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The 2% Manifesto

Why being a 2-Percenter is necessary for living well today.

The 2% Manifesto

Prepare to learn how 2% will change your life.

I used to think improving your health, fitness, and mindset was all about giant changes.

  • Having the perfect workout.
  • Selecting the optimal diet.
  • Deploying a hyper-specific mindset and wellness protocol.

But after all of my research, travels, and conversations—interviewing everyone from Nobelists to centenarians—I now know the path is different.

Yes, the workouts, diet plan, and all that stuff matter. Of course.

But what we do in all our other moments is the most powerful. The littlest choices make the biggest impact.

It all starts with 2%.

The figure—and this project’s namesake—comes from a study that changed my thinking about living well in the modern world.

2: That’s the percentage of people who take the stairs when they also have the option of taking an escalator.

Once you see this, you can’t unsee it. Once you know this, you can’t unknow it.

One hundred percent of those people knew that taking the stairs would be better for them.

And they were right.

For example, one study found that just three weekly minutes of taking the stairs each week is associated with a 15 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. That equates to just 25 seconds on the stairs a day. The littlest choices make the biggest impact.

But we select short-term comfort over many good things. The more I researched, the more I realized the lesson of 2% applies far beyond the staircase.

It turns out that only 2% of people will do the harder thing that has a greater long-term benefit if there’s an easier option.

This applies to how we exercise, eat, work, create, think, and spend our time and attention.

I’ve found that being a 2-Percenter is the most potent and sustainable thing we can do for our performance, health, and well-being. Decades of research back me up.

We’ll explore three topics:

  1. Why we have the 98 percent
  2. The case for being a 2-Percenter
  3. 11+ ways to be a 2-Percenter

Why We Have the 98 Percent

In short

Humans evolved to do the next easiest, most comfortable thing. This drive kept us alive when our environments were harsh and uncomfortable. Now it hurts us.

The details

We shouldn’t be surprised that only 2 percent of people take the literal and metaphorical stairs.

And we shouldn’t feel bad about it when we join the 98 percent and do the lazier thing.

Evolution wired humans to do the next easiest, most comfortable thing. To feel uncomfortable under physical and mental effort.

Doing the easier thing saved precious calories when life was hard and food was tougher to come by. This drive kept us alive.

Take exercise. Any person who “exercised”—burned calories, built muscle, or improved their fitness for the sake of it—would have died off.

But the 2% rule manifests itself in many other ways.

  • It applies to how we eat
    Roughly 75 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, and estimates suggest that only 2% of people who lose weight in a year keep it off. We eat just to eat, with 80 percent of our eating driven by reasons other than true hunger. And it’s killing us. Diet directly causes many of the diseases most likely to kill modern humans, like heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

It applies to our mindset and what we accomplish

Take how we deal with stress or boredom. Research shows that more than 90 percent of smartphone pick-ups aren’t due to a notification. They’re driven by our inability to sit with discomfort—smartphones and computers are a quick fix for the discomfort of boredom or stress. This is a key reason why America is experiencing a mental health and creativity crisis.

  • It applies to our environment
    We live at 72 degrees—even though exposure to temperature changes comes with many subtle but powerful health benefits. Even keeping your home at a lower temperature in winter, like 64 degrees, can improve your health (for more on that, read The Comfort Crisis pages 269-271).
  • It applies to our relationship with the outdoors
    We spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors. Many groups, like office workers, spend 99 percent. Yet time outside is one of the best things we can do for our mental and spiritual health.
  • It applies to our interactions with others
    Most of us now text or email instead of call or have in-person interactions. Writing is easier and more controllable. You don’t have the challenge of thinking on the fly. Hence, we’re facing what the Surgeon General calls a “Loneliness Epidemic.”
  • It applies to our physical and mental health
    Most people take pills or undergo procedures rather than putting in the work to fix the root of their problem. This happens with everything from heart disease to chronic pain to depression and anxiety.
  • It applies to how we work
    People who get ahead don’t have secrets. Rather, they’re willing to take on the slightly more challenging tasks and work harder and smarter longer. They don’t quit when the feel-good feedback stops. They embrace discomfort until the breakthrough comes.
  • The list goes on …

Our world of comfort and ease is new to humans.

