As I write this the country is shutting down over COVID-19. I’m off work and Cristi and I are keeping close to home as per CDC recommendations. We have a lot of time on our hands.
None of us knows how this thing will play out. Detected cases are rising rapidly as testing comes online in the US. The economy is screeching to a halt. States are locking down their citizens and Congress can’t agree on a relief bill. There are massive uncertainties, almost all of which are out of our control.
What do we do?
Control the things we can control. Try not to worry too much about the rest.
Controlling the things we can means following the guidelines that our government has outlined to limit the spread of the disease. It means doing what we can to arrange our finances to soften the inevitable impact. It means topping off our pantries so that we have at least a minimal supply of food in our homes.
These are things we can control.
There’s another thing we can control: how we choose to spend our time.
We can waste our days starring at Twitter and worrying about what comes next [guilty] or we do something productive. Reach out to friends and family we’ve fallen out of touch with. Learn something that we always wanted to learn. Break a bad habit. Make a good one.
This post is about something that I’ve been doing for the last couple months to break bad habits, make good ones and fix something in my life that was headed in the wrong direction.
It’s not a profound or important problem. Not really. It’s pretty mundane. Most of us face it in middle age. The problem itself isn’t very important.
It’s the approach to fixing the problem that I want to share.
If you’re looking make something happen, focus on systems. Not goals.
A few months ago I had an epiphany. I was trying to squeeze myself into a pair of shorts that I had worn all summer and noticed that I had ballooned up to the point where my “fat pants” were starting to get snug. I don’t have a scale, but I guess that I was probably pushing 225. I’d gotten big enough that my wedding ring didn’t fit anymore. I was wearing it on a string around my neck.
At 47, almost 48, I was reaching an inflection point. If I continued to do the same things with food, booze and exercise that I’ve done for the past several years I would continue to gain weight. I realized that staying healthy wasn’t going to get any easier. It was going to get harder. I decided that the time to make a change was now, before I reached a tipping point toward obesity and declining health.
Time to lose the gut.
I had a goal.
But goals, as Scott Adams says, are for losers…
Systems vs Goals
Scott Adams is the creator of the Dilbert comic strip. I never did read Dilbert much, but I ran across Adams in the run-up to the 2016 election. He was one of the earlier voices predicting a Trump victory and had some very unconventional ideas to explain his predictions. Adams is a trained hypnotist and years spent working in the corporate world. It’s safe to say that his view of the world is unorthodox. His ideas are compelling. I got hooked on Adams’ blog and later, his podcast. Eventually I picked up a copy of his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.
For those who haven’t read it, the book is one part autobiography and one part self-help advice. It twists and turns through Adams’ professional life and chronicles his fight with a rare speech disorder. Along the way Adams dispenses nuggets of wisdom. One of these is: Goals Are For Losers.
From Adams’ perspective, as soon as you set a goal you’ve created a lose-lose situation. All the time you’re working toward your goal you’re not winning. If you fail to reach your goal you lose. If you achieve your goal you lose direction and motivation. Goals, says Adams, don’t work.
Adams says systems are a better approach.
A system is something that you can do every day to incrementally move your life in a desired direction. By following a system you may reach a goal, but you’ll also be forming habits that will persist regardless of other outcomes. It may sound like a semantic difference but, as Adams says, it’s a difference that has a powerful psychological impact:
“…thinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has power. Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.”
I knew that I needed to make some fundamental changes in my life. Based on Adams’ advice I decided to run an experiment. I would create a system that would improve my health and well being. Every day I would log my success at putting the system into action. At the end of a couple months I should know if the system was worth sticking with or not.
I’m two months into the experiment. The results are in. More about that a little later on. First, the system.
I wanted to create a system that was simple, addressed the root causes of my middle-aged bloat and could be followed every day. The system had to be self-reinforcing, so each component helped to prop up the other parts. There’s no point in changing one thing only to have another habit undermine your success. I wanted the thing to be comprehensive and effective.
After a few tries I came up with a four part plan:
That’s it. The plan was simple. Every day I would do all of these things. A day where I hit all four would be a success. If I slipped up one day I would correct the next. Here’s the rationale behind each of the components:
Might as well go after the low-hanging fruit first. My daily beer and wine consumption wasn’t helping my weight or health. I’ve always enjoyed relaxing with a beer, but in the past few years both my tolerance and my consumption have been steadily climbing. If I stayed on that trajectory I would continue to gain weight. Or worse.
I also realized that alcohol was likely to sabotage the other parts of my plan. Lowered inhibitions would lead to binge eating. Hangovers would stand in the way of exercise. Drinking seemed like the biggest threat to my system.
So I quit.
I didn’t cut back. I didn’t try to limit myself to a couple days a week. I’ve tried that sort of thing in the past with poor results. I figured I needed a good, solid break from drinking to reset my relationship with booze. I needed to break my daily drinking habit.
