6 Ways to Overcome Procrastination

Procrastination by Pete Zarria

At some point or another, everyone has procrastinated. Whether there is a big project to complete, or a new habit you’re trying to build like practice a language or exercising, procrastination has gotten the best of all of us.

Nobody is immune, but it can be beaten.

Procrastination is, more often than not, us taking the easiest possible route. We’re wired to be like this – if we weren’t naturally discouraged from doing challenging tasks everyone would all be super fit, speak a dozen languages and being productive would be our default.

But there are small, easy methods you can employ to reduce the difficulty of challenging tasks and make being productive your default. Today, we present to you six of our favorite methods to beat procrastination and accomplish our goals more often:

1. Find Your Why

Why do you want or need to do this task in the first place? What will be the reward for completing it?

Sometimes we lose sight of why we took on a habit or project in the first place, so it’s important to remind ourselves what motivated us in the first place.

Are you preparing for a race? Want to connect with your German friends on a deeper level?

2. Make it Ridiculously Easy to Comply

Want to go to the gym every morning? Then pack your gym bag before you go to bed and set it either next to your bed or next to the door on our way out. Learning a language? Just practice for ten minutes. And make it easy to practice – have your flashcards ready and in a place where they will be in your way when you go to do another task, like leaving them on your keyboard. If you have a digital app you like, such as Memrise, do it while you wait for a program to load or while you wait for your morning coffee. Practicing an instrument? Leave it out. Set up a place for it outside of its case where it will be safe but easy to grab and highly visible.

The point is, do whatever you can to make complying as easy as possible and eliminate any potential deterrents. You only have so much willpower, when that starts to run out it is easy to put things off for another day.

3. Have a Friend Help Keep You Accountable

It’s easy to explain away to yourself why you didn’t do that thing you were supposed to do, it’s a lot harder (and embarrassing) to have to admit to a friend that you didn’t do that thing.

Find a trusted friend and tell them your objective and agree to do something embarrassing or to donate some cash to an organization you dislike if you fail to meet your goals. They’ll help encourage you and keep you on track, and you’ll have even more reason not to put that thing off.

Bonus points if your friend joins you in your goal. Everything is better with a friend.

4. Set Up Reminders

For certain things, it’s easy to have them set up in a place where they are in your way. It’s easier to remember to do a thing when it’s often in your way or in your line of vision. But for certain tasks this isn’t exactly possible.

For those things, set up reminders. Stick post-it notes in places you frequently look (like along the sides of your computer monitor) and reminders on your phone at ideal times to do this task.

5. Daily Practice

Overcoming procrastination is akin to getting rid of a bad habit and building a new, better habit. To beat procrastination, it requires daily practice. Starting easy, just shoot for 5-10 minutes per day of completing the task. After a week, increase the time a little, but not too much so it wont overwhelm you.

To keep track of your progress, get out a sheet of paper and make a chart of 7 columns and 4 rows. For each day you hit your minimum required for your task, you get a nice big green circle on that day. Post this chart somewhere highly visible, so that you will see it often. Once it’s posted and you’ve started, don’t break your chain! No matter what, make sure that your daily minimum is met.

The chart will serve in part to remind you to keep on track, and part as a point of pride – be proud of your successes!

6. Do the Hardest Part First

More often than not, the hardest task is the one we need to do most. Commit just to doing that hard thing. Break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks and then knock that sucker out.

By comparison, everything else afterward will feel like a breeze to complete.

Getting the big, hard task done will likely not only require the most willpower to get done, which is why you should tackle it first and not last, but it will also serve as a powerful boost in momentum once it’s complete.

So complete that really hard task first thing and make today a successful day. Then, ride the motivational momentum through the rest of your day.

Bonus: 7. Time Box Your Goal

Time boxing is a powerful and easy to implement method to get things done whether you really want to do them or not, and as a result becomes a huge source of productivity, momentum and creativity.

Get a timer, either on your phone or a physical timer (we prefer an egg timer and to just leave our phones completely alone) and set a time limit for doing your task. You will spend ONLY that time doing ONLY that task. Set a reasonable amount of time – enough to get the task done but not so much that you are completely demotivated to even begin. Commit so that once that timer starts, you get immediately to work. No distractions, just the task. As soon as the timer goes off, you are done. Drop it and leave it. You are completely off the hook from this task! You’ve officially met your minimum required work, so get up and go do something completely different. Get a glass of water or go for a short stroll. Bask in your success.

Was this article helpful? What methods have you tried, and what was your experience? Let us know in the comments below!

Photo Credit: Pete Zarria

GoBadass: A Guide to GoRuck, the Toughest Day of Your Life

Road to Epic GoRuck - Carrying a Telephone Pole around Cincinnati

What, never carried a telephone pole around?

If you’ve done obstacle course races you might have heard of GoRucks before, but if not then allow me to summarize it for you: it’s the most rewarding, tiring, mentally tough fitness-y “event” you’ll ever do.

It’s torture, but it’s so much fun. You may find yourself with your face nose-deep in a stranger’s rear-end, but by the end of the day you’ll be friends and comrades. You’ll be dirty, ache all over, and have sores on your feet, but a huge grin on your face. It’s hard but will teach you more about yourself in one day than you’ll learn in a year.

What’s a GoRuck?

GoRucks are tough to describe briefly as there are different levels of difficulty, secrecy, and not much else out there like them.

GoRuck was founded by a Green Beret Veteran who wanted to be a voice for good, employ Special Operations veterans, and build a bridge between the military and civilians. The result was a company that makes military-grade rucksacks and holds events geared to mimic special ops training.

I could compare a GoRuck to an obstacle course race (OCR) – except that a GoRuck is not a race, there are no obstacles and, unlike a normal race, there are physical challenges. Also you’ll have a rucksack with bricks in it. Lastly, you won’t be competing against anyone except perhaps yourself – you’ll be a part of a 20-30 person team that you’ll look after and who will look after you.

There are a few different levels of GoRuck as mentioned: Light, Challenge, Heavy, and Selection. There are also some specialized Expedition events, but I’ll cover these a bit more in depth soon. Each event is led by the team cadre, a Special Ops veteran flown into each city just for the event. Unlike with obstacle course races, every GoRuck event is unique and it’s entirely possible that the cadre will make it up as they go. The uncertainty about what you’ll be doing is part of the experience and appeal.

Differences Between GoRuck Events

As mentioned, the main types of GoRuck event are the Light, Challenge, Heavy, and Selection. It’s easiest to lay out the differences in a table, so have a table!

Event Length Distance Pack Weight Avg. Pass Rate
Light 4-5 hours 7-10 miles <150# = 2 bricks (~10lb);
>150# = 4 bricks (~20lb)
99%
Challenge 10-12 hours 15-20 miles <150# = 4 bricks (~20lb);
>150# = 6 bricks (~30lb)
94%
Heavy 24+ hours 40+ miles <150# = 25lb;
>150# = 25lb
50%
Selection 48+ hours 80+ miles 45# <5%

If you can complete a 5k OCR, you can do a GoRuck Light. You might not have a good time, but you’ll be able to do it. From there they go up in difficulty. Someone who does regular strength and cardiovascular training could likely do a Challenge as well.

While I have yet to do a Heavy or Selection (though I plan to somewhere between 2015-16), I think the pass rates speak for themselves: they are difficult and you cannot expect to succeed without dedicated training.

You must weigh your ruck down for each event, and you can use bricks (~4-6lb each on average) or sandbags. I highly recommend going for bricks over sandbags as sandbags get heavier when wet, and you will get wet. Make sure you wrap the bricks in duct tape beforehand and write your name and phone number on them. Labeling them is important if you decide to throw them away after the event – so they aren’t mistaken for bombs or anything.

If you are in the Light or Challenge, you’ll have your pack visually inspected by the Cadre, however for the Heavy and Selections they may bring a scale to check the weight of your ruck.

Not having the proper amount of weight in your pack is an immediate dismissal from the event.

Beyond the main events (called “Good Livin’”), they also have Expeditions, scavenger hunts, a 5k, and firearms training events. The Expeditions include GoRuck Ascent (mountaineering, climbing, navigation, survival training, and wilderness medicine), GoRuck Beached (learn amphibious skills and practice in missions), GoRuck Navigator (route planning, map reading, compass & gps skills, and survival skills), and finally GoRuck Trek (learn spycraft and mission planning skills, then practice in a mock mission.)

Road to Epic GoRuck - Crossing the Ohio River into Kentucky

You’ll get lots of stares, cheers, people stopping to ask questions then calling you crazy. You’ll feel crazy.

What to Expect

Each event is different, however there are some basic things that are common. Usually, they are laid out as a main objective (get from A to B), with military-inspired challenges to test your teamwork and physical and mental fortitude. You’ll get uncomfortably close to strangers, receive and/or give aid, hike a lot, carry a lot of things, challenged and exhausted in every possible way, and be smiling when it’s all over.

Without going into too much detail, some of the challenges in GoRucks I have done are: Lots of the famous log carrying along with challenges that tested our navigational, teamwork, strength, strength endurance, memory, focus, planning, mindfulness, foraging and observational skills.

You’ll do things you don’t want to do, but have to do for the mission. For instance, we had to army crawl (real army crawling where your head and ass are down, not this bullshit) while being mindful of precious objects we had to protect in a park field where lovely dog owners had carelessly left their dogs’ feces for us to avoid crawling through (spoiler alert: not everyone could avoid it.)

Likely you’ll find a log or telephone pole to carry, but each event also requires that the team carries a weight (weight of item varies upon event), an American Flag, and a GoRuck flag.

Expect to be gawked at by onlookers curious what you are doing and what on earth would possess you to do it.

You can train for the physical aspects, and should, however your mental game is going to make or break the event for you. If you are tired or off, you’re going to have a bad time. If you try to cheat or be lazy, you’re going to have a bad time (and likely get sent home – yes, if you are not a team player or are not completing challenges as instructed the Cadre can decide you’re out.) If you are mentally tough, you’ll succeed. If you are weak-willed a GoRuck will break you.

There will be times when you want to quit, when your body aches and your thoughts are fuzzy, but you’ll have to convince yourself to push forward, to keep going. Everyone starts out doe-eyed and eager, however a few hours in everyone will be tired and their true colors will be visible. Are you going to be the person who gives up? Who complains the whole time and drags everyone down?

You can sort of train mental toughness by pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone to the edge of your limits, physically and mentally. The more you do it, the more your limits increase and the harder you have to work to hit them.

Most of all, expect to be a part of the team. You’ll move as a team, complete challenges as a team, and finish as a team. A lot of the challenges will require teamwork to complete and if someone is injured or requires aid it is expected other team members help them. This could be carrying an injured teammate, offering to carry extra rucks if you are unable to help carry the log or if someone is near extreme exhaustion, sharing water, so on and so forth.

The prize for completion? Honor, a patch, and new friends.

What to Take

GoRuck has a list of required and suggested options for each event, however I have a personal packing list I’ll share to help give you ideas. A good thing to keep in mind is that you will be carrying this stuff for several hours – do not pack any more than necessary.

  • Bricks – Obviously, however I have a couple additional suggestions. Duct-tape them, but then also duct tape them together and wrap them in some easy-to-quickly unwrap bubble wrap for comfort. Find some way to secure them and to keep them up high in the pack with something a foam yoga block underneath them. Having them wrapped in bubble wrap, secured and high up on your back distributes the weight more evenly and prevents them from jumbling around and having a corner poke you, or having them slap against your lower back and wears you out less quickly.
  • Sunscreen – If your event is during the daytime this should be a no-brainer.
  • Gloves – Optional, but highly recommended so you don’t get torn up hands (and before anyone with a “tough guy” attitude comes in here, it’s not cool to get broken glass shoved into your hand.)
  • LOTS OF WATER – Bring a huge water bladder, and additional sources of liquid refreshment. During one of my rucks, a team member’s water bladder cap broke and they lost all their water and another ran out from drinking it all up too quickly – lucky for both of them I brought four bottles and was more than happy to share.
  • Carabiner – This will come in handy if some part of your ruck breaks, which is a high possibility. If doing the Heavy or Selection, a carabiner rated for holding your weight is required.
  • A Properly Fitted Ruck – It’s tempting to get a huge Ruck or to get a very small one, however I highly suggest you try multiples to find the perfect one for you. Too big and it will be a burden (I used one too large and suffered by getting hit in the chin multiple times doing crab-walks with it on backwards), too small and it wont fit everything required. You’ll also need to experiment with the straps to make sure it won’t wear on your lower back and will cause minimal shoulder pain.
  • Reflective Tape – This is required to be on your ruck and/or on your person at all times. This was previously suggested, however is now absolutely required after a Rucker lost his life during a nighttime event. Safety is not a joke.
  • Headlamp & batteries – Required for nighttime events and just flat out handy.
  • Pre-packaged snacks – I specify pre-packaged for ease of access and storage, however a friend of mine took Ziplock bag filled with 2 lbs of bacon she cooked and was more than happy with it. In each event, you’ll have opportunities to sneak in a bite to eat if necessary and considering how active you will be you will want to. I am personally a big fan of Clif energy & protein bars, but bring whatever you enjoy and will be easy to eat. Candy bars are not uncommon.
  • Cash, ID (in a plastic bag and/or cards) – You’ll need cab fare in case you decide to bail or if you get booted, but also if your cadre is nice and allows you a break to buy extra water/snacks this will come in handy (also: you can buy a meal with your comrades afterward.)
  • Comfortable Shoes, Socks, and Extra Socks – For the Light and Challenge you can get away with wearing sports shoes, however it is highly suggested (and required for the Heavy and Selection) you purchase a comfortable pair of boots with ankle support. Thick socks to help prevent wear on your feet are also important – arguments have broken out over the best pair of socks for GoRucks, so I’ll leave that up to you.
  • A Friend – Everything’s better with a friend isn’t it? While you will get close to your team mates and encourage each other to push forward, having at least one person you know will be an added source of camaraderie and encouragement.
Road to Epic GoRuck - Kissing the Ohio River

You have to be prepared for whatever is thrown at you. Including doing push ups in a polluted river full of broken glass and metal.

