Conquering Your To-Do Lists Before They Conquer You

Compartmentalized Trays by Roo Reynolds

Compartmentalizing your tasks can make them much, much easier to handle effectively.

Caroline and I are both severe to-do list addicts (Caroline perhaps even a little more than me).

This can be both a blessing, and a curse. On one hand it makes it very easy to organize our tasks and have a good plan going forward for what we need to be working on. It gives a nice shape to conquering our goals, like a step-by-step quest list in a video game, and takes a lot of the uncertainty and nebulousness away from what we’re working on.

On the other hand, it provides an easy platform upon which to load so many tasks that we inevitably break under the pressure of all of it. After all we’re both very ambitious people – giving us a blank sheet to list everything we want to do is like setting us lose in an Indian buffet, we’re going to load our plates up like we haven’t eaten in weeks. As a result our to-do lists crush us and we wind up being even less productive than if we hadn’t bothered with them at all.

So what’s the trick to making effective to-do lists that help you get things done, but don’t grind you into the ground? Compartmentalization.

Compartmentalization and Chunking

Compartmentalization, or chunking as I like to call it because it’s easier to type and reminds me of the Goonies, is basically taking your insurmountable pile of tasks and placing them in easy to conquer compartments or breaking them down into manageable chunks.

This method of managing your to-dos has a range of benefits:

  • Less Procrastination – A common cause for procrastination is the discomfort caused by facing a task that looks utterly daunting. We’ve talked about this a bit when discussing timeboxing, when you have a huge, impossible looking task in front of you it’s all too easy to deflect and put it off until later. It’s a natural expression of pain avoidance and is hard to fight on your own since it’s so deeply wired into our behavior.

    By breaking down those big, scary tasks into smaller, easy to manage chunks it makes it less scary and easy to overcome the urge to procrastinate. It’s easy to put off cleaning the entire garage, but if all you have to do is tidy up a single shelf it’s hard to put off. After all, that’ll take like 5 minutes. When you add up a bunch of those little tasks over a week or two though, suddenly you’ve cleaned the entire garage.

  • Harder to Burn Out – Chunked to-do lists make it much, much easier to avoid burnout for similar reasons to why they help avoid procrastination. Breaking up those enormous looking tasks make it feel a lot more like you’re working on a wide variety of things rather than one big project. Slogging along writing a book may feel like an endless task, driving you to burnout since you don’t feel like you’re making progress. Focusing on completing chapters instead gives you tangible markers of progress and keeps you from feeling overwhelmed.

    Compartmentalization like this also helps you avoid the type of overloading we always fell prey to. Breaking things down into small chunks make it easier to see things in the big picture, and when you can do that it’s far easier to prioritize. What really needs to get done immediately / today and what can wait for a day or two?

  • Improved Energy Management – This ties in a lot with the burn out benefits above. I’ve talked in the past about how energy management can be a lot more important than time management. We all get 24 hours, and it’s great to try to spend them efficiently, but if you feel like shit all day your best laid plans gang aft agley.

    Chunked lists make it easy to schedule in time to relax and recharge without feeling like you’re being lazy or slacking off. You know you’ve gotten everything you needed to get done completed, and at the same time have plenty of time to recharge and tackle the next day fully energized and guilt free.

Weekly/Daily Lists – My Favorite Method for Chunking

While there are a lot of different options for ways to chunk up or compartmentalize your to-do lists (and I encourage you to play with others to see what you like) I am personally very fond of the Weekly/Daily list division.

I’ve found that in addition to all of the general benefits listed above, Weekly/Daily lists also help me be far more proactive about my tasks by providing me with a small glimpse at the bigger picture. Trying to cram everything on only a daily to-do list always made me myopic and short-sighted – having an entire week to play with gives me the perspective to arrange things out ahead of time and further avoid my tendency to overload myself.

I’ve also found that keeping the division at days and weeks rather than further out, like having a monthly to-do list for example, is short enough to not fall victim too much to Parkinson’s law while still being long enough to give me the freedom to strategize my tasks out into the future.

So how do you use a Weekly/Daily list?

Either at the end of the week, or at the beginning of the next if you prefer that more from a psychological standpoint, list out all of the things that you need to get done in the coming week. In general, I prefer to prioritize larger projects here over smaller things, but there’s totally a place for little to-dos like ‘mow the lawn’ or ‘buy groceries’.

At the end of each night, or again first thing in the morning if you prefer, write down all of the things you need to get done the next day (or that day if you’re the morning planner type). These can be either smaller chunks of the larger weekly tasks, (e.g., if a task for this week is write five articles then a daily chunk of that task might be write one article, or come up with five article ideas, etc.) or individual small tasks that needn’t be chunked like mowing the lawn.

You focus only on your daily list each day, and when you’ve finished it you’re done. You can spend the rest of the day relaxing.

Tips For Getting the Most Out of a Weekly/Daily List

While it’s a fairly easy process to build and use weekly/daily lists, I’ve found in my time experimenting with them that there are some finer points that make them more useful and make the whole process a little easier.

  • Monthly Reviews – Like I noted above, having a monthly to-do list on top of a weekly & daily one tends to wind up being more problematic than helpful. Aside from encouraging falling into Parkinson’s law it makes it easier to procrastinate, and sometimes makes it harder to focus in on the things that are really important in the immediate sense. That being said, looking out a month ahead can give the benefit of having a clear long term goal to work toward.

    The solution is to have a single monthly review day, similar to a severely pared down version of our annual review process. On your monthly review day you take a retrospective look at the previous month, figure out what went well and what didn’t, and then set some lose targets for the following month to serve as a foundation or inspiration for your weekly lists.

  • Avoid Scope Creep – If you’ve never worked in an industry like web or software design, scope creep is when you’re nearly finished with a project for a client and they send you the dreaded, “Hey, could we also do x,y,z?” Your two week project becomes a three week project, then a four, and a five, and so on.

    When it comes to weekly/daily lists, avoiding scope creep means not allowing yourself to add anything to your daily lists on that day. If you finish all your day’s work before noon, that’s it. Don’t add anything else. The minute you give in to the urge to add just a couple more things the sooner you’ll be building an infinite to-do list again, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid. There will be days when you need to make adjustments, but it should only be for things that are extremely urgent or emergencies. If you finish your list, it’s time to relax.

  • Use a Today/Tomorrow Board – Sometimes things do need to get pushed back, either because something else came up or you just over-scheduled yourself. I like to manage this process by keeping my daily lists on what I call my Today/Tomorrow Board.

    My Today/Tomorrow Board is just a small marker-board that I have divided in half horizontally. In both the top and bottom sections I’ve written ‘Today’ and ‘Tomorrow’ in one of the corners. In one box I have a little mark next to ‘Today’ and in the other box next to ‘Tomorrow’.

    In the half with ‘Today’ ticked, I write my daily list for that day. In the other box, ticked ‘Tomorrow’, I write the next day’s tasks as I think of them. Then when the day’s finished, I can move any tasks I haven’t scratched off my list down to the ‘Tomorrow’ section as well as whatever else I determine I need to do the next day. The next day I just erase my tick marks and switch them, so yesterday’s ‘Tomorrow’ box becomes today’s ‘Today’ box and the other the new ‘Tomorrow’ box.

    While there are certainly other ways to manage things like this, I’ve found this system works particularly well for me since it’s always sitting on my desk. I can glance up and get a quick snapshot of what else I have to work on for the day, as well as what I’ll be working on tomorrow. It also makes it easy for me, when I remember something spur of the moment that need to get done, to add it quickly to my tomorrow list before I forget.

  • Don’t Drift from Your Daily List – Lastly, it’s extremely important not to let yourself lose focus on your daily list, the things you have set to complete today. It can be tempting to start thinking about the rest of the week, what other things need to get done, etc. Once you do this though it’s easy to completely drift away from what you actually need to be doing – the things on that day’s list.

    Once you’ve chunked everything out, forget that everything exists except for that day’s list. Nothing should occupy your concern except for the things you’ve laid on the table before you for that day. Personally, having my Today/Tomorrow Board has been a big help on this front for me as well, as it’s psychologically comforting to me to being to place something on the ‘Tomorrow’ list and say “Ok, it’s written down for tomorrow, I know it will get done then, I can forget about it.”

Finding What Works for You

These methods for compartmentalization are my personal favorites, and I’ve gotten a lot of benefit out of them, but everyone works a little differently. I strongly encourage you to try them out along with some other methods to see what fits your personality and work style best.

