Published on May 11, 2019. 8 minute read.

From personal experience I have found that the more time and effort I dedicate to improving my mental and physical health, the better developer I have become. When you take proper care of yourself, your body, your mind, you level up in all areas of your life, especially at intellectual tasks that require deep thought and concentration (like writing code!).

Over the past decade I have transformed how I work and how I live. I have overhauled almost every aspect of my life with the sole purpose of achieving better concentration, better effectiveness (I’m a better developer now than I ever was), better physical health, less depression, less burnout, and more happiness both at work and in my personal life.

Making change is easy. The hard bit is maintaining change over the long-term.

Metaphorically (or even literally) look at yourself in the mirror

Before you can begin to make changes to improve your mental and physical health, you must understand and document what changes you need to make. The desire must be genuine and the change must be achievable (within your control).

When I performed this exercise on myself (many years ago) this is what I came up with (at a high level);

  • I want to stop burning out, working late, working weekends
  • I want to be improve my concentration to improve my performance at work
  • I want to be stronger to improve my self confidence
  • I want to eat a clean diet so I feel healthier
  • I want to enter endurance competitions to challenge myself
  • I want to improve my appearance to increase my desirability

The first item on the list was the most important for me. I desperately wanted to break a cycle I often found myself in whereby I would work hard for a period of time, then lose the flow and take potentially days or weeks to recover.

Notice the language of these objectives. I want demonstrates the desire to achieve something, and each objective has an outcome. These objectives are a good starting point, but we need to flesh them out more to take them from lofty dreams to more actionable steps.

What are S.M.A.R.T targets?

You have probably come across the paradigm of S.M.A.R.T. targets at some point, as this is a well-known and well-established way of taking an idea and elaborating on it enough that it moves from idea to an actionable sequence of steps that when performed, will result in the objective being completed.

Specific: What exactly do you want to achieve. Explain in detail.
Measurable: Concrete evidence of progress is required.
Achievable: Set goals that whilst challenging, with enough time and effort could be completed.
Realistic: You probably couldn’t create a billion pound company by the end of the month.
Time-bound: Put a realistic, achievable deadline on when you will have achieved this goal. This will keep you motivated.

With this in mind, let us refine our first objective into a S.M.A.R.T. target;

I want to stop working for my freelance clients (or employer) in the evenings and weekends, once all outstanding work is complete, or within the next three months. Then I want to read books, listen to music, and spend more time socialising with friends and family for at least 1 hour per day to help with relaxation and reduce work-related stress.

This is S.M.A.R.T. because;

  • Specific; There are clearly defined goals (stop working for freelance clients, start reading, start listening to music etc)
  • Measurable; The number of additional hours worked in the evenings and weekends can easily be measured (you are probably doing this already for invoicing purposes)
  • Achievable; Unless you are in crippling levels of debt, you probably can scale back hours worked with minimal financial problems.
  • Realistic; Three months should be adequate to get all outstanding work completed, then you do not take any new work from new or existing clients.
  • Time-bound; 3 months is a very healthy timeframe.
Get success with S.M.A.R.T. targets
Get success with S.M.A.R.T. targets

Set a baseline

Before starting on our quest to tackle our mental and physical problems, we need a baseline so we can track our progress and properly appreciate the momentum we have gained. Do not skip this step. We are often our own worst critics and we are fast to highlight our own issues and slow to appreciate positive change being made.

Before taking steps to implementing your S.M.A.R.T. targets, make a note of the following;

  • How many hours are you working in the evenings, at the weekend.
  • How do you feel when doing the work. (Happy, sad, stressed, tired, overworked, burnt out, energetic)
  • How much time roughly each day are you spending doing relaxing, stress relieving activities like reading?
  • Do you wake up tired each morning? Do you feel well rested and energetic for the coming day?

Make notes on paper. I have found that taking notes on paper, rather than using word processing software, makes anything feel more real and really helps to reinforce the information in the mind.

You might also consider writing your objective in a visible place, somewhere where you will see it at least several times a day, as a reminder as to the journey you are on. It is certainly possible to have multiple S.M.A.R.T. targets on the go concurrently, but I would highly recommend limiting to 2-3 at the most, to prevent unnecessary stress. Prefer to focus on one positive change at a time.

Once done, go ahead and start implementing your objective and regularly take notes (once every few days or when you reach a particular milestone).

Shortcut your way to happiness

Let’s get physical, physical.

