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 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 – 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 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.


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

How We Learned Fluent Korean in 6 Months

Hangeul Day by The Republic of Korea

Learning fluent Korean in a 6 month timeline was one of the first challenges we took on back when we started Road to Epic – it was a big success and a lot of what we learned during the experience has influenced our articles on language learning since.

Recent renewed interest in the challenge has made me realize though that I never really did a satisfactory job of outlining exactly how we did it. That was a big oversight on my part, so I’m posting this to make up for it and lay out exactly what all we did to meet our six month deadline successfully.

I’m going to split it into three sections because that’s essentially how we broke things down.

The Vocabulary

Even when I’m not working under the constraints of a deadline, I don’t like to waste time. There are just way way too many words out there to try to learn all or even most of them – particularly in 6 months. Thankfully, you don’t need to know much vocabulary to be fluent.

We applied the 80/20 principle and focused on the most commonly used couple thousand words only, that way we were learning the words that we would be most likely to hear and use the most first and ignoring extraneous vocab like ‘defenestration’ that probably won’t come up much.

In my experience having a good handle on the first 3,000 most common words or so gives you the tools to have a fluent conversation 90% or more of the time so that’s what we focused on. 3,000 words divided into six months comes out to about 17 words per day which is totally reasonable. We learned 1,000 words in one month for a bit of a sub-challenge and, while definitely a bit work-intensive, it wasn’t all that painful to accomplish. 3,000 in six months isn’t bad at all.

To do the actual learning part we used a combination of memory hooks and spaced repetition system (SRS) learning.

At the time we mostly used Anki which you can download here.

Anki uses a spaced repetition system to show you flashcards in tailored intervals to maximize long term retention. There’s a huge library of pre-made flashcard decks and we simply chose the best looking deck of the most commonly used Korean words.

While we didn’t use it at the time, Memrise has since come out with a free iOS and Android app that uses a similar spaced repetition system but with crowd sourced pre-made memory hooks so you don’t have to come up with your own.

I currently prefer Memrise to Anki, mostly because of the convenience factor, but there’s no reason you can’t use both or whichever one you personally prefer.

Once we had our SRS program and our decks of the most common Korean words we scheduled set times everyday to practice on them just like we set scheduled times to work out.

The Grammar

For the grammar we were really only concerned initially with the very basics. Like with the vocab we made a point of focusing on the most common grammatical points first (simple present tense declaratives, interrogatives, etc.) and worried about the more complicated stuff as it came up (conditionals, subjunctives, etc.).

One of the biggest helps was one of our Korean friends who was kind enough to translate a bunch of example sentences for me that I wrote specifically to tease out some common grammatical points. I have a background in linguistics, so I knew what to look for and wouldn’t necessarily recommend this approach for most people unless you’re into grammar on its own. If you do want to find someone to translate some example sentences for you but don’t know anyone who speaks your target language I recommend iTalki and Lang-8 which we’ll get to in the next section on practice.

What I would recommend is a combination of Talk To Me In Korean and Monash University’s My Korean.

Talk To Me In Korean (henceforth TTMIK because I’m lazy) is one of my absolute favorite resources for Korean language learning. On their site at they have a ton of excellent grammar lessons. We jumped around quite a bit since we knew what we wanted to target first and had the most questions about, but you can do the lessons in order if you’re not concerned about specific things.

My Korean is a free textbook put out by Monash University. You can download it here for free. We used My Korean similarly to how we used TTMIK, mostly jumping around and targeting things we specifically wanted to practice or learn. Again though you can go cover to cover and get a ton out of it. It’s one of the best Korean textbooks we’ve come across.

Like the vocab practice we had an hour or so set aside each night of our six months to either go back over a grammatical point we were still struggling with or to learn a new one that we hadn’t gone over yet.

The Practice

Last but absolutely not least comes the actual practice.

If your goal is fluency, i.e. being able to carry on a casual, fluid conversation with a minimal amount of breaks, then practice is just as important as the other two above. Speaking a language is a skill and just like how you can’t learn to swim by reading lots of tutorials and never getting in a pool you can’t learn to be fluent by doing all studying and no practice.

In our case we made heavy use of our native Korean speaking friends alongside the sites iTalki and Lang-8.

iTalki is an excellent resource that you can use to find native speakers to practice with or even dedicated language teachers you can have remote lessons with over Skype.

In our case we used a pretty even mix of both. We didn’t have time scheduled everyday for Skype sessions, but we had them as often as possible and filled in conversations with our local friends as much as we could.

We used Lang-8 as often as possible as well by writing posts on there using whatever grammar item we were learning at that point as much as possible. That gave us a way to practice them while still putting a little thought into things and get corrections from native speakers in a written form that we could save long term.

In addition to these three areas there was a lot of passive learning (watching Korean media, listening to Korean music, reading Korean news and books, etc.) but I don’t consider these things to be nearly as important a the dedicated and focused learning and practice.

Have any other questions about what we did or any suggestions of things you’d add to help other learners? Any good resources for people learning something other than Korean? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: The Republic of Korea

How to Calculate Your Macros Part 1 – Calculating Calories

Portion by Bradley P Johnson

Now that you know what macros are you might be asking how to figure out exactly how many of them you need every day in order to attain your fitness goals. The beginner’s guide gave some general guidelines, but here we’ll get a little deeper into it.

The first thing we need to figure out in order to determine where your macros should be is exactly how many calories you need to be getting on average to meet your goals. (I’m assuming you know your goal, e.g. lose fat, gain muscle etc., so if you don’t make that step one and figure it out first.)

Why calories first? When it comes to losing weight (i.e., fat) or gaining weight (i.e., muscle) the single most important factor is your calorie intake.

Calories Are King

There are easily a thousand different diet models all claiming to have the one magic secret to helping you lose weight. Most of them focus on eliminating this or that or playing with meal timing or fasting for so long or some other thing – but the fact remains that when it comes to the foundation of gaining or losing weight calories are really all that matters.

Whether you’re eating 100% ‘clean’ or nothing but Twinkies and junk food if you’re genuinely taking in more energy than you use you will gain weight and if you’re using more than you take in you’ll lose it.

Now before the ‘A calorie is not a calorie’ crowd get their torches lit and pitchforks distributed I should note, what that weight is – muscle, fat, etc. – can be determined by where those calories are coming from. That’s a question of what color to paint the house though and we’re still talking foundations here. We’ll get to where the calories should come from and when you should get them later, first we need to know how many you need.

Calculating Your Current Calories

There are a handful of ways to go about this ranging from more to less complicated and more to less accurate. All of these are trying to determine your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) which are your ‘coma calories’, the amount of energy your body would burn if you did nothing but lay there in bed all day and not move. It’s essentially the bare minimum amount of energy your body needs to keep running without any added activity.

The most complicated, though arguably most accurate, is RQ testing through a system like what eNewLeaf offers. Technically speaking their resting metabolic testing should be extremely accurate compared to the other calculation options I’ll give. I’ve used them in the past and was happy with the results.

That being said, I think it’s a lot easier to have a less accurate initial estimate and then adjust up or down from their based on your rate of progress. Testing like what eNewLeaf provides can be expensive and considering your values will change over time would require repeat visits.

The one potential benefit this type of testing offers other than providing more accurate initial values is that it can also tell you which energy systems your body prefers using. In basic terms how efficient your body is at actually burning fat.

It can be an interesting thing to know, but I don’t find it terribly useful and it won’t change our macro calculations so I wouldn’t bother unless you really want to know this stuff.

My preferred method personally is the Katch-McArdle formula. This is still a best guess situation but it tends to get pretty close and then you can adjust from there after a few weeks once you see how things are going. There are just too many individual variables for this to get an accurate value for everyone but I’ve found it’s the best combination of accuracy and convenience.