Training

GoRucks will require a lot of low, steady-state endurance, strength, strength endurance, and possibly periods of sprinting or brief running. You’ll have to build a plan you find sustainable and enjoyable, however I have these few suggestions:

2x per week: Strength Training – I suggest picking or building a weightlifting routine that focuses on increasing overall strength.
2x per week: Cardio – Running is your best bet here, building up to a 5k is more than enough for a Light and Challenge. Because GoRuck’s are varied, vary your workouts too and do HIIT sprints and hill sprints, too. Alternatively, you can also do lightly-weighted exercises for intensity/time (example: front squats with dumbbells or a lightly weighted barbell for 20 reps for 5 sets, or for a set time.)
1x per week: Practice ruck with pack-weighted exercises – Set a pack weight, distance to walk and exercises to do during the walk and increase all variables as able to. For example, you could do a 5 mile walk with a backback weighted to 10lbs hitting up the park on your way. While at the park practice army crawls, bear crawls, crab walks, push-ups and squats, hill sprints, and planks. After you’re done, continue your walk until you get back to your starting point. Other good ideas: sandbag carrys, farmer’s walks, wood chops/sledge hammers, sled pulls, box jumps, and burpees.

How long you’ll need to train beforehand will depend on your current physical state and how badly you want to rock the ruck. If you just want to pass the Light and are average health-wise, a 6 week training plan should be more than enough. If you want to thrive, I’d suggest a bit longer.

Just remember to start small and build up as your body allows, and value your rest days.

There are no requirements for each event, save for the Selection, and no way to predict exactly what you’ll need to be able to do, so this plan is just to give you a general idea of things to think about when building your own training plan.

The pre-requisites for the Selection are (and you will be tested on them during the event, if you fail at any one of them you will be dismissed):
– 2 minutes to complete a minimum of 55 push-ups sans-ruck
– 2 minutes to complete a minimum of 65 sit-ups sans-ruck
– 5 mile run within 40 minutes sans-ruck
– 12 mile run with ruck within 3 hours and 30 minutes. Ruck must weigh 45lbs at all times, not including water and food.

Why you Should do a GoRuck

At the beginning of my first ruck I was all-smiles and eager to take on whatever challenges thrown my way. By the middle, I was repeating affirmations and encouraging “Don’t give up! You’ve got this!” statements in my head and trying to ignore the “Why did you sign up for this?! This is horrible!”, and by the end I was banged up and tired. However, I gained an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and perspective. Possibly AIDS too – the Ohio river is polluted and full of litter folks, and doing burpees in it is not exactly advisable.

I’m sure by this point many of you reading this are thinking “Why the hell would I put myself through that kind of misery? Why would you want to ache, carry telephone poles around town, torture yourself in a dirty river, and drag your face through dog poo?! And you PAID FOR IT!”

Well, because it’s fun. Because the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment from the experience cannot be described. As you do more rucks, even repeating levels, the mental devils still come back and you will still have to push yourself. No matter what you will get scraped, bruised and exhausted.

But it is worth it.

One could also argue why you’d do an OCR, marathon, or triathlon, and the reasons are really simple: they are fun, incredible experiences that push you to your mental and physical limits. They are excellent ways to stay healthy and fit doing a challenging activity you enjoy.

Road to Epic GoRuck - Group Picture

Being finished is a relief but you’ll also find yourself wanting more – the endorphin high and immense feelings of accomplishment are addicting.

Are you up for the challenge?

Get out there and do a GoRuck! If you’ve already done one, what did you think of it? Share your experience and training ideas in the comments below!

Why Behavioral Change is Hard and What You Can Do About It

Adventure Time - "Dude, sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something." by Jake the Dog.

Want to make a big behavioral change in your life? Maybe you want to get fit or commit to learning a language or instrument, or even to start meditating.

At some time or another, everyone sets goals they hope to attain someday that will require significant changes to their lifestyles. Unfortunately though, most will fail to achieve those goals.

Every new year, gyms are crowded with well-intentioned “resolutioners” who want to become healthy, perhaps lose some pounds, and be a better version of themselves in the new year. By February the number of those who stick around will be halved, then by March that number halved again. Only a very small percent of those who started will stick around.

Behavioral Change Motivated by Negative Emotions

A lot of the people at the gym are motivated by the things that make them upset or by a negative conscious. They’re upset about being overweight, feeling guilty for not exercising as often as they should.

The same goes for many other pursuits, even learning instruments – they focus too much on what they can’t do, or the guilty feelings for missed practice sessions.

Studies have shown that those seeking to make long-lasting behavioral changes are most successful when they are self-motivated and founded in positive thinking.

So don’t focus on the negatives – focus on the good that will come from that behavioral change, on how good it feels to know you’ve hit your targets along your way to that goal. Focus on the wins you have had – it’s better to exercise once a week for 15 minutes, than not at all.

Your inner dialog effects your success rate, your confidence and your moods. The more you can make it a positive voice instead of a negative one, the happier and more successful you’ll be.

Visualizations and personal mission statements have been shown to help people succeed in their goals and in changing the tone of their inner voice.

Practice visualizing succeeding in your goals and make time at the beginning of your day to recite your personal mission statement, like “today will be a productive day – I’ll practice Spanish and go to the gym.” Or “I’m hardworking and make awesome videos – I dedicate myself to making the best videos available.”

“The most successful people recognize, that in life they create their own love, the manufacture their own meaning, hey generate their own motivation.”
– Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Take on More than You Can Handle

Your willpower is finite and so is your time. Taking on too many goals at once will not only drain your willpower and motivation, but will lower your focus and ability to devote time to meet those goals.

Once one thing fails, it’s easy to slip into a negative mind-set and let it all fall apart.

People who seem to be able to “do it all” and “magically have time for everything” didn’t start out that way – they built it up slowly.

To ensure your goals will be successful, start with just one or two and add to it as you feel able to. Once meeting your first couple goals is so easy and habitual that you do it without even thinking, then you can add more.

Stay in Your Comfort Zone

A lot of behavioral changes will require that you do something uncomfortable. They will make you do things you don’t normally do, in the name of making you into a better person.

Practicing a language requires you get out of your comfort zone – you’ll eventually need to go out and practice speaking with other people.

Eating healthy foods, hitting calorie and macro targets, exercising all require that you get out of your comfort zone. It’s just easier to not do those things, and eating ‘bad foods’ make you feel really good right now.

An simple way to address the comfort zone issue is to break it up into small, swallow-able chunks and to congratulate yourself on the successes you do make.

Practice speaking in your target language for just a few minutes, and build it up from there. Same goes for exercising – don’t try to go all out and lift or run for an hour. Eating healthy food all day isn’t easy for everyone, so start with just one meal.

Once those small commitments aren’t painful anymore, then you can increase the time or difficulty.

“We avoid risks in life, so we can make it safely to death.”
-Philosoraptor

Make Things as Hard as Possible

Sure, you can keep track of how much you’ve spent on ‘entertainment’ in your head. And you can remember to practice playing your ukulele for fifteen minutes a day if it’s hidden in it’s case and tucked in the closet, right?

Right?

Nope.

We aren’t perfect, so the more we can make behavioral change easier to do than to not do, the better. Rather than fully putting away your instrument after practice, keep it somewhere in the open where it is easy to see and think “Yeah, I’ll just grab it and practice for a few minutes.” The hassle of taking something out of it’s case is small, but enough to discourage someone from doing it.

If keeping to a budget is difficult, forcing yourself to only spend cash on your entertainment will eliminate the need for (often wrong) mental math and keeps you on track to that big goal.

If you want to exercise early in the morning, keep your exercise clothes out ahead of time – set them out before going to bed so that it’s in your way and easier than not to put them on and go work out. Put your meditation and language-learning apps on the front screen of your phone so you’ll have that many fewer steps to comply.

Vague, Un-actionable Goals

We’ve talked a lot about how having vague goals practically ensures failure. When you have a big goal like “lose weight,” “learn guitar” or “become financially independent” it’s incredibly easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and paralyzed by not knowing what to do.

Take the time to make your goal specific and then explicitly list out the steps required to achieve that goal – this will go a long way to ensure your success. Once you’ve completed the goal and actions-to-goal sheet, put it somewhere easy to see and take a look at it from time to time to remind yourself that your goal is doable, and you know exactly how to do it.

Breaking down big goals into smaller, mini goals will help not to feel overwhelmed and will give you clarity. You know what you need to do and you know you can do it. The only thing is to actually do it.

Don’t Build New Habits

One of the easiest ways to achieve a goal is to incorporate it into who you are, to make it a part of your habits and being. Unfortunately, many people don’t take the time to do this. We want to skip the hard work of behavioral change and just reap the benefits – but it doesn’t work like that.

If your goal is to workout three days a week for an hour per session when you haven’t set foot in a gym for the past year, starting there is likely to fail. Going to the gym three days a week is something you aren’t used to doing and the time commitment will wear you out.

If you want to make meditation, language practice or instrument practice into a daily activity, the same idea applies – jumping into a huge time commitment will wear down your willpower.

Instead of taking on a big commitment that is a huge behavioral change, start with a small change. Meditate or practice for just five minutes per day. At the beginning, five minutes may seem ridiculously easy, but the point is to make the act of practice a habit. Once that is down, you can slowly increase the time.

Don’t forget to track your progress toward those habits, too. Using the Seinfeld chain method, keep a piece of paper on a wall and mark it for each day you successfully complete the goal task. Having a visual reminder of your successes will keep you positive, motivated, and ingrain this habit.

Focus on the act of complying, not with the results. Making the task become a habit and a part of your lifestyle will ensure not only success, but sustainable success. Results will follow.

Don’t Identify Triggers

Have you ever had a day when something is just off and when one thing is off it spirals downward until everything has gone wrong and you just give up?

Sometimes it’s easy to point to what went wrong – but often it’s not so easy. Say you went over on your calories at lunch and beat yourself up over it, then by dinner time thought, “ugh, I screwed up. Forget it, let’s eat pizza for dinner.” Maybe you did this consciously, maybe unconsciously.

Keeping a journal during your change and having regular check-ins once or multiple times per week will help you to identify triggers that caused you to de-rail your progress. Once you can identify those triggers, then you can work on creating a plan to deal with them. If you went over your calories at lunch – remember that it’s not a big deal, keep your dinner to what you planned. Remember that there will be bumps along the way.

Behavioral Change is a Process

Changing your habits and behaviors is hard work. Humans are complex and even under ideal circumstances, they can fail.

You don’t exercise once and suddenly become a gym-rat or play guitar once and suddenly become a riff-master. It takes patience and persistence. Learn to love the process and the results will come.

The key to successful behavioral change is simple though: don’t give up. The path to successful behavioral change is never straight and often requires starting over and over. But that’s okay – failures are a way to start again with more knowledge than before (what worked? What didn’t?) Take a break if you need to, but then get back to it.

It requires an immense amount of courage to get out of your comfort zone and to become more than average. If you have any major behavioral changes you want to make in your life it’s important to remember exactly what you’re doing you’re trying to become more than average. To become awesome – or epic.

If it were easy, everyone would be their ideal selves.

“The higher the mountain, the more treacherous the path.”
– Frank Underwood

How Mindful Meditation is a Workout for Your Brain

Meditation

You don’t need to be a monk to meditate, nor do you need a huge time commitment.

For the longest time the idea of meditation always conjured up images monks sitting cross-legged on mountaintops, cliffs, under waterfalls or some similar wilderness space all while being completely silent for hours on end. I thought it was a spiritual thing and the benefits were all just myths or pseudoscience.
However a growing body of studies caused me to take a second look at it and since experimenting with it personally, I highly recommend everyone give it a try.

What Is Mindful Meditation

There’s several different ways to meditate, however most of the scientific research focuses on mindful meditation, or Zazen (literally: seated meditation.) As such, that’s what we’re going to focus on in this article.

In mindful meditation, you focus on one specific thing – it could be a sensation or your breathing. The point is to focus on this one thing and when you catch your mind wandering, you gently bring it back to that focal point.

We train our bodies in a gym – doing reps to increase our strength and cardio to improve heart health. Meditation is like going to the gym, but for your brain. Unlike a gym, it’s cheaper and doesn’t require any fancy clothes and doesn’t have any potential for worrying about how you look in front of others.

Zazen is not so much about spirituality as much as it is about training your concentration and attention – the ability to be present, quiet your mind and focus on one thing.

Our brains have to process a lot of information – this information is like confetti being released from a ceiling and you are your brain trying to grasp on to each of them. Our attention is everywhere and it decreases our focus, productivity and increases our stress levels. With meditation, we learn to slow down and control that flow of information.

Mindful Meditation Works by Literally Changing Your Brain

Technology has enabled scientists to get a better understanding of what happens in our brains when we meditate and how it affects our brains. Thus far have been absolutely fascinating.

Using fMRI scans one of the biggest things scientists have learned is that it causes a decrease in beta waves, meaning our brains stop or slow down processing information.

In addition to controlling the flow of information, it also increases gray matter which has a huge impact on our lives, as I’ll describe below.

What Does This Mean For You?

Increased Focus

During mindful meditation, we are practicing holding on to a singular focus and bringing it back when our mind drifts – this practice enables us to be better at focusing even when we are not meditating.

Decreased Anxiety

This was a huge one for me, as I am prone to trouble with anxiety. Consistent meditation loosens the connections of particular neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex – commonly called the “me center.” This part of the brain processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences.

Typically, the neural pathways from bodily sensation and fear centers to the Me Center are strong – when you experience a negative or upsetting situation a reaction is triggered in your Me Center that makes you feel scared or under attack.

Meditation loosens these connections, meaning our reactions are more toned down and under control. Something
that would have previously lit up the Me Center would barely register.

As this connection is weakened, the connection in our Assessment Center is simultaneously strengthened. So, when we encounter a scary situation, rather than being gripped by fear and anxiety we are able to calmly and rationally assess the situation.

Decreased Stress

Meditation also helps reduce stress – part to lowering anxiety, but also in part by helping us perform while under pressure.

Increased Memory

One of the more fascinating discoveries is that meditation can help improve memory recall. Multiple studies have found that those who meditated were able to focus and remember facts better than those who did not.

Increased Gray Matter

Meditation has also been linked to increased gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. More gray matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer lasting emotional stability, less stress, and heightened focus. Even ore, it’s linked to diminished age-related effects on gray matter and reduces the decline of our cognitive functioning. How cool is that?

Not enough for you? How about increased creativity, lowered blood pressure, reduced pain, increased compassion, confidence, well-being and overall quality of life. If you suffer from anxiety or depression meditation is one of the most powerful things you can do to help.