There’s a saying in the fitness world: You Can’t Outrun Your Mouth. I’ve been running, lifting and working out since my early 20’s. I’ve still gained weight.
My system had to include some kind of calorie restriction if I wanted to get lean. I didn’t just want to lose weight, though. I also wanted to change my eating habits to improve my health and support my fitness training.
I’ve done a lot of kooky things in my life when it comes to food. I was a fat kid. When I was in my 20’s I had a little mini-comeapart around my weight and developed some very weird eating habits. At the time it was ultra-low fat vegetarian/vegan with massive calorie restriction. I lost a lot of weight. I also flirted with an eating disorder. I was hungry all the time. When you get really hungry, your brain doesn’t work right. In this situation, if you clamp down on things with extreme discipline, pretty soon you start acting a little strange.
I get how people become anorexic. I also get how people become fanatical around their Way of Eating. At the extremes of diets you see plenty of people who act like members of religious cults. A lot of this probably has to do with excessive calorie restriction and nutrient deficiency. It’s a dead end and it’s terrible to see people caught up in it.
I didn’t want to go down that road. Whatever I did would need to steer clear of fanaticism.
I decided to take a low-carb approach to food as part of my system. In my experience, when I eat this way I tend to lose weight without feeling hungry. My mental clarity is good and I get plenty of protein to support strength and endurance training. I also don’t have to pay strict attention to calories or portions so it’s simple to stick to.
I’m not a fanatic. If we visit friends for dinner I eat whatever is on the table. Sometimes Cristi and I order a pizza. I don’t want to get crazy with this thing. I stick to it most of the time and when I can’t I don’t sweat it too much. My mindset is strict, yet flexible.
There are a lot of ideas around why reducing carbs works for fat loss. It seems to boil down to a couple things. If you restrict carbohydrates, your body adapts to burning fat as fuel. This means that you can more readily make use of stored body fat throughout the day. Eating this way also tends to increase satiety so you feel full sooner and consume fewer calories spontaneously. You burn more fat and you eat less without feeling hungry.
There are some other, more technical hypotheses about the effect of ketosis on metabolism that I’m just not qualified to go into. There’s plenty to see on the web if you want to go down that rabbit hole. Suffice to say that I’ve found the approach to be effective in the past, so I figured I would give it a shot.
After a few weeks of low-carb eating I started incorporating intermittent fasting into my routine. Basically this is skipping breakfast. I stop eating by 8PM and fast until at noon the following day. Not difficult to do.
Intermittent fasting is thought to improve overall health by promoting autophagy. In essence, your body responds to fasting by sweeping out the closet and cleaning the dust bunnies out from under the bed. Old, defective cells are broken down and cleaned out. At least that’s what the fitness folks are saying.
I’ve found intermittent fasting works well with low-carb eating. I’m less hungry on low carb so it’s easier to compress my “eating window” during the day. Compressing that window helps your body to become better adapted to fat burning. It’s a virtuous cycle. Or so they say…
Of course, you should never take diet advice from an outdoor gear blogger. Right? Seriously.
A few years back Cristi and I moved into an apartment complex that had a gym. After messing around with machines for a few weeks I decided to figure out what to do with the kettlebells racked against the wall.
My search eventually led me to a book called Kettlebell: Simple and Sinister written by Pavel Tsatsouline. Pavel is a strength training expert who introduced the Russian kettlebell to the West in the ’90s. In Simple and Sinister he outlines a minimalist kettlebell workout that requires only two movements: the kettlebell swing and the Turkish getup.
The kettlebell swing is like a dynamic deadlift. It targets the back, glutes and hamstrings. Kettlebell swings increase strength, endurance and balance. The off-balance action of the one-arm swing activates the core and just about every muscle from the neck down.
The Turkish getup is a slow movement that builds strength, balance and stability. Both are whole-body movements that build functional strength rather than bulk. Together they provide a concentrated dose of strength training for entire body.
The beauty of kettlebells is that they’re inexpensive, portable and effective. You can get all the kettlebells you’ll need to start training S&S for less than a hundred bucks. You can take them anywhere (even on the road). You never need to go to a gym. And they work. Kettlebells are a secret weapon.
I’ve been doing swings and getups for a few years now and have worked myself up to comfortably doing both movements with a 70 pound kettlebell. I do S&S every other day.
For general aerobic fitness Cristi and I walk about 45 minutes most days. We wake up in the morning, have a cup of coffee and hit the road. Walking doesn’t give me the cardio workout that running did, but running bangs the hell out of my busted ankle. Walking is more sustainable and builds our aerobic base without causing down time from injuries.
