first go through a gathering/construction process by which we acquire a bunch of stuff for later. Later we get to deconstruction and sifting and hacking away the system to its essentials.

I’d use the analogy of the sculptor who first spends his time acquiring the perfect rock and then chiseling it down. Or the bodybuilder who packs on the mass before cutting down to achieve the…”vascular” look (lol).

And after many years at this, I feel I’ve tested and discarded many approaches and things.

Here’s the essentials, the stuff that “made the cut” for my system…

Point #1 – Optimal Health, Not Optimal Adherence


I’m not one who believes that paleo or Primal is the “only way” – AFAIK our goal is optimum health, not adhering to a dietary philosophy, right?

And so, we must perhaps try not to confuse the dietary philosophy, which is a means, as our ends. Primal is our means, and our ends are being healthy and happy, yes?


Like many of us, I haven’t bought in to the “Paleo orthodoxy”. I occasionally eat legumes, regularly use whey protein and will eat large amounts of junk carbs (but no gluten!) on backload/cheat days.

And, asides from the fact that well-timed carb ups seem to support performance and body composition, you only live once right? (or insert your chosen platitude/excuse here…)

Because IMHO no single template, no matter how well designed, fits everybody precisely

Point #2 – Move More to Do More

From someone who was mostly sedentary before embracing this way of life, I’m happy to say I’ve gotten completely out of the habit.

I find my energy to wane if I sit in any spot for too long, which causes my productivity to suffer. Since I’m not paid by the hours I work, but by the project I complete, this is no good.

Like most of us, I want to spend as much time as possible at high energy but be able to switch off into a state of relaxation when I need to. Put another way, I wanna have a clear distinction between work and play. This is important as a freelancer (and an area I have seriously screwed up in the past).


I do this by having what I see as multiple workstations, depending on the season (e.g the garden and a nearby coffee shop count as “workstations”). This usually stops me getting “stale” in any one environment and also I get to be social when “out working” – another important thing for the solitary freelancer.

I also avoid this “staleness” by cycling between projects (something I’m lucky enough to be able to do) and using “fasting days” in which I find my work focus is sharpened by a combination of the fasted state and hilarious quantities of black coffee.

The result? These days I find myself spending less time in front of the screen but getting more stuff done when I’m there. Complete freedom from the the desk has been achieved.

Next I’m trying for complete freedom from the computer…

Point #3 – Too Comfortable Is Uncomfortable

Just an opinion here, but methinks too much comfort is not desirable.

So my approach is to make things more uncomfortable. To impose stresses that force me to move, and make exerting myself part of the day to day. Maybe it’s a little old fashioned, but I also believe there’s truth in that old cliche of too much comfort “softening” up people.

Mark’s already gone into the dangers of too much sitting, but I also believe “sensitising” ourselves to comfort makes times of relaxation all the sweeter. Lemme give you an example…

Us humans tend to devalue/take for granted any stimulus we are repeatedly exposed to. E.g if you live next to a railway line, eventually you’ll stop noticing the sound of trains rolling by.

So for me, having less comfort overall makes the times I do decide to do something relaxing far more enjoyable. It also aids my sleep, since I’ve basically tired myself out in the day.


Standing more – Mainly via my standing desk, which cost about £12 to make. I went to a builder’s merchant and asked for about 50 shiny new bricks (sounds absurd now that I mention it). I put my existing table on the bricks and… voila!

Standing Desk

Floor Living/Chair Avoidance – I’ve mostly substituted chairs for working on the floor, usually cross-legged, but in often in whatever position the body wants to do. Asides from getting good at the Lotus Position, this also ensures I move around a lot, since the floor was not designed to accommodate any position for a prolonged period. This applies to mealtimes as well (though rarely when dining with company…)

Futon – I swapped a bed for a Japanese-style futon. It saves me space and time messing around with a mattress. It seems to be good for my back as well (strong support), and cost about £30 – way cheaper than a regular bed and mattress.

Greasing The Groove – (see next section…)

Point #4 – You Don’t Need the Gym to Get Stronger

Confession: I’ve never been to a “proper gym” (if we’re honest it’s a combination of being a cheapskate and being slightly weirded out by the idea of people watching me squat).

Also I think most of us don’t agree with a lot of people’s approach to exercise, which is trading one screen and cubicle in the workplace for another in the gym.

So my approach is to see training and movement as almost the same thing, and do all of my training at home or as part of my regular movement outside the home.

I also find it to be pretty cheap and time effective as there’s no gym dues or gym travel involved. This way I can “be active” when the impulse strikes, which as I said before is important to me…


Greasing The Groove…

With a Pullup bar. I have one above my door, which I often set myself the challenge of doing a certain number of reps on before I enter/leave the room. I think Russian “strength Czar” Pavel Tsatsouline calls this approach “greasing the groove” and the habit of doing pullups on the door every time you pass through quickly gets established.

Or with “kettlebell complex coffee breaks”. I also do this by taking intense coffee breaks involving kettlebell complexes.

These are really time effective. I’ve not got the space to describe it here but in a complex you basically don’t get to put the weight down ’til you’ve completed your set. This tires you in a very short period of time.


Provided you don’t go nuts and smoke yourself, it’s quite invigorating and you return to work pumped. Google for some example complexes…

Doing Stuff “The Hard Way” – Then of course there’s the simple things you can do in daily life away from the home. Why take the elevator if you’ve got the stairs in front of you? I’ve found doing the regular little things like this help build habits conducive to health, long term.

Weighted Hiking – As an urbanite, I’m lucky enough to not need a car, and I walk to as many places as I can. I do this mainly in the form of what I’m now calling Food Hiking™ (not an actual trademark…) – taking a 4 mile round trip to my local supermarket and buying a lot of food, which I carry back with me.

For the days I want to do this but don’t need to obtain dinner, I bought a cheap rucksack on Ebay which I fill with weight. I put it on and go walking. My normal route is hardly a scenic one (much of it is beside a motorway) but getting out is invigorating all the same. I average about 20 miles of walking a week this way and it gives me time and space to think…

Are you making the most of your freedom?

I dunno about you, but I’m pretty sure that our ancestors were, on the whole, free of the “rat race” and the 9-5 so many of us take as a given now (see the “original affluent society” theory).

Perhaps freedom can be defined as “control over your time and choices”. For me,  I have tried to free up my time as much as possible and avoid the kind of commitments that take away my time and money, no matter how well marketed/advertised they are to me.

Ways to cut costs and limit expenses using technology are an entirely different article, and we’re talking wellness, not personal finance here, right?

But perhaps the last thing to consider when engineering your ideal environment is how you maximise your amount of free time, and how it’s spent. We all have different commitments, many of them are unavoidable. But not all of them.

Of the things you do now, which do you really love? And, if you had to start again, of the all things that you are doing now, which would you keep?


Because you can always start again…

Thanks for reading.

Further Reading

•    Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness – Richard H Thaler, Cass R Sunstein
•    Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success – Kerry Patterson et al
•    Lifehacker’s article on “The Pareto Principle” – Focusing on the most important stuff. Can you apply this idea to the things you do?

Jack Oughton

Jack Oughton Bio

Jack Oughton, AKA Koukouvaya is a freelance writer/copywriter, composer/sound designer and digital artist/photographer from South London who has serious problems writing biographical information about himself in the third person. He has written for the likes of The Guardian, The Independent and FHM, and currently spends all day sculpting alien sounds using wavetable synthesis. He can be found on Twitter as @koukouvaya

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