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. 

Posted on April 28, 2017 and filed under experiment.

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.  

Posted on February 6, 2017 .

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.  ↩

Posted on July 29, 2016 and filed under experiment.

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!

Posted on July 22, 2016 and filed under other people's things.

Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent Fasting (IF) is a way of eating that can help you to lose weight, maintain a lower body fat percentage, and stay healthy. You may not necessarily see better results than traditional dieting methods, but for some people it’s much easier to stick to. That means that the results are much better in practice for those people. Many people, including me, also enjoy the occasional reminder that going a little hungry once in a while won’t kill you - a reminder of the privilege of regular food.

If you’re looking for another way to approach your diet, or you’re just curious about the whole process, it’s worth experimenting . There is some research out there that has found fasting can improve your health in other ways, but it’s early days so we don’t quite know the story yet. I’ll describe intermittent fasting for you and then go through what I have been experimenting with to give you somewhere to start.

Why am I talking about this?

I’ve been living in a little bubble for the past few months. It seems every person I follow on the internet who talks about fitness is talking about IF lately. My first dim awareness of anything to do with periods of fasting came from my parents a few years ago when they tried the ‘5–2 diet’. I started to experiment with fasting as a way to recover from my ‘cheat day’ and found it to be very effective. More on that later.

What is intermittent fasting?

IF isn’t a diet. Rather, it’s a way of eating that makes the timing of your eating more important than what you’re eating. You already do a fast every day while you’re sleeping. Generally that would work out to be somewhere between 10–12 hours of fasting depending on when you eat dinner. A common way of doing IF is to extend the sleeping fast to 16 hours, followed by an 8 hour feeding period. In practice, this means simply skip breakfast and eat two larger meals (i.e. the same amount of food you’d normally eat if you ate breakfast) later in the day. If you eat your last meal at around 20:00 (8pm) and eat lunch at 12:00 the next day, you have just completed a 16 hour fast.

This pattern of 16 hour fast, 8 hour feeding window is called a protocol. I’ll go into detail later about this particular one. Other protocols suggest extending the fasting window further, others have the window shorter. Some suggest doing the fast every day, while others (generally the longer fasts) are best done once a week or so.

IF protocols generally don’t dictate what you should eat, instead focussing on when. That said, if you have weight loss or other goals, what you eat during that period will make a difference to your goals.

Why fast?

James Clear sums up why you might like to try this in his [post about the subject] (sorry about the imperial measures):

Surprisingly, since I’ve started intermittent fasting I’ve increased muscle mass (up 10 pounds from 205 to 215), decreased body fat (down 3% from 14% to 11%), increased explosiveness (set a personal best with a clean and jerk of 253 pounds a few months back), and decreased the amount of time I’ve spent training (down from 7.5 hours per week to 2.5 hours per week).

James is of course training regularly already, and at 14% body fat, he was doing pretty well. I’ve noticed that there’s plenty of examples of IF working well with people who are already paying attention to this stuff. They’re adding IF to a pre-existing training regime, and usually they’re already eating clean healthy food. That said, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that IF also works for people who aren’t training already (thought it really would help). You may be thinking “well obviously body fat would go down, because you’re eating less - you’re starving yourself!”. Not so. In fact, it works best if you eat the same amount of food you’d normally eat, only during the feeding window.

Fasting makes your day simpler. There are less meals to worry about, and when you try your first 24 hour fast, you’ll be shocked at how much extra time you have because you don’t have to cook/decide what to order, go pick it up, eat, or clean up.

I have also read that IF can promote autophagocytosis, which, as described by Wikipedia, is the natural, destructive mechanism by which unnecessary or dysfunctional cells digest themselves for other uses. This supposedly happens when fasting because the body is more likely to look for efficiencies within itself without a constant source of energy from you eating regularly. This process is destructive if left unchecked, but intermittently switching it on through fasting can help.

You’re convinced! But there will be doubters

IF is not the be all and end all. It’s just something else in your tool belt to help you meet your goals. It’s worth giving it a try, even if you end up deciding that it’s not for you.

