Don't Try So Hard

A month ago I had a realisation that is changing my life. It’s really simple: you don’t have to try so hard all the time - back off

Of course, as with anything that is supposedly simple, this has a certain nuance to it. I’m not suggesting that hard work should be avoided. Only that when you’re doing that hard work, most of the time pushing and straining to get it done isn’t helping. For most kinds of work (and play - I’ll get to that), the work itself is the reward rather than the thing you’re trying to achieve at the end. Sure, if you’re competing in a marathon and you’re striving to get across the finish line, pushing so that you stumble across can be a good thing. But as you go about your life doing everyday things, you don’t often need to push like that. You can keep your absolute top performance in the tank so to speak, and give it 90%. You’ll do whatever it is you’re doing with much more grace, form, and have something to give when you’re finished. And best of all, you’ll probably recover more easily from all that work so you can go again sooner. 

This applies to so much in my life: exercise, writing, sex, singing, guitar, and really, any creative pursuit. There is a lot more to be gained from doing 10 pushups with perfect form, then straining to do 20 in what feels like your ‘top performance’ all in terrible form. This gets to the heart of the problem with trying so hard. At least with me, trying really hard at something meant that I missed what was important about that thing. In the above example, I would feel really good for having tried so hard at my pushups, only to never really get any better at them because I was always using terrible form. The instant I backed off and started using proper form, and not straining to complete my reps, I started to improve. I had made it all about the goal of more reps. But that was getting in the way of me learning how to do a really good pushup. 

I had the same experience with sex. For years now I’ve been trying really hard to get better at sex. I wanted to last longer and be able to ‘do sex better’. I’ve learned a few things along the way, but over all those years I never got demonstratively better. A few months ago, for some reason during sex I decided to just take it easy. And wow. Everything improved seemingly all at once! Not only did I last longer, but I felt as though I was in control of the ‘end’ so to speak. Both my partner and I enjoyed the experience much more. AND, I’ve been able to recreate this experience every time I’ve had sex since that day - it wasn’t a fluke. All it took was me not trying so hard to do sex and enjoy the experience

Not everything is sex. But my experience here is illustrates a powerful but simple concept. It’s something I’ve heard a million times: stop and smell the roses. It’s about the journey not the destination. Both of these phrases are cliches. I thought I understood them. But I know now that I never recognised their importance. I think I’ve still got a lot to learn, but here’s where I’m at after a month:

Stop what you’re doing and take a moment to enjoy the experience. Goals are great to have, but the learning and growing happens along the way not suddenly all at once at the end. So to get the most benefit out of having your goal, and in most cases to be able to even achieve it, you have to pay attention along the way. Being present with the experience is the best way to not only enjoy yourself, but to achieve your goals. 

The steps to overcome guilt

1: Acknowledge the guilt and examine it like a scientist. Don't run away from the guilt - it's a bad feeling, but examining it will teach you something about yourself. 

2: Ask yourself "why am I actually doing this?" Then ask again. Then again. And again. One more time. Drill down into each answer with another 'why'. 

3: Write all of this down. It's self examination, it's hard so do yourself a favour and record it. 

4: Leave it for the day. 

5: Come back tomorrow and take some action. Break it down and take action to address the 'why' you discovered.  

How to Recognise the Habits that are Shaping your Life

My friend Ollie [1] asked me about how to make some changes in his life. He’s feeling overweight, bored, and stuck in a rut. There’s nothing in particular in his days that he doesn’t like, but feels unhappy in his life because it doesn’t feel like he’s getting anywhere. He has some vague goals, but mostly they’re about not being where he is now. Ollie has a lot going for him, but he focusses on the negative side of things more often than not. After discussing this with him for a while, I can see that he can make some small changes in his life that will help him.


This may seem a bit harsh, but I’ll just come right out and say it - Ollie has some bad habits. They range from physical stuff like his diet, to mental habits like his tendency to focus on the negative. He has plenty of good habits too - for example, I know that he flosses his teeth every day. [2] The big problem for Ollie isn’t that he has bad habits - we all do - it’s that he doesn’t see them. The habits that are limiting him are engrained and normalised.

All of us go through life with hundreds of little habits we carry out every day. A lot of the time we aren’t aware of them. The habits might be good or bad, and without you paying any attention to them, they are controlling the outcomes in your life more than you realise.

For example, a few years ago when I decided that I needed to lose some weight, I changed my breakfast from cereal to a salad with an egg. About six months later, I had lost 25 kilograms and felt amazing. From the outside, it appeared as though changing the habit of what I ate for breakfast brought about massive change by itself. It was an important factor for sure, but the main thing I learned from the process was that I had been in the habit of eating an enormous amount of carbohydrates for every meal without even realising I was doing it. Not to mention all the junk food and soft drink I was eating. My diet was terrible when I honestly thought it was pretty good. There was an element of me learning new information about what makes up a ‘good’ diet, but the majority of the problem was because I didn’t even notice that I was constantly eating junk food. I’m not here to talk about diet, but this habit led me to a bad health situation without me even being aware of it.

