When I initially proposed my monetizing failure challenge, I first sat down and tried to figure out how bad it could get (worst case, I figured I’d be on the hook for $1400). I then had to convince my wife that I wasn’t being an idiot (no easy task, given the historical record). I had no idea where it would all end up, but I went ahead with it anyway, and twelve months later I’m in a completely different place.
I’ve lost weight. I look and feel thinner. I’ve built lean muscle, and easily fit into clothes that were… challenging (and in some cases contributing to long-term organ damage)… twelve months ago. I don’t look like this guy, but diet and exercise program’s working. Most importantly, I feel like I’ve cracked my own personal code. This is how I trick myself into eating my vegetables, this is how I nudge myself to do the things I know I should be doing, but don’t.
As I’ve gone through the process, I’ve thought a lot about why it works, and have come up with a couple of key learnings.
- Set easy goals
I didn’t start out trying to fix everything at once. I started small, and let things evolve over time. The original rule was straightforward and doable – work out every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I didn’t specify what kind of workout (cardio, weight training, HIIT, yoga, etc.), or how long or intense any session would be – I just said that I’d exercise, three times a week. After a month of small successes, I’d internalized the rule and was able to add another easy rule to the list. Wash, rinse, repeat.
- Make everything concrete and unambiguous
The most concrete rules were the easiest to follow. Catered lunches at work are filled with yummy food, some of it healthy (much of it not), and it’s theoretically possible to make good choices in the moment when going past the buffet. Of course, theory and reality typically collide as you pass the deep-fried bacon cheese fritters, give a mental HELLS YEAH and spoon a dozen of the little artery plugs onto your plate. It’s much easier, and success more likely, if you just cut yourself off completely – bring your own lunch, don’t walk through the line, don’t force yourself into a losing situation.
Likewise, “no passive internet use after 10:30 pm” is harder to police than “no beer at home.” One is open to interpretation, the other is absolutely unambiguous. “Work out on even days of the month” (with the ability to bank workouts) is easier than “work out 15 times a month.” There are more milestones, more opportunities for small successes, and you don’t end up in an impossible situation (with the attendant risk of surrender) as you near the end of the month.
- Choose goals that are good life choices / avoid fads
I wasn’t interested in counting calories, doing a fat flush, going on a low carb / low fat / paleo / Atkins / South Beach / Weight Watchers / whatever diet. “Going on a diet” implies a short-term fix that you can abandon once goals are achieved, but everything I put into the plan was intended as a long-term lifestyle change. It’s true that I chafe at some of the restrictions, and maybe I need to rethink some of the rules. But overall, the fact that I never felt the need to cheat tells me that these are good for the long haul. I can also pull the “eating out” get-out-of-jail-free card when necessary (and yes, there were a couple of late night trips to JP Licks when things got tough).
- Set up your environment to make it easy to meet goals / ruthlessly remove obstacles
I pretty much hate exercise, so any additional friction in the system is likely to derail even the most meticulously planned workout. If I don’t have clean gym shorts. If I don’t have a good movie to watch1. If I’m feeling a little over-full. If it’s a little cold. If it’s a little late. It doesn’t have to be a real problem, just enough to give me an excuse. You can try to fight these head on – and you might even win occasionally – or you can just make sure they don’t happen. Buy extra gym clothes. Keep a gym bag with clean clothes ready to go (or better yet, in the trunk of your car). Buy some workout equipment for home (this could be a jumprope, some dumbells, a treadmill, whatever works). Eat before going shopping, and don’t buy anything that’s off limits. Every time something gets in your way, figure out how to avoid it (not beat it) next time around.
- Exercise forms a positive feedback loop
Exercising is like playing an MMORPG. You start out as a crappy first level blob of negative muscle tone, then slowly work your way up through the levels, fight bigger and more interesting monsters, get better drops, etc. If you’re a runner, you run longer, faster, farther after one, three, six months. If you’re a lifter, you slowly increase your weights. When things are going well, it’s fun (!) to add a new exercise into the mix. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so building muscle helps you lose weight, while eating more. Everything’s connected, and everything gets better as you increase muscle tone.
Taking things to the next level
I used to do a fair amount of social dance – swing, lindy, tango – and the constant frustration was that I’d learn all these great steps, then forget that I knew them. I’d get out onto the dance floor, wonder “what do I know how to do?” then look around and crib from people around me. I frequently thought that I should number each set of steps and memorize the numbers, so that once on the dance floor I could think, “let’s do #17 next, what’s that again? Oh yeah, that one’s fun!”
Reading management books is like that. I’ve read Crucial Conversations over and over again, and every time I think, “oh yeah! I should be doing that! How could I have forgotten?” It’s time to turn that around. This year, I’m going to start focusing on personal development. As mentioned above, goals will have to be concrete, and easily measured. So with that in mind, here are my new goals for January (and some addenda to existing ones):
- I will send out an agenda ahead of time for every meeting I schedule
- I will read (at least) two chapters of a technical (not management) book every week
- The “no seconds” rule applies to restaurants and vacations also
- The “no sweet baked goods at home” rule doesn’t apply to homemade stuff
- Only raw food and non-fat yogurt after 8 pm
- Only raw fruit, raw vegetables, yogurt, seltzer, coffee, and what I bring for myself at work
- No candy bars, nuts, or fruit salad at work
- No sweet baked goods or ice cream at work or home (unless homemade)
- No added sugar in anything (except when called for by a recipe)
- No beer or chocolate at home (except hot chocolate)
- No muffins anywhere
- No second helpings anywhere
- Only one plate of food per meal
- No Five Guys, Dunkin Donuts, or Papa John’s pizza (all close to the office)
- Work out on even days, plus the 15th and 31st of the month
- 40 sit-ups per day
- 50 pull-ups per week
- No passive internet use after 10:30 pm
- send out an agenda ahead of time for every meeting I schedule
- read two chapters of a technical book every week
- Restaurants are “no rules” zones (except for muffins and second helpings)
- I’m not going to miss a family member’s birthday cake, or banana bread/muffins baked with my son
- Total workouts: 185
- Total sit-ups: 44802
- Weight loss: ~9% total body mass
- Missed workouts: 1
- Food failures: 4
- Missed push-ups/sit-ups: 6
- Late-night internet viewing: 1
2015 is going to be a good year.
1 I find that watching completely brainless action movies makes it easier to tune out and do longer cardio workouts. I honestly feel a little terrible every time I check one out at the library – you can almost see a little piece of the librarian die inside every time you walk past the opera and French films to pick up a copy of Crank 2 or Fast & Furious 6.