If you’ve found any others you particularly like, or discovered any other tips for making the weekly/daily lists even more effective, leave a comment and share with everyone! It always helps to hear about other people’s experiences.

Photo Credit: Roo Reynolds

How You Can Help Us

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We love writing for Road to Epic. We love seeing all your comments, and getting your e-mails, and knowing that we’re actually helping people to make their lives better. It is basically our dream job.

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What’s Patreon?

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Learning to Think in your Target Language

Losing my Mind by Mark Auer

One of the biggest obstacles in moving from the beginner or low intermediate levels of a language into more advanced stages is the problem of constantly translating in your head instead of learning to think in your target language. This is a problem that effects everyone and is a common place for people to either give up, or just accept that it’s the way things are when you learn to speak a second language. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Problems with Translating

Even if you don’t have the lofty goal of becoming simultaneous interpreter or doing anything tricky like that with your language learning, having to translate everything you hear or want to say into and out of your target language is a painful, taxing process. There are two big issues with always running everything through the translator in your brain.

The first is that it slows everything way, way down. In a natural conversation between you and another person in your native tongue you don’t have to really think about what the other person is saying. It’s processed unconsciously and you can respond right away. In some cases you’ve probably even responded to people’s questions before you were aware of what you were saying.

That makes conversations quick and fluid, which is what we need.

Conversely when you have to translate everything there’s a bottleneck at both the input and the output. This can be exacerbated in languages like German where you might have to wait through miles of sentences before you finally get that all important verb. Then you have to process that back out into English, come up with your response in English, processes it back into German and say it.

By the time you’ve done all that, particularly if you’re in a group of people or trying to follow a natural group conversation, you may have fallen way behind by the time you even open your mouth to speak.

The second big issue with this method of translating before speaking is that it can make your native language bleed into the language you’re learning making you speak either incorrectly or at the very least in a very unnatural sounding way.

An English speaker for example might ask for a glass of water by saying ‘我可以有一杯水吗’ (lit: I can have a cup of water?) which, to a native Mandarin speaker sounds weird – potentially like you’re asking if you physically have the capability of possessing a cup of water. They’d understand, but it’s very clearly Mandarin crammed into an English box. A more natural way might be ‘能给我一杯水吗’ which is more like ‘Give me a cup of water?’ if you directly translated it into English.

The translating process encourages you to make these kinds of mistakes because you’re not conversing in Mandarin in the real sense, you’re just translating English into Mandarin. It can make it sound like the other person is trying to talk to someone using Google Translate. It’ll get the job done, but it’s clearly going to sound a little off.

What Does it Mean to Learn to Think in your Target Language

Technically speaking when you boil it down to its essence no one ‘thinks’ in any particular language.

What we call ‘thinking’ is an electrochemical reaction in our brains. What we’re talking about here is the sensory experience of ‘hearing’ words as you think. You may say that this means that we do all think in a language, but people who have deaf since birth have no experience of spoken words and don’t think in them, infants who don’t speak a language can still think, and there are plenty of other higher intelligence animal species that no one would argue are ‘thinking’ even though they don’t speak any human languages.

What we’re worried about here though is that combination of your ‘inner voice’ that you think with and your ability to process non-language information directly into and out of a particular language without having to pass it through the translation filter of another primary language.

So how do we get to that point?

Silencing Your Mental Native Tongue

There are a handful of methods I think work particularly well for getting over the natural habit of translating from your native language into your acquired one and back.

  • Speaking Practice with Native Speakers – This, in my opinion, is paramount for successful language learning in general. Find a native speaker as soon as you can, whether in person or online, and start practicing with them. Even if the furthest you can get is “Hello, how are you doing?” that’s still preferable to cloistering yourself with a textbook in fear of embarrassing yourself.

    Get out there and talk to people. The more you do the more you’ll begin to outgrow the habit of mentally translating.

  • Ditch the Dictionary and Make Visual Flashcards – At least, the traditional kind of dictionary. Part of what contributes to the habit of mental translation is that the standard way to learn a new word is to have it defined by its connection to a word in your native language.

    We learn by connections and conditioning. Assuming you’re a native speaker of English, when you hear/see the word ‘water’ you probably mentally picture the physical substance that particular arrangement of sounds symbolizes in English. The problem is, when you’re learning German for example, you might have a flashcard that says ‘Wasser’ on one side and when you flip it over it says ‘water’.

    This conditions you to not think of the physical substance these sounds represent, but rather hearing ‘Wasser’ makes you think of the particular arrangement of sounds that make the word ‘water’, then you have to decode that second arrangement of sounds into the physical thing it symbolizes. This happens relatively quickly, but it still slows things down.

    It also causes a problem when going from English to German, because your brain has to conceptualize the physical thing we call ‘water’, then it has to connect that to the English word that we use to symbolize that physical thing, then it has to dig up what German word was connected to that particular English word. Whereas if you had H2O encoded directly with the German word it would be one less step.

    Using visual flashcards and dictionaries is the way to go to avoid this problem. Rather than have one side say ‘Wasser’ and the other ‘water’, have one side say ‘Wasser’ and then put a picture of water on the other side. A similar idea if you don’t have a visual dictionary handy is to look up words by typing them into a Google image search. That way you learn the word via the image or concept it represents rather than learning it by its equivalent in your native language.

  • Monologuing and Free Writing – It may seem like a small thing, but just yammering to yourself about a random topic in your target language or having times where you sit down and write about whatever you want, or even just journal the day’s activities, can make a big difference in getting over the mental translation problem.

    The key is to make an active effort not to translate as you do it and just talk to yourself in your target tongue without letting your native one creep in.

    I, personally, like to do it out loud when I can. There are added benefits to activating the motoneurons involved in actually speaking the word in the same way that there are benefits in repeating an activity that you want to get particularly good at like shooting a basketball or drawing free hand. You can certainly just talk to yourself in you head though if you’re concerned about people thinking you’re crazy.

    If you find it hard to just talk or write spontaneously without any kind of pre-set topic then try to summarize something you’ve read or watched recently, or pick an easy topic like describing your day or talking about your favorite food. The point isn’t necessarily to produce something noteworthy as it is to drill in that comfort in not translating.

I’m probably forgetting some other methods that work well to silence that inner voice translating things into and out of your native tongue, but these handful should get you well on your way to overcoming it. The sooner you can get out of that translation habit and into thinking in your target language the sooner you’ll be able to produce even more fluid sentence and conversations. If you can think of any you like that I’ve missed, leave a comment and share with everyone!

Photo Credit: Mark Auer

Lessons from the Routines of Famous Creators

I’m a big believer in routine. I think that a lot of what contributes to determining whether a person succeeds or fails in their endeavors is whether or not they have a routine in place – a system – that acts as a benefit or detriment to their progress.

So I was excited to find this visualization of the daily routines of 25 famously creative individuals by Podio and the one below from Infograph We Trust. Let’s take a look and see what learn from them.

Sleep

I’ve said before, sleep is super important.

When we look at the 25 people in question the average amount of time spent per day sleeping was 7.65 hours. Of course, this is a mean and of a relatively small sample size at that so take from it what you will. Within those 25 we have a few outliers such as poor Voltaire clocking in at only four hours of sleep per day and Mozart with a meager five. On the other end of the spectrum is Balzac with around ten hours of sleep per night.

Overall though the majority fall between the seven and eight hour range. This follow pretty closely with the current general guidelines on how much sleep is considered healthy. Stepping outside the chart itself, you’ll notice a mild correlation between amount of sleep daily and lifespan – not to say this implies causation, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

An important thing to take away from this for me is that to be a successfully creative it isn’t necessary to deprive yourself of sleep in the name of overzealous production. In fact, it would seem if given the option of spending more time on sleep or more time on creative work itself the individuals here at least were better off getting extra sleep rather than putting in more work hours.

Quality beats quantity here, and sufficient sleep appears to be an important factor in keeping to a high standard of quality.

I’d also like to note that five of our twenty five here were nappers, depending on whether you include poor insomniac Kafka or not. Napping doesn’t mean you’re lazy, and can actually be a big help in boosting your productivity and creativity.