Recognising your own Habits

I stumbled across the habits that were causing me to be overweight almost by accident. I’m hoping that you and Ollie don’t have to stumble sideways into self awareness about your bad habits.

There are two approaches to figuring out what your bad habits are.

1. Figuring it out via Outcomes and Goals.

Set yourself a goal, and work out what habits you could do each day that might help you reach the goal. As you implement the ‘good habits’, you’ll start to notice some of your bad habits getting in the way. It’s difficult to change more than a couple of habits at once[3], so at this stage take note of the bad habits and resolve to address them soon.

Because this method is mostly trial and error, it means you may not discover bad habits in areas unrelated to your goals. To get this right, you have to keep an open mind, be very observant, and critically analyse yourself. It’s easier said than done.

2. Observation

If you already have some goals set, but can’t see why you’re not achieving them, it’s worthwhile to spend some time observing yourself closely. To do this effectively, you need to be honest with yourself. Be aware that you won’t be able to remember all the things you do in a day no matter what you think. Therefore it’s important for you to write everything you do down in a journal. Yep, it’s an involved process. For one week you need to keep a detailed journal with everything you in about 15 minutes increments. It is a lot of work, but it’s the only way you’ll be able to see what your habits are. I made an example log sheet to help you out - get it here.


I don’t know how long it will take Ollie to discover his bad habits. Both of these methods require Ollie to be observant and diligent. He is definitely capable of this, but habits are a strong force that keep you going in whatever direction you’re already going. The first step to changing bad habits is noticing them.


  1. Ollie is my dog’s name. I didn’t want to use my friends real name without his permission.  ↩

  2. I don’t do that!  ↩

  3. Some people say more one is a recipe for failure.  ↩

Four Problems with Calorie Counting

I found this great article over at Precision Nutrition about the issues with calorie counting.

I present to you the infographic that they shared with the article:

In particular I wanted to call out the topic of adaptive thermogenesis. I think this process is one of the things that stops a lot of people from hitting their fitness goals. The belief that eating too much is the problem means people feel that they’re doing good by eating less. I get the irony of this only one week after writing about fasting. Let's acknowledge that and move right along.  

In my experience, generally what happens is people eat less in each meal, but overall eat about the same. Maybe they’ll have small breakfast, lunch, and dinner; but because they’re hungry will end up having a few more snacks. It's because feeling hungry is stressful, and a lot of people are rightfully scared of it. Depending on whats going on in your body, feeling hungry can be anything from a minor unpleasant 'empty gut' feeling, to a fuzzy cranky brain, to full blown exhaustion and fatigue. Personally I'm less scared of feeling hungry, but only because I have experimented with intermittent fasting and developed the ability to go hungry for relatively long periods of time (24 hours) without too much trouble. But it's something I prepare for, and I've built up to over time. It's not something I started doing suddenly as a New Years Resolution. When you're used to eating something small every 3 hours, trying to suddenly reduce the amount of food you eat is bound to not only freak you out, but also be physically challenging for your body. And to top it off, even if you have the mental fortitude to push yourself through that stress, the process of adaptive thermogenesis may foil your plans anyway!

Experiments

I don’t share much on the Internet these days. I’m not on Facebook, I barely post to Twitter (though I do read my Twitter feed regularly). My last post to my website was months ago. As I’ve felt the urge to write about this stuff, I have asked myself why I think sharing on a website will catch on for me more than other social media.

After a lot of thought, I realised that it’s because a website doesn’t have to be about me. Sure it might have my name on it, and occasionally I’ll share a story from my life to help make a point. But ultimately it doesn’t have to revolve around me[1] and my life in the same way that a social media profile tends to. Obviously I could try to ignore the nudges of the Facebook, but everything about it pushes me towards using it in that way. Not to mention the powerful pull of the friends and family who are using it in that way. Since I want to write and share my thoughts, but I don’t want it to be about me, I feel that a website is the only way.

Experiments

I have been experimenting with a bunch of different things in the health and fitness space over the past few years. I have learned a whole lot so I’d like to start writing about my experiences and my research. I think there’s plenty to say about the topic even though the Internet is full of people talking about it. There’s heaps of people talking about basically anything on the Internet, so I don’t want to let that stop me.

Armed with my curiosity and willingness to suspend disbelief and implement things I thought couldn’t work, I have experimented in these general areas:

  • bodyweight exercise
  • gymnastics
  • interval training
  • intermittent fasting
  • ketogenic diet
  • (s)low carb diet
  • nootropics

I’m going to be writing about some of these topics over the next few months. I will be writing once a week, starting next week with Intermittent Fasting. This should be fun!


  1. This post is quite introspective, but I’m leading somewhere.  ↩