I Tried to Live a Perfect Day—Here’s What I Learned

From a Wall Street Journal story by Alex Janin headlined “I Tried to Live a Perfect Day. Here’s What I Learned.”:

When people learn that I’m a personal health reporter, the first question is usually some version of: “Do you have the healthiest life ever?”

It’s a fair question. I spend hours each day talking with the world’s health experts. I’ve adopted some of their advice, like doing more moderate-intensity exercise. There’s also plenty I’ve ignored. I drink coffee far later in the day than sleep experts suggest and I’m a chronic bedtime procrastinator.

Many of us face the same challenges. Even when we want to embrace healthy habits, life gets in our way. It’s hard to prep healthy meals, exercise and clock eight hours of uninterrupted sleep and still take care of our other responsibilities at work and at home.

Is it possible to live a perfectly healthy day? I decided to put myself to the test for you. I knew I would stumble at times, but hoped that my own successes and failures would help you figure out what the biggest pitfalls might be in your own life. I planned a 24-hour schedule that would incorporate the main advice on sleeping, eating, exercise and mental well-being.

It was no easy task. Some plans went well and others…. didn’t. Here’s what happened.

A healthy day actually starts the day before. I learned this the hard way on Sunday afternoon when I realized the groceries in my fridge wouldn’t cut it for the meal preparation I was planning for Monday.

The goal was to follow the U.S. Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments’ latest dietary guidelines using MyPlate, which replaced the famous ​​food pyramid in 2011. I input my age, sex, height, weight and physical activity level to create a customized MyPlate plan, which gave me a daily calorie target and recommended amount of each food group.

As a pescatarian who eats a mostly vegetarian diet and little dairy, I knew the daily recommendations for 6.5 oz of protein and 3 cups of dairy would require preparation. I have no children or spouse, just two cats and a very cute goldendoodle I was dogsitting, which lightened the mental (and financial) load significantly.

My grocery store haul Sunday night included two salmon filets, plenty of fresh veggies, whole grain tortillas and walnuts. Whereas I would normally purchase a sad desk salad for $15 or so on Monday, it was hard to stomach spending $17 on salmon alone—but at least it would also feed me for dinner.

I was tired enough that getting in bed by 10 p.m. didn’t require much effort, but the goal of avoiding electronics in bed went out the window when my family FaceTime call came through.

Later, I turned off the lights to savor a happy memory, which, as my colleague Elizabeth Bernstein has reported, psychologists believe can help us fall asleep and improve sleep quality. I thought back to a spring lunch with my grandmother in Santa Barbara. Then I was asleep.

On Monday morning, my 6:30 a.m. alarm went off and I actually felt rested. Sleep metrics on my Apple Watch validated the feeling. I had apparently slept for seven hours and 59 minutes, well within health organizations’ and sleep experts’ seven-to-nine-hour guidelines.

I had a pre-work wellness schedule planned: a half-hour walk followed by strength training, a nutritious breakfast and 10 minutes of journaling, all before I headed out the door on my commute to the office.

Technically, I checked all the boxes, but found it hard to focus on any of them. My mind wandered (and worried) over upcoming work responsibilities.

Walking is one of the best things you can do for your body and brain. In fact, walking briskly is supposed to activate your body’s stress response, after which it should come back down to baseline. Mine didn’t. My mind strayed to my inbox, my to-do list and the social invitations I hadn’t yet responded to. By the time I sat down to journal, my laptop was open and I was half-working, responding to emails and browsing the WSJ home page.

This was a big lesson on my attempted perfect day. Sometimes, even doing the “right” thing for your health won’t produce the desired results. It may feel better some days than others.

I arrived at the office just past 9 a.m. After unpacking my lunch and snacks, which occupied nearly half a shelf in the communal office fridge, I returned to my desk to find a looming land mine: a box of homemade chocolate chip cookies stationed in our seating area.