You’ll probably meet a few doubters along the way. Rather than espousing intermittent fasting as the best thing in the world and getting into an argument, I suggest listening to their concerns. See if you can learn something from them. Be curious about why they think it’s a bad idea. You don’t have to act on their concerns, but you can learn a lot from listening to people that you don’t agree with, even if it’s just because they’re forcing you to explain yourself better. Here are some of the concerns I have come across with me since I’ve been doing IF.

Meal frequency

Questions:

Isn’t it better to eat lots of smaller meals?

What about your metabolism?

Metabolic rate is increased when you eat because you’re digesting food. The theory goes that if you eat more often, you will increase your metabolic rate. However, this doesn’t seem to work in practice - if you eat more food at once, your metabolic rate will generally increase to meet the food you have eaten. There doesn’t appear to be any long term ‘increased metabolic rate’ benefit from eating smaller meals more often. That said, plenty of people lose plenty of weight by eating smaller meals more often - I’m not disputing that. If smaller meals more often works for you, stick with it.

Skipping breakfast?

Question

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!

There are plenty of reasons why eating breakfast is important. One of them is that insulin sensitivity is increased over a period of fasting, meaning that you are more hormonally prepared for breakfast than other meals. Since you are fasting while you are sleeping, for many people breakfast time is the only time this happens. The thing is, if you lengthen that fast, you increase the positive effects of insulin sensitivity. When you break your fast later in the day you have the same beneficial effects.

Hormonal effects of fasting

What I would consider to be extreme fasting can have significant negative effects. Like with extreme amounts of exercise, if you take it really far it can cause your body to be in a stressed state. Your body might stop the production of hormones like testosterone. However, this seems to happen when you couple intense training, lots of fasting (say, 2–3 full day fasts per week), and maybe some other stress in your life. I have heard some people espousing the benefits of extreme fasting, but they’re doing it under direct doctor supervision and taking plenty of precautions. That sort of fasting is not what I’m talking about.

Lack of information for women

Admittedly, in my own self experimentation I’m not incentivised to look for information for women, so it’s possible that I just haven’t looked hard enough. In any case, there seem to be a lot of questions about the benefits of fasting for women. I think there’s a bias towards information for men. For example, the negative effects of fasting (see above) seem to be much more pronounced in women. I don’t think they come on more easily necessarily, but from the small amount of information I’ve been able to fine, the effects seem to be more serious. Some tips I’ve found: - Women may see better results with a wider window of feeding (say 10 hours feeding, 14 hours fasting if using the daily IF protocol). - All [female page on Facebook] to help with IF.

Are the benefits really coming from fasting? Or is it something else?

It’s definitely possible that the weight loss benefits people are seeing are coming from the calorie equation - burning more energy than we eat. Comparing fasting to not fasting probably isn’t fair, because ‘not fasting’ really means ‘over eating’ in most cases. But the results are still there for the individuals involved, so if fasting is easier to stick to and it’s working, then don’t let this question stop you for now.

What I do

I have changed around my diet and exercise regime a few times in the last few years, but generally I can describe my lifestyle as active. I practice bodyweight exercise, and I’ve been dabbling in gymnastics for a while now. I have been eating a relatively low carb diet for over a year now with a ‘cheat day’ each Saturday where I eat a lot of carbs. On a Sunday, I would usually feel awful and bloated. This would often leak into Monday, plus I found I often had trouble with my eczema on Monday or Tuesday too. I did a bit of research on what other people did to ‘recover’ from their cheat days and came across the 24 hour fast.

The 24 Hour Fast

In summary:

  • last meal on Saturday night at around 21:00 (usually ice-cream!)
  • when I wake up on Sunday I consume 700ml of water. I drink water throughout the day including with each ‘meal’.
  • around 09:00 Sunday I consume:
    • glass of water with greens powder
    • 5mg of Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
    • cup of black coffee
  • around 13:00 Sunday I consume:
    • glass of water with greens powder
    • 5mg BCAAs
    • cup of black coffee
  • if I’m struggling at 17:00 Sunday I consume:
    • glass of water with greens powder
    • 5mg BCAAs.
  • before bed (no later than 22:00) I eat a small snack. Note that this is the 24 hour mark. Examples of snacks:
    • a couple of pieces of tasty cheese
    • 2–3 celery sticks with peanut butter
  • Monday morning I resume my normal diet.