For all of time, our ancestors’ environments forced them to do hard, uncomfortable things that kept them healthy. They were heroic people.

  • They didn’t have easy, effortless access to food. The food they had took work to get and wasn’t engineered to be overeaten. It wasn’t jammed-packed with all sorts of sugars, salts, and fats.
  • They braved the elements and had to put in physical labor to avoid the extremes. Think of moving from summering to wintering grounds or chopping trees in the cold so you’d have firewood.
  • They spent all of their time outdoors—they were, in fact, part of nature. Not removed from it.
  • They were forced to be social, interacting with others throughout the day and building deep bonds.
  • They moved often. They were, on average, 14 times more physically active than we are. Survival took effort.
  • They encountered deep boredom, but they had to do something productive with their boredom. They’d devise new ways to improve their life and see the world—this is exactly why humans took over the globe.

And on and on …

We’re all still equally heroic and equally capable. But it’s been tamed out of us.

Today, our default to ease backfires in our world of desk jobs, cars, smartphones, escalators, climate-controlled homes, quick fixes, delivery food, appliances, and more.

The most successful inventions of the last 200 years, for example, are devices that reduce effort.

Each new technology helps us in some ways but hurts us in others. For example, household appliances removed basic housework. That now causes the average person to burn roughly 2,500 fewer calories a week than in 1964, according to researchers at the University of South Carolina.

So what do we do about it?

The Case for Being a 2-Percenter

In short

The data is clear: Doing the slightly harder thing when you have the opportunity—being a 2-Percenter—is the best thing you can do for your physical and mental health, mindset, productivity, creativity, and more.

The details

Being a 2-Percenter isn’t really about taking the stairs.

It’s a metaphor for living well in the modern world.

It’s about saying yes to the little opportunities we have throughout the day to do the slightly harder thing.

Society looks for big, easy pushes for radical change. We make big resolutions. We plan to hit the gym hard seven days a week, meditate for 30 minutes daily, never eat a carb again, lock our smartphone in a safe, and so on. We look for hacks.

It sounds great in theory, but oversized aspirations that push you too far out of your comfort zone for too long don’t last. We’ve all experienced this. Decades of psychological studies back it up.

Accumulating little moments where we embrace discomfort can have a larger impact on our health compared to heroic efforts.

The 2% of people who take the stairs and apply the same logic throughout their lives live longer, healthier, and better than the people who go all-in in short bursts. They’re more productive. They have deeper relationships. They’re more durable. They’re happier. They affect the world.

Once you experience it, you can’t un-experience it.

It applies to exercise

One study found incidental activities like taking the stairs and taking work calls while walking can burn an extra 800 calories a day. That’s roughly equivalent to an 8-mile run. Even shifting and fidgeting while sitting can burn as many as 400 more calories a day compared to sitting stationary, according to research from the Mayo Clinic.

A few years ago, a group of scientists analyzed 1,200 studies on everyday activity. Stuff like walking briskly, mowing the lawn, climbing stairs, etc. They discovered that racking up at least 150 weekly minutes of this kind of activity can reduce our risk of dying prematurely by more than 30 percent.