The Katch-McArdle Formula: BMR = 370 + (9.8 x lean mass in pounds)

If you’re more metric minded change that 9.8 to 21.6 and pounds to kilograms.

Your lean mass is the weight of your body minus the weight of all of your fat. To figure this out you’re going to need to determine your body fat percentage – there are a lot of ways to do this ranging from pinch tests to bio-electric impedance to complicated things like hydrostatic weighing. Most of the nicer bathroom scales will do it for you (I particularly like the Aria) and if you belong to a gym any one of the trainers should be able to give you a pretty good estimate.

Once you have your body fat percentage subtract that amount from your total weight to get your lean mass. So a 200 lb. person at 20% body fat would mean they have 40 lbs. of fat on them (200 x .20) and 160 lbs. of lean mass (200 – 40).

If you have no idea whatsoever about what your body fat percentage might be and no good way to find out you can use the revised Harris-Benedict equation instead. This one differs between men and women.

Men’s Harris-Benedict Formula: BMR = 88.362 + (6.251 x weight in lbs.) + (12.189 x height in inches) – (5.677 x age in years)

Women’s Harris-Benedict Formula: BMR = 447.593 + (4.203 x weight in lbs.) + (7.869 x height in inches) – (4.330 x age in years)

And in metric:

Men’s Harris-Benedict Formula: BMR = 88.362 + (13.397 x weight in kg.) + (4.799 x height in cm) – (5.677 x age in years)

Women’s Harris-Benedict Formula: BMR = 447.593 + (9.247 x weight in kg.) + (3.098 x height in cm.) – (4.330 x age in years)

These are going to potentially be a little less accurate, but they’ll do well enough for the moment.

Once you have your BMR you’re going to want to adjust it a touch to account for your daily activities to get your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). In my experience most people vastly overestimate their daily activity levels. For that reason I usually recommend a x1.2 multiplier for most people. This usually winds up being a bit of an underestimation but works if you’ve got a desk job. If you’re on your feet most of the day (waiting tables, working on machinery, etc.) then you may be better off with a x1.4 multiplier. If you’re in a genuinely strenuous line of work (roofing, construction, etc.) then you can bump it up to a x1.6 multiplier.

Don’t try to factor exercise in here, just your day to day activities. In other words if you have a desk job but workout 5x per week you should still start with x1.2 as your multiplier.

So our 200 lb. 20% bodyfat example from before would use Katch-McArdle to get a BMR of 1,938 kcal. (370 + (9.8 x 140 lbs.) = 1938) and then, since he’s got a desk job, would add in the multiplier to get to a TDEE of 2,325 kcal. (1938 x 1.2 = 2325.6). Always round down to the nearest 5 or 0 for simplicity’s sake. These are estimates remember and will need adjusting over time anyway.

Now that we’ve got our TDEE – the estimated number of calories we need to take in to remain exactly the same weight – we need to figure out how to manipulate those numbers to reach our goal.

Calculating Your Target Calories

We don’t want to just stay the same, so you’re going to need to either take in fewer calories if you’re trying to lose weight or more calories if you’re tying to gain weight. I’m going to use the general Leangains terminology and call them a Cut and a Slow Bulk respectively.

Since most of the people I coach are looking to lose weight, we’ll start with the cut.

Calories for a Cut

Since we’re looking to lose weight while cutting that means that you’re going to need to adjust your calories down from your TDEE. How much you’re going to adjust down is going to be based on how much weight you want to / can safely lose per week.

People who have more to lose, i.e. people with a higher initial body fay percentage, can generally safely lose more weight per week while people who are closer to their goal and have a lower body fat percentage will be on the lower end of the spectrum. Here are some general guidelines for what you should be able to expect safely.

  • 30% Body Fat or Higher – 2.5 to 3 lbs. per week

  • 20 – 29% Body Fat – 2 to 2.5 lbs. per week

  • 15 – 19% Body Fat – 1.5 to 2 lbs. per week

  • 12 – 14% Body Fat – 1 to 1.5 lbs. per week

  • 10 – 11% Body Fat – .5 to 1 lb. per week

Find yourself on the chart and then figure out from there how many pounds of loss per week you want to aim for. These are basic guidelines based on a combination of outside data and my own experience with clients. Note that you can always aim for a slower cut than what’s listed under your body fat percentage but don’t try to do more. If you’re 30% body fat there’s nothing wrong with aiming for a nice slow 1 pound per week, just don’t shoot for losing 3 pounds per week if you’re only 12% body fat or you’re likely to run into problems.

Once you’ve determined how many pounds of loss to shoot for we need to translate that into calories. The general rule is that it takes 3,500 calories to create a 1 pound change in weight. I say general because it’s not technically an exact science but it gets the job done.

So our previous 200 lb. 20% body fat example would look at the chart and decide he wants to shoot for 2 pounds of weight loss per week. That means he needs to put himself in a caloric deficit of 7,000 calories (3500 kcal x 2 lbs. = 7,000 kcal) per week.

If you’re a little on the short side, I would recommend aiming a little on the lower side. It doesn’t always make a big difference but it does help sometimes.

Always aim to make your weekly caloric deficit a product of diet alone and not training. There are a handful of reasons for this. First of all, there’s a high variance in calorie burn for the same activity from person to person. While the bomb calorimetry isn’t perfect either it’s more accurate than estimates of what you’re burning during an activity. Second adding in a ton of extraneous training just to burn more calories is going to add substantially more stress to your body than just reducing intake and we don’t want too much stress. Lastly, your training should be focused on its own goal not on burning up extra energy because you ate too much.

The most basic way to achieve that weekly deficit is to divide your total weekly deficit need by 7 and then subtract that amount from each day’s intake. So for our example person he would want to cut 1,000 calories each day from his TDEE to eat 1,325 kcal daily (2,325 kcal TDEE – (7,000 kcal / 7 days) = 1,325 kcal).

Personally, this sounds a bit aggressive and our example gentleman may find 1,325 is a bit low for comfort. In that case he could bump up to a slower but more comfortable 1 pound loss per week at 1,825 kcal per day. Usually if your target dips too far below your BMR you might find it’s kind of miserable and unsustainable. It’s all about finding what works best.

I’m also a fan of Leangains-style calorie/macro fluctuations which would involve higher calories on training days and lower or rest days rather than a flat deficit each day. Regardless of how you do it, the important thing is that your weekly calories add up to the specified deficit.

Calories for a Slow Bulk

So what if you want to gain weight rather than lose weight? You essentially follow the same process in reverse.

Here the calories are going to be determined more by your training level than by your body fat percentage or body composition. I like to break it down along Alan Aragon’s lines of Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced trainee.

Here’s how to figure out where you are based on three main lifts.

  • Beginner – Anything below Intermediate, usually less than 2 years of training.

  • Intermediate – Bench Press: 1.2 x body weight, Squat: 1.6 x body weight, Deadlift: 2 x body weight, usually between 2 to 5 years of training.

  • Advanced – Bench Press: 1.5 x body weight, Squat: 2 x body weight, Deadlift: 2.5 x body weight, usually 5 years or more of training.

If you’re in the Beginner level you can expect between 2 to 3 lbs. of muscle gain per month and should shoot for a surplus of around 200 to 300 kcal per day to start.

If you’re in the Intermediate level you can expect between 1 to 2 lbs. of muscle gain per month and should shoot for a slightly lower surplus of 100 to 200 kcal per day to start.

Lastly if you’re in the Advanced category you should expect only about .5 lbs of muscle growth per month and should aim for a small surplus, somewhere at or below 100 kcal per day to get started. Advanced trainees will find it’s much easier to track strength gains and other metrics than it is scale weight since at this level increases in pounds will be smaller and harder to notice.