Creative Work Habits

Our sample twenty five here don’t follow any apparent pattern of when they favored creative work. Some worked in the mornings immediately after waking, some worked late at night and others worked in little intermittent spurts throughout the entire day. Don’t assume just because some people say it’s better to do creative work in the mornings or evenings that it’s true for you. Experiment and find what works best for you then schedule your work times for when you feel most creative or engaged.

Another thing of note is that, with the exception of Kant and his hour or so of creative work a day, the majority of the twenty five in the graphic made their creative work a priority. It wasn’t just some extra thing tacked on to their day, it was clearly a major focus for each of them.

I don’t think this means that there’s any kind of magic number of work hours you have to put in on your creative endeavors, but I do think it’s strongly indicative that all these individuals were passionate about their creative work. It was a defining part of their lives, and they treated it as such. In other words, don’t phone things in.

While most of these individuals lived during times when the modern concept of exercise was essentially unheard of, it’s interesting how many of them included something that could be categorized as exercise very near to when they routinely engaged in their creative work. At least fourteen of them enjoyed going for walks around when they were trying to be their most creative.

If you’re feeling stuck or uncreative, try taking a short walk and letting our mind wander then coming back to things.

Leisure Time

It stands out to me that the majority of these twenty five creative individuals, though they clearly considered their creative work time an integral part of their day, weren’t chained to their desk/easel/piano/whatever.

For nearly all of them their leisure time either matches or exceeds their creative time. Being fair, this does include listed mealtimes and everyone has to eat, but it’s still telling that even the most creative people around are still able to get plenty of time to relax and de-stress.

For those on the list with day jobs in addition to their creative work, there always seems to be at least a small buffer of leisure time before they get into the creative stuff.

I can relate to that personally. I can never go from training a client or teaching a class straight into creative work like writing, I always like to have at least a little chill out time in between as a buffer. Keep that in mind if you feel like you have to go right from your other work into that creative project you’ve been working on – you’ll probably be better off if you take a little break in-between to recharge.

24 Hours

Out of everything, the most helpful thing to me in seeing so many famous creative individuals’ daily routines all together is that it’s a convenient reminder that we all get twenty four hours in a day.

Successful people and absolute failures alike each get the same amount of time everyday – the important variable is how that time is spent.

Hopefully if nothing else this has inspired you to take a look at your own daily routine to see if there are any areas where you can make adjustments to improve your creativity or well-being. If anything jumps out at you from these graphics, or you have a particular area in your daily routine you’ve recently changed and want to share it with everyone, leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Podio, Infographic We Trust

The Tetrapharmakos – An Ancient Cure for Modern Problems

Epicurus vs. Epicurus by AHM

When it comes to philosophy, I tend to gravitate toward the practical side. While I’m certainly interested in a lot of the more abstract areas it’s the parts of philosophy that I can apply to my life right now in order to improve it that I prefer to focus on.

To that end one piece of the Epicurean school that I think has added a lot to my daily life, or at least my attitudes toward it, is the Tetrapharmakos. Even though it was originally created in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE, the ideas it puts forth are just as applicable today.

What’s the Tetrapharmakos?

The Tetrapharmakos originally referred to a certain combination of ‘medicines’ (wax, pitch, tallow, and resin – not something I’d recommend trying) common in ancient Greek pharmacology. The word means ‘four part drug / cure’ in Greek, and Epicurus took that name for his philosophical version considering it to be a four part cure for healing a person’s emotional maladies instead of their physical ones.

Epicurus’s Tetrapharmakos consists of these four (slightly paraphrased) points:

  1. Don’t fear gods.

  2. Don’t fear death.

  3. Truly good things are easy to get.

  4. Truly bad things don’t last.

Let’s go through these points and take a look at how they’re still applicable today.

Don’t Fear Gods

In Epicurus’s time there was a societal division between Greeks who saw the gods as being literal beings that concerned themselves with the affairs of mortals and those (like Epicurus) who considered the gods to be more abstract concepts describing a state of bliss completely unconcerned with the affairs of humans. His essential argument was that gods are by definition perfect, and a perfect being isn’t going to care if you sacrificed a goat in its temple this week or not.

As noted in my personal philosophy I remain unconvinced there are any gods, or anything supernatural for that matter, in existence. I also remain unconvinced I (or anyone/anything else) has a soul, spirit, or whatever ill-defined word you want to use for that concept.

Why is this important? While it doesn’t always, belief in gods can cause a lot of harm. Furthermore the fear of gods specifically, and the fear of punishment by those gods after death can cause enough psychological harm in people that there are specific organizations out there to help people recover from that damage.

Epicurus believed one of the biggest obstacles to happiness was anxiety, and fear of gods and eternal punishment is a huge source of anxiety in people. Here in the U.S. where Christianity is most prevalent fear of punishment in Hell, both of the individual and their loved ones, can cause real stress. When you realize there’s absolutely no evidence that any of those things are real and that they probably don’t exist, it makes it easy to let go of that fear. It also helps set up the next point.

Don’t Fear Death

It’s part of the human condition to fear death. It’s probably one of the most ever-present and strongest anxieties of all for most people. Obviously for Epicurus, this was a problem since he considered fear and anxiety the biggest obstacle to finding happiness.

Epicurus’s position was that there’s no reason to worry so much about death because when we’re alive death isn’t here yet, and when death comes we no longer exist to experience it. To put it another way reminiscent of something Mark Twain would say centuries later, there can be no ‘unpleasantness’ to non-existence because you have to exist to experience something unpleasant. In the same way that you have no experience of anything before birth, you’ll have no experience of anything after death.

Being dead will be just like the state you were in during the billions of years that came before your birth – non-experiencing non-existence.

We’ve already established that there’s no evidence for any kind of afterlife or existence past death, no punishment or eternal torment to worry about, so there’s nothing there to be worried about.

Why is this important? Being in a state of constant worry about what’s going to happen to you after death can cause all the same kinds of crippling anxiety as the belief in gods we talked about above can. It’s an ever-present, background fear in a lot of people and that directly detracts from their happiness and quality of life. Letting go of this fear makes it easier to be happy.

Does that mean you should be reckless or want to die? Absolutely not. There is definitely harm in death in most cases, even if it’s not to you directly (missed opportunity to do good, emotional or financial harm caused to friends and family, etc.), so seeking death is still generally a bad thing. It just means that there’s no reason to live in constant fear of it. Don’t let the fear of something that is inevitable and not unpleasant in the long term ruin your life and cause actual unpleasantness now.

Truly Good Things Are Easy to Get

Mimicking (and possibly influenced by, though I’m unsure of any evidence supporting it) some of the ideas of Buddhism put forth between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE Epicurus asserted that excessive desires led to more harm than good. By extension of this he claimed the things that are truly ‘good’, those things that will truly make a person happy, are all easy to acquire regardless of your situation.

In general, I agree with this idea. As long as a person keeps their desires in check it’s relatively easy to fulfill the range of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Basic shelter, safety, companionship, and self-expression can all be had for relatively little effort by a majority of people.

I will put in a caveat here though that in modern times (and likely even back then, but Epicurus may not have been aware enough of it) situational and economic disparity can make it harder for people to get even the basics they need. I recognize having been born a white male in a middle class family there are certain things I’m susceptible to taking for granted. Accounting for that, there’s still things to gain from this idea.

The first is that your most basic needs, things like food and shelter, are technically easy to get. Now some might take this the wrong way and think the point is that even if you’re living in a cardboard box under a bridge you should be happy with it. I don’t see it that way. To me it’s a dual reminder both to not stress out over the fear of losing material things and to always hold a yardstick to the things I really desire to make sure they’re really important.

Some things are genuinely worth putting a lot of effort into, but it’s easy to stress out over meaningless things unintentionally. Reminding yourself that most truly good things are easy to get also helps encourage you to find peace with what you do have even if it’s less than what you’re striving for.

Truly Bad Things Don’t Last

This too shall pass.

In general, seriously terrible things tend to be acute whereas the chronic bad is often milder by comparison. This, Epicurus suggested, meant that you shouldn’t fear terrible things happening because they’ll always pass. On the inverse, things that don’t show signs of passing for a long time are likely things which you can find the strength to bear.

Don’t misunderstand this to think Epicurus was suggesting everything gets better in what would likely be the modern sense of the idea. Sometimes the end to that terrible suffering is death. Again, with no afterlife though there’s no need to worry about additional suffering after death – just impartial non-existence. That’s probably not the most comforting thing to everyone, but personally whenever something bad happens it’s always a comfort to me knowing that it won’t last. Recognizing that in a (relatively) short span of time you and everything and everyone you’ve known will be gone makes it easy to let go, and once you let go and stop being bothered by things they tend to get easier to handle.