The BCAAs and greens powder help to make sure that I’m not depriving myself of essential nutrients, and honestly to help me get through it. In particular, they help guard against the cranky brain problem. I’ve noticed that as I’ve done the 24 hour fast more often, I am much less reliant on consuming the supplements and I have done at least one fast with only one serving of each.

I have found that the mornings are the most difficult. Once my body realises it’s not getting breakfast, the hunger goes away. The fog of the cheat day lifts by lunch time, and by mid afternoon I’m feeling pretty great. It’s a great time to do intense reading or writing.

The fast has helped significantly with my cheat day recovery. Once the fog has lifted at lunch time, it doesn’t come back. The weekly eczema flare ups that I was having have stopped (though my eczema hasn’t gone away entirely). Plus I’ve noticed I look a bit leaner in the mirror. Unfortunately I don’t have the capacity to measure that objectively so you’ll have to go with my subjective measure.

What’s bad about a 24 hour fast?

Sunday is a rest day for me, so I haven’t yet found myself trying to do a fast on a day where I’m required to do strenuous activity. I don’t know what would happen if I needed to be much more active. But I’ve managed to avoid it so far with a little bit of planning, and if I got stuck I could always eat something.

The more prominent issue I’ve noticed is the subtle negative social effects due to not eating. Eating with other humans is sharing. It can be upsetting to people if you’re not eating, so be prepared. Some people will also have opinions to share with you about what is healthy. Both of these things are manageable, but it can be a little daunting trying to explain why you’re not eating to your mother in law.

What I’d like to try next

16/8 hour fast/feeding window

This protocol is the one I used in my description of IF. It’s simultaneously one the more simple protocols, and one of the more complex ones. The version of this that was popularised by Martin Berkhan of [Leangains.com] goes into specific details about what to eat, including [carb] and [protein] cycling, specific timing for exercise, and specific supplementation. Exercising at the end of the fast pushes you deeper into the fast, and is followed immediately by the largest meal of the day to ensure muscle growth. Whilst I’m sure I will use elements of the Leangains protocol, I would like to start it off more simply.

The following is a daily protocol:

  • Upon waking consume 700ml of water. I drink water throughout the day including at least 500ml with each meal.
  • exercise in the morning at around 05:00, during which I consume:
    • 10mg of Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
  • After exercise consume greens powder.
  • around 12:30 I eat lunch. Example:
    • properly prepared legumes (half a handful)
    • lots of baked vegetables (2–3 fists worth)
    • a protein (about 2–3 palms worth)
  • around 17:30 I eat a smaller snack.
    • Legumes (half a handful)
    • vegetables (1 fists worth)
    • protein (1 palms worth)
  • around 19:30 I eat dinner
    • Legumes (half a handful)
    • vegetables (3 fists worth)
    • protein (2 palms worth)

This protocol is heavily influence by my current work schedule, so it’s not perfect.

Fast Friends

My experiments with fasting are far from over. There’s plenty of great stuff about fasting, but it’s not the panacea. Intermittent fasting is another thing in your tool belt of things to help you get through this life with the body you have. The key to this is to keep experimenting and learning as much as you can. Try to uphold the value of active wonder in how your body works and how your actions (diet, exercise, lethargy, mediation, socialising) effect it. If you find something that works, that’s awesome. But be careful of creeping conservatism that makes you stick with things that used to work long after they’ve stopped. I didn’t write about IF to convince you to give up all you already know. I hope I sparked the curiosity in your mind, and I hope it carries through.

Posted on July 15, 2016 and filed under experiment.

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.  ↩

Posted on July 8, 2016 and filed under experiment.