So our example person at 200 lbs. and 20% body fat wants to go on a slow bulk and add some muscle. He’s an absolute beginner at weight training, so he can expect to put on at least a few pounds per month and needs to shoot for a surplus of 200 to 300 kcal per day. If he goes right in the middle that puts him at a target of 2,575 kcal per day (2325 kcal TDEE + 250 kcal = 2575 kcal per day).

Adjusting your Calories

Your daily calorie needs are going to change.

Even outside of training and the weight change involved with adjustment of caloric intake there are so many other factors involving your metabolism and Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) that there’s no way you’ll keep them consistent for long.

As such, you’re going to have to adjust your calorie intake up and down as you go based on what your goals are and how much progress (or lack thereof) you’re seeing in either direction.

You don’t want to make too drastic of changes too soon, so I would always stick with what you’re doing for at least two solid weeks before making adjustments – preferably three or four. Solid weeks here means hitting your calorie targets every single day.

If, after three or four weeks consistently hitting your targets on a cut you find that you’re not losing as quickly as you’d like or not at all then adjust your calories down by between 5 and 10% and see how that affects things. If you’re losing too quickly adjust up by 5 to 10% – losing too quickly or more than is indicated on that chart above likely means you’re also losing muscle which is a bad thing.

If you’re on a slow bulk and find yourself not making any progress after hitting your targets for three to four weeks then increase your daily calorie intake by between 3 and 6%. If weight is gained too quickly for where you are on the training levels above you’re likely putting on fat in addition to muscle and should decrease your daily calories by 3 to 6% instead.

Keep in mind that, particularly if you’re new to training or making large changes to your macro percentages (particularly carbohydrates) you may have some drastic fluctuations in water weight in that first week. Stick it out and give it time before you make any substantial adjustments.

This is the first step in figuring out your macros. We’ll get into how to actually structure your macro percentages in the next article, but this will be the foundation those are built upon.

If you’re feeling uncomplicated, you can just use these values to lose or gain weight. While there are potential benefits to getting more involved and complicated with things it’s not necessary, so if you just want things to be easy set your calorie targets based on everything above and stick to them without worrying about specifically what it is you’re eating.

Have any questions about setting your calorie goals up or any suggestions or personal experiences you’d like to add? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Bradley P. Johnson

The Beginner’s Guide to Macros

Christmas Dinner by George Redgrave

Counting macronutrients doesn’t have to be complicated.

If you’ve been digging into information on weight loss – especially information by people more active in the fitness side of things and less in the selling diet fad books side of things – you’ve probably heard of macronutrients (macros for short because we’re lazy).

It can be bewildering at first because it’s seems like a lot more nutritional information you have to digest, but thankfully it’s not as hard as it sounds. If you have no clue what people are talking about when they discuss counting macros, or if you’re just not sure where to start in getting control of your diet, this is the best place to start.

What are Macros?

Macros are essentially the biggest unit of nutrition (some may call it splitting hairs, but Calories are a unit of energy – not nutrition – so they don’t count). They’re the foundation of the pyramid, the most very basic building blocks for keeping you alive and making all that fleshy stuff and bones and organs you like so much.

There are three main macronutrients, though some people separate them into five categories. The three main ones are:

  • Protein

  • Fat

  • & Carbohydrates

The other two, depending on who you ask, are alcohol and fiber. Strictly speaking they probably should be considered as separate macros from everything else but we aren’t going to worry about that here. For right now, just consider alcohol and fiber to be carbohydrates and leave it at that.

One of the defining characteristics of macronutrients is that they’re the only things that have calories.

Micronutrients, like all your vitamins and minerals, possess zero calories. While important for different reasons, we’re not going to worry about them at all for right now – just the macros.

So let’s take a look at some of the different macros individually.


We’ll start with protein because, while there’s probably no actual most important macro, a lot of people would argue protein deserves that distinction – particularly in the health and fitness community.

What is it?

Protein is the basic building material of just about everything in your body. It helps us build more muscle, retain muscle on a caloric deficit, recover from our workouts more quickly and has the highest satiety factor while simultaneously requiring the most energy to digest reducing it’s caloric impact.

The official calorie count for protein is 4 calories per 1g of protein, and for our purposes that’s what will go with, but you should know that because of the energy spent digesting protein it’s really closer to the 3 calorie range.

Where do I get it?

Primarily meat, fish, eggs, dairy and protein powders. You can get it from plant sources if you absolutely insist on being a vegetarian or vegan – but you should know that those sources are poor and you’re unlikely to be as healthy or have as easy a time of things as your omnivorous companions.

I’m always favorable to macro sources that are whole foods (as in, unprocessed stuff, not things from that particular store) though meat can be expensive and inconvenient to prepare at times, so protein powders and shakes are an acceptable supplement in order to make sure you hit your targets.

Do check your food to make sure it’s a good source of protein even if you’ve been told it is. I often hear beans and nuts recommended as good protein sources when really nuts are almost entirely fat and beans are made up of substantially more carbohydrates than protein. Always be skeptical and double check, a lot of ‘high protein food’ claims are mostly marketing. In general, you can never go wrong with meat and whey though.

How much do I need?

In general a good range to shoot for if you’re trying to bulk up is in the range of .8 to 1g of protein per pound of lean body mass (that’s about 1.8 to 2.2g per kg for the rest of the world) every day. If you’re on a cut and trying to maintain your muscle mass while dropping fat you’re going to want it a little higher to ensure you preserve as much lean mass as possible. In that case you’ll want to bump it up to about 1 to 1.3g of protein per pound of lean body mass (2.2 to 2.8g per kg).

Note that these ranges are based on your lean body mass. That means your bodyweight minus your bodyfat. You do this by finding your bodyfat percentage and then subtracting that weight from your total body mass. For example, a person who weighs 200 lbs. at 20% bodyfat would have a lean body mass of 160 lbs. and would likely be on a cut so would shoot for between 160 to 208g of protein per day.

It should also be mentioned that while there are rumors out there of how too much protein will damage your kidneys – they’re false. There are no studies substantiating the claim that high protein intake damages kidney function. One study even showed no kidney damage on a diet of 1.27g per pound of bodyweight (not lean body mass) per day. That would be 254g per day for our example person above. So don’t worry about getting too much.

Why have upper limits on the ranges then? Primarily because after a while while more protein isn’t harmful, it’s not really helpful either. It’s also expensive – meat isn’t known for being cheap and even whey powders can be pricey – and takes up room in your diet that can crowd out our other two macros. With the diminishing returns going overboard isn’t really going to help a lot, even on a bulk.


Fat’s the enemy isn’t it? Causes heart disease, Ancel Keys and all that. Hence all the products shouting about being low fat right?

Well, no.

What is it?

Fat is essential nutrient required to keep your brain and just about everything else running smoothly.

The reasons for why the low fat craze was a terrible idea sparked by bad science that was hyperbolized by an ignorant media deserve an article of their own. Fats are required to live and are necessary for brain function, vitamin absorption and hormone regulation among other things. In fact, one of the most immediate side effects of a low fat diet is a severe drop in testosterone production and sex drive.

They’re also the most energy dense of the macronutrients coming in at 9 calories per 1g of fat.

If our muscles can be said to be fueled by carbs and built by protein, your brain can be said to be fueled by carbs and built by fat.

Where do I get it?

The best places to get quality fats are from fatty meats (bacon anyone?), most dairy, nuts / nut butters and oils. Avocados are also a good source of them and the only fatty food that is probably considered a fruit.