These four principles probably aren’t going to solve every philosophical or existential problem you’re going to struggle with in your lifetime. Hell, it might not solve any of them, but I know I’ve found a lot of good in them when applied to my attitudes toward life in general. I encourage you to take whatever’s useful and don’t worry about the rest.

Do you have anything to add? Any other way you interpret anything in the tetrapharmakos here? Share with us in the comments! I’d love to hear them.

Photo Credit: A.H.M.

Thoughts on Fat Pride from a Formerly Fat Fit Guy

Fat Boy by James Marvin Phelps

Fat Squirrel cares little about your opinion of him.

I grew up as a fat kid.

Through the majority of my childhood I ranged from what might be considered chubby all the way up to full-blown obese in my teen years. At one point I was even inching up on the 300 pound mark. While the argument could be made that as a male my experience was less severe than what a female would have been subjected to I can still say I know what it’s like physically, psychologically, and socially to be a fat person.

My experiences during that time, and the time since then in which I’ve become more fit and healthy than I’ve been my entire life, are why all the attention I’ve seen lately being given to fat pride bother me. As someone who’s been in both worlds, I thought it would be helpful to express my thoughts on the subject.

Fat Shaming, Female Body Image and a Disclaimer

Rustled Jimmies Everywhere

I am fully aware that this is going to rustle some jimmies.

I want to make it very clear from the outset that I’m not advocating fat shaming here. I don’t think that the portion of the ‘fat acceptance movement’, as some people in that camp like to be called, that is against fat shaming, negative body image, or self-loathing is a bad thing. I 100% support that part of it.

I also want to recognize for a second time that, in general, this usually gets painted as a feminist or at least feminine-centric issue. Being a male, that means that my commentary is going to be coming at least a little bit as an outsider looking in. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m speaking authoritatively on the female experience because I can’t. Unfortunately, because of how generally fucked up the U.S. sociocultural environment is when it comes to female body issues I can’t get away from addressing these things in relation to this topic.

Lastly, I want to note these are just my thoughts on the subject as someone who spent most of his life in the obese category – you can think whatever you want about it. If I severely rustle your jimmies you’re welcome to leave a comment to let me know what you think.

What’s the Fat Acceptance Movement?

Before I give my understanding of all this fat acceptance stuff I want to give you a few links in the interest of fairness / just in case I’m totally misunderstanding something. I have better things to do than beat up on a straw man. So here, here, here, and here are four quick examples I found.

To my understanding the general idea is to be proud of being fat, to embrace it in order to make it a positive thing overall. It’s no secret that in the U.S. the media deifies a particular body image for both men and women that is, for the average person, at best unrealistic. This is exacerbated by the prevalence of digital editing and overall Photoshoppery that these ads are subjected to after everything else.

They rail against the psychological and physical harm this causes and argue that as a society we shouldn’t consider there to be anything wrong with being fat. To subvert the cultural standard that being fat is negative they suggest embracing it and taking it as a personal point of pride.

Hanging on to this though, as can be seen in a couple of the links above, is a related idea that trying to lose weight is either harmful, misguided, entirely impossible, or all of three combined.

The Parts of Fat Pride That I Like

The foundational message is one I can both relate to strongly and agree with – cultural ideals when it comes to body type are unnecessarily unrealistic and seriously fucked up.

If someone is overweight they should never be made to feel lesser for it. Asking people to measure up to images that have been heavily doctored and then loading them with oppressive amounts of guilt and shame when they inevitably fall well short of that is blatantly wrong.

Additionally a lot of our cultural ideas about why people become fat (they lack willpower, they’re lazy, no self-control, etc.) are flat out wrong.

Weight change and fitness are not a willpower issue. Very few people are overweight because they choose to be, or because of some fault of their own. Now, I don’t hold them entirely inculpable either, I think things like food addiction are too often blown out of proportion and used as a scapegoat. The reality falls somewhere in the middle, they’re not 100% at fault for being fat but they’re not 0% responsible for their condition either. (Sorry, if you want things with clear cut answers the fields you’re looking for are mathematics or physics, not biology.)

For all those reasons I find fat shaming reprehensible. It’s clear cut abuse and bullying. From that standpoint, I wholeheartedly support anyone who wants to stand up and say, “Haters gonna hate. Fuck you all. I like myself the way I am.”

That being said…

The Parts of Fat Pride I Despise

Tagging along with all the things I can support are some things that I’m vehemently opposed to. The primary one being an insistence that no one can lose weight or become fit long term and therefore no one should try.

Within several of the links I shared above as examples and in others I found while digging around I found it asserted repeatedly that not only is there no way for people to lose weight long term, but that it’s overall more unhealthy to try to lose weight than it is to remain overweight or obese.

As someone who has lost weight and become fit and healthy and stayed that way long term, as someone whose job it is to help other people do the same, it bothers me to hear people claim it’s not possible and work to deter people from trying.

Many of the sites making these claims cite the abstracts of flawed studies and meta-analyses to support their claims making them appear more credible to people who won’t bother to pay to read the study or who aren’t knowledgeable enough to note the flaws in the methodology. This can lead people who might have been considering making a positive change in their lives and starting the process to lose weight and get fit to instead decide not to bother.

I find this kind of active discouraging of people to improve their lives just because you don’t think it’ll work reprehensible.

My Overall Thoughts

Personally, I equate being overweight or obese with smoking cigarettes.

Culturally, as of late anyway, smoking is probably more publicly discouraged than being overweight, but I still draw a lot of parallels between the two. Most people recognize that both smoking and being overweight are generally detrimental to your health. Regardless, people are still overweight and people still smoke.

This is primarily because neither is always a ‘choice’ in the purest sense. Environmental, familial, cultural, and economic factors can predispose individuals toward smoking and/or obesity. Once you’re on the path to either, it’s extremely hard to get off of it. You can’t tell someone who is addicted to cigarettes to just ‘quit smoking’ and expect them to do it. It’s not strictly a willpower issue. In the same way you can’t just tell someone who’s overweight to ‘eat less and move more’ and expect them to get in shape.

I have family members who smoke. I care about them, so I’m always there to help and encourage them to quit. That doesn’t mean I badger them, ridicule them, or generally behave like an ass toward them if they don’t want to quit. It is, ultimately, their choice (issues of addiction and agency come into play, but we won’t go into that right now) whether they want to quit or not.

I have family who are overweight and I treat them the same way. If they want to make a change and lose weight I’m there for them. If they don’t, I’m not going to push it or shame them as a result.

I fully support any efforts to empower people to stand up to societal norms that are often at best arbitrary and at worst directly harmful. Hell, the general ethos of this site is one of embracing non-conformity. But we should also encourage people to take their health into their own hands rather than telling them that any attempts to change themselves would be futile.

Where do you stand on this? Leave a comment and let us know.

Photo Credit: James Marvin Phelps

Willpower, Discipline, and Obedience: How to Do What You Set Out to Do

Yeva and a Sausage 2 by GG Vogman

Does willpower keep the dog from eating the sausage, or obedience?

I’ve written a lot about willpower and discipline in the past because it’s a subject that fascinates me. Consider this, with the Internet it’s possible to find step-by-step instructions on how to do nearly anything. Practically anything you could ever want to do is right there, so why don’t people do it? If you’ve always wanted to speak Portuguese or play the guitar, why can’t you yet? Why aren’t you working toward that?

It’s because you don’t put in the time? And why don’t most people put in the time? Because they lack the discipline.

All the other pieces are in place for you to do whatever it is you’ve always wanted to do – the last thing is for you to have the control over yourself necessary to follow through with it.

By understanding willpower and obedience, you can do just that.

A Different Way to Look at Willpower

Willpower can be something of a tricky subject depending on how you approach it.

On one hand it’s generally accepted that it’s a finite resource, if you try to exert too much of it you eventually run out and the best way to get more is to exercise it with gradually stronger challenges like a muscle.

On another hand some research would suggest that effect is largely a result of how we perceive things. That would mean the best way to get more willpower is to firmly believe you’ve got more.

What both of these ideas have in common is that they view willpower as the ability to do something in the moment contrary to your innate desires. You want to eat that entire pint of ice cream, but you know it’ll put you over your calorie target for the day so you exert your willpower to not eat it. You want to screw around on Facebook or Reddit instead of getting to work, so you exert your willpower to force yourself to be productive, etc.