Meditation is not a cure-all for every ailment, however it is incredibly beneficial. So why not give it a shot?

How to Meditate

In order to glean the highest benefits of meditation, you need to integrate it into your lifestyle. You’ll benefit from just two minutes a day, or if you are ready to jump into it, meditate for between 10 to 30 minutes.
You can go it by yourself, or you can use an app to help. I’ll explain both ways for you here:

On your own

  • Find a comfortable, quiet place and sit. You can sit on the floor or in a chair – whichever doesn’t matter. As long as your back is straight, you are comfortable and there will be no or limited distractions.
  • Rest your hands on your thighs or rest them together in your lap.
  • Close your eyes, and take a few slow, deep breaths. Notice any sensations you feel – the sensation of your back against the chair, your feet on the floor, the weight of your body on the cushion. Notice your muscles in your face, shoulders, stomach, and legs. Don’t try to change anything, just notice it.
  • Take another deep breath and relax your facial muscles. With another breath, relax your shoulders. Go on from head to toes.
  • Just breathe. Focus on your breaths, flowing in and out. The only thing going on in your mind should be “breathe in, Breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.” Count your breaths up to ten, and then restart.
  • It wont take long for your mind to drift, to start thinking about the things you have to do today or anything that troubles you or excites you. This is natural. Acknowledge it, don’t chastise yourself over it and bring your focus back to your breath. Pick up where you left off.
  • At the end of your meditation (you can set up a timer) take a final breath, and bring your attention back to the room. Notice how you feel now. Slowly open your eyes.

As you progress, this process will become a lot easier. After a couple of weeks meditation you’ll begin to reap the benefits – a sense of calm and control, increased focus and less stress, among the many others.

When you meditate is up to you, however I highly suggest making it a part of your morning routine. I like to call it my start-up process. I have found that doing it first thing assists in feeling calm and focused throughout the day. However, you can also meditate before bed or midday – and you should if you are feeling particularly stressed. Just take a ten minute break to meditate.

Mindful Meditation with Apps

Calm

Calm is my favorite app for meditating. With it you have two options: guided meditation or a timer and doing it yourself. Two of the sets of guided meditation are free, while the rest are accessible for between $0.83-$1.66 per month.

The major benefits to Calm for me are the background white-noise options – you can listen to babbling brooks, a sunny meadow, or rain on leaves. I’ve found personally that having some form of white-noise while I meditate helps me keep that singular focus.

Calm App

Calm’s main screen.

Calm App

Calm’s Guided Meditations.

Additionally, you can choose the noise to signal the end of your session from a pre-set selection. I like them because most of them are non-jarring noises like a singing bowl or harp. Or, you can have no noise set.

Furthermore, Calm logs your sessions and helps keep you motivated.

Breathe

Breathe is a little bit different from Calm in that before you get to the meditation it forces you to take note of your current state by asking you some questions such as how you are feeling mentally and physically, and what words you’d use to describe them. From this, it offers up suggestions for guided meditations or you can go it yourself with just a timer.

Additionally, it has options to help teach you how to meditate, a list of guided meditations if you’d like to skip straight to one, and to see your progress.

Breathe App.

Breathe’s Main Screen.

Breathe App.

Breathe also teaches how meditation works.

Honorable mention: Headspace.

Headspace is also a cute little app that also teaches you about meditation and how to meditate. I like the app, however I feel that its use is stunted – your only option is to use the first 10 guided meditation sessions before you have to pay for more. There’s no option for “just meditate _ minutes.” However, if you like it the full version is not expensive at all.

Challenge

So here we challenge you to try meditation for just one month. Using the setup below, make this a part of your lifestyle by implementing it small chunk by small chunk:

  • Week 1: Meditate just one minute every day.
    Commit to just sitting down and taking one minute out of your day to meditate. Just one minute. You can do that, right?
  • Week 2: Meditate 5 minutes every day.
    Now that you made it through a week of one minute, time to increase the work. Try for just five minutes each day.
  • Week 3: Meditate 10 minutes every day.
    Again, if you made it five, you can do ten.
  • Week 4: Meditate 15 minutes every day.

Note and observe any differences you felt before and after meditation.

If you take up the challenge, come back and tell us how you felt in the comments below! If you are a seasoned veteran, we invite you to share your thoughts and tips as well.

Photo Credit: Sebastien Wiertz

Five Ways to Mitigate Travel Mishaps

Plane at Dalian Airport by Caroline Wik

Ensure your time away is as good as it can be.

In a dream world, we could travel or go on vacation and have absolutely nothing go wrong. Nothing. No missing baggages, no unexpectedly awful hotel experiences; everything would happen on time and just as planned.

If you’ve traveled a lot though, you’d probably laugh at the thought. A trip where your expectations and hopes are met?! Crazy talk!

It is an unfortunate reality that something is bound to go wrong, but you don’t have to let that spoil your trip. You certainly don’t have to lower your expectations so low that you’re just miserable. There are things you can do to prevent things from going wrong, and if something does go wrong, there are ways to mitigate the damage too.

Embrace Minimalism

We’ve talked about minimalism a lot before, both in reference to travel and in reference to general quality of life, but it bears repeating – being a minimalist at least when you travel can make your life a lot easier.

When we traveled in our pre-minimalist days, we took way too many things and this caused us innumerable headaches. In one instance, we had two checked suitcases packed to the brim on our way home from China and neither of them were at baggage claim waiting for us. Not only did we waste a lot of time trying to get a hold of someone to help us locate our bags and eventually file a lost baggage claim, but we also suffered the stress and emotional consequences of being too attached to things.

Thankfully, we got a knock on our door at three-freaking-a.m. by a kind airport employee with our recovered luggage. We got lucky, admittedly. Baggage is lost all the time at airports. Trying to keep track of hundreds if not thousands of bags is tough, and so losses are bound to happen sometimes. This experience really made us re-examine our priorities and packing style.

Headaches from taking too much can happen from more than just baggage claim though; you inevitably lose things in the hotel, transporting those bags to and from the airport and your hotel is a pain and they only wind up being an unnecessary source of stress. It’s unnecessary because the majority of what people pack with them are all unnecessary items. You just don’t need so many things. On our most recent trip, we managed to pack everything we needed – clothes, extra shoes, a laptop and a minimal amount of toiletries into one backpack. That was the least we’ve ever taken, and honestly the freedom it gave us was invaluable – freedom from worry, freedom to be more mobile, freedom to be flexible with our plans, so on and so forth.

Carefully examine what you plan on taking and pare it down to only the absolute essentials, ideally enough that you can carry it onto the plane with you. The more control you keep over your possessions, the easier trips to the airport and hotel will be.

Don’t Set Too Rigid Schedules

The more you try to schedule and plan every minute of your trip, the more you set yourself up for stress, headaches and disappointment. You’re lowering the amount of control you have and increasing your dependency upon others – on something to not delay your flight, transportation to run on time and for traffic to be ideal.

The easiest and, in my opinion, best way to take back that control is to give yourself some freedom. Take your time, enjoy the journey and be careful not to plan things too close together so you have ample time to get from place to place.

We’ve all had problems arise from situations out of our control like traffic on the way to the airport or an activity running long. Part of our study-abroad in China included our weekends being carefully planned, minute-by-minute and so not only were we not free to enjoy and spend extra time on things we found enjoyable or interesting, like exploring the gorgeous Summer Palace, but if one of us in the group took too long we would be literally sprinting to the bus and, lacking good judgment, the bus driver would drive recklessly to get us to the next location on time. He always got us there, somehow alive.

Long Corridor at the Beijing Summer Palace by Caroline Wik

Hi, welcome to the longest painted corridor in the world (728 meters!) You have five minutes until we leave.

So don’t over-schedule yourself or plan things out too rigidly. Give yourself time to not only enjoy your precious time spent there, but also space between activities so if there is an unexpected mishap in transit you won’t be left sweating about a missed reservation or time lost.

Check Your Expectations

Be careful of what it is that you are expecting – especially if traveling overseas. Obviously you can’t expect everything to run perfectly, but don’t expect everywhere else to be the same or have the same standards as the United States, or where ever you are from.

Customs and definitions of terms vary from place to place so it’s important to not hold other countries to our cultural norms and standards. For example, we were told the dorm we’d be staying at in China was new, very modern and swanky. And it was. Except that we didn’t have hot water past 7:00 a.m. (for reference, our classes didn’t begin until 9:00 a.m.), we were given a washing machine to do laundry but no dryer and furthermore we could never have guessed that we’d be awoken at 5:00 a.m. by actual gongs to wake up construction workers building more dorms near ours.

Not to mention, running the shower meant flooding the bathroom because there was no divider on the floor to keep the shower water contained.

I learned very quickly not only how to do laundry and just how long clothes take to hang-dry, but also not to wait until all but one outfit is dirty to wash them.

Your hotel may have plumbing, but that doesn’t mean you can get it anywhere near your mouth nor that it’ll be hot on-demand. Your hotel may be a 4-star hotel, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a 4-star hotel by American standards.

I’m not saying you should expect the worst or for everything to go horribly wrong – but you should be careful about what you do expect. Your accommodations may be amazing – just not all day. Don’t expect it to be perfect, don’t expect it to be terrible, and don’t let it ruin your trip.

Expect the Unexpected

Along with being careful of what you expect, you can be guaranteed that unexpected things will happen. You can mitigate some of it by being proactive with things like being a minimalist traveler as noted above, but you can’t plan for every possible scenario. Sometimes, there’s simply nothing you can do either.

Learning to accept unexpected things happening and just rolling with the flow is tough, but it’s a valuable skill to have.

Getting sick on trips to new countries is almost a guaranteed “unexpected” thing to happen. It wasn’t until our third week in Seoul that I got hit with some kind of illness. I hadn’t eaten in a day and Adam insisted I try to eat something. I felt awful that my sickness was ruining not just my trip – but his too – and so I suggested we tried Chicken Lady’s* since it was a restaurant we had been past many times and he was very eager to try it.

I composed myself as best as I could and we walked a few blocks over to Chicken Lady’s and took our seat. I strained myself to read the only-Korean menu and we ordered. As the food cooked on the table-top grill I could feel myself getting dizzier and dizzier, and my stomach turning increasingly more. I suddenly told Adam that I had to leave. Now.

I literally jumped out of my seat and ran.

I was optimistic that I could make it back to our room, only a couple blocks away, but I couldn’t even make it to the street corner, where I did the unthinkable. I threw up in the street. When I looked back, Adam and the great Chicken Lady herself had seen it all.

On the bright side my stomach had settled.

Sick and ashamed I stumbled back to the restaurant and sat back down with Adam at our table. Chicken Lady disappeared into the kitchen and came back with bottles of 7-Up and patted my back. She said a bunch of things in Korean so quickly I could have never hoped to understand any of it with how poor my Korean was at the time. One thing did translate though – her kindness. She took care of us for the rest of our brief time there and as we left I asked Adam to tip. We knew that Korea doesn’t really do tips – but I wanted to give them something extra since she gave us sodas and things for free and showed us more care and kindness than I could have ever expected (and have yet to experience again) and because I was way too embarrassed to ever go there again. So I wanted to sort of pre-pay for a meal that I would theoretically have eaten in the future.

She didn’t accept our extra money, and chased us down to give us our change. Without being able to speak Korean well enough at the time to explain (and being way too scatterbrained to even try) our gratitude and what we were attempting to do, we just had to let it go. We went back to our room and just stayed there for the rest of the day until I was better, then promptly resumed our adventure.

I’m not saying you should expect something horrible like throwing up in the middle of the road, but you also never know when you’ll stumble upon something (or someone) incredible either. Expect mis-communications, that you may get sick, to get lost and to have to make compromises. Savor the great moments, accept the bad and move on.

More often than not it’s the unexpected things that you’ll remember the most – hopefully fondly. Even if it is something bad like my getting sick was, there may also be something unexpectedly nice that goes along with it like Chicken Lady’s unexpected care.

Not to mention, it appears the notion that 7-Up cures upset stomachs is universal. Who knew?

*We don’t remember the name of the restaurant, just that the sign had a woman’s face on a chicken’s body and so we refer to it as “Chicken Lady’s”.

Be Mindful and Choose Your Reactions

Most importantly, practicing mindfulness and living in the moment will get you the farthest in terms of having a great vacation or journey. You have control over how you react to things going wrong, whether you will worry about the past or the future, something going horribly wrong, or cross-cultural mis-communications.

It’s up to you if you let these things get to you and worry over every single little thing. If I hadn’t learned to just accept the bad things that happened and instead be grateful that I had the opportunities and adventures that I did I’m not sure I would have made it out sane.

Rather than complain about the gongs and cold water, we took the opportunity to go ahead and get up early. We’d sit on the rooftop of the dorm and watch the absolutely gorgeous sunrises over the East China Sea. Learning to be mindful will help you to see through the bad events that happen and make them less bad, if not good.

Take it slow, do things deliberately, whole-ass one thing – these are just a few ways you can practice mindfulness. Make a habit of being mindful well before you travel. On the road is no place to try to pick up new habits or virtues.

It’s not easy to change your habits – as they say nothing worth doing is easy – but begin working on it now. Don’t eat in a hurry or in front of the television but rather eat intentionally. Pay attention to every bite you take, to the flavors of the dish. Get into the habit of stopping when a situation or thing becomes stressful and take a breath – go for a quick walk if you must – this pause will help you refocus and to think more calmly. When you are stressed and distracted is the worst time to be making important decisions.

If and when things go wrong, or unexpected things happen, it’s up to you how you’ll react. Whether you hyperventilate, scream, have a panic attack and faint in the middle of the airport or if you take a deep breath, accept it, begin working through it and remember that in the future you’ll probably laugh about it – it’s all in your control.

You Can Only Control Yourself

Taking steps to ensure that your trip will be as stress-free as possible isn’t difficult, but it will take work. Examining and minimizing what you choose to take with you, planning some activities but not over-planning, setting the right expectations and learning to be mindful and in control of your reactions are only a few ways you can ensure a great trip but the impact from them is enormous.

The true value in travel isn’t the souvenirs, the cattle-like shuffle to see every single tourist attraction, nor about how fabulous you looked the whole time, but rather in the personal growth, the journey, the sights, experiences and people you’ll encounter.