For the purposes of this article we’re only going to worry about fat as a whole, but it should probably be noted that overall there are better and worse sources of fat. Monounsaturated, Polyunsaturated and Saturated fats are all fairly good for you in the proper amounts of each. Trans fats, or hydrogenated fats, however are absolutely terrible for you and should be avoided at all costs. Thankfully the bad kind don’t occur on their own in nature, we have to make them, so as long as you stay away from stuff in packages you’ll be fine.

How much do I need?

That depends again on your goals. If you’re trying to bulk up making your diet consist of around 20 to 30% fat in calories is a good range to aim for. That means if you’re shooting for 2,500 calories per day (potentially a little low for a bulk for most people but the math’s easier) that would be 400 to 600 calories per day coming from fat. Divide those by 9 (because of each gram of fat having 9 calories) and you get about 55g to 83g of fat per day.

Conversely if you’re on a cut I would recommend keeping it a little lighter. Keeping your caloric intake low on a cut is important and with fat coming in at 9 calories per gram it’s easy to get carried away and go way over your calorie target. You don’t want to go too low either though or you’re going to tank your hormone production and feel horrible.

A good range to shoot for then while on a cut is between .4 to .6g per pound of lean body mass (.9 to 1.3g per kg). That should allow you to keep your calories in check without impairing hormone function and suffering all the detriments of an excessively limited fat intake.


Surely if fat isn’t the enemy carbs are right? Shouldn’t everyone be low carb and gluten free? Isn’t Paleo the best thing ever?

Again, it’s not exactly that simple. Though the long explanation is going to be saved for another article.

What are they?

Technically speaking carbohydrates are the one macronutrient that you don’t absolutely need to survive (with the possible exception of alcohol if you count it separately from carbs). If you don’t eat any fat you will get very ill (sometimes called rabbit starvation), if you don’t eat any protein the same thing will happen. Eventually both of these things can kill you.

If you don’t eat any carbs you’ll feel crappy for a few days while your body adjusts and the it’ll start using gluconeogenesis to turn other macronutrients into glycogen and you’ll be fine.

So why eat them at all? Well for on thing like fats they have a generally positive effect on hormones that’s hard to replicate through other means. Additionally they’re the easiest way to replace muscle glycogen effectively, and if you’re going to be training hard (you are going to be training hard, right?) then you’re going to want at least a little carb intake to help you through it.

Outside of all of that, honestly, carbs are tasty. You don’t have to punish yourself to be healthy.

Where do I get them?

From almost any food that’s considered unhealthy or which makes your Paleo and Atkins friends turn white with horror when you raise to your mouth.

Joking aside, carbs come from grains, starches, vegetables and sugars. Alcohol too for our purposes since, while technically unique, it behaves close enough to how carbs do to be counted that way. There are complex carbs (vegetables and greens) which are somewhat better for you and simple carbs (sugar, refined grains etc.) which are somewhat worse for you. There’s also dietary fiber which we’re including here but can also be considered technically separate.

Run of the mill carbs, both simple and complex, weigh in at 4 calories per 1g of carbohydrate. Alcohol on the other hand being so energy dense (we do use forms of it to fuel cars you know) comes in at 7 calories per 1g. Dietary fiber lands on the other end of the spectrum. Soluble fiber (stuff you can digest) comes in at a mere 2 calories per 1g. Insoluble fiber, which you cannot digest, comes in at 0 calories per 1g. Because you can’t digest it.

How much do I need?

You need just enough to fill out the rest of your calories after you’ve figured out your protein and fat intakes. Once you’ve added up your protein (x4 calories per gram) and your fat (x9 calories per gram) subtract that number from your total daily calorie target. Then divide that by 4 (because there are 4 calories per 1g of carb) and you’ve got your target carb intake.

On a side note regarding our two extra additions to this category – keep your alcohol intake reasonable. There are benefits to a little alcohol consumption, but too much will damage your testosterone levels, your brain, your liver and probably your life in general. Enjoy in moderation. Fiber you definitely want to make sure you include as the right amounts will help make you feel full, keep cholesterol low and keep things in your digestive track moving smoothly.

You should shoot for at least 20g of fiber per day to reap all of the benefits from it. Don’t let your fiber intake exceed about 20% or so of your total carb intake though or you might be in for gas, constipation and bloating.

You need just enough to fill out the rest of your calories after you’ve figured out your protein and fat intakes. Once you’ve added up your protein (x4 calories per gram) and your fat (x9 calories per gram) subtract that number from your total daily calorie target. Then divide that by 4 (because there are 4 calories per 1g of carb) and you’ve got your target carb intake.

On a side note regarding our two extra additions to this category – keep your alcohol intake reasonable. There are benefits to a little alcohol consumption, but too much will damage your testosterone levels, your brain, your liver and probably your life in general. Enjoy in moderation. Fiber you definitely want to make sure you include as the right amounts will help make you feel full, keep cholesterol low and keep things in your digestive track moving smoothly.

You should shoot for at least 20g of fiber per day to reap all of the benefits from it. Don’t let your fiber intake exceed about 20% or so of your total carb intake though or you might be in for gas, constipation and bloating.

Learning How to Count

Hopefully you know how to count in general. If not I’ll wait while you go watch some Sesame Street and brush up a bit.

The trick to counting macros though is two-fold. The first problem is that if you don’t know what you’re looking for, what’s important and what’s useless information a nutrition label can be kind of confusing. The second problem is that a lot of food, specifically a lot of the generally healthy food which you should be eating more of, does not come with nutrition labels.

We’ll start with the foods that come with nutrition labels because they make it significantly easier to figure out your macros accurately. After all you just have to be able to read and do basic addition.

Food with nutrition labels

So what’s the important stuff on a nutrition label? In order from top to bottom on the label:

  • Total Fat – This is what you count as your fat.

  • Total Carbohydrate – This is what you count as your carbs.

  • Protein – This is what you count as your protein.

Technically you also need to pay close attention to the serving size. We’ll get to more on that in a moment though. So what all on the nutrition label can you ignore? Everything else.

  • Saturated / Unsaturated Fat – Not important and these add up into that total fat category you’re counting. I would potentially advise keeping an eye out for trans fats (which should be avoided entirely), but that’s about it.

  • Cholesterol – Vilified for years even though there’s no good research to show there’s anything wrong with dietary cholesterol. Don’t worry about it.

  • Sodium – Unless you have very high blood pressure there’s no need to worry about it at all.

  • Dietary Fiber – Included in the total carbohydrate count. I do recommend getting a bit of fiber as noted above, but in general it’s usually not worth counting on its own.

  • Sugar – This is also included in that total carbohydrate count and can be ignored. I won’t get into it too much here, but sugar is not evil, toxic or poison. Count your total carbs and don’t worry about sugar for right now.

  • % Daily Value – This is how much the government recommends you get of this nutrient assuming you follow a 2,000 calorie diet. Not only would it be insane for everyone to follow a 2,000 calorie diet due to the countless differing variables from person to person but, even if you’re on a 2,000 calorie diet, the recommended ratios of macros are awful in my opinion so I wouldn’t recommend following it anyway. Do everyone a favor and ignore it until it goes away.

  • Vitamin A, C, Magnesium, Zinc, etc. – All these little extra things are your micronutrients, your vitamins and minerals essentially, and don’t add any calories. Might be interesting for you to know, but it’s not worth worrying about for right now.

  • Calories – Most people are surprised by this one, but you don’t need to count the calories if you’re counting your macros. That’s because the only things that have calories are macros. So if you know how many of each macro you’re getting and how many calories per macro as listed above, you know your calories.

Now you know what’s important and what’s not, you just need to count up the important stuff and multiply it by the number of servings you had. This is where paying attention to the serving sizes on the label and owning a food scale will come in handy.