This is the common perception of what willpower means, if someone gives in to their momentary desires they’d say they lack the will to resist the temptation.

I think there’s a better way to look at it though. Rather than seeing that as a lack of will, it’s more a lack of obedience.

Willful or Obedient?

As an easy example of what I mean, I’ll use someone who smokes. Let’s call him John.

John, as noted, smokes cigarettes. John would also like to quit. He tells himself he has made the decision to quit, but then a few days later lights up a cigarette and starts smoking. If asked why he’s smoking even though he said he quit, John would attribute this akratic behavior to him not having the will to resist the urge to smoke.

Is that really the case though?

I would argue that it’s John’s will that causes him to smoke at that moment. In this sense your will is that which manifests your desires in the moment. John desired a cigarette and was willful enough to bring that desire to fruition.

So if will is the force that manifests your current desires, why does John’s will cause him to smoke? Isn’t it his desire to quit smoking?

No, actually. At least not in the moment, it’s the desire of his past self to quit smoking. Even then, technically past John didn’t even make a decision to quit smoking, but rather just had an idea that he’d like to quit. What’s the difference?

A decision is defined by action, whereas an idea doesn’t require any. Past John declared that he was going to quit smoking, but didn’t actually take any action at the time. That means he just had an idea about quitting smoking, he left the decision – the action to be taken – up to future John.

Eventually we arrive at John right now who must make a decision, does he bow to the will of past John and refuse to smoke, or does he follow his own will and have a cigarette?

Imagine for a second that rather than John deciding he shouldn’t smoke anymore someone else, his wife for instance, told him to quit. Later that day John finds that he wants to have a cigarette, clearly in this scenario if he has one he’s expressing his own will and if he doesn’t he’s being obedient to the will of his wife.

What then is the difference between that and the struggle between past John and current John?

The issue isn’t that he lacks the will to overcome his desires, it’s that he lacks the discipline to remain obedient to the will of his past self. It’s much harder to see this in decisions we make ourselves, because in general we consider our past selves and our current selves to be a single entity.

In the end, there is no appreciable difference between past John telling current John not so smoke and John’s wife telling John not to smoke. In either case John must either obey and not smoke, or exercise his own will and have a cigarette.

Becoming Disciplined

So if this is the case, shouldn’t we be able to find a model somewhere of people who are more able than most to complete a plan they made in the past irrespective of any desires they have in the present?

As it turns out, we do have an excellent model of this – the military.

People who have gone through military training are often held up as an example of people who have a great deal of self-control, discipline and, in the traditional sense, willpower. They’re considered more able than the common person to accomplish something the set out to do.

However, the military clearly doesn’t operate by encouraging its members to be willful. On the contrary it teaches you to obey the commands given to you nearly without thought. One of the apparent purposes of basic training is to crush recruits and beat them down physically and psychologically until their will is broken. Drill sergeants do not exist to encourage recruits to be willful.

Once your will has been broken down and your instinct is to obey the orders of others, it becomes easy to obey the orders of your past self.

That being the case, if we want to do what we set out to do in the past (get fit, learn a language, finish a project, etc.) than we need to develop military style discipline. The most obvious answer for how to accomplish that – aside from joining the military – is to mimic their methods for instilling discipline in recruits.

The easiest way to start is to choose one small thing to do everyday that you know, in the moment when it comes time to do it, you aren’t going to want to do.

At first this should be something small and insignificant, my personal favorite choice is the freezing cold shower.

Commit right now to taking a freezing cold shower tomorrow morning. Do you know what’s going to happen? Tomorrow you’re going to stand in front of the shower, turn it as cold as it can get, and then you’re probably going to panic.

You know it’s going to be cold. You know it’s going to be awful. You’re going to want to back out, to do it another day, you’re going to tell yourself it’s a stupid idea. At this point you’re either going to be willful and crank the heat back up, or you’re going to do what you said you would and get in that cold shower.

The key here is to obey without giving yourself the chance not to. To condition yourself to ignore that urge to disobey and just jump in the shower. The first day is going to be the worst. After that though, it’ll get easier. Before long there won’t be any struggle at all anymore.

By continually doing exercises like these, starting small and then working on to bigger things, you can eventually overcome your will and develop the discipline to obey your past decisions no matter how badly you want to violate them in the moment.

Once you can do that, you can pretty much accomplish anything you want.

What do you think? Is willpower more about having the strength to ignore your desires, or having the discipline to obey the desires of your past self? Is there a real difference between the two? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: GGVogman

How to Calculate Your Macros Part 2 – Macronutrient Ratios

Bountiful Feast by Virgil Chang

So by now you ought to know all about what macros are and how to count them and you should have gone through the first part of this two part article and figured up an estimate of how many calories you need and want to aim for per day. That means that we’re ready for the final part of the process – figuring out your specific macro ratios & amounts.

If you haven’t gone through at least the previous article to figure out your caloric needs, go do that really quick. You’ll have a much easier time following along and you’ll be able to have your macros ready by the end of the article. You’ve got to know your calories first though.

All set? Good.

Choosing Your Goal

The first step in figuring out your actual macronutrient ratios is going to be choosing what specific goal you’re pursuing; a cut, a slow bulk or recomposition.

Cutting and slow bulking you were introduced to in the previous article, but recomposition is going to be new here. Recomposition is going to be for all the people who read the last article and thought to themselves that they didn’t fit in either category well. It’s also for people, particularly athletes, who for whatever reason need to keep any muscle loss during their cut to an absolute minimum or potentially even build additional muscle while losing fat.

That being said, choosing recomposition as a goal will make things go much more slowly. The majority of people will probably want to go with a cut, particularly if you’re looking to burn off fat.

Assuming you didn’t already choose one when figuring up your calories in the previous article (you should have) here’s the quick rundown of who each is for in general:

  • Cut – For anyone whose primary goal is fat loss. The goal is to lose as much fat as possible while sparing as much muscle as possible.

  • Recomposition – For anyone whose goal is fat loss but who absolutely need to maintain or gain muscle at the same time. Athletes or people who are already near 10% body fat and are trying to shave off those last couple percentage points will be the majority of this category.

  • Slow Bulk – For anyone whose primary goal is muscle gain. The objective here is to gain as much muscle as possible while gaining as little fat as possible. For best results most people here should already be lean enough to have visible abs.

Once you’ve figured out where you want to be, we can get down to figuring your exact macros out. For example purposes I’m going to bring back our example gentleman from the previous article. I’m going to name him Stan this time around for ease of reference.

If you recall, Stan is 200 lbs. and 20% body fat. He did all the calculations from the previous article and found he has a Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) of about 1,838 calories per day and an estimated Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) of about 2,325 calories per day. Let’s take him through all three goals.

The Cut

We’ll start with the cut both because it’s the one most people are likely to need and because at 20% body fat it’s definitely the one Stan needs.

You have two options here. The first is the more basic and it’s just to follow an even caloric deficit across the entire week cycle. This is what we did in the previous article, Stan wants to lose weight so he picks a caloric target less than his TDEE and greater than his BMR. For our purposes now, let’s say 2,000 calories per day average. Then he’d adjust from there after some time based on his progress. There’s some room for wiggle but as long as his average over the week is about 2,000 calories per day that’s the important thing.

The second option is getting a little more complicated, but will get a little better results.

It involves changing the number of calories and the macronutrient breakdown based on whether it’s a training day or a rest day. Training day here meaning primarily lifting or resistance training, not necessarily cardio or metabolic conditioning things.

This makes it a little more work, but there’s an advantage to getting more calories and having more of your calories coming from carbohydrates on training days and getting fewer calories with more of those calories coming from fat on rest days. How this works in detail deserves its own article so I won’t go into it in depth here, but the general idea is you’re providing your body with more of what it needs to get through tough workouts and get protein to your muscles on training days and putting your body into a better fat burning environment on rest days.

We’ll look at the flat calorie intake option first.

Let’s go back to Stan and his 2,000 calories. He’s decided to make things easy with a flat calorie intake. Now that he knows his calories he needs to figure out what the macro breakdown will be. Here’s what you want to shoot for on a cut:

  • Protein – Between 1 to 1.5g of protein per pound of lean body mass.

  • Fat – Between 0.4 to 0.6g of fat per pound of lean body mass.