What things or strategies have you employed to ensure your travels are stress-free and enjoyable? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Is Your Inner Monologue Helping or Hurting Your Success? Four Ways to Change Your Mindset and Be More Positive

The Mighty Hunter by James M. Turley

“Thoughts become things.” – Buddha

Before you begin a task or attempt to learn something new, does it make sense to first insult yourself or the subject? To tell yourself that it’s hard or you aren’t smart enough to do it?

It’s not intentional, but often people do it anyway. It’s forgivable – our brains do appear to be wired for negativity, or we remember negative experiences more often than positive ones. However, it’s not inexcusable forever. As soon as you want to do something new or need to gain a new skill, your mindset and how you approach it can have a huge impact on whether or not you will succeed.

Sometimes it’s a memory from childhood (negative emotions around something you had a bad experience with coming back to haunt you) or a cultural negativity toward a subject (X language is HARD!) or a simple fear of failure. There’s lots of ways negativity infects our thoughts and impacts our performance and ability to learn new things.

To make matters worse these negative thoughts not only hurt your chances of success, they also increase your stress levels which leads to, among many things, elevated cortisol, decreased memory, weight gain (or difficulty losing) and disrupted sleep. You are pretty much screwed. Except that you’re not.

The more you allow these negative thoughts to seep into your brain, the more you become them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, so-to-speak. But you can break this negative mindset and instead retrain yourself to think positively. Vain affirmations not necessary.

Four Ways to Change Your Mindset and Be More Positive

1. Practice Mindfulness

Being mindful is to pay attention to the present moment without judgment, or “living in the now.” When you are mindful you are focused on the task at hand – not distracted by other things or, worse, past experiences or worrying about the future. In other words, practicing mindfulness allows you to be more balanced and positive which will then enhance your mental performance.

So how can you practice being more mindful? You can start meditating daily or, if you prefer moving meditation give that a try. By taking breaks to clear your mind, doing one thing at a time and being slow and deliberate about it and paying attention to your thoughts to prohibit worrying about the past or future you will slowly build the habit of mindfulness.

Want another reason to practice mindfulness? There is some evidence that being mindful can increase the gray matter in the brain’s hippocampus, an area of the brain important for learning, memory and emotion, while also reducing gray matter in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with stress and anxiety.

2. Redefine Failure

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” – Henry Ford

Have you failed yet today?

Changing your attitude toward failure can go a long way to giving you a more positive attitude and getting rid of negative thinking. Don’t treat your failures as something to be ashamed of, be proud of them! Through your failures you not only learn, but you also grow in your experience and insights.

If a fear of failure is preventing you from even beginning to take action, take a closer look at it. What will happen if you fail? What are the possible scenarios? How can you prevent the worst? And, most importantly, if the worst happens anyway, is it the end of the world?

The answer to that last one is that, more likely than not, it wont be the end of the world. Like Henry Ford was getting at, you need to remind yourself that when you do fail that the world isn’t over; You can still take action, or get back up and try again, this time a little wiser than you were before.

Not convinced? Need more reasons to go fail? We recently posted an article just on Why You Need to Go Out And Fail.

3. Be Diligent

When you are studying Chinese grammar you can complain about how hard it is or you can, using smart techniques, keep working on it bit by bit every day.

If you are taking on a huge project it can get overwhelming and a little voice in the back of your head might start telling you that it’s impossible to complete. The negatives thoughts can paralyze you – if you let them.

When those negative thoughts creep into your head take a moment to refocus, take a break if you need to. Divide the huge task into small, manageable chunks and have some way to positively reward yourself when you have completed your smaller goals, preferably with something like a nice green check mark on a calendar to indicate your progress and success.

Over time, the small successes build up and not only boost your overall optimism and positivity toward that particular goal, but you will be able to apply these same principles toward other goals you take on.

4. Take Control

Taking control is probably the most important of all of these lessons. Positive people don’t just have a good day, and success doesn’t just happen by accident – they make these things happen.

One of the causes of stress and self-directed negativity are hopes and wishes lacking action. Being passive won’t get you closer to your goals and most certainly won’t bring you success. Be pro-active and actively work toward success, whatever that may look like for you. Whether it’s constructing your ideal life, being able to speak another language, starting a business or getting healthier.

You have control over your actions and reactions – you have a choice. The more you are passive about goals and creating systems and situations that move you closer to success, the wider the gap gets between you and positivity and success.

I know it’s ridiculous to just expect everyone to suddenly change their actions, but it’s not ridiculous to suggest that you make it a habit. By combining the above advice about mindfulness with the goal of taking more control, you can slowly build this into a habit. Be mindful, take note of negative or passive thoughts and actions, and build the habit of changing them into action and positivity.

Being positive is ultimately about mindful action and re-framing typically negative situations like failure.

Have you struggled with negative thoughts? What has or hasn’t worked for you? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

Photo Credit: James M. Turley

Seven Lessons Learned from 80 Days Around The World: The Epic Lives of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland

Around the World in 80 Days the board game.

It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t read or at least heard of the popular novel, Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. At the time Verne was one of the most popular authors alive, and the book inspired people to travel and adventure and much debate arose questioning whether or not it was in fact possible to travel around the world in 80 days.

The story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s competition is an obscure but fascinating tale within which are lessons I think are as amazing as they are important. Which is why I’m sharing with you a brief summary of their story and some of the amazing lessons I’ve learned from it.

Verne’s novel was published in 1873 and in 1888 brave young journalist Nellie Bly pressured her editors to let her test the book’s basis. She was known for her audacity and willingness to put her life on the line to uncover a story – most notably when she faked being insane so she could bring to light the horrors of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. It took her a year to convince her editor, but eventually she was allowed to go. She was 25 years old.

The day she left for her journey the paper she worked for published an article announcing the trip. An editor for a competing paper saw the article on his way into work. Once there he called into his office the timid Elizabeth Bisland, who at the time was only 28 years old, and told her to go pack her things and be on the 6:00 p.m. train to San Francisco. She was instructed to beat Nellie Bly.

Newspaper clipping

Meet the Women

Nellie Bly

Before we tell you their story, let me first give you a bit of a background about these two women so you know what kind of people they were. Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, came from a humble family. Her father was a laborer who after years of hard work was able to buy the local mill and most of the land surrounding their home. His lesson of never giving up would stick with Bly for the rest of her life.

Nellie Bly

Unfortunately, her father died while she was still young and money quickly ran out – the family lost all their land and had only her mother to rely on. Her mother did eventually remarry but the man she married was abusive and a drunk; the marriage didn’t last long.

Through watching her mother’s struggles Bly learned that as a woman she couldn’t depend on anyone else – she had to be self-sufficient and strong. Which is why when a misogynistic article was published in the Pittsburgh Dispatch arguing that a woman belonged at home and at home alone, she was understandably upset and wrote a scathing rebuttal under a pseudonym. The editor of the paper liked the article so much he asked her to join the paper. Though he rescinded his offer once he learned that Bly was a female, she persuaded him to hire her anyway. It was a much better job than the work she was doing at the time being a maid. It was common for female journalists to take on a pen name rather than use their real name, and Elizabeth chose Nellie Bly.

Female reporters were a rarity at the time and for the few that were they weren’t allowed to write for anything other than the arts and gossip pages of the newspapers, but Bly was different. She refused – she was audacious and willing to risk her own personal safety to expose evils and mistreatment where ever she found it. Frustrated with the Dispatch for refusing to let her, she eventually talked her way into being a reporter at Joseph Pulitzer’s paper, the New York World. Her first story: pretend to be insane in order to be admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island and investigate reports of patient abuse. These were the kinds of stories she loved most.

Elizabeth Bisland

Born on what was once a great sugar cane plantation, Elizabeth Bisland was almost the antithesis of Nellie Bly. A sophisticated, learned writer and poet, Bisland didn’t seek out the limelight but rather enjoyed a quieter existence.

Elizabeth Bisland

The Battle of Fort Bisland was fought on the estate Elizabeth Bisland was born on however the family fled during the war, relocating to a home her father had inherited. Using torn and burnt copies of Cervantes and Shakespeare she had found in her grandfather’s estate, Bisland taught herself first to read. Later, she taught herself French so she could read Rousseau’s Confessions in the original French text.

As a teenager Bisland often sent small works of her poetry to the New Orleans Times Democrat under a pen name, although once discovered she moved to New Orleans to write for the paper. Around 1887 she moved to New York and worked for various newspapers, eventually becoming an editor at Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Bly’s style was unrefined and coarse, while Bisland was more elegant and refined. Bly was also more adventurous and scrappy while Bisland was more interested in books and conversation. The only things they had in common were rough upbringings, an interest in writing and that both women would publish detailed accounts of the trip afterward.

The Challenge

In 1888 after having exposed the cruelty of the Mexican dictator and the horrors of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, Nellie Bly had become fascinated with Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days and wanted to see if it were in fact possible to circumvent the Earth in 80 days or less. In modern times you could fly around the world in a plane in a couple days, but back then the most they had were steam ships and trains. She had a plan: she’d begin by catching a steam ship to England and would send back brief reports via a new technology, telegrams, and send longer reports via letter. There was a problem though that stopped her editor from allowing it: She was a woman.

Women shouldn’t go across town unescorted, why on earth should she be allowed to go alone around the world? Only a man could do this! Furthermore, she’s a woman: she’ll need 11 trunks worth of clothes and cosmetics that will slow her down trying to keep track of all those things and carrying them from place to place. These were some of the problems the editors of the New York World had with her trip. But that didn’t deter her – it hadn’t stopped her before and it wouldn’t this time either. But Bly wasn’t about to give up, she told them: send a man and I will go for another paper and I will beat him. They remained firm in their decision

A year later though she got a break. The World faced shrinking circulation and needed something to boost readership – a publicity stunt – and Joseph Pulitzer knew just the thing: Nellie Bly. He gave her a few days notice to pack her things and then she would be out. She left November 14, 1989.

On his way into work, Cosmopolitan Magazine owner and editor John Brisben Walker read the front page story in the World announcing Bly’s trip to see if Phileas Fogg’s fictional record of 80 days was possible and if she could beat it. Immediately, he knew this would be an incredible opportunity for him and his publication to get in on. So once he arrived at the office he called for a young writer to be brought to him – and it had to be a female. Literary editor Elisabeth Bisland – who was unaware of Bly’s trip – was called to his office and they exchanged brief greetings before he got to business: She needed to go home and pack her things and be on the next train to San Francisco because she was going to challenge and beat Nellie Bly around the world.

Bisland refused.

She gave excuses at first – she had dinner guests coming that night, she didn’t have enough time to pack, etc. But eventually he wore her down convinced her to go. Her real reason which she admitted to later was that she was a shy, studious and serious writer and as such she cherished her anonymity and privacy. She didn’t want publicity or celebrity – which she knew this would bring. She knew that this would be a sensational story and wanted no part in it. Bly on the other hand reveled that fact.

Bly had left that morning on a steamship east to England but Bisland’s editor believed it would be faster to travel West and so Bisland went via New York Central Railroad to San Francisco.

In Chicago Bisland talked her way onto a fast mail train headed straight for San Francisco. There was a $750,000 contract riding on that train being the fastest yet, and everyone else on the train was either a mail or railroad official. She was the only woman. In Utah the train stopped and changed engineers, the new one being Cyclone Bill Downing who was known for his lack of fear. A few minutes before 1:00 a.m., the train lead by Cyclone Bill Downing slowly began to move forward – but it wouldn’t last for long. He pushed the train to it’s limits careening up and down mountains, around passes, through tunnels and across long plains.

Derailment was common back then and everyone aboard feared the worst – and their nerves were not eased by the trains violent rocking and roar bouncing off the mountains. From the rear car passengers could see a spray of sparks trailing behind them like fire. Many aboard got seasick from the ride, and those that didn’t got sick from the smell of other’s being sick. One man writhed on the floor in terror and was handed brandy to help calm himself.

Bly didn’t have it any easier – she was on an actual ship for the first time and got seasick for a few days. To further complicate things other passengers had no idea why she was on the ship – especially alone. Rumors began circulating about her being an American heiress traveling to mend a broken heart, causing a number of single men to attempt to court her – several of them even proposing.

She eventually devised a plan to end the attention – she “confided” in another passenger that she wasn’t rich, but that a couple charities had raised money for her to go on a long trip to restore her health. The proposals ceased.

Once in England Bly met with a correspondent for the World that told her if she traveled overnight, didn’t sleep and made a few detours she could meet with Jules Verne at his estate in Amnion, France. She was ecstatic – who cares if she had to spend 48 hours straight awake and on the road? She got to meet an immensely famous author whom she respected and loved! While there, she even got to see the map he used to plot out his character’s journey and one he made of hers. He told her that if he beat the fictional record he’d applaud her. He was very supportive of her, even sending her a telegram when she made it to San Francisco to congratulate her.

The two women sent brief reports back via telegram, which the brilliant Joseph Pulitzer realized he could use for more than just status updates. He sponsored a contest for readers – whoever could guess closest to the second that Nellie Bly would arrive back in New York would win a free trip to Europe. Naturally, contestants had to purchase a paper first since the entry form was inside.

Pulitzer’s marketing scheme worked splendidly – the contest was huge and received nearly a million entries. He was careful to never mention Bisland and keep the focus on Bly. The winning entry was off by 2/5 of a second. Second place was off by 3/5 of a second. The contest and paper launched Bly into becoming one of the most famous women in the world at the time.

On the other hand, Cosmopolitan Magazine did a rather poor job of publicizing the race and brought much less attention to Bisland, which was okay since she didn’t want the attention anyway.

The race was neck-and-neck nearly the entire way. While Bisland knew her mission was to beat Bly, Bly had no idea she was racing against anyone else until she got to Hong Kong – about halfway through. The conversation with a ticket office employee went something like this:

Employee: You’re going to lose the race.

Bly: I don’t think so – I’m ahead of schedule.

Employee: Well, the other woman was here a few days ago and is ahead of you.

Bly: What? What other woman?!

The employee filled Bly in on the rest of the story, which greatly displeased her and made her more determined to go faster. On the ship from Japan to San Francisco Bly used her celebrity to convince the captain to go faster – and he did everything he could to get her there on time.

While the trip had its ups it also had its downs – bad weather, miscommunications, mechanical problems and conspirators slowed them down. In the end, it came down to Nellie Bly coming by train from San Francisco and Elizabeth Bisland by steam ship from Ireland. Either women could have won, and the world anxiously held its breath.