If you really want to accurately measure your macros, you must have a food scale. I’ll give you some general eyeballing estimation figures you can use in a pinch but they’re not super accurate. You also can’t measure things by number and volume because those amounts can vary wildly between things of equal weight.

Anyone who’s done any baking knows that a loose cup of flour and a packed cup of flour are two very different amounts which is why recipes always give you the amounts of things like that in weights (at least, competent recipes). Similarly, even using the measuring lines they give you or an actual tablespoon, you may measure out five tablespoons of butter and have amounts ranging from 10 to 20 grams that all look the same. Since a single serving of butter (and one precise tablespoon) is 16g this can throw your macros and calories way off.

For a single serving of butter like that it would only be off about 50 calories, but over the course of multiple foods across multiple meals across multiple days you can wind up severely off your macro targets and by extension make zero progress.

You can get a digital food scale off Amazon for around $25. Even less if you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of functionality. Once you’re in the swing of it weighing your portions out only takes an extra minute each meal too, so it’s no real inconvenience. In my experience the kind of people who whine about having to buy a scale and weigh food are the people that make up excuses to skip workouts and the people that never make any progress – accept it.

Food without nutrition labels

So what do you do if the food you’re eating doesn’t come with a nutrition label? The easiest place to start is by turning to the Internet.

Websites and apps like MyFitnessPal and LoseIt! are built specifically to help you track the nutrition content and macros of what you’re eating. Just look your food up, enter in the amounts you ate and you’re good. Nutrition Data is another option if you just want to look something up.

The relevant apps also let you scan bar codes to pull up nutrition information on and log the food you scanned making it even easier to log the stuff with labels too.

So what if you’re eating out at a restaurant or are just seriously too lazy to measure things properly and see actual results?

The basic estimation guidelines are as follows:

  • 3.5 ounces or 100g or so of raw meat (including fish) is about 20g of protein. One average chicken breast is about 20g of protein, a 6 oz steak (a bit more than the size of your fist) is about 40g of protein.

  • 70g of uncooked rice is about 50g of carbs. This will be about 1/2 a cup of uncooked rice or a big mounded handful. Cooked it’s going to vary by water amount. Pasta is the same. One slice of standard white bread is 20g of carbs.

  • Greens and green vegetables can be counted as having 0g of carbs. Technically they’ve got some, but if you’re just ballparking the numbers there’s no point worrying about them because they’re so small.

  • Go easy on the sauces. If it’s vinegar or water based don’t bother counting it. If it’s fat based including things like butter, olive oil or mayo you can consider each spoonful to be about 15g of fat.

  • Eggs are 6g of protein per egg.

Whether you’re estimating or being precise (you should be precise) you can also use Fitocracy’s macro tracking app to keep things noted down. It doesn’t include foods to look up, but it lets you enter things manually and see where you’re at as you go through the day.

Hopefully all of this has you all set on what macros are and how to start tracking them. If you have any additional questions leave a comment! If you want a little more in-depth assistance getting your macros down I do offer coaching packages, just send me an e-mail or stop by our coaching page if you’re interested.

Photo Credit: George Redgrave

My Personal Philosophy Part II: Putting it Into Practice

Philosophy and Inspiration by Jasohill

In the previous post on my personal philosophy I outlined my foundational positions on some things as they relate to shaping how I view the world. Since I don’t think anything is really useful unless it can be applied in practice in some way, I’m following it up with this post on how my personal philosophy informs my actions and how I deal with certain things.

Since my personal goal in life is a hedonistic one of trying to maximize my happiness and peace of mind during my short existence the primary focus of all of these practices will be to do just that – maximize my personal peace of mind and contentment primarily through reduction of negative stimulus / emotions and a minimization of desires.

I’ve written it prescriptively, as though I’m giving advice, but you don’t have to take it that way. I’ve gotten good mileage from it, but if you don’t hold the same positions as myself from the previous post your results may vary. I don’t think this is a one size fits all philosophy, so regardless of my writing style don’t take it as being writ in stone.

I’m going to start with the internal side of things. It is much easier to change yourself than it is to change the world around you, so in my view the best way to create the largest effect with the least effort is to begin by gaining control of your internal processes.

Cultivating Emotional Control

You are largely in control of your own emotional states. There are caveats, of course, your brain chemistry is for the most part still something that most people are not directly aware of and it can easily override or undermine your conscious thought processes.

Even so with practice you can – in the same way that people learn to control, ignore and suppress feelings of hunger or discomfort – learn to control your own emotional states. Since happiness and peace of mind are emotional states, this an excellent place to start on the road to achieving them.

When there is a problem, or when you feel like you’re off track, you should always attempt to change yourself to correct the problem before trying to change the situation externally.

Recognizing Negative Emotions

The first step in cultivating control of your emotions is to learn to recognize and address the ones that are going to cause the biggest problems – the negative ones.

Developing mindfulness is key here. Whenever a negative emotion arises, be it anger, fear, sadness or whatever, you need to be able to recognize when those emotions arise then take a step back and examine as objectively as possible why you’re feeling them and what’s causing them.

Once you do that you can come to understand why you no longer need to feel that emotion and let it drift away. The easiest way to allow yourself to let go of an emotion you don’t want is by examining it through the dichotomy of control.

The Dichotomy of Control

The dichotomy of control is the fact that there are two possible states to everything, either it is under your control or it is not under it. This doesn’t have to be an absolute, there are grades of how much control you may have over something, but everything in existence must fall into either the category of at least partially under your control or not under your control at all. No exceptions.

When you recognize this you can view each situation to determine which category it falls into. If it falls into the first category and is something you can control, determine if you did or can do everything under your power to make the situation better. If it falls into the second category don’t even think about it – things that are 100% outside of your control needn’t be bothered with since there is absolutely nothing you can do about them.

For example, say you’re worried that one day the Sun will explode and wipe out all life on Earth in a supernova. There’s nothing you can do about that, at least not practically, so you might as well let that worry go. It’s not helping you and its just wasting your time and energy.

On the other side let’s say you’re angry you didn’t get a promotion you wanted. Assuming it’s based on your performance this is presumably something under your control. Look back at your performance and determine if there were areas you could have performed better. If there were, let go of the anger and resolve to do those things next time. If you determine you did everything you possibly could, then it turns out it wasn’t under your control after all and there’s nothing else you could’ve done. No sense being angry over something you can’t control so let it go and try again next time.

Embrace the Ephemeral

If you recall from my previous post I don’t accept the existence of any deities, afterlife or the idea that life has any inherent meaning. In the grand scheme of the universe I am an insignificant blip of carbon that got disassembled almost immediately after coming into existence. Through the lens of deep time my life is more infinitesimally small than a single hydrogen atom in the entire Pacific ocean.

Nothing is permanent and everything I know and care about will eventually be gone. So why worry?

Existence is transient and largely trivial. Does it really matter that I spilled coffee on myself this morning? Is it such a big deal that the car in front of me cut me off? Am I going to die because I got rejected for something I wanted? Most of the things that we get upset about are laughably insignificant when you look at them in terms of the big picture, so don’t let them make you miserable now.

Even if that weren’t the case nothing lasts. As miserable as you can possibly get it can never be eternal, so remind yourself that this too shall pass and move on. Dwelling on negatives will never lead to increased happiness or peace of mind.

Eliminate your Expectations

Disappointment is the sum deficit between your expectations and reality. By eliminating your expectations entirely or by always assuming that the worst possible outcome is inevitable you keep yourself from dealing with the pain of something falling short of your expectations.

Now when I say to expect the most negative outcome I don’t mean to dwell on it. Instead use your examination of the worst possible outcome as a way to eliminate your fear of failure. When you ask yourself what the worst thing that could happen is, it’s almost always not that bad. Especially when you remember the ephemerality of things as noted above.