The consensus around exercise is that whatever program you choose it should incorporate both strength training and aerobic conditioning. Strength training is especially important to offset the muscle atrophy and reduced bone density that come with aging. Aerobic training improves cardiac health. Kettlebells and walking work for me.
Strengthen the body. Strengthen the mind. I’ve had an on-and-off meditation practice since the early ’90’s. Mostly off. This year I decided to renew my efforts at sitting meditation to see if it could improve my mood and mental health.
When I first explored meditation it was out of an interest in Eastern mysticism and religious thought. These days I see it more as a sort of weight lifting for my brain.
There are lots of different ways to meditate. What I do is called mindfulness. I sit and observe what’s going on in my head. Thoughts, sounds, sensations. When I notice something I briefly pay attention to it before returning my attention to my breathing. That’s pretty much it.
Meditation trains your ability to notice what’s going on in you mind. The noticing part is important. As you get better at noticing thoughts while meditating, it gets a little easier to notice them during during the day. When thoughts pop into your mind that cause anger or anxiety it gets a little (just a little) easier to catch them before they really impact your mood. When you notice them, sometimes they just go away.
That’s part of it. There’s a lot more to it. I’m at best a beginner with this practice. I keep at it because it seems to work.
I sit and meditate for a half hour every morning before Cristi wakes up. Some days I go a little shorter. For a while I tried 45 minutes. Half an hour seems sustainable. I feel like it’s long enough that I’m seeing results but short enough that I’m able to keep at it every day.
Of all the stuff outlined in this post, meditation is probably the one that I’m the most reluctant to mention. For one, it seems a little kooky. What’s worse, I don’t have enough experience to offer any kind of advice about the topic. I can only point to resources that I’ve found helpful and mention that I think it might be worth a try.
If you’re interested in exploring the topic without any religious overtones a good place to start might be Sam Harris’ book Waking Up. Harris also has a Waking Up meditation ap that takes you through a series of guided meditations. Cristi and I have been working through the series together. They’re short and accessible. The Waking Up Ap is a subscription service, but Harris will give you a year for free if you email and request assistance.
On January 13th, 2020 I began The Experiment. I know it was the 13th because I wrote it in my book. Since then I’ve logged each day’s accomplishments in a sort of shorthand. When I accomplish part of my system, I write it in the book. Meditation done, check. Walk? Check. Every time I make a note in the book I get the simple pleasure of having succeeded in my system. After 71 days I have 7 pages of notes filled with pencil scribblings as testimony. 71 days of succeeding.
But what about my goals? What about losing weight? Improving heath? Improving well-being?
I still don’t have a scale, so I don’t know what I weigh, but my fat pants are loose. My stomach is getting pretty flat. My wedding ring fits. If I were to guess I would say I’m probably down around 195, maybe a little lighter. That’s a healthy weight for a 6′ guy.
Two months ago I struggled to do one-arm swings with my 70 pound kettlebell. Today, I can swing the 70 pounder explosively and my rest breaks between sets are getting shorter.
Two months ago I didn’t sleep through the night. Today my insomnia has disappeared and I wake feeling rested and ready to go.
Two months ago I was drinking every day. Today I’ve broken that habit. I went a couple months without drinking before experimenting with alcohol again. As of now it seems I can take it or leave it. Not drinking has become my default setting.
And meditation? I’m still as neurotic as the next guy. Honestly, I’m more neurotic than the next guy, but I have less anxiety today that I did a couple months ago. My mood is better. I catch negative and angry thoughts more quickly than I did in the past. I still have a long way to go, but I feel like I’m headed in the right direction.
The best thing about all of this is that I’m not done. By any objective measure I’ve achieved the goals that I set out for myself back in January, but I don’t have any inclination to slack off. I’ve managed to establish a set of new habits that have measurably improved my life. The successful outcomes that these habits are bringing makes me want to keep going. My system is working.
Goals in the Age of Coronavirus
So, what next?
After the success of this experiment, I’m looking for other systems that I can put into place to improve my life. I’m going to use this pause in everyday life to dig into the nuts and bolts of things to find a productive path forward. To figure out where I want to go and what system will move me in the right direction.
Which brings me back to the point of this post. It’s not about weight loss. Or booze. Or exercise. Or meditation. It’s about how to approach life so that you’re able to accomplish things that are important to you. There’s nothing like a viral pandemic to make you examine your priorities. Maybe there’s something that you’ve wanted to do for a long time but never had the opportunity. Now’s the time. Make a system and get on with it. Control something you can control.
Want to learn to play guitar? Your system might be to practice for an hour every day. Want to reconnect with old friends? What about calling somebody every day of the week without fail? Start a letter writing habit. Go for a walk every day. Write short stories. Learn to cook.
It doesn’t matter what you want to do. Pick something that will better your life and create a system that moves you toward it.
Make a system. Forget about goals. Goals are for losers.
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