Spoiler Alert: Ultimately, Nellie Bly won. Thanks to a ticket salesman who lied to Bisland about missing one of her intended boats and forced her to catch a much slower ship which guaranteed Bly would prevail. Bly’s end time was 72 days 6 hours and 11 minutes while Bisland’s time was 76 and a half days.

Bly’s victory was celebrated with parades and much publicity – by this time she was more concerned with fame than with uncovering immoral actions and becoming more and more arrogant. She attempted to capitalize on it by going on a lecture circuit but it didn’t bode too well. Later s board game and an amusement park in Brooklyn would be made using her name and journey as their themes, however she didn’t profit from either.

Bisland’s return was much less grand although she was just as much changed. She was greeted by a small crowd of curious people and her sister. She wrote soon after returning that she wanted to live her life in such a way that her name would never again appear in a newspaper. However, she would continue to travel. The trip itself had broadened her outlook and opened her up to the world. She particularly loved Japan and would return many times.

Finally, the Seven Lessons Learned

There’s so much that can be gained from the lives of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland but I’ll just share a few of the more prominent things that stood out for me.

Screw Social Constraints

Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were unique – they were doing things during a time when women doing practically anything was frowned upon. While most women were being chaperoned to the store and back, Bly and Bisland were traveling the world alone.

Of course, that wasn’t all they did that was unique. During her early career (teens and early 20s) she would do anything required to expose social injustices – even if that meant going into an abusive insane asylum that she might not get out of (not to mention, many of the people there weren’t actually insane.)

Who cares what other people think of what your doing? Why let other’s opinions – which mean absolutely nothing – have an impact on your happiness? Be yourself, do the things you love, not what others have told you to do or love. Be different, and be proud. By doing this, you’ll encourage others to follow suit and do the things they love.

Things aren’t perfect, but everyone – male and female, and of all races – does have it a lot better than things were in the 1800s. If they could do amazing things then, you can do amazing things now. The only limits you have are the ones you set.

Take Risks

None of the things that happened in this story would have been possible if Bly and Bisland hadn’t taken risks. To me it seems that Bly threw all caution to the wind – she knew things would work out in the end if she was persistent.

Bisland wasn’t really one to attract attention to herself or go outside social norms, but yet she took those risks anyway – just in a very cautious way.

Bly took huge risks every time she did an investigative piece – she almost didn’t make it out of the asylum – but her risks paid off every time. People thought she was crazy for doing what she did but because of her life got better for a great number of people, and she even changed government policy to help protect people from abuses like the asylum.

The trip around the world was a huge risk for both women – not only was it dangerous for them to go alone, but if something did happen to them there would have been almost no way to know. There were no cell phones, GPS or cameras and investigative technology and practices were dubious – especially in the less developed countries they went to. But the trip was worth it. Both women learned so much from this trip, and society in general learned more about the world and grew more accepting of the idea of women being capable and able to handle themselves.

Whichever way suits you, you should take risks. Great or small, if you want something you need to be willing to take risks to get it. Maybe changing the world isn’t your thing – it doesn’t matter, even to get something selfish that you want (which is not necessarily a bad thing) there will be some risks involved. It may not be easy – but nobody said it would be. Of course risks have potential downsides, but whether or not you succeed you’ll come out ahead. If you fail, learn from it so you can try again in the future and hopefully then succeed. Take risks, learn from your failures and live without regrets.

You’ve only got one life, don’t waste it living someone else’s.

Travel!

Whether or not travel is something you are interested it, it’s something I highly recommend you do anyway. It’s not always visible at first but travel will change you.

It’s impossible to tell beforehand the exact ways that travel will affect you – it’s different for everyone. The only thing I can guarantee that it’ll do is change how you look at the world and give you a broader perspective than you could have imagined previously.

Furthermore, the world just isn’t scary – you have no excuse not to travel! If two women can muster up the courage to travel during a time when women couldn’t even go outside without a male escort, you can too.

Learning a Language isn’t Necessary for Travel

Bly didn’t speak a word of any language other than English, and while Bisland did speak some others she certainly didn’t speak the language of every country she went to, yet they got by. Things are even easier nowadays and so you can make it in nearly every country without using any language other than English.

There are certainly benefits of learning the language of the place you are going to, but if you aren’t going to stay for long or are only there to do touristy-type activities, then learning is not necessary.

You Have No Excuses NOT to Learn

You may not need to learn another language but if you want to, you really don’t have any excuses not to. Think about it, if Bisland could teach herself French in the 1800s from tattered books then YOU can learn ANY language NOW thanks to the INTERNET!

It’s not an easy task, but learning another language has gotten significantly easier thanks to the sheer amount of resources you have available to you right now for free. There are ways to get around money issues, if you really want it you will make or find time and with some strategic habit-building you can make yourself stick to it. The tools are all at your fingers – if Bisland could do it you can too.

Embrace Minimalism for a Simpler, Hassle-Free Life

Do you really need all those things? Really? Bly most famously only traveled with a single bag that she could carry with her – currently with The Smithsonian – containing only the absolute most essential items.

Going with only the clothes on your back may be a bit too extreme for some, but it should make you consider what are the absolute essentials – what could you live without on this trip? Do you really need multiple pairs of shoes, tons of clothes, or a bunch of electronics? What exactly do you want to do with your time there? Unless you intend on spending your time on your computer or with your nose in a book, skip those sorts of things. Take only a couple of your most versatile clothes (that can be dressed up or down) and only buy clothes at your destination if you need them. When you’re done you can donate, resell or give them to someone else.

What you pack should be indicative of what you will be doing, so unless you plan on spending a lot of time in your hotel, leave all the extras at home.

You are Limitless

When you consider the time period, the limited resources and social constraints that bound Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, what they managed to accomplish is incredible. The vast amount of resources, knowledge and overall freedom that we enjoy now gives everyone the opportunity to do amazing things.

Pretty much anything you want to do, you can do so long as you apply yourself and stick to it.

So what’s holding you back from pursuing your goals? What did you gain from Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s competition?

Why Chinese is Easy

Homework by Simon Shek

I’ve heard it since I was little – Chinese is THE hardest language in the world! Back then before I knew anything about the language I would stare at the beautiful characters and wonder, exactly what makes it so hard to learn Chinese? It wasn’t until I got much older and decided to tackle learning the language that I have come to think that not only is Chinese not the hardest language to learn, but that I think the reason why people say it is is because of a fear of something different.

This is not to say that learning a language is easy – all languages require that you give time, dedication, a lot of hard work and effort in learning and practice and even to go out of your comfort zone regularly. However, I disagree that Chinese is any harder than any other language.

It’s So Different

The assumption that European languages are easier to learn than Chinese (largely because of them being “similar” to English) is what I think really drives the claim that Chinese is the hardest language to learn. Well, that and perhaps also a general ignorance about the language.

Yes, Chinese is different – in some ways. From European languages, it’s definitely different in that it has a logographic writing system instead of alphabetic. But does that necessarily make it harder to learn? Not at all! As I’ll discuss later, Chinese grammar and sentence structure isn’t too different from English which, in my opinion, makes it much easier to learn and remember. The point is really that any language can be difficult. Even between European languages there are huge differences – particularly between languages of different families (Romance, Germanic or Slavic) – that can make them difficult to learn.

Chinese isn’t as hard as one may think!

“Those Symbols” Are Meaningful

For a beginner, looking at a block of Chinese text can seem daunting – for a native English speaker there is no easily identifiable way to pronounce anything or get an idea of what it’s talking about. European languages are “easier” in that many use the same characters (some have a few additional letters or different letters) as English and many words have been shared between languages, giving us a leg up on meanings.

Many of the characters used are meant to look like the word they are supposed to represent. For example:

Shān Chuān Rén

Can you guess what these might mean? Okay, perhaps not immediately, but what if I pointed out to you that the first one kinda looks like a mountain. Can you see it now? Okay, going through the rest: a river, a tree, the Sun and the legs of a person walking. It helps if you’ve got an active imagination.

Much of written Chinese lends itself nicely to memorization techniques, like in the cases above.

I Can’t Memorize 3,000 Characters!

With many languages, our approach to learning is to memorize the most 2-3,000 most common words which will enable you to participate in most conversations and to read newspapers. The nice thing with Chinese is that you don’t have to memorize 3,000 characters though! Learning the basic words and a handful of radicals will enable you to figure out the meanings of other words.

Zhōng Xiǎo Xué

The words above are for ‘big’ ‘middle’ ‘little’ and ‘learn’. Once you know these words, suddenly you also know:

大学
Dà Xué
University

中学
Zhōng Xué
Middle School

小学
Xiǎo Xué
Elementary School

Many words are like this and if you know the characters you can often get the idea of what a bit of text is saying. Putting the words “electricity” and “talk” together gives you the word for “phone” or “electricity” and “view” gives you “television” or “fire” and “mountain” together give you “volcano”. While this isn’t true 100% of the time it IS valid for the majority of common words and phrases.

What are Radicals?

Another way to get clues as to what a word means are the radicals – or one of the components to the character. Knowing how to identify the radicals will help you look up words in the dictionary (although who cares anymore with handy apps like Pleco?) and in many cases can give some clue to meaning or pronunciation, or at the very least help you create a memory hook to remember a word.

Some examples:

林 晶
Lín Jīng

Remember those words from above for “tree” and “sun”? Well, the characters for them are also radicals. As you can see above I have a few words using those same characters. The first one is two trees together – can you guess what it means? Forest! The second is a trickier one – it’s three suns and means “sparkling” or “bright” (and having three suns would be terribly bright wouldn’t it?)

While Chinese has a character for water (水) it also has a radical for water (氵) and by knowing this radical you can get the idea that all these words have something to do with water/liquid or flowing: 洪水 Hóng Shuǐ (flood), 果汁 Guǒ Zhī (fruit juice), 电流 Diàn Liú (electric current) or 啤酒 Pí Jiǔ (beer). If you’re looking at a menu in a restaurant and see a list of words that all contain the 氵 radical, you’ll know those are the drinks! Similarly, knowing that 艹 is the radical for plant and is always on the top of the character you’ll be able to figure out which items on the menu are vegetable dishes.

Radicals may not always help you directly with knowing a word’s meaning or pronunciation, but as I mentioned earlier knowing them can help in many cases and often help in creating memory hooks.

Wait! Traditional vs. Simplified is Hard!

Lots of people fret about whether they should learn the traditional or simplified characters – which is something I think is pointless to worry about. What is your purpose in learning? Are you going to Beijing? Then learn simplified and don’t worry about the traditional. Going to Taiwan? Then traditional it is. Want to read Journey to the West? Simplified.

Aside from purpose making it clear which you should learn, I’ve learned both and I really don’t know why people fuss about it. In extreme cases it’s not much different than remembering there are two ways to say the same thing. More often than not though, the simplified versions aren’t that far from the traditional counterpart. Hacking Chinese had a great example of this:

銳 - 锐
銘 - 铭
釘 - 钉
鎮 - 鎮
釣 - 钓

Traditional is on the left and simplified is on the right. As you can see, all that changed is the radical. So much of what you need to remember is the two ways to write the simplified radicals, not every single character. This is much easier to do than people make it out to be!

Characters, Radicals, Traditional vs. Simplified, This is Why Chinese is Difficult!

I can understand if all the technical discussion above can make Chinese seem difficult. However, I find it a lot easier to remember all these things as I’m a very visually-based person and Chinese lends itself to a lot of visual memory hooks.

Furthermore, Chinese is really consistent which I hope you got the idea from with my examples of multiple trees = forest and electric talk = phone and so on. If you know a handful of single characters or words your vocabulary is instantly doubled once you start combining them!

Another great example of this consistency is, for example, when reading menus if you want to order stir-fried beef the word is literally “fried cow meat” (炒牛肉) whereas we have the obvious problem of “cow meat” being “beef” in English thanks to borrowing many food terms from French.

Beyond vocabulary Chinese doesn’t have genders, three different levels of the word “that” like languages in the Altaic family do (Turkish, Mongolian, Japanese, Korean), politeness levels or verb conjugation.

The Grammar is Simple

One of my favorite things about Chinese is how the grammar is nearly the same as English, but much more simplified. The word order is the same (Subject-Verb-Object, or “I go to the store”) unlike many other languages like Japanese where the structure is Subject-Object-Verb (“I to the store go.”)

For European languages, learning the grammar is where most of the work is at – all those rules for conjugations and the exceptions. But Chinese grammar is simple! The majority of the work in Chinese is just memorizing words, which you’d have to do anyway.

Learning the rules and exceptions to those rules of verb conjugations in Japanese was one of the things that frustrated me most when I was first learning it (which, in retrospect is silly as it’s mostly logical and easy, especially compared to Romance languages!) whereas in Chinese, none of this is a problem. Everything is in present tense unless you throw in a word to indicate otherwise such as “yesterday” or “tomorrow”. For really simple sentences, you can just use Le (了) which indicates that an action has been completed. Simple as that! Context and listening will tell you if something is happening now, happened in the past, or will happen.

Sounds NEVER get Dropped!

This is one of the big things for me – when you memorize a word and it’s character it is always pronounced like that. In other languages, like Japanese sometimes syllables get dropped in the middle of the sentence. Yes, you get used to them after a while and it becomes natural (as it should) but for a beginner it can be incredibly annoying.

English is notable for dropping sounds in pronunciation and a messed up spelling system – just look at the words subtle, enough, phlegm, gnostic or scene. There is no consistency between spelling and pronunciation! ‘Enough’ could just as well be spelled ‘enouf’. Or ‘fish’ could be spelled ‘ghoti’ using the gh from ‘tough’, the o from ‘women’ and the ti from ‘nation’. C, Ch and K can all be pronounced the same way (‘care’ ‘Chris’ and ‘kitten’).

The inconsistencies of English pronunciation are displayed wonderfully in the poem English is Tough Stuff. Here’s the first verse:

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

But you’ll never have to worry about any of this mess with Chinese. There’s only one way to pronounce each word and it is always the same.

So the Grammar is Easy but What About the Tones?!

Ah yes, tones. Chinese does have them – four for Mandarin – which distinguish between words. Many other languages have tones too – even English although the use is slightly different. Rather than meaning, tones in English indicate mood, emphasis and sometimes indicate that a sentence is a question.