When you understand that the worst case scenario is never that bad, there’s no reason to worry about it. Then you can expect it knowing you’re totally ready for it and, in the cases when the outcome is much better, be pleasantly surprised. Besides, most things are outside of your control, so having high expectations on the outcome of situations beyond your control is like gambling with your piece of mind. Don’t surrender control of your happiness to chance.

Live Now and Be Mindful

You only have this moment right now. The past falls into the category of things you can’t control or change under any circumstances (until someone invents a time machine, though that might not even be logically possible from a space-time standpoint) so let go of it. Worrying about or being hung up on the past is one of the stupidest things you can do – you’re poisoning your present over something you can never change.

Similarly, don’t worry about the future. You should certainly plan for it to the best of your ability, but accept that what will come will come and the most you can do is accept it and deal with it when it’s here. You’ll control what you can and the rest there’s no sense in worrying about. Don’t worry so much about what the future holds that you miss out on the present.

Practice being as mindful and present in the current moment as possible as often as you can.

Neutralizing Negative Input

There are at least two types of negative input, physical discomfort and psychological discomfort. Physical discomfort would be things like pain, hunger, stress etc. while psychological discomfort would be things like insults, derision or humiliation by others.

Physical discomfort can be acclimated to, processed and internalized through practice. For example, an easy way to practice becoming one with the feeling of hunger and getting over the discomfort it causes is to occasionally engage in controlled fasting. Through regulated exposure you can become familiar with it and eventually it no longer causes discomfort.

The reason this can be important on the physical side of things is that our thoughts, actions and emotions are often strongly affected by our physical state and any discomfort we may be experiencing. People who are under a lot of stress, are extremely hungry or are in some similar state of physical discomfort are going to have a much more negative state of mind and negative behavior than someone who isn’t being affected by those things.

When it comes to psychological discomfort caused by others the best thing to do is understand that no one can cause you psychological discomfort without your permission. No one can directly make you angry, sad or anything else they can only take actions to create circumstances that would normally cause you to assume that state. In the end the control still lies with you.

Now again your brain chemistry can be a powerful thing, so this will take some practice as well. Most people can’t just flip a mental switch and no longer be angry or upset about things. Using some of the frameworks and realizations above helps, as does understanding that someone can only successfully insult you if you have a related insecurity. You effectively can’t insult a person by calling them a tree or something equally absurd, and if you’ve let go of your insecurities any insults or humiliation people attempt to bring to bear on you will seem just as ridiculous because you’ve stripped them of any ammunition.

Interacting with the Physical World

This second section deals primarily with your interactions with the physical world and things outside of yourself. This may at times still entail making changes to yourself rather than attempting to control your environment, but it’s more about what you do externally rather than how you process things mentally.

Pursue Physical Fitness and Health

Unhealthiness is an inherently discordant and negative state and is substantially less conducive to achieving happiness and peace of mind than is healthiness.

As a result, you should always be striving toward a state of health and physical fitness. Like anything this pursuit should not become so obsessive that it goes too far and begins to damage your happiness and peace of mind in other areas. Be reasonable, but always strive to be as fit and healthy as possible and avoid things that would reduce your healthiness whenever you can.

Neither Judge nor Begrudge

Remembering that in general people are not directly responsible for their actions as a result of holding a position of soft determinism it isn’t appropriate to judge people for their actions and isn’t appropriate to hold a grudge or seek revenge.

When harmed it is appropriate only to take sufficient action to ensure that no more harm will be done in the future. For example, if someone is convicted of murder they should be imprisoned not as retribution but as a means to ensure that they don’t cause harm to anyone else.

If someone causes you direct harm remember that they’re not entirely in control of their actions and don’t hold that harm against them. If there’s an obvious threat of further harm being caused take the absolute minimum effective action required to remove that threat of harm and move on.

I should note this doesn’t mean to necessarily forget that harm was caused, it may be important to remember as a means to avoid future harm, however you should forgive the transgressor.

Minimize Physical Desires

Embracing a general practice of minimalism and gratitude and being content with what you currently have will make it substantially easier to achieve a general state of happiness and piece of mind.

People have a general psychological set point of happiness to which we naturally return over time. In other words, even if you win the lottery tomorrow and are awarded 10 million dollars over time your happiness will equalize and you’ll find you need something even bigger to raise your happiness again.

This inevitably leads to disappointment when your desires can’t be met.

By eliminating extraneous physical desires and learning to be happy with what you have you create a space where your peace of mind is not dependent on constantly gaining more things but remains at a stable point. When your desires are easy to fulfill and keep fulfilled you never feel the pain of being unable to fulfill them or the loss of a desire that was previously fulfilled.

Much like lowering general expectations the less you want the happier you will be overall.

Always Seek to Minimize Harm to Others and Increase Happiness

In general causing harm to others will always result in a net reduction of peace of mind and happiness for yourself. Even if, temporarily, harming others increases your happiness (for example by theft of an item you desire) in the end it will bring more negative outcomes than positive.

There’s the obvious negative of potential legal consequences, including the reduction in peace of mind caused by fear of being caught. There’s also the fear of retribution directly from the harmed party. Additionally there’s the negative feelings of regret and guilt most people experience from knowingly harming others.

Outside of all of those your peace of mind and happiness is best served by existing in a society where everyone tries to maximize everyone else’s happiness and cause as little harm as possible. If you cause harm to others you are contributing to creating an environment where everyone harms others which is a less than ideal environment to exist in if your goal is to maximize your own happiness.

When you help others they are encouraged to help you increase your own happiness and peace of mind. By contributing to the creation of an environment where everyone is inclined to assist everyone else achieve happiness you maximize your own chances to do so as well.

To this end beneficence, honesty, respect and charity are all virtues one should attempt to embrace and cultivate.

While I’ve tried my best to distill the practices I follow in order to maximize my own happiness I’m certain there are things I’ve overlooked or not considered. Regardless this is a relatively complete list and hopefully can serve as a starting point for determining your own practices for maximizing happiness and peace of mind.

Do you have any similar practices? Anything you do differently that you’d like to discuss or concerns with my reasoning? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Jasohill

My Personal Philosophy Part I: The Foundations

My Philosophy Bookshelf by Jared Dunn

A lot of people have expressed an interest in my personal philosophy, what positions I hold on various things and so on, so I decided to write up a pair of posts to go over the topic. This first post will go over my basic philosophy on life and brief explanations of why I hold those positions. I don’t think philosophy is worth anything until you put it into practice though, so the second post will detail how my personal philosophy dictates my actions in trying to lead as good a life as possible. If you don’t care about my rationalizations and just want to get right to the practical stuff, feel free to skip right to that post.

This is in no way an extensive outline on my philosophy, that would take more time and space than I want to give to the topic and is fluid enough that I’d have to revise it too often. Instead, these are just the foundational principles of my personal philosophy – or at least the ones that I can pin down concretely.

Agnostic Atheism

I’m beginning with this not because it’s a particularly divisive and contentious issue (though it is) but rather because for most people including myself one’s position on this particular point directly influences and informs their opinion on nearly every other point. As such it’s best to deal with it first.

I am an agnostic atheist. What that means is that while I don’t claim no gods exist no claims for the existence of deities has met a sufficient burden of truth for me to accept them as true. In other words, I’m technically open to the possibility that gods may exist due to the impossibility of proving a negative. However, because there are none with enough evidence to show their existence my default position is that none exist and will remain so until I’m proven wrong.