  • It applies to healthy eating
    Recall that only 2% of dieters who lose weight in a given year keep it off. Research from Brown University shows that those 2-Percenters didn’t fall for heroic crash diets.
    They may have tried a crash diet, but ultimately they learned a few go-to methods from it and landed on a sustainable way of eating. They stuck to that method by becoming OK with the occasional discomfort of hunger and found more productive ways of dealing with their cravings. Like going for a walk.
  • It applies to being social
    Research consistently shows that people who get “enough” social interaction are healthier, live longer, and report higher life satisfaction. But we’re currently facing a loneliness crisis. This is partly because technology allows us to be a recluse through email and text.
    Those who meet others in person and call instead of text report vastly higher satisfaction scores and tend to live longer. Harvard researchers demonstrated this in one of the longest-running studies on wellbeing and longevity.
  • It applies to mindset
    Our perceptions shape our outcomes. That’s according to research from Ellen Langer, the first female tenured professor in the Harvard psychology department. The takeaway from her work is that people who willingly take on challenges and assume they can complete them are better off. Believing you can do something hard—and acting accordingly—leads to better health and performance.
  • It applies to our physical and mental health
    Pills and procedures are the easy button. But they come with side effects. In many cases, they aren’t as powerful as 2% activities.
    Take back pain, for example. Most back pain is due to inactivity. A global team of 12 doctors discovered that “Rest, opioids, spinal injections, and surgery … will not reduce back-related disability or its long-term consequences.” People who had surgeries also had higher rates of prescription abuse. Meanwhile, people who exercised to strengthen their backs experienced less pain in the long run.
    In the mental health realm, a massive review found that exercise was 1.5 times more effective for treating common anxiety and depression than SSRIs and psychotherapy.
  • It applies to our wellbeing, meaning, and creativity
    Researchers I spoke to while reporting The Comfort Crisis explained that spending different amounts of time in different types of nature—for example, parks nearby, on trails, and in the backcountry—is one of the best things we can do for stress reduction, sense of meaning, and creativity and productivity.

How to Be a 2-Percenter

In short

Follow this list of recommendations. Your life will get better.

The details

It would be impossible to mimic all the challenges our ancestors faced. And I don’t think it’s even desirable. Having the option to do “the easier thing” is a blessing!

For example, very few people who toil for their food actually want to. And I think all those people from 1964 would have preferred new appliances that saved them the housework.

But if we’re always defaulting to the easier, more comfortable thing, sickness and misery set in rather quickly.

Luckily, the benefits you get from being a 2-Percenter work no matter how comfortable you’ve become.

Consider this wild study finding: Older women who got 4,400 steps a day experienced a 50 percent less risk of dying during the research period than those who logged just 2,700 steps. Everything helps.

Here are 12+ things we can do to be a 2-Percenter:

1. Sign up for this newsletter

It’ll put you on the path to becoming a 2-Percenter. We need frequent reminders, advice, and community reminding us we can do hard things. Any hard thing.

It’s always free on Monday. Always.

Upgrading your Membership will get you full, unmitigated access to all of the great stories, tips, and tactics we publish on Wednesday and Friday.

2. Take the stairs

We all know we should do this—but we forget how powerful it can be. One study found that men who climbed 20 to 34 flights of stairs each week experienced 38 percent fewer strokes than those who climbed 10 or fewer flights a week.

3. Follow the 20-5-3 Rule

It’s a research-backed framework to leverage nature to improve your physical and mental health—and your creative thinking and productivity. Spend at least:

  • 20 minutes, three times each week in nature near your home. Like a city park.
  • 5 hours each month in slightly wilder nature. Like on trails at a nearby state park.
  • 3 days each year in the backcountry—places where you may not get cell reception.

The research on the phenomenon is wild.

4. Sit on a stool or on the floor

People who frequently sit without using a backrest have back and core muscles that are anywhere from 20 to 40 percent stronger. This can help prevent and relieve back pain.

If you watch TV or read every night or meditate each morning, try doing it cross-legged while keeping your torso vertical. It’s harder than it looks. But the discomfort in your back and core suggests you have a relative weakness. Fix it, and you’ll be better off. I fixed a reader’s chronic back pain with this tip.

This phenomenon also explains why people in developing countries who use fewer backrests have lower rates of hip and back problems.

5. Leverage the power of hunger

Recall that 80% of eating is now driven by reasons other than true physiological hunger. Going through a bit of hunger can be a great teacher.