Hands down the best way to improve your mental health is to focus on your physical health.

Improving your physical health will boost your self-esteem, your self-confidence, your happiness, improve your concentration, help you become more motivated and overall help you become the best version of yourself.

Focusing on improving your physical health is the ultimate hack to improving your mental health.

You can utilise physical fitness to shortcut your way to being the best version of yourself, yourself 2.0.

It starts with food

What do you think about the word diet? Forget this word and remove it from your vocabulary forever. The word diet implies a temporary change of eating patterns.

In order to induce real long-term change, you need to forget about short term (date driven) dieting, and focus on making long-term sustainable lifestyle changes.

How to proceed largely depends on what your existing eating patterns consist of.

I recommend starting simple;

  • Eat more vegetables and green leafy salads.
  • Prefer whole foods. Whole foods are single ingredient foods, like potatoes or rice. If a food contains ingredients that you cannot pronounce, consider avoiding it.
  • Cut out added sugar, chocolate, have a weekly cheat meal. Avoid snacks that others bring to the office.

Next level steps might be;

  • Try an alternative eating pattern, like; Carnivore diet, ketogenic diet, bodybuilder diet (high protein, low fat, moderate carb).
  • Experiment with dairy free, gluten free, sugar free etc.
  • If you want to try something more adventurous, try; One Meal a Day (OMAD), intermittent fasting etc.

No matter what approach you decide to take, ensure that you give each approach an appropriate amount of time to bed in. Try experimenting with a specific way of eating for at least a few weeks and be sure to track how you feel, preferably in writing.

Do not worry too much about what the scales might tell you. Try to avoid weighting yourself, period. Prefer to use the mirror to assess your progress and ideally a measuring tape. Track inches lost rather than pounds lost.

Eat healthier food, including fresh vegetables
Eat healthier food, including fresh vegetables

Sprinkle on some exercise

When attempting to lose weight, changing eating patterns is hands down the best approach. Exercising is not a tool to be used to avoid changing the diet. One cannot out run a bad diet.

Exercising is best for improving cardiovascular health and building muscle.

Consider going to the gym at least 2-3 times a week and experiment with doing cardio based exercise (running on the treadmill or using the rowing machine), and experiment with lifting weights (bench press, squats etc).

Here is an example exercise routine that you could use to get started;

1Treadmill5 minutes
Back squats3 sets, 6 reps
Romanian deadlift3 sets, 10 reps
Calf raises3 sets, 15 reps
2Treadmill5 minutes
Flat bench press3 sets, 10 reps
Declined bench press3 sets, 10 reps
Inclined bench press3 sets, 10 reps
3Treadmill5 minutes
21s - Arm curls3 sets
Arnold press3 sets
Tricep pull downs3 sets, 8 reps

Use YouTube and Google to find instructions on how to perform each exercise. Or, better still, go to the gym with a friend and train together, this is an excellent way of staying motivated.

Pro tips for avoiding burnout

Burnout is the ultimate killer of productivity and progress, so taking steps to limit and control burnout is essential.

To avoid burnout, reduce your levels of stress.

My best tips for reducing stress are;

  • Reduce your paid workload.
  • Spend at least a couple of hours a week educating yourself and keeping up to date.
  • Contribute to open source.
  • Read books. Science fiction, business, history … whatever you fancy. Read something.
  • It is ok to watch TV, but keep it to 1-2 hours a day max.
  • Spend time with friends and family.
  • Get a practical hobby, like; DIY, gardening, history.
  • Go to meetups and socialise with your peers.
  • Go to the gym

Reducing burnout is akin to reducing stress.


Actively working on improving mental and physical health can have a positive impact on all areas of your life, especially when it comes to being better at work. Before you can begin to make positive change, you need to honestly identify the areas of your life, and then set S.M.A.R.T. targets to give yourself a framework for implementing change. The best shortcut to improving mental health is to focus on improving your physical health. Improving physical health can have the benefits of improving self-esteem, self-confidence, happiness and concentration levels. Food is a key driver to success, so cutting out refined and processed foods is essential. Add on some physical training, in the gym or outdoors, to take your progress to the next level. Burnout is a manifestation of high stress levels, so read books, contribute to open source, and generally do other non-work-related activities to bring stress levels down.


Jon Preece

About the author

Jon Preece is a professional front-end development specialist.

For over a decade, Jon has worked for some of the biggest and best UK based companies, on a wide range of products. Get in touch via Twitter.