There are certainly some gods which I would argue can be essentially disproven, for example we can fly to the top of Mount Olympus and check for Zeus and family. Most however fall into a non-disprovable area, much in the same way you can’t prove I don’t have an invisible, non-corporeal, multi-dimensional unicorn in my office.

Thankfully the burden of proof is on those making the positive claim – since the ones positing the existence of one or many deities has yet to meet that burden I have no impetus to accept those claims as true.

Methodological Naturalism

This position ties in closely with my position on the question of theism above because the same basic principles lead to the conclusion of both.

I am a methodological naturalist, although technically you could probably call me a weak or agnostic philosophical/metaphysical naturalist as well. So what does that mean?

A philosophical or metaphysical naturalist holds the position that nothing exists outside of the nature. In other words, there are no supernatural things in existence. Now while I agree with that position in general, it falls into the same issue of being unable to prove a negative. I can’t prove without a shadow of a doubt that nothing supernatural exists, which is why I could consider myself an agnostic metaphysical naturalist – I can’t claim I know for sure supernatural things don’t exist, but currently there’s no good reason to accept that they do so I stick to the null hypothesis.

Methodological naturalism means that, regardless of your position on whether supernatural things can or cannot exist at all, you interact with the world as though they do not. For example, a methodological naturalist might not claim absolutely that a magic spell doesn’t exist somewhere that will cure their infection – but they’re going to take the penicillin anyway.

This has some influence on other positions I hold that don’t necessarily merit their own section. Since I don’t currently accept the existence of anything supernatural it means I don’t accept the existence of a soul or spirits, nor do I accept the existence of any kind of afterlife. To a point it also influences my next position, a lack of the acceptance of the claim that we possess free will.

Compatibilism / Soft Determinism

My absolute position on free will is a bit hard to pin down since it can be kind of an amorphous topic. To start I obviously reject the notion of absolute free will. I don’t have the ‘free will’ to travel back in time, to make a square circle exist or to zap gold into being out of nowhere with my mind. This should be the position most people hold already I would hope but it’s good to clarify.

My position of compatibilism, or maybe weak determinism if you prefer that term, means that I hold that while we have some semblance of ‘choice’ that most lay people would consider a form of free will our general actions are overall determined entirely or almost entirely by previous events.

When you ‘decide’ to do something consciously neurons began firing before you made that conscious decision. In other words the parts of your brain that you don’t control had already directed you to do something before you knew you were going to do it.

I’m not going to go into much detail on why I hold this position since it really deserves more something book length than a couple paragraphs to do it justice. Regardless it entails that I hold people to be generally irrational beings who are not in full agency of the decisions they make.

Weak Moral Subjectivism

My position of weak moral subjectivism means that I hold that morality is a purely human construct and we don’t receive our morality from any ‘higher’ place or being. Obviously if I did it would conflict with my position as a naturalist.

That being said, the reason I consider myself a weak moral subjectivist instead of a strong one is that I do feel that as an intelligent species we can come to agreements on moral precepts that should be at least in a de facto manner objective. A strong moral subjectivist may hold the position that all opinions on morality are equal and all bets are off as to what anyone should do, whereas I think we can (and must to thrive) all agree on some standards that are essentially objective if not truly so.

As an example, we can all hopefully agree that shooting a nail gun in your own eye causes harm and is a bad idea. There may be some extremely rare individual where doing so causes them a ton of pleasure, but as a general rule most of the population is better off not doing it. In a similar vein we can hopefully all agree that causing harm to others is bad and should be avoided.

Not causing harm to others then is an example of a moral precept which, while not technically objective because it is constructed via societal agreement and may hold extremely rare exceptions (harming one person to save 10,000 for example), it works as if it were objective.

Sartrean Existentialism

Sartre-ish existentialism may be a better term for my views as there are some points I disagree with Sartre on but it’s close enough.

This position – standing firmly on that foundation of naturalism and atheism – holds that existence, life and everything else hold no innate or inherent meaning or purpose. In other words your meaning in life is determined after you exist, not before, and hopefully by you. There is no plan to the universe, no reason behind everything except the cold fact that the laws of physics are such that things are as they are. Any concept of meaning in life is entirely the invention of sentient beings.

Now if you’re coming from a theist position originally this may seem bleak. After all, most theists are brought up consistently told their deity of choice has a plan and purpose for them. Losing that can feel a bit disorienting.

Personally though I much prefer knowing that my purpose in life is mine to determine. After all, there’s no guarantee you’d actually like the plan your deity had for you. I find it substantially more comforting knowing I’m the architect of my own destiny – within the bounds of determinism of course.

Epicurean Hedonism / Buddho-Daoist Hedonism

This last one can get a bit complicated, but I’m going to try to boil it down to its essence as best as possible.

I am technically a hedonist in that I consider the pursuit of pleasure the primary goal in life. Given my prior positions I have no expectation of an afterlife or anything beyond my relatively short existence. As such, I feel it reasonable to make the most of it.

However, I am an Epicurean hedonist, or maybe a Buddho-Daoist hedonist in that I think the pursuit of pleasure via excess actually causes more harm than direct pleasure.

In other words, endless pursuit of your desires and physical pleasures causes a diminishing returns problem. You always need more and more and more to reach the same baseline of happiness and, inevitably, you’re either going to cause harm to yourself as a result of your pursuit of those desires or reach a point where attaining them is essentially an impossibility and you cause yourself excess suffering through unfulfillable desires.

A much better way to pursue lasting, maximized happiness then is to eliminate as much of your desire for things as you possibly can in order to be happy with what you have. You can achieve much more happiness if the simple things, the easy things to get and achieve, are what make you most happy.

To that end, this flavor of hedonism entails a strong focus on minimalism and self-improvement over materialism and immediate physical pleasures. In the way a heroin addict may reach excessively high volumes of happiness but overall ends up miserable, Epicurean hedonism also tries to avoid a self-destructive false happiness for one that’s more sustainable.

So in an easy, bullet point summarized format for the tl;dr crowd:

  • I don’t currently accept the existence of any gods.

  • I don’t currently accept the existence of the supernatural.

  • I hold that while we have some agency over our actions that the average person would call ‘free will’ or ‘choice’ the majority of our actions are determined previously by events and circumstances beyond our control.

  • I hold that moral systems are a construct of sentient minds and have no inherent meaning beyond that, however there are standards we as a species can agree upon as de facto ‘objective’ moral standards.

  • I don’t currently accept the concept that life, the universe or anything has any kind of inherent meaning or purpose. I hold that meaning and purpose are the creation of sentient minds.

  • I hold that pursuit of happiness and pleasure are an ideal goal, however the best way to achieve it is by minimizing desires and needs until a lasting state of happiness is easy to achieve.

If you’re curious how these positions actually inform my actions and decisions on a day to day basis in a practical way you can read my follow up article that I will be posting tomorrow.

I’d like to hear what you think too! Do yo hold any of the same positions? Do you completely disagree with any of them? Have you thought at all about your own personal philosophies? Share in the comments!

Photo Credit: Jared Dunn

You’re Not Bored – You’re Boring

Yawn by Bark

You’re even boring this poor dog.

There are few things you can say that make me quite as angry as “I’m bored”.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’re in a relatively modernized country and have access to reliable Internet. That single resource means that you have absolutely no excuse to ever consider yourself bored.

Boredom is a unique affliction in that, by definition, you could potentially do anything to fix it.

It’s that reason that I think the real problem when people always find themselves feeling bored is that in reality they’re just boring people.

I’m Bored = I’m Boring

There are a lot of ways to be boring, so I’m not going to outline all of the things that can lead to being a severely boring person. It might be that you’re stuck in a rut, that you’re scared of trying new things, or maybe you’ve just been raised in a way that discouraged expanding your horizons.