  • Carbohydrates – However many grams necessary to balance your calorie budget.

So Stan figures up his lean body mass (LBM) by multiplying his body fat percentage by his total weight and then subtracting that number from his total weight. (200 lbs. x .20 body fat = 40 lbs. of body fat, 200 lbs. bodyweight – 40 lbs. body fat = 160 lbs. lean body mass) He gets an LBM of 160 lbs.

Stan likes his meat and even though he’s cutting wants to spare as much muscle as possible and possibly add some, so he chooses the higher protein intake of 1.5g per pound of LBM. 160 lbs. LBM x 1.5g protein = 240g protein. Stan writes that down so he doesn’t forget it later.

Next we have fat. Stan picks an even 0.5g of fat per pound of LBM here which puts him at 80g of fat per day. (160 lbs. LBM x 0.5g fat = 80g fat)He notes that down too.

Lastly come the carbohydrates. Here Stan needs to figure out how many calories he’s got left in his budget and then how many grams of carbs that equates to. If you remember from the first macros article, protein is roughly equivalent to 4 calories per gram (technically less but for math’s sake we’ll call it 4), fat is equivalent to 9 calories per gram and carbs are equal to 4 calories per gram.

Stan multiplies these values by the protein and fat macros he wrote down and comes to 960 calories worth of protein (240g protein x 4 calories = 960 calories) and 720 calories worth of fat (80g fat x 9 calories = 720 calories) for a total of 1,680 calories accounted for.

Stan’s goal was 2,000 calories per day so we subtract that 1,680 from that to get a remaining balance of 320 calories. We apply the previous process in reverse and divide that by 4 and arrive at 80g of carbs. (320 calories / 4 calories/g of carbs = 80g of carbs)

That leaves Stan with daily macro targets of 240g of protein, 80g of fat and 80g of carbs. Since the caloric value of macros is constant if he eats exactly that much he’ll hit his target of 2,000 calories every time.

We’ll get to more specifics on what to do with this information a little later. For now, you should at least understand how to get to those values.

So what if Stan wanted to be a bit more complicated but reap the benefits of changing his macros on training vs. rest days?

First, rather than pick an even caloric deficit of 325 calories per day (2,325 TDEE – 2,000 calorie target) he would choose two different calorie targets, one for his training days and one for his rest days.

You want to aim for a small caloric surplus (above your TDEE) on training days, but enough of a caloric deficit on rest days that the total weekly calorie expenditure falls in a deficit. In other words, you want to eat more than you burn on training days, but overall burn more than you consume weekly. A good place to start for most people in my experience is with a 10% caloric surplus on training days and a 30% caloric deficit on rest days.

So in Stan’s case we take his TDEE of 2,325 calories and add 10% to get his training day calorie target of 2,560 calories per day (2,325 TDEE x .10 = 232 + 2,325 TDEE = 2,557 calorie target rounded to 2,560) and then take his TDEE again and subtract 30% from it to get 1,630 calories per day (2,325 TDEE x .30 = 698, 2,325 TDEE – 698 = 1,627 calorie target rounded to 1,630).

You could just do the same thing you did above to assign macros to these values, but since we’re already being a touch more complicated you might as well go the extra mile and cycle your macronutrient ratios as well. It’s not a make-or-break deal, but there’s a definite advantage on the hormonal side of things to consuming significantly more carbs and less fat on your training days and significantly more fat and less carbs on your rest days.

Just like there isn’t a golden calorie ratio that just works for everyone there isn’t a golden macro ratio split that’s guaranteed to fit everyone’s needs. You’ll need to adjust as you go based on how your body’s responding to things.

I like to start most people out at a 75/25 25/75 split since I usually get a good response from it and can dial in from there. That means 75% of your remaining calories after you take your protein out will come from carbs on your training days and the remaining 25% from fat and the reverse on rest days.

I like to keep protein consistent for simplicity’s sake, I would also recommend not going below between 50 to 60 grams of fat per day average over the week. Going below this tends to create problems with people’s hormone production (in short, less testosterone, low energy, diminished sex drive, etc.).

So here Stan would take his training day calories of 2,560 and subtract his protein calories first to get 1,600 calories (240g of protein = 960 calories, 2,560 training day calories – 1,600 calories). Then we figure out what 75% of that is which comes to 1,200 calories (1,600 x .75 = 1,200 calories) and then, since carbs are worth 4 calories each, divide that number by 4 to get 300 grams of carbs per day (1,200 / 4 = 300g carbs).

We do the same thing for fat but with the remaining 25% to get 45 grams of fat (1,600 x .25 = 400 calories / 9 calories per gram of fat = 45 grams of fat rounded up). This is less than the 50 to 60 I recommend but it’s close enough that the higher fat levels on rest days will usually even it out.

That leaves us with 240 grams of protein, 300 grams of carbs, and 45 grams of fat on training days totaling to around 2,560 calories – due to the rounding there will be small discrepancies, don’t sweat it you should be adjusting as you go anyway to dial in on where you need to be.

We do the same thing for rest days but in reverse and we get 240 grams of protein, 56 grams of fat, and 42 grams of carbs.

Personally, while it does even out to just over 50 grams of fat per day average I would consider upping the fat just a bit here and lowering carbs further on rest days – especially if you feel those signs of reduced testosterone production. It would take a bit of playing with.

Recomposition

I’m not going to spend as much time going through examples here and on the slow bulk since you should understand the math having gone through the cut section. The math is all the same here, except instead of using the 10% over and 30% under calorie split we do a split of 10% over on training days and 10% under on rest days.

This should be the option primarily for people who need to cut down a little but have a strong need to conserve every ounce of muscle mass or for people who are new to training and currently very weak. The slow bulk option is there too but you can get excellent results with the recomposition set up if you currently look like Steve Rogers’ before picture.

When it comes to the macro split we can use the same 75/25 25/75 split here as well. Keep in mind though that we will be adjusting as we go. Give it a few weeks of consistent adherence, evaluate your progress and then make alterations as necessary.

In Stan’s case, for reference, he would be targeting 2,560 calories on training days broken into 240g of protein, 300 grams of carbs, and 45 grams of fat and 2,095 calories broken into 240g of protein, 96 grams of fat, and 72 grams of carbs.

Slow Bulk

The slow bulk follows the same basic pattern, except like with the cut you have the option of following the flat calorie surplus laid out in the first article on macros or by doing the more complicated but slightly more favorable caloric and macro cycling.

If you choose the flat model you just use the previous article to determine how much of a surplus to shoot for based on your training level then divide up your macros like we did with the cut.

  • Protein – Between 1 to 1.5g of protein per pound of lean body mass.

  • Fat – Between 0.4 to 0.6g of fat per pound of lean body mass.

  • Carbohydrates – However many grams necessary to balance your calorie budget.

Let’s say Stan’s in the beginner category and has never really done any lifting before. He shoots for a daily surplus of 300 calories which brings him to 2,625 per day when added to his TDEE of 2,325. He then follows the chart above to divide it up – 240 grams of protein again takes 960 calories out of his budget leaving him with 1,665 left, 80 grams of fat takes 720 more calories out leaving 945 calories which leaves 235 grams of carbs per day to balance things out.

If you’re going for the split you want to have a calorie structure of 30% surplus on training days and a 10% deficit on rest days. Essentially the inverse of the cut.

In Stan’s case, following the same process we’ve used the last few times, we come up with a training day calorie target of 3,025 calories partitioned into 240 grams of protein, 390 grams of carbs, and 57 grams of fat and a rest day target of 2,093 calories partitioned into 240 grams of protein, 96 grams of fat, and 130 grams of carbs.

Choosing one of these you should be able to get your initial calorie and macro set up down to start. Make sure you track things as closely as you can and keep an eye on how you’re progressing. If things aren’t heading in the right direction the you need to adjust a little and go from there. Specifically how to adjust is something that needs its own article, but in general if you’re not losing fat you need to adjust your weekly calories down a touch and if you’re not getting stronger or building muscle you need to adjust your weekly calories up a touch.

If you need some more specific advice on how to set up your macros, or you just don’t want to be bothered with all the details, we do have some coaching spots available where we take care of all that for you.

Confused about how we got to certain values? Have any questions about how to set things up for certain goals? Leave them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Virgil Chang

The 80/20 Guide to Nutrition

Homework by Nathaniel Watson

Nutrition doesn’t have to be this complex – as long as you know what to focus on.