Learning the tones isn’t and shouldn’t be difficult. Once you understand the, in my opinion obvious, difference between the four tones it’s only a matter of remembering which word is what tone. This may sound complicated, but there are tricks to making this easier.

Even if you mess up a tone in conversation the other person(s) will still understand what you are saying thanks to context. They may correct you, but they won’t be clueless. If I’m talking with a Chinese person about places we are going to go to and I accidentally say I’m going to the “bastard” ( 王八 Wáng Bā) instead of “Internet cafe” (网吧 Wǎng Bā) they may get a good laugh at me but they will know what I mean.

What Actually Makes a Language Difficult?

Having spent a lot of time learning how to learn I’ve come to the conclusion that learning any language is hard work but the level of difficulty hinges on having the right attitude, motivation and method.

Your attitude when you are approaching a language can hugely determine your success – generally if you think something is really hard then you’ll treat it as if it’s hard and it will become hard. But if you approach a language with a positive “this is simple!” attitude you’re changes of success will be much greater.

Similarly, if your motivation isn’t in line with your desires or needs then success will be difficult to attain. Learning French because you want to go to French and communicate for pleasure or business is a much better and stronger motivation than learning French to pass a class you have no real interest in. Whether it’s to understand a favorite show, communicate with others in that language, conduct business or whatever, you need a reason that will really motivate you to study and practice.

Finally, the method you use to learn a language also plays a significant role in how successful you’ll be. Not everyone learns the same way – sometimes even the way something is phrased can change your understanding of a particular element. Even though my attitude was positive and my motivation to learn Korean was extremely high, simply switching which grammar book I studied from made a huge difference. The way the grammar was explained in the second book was MUCH easier to understand. I find using an SRS (spaced repetition system) to learn vocabulary to be much more helpful over writing words over and over.

Chinese is one of my favorite languages and so of course it saddens me that people pass over this rich language because of a stereotype that it’s difficult. If you’re having difficulty with a language, take a step back and figure out why. Maybe you need a new grammar book, maybe you need to find a new source of motivation or perhaps your attitude is negative. If it’s your attitude, go take a break and play! Come back later when you are in a good mood.

What do you think? What has made a particular language easy or difficult? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Simon Shek

The Epic Guide to Becoming Healthy and Achieving Your Fitness Goals

Summer Lovin' by Caro Wallis

If you’re just starting out on the journey to change your health for the better – whether by shedding excess fat, gaining muscle or both – or have already begun but not found any success, the sheer volume of information out there on what to do can be staggering and contradictory. This is particularly frustrating when you don’t have any good way to sort out the good advice from the bad. We decided to help take some of that confusion away by condensing our tested and proven methods into one easy to digest guide.

This is a guide to our philosophy for attaining epic health and fitness. Everyone should be healthy and fit, and everyone can do it.

Fat loss is 80% diet, 20% exercise.

Which is why 80% of this article is about what you should focus on eating, and how you should eat it. Only a small portion is devoted to exercise. The how you should eat part of the guide is half our philosophy on what a healthy diet is followed by our interpretation of Leangains, a method of body recomposition we’ve found incredibly useful.

Who this guide is for: This guide is for beginners. This guide is for all the average people out there who want to be healthy and look good naked. This is for those who have tried so hard to get healthy and in the shape they want but have not found any success yet and are frustrated. This is for people who want to get to and maintain a healthy weight and reasonable level of fitness that will keep them healthy and enable them to do pretty much whatever they want.

This is a guide to the foundations of a healthy diet and how to successfully attain a healthy weight while getting stronger. Yes, having lean strong muscles is a basic part of being healthy and everyone should have a basic level of strength. Although we do provide a little bit of extra information for those looking to get larger muscles for aesthetic purposes as well.

We know this is is a lot of information, but we have tried to present it in a way that is simple, easy to understand and easy to follow so anyone can do it.

Who this guide is NOT for: If you are a professional athlete, this obviously is not for you – you’ll have needs and requirements well out of the scope of this article. If you generally don’t care about your health, looking good naked or being able to maintain physical activity this is also not for you.

We highly suggest you give this a read and if you are willing to try it, spend a little time doing the prep (figuring out what and how much to eat, making a grocery list, etc.) and then sticking to it for at least a month but ideally two. After the end of your first successful month, go over again and assess your progress and adjust as necessary. Remember that fat loss takes time, and health is a lifelong commitment. Starting out with small goals will help you get the ball rolling. Also, if something isn’t clear or you have a question or comment, please let us know below (or send us an email.)

Table of Contents:

Part I. What To Eat

Food should make you more healthy, not less. Sure, you can get lean eating twinkies all day – people have done this before – but what’s the point of attaining your ideal look if you’re risking a heart attack any day?

While the calories-in-calories-out philosophy works fairly well, it cannot account for health – things such as hormone balance, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. Food is for fuel – a car has a set amount that it needs in order to get from point A to point B. If it doesn’t have enough, it will burn up its energy and die part way. If it has too much, it stores the excess for the future.

The human body is similar, we burn up both what we eat and the stored fat on our bodies to have the energy to do our daily activities – and if we eat too much that excess will be stored away for later. However, whether or not you put in enough is just as important as the type of fuel you use. If you put the wrong kind of fuel in your engine it’ll have issues and break down eventually – the same goes for our bodies. Attaining health, looking good naked and being able to perform your favorite activities don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Another way to look at it is with money. If you have an excess then we tend to store it for use later. If you don’t have enough money, you’ll always be stressed out, struggling every day and generally miserable. Similarly, if we eat more calories than we need, it gets stored as fat. If we don’t eat enough, we’ll use up all that fat we have stored for energy.

How you spend your money can have a big effect on your happiness – if you first pay your bills and use the leftover for things you enjoy or like, you’ll be a debt-free happy person. If you spend too much on things you like and not enough to pay your bills, eventually you’ll wind up in a tough financial spot (and if you combine this with not having enough to begin with, then you are really in trouble!) If you spend your caloric budget on junk food, while you’ll be happy that happiness will soon be overshadowed by health problems. Having a treat once in a while certainly won’t hurt you – but it needs to not be the majority of your calories. I could make a connection between investing and building strength but I’ll spare you that one.

Eat Real Food

The basis of a healthy diet is simple – eat real food. Base the majority of your diet on quality, real, unprocessed foods like meats, vegetables and fruits along with some healthy fats. Keep in mind that foods higher in fats like nuts and oils are also higher calorie and really easy to over eat, so make sure you keep it in check.

Choosing whole foods that are nutrient dense and that were raised, fed and grown properly gives you a strong foundation from which to start – they’ll keep you healthy and satiated and support most basic activity. Using these as the basis of your diet you can then further tweak what and how much you eat to help you reach and maintain your goals. Eating quality ingredients from local, sustainable farms (think grassfed beef, sustainable farming practices, etc) is ideal but if your budget won’t allow, just do your best.

Also, eat more vegetables. Seriously. The majority of people don’t eat enough vegetables.

Now, you may have noticed that we left a lot of foods out – like processed foods, grains, legumes and dairy. In the case of grains, legumes and dairy we leave them out because they aren’t universally tolerable like lettuce and chicken are. Everyone is different – from metabolisms, preferences to evolution – there is no single perfect diet. Since some may have food intolerances we obviously aren’t going to tell those people to eat food they can’t handle.

If you suspect you may have a food intolerance or are just curious, at some point try going without a particular food for at least 30 days and then adding it back in (one at a time if you do multiple) about a week apart and seeing how you feel, along with the necessary tests from your doctor. If there don’t seem to be any negative effects like irritable gut, low energy, acne, etc. then keep on eating. If you do notice negative effects though simply limit your intake to whatever you are comfortable with.

Another big reason why we suggest people leave these things out is because we’ve seen too many who base their diets on bread, pasta, pizza, processed meats and cheeses while failing to know how to make healthy, vegetable-filled meals. Grains, dairy and legumes can be a part of a healthy diet, but they shouldn’t be the basis of your diet if you are trying to lose fat. Additionally, we give preference to lean proteins as they are have a high satiety level and we love vegetables as they are nutrient dense while not being calorie-dense, so you can eat a lot and by the end of the day feel full and well-fed. Oats, rice, beans and the like are tasty, but try to give yourself a bit more variety.

Know how food affects you. As I keep saying, we all have different needs and reactions to various foods, so how your diet is actually composed (how many fats, sugars, carbs, dairy, etc.) really needs to be based upon how they make you feel. For example, I absolutely love dairy-based foods like the sauces in many Indian foods, but it makes me feel bloated and horrible and I get acne – therefore I only eat it once in a while but I’m fully aware how I’ll feel later.

The same is true if you are trying to gain or lose weight – grains like bread and pasta, for example, just don’t fill me. They make me feel ravenously hungry and I wind up eating a lot of calories on that day. If I wanted to lose fat, eating this way every day probably isn’t a good idea. If I wanted to gain, then it would be a great idea. I’ve also known people who have the complete opposite reaction – bread and pasta fill them up completely and they don’t eat much all day. Again, we are all different so experiment.

Processed foods are a separate dirty little beast all of their own. They’re tasty, addictive and they are designed to be that way. Processed foods are not only unhealthy because of their ridiculously high caloric content and lack of nutritional content, but also because they’ve been designed by scientists who know how to make these processed foods addictive and how to trick your brain into thinking it’s not full and wanting more. They’re empty calories, plain and simple, and should be controlled.

Don’t drink your calories either. Things like sodas, shakes and smoothies make it really easy to consume excessive calories and de-rail your progress. Unless you’re trying to bulk or are having a protein shake to hit your macro-nutrient targets, just don’t do it. Choose foods that are nutrient-dense and that have high satiety factors (like steak or chicken) to stay full and happy. If you’re thirsty, drink water or unsweetened iced tea.

We’re not saying you need to eat perfect 100% of the time. As long as you eat healthy 80-90% of the time, the little bit of bad food that you eat won’t make a difference to your overall health. Experiment to find a sustainable balance that you are happy with.

Finally, remember that these are just some loose rules – there’s no single perfect diet for everyone. This will get you started and it is up to you to tailor it to your preferences, needs and lifestyle.

Thou Shall Not Demonize any Food or Macro-Nutrient

Say it with me: Fat is not evil. Carbohydrates are not evil. No food is evil. Except durian.

I kid, I kid.

Seriously though, you’ll hear us say this again and again: everyone is different. Some people are able to tolerate foods that others aren’t able to. Some people are able to eat more than others. Eating fat won’t make you fat, and eating carbohydrates won’t make you fat either. Eating too much of anything while also being inactive makes you fat and unhealthy. The goal here is to craft a diet that is tailored to your preferences and goals, one that is based primarily on healthy foods while also allowing the occasional treat. This is sensible, not extreme.

Your body needs fat. Your body also needs carbohydrates and protein. The key is eating the right amount for you and focusing first on getting them from good sources. Especially if losing fat is your goal, try to get your carbohydrates from primarily vegetables. It’ll be hard because many require that you eat a high volume – but this is wonderful because you’re guaranteed to feel full afterward. Don’t be afraid of fats either – butter, olive oil and fatty meats are delicious and can be beneficial in the right amounts.

Hormones also play an important part of fat loss and overall health, so by eating nutritious food, exercising and working to keep your stress down you are setting yourself up for success. Don’t forget to treat yourself once in a while.

Stress can be a huge problem when dieting – it not only makes you miserable but can negatively effect your waistline and health, so please try to avoid it however works best for you. If you have a day where you slip – don’t worry about it. Accept it and move on. Don’t let a bad day derail you from success.

Most importantly of all…

Eat For Your Goals

This is just plain good sense. If you want to lose weight eating a lot of high-calorie foods will have the opposite effect. If you want to gain strength, then eating everything but protein is going to slow you down.

Part II. How to Eat For Your Goals

Not everyone can or should eat the same way as anyone else, however there are some basic principles that can serve as great starting points to get you on the right track to losing fat, looking good naked, getting stronger or whatever your goal may be.

Our favorite method, and the one that we’ve personally had great success with, is Leangains. Leangains, the brainchild of Martin Berkhan, is made up of three main components: intermittent fasting, a diet protocol and training. The diet is tweaked to match and support training so you can get leaner, maintain or even bulk, while burning off any excess fat. It works by keeping protein high on all days, and cycling higher carb/higher fat days based upon whether it’s a training or rest day. Not only is Leangains simple and effective, but it’s also easily tailor-able for varying goals.

An Introduction to Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent Fasting (IF) is a method of alternating periods of being in a fasted-state, and a fed-state. You could also call it Intermittent Feeding if you find that a more friendly term.

There are many IF protocols, the most famous likely being Brad Pilon’s Eat STOP Eat, all with varying fasting/non-fasting schedules. This doesn’t need to be complicated – Leangains is essentially just skipping breakfast.

The Leangains IF protocol is 16 hours of fasting and 8 hours of feeding. During the fasting period, consume no calories or food. Coffee, tea and obviously water are fine, but no soda and nothing to eat. If you really must, a small spoon of milk in your coffee or a small amount of sugar free gum shouldn’t mess up your progress. During the feeding period, eat at whatever frequency you like (2-3 meals is most common.)

Your Schedule: 16/8

Pick an 8-hour window during the day of when you want to eat and don’t eat outside of that. How you set up your fasting schedule will ultimately be up to you and your lifestyle. For example, if you like to go out to eat on Friday nights with your friends you’d be better off skipping breakfast in order to allow your feeding window to be open later. Like with what you eat, don’t obsess over being perfect about your fasting schedule. As long as you stick to it 80-90% of the time, you’re on track.

A small note for women: Martin has noted that women tend to do better on a 14 hour fast than they do a 16 hour fast, so if you’re female feel free to play around with your fasting time.

An example: For us, we like to eat out and are more willing to skip breakfast than we are dinner, so our feeding window is usually around noon-8:00 p.m. Yes, you can sleep during your fasting phase (convenience FTW!)

Why fast in the First Place?

Skipping a meal may sound odd but there are real benefits to doing this as opposed to only counting calories. We’ll devote a full post to the finer points of fasting and what it does, how and why it’s something you should consider doing and its many benefits beyond aiding fat loss. But for the purposes of this guide there are two big things fasting does that helps burn fat:

Hunger Regulation: Fasting and restricting your eating hours causes the hunger hormone Ghrelin to get used to the new schedule and reduces hunger and cravings throughout the day. This is particularly beneficial for those looking to lose fat since hunger and cravings can sabotage progress. Don’t confuse this with starving – you’ll still eat the same amount of calories in a day, just in a more controlled time frame.