In an attempt to combat my unruly sweet tooth—and stay below the MyPlate daily limit for added sugar—I had planned to say no to sweets. Picking one or two specific rules around nutrition, like not eating sweets during the week, is one science-backed strategy to make healthier decisions around food, my colleague Andrea Petersen has reported.

I managed to resist the cookies and settle into my busy workday, which started right away with back-to-back fact-checking calls for a story publishing the following day. At 10 a.m., it was time for the first of four scheduled two-minute breathing exercises to help cope with stress.

As I slowly inhaled and exhaled, I tried not to think about 23 tabs open in front of me, or my very kind deskmate, who was probably wondering what on earth I was doing. About 30 seconds in, another story of mine was published—a distraction that proved too great to continue my relaxing breaths. I sighed and got back to work.

About an hour later at 11 a.m., the recommended cutoff time for caffeine if I wanted to be asleep by 11 p.m. that night, I still had half a to-go canister of home-brewed coffee left.

Many of us have come to this crossroads: We know more coffee could mess up our sleep later, and yet sometimes that next cup is too enticing to resist. After glancing at my packed calendar, I succumbed to the path of continued caffeination. As long as you’re aware of and willing to accept the consequences, it’s OK to break the rules sometimes.

I was heads-down in research for upcoming stories, as well as addressing final editing questions on another for hours—causing me to skip over my planned lunchtime of 12:30 p.m. I was hungry, though, so I scarfed down a snack-size bag of cheddar popcorn. I had hoped to take a break for lunch, maybe even eat it away from my desk, but the day’s workload made that seem irresponsible.

At 1:56 p.m., I found myself grinding my teeth and wondering about the last time I’d gone to the bathroom. A walk around the office helped me get some steps in—and resolve the latter issue. My scheduled 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. breathing-exercise breaks never happened. And at 4:24 p.m., I exclaimed, aloud, that I had never felt such an intense craving for sweets. A miniature peanut butter Clif bar did little to satiate the longing. Luckily, the homemade cookies were long gone by then.

By the evening, I was pretty drained.

I was tempted to cancel my dinner plans with a friend. However, research has pointed to the importance of strong relationships to our mental well-being and happiness. Coming out of the pandemic, psychologists recommended rekindling relationships with friends we’ve lost touch with. My date was with one of the friends I’ve missed most this summer.

It was a fulfilling engagement, with one snafu. She had offered to make dinner, and salmon was on the menu. After two meals featuring the fish, I couldn’t stomach the idea of having it again.

By the time I got home, it was nearly 9 p.m. and I couldn’t bring myself to prepare the ingredients I purchased for a vegetarian taco recipe for dinner. Instead I grabbed a questionably aged frozen cheese enchilada and went back to work while I ate.

I also missed the window after which I should have been dimming the lights and reducing electronic use to signal my circadian rhythm that it was almost bedtime.

By 10 p.m., I figured that I had already ruined my evening schedule, so I justified flopping into bed with both my phone and iPad in hand. I scrolled social media and watched “The Real Housewives” until nearly 11:30.

This was the hardest part of my experiment: attempting to regain control and make good health decisions after the bad ones had snowballed. An excuse accompanied every misstep, and by the last decision—to put the phone down or keep scrolling—the choice was easy.

The next morning, I felt groggier, and my Apple Watch sleep data showed I had less deep sleep than the night before.

I imagined readers asking: How could a health reporter ignore basic health tenets? But nearly every health expert I’ve interviewed has said that people shouldn’t beat themselves up for missing the mark. Thinking too much about what you’re doing wrong can cause stress that may ultimately be unhealthy for you in other ways.

In the following weeks, I carried several lessons with me, including scrolling less and reading more before bed. I’ve even had a few lunch breaks away from my desk.

I take comfort in what I did well in my experiment: healthy meal-prepping, morning exercise and making time for friends. And I realized that even though it’s important to take steps to improve our health, it’s OK when plans don’t go perfectly.

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