Nutrition is a complicated thing.

It doesn’t have to be, at least unless you really want to start getting into the energy pathways and biochemical stuff. If you’re just looking to lose weight, get a bit stronger, or just be overall healthier the nutrition knowledge required to get you there is actually pretty simple. The problem is the fitness industry in general (Yes I realize I am, de facto, a part of that industry but I’m trying to do better here) emphasizes all the complicated – and often expensive – aspects of nutrition first and ignores the things that matter most.

Nutrition and all the goals linked to it follow the 80/20 principle as much as anything else does. There are a minority of high return actions that will lead to a majority of your results and a majority of low return actions that will lead to a minority of your results – in other words about 20% of what you do will get you about 80% of your results, while the other 80% of what you do will only be worth about 20% of your results.

The best course of action then, with anything, is to focus on that 20% of actions first that will give you 80% of your results.

So What’s Really Important?

Going from most important at the top to least important at the bottom, I’d divide things up as follows:

  1. Calories

  2. Macronutrients

  3. Micronutrients

  4. Meal Timing

  5. Supplements

If you flip the list over it could be a ranking for things you’re most likely to see articles about in health & fitness magazines.

The problem is that complicated and detailed processes are sexy and make us feel like we’re doing something. They also offer people an out as for why what they’re doing now isn’t working. They follow a program for a week or two, possibly with poor adherence, don’t see the results they want and then see a magazine article telling them the secret to weight loss is five small meals a day while carb cycling and taking green tea extract.

‘Oh,’ they say to themselves, ‘no wonder I’m not losing weight. I’ll do that instead.’

Then inevitably they don’t get anywhere on that plan and come across something a few weeks or a month later and decide to try that. They wind up feeling like they’ve worked super hard and tried everything and nothing’s worked, when really they’ve just bounced from one complex thing to another. It’s like nutritional busywork.

I’ve had people in consults at the gym complain about how they have so much trouble losing weight. When I ask about their nutrition habits they rattle off twelve supplements they’re taking and explain how they eat six meals a day timed at very specific intervals and avoid gluten like the plague – but it’s still not working. They wonder if they have thyroid problems or are just genetically predisposed to be overweight.

Then when I ask how many calories they actually get in a day, they say they have no idea.

Why people have a tendency to ditch the boring, unremarkable but effective things for the flashy, sexy but useless things deserves an article of its own. For now though, lets look at the order in which you should be focusing on things.

Calories

Calories are the most important variable in any kind of physique change.

I’m going to say it one more time because the ‘A calorie isn’t always a calorie’ rhetoric has been pretty loud lately.

Calories are the single most important variable in weight loss or gain.

Now I will concede that the primary thing calorie balance will affect is weight change. What types of tissue that weight consists of is largely determined by other factors like training and your macronutrient breakdown (which is why it comes next in the hierarchy).

It doesn’t matter what else you’re doing in your diet, if you want to lose weight but are in a positive energy balance because your’re getting too many calories on a daily basis you’re not going to get there. Trying to out exercise your diet is a bad plan as well – it just leads to running yourself into the ground trying to make up for all the junk you ate. You should train to meet a training goal, not to balance out your calorie budget.

If you have no idea where to start, you should head over to my article on calculating calories for different training goals and figure out where you need to be.

Macronutrients

Macronutrients – Macros from here out because I’m lazy – are the second most important thing after calories.

If you want a more in-depth explanation you can read my full beginner’s guide to macros, but the basic explanation is that macros are the basic units of nutrition – Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrates. Like with the letter ‘Y’ and its occasional vowel status we can also add Fiber and Alcohol as sometimes being considered macros depending on the circumstances and who you’re asking.

In the general sense your macro breakdown is one of the primary factors in determining if it’s muscle or fat tissue that you’re gaining or losing as a result of your calorie balance. While manipulation of them is not necessary to reach most physique goals it does make things much, much easier and more efficient.

Additionally, some of the more fine-tuning oriented physique goals like a body recomposition that don’t involve a lot of actual weight change are going to be more heavily influenced by what you’re doing with your macros than other goals.

I’ll have the second part to my macros article up soon which will go over in more detail how to arrange your macros for various goals and will update this article once it’s up.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients are next on the list in order of descending importance.

Where macronutrients are the big units of nutrition like protein and fat, micronutrients are all the little things like vitamins and minerals. I also include water here which we’ll get into in a minute. In general the primary distinction is that while a macronutrient has caloric value, micronutrients provide no calories.

If you live in a developed country chances are pretty low that you’re going to be deficient enough in any micronutrients to cause any severe health problems. As a result, it’s not as important to be concerned with them if your calories and macros aren’t already taken care of.

That being said, there’s a decent difference between your micronutrients being at sufficient levels to get by without anything like scurvy or goiters showing up and being at optimal levels. Everyone is going to be a little different in their needs here, but you should aim for eating a lot of fibrous vegetables and getting at leat one or two servings of fruit per day. Ideally changing it up as often as possible, don’t just eat bananas everyday because they’re convenient.

A multivitamin isn’t a bad idea but it’s not a replacement for fruits and vegetables. There are just too many phytonutrients and zoonutrients that aren’t going to get into a multivitamin (things like lycopene, flavonoids, and indoles). Think of a multivitamin as an insurance policy just in case you don’t get enough fruit and vegetables in a day.

I also include water here because, while water is definitely important in terms of survival, most people reading this aren’t going to be in danger of getting so little water they have severe health problems. Like the micronutrients there’s a difference between enough and optimal, but worrying too much about whether you’re getting 6 cups of water or 8 in a day won’t matter much if the other stuff we’ve gone over isn’t where it needs to be.

When it comes to water recommendations there are just too many variables like climate and activity levels to give any kind of catch-all recommendation for an amount. Instead I like Lyle McDonald’s recommendation of trying to have at least five clear urinations per day.

That means five trips to the bathroom per day where your urine comes out clear, not yellow or dark. If you can manage that you know you’re getting enough water for your situation.

Meal Timing

Meal timing is next step down on the ladder of importance, and one step higher on the ladder of things you’re likely to see people needlessly obsessing over.

I cannot count how many people, clients and otherwise, I have come across who were concerned with getting their meals timed exactly perfectly. This can range everywhere from the bodybuilding (and lately weight loss) apothegm of having to have five small meals a day as evenly spaced as possible, or to being concerned with whether they should eat their post-workout meal within 30 minutes or an hour of finishing – Thor help you if there’s a protein shake or pre-workout supplement involved in there somewhere.

This is not to say that meal timing can’t play a role in the effectiveness of your nutrition program, but most people put way too much focus on it. It’s like worrying about whether you should put summer or winter tires on a car that’s missing its engine.

Most people probably won’t need to worry much about meal timing. My personal inclination is toward intermittent fasting, and its a protocol I use with a majority of my clients. That being said everyone’s different and it’s complicated stuff. I’ll be putting together an article (or a series of them more likely) on all the details, but for now I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Get your calories and macros down and sort out your vitamins and minerals first.

Supplements

At last we come to the end of our list – supplements.

Supplements are big business and they feed into people’s quick-fix inclinations. As a result they wind up being an area people spend way, way too much time worrying about. In our car without an engine analogy supplements are the sound system. Nice to have, makes the trip easier, but it isn’t going to help get you from point A to point B much in and of itself.

You can do just fine with zero supplements but they can be helpful at times, so here are the handful I would recommend if you really want to do some fine tuning and have a little extra money to throw around.

  • Whey Protein – Not necessary since you should be trying to get as much of your protein from whole food sources (i.e., meat) as possible on account of all those zoonutrients, but I’ll concede it’s a lot more convenient and potentially more economical if you need a higher protein intake to use shakes to fill in the gaps.

  • Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) – Only really necessary if you’re going to train fasted. So if you’re on an intermittent fasting schedule and prefer morning workouts or just prefer training fasted for any reason then getting some BCAAs before and after will make a substantial difference. If you don’t fall in this category these aren’t really necessary.

  • Fish Oil – Fish oil & omega-3 fatty acids have strong evidence to support that they’re beneficial in a mild way to a wide range of areas including mildly reducing inflammation & blood pressure, strongly reducing triglyceride levels and mildly enhancing brain function. That means while not vital, it at least helps a lot things a little bit.