Greater Time Spent Burning Fat: There are two things your body uses for energy; fat and glycogen. After a meal your body switches to using its glycogen stores from the carbohydrates you’ve eaten for energy. Gradually, your body will switch from glycogen to body fat for energy as the glycogen isn’t being replenished. So, by increasing the time you spend not eating you’ll be spending more time burning up that fat.

Meal Composition: Macro-Math

The second main portion of the Leangains method is the rules about how your diet is composed – or macro-nutrient portions. On Leangains you’ll be doing a workout (some type of resistance work, ideally barbell but bodyweight or dumbbell workouts are fine too) three days a week, so on those three days you’ll eat a higher number of calories than on your four rest days. Protein will be high throughout the week but on training days you’ll consume higher carbohydrates and less fat, while on rest days you’ll eat lower carb but higher fat.

Now, that’s just the basics of it. Martin gives some more specifics on the diet itself but not much – although you can hire him to guide you directly (which, if you can afford it and can get a hold of him, is almost assuredly worth it.) You could stop there but it’s extremely useful to go through the various numbers you’ll be targeting in your diet. Based upon pouring over pages of information on the topic along with our own experience following Leangains, we’ve put together this guide to help you figure out your target calories and macros.

Now we’ll have to break out some formulas to help you figure out your ideal starting point. First off we’ll need to get an estimation of your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), then adjust for activity, then finally figure out target intake based upon your goals.

We highly suggest you go through and do this yourself, for the sake of having more control and insight into how things work. However, if this proves to be a barrier to entry, open up 1percentedge.com/ifcalc in a new tab and go through both the rest of this and it together. Most calculators are really terrible, but this one is relatively accurate and easy to use.

Estimate Your BMR

First we figure out your BMR since that is how many calories you burn just being alive. The best way to have this tested is to go to a facility and run tests, but that can be expensive so we use a formula to get a rough estimate of your BMR.

Mifflin St. Jeor BMR Equation

Men: BMR = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age in years) + 5

Women: BMR = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age in years) – 161

OR:

Harris-Benedict BMR Equation

Men: BMR = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age in years)

Women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in years)

If you know roughly your body fat percentage then the Katch-McArdle BMR formula would work better, since the above two don’t take into account body fat % which, if you are on one of the two extremes, can cause problems in calculating.

Katch-McArdle BMR Equation

BMR (men and women) = 370 + (21.6 X lean mass in kg)

Curious to know more about how BMR equations work? Nerd out on the Wikipedia article for BMR estimation formulas – it’s really interesting if you are into that sort of thing.

Estimate Your TDEE

Secondly, we need to adjust the calories you found with the BMR estimation to reflect activity levels. There’s a lot that can go wrong in this element, usually via activity multipliers being terrible setting calories too high. Our suggestion is to guess a little low and if you find you are low on energy then you can recalculate with a higher activity multiplier. So, use caution and adjust as necessary. Pick a conservative activity multiplier to find your estimated Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).

To get you started, here’s a very general list of multipliers:

  • Sedentary = BMR x 1.2
  • Exercise 3x/week = BMR x 1.375
  • Exercise 4x/week = BMR x 1.4187
  • Exercise 5x/week = BMR x 1.4625
  • Exercise 6x/week = BMR x 1.55
  • Exercise Every Day = BMR x 1.6375
  • Exercise Twice Daily or Intense Daily Exercise = BMR x 1.725

Losing Fat, Getting Stronger or Bulking Up: How to Match Your Calories With Your Goals

Third on the list is to match your eating with your goals. How you set up your calories and macros are highly dependent upon your goals. By now you should know how many calories you burn sitting around, along with your estimated TDEE. If you stick to eating just this number of calories per day, your weight should stay about the same. But if you’re still reading this, I’m willing to bet staying the same isn’t what you want to do. This is going to require a bit more math, but not much.

Now you need to choose between one of three main categories: Cutting, Recomposition or Bulking. These can certainly be further broken up, but for simplicity/beginner’s sake we’re going to just focus on these three.

Cutting: 90% of people will want to cut first. If you are somewhere from significant excess body fat to I-can-see-faint-ab-lines you will want to start with a cut. Keeping protein high while on the cut will ensure that you maintain (and often, gain) muscle while getting rid of the excess fat. You’ll want to maintain/gain as this will give you not only a significant hormonal advantage but having lean, strong muscles will keep you healthier overall (yes, ladies, you’ll get stronger. But don’t worry, you won’t become a body builder unless you set out to become one.)

To achieve a cut, you’ll need your calories overall for the week to be less than your maintenance calories. To achieve this you’ll want to consume between +10% to -10% calories on your workout days and between -20% to -35% on a rest day. If your maintenance is 2,000 kCalories per day then you are looking at 1,800-2,200 kCal on workout days and 1,600-1,300 on your rest days. Obviously, the lower you go the faster you’ll cut, but be careful doing this as going too low can damage your metabolism and cause unnecessary stress on your body, which will make you hold/gain fat, not lose. This is why it’s important to focus first on consuming nutrient-dense foods that have a high level of satiety since they will keep you feeling full longer.

If you are very overweight, as long as you keep your protein high on both days you can get away with eating at a deficit on both days, however leaner people will want to eat at least at maintenance on a workout day. If you feel tired on your workout days, you’re probably eating too little on your rest days and you’ll have to up your rest day calories a bit (make sure you are eating enough fats too.) Cutting within these ranges will ensure that you are strong and getting enough food. Do not cut more than -35%

Recomposition: If you can just see your abs but want to get into the really low body fat percent ranges, and to add strength and/or bulk while doing it, you’ll want to do a recomposition.

For the standard Martin-approved recomposition, go for +20%kCal on a workout day and -20%kCal on rest days. If your maintenance is 2,000 kCal/day then this would be 2,400 kCal you’d need to eat on a workout day and 1,600 kCal you can eat on a rest day.

Bulking: If you are lean and looking to add mass (aka make your muscles bigger) then you’d want to bulk. If you aren’t already lean, do a cut or recomposition for a bit to get down to visible abs first. Once you’re there, come back here.

There? Okay, to build muscle mass you need to combine a proper diet and training. For the purposes of this article, we’ll only focus on diet. Building muscle requires calories so on days that you exercise you will want to eat in excess up to 40%. On rest days, you’ll want to shoot for a -10% deficit, or just enough under to burn off any excess fat you may have gained from eating over on training days.

If you eat more carbohydrates than you use to replace your depleted glycogen, your body will store those excess carbs as fat. The key, as with the other two, will be to track your progress consistently and if necessary tweak your macros and percent over/under.

For anyone familiar with the bodybuilder/bulking type diet, you’ll notice that this is different from the common approach of cycling between “eat ALL THE THINGS!” for a season and then cutting later. Going about adding mass Leangains-style will go slower, undoubtedly, BUT you will look great and keep your visible muscle the entire time.

Protein, Carbs and Fat: Your Macro Nutrient Targets

Next and fourth, is to figure out your macro-nutrient targets. Now we get to figure out how much protein, carbohydrates and fats you’ll be shooting for every day. You may have seen this before, such as in the Zone diet’s “magic” 40/30/30 split. The point is not to get too obsessive and to try out a few different splits to figure out what you do best at. Need I say it again – everyone is different.

These numbers will change as your body changes so it is good to take some time every 2-4 weeks to reassess where you are and adjust as necessary.

Protein: Protein needs to be kept high on both days not just for satiety but also to ensure that you don’t lose any muscle. All too commonly do people allow this to slip and it not only makes them weaker, but it makes fat loss much harder To maintain, you’ll need to have around 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass (LBM) or, in metric, around 2.2-3.3 grams of protein per kg of lean body mass.

Depending upon personal preference, how significant of a cut you’re going for and how much you need to feel full you can eat within this range but don’t go any lower so as to preserve your muscle. As far as your lean body mass goes – there are very few ways to accurately (much less afford-ably) measure your body fat percentage, so just take a guess and then subtract your estimated body fat percent from your total weight. To measure your body fat percent, there are ways to visually guess, scales that measure via electrical impedance, calipers and all sorts of other tools. Pick the one that you are able to do and use that, while keeping in mind that it’s not 100% accurate but that being perfect doesn’t really matter either.

Fats: Here’s where we get a bit more freedom – how much fats and carbs you eat will largely depend upon your lifestyle. As mentioned above, you’ll want to have your fats lower on a workout day and higher on a rest day. Low, most of the time, will be somewhere between 20-50 grams of fat. For your higher days, you can go up to double. Try it out for a while and adjust as necessary. If you are very active, doing double might restrict your carbs too much and you’ll want to lower it. However, for people who literally will only workout on the three workout days, double should be just fine (but, again, adjust as you feel necessary for satiety and performance.)

If ratios are more your thing, try going for somewhere around a 25/75-75/25 fat/carb split (doesn’t have to be exact) on workout and rest days respectively. Or, you can go 25/75 on a workout day and 50/50 on a rest day. Try it out for a few weeks then tweak as necessary.

Finally, please don’t be fat-phobic. Don’t be carb-phobic either, for that matter. Both macro-nutrients are necessary for hormonal regulation and for performance. Just make sure you are getting your fats primarily from good sources – olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, grassfed butter, steak, fish, etc. and you’ll be full, healthy and happy.

Carbohydrates: Again, you have a lot of room to play with how many carbohydrates you get. The more active you are, the more carbohydrates you should be getting. To begin, just fill up however many calories you have left with them and adjust after a few weeks if/as necessary.

To figure out how much this really means, you’ll have to figure out how much calories have been used up already by protein and fats, then how much the rest of those calories are in carbs. A single gram of protein is roughly 4 kCal, 1 gram of fat is roughly 9 kCal, and 1 gram of carbs is roughly 4 kCal.

I know this was a lot of information all at once, so I’ll give you two examples to illustrate.

Macro Calculation Examples

Takeshi

Takeshi is at 190lbs and 18% body fat – so not really overweight but not super lean either – and burns 2,300 kCal. He chooses to recomp at +20/-20%. So his target calories are 2,760 on a workout day and 1,840 on a rest day.

His target protein, at 1.5/lb lbm, would be 234g/day. He goes easy and does 30g fat on a workout day and 60g fat on a rest day. After calculating the calories used up by protein and fats, then subtracting that number from his overall daily caloric allowance, he gets 1,553 calories he can use for carbs on a workout day and 363 calories he can spend on carbs on a rest day, or 388g and 90g carbs.

Workout Day: 2,760 kCal = 234g protein, 30g fat and 388g carbs

Rest Day: 1,840 kCal = 234g protein, 60g fat and 90g carbs

All he has to do next is pick foods that fit his macros, plan his workouts, and get to it.

Mary

Next we have Mary, a 5’7” 160lb girl at around 32% body fat – in other words she’s average height and has a spare tire around her belly. She needs to cut, first and foremost. We find from the equation that her BMR is around 1,867, and since she has a desk job her estimated TDEE is around 2,000. She wants to cut relatively quickly so she opts for a -35%/0% range: 1,300 kCal on a rest day and 2,000 kCal on a workout day.

She opts for a 1.5x lbm protein target as well, which comes out to around 165g of protein per day. She also takes the easy route of 30/60 grams of fat on workout and rest days respectively. This leaves her with 266 grams of carbs on a workout day and 24 grams on a rest day.

Workout Day: 2,000 kCal = 165g protein, 30g fat, 266g carbs

Rest Day: 1,300 kCal = 165g protein, 60g fat, 24g carbs

Making a Meal Plan

Like with Takeshi, all she has to do now is prepare her kitchen and fill it with foods that fit her macros. Within the Leangains community lots of people love to use the phrase “if it fits your macros” (IIFYM) meaning that you can eat anything you like and still drop the body fat and build strength. This is completely true, however we caution against doing this too much – base the bulk of your meals on foods that will fill you and know that having something “bad” once in a while won’t hurt you so long as you can keep it within your macros, and if you know that you won’t still be hungry afterward.

To help you make your meal plan, play around on Swole.me and NutritionData.com in addition to finding a calorie/nutrition tracker that you like most. We like Daily Burn Tracker and MyFitnessPal personally. Play around adding in various different foods and see what kinds of combinations work for you. Keep your food simple for the first few weeks to a month to make tracking as easy as possible until you’ve gotten the hang of it.

Training

Exercise is an important part of health and fat loss which, like your diet, will depend on your goals. Everyone should at least do some kind of resistance training. Both men and women should make lifting heavy things a part of their workout routine as the health benefits of doing so are numerous and ridiculously worth it. This is another reason why we like Leangains – a fundamental part of it is lifting heavy things 3 times a week, for no more than one hour per session.

Exactly how much and what kind of exercise you get depends on your goals and lifestyle, but at the very minimum you can do 3 sessions a week of lifting heavy things – they don’t even need to be an hour each. An easy walk on your rest days, preferably before your first meal, would greatly benefit you from a hormonal advantage but is not necessary. Just remember that the more active you are the more calories you’ll need to intake to sustain them.

For the lifting heavy things requirement – how you go about it depends on what equipment available to you such as barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, or your own body weight. There are lots of programs out there that are excellent, but each are for different sets of goals.

Focus First On Compound Exercises

The key feature of your workouts will be compound movements – or exercises that utilize multiple muscle groups to complete. Compound exercises can be though of as working the essential muscles to make you stronger and more capable. They’re also sometimes referred to as the “functional exercises” since they work what you need to do very basic movements: climbing, picking up things, moving things, carrying things, so on and so forth.

So, base your workouts on compound movements along with accessory exercises as needed/desired. If barbells are available to you do squats, bench presses, overhead presses, rows and deadlifts. If you can only do bodyweight exercises then do squats, push ups, dips, pull-ups (inverted rows if you cannot do pull-ups yet) and glute-ham raises. In the beginning you might do most of these exercises on the same day, but as you get stronger and the weights get heavier you will want to have an A/B routine where you switch between exercises each session.

Your resistance workout should take anywhere from 30-60 minutes, and you should only do it three times a week. That’s 1.5-3 hours per week, you can find that much time to devote to making yourself stronger, better and more awesome. Experiment and find a routine you enjoy.

Pick The Right Program

If you can do barbell workouts, we highly recommend getting the book Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe as he is the master on form and technique. There’s also a Starting Strength Wiki which has videos and breakdowns of the program and exercises.