Try skipping one meal. It can be breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Use the time to learn something about hunger. How does your body feel around the time you’d typically eat? What does hunger feel like in your body? How does it feel in your mind? How much of hunger is a belief or emotion versus a physiological feeling?

The point of this exercise is to help you realize hunger isn’t a big deal and to learn to discriminate between the times you’re eating because your body needs food versus the times you eat for other reasons, like stress or boredom.

6. Take walking or rucking breaks, phone calls, and meetings

Beyond the calorie burn, people who walk to clear their minds perform better on creativity tests and report being more satisfied with their jobs.

Walking allows your mind to wander to more interesting places. I write about this in my bestseller Scarcity Brain. (Remember that you can always call into a meeting from your phone and go for a walk. I do this often.)

7. Park far away

People think this is too simple to make a difference. They’re wrong.

One study found that walking just one mile a day reduces your risk of dying in the next ten years by 46 percent.

If you have to do a few errands, park in the farthest spot each stop. You’ll rack up that mile—and move further from death.

8. Don’t think “less phone.” Think “more boredom.”

Boredom is neither good nor bad. It just tells us to “do something.” But today, that “something” is usually diving into our phones.

Yet research and anecdotes from the world’s greatest minds (like Steve Jobs) show embracing boredom can reduce stress and boost creativity.

As people try to use their phone less, they get bored—then watch Netflix. This is the same digital distraction. It’s better to think “more boredom” instead of “less phone.” Here are eight ways to optimize boredom.

9. Ruck while (insert task)

In preparing to spend a month in the Arctic for The Comfort Crisis, I knew I had to get used to carrying a heavy pack. So I’d do stuff like cleaning, vacuuming, etc. while wearing a heavy ruck.

I found it so beneficial that I’ve continued the practice. It’ll help you burn two or three times the calories and also strengthen your muscles without bulking you up.

10. Call someone

We text and email far more often than call because the written word is more predictable. But picking up the phone is one of the best things you can do to boost your mood and productivity. You’ll not only have great conversations, you’ll also solve work problems faster. You may even spontaneously brainstorm new, better ideas.

11. Carry whenever you can

Think groceries, luggage, kids, and even ending workouts with a quick circuit where you carry weights. Carrying is a fundamental human act and one of the best ways to train your core. It can improve your performance in any physical activity.

Disconnect and embrace solitude

Leaving your phone and screens can be hard. People have literally become addicted to connection. And it’s killing our mindset, creativity, and productivity.

Disconnecting for set periods of time has been shown time after time to improve mental health, spur big ideas, and allow us to accomplish more when we reconnect.

This is exactly why our greatest innovators—from Leonardo DaVinci to Steve Jobs—scheduled days of disconnection.

12. Establish a “buy-in”

We all have a questionable habit or two we love. For example, binging Netflix or Instagram. Mine’s drinking diet soda (don’t ask me how many ounces I drink a day). Now, before I have a diet soda, I’ve established a “buy-in.” I do a quick bout of exercise before I pop the can. For example, a 60-second plank, or 20 pushups. It adds up.

Speaking of adding up, here’s a full breakdown of the calorie burn of 10 minutes of the following activities:

Using a Standing Desk: 17
Walking Meeting: 40
Cleaning or Fixing Up Around The House: 47
Chopping or Stacking Wood: 109
Yard Work: 55
Carrying Light Groceries: 50
Cooking: 34
Dancing: 106 (a totally underrated form of stress relief)
Playing with Kids or a Dog: 79
Fidgeting While Sitting: 25
Walking Briskly (4.5MPH): 96
Climbing Stairs Briskly: 120

*These figures are for a 180-pound person (roughy the average national weight) and drawn from the Compendium of Physical Activities.

13. Now it’s your turn—comment below

What do you do to be a 2-Percenter?

Thanks for reading. Have fun, don’t die, be a 2-Percenter.