  • Caffeine – Caffeine obviously gives you energy and has been shown to improve performance in training sessions. I would not personally bother with an expensive pre-workout supplement that’s got a bunch of extra filler and costs an arm and a leg when you can get an equivalent boost to performance by downing a cup of a coffee or an espresso 30 minutes or so before training. I would not recommend this if you train later in the evening though since quality sleep is more important than a slightly enhanced training session.

  • Vitamin D – Vitamin D deficiency can be a problem depending on your habits and where you live, particularly in the winter. Being in Ohio I will occasionally supplement some vitamin D during the colder months since I’m indoors a lot more and mostly covered up. If you can, you’re much better just going outside and getting a bit of sun. It doesn’t take much to get enough.

  • Creatine – If your goal is to build muscle creatine can definitely help. It’s probably the single most researched supplement out there and is safe and generally pretty inexpensive. It’s not magic though, and some people have unpleasant side effects like digestive problems, so your mileage may vary. The one possible exception is if, against all better judgement, you’re a vegan or vegetarian then it’s much harder to get enough creatine from dietary sources and you’ll probably benefit more from it than others.

That’s it. That’s really all I’d recommend and conditionally at that. Please don’t run out and buy everything on that list because you probably don’t need it – but understand which ones might be helpful for you once you’ve got the rest of the stuff in this article nailed down.

If you prioritize things along these lines and focus on the high return variables like calories first, you’ll make a lot more progress toward your goal a lot more quickly. Just remember not to lose track of what’s most important and to stay consistent and you’ll get there.

Have any questions or anything to add? Leave a comment and let us know!

Photo Credit: Nathaniel Watson

3 Common Language Learning Obstacles

Parkour Visions Adult Obstacle Challenge by Beth Jusino

Facing obstacles can be painful, or it can be a fun challenge – it’s all a matter of attitude.

Learning a new language is a long and involved process and, while it can be a lot of fun most of the time, odds are you’re going to run into some major obstacles.

I always like to take the parkour view of things and think of roadblocks like these as challenges to overcome, but I do recognize that some of them can be extremely discouraging – especially when they slow or halt your progress.

I’ve put together a list of some of the most common obstacles language learners find themselves stuck at and frustrated with from a collection of personal experience and the experiences of all of my language coaching clients along with suggestions for ways to get around, over or through these walls between you and success.

1. I Can Read or Have Learned a Lot, But Still Fall Apart When I Speak

I put this first because it’s probably the most common obstacle I see affecting people who have followed the standard one teacher to twenty students classroom format or have tried to learn on their own through some of the popular at home language learning products.

People study and study and study some more and, after months or even years, feel pretty good about their progress in the language. Maybe they took classes all through college, or bought and completed that home study course that the commercial said NASA / the CIA / whatever-impressive-organization uses. They might not call themselves fluent necessarily, but they feel comfortable saying ‘I speak ,’ rather than just ‘I’m learning .’ Secure in their ability to speak, our intrepid language learner walks into a local market from a country that speaks their target language natively or maybe even steps off a plane in that country.

They strike up a conversation with the first native speaker they meet, eager to flex their new linguistic muscle and, to be honest, probably show off a little. When the native speaker responds something that sounds a little bit like what they studied comes out, if you blended all the sounds together and played it at triple speed.

Our poor language learner panics. They caught a few words, they think, but that was it. Was that a different dialect? What did that one word mean? Bewildered, their mind scrambles to remember the right response and freezes up from the shock of it. They stumble their way through, but in broken sentences and with a lot of ‘um’s. Nothing like the easy flow of all those practice dialogues.

All that time studying, and they feel like they can barely communicate.

If it sounds familiar, or if you haven’t gotten to the ‘I tried talking to a native speaker and wound up looking like a deer in headlights’ stage but see it coming, don’t worry – it happens all the time.

So how do you fix it or avoid it entirely.

Don’t wait to start talking with native speakers.

The biggest problem I have with the standard classroom model or most home courses is that you either get no practice with native speakers or very limited practice with only one or two. Usually the best you can hope for in a class is practice with a native speaker instructor, but their time is divided between you and 19 other people. Most of your other speaking practice will probably be with other students. In home courses you’re lucky if you get anything better than mp3 files to chat with.

You should be talking to as many native speakers as you can as soon as you can. Even if you can only say ‘Hello’ in your target language, go say hi to a native speaker.

It doesn’t have to be in person, finding native speakers to Skype with is easy with sites like iTalki and Lang-8. If you would prefer face to face conversations look on Meetup for groups related to your target language or look on Couchsurfing (you can meet for coffee and chat or if you want a lot of practice opportunities offer to host a traveler that speaks your target language).

The point is to start early and keep talking with native speakers as often as you possibly can.

2. My Vocabulary Isn’t Sufficient to Have a Conversation / I Don’t Know Enough Words

This problem is one that tends to lead directly into that most common issue above – correctly or not people feel like they just don’t have a big enough vocabulary to really talk to natives or use the language so they never try. This turns into a type of self-sabotage because they never allow themselves to get the kind of exposure and real world practice they need to reach their goal.

Fixing this problem is two-fold.

The first aspect of it is realizing that you don’t need a big vocabulary to practice with a native.

If you know a single word, that’s enough. Use it. Then ask the native speaker to tell you more words. It really doesn’t take that much. About 80% of most conversations are made up of only 20% of the lexicon. That means that you don’t need to know how to say words like circumlocution, defenestration, or empiricism in order to talk to 80% of the people you’ll meet. Probably more, honestly. Just jump in and use what you’ve got, filled in with lots of gestures and explanations using more basic words.

The second aspect of fixing it is, well, actually fixing it.

Go choose a SRS program you particularly like – I’m personally fond of Memrise – and find a collection of the 1,000 most common words in your target language. Now that you’ve got that, just practice them on your SRS until you’ve got those 1,000 down. I guarantee you that will be enough vocab for a majority of conversations, and from there you can expand out to the next 1,000 most common and then the next.

3. I Can Have Conversations, But I Want to Sound More Native

While personally I think accent reduction and working toward sounding ‘native’ in a target language is more of a frivolous or tertiary goal compared to actually being able to have fluid conversations, I recognize that it’s something a lot of people would really like to aim for. Whether it’s for business purposes, wanting to move to a different country and fit in better or just for the sheer coolness of being able to speak a second language that well – a lot of people would like to reach that level.

There are a few things to keep in mind here:

  1. 1. This is going to be pretty difficult. Compared to actually learning the language complete accent removal will take a lot more focused, intentional practice. In other words, it’s going to be a lot of work and probably take a while before you get there.

  2. 2. Contrary to what some people would have you believe it is not impossible to completely remove your accent in a language acquired as an adult. You don’t have to have grown up bilingual to speak two languages accent-free – regardless of what people might claim. It just takes a lot of effort.

Since it is something that’s going to take a considerable amount of effort, I highly suggest ensuring that you have some damn good reasons for wanting to remove your accent. Motivationally speaking, if you need to speak a second language accent free to avoid losing your job and winding up on the street you’re going to be a lot more motivated to stick it out through all the grueling work than the guy who decided it’d be kind of cool to be able to speak another language like a native and show off in bars.

If you are willing to put the work get ready to talk to yourself a lot, because your best tools are going to be mimicry and shadowing.

I won’t go in to extreme detail because accent reduction deserve an article (or, probably, a series of them) all to itself. You can get started by going through and deconstructing the phonetic makeup of the language you’re learning. Usually you can do this on Wikipedia, just type in the language you’re learning and the word ‘phonology’. For example here’s Japanese Phonology and Korean Phonology.

From there, you can identify what sounds are identical to those in your native language, what sounds are non-existent in your native language and are completely new to you and, the most difficult, what sounds are similar to ones in your native language but slightly different. I suggest learning IPA if you haven’t already.

Next find native speaker examples of these particular sounds either through music, from native speakers you know or from online via Forvo or a similar site. Once you have them you can plug them into your audio editor of choice (I personally like Audacity because it’s functional and free) and then slow the audio down enough to clearly identify the sounds but not so much that you distort them.

Then practice. Practice. Practice and…. maybe practice.

Shadowing is an easy way to get practice on your own, although I also suggest finding a native speaker who can listen and then correct the nuances. A dedicated speech coach would be ideal, but they tend to be pricey.

There are certainly more obstacles people run into, but these three seem to come up frequently. If you can think of any others you’d like to see addressed, or have more questions on how to get over these, leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Beth Jusino

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