Pavel Tsatsouline is a big proponent of using kettlebells to get a full body workout and attain strong, lean muscles. If kettlebells are your thing we suggest checking out his book Enter The Kettlebell.

Bodyweight exercises are by far the most accessible – everyone has a body they can work with! Additionally, everyone should know some basic bodyweight exercises so that they can stay fit while traveling and not have to suffer the horrors that are hotel workout rooms. Some excellent bodyweight programs to get you started are You Are Your Own Gym by Mark Lauren, Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade, and The Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline. Additionally, we’ve posted several great workouts here as well.

Now, you may have noticed that we didn’t separate these workouts by gender – this is because both genders should do compound movements! We’ve outline before why women should lift weights too, so we won’t get into that here. Just know that lifting gives both men and women metabolic and hormonal boosts, increases various health factors and builds the muscles many of us find oh-so-attractive. Wink, wink.

Final Notes on Diet & Training

Again, we want to reiterate that this is a loose guide for beginners. This is your starting point.

For the first few months, keep everything as simple as possible. Stock up your kitchen with good food and buy a digital food scale (they are $15-$20 on Amazon.) Track your foods meticulously for the first month or so; by the end of the month you will be a pro at guesstimating and will be able to do so even when eating out.

Most importantly, don’t over-think this. This is not a perfect science and there are many variables here, so focus on trying to stick to it as much as you can, and don’t worry about the little things.

Again, here are your priorities:

  • Eat only within an 8-hour window every day, try to keep it consistent.
  • Resistance training at least 3 times a week.
  • Eat more on workout days, less on non-workout days.
  • Keep your protein consumption high every day.
  • On a workout day, eat more carbs and keep your fat intake low.
  • On a rest day, eat less carbs and more fats.
  • Cardio is generally unnecessary, but a walk before you break your fast on rest days is beneficial.
  • If you are very active and want to/must do cardio, make sure to up your food intake so your deficit is not too low.

Part III. How To Succeed

Sticking to any diet and exercise plan can be a challenge, which is why we want to help you succeed. The best way to stick to a plan is to track smart, remove barriers and to have ambitious but realistic goals.

Track Smart

How to Measure Progress the Smart Way

First of all, let’s stop saying “lose weight” because what you really want to do is lose fat, right? You can lose weight by dropping muscle and/or fat, and losing muscle can cause serious problems so you shouldn’t want to do that. If you stick to this plan, you will likely get stronger and thus will build some amount of muscle. Furthermore, your weight can fluctuate wildly day-to-day and even throughout the day depending on what you’ve eaten. Therefore, stop worrying about the number on the scale.

There is no perfect way to track your fat loss and muscle gain, but there are two ways you can easily do at home that should help immensely – the best part is that you likely won’t need to buy anything!

To track your progress, pick a day and time each week to take some pictures of yourself and measure various points on your body. Measure around the same place on your biceps, chest, waist, hips and thighs. Use these numbers to track total fat loss and to ensure that your muscles either stay the same or get larger (depending on your goals.)

What Gets Measured, Gets Managed

Tracking your diet and workouts can be a huge pain in the butt, which is why we like to use apps to our advantage. The best apps are not only easy to use but are accessible everywhere – from smartphones to the Internet. Our favorite apps for logging food are Daily Burn Tracker and MyFitnessPal, but experiment to find the one that you find easiest to use. Once you start using it, log every single thing that goes in your mouth with the one possible exception being things like green vegetables, which pretty much have no calories. Apps like MyFitnessPal also track your measurements for you, so it’s a handy all-in-one app. One word of caution: these apps tend to ridiculously over-estimate calories burned through exercise so don’t track them there. Instead, use…

Fitocracy! Logging your workouts is beneficial not only to track progress, but also the fact that seeing this progress can help keep you motivated to continue. Fitocracy is our favorite app to log workouts as it has a fun gaming element to it (get ALL the achievements!) but also has a supportive community that has built up around it. There is also a handy timeline overview option to see how far you’ve come on your various exercises. Log your workouts, stay motived, learn from others and eventually help others learn.

Remove Barriers

Remove barriers to make it easier to stick to your plan and achieve your goals. A lot of this will be individual as barriers can vary widely between different lifestyles. Some of the most common barriers are not having a meal plan, not having a ready kitchen, and a lack of planning ahead when dining out.

Have a Meal Plan

Spend some time playing around on your diet tracker or, as we mentioned above, on websites like Swole.me. Taking half an hour to figure out how much chicken, potatoes, rice, oats, beef and fish it takes to hit your macros seems small in comparison to how much you have to gain by doing it and being able to stick to the plan.

Prepare Your Kitchen

You can prep your kitchen a couple of ways – first by filling it with the foods determined by your meal plan but also by having plenty of vegetables like lettuce and carrots to have on hand in case you get hungry but are at your limit on calories. Having these things on hand not only helps you eat more nutritiously, but also helps deal with hunger if you have trouble with it.

Make sure that the foods you choose to stock up on are limited and sustainable – or foods that you enjoy and won’t mind eating a lot of. From a nutritional standpoint variety is better, however the opposite is true from an adherence standpoint. Don’t give yourself too much to track, but don’t make yourself miserable.

Another way you can prepare is by having a proper food scale, as noted above. Unless you have a lot of experience in working with food, being able to guess how much you are actually eating can be difficult and very inaccurate. A good food scale is only $15-$20 – if you are serious about being lean and healthy you’ll find a way to get one. A good scale also has the dual benefit of being much more accurate than food scales when cooking (especially baking), however that’s a chemistry lesson for another day.

Plan Ahead When Eating Out

Generally you can get by as long as you stick to the basics of the diet – if you worked out that day pick a lean meat with a carbohydrate and vegetables. If a rest day, pick a fattier cut with vegetables and skip the carbs. Use your best judgment and don’t be afraid to politely ask your waiter or waitress questions or for substitutions.

If you know where you are going out in advance, Google the restaurant name plus “nutrition” and see if the venue has posted the nutritional information of their items (large chains are required to do this in the United States, however small restaurants are not and are less likely to have this information posted.) This takes the guesswork out and might actually surprise you as far as how high-calorie dining out can be.

Set Ambitious, But Realistic Goals

Finally, by having realistic goals you are promoting your own success and by being ambitious about those goals you are challenging yourself to work harder to achieve them. Start by picking a smart deficit, eating primarily real, whole foods and plan for long-term success.

Pick A Smart Deficit

To lose a pound of fat, the average person needs to burn around 3,500 kCal. Using the Leangains style of calorie management, you can lose anywhere from .5 to 2 pounds a week safely while keeping your sanity. Some people may not be able to handle the lower calorie restrictions to lose faster, and trying to do it makes them crazy. That’s a diet that is unsustainable and bound to fail – so be realistic with yourself as far as how much you are really willing to cut.

Eat Real, Whole Foods

I’ll say it as many times as I need to, choose first and foremost healthy foods and allow yourself a small amount of room for “everything else.” Unhealthy foods are more often than not high calorie and not very filling. While healthier foods like chicken and sweet potato are low calorie and very filling. Most of us aren’t really happy being hungry, so choose first foods that will fill you and if you can work in a treat that fits your macros and won’t make you break your diet out of hunger later – go for it.

Plan For Long-Term Success

Fat loss is a slow process. Getting stronger is a slow process. Getting bigger is an even slower process. You cannot realistically expect to lose 20 pounds in a month. Remember that you are in this for the long haul – you want sustainable, lasting results. On a good plan a much more realistic and sustainable goal is around 1.5 lbs per week. Everyone’s different though and it’s much more important to track measurements than weight.

As I mentioned it takes around a 3,500 kCalorie deficit to burn one pound of fat. Multiply your daily TDEE (estimated total calories burned in a day) by 7 to find how much you burn in a week. Now, figure out how many calories you will consume in a week on your plan ([workout day calories x 3] + [rest day calories x 4]) then subtract it from your estimated weekly calories burned. That will be able to tell you roughly how much you’ll lose in a week. Multiply that by how much you estimate you have to lose, and you should be able to figure out roughly how many weeks until you reach your goal. Mark that date down in a place you’ll see it every day.

The final part of planning for long-term success is to simply stick to it, and at the end of each month assess how you did. Tweak your diet and exercise as necessary to maintain your loss until you reach your goal, then reassess your goals and either work to maintain (much easier than losing!) or progress toward some other goal.

Part IV: Go Forth and Succeed!

One last time, we’d like to reiterate that this is just the starting point. Take into consideration your goals and that everyone is different, and adjust accordingly. There’s too much genetic diversity for there to be a “one-size-fits-all” diet and eating plan that works for everyone, and different goals require different approaches.

So please just consider this a starting point: page one of your journey to being epic.

Additional Resources for Over-Achievers

For the over-achiever and voracious reader, here’s some additional resources for you to read up on Leangains:

Was this guide clear and useful? Feel free to comment and let us know your thoughts or ask any questions you may have for us below – don’t forget to share what your goals are too!

Photo Credit: Caro Wallis

I’m Fine, Thanks – A Short but Meaningful Look at Complacency

I’m Fine, Thanks trailer.

“I have a good life. I have a beautiful wife and two healthy, mischievous boys. We have a nice house in the suburbs and good friends in the local community and we’ve done the things that we’re expected to do and we have the things we’re expected to have. But somethings missing. I feel guilty even admitting that. But I feel trapped.” – Grant Peelle.

It’s taken me a while to write this review. Even though I first saw it when it was just released to donors, the message and meaning of the documentary have been floating around in my mind for the past two weeks and it’s been a bit of a challenge for me to sort out my resulting thoughts.

The premise of the documentary is that there is this ‘life script’ in which we’re told by society that we have to go to college and get a degree, get a secure job, get married to the best looking person we can get to agree, buy a big house, buy two cars, have 2.5 children and then work until you’re 65 when you can retire and finally do what you want. Millions of people follow this path each year and while none of these things are bad in and of themselves, it is a convenient template that few take the time to question. Instead they follow the path of least resistance. After all, we’re told that these things are guaranteed to lead you to happiness.

But does this script lead to happiness?

People get caught up in a desire for success and tend to acquire things as markers or visual representations of achievements. It’s something that even Adam and I began to follow despite knowing before we started that it wasn’t what we wanted. I can’t even tell you why – I have no idea what was going on in my head at the time.

I’m Fine, Thanks, directed by Grant Peelle and produced by Adam Baker, discusses this life template and the complacency many have in following it. I’ve often heard in reference to the template that “this is just life, suck it up and accept it.” I and others have accepted jobs that didn’t make us feel fulfilled, because that’s just what you do. And, to be unhappy was like saying you were ungrateful for the job, money and life you have.

The documentary opens with Grant recounting his own feelings of uncertainty and unhappiness, and guilt that he even had these feelings in the first place. Then he realized the only way to be happy and to show his sons about following their dreams was to follow his own. He then sets off with his rag-tag group to find and share the stories of others who have also had this realization, and how it’s changed their lives. They had just a couple of months, absolutely no experience, but were overflowing with passion.

We were so inspired by the sensational trailer for the documentary we chipped in on the Kickstarter campaign to help ensure it got completed and because it would give us early access to the film. While the cinematography and sound were wonderful, I will admit I was a bit disappointed in the brevity of the movie. It’s only 68 minutes and because of the timing doesn’t go quite as in-depth on the interviews. Nonetheless, the message of the movie is still prominent, important and told very well. For their first time making a movie, Grant and Adam did a fantastic job. As one person says in the preview: “Sometimes you just need life to shake you and say ‘WAKE THE F**K UP!’” For many this movie is the wake-up call.

Complacency and Fulfillment

“You’re climbing the ladder and you get to the top and you realize you have it leaned up against the wrong wall… And, I didn’t even know what the right wall was.” – Vanda in I’m Fine, Thanks

The interviews center around people who’ve realized they were unhappy with the status-quo, and how that effected the choices they made after the realization. As Grant conducted these interviews he relates throughout the film how he began to realize how complacent he had been in his choices and priorities and his growing determination to follow the career path he had always wished for. For many of the interviewees once it was clear that what they were doing was wrong for them often feelings of desperation or sadness began to creep in. Some knew what they wanted to do, some didn’t have any idea. Even if they knew what they wanted, could they follow it? How?

Matt and Betsy’s story particularly resonated with us – nearly everything they said had me and Adam looking at each other yelling, “that’s us!” From not questioning what we were doing, to getting jobs we thought we’d enjoy but turned out not being what we thought they’d be, hating the alarm every morning, that sinking feeling in your stomach on the way to work and then coming home admitting “I can’t do this anymore” every single day.

The Road to Happiness

Is what you’re doing making you happy? What legacy do you want to leave for your kids and society?

The most important message of I’m Fine, Thanks is to seek happiness over checking the boxes off of some socially-approved list. Don’t get a job because you felt pressured or because it was easy – find a way to do what you love. It may not be easy but you’ll actually be fulfilled. If you don’t enjoy law, don’t be a lawyer. Sure they make a ton of money but isn’t there more to life than what amount of money you have?

I believe that it is by pursuing what we love that we can also make our greatest contributions to society. I’m not content with just humming along through life. I want to have fun, have adventures, but most importantly I want to have an impact – however small or big it may be – and to make the world a better place. I can’t accomplish any of these by having a convenient job doing something I hate.

In addition to this theme of happiness there is the theme of not seeking this happiness through stuff. In the documentary many people told of how they felt trapped by their possessions. They had to keep the job that made them miserable because they needed the income from it to support their things – house, car and so on.

Possessions aren’t the problem. Jobs aren’t the problem. It is living someone else’s dream that’s the problem. It’s letting society handle the tough decisions for you. What this leads to next, is all up to you.

You’re Not Alone

We’ve already realized what was going on and have been actively working trying to change our lifestyle to be more in accordance to what we want. The biggest value I found in I’m Fine, Thanks was reassurance. Reassurance in that we weren’t crazy and that we aren’t alone. It doesn’t matter what other people think of what I’m doing – it’s my life, not theirs. The choices are mine to make and I’ve got to do what makes me happy, not what makes them happy.

It’s good to know we’re not alone in following our own path. The roads may be different, but we are united in our following the way that’s best for us instead of taking the easy route that so many feel pressured in to. The ‘American Dream’ is someone else’s dream – live your own dream. Do epic things. Don’t be okay, don’t be fine. Be freakin’ great.

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