There can be lots of causes, but the single common symptom to being a boring person is frequently feeling bored.

If you’re frequently finding yourself saying, “I’m bored,” then you’re probably a pretty boring person. That’s a bad thing. You probably don’t want to be boring. Sure, you can argue that point – but being a boring person means a lot of time spent on mundane, uninteresting things. You’ve only got so much time to spend here in existence (until they finally invent replacement robot parts or something) so in my view you should get the most out of it.

Fighting Boredom

As I mentioned, there are way too many potential causes of being a boring person to recommend courses of action for each. You might need to overcome your fear of new things or figure out how to haul yourself out of your rut or whatever.

There are some easy things you can do right now though to start dealing with the symptoms of being a boring person, namely the boredom itself.

  • Learn Something New – Since we’ve established you’ve got an Internet connection by virtue of you currently being reading this you’ve also got access to hundreds of thousands of free educational materials that are seconds away at every single moment.

    There’s YouTube University, Coursera, edX, and Open Culture to name a few.

    If it comes down to it, you can even resort to the ‘Random Article’ button on Wikipedia.

    If you can genuinely say there’s not a single thing there that interests you in the least then I can’t help you.

  • Make Something – People who make things are interesting too. If you’ve already got a hobby that you’re ‘bored’ with then pick a new one and get to it. It can be something physical like a woodworking project, crocheted amigurumi or counter-culture needlework piece, or something like writing prose, poetry, or a blog post, or drawing or painting something.

    Doing creative things both helps you fight off a boredom and it helps fuel further creative efforts. The more creative things you do, the more creative you wind up being and the less bored and more interesting you wind up being.

  • Limit Exposure to Mindless Things – While having access to something like the Internet is definitely a huge aid in eliminating boredom, it can be a bit of a double edged sword.

    Things like Internet and TV can act kind of like a boredom suppressing drug. It’s easy to fall into mindless TV watching for a few hours and feel like you aren’t bored anymore, but it’s just glossing over the symptoms in the most superficial way. It’s a bandage. Really not even that, because a bandage is actually a little useful.

    You know when you decide to vegetate in front of a TV that you’re still bored, you’re just bored in a distracted way. That’s not the point.

    If you find yourself falling into this kind of trap go in the opposite direction. Go out and do something. Get outside and away from TV and Internet and phones and everything else. Whether that means going somewhere in a city or off into the woods the point is to disconnect a bit and find something to be present in.

These are just a few examples, with things like Project Gutenberg or the expansive Kindle library available to you and all the other resources out there you have no excuse.

Boredom is a choice.

Next time you’re bored get up and do something about it rather than sitting around and moping.

Have any other suggestions for not being so bored or boring anymore? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Bark

7 Life Lessons from Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee by Chris Zielecki

Bruce Lee had a lot of good advice – and not just about martial arts.

It’s no secret – after over a decade of practicing and eventually teaching Jeet Kune Do, and being involved in parkour for nearly as long, Bruce Lee is a huge role model for me.

It’s not just his discipline, martial arts skill and fitness that inspire me though. Bruce Lee was fascinated by philosophy (it’s even an enduring legend he was a philosophy major, although technically he majored in drama) and it shows in his interviews and writing – he had a lot to say on how he best thought to live a good life.

In that spirit I’ve collected seven of his lessons here for you to make your life better.

1. Simplify Everything

“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

One of, or arguably the only, foundational tenet of Jeet Kune Do is to keep what’s useful and discard what’s useless.

In Jeet Kune Do it doesn’t matter how much you personally like a certain strike, lock or other technique – if there’s an objectively better, simpler, more efficient way of doing the same thing you ditch the old one and embrace the new. Tradition is subservient to utility.

This is a lot like how the scientific method works. If someone is wrong about something they’re overjoyed to be proven wrong, because it means progress.

You can embrace the same values throughout your life, both in terms of the physical and mental. For starters, an easy way to simplify the physical side of things is to look around at all the stuff you have and ask yourself if trying to go a little more minimalist wouldn’t be a good idea.

When it comes to the mental side of things, embrace the idea that being proven wrong is a good thing.

Stop clinging to old ideas, habits and ways of thinking just because they’re what you’ve always been used to. Stop feeling like you have to save face or get defensive. Hold on to concepts and positions you can legitimately defend but as soon as they’ve been shown to be illogical or that there’s a better way, abandon them without remorse.

Don’t think of your life as a building being built, think of it as a statue being chiseled out of marble – you need to keep chiseling away until you have something beautiful or you’re just going to be left with a chunk of rock.

2. Live for Yourself

“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

The more you try to build your life around the expectations of others, the more you set yourself up for unhappiness and disappointment.

Whether it’s feeling like you always have to buy the next best thing or get the latest piece of technology or feeling like you have to follow the standard track of college and a steady job and a house in the suburbs – if it’s not what you really want don’t do it!

I don’t want to go off on a non-conformist rant here, because non-conformity in and of itself is not purely a good thing. I can’t tell you how many people I see on a day to day basis though who seem to be going through the motions because it’s what society, family or whoever expects of them. Figure out what makes you happy and pursue it however you best can.

On a side note, this goes both ways. Don’t try to pressure people into a path they don’t want to follow just because you don’t like it or it’s not what you expected of them.

3. Don’t Wait, Act

“To hell with circumstances, I create opportunities.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

If you’re always waiting around for the right opportunity it will never come.

To paraphrase W.B. Yeats, don’t wait to strike while the iron’s hot – make it hot by striking. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do figure out how to accomplish it and get started. Sure patience is a virtue, and good things do come to those who wait, but better things come to those who get off their asses and get them on their own.

It’s easy to delay things by saying it’s not the right time, or the circumstances just aren’t good right now. Nine times out of ten this is just fear talking. People use this as a way to avoid failure by never trying.

Stop that.

You need to take control of your own life and work toward whatever it is you want. You can’t get where you’re going by standing still, so quit wasting time – shut up and do something

4. Be Mindful and Positive

“As you think, so shall you become.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

Now to clarify here, I’m not talking about any of that ridiculous “law of attraction” stuff. I give everything in The Secret as much credit as I do the Tooth Fairy. If you’d like to make a positive claim about it feel free but I’m going to need some evidence.

That being said, while it isn’t going to magically bring you good fortune (“Accio winning lottery ticket!”), your state of mind will strongly influence your own actions and influence your mood and attitudes.

If you’re always dwelling on how terrible things are, how you’re a failure or not good enough, how you’d love to accomplish some goal but you know it’ll never happen – then you’re going to sabotage your own efforts.

One of the biggest determining factors in whether someone succeeds or fails at a goal is whether or not they give up. When you focus on the positives and keep a good outlook you’re that much more likely to be able to persevere. As long as you don’t quit you’re guaranteed to accomplish your goal eventually.

Well, or die trying, but in that case it won’t really be important to you anymore.

The key is to be mindful of your internal monologue and aim to be positive, supportive and confident.

5. Always Fight Bias

“Take no thought of who is right or wrong or who is better than. Be not for or against.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

I don’t take this to mean that you should be indecisive about everything, that would be a bad idea. What I take from this is that you should not let flawed reasoning, bias and personal opinion color your decision making – if someone or something is objectively right then they’re right, whether you like it or not.

I see this as largely complimentary to point number one. If we allow ourselves to fall into all the common mental traps that lead us to make flawed, biased conclusions then it’s impossible to properly determine and excise the things that are holding us back.

Do your best to approach every conflict objectively and dispassionately. Make a habit of stepping outside of your preconceived notions and looking at issue from the opposite viewpoint of what you instinctively gravitate toward.

A good exercise that I employ is to regularly seek out authorities on a subject who hold a position contrary to my own and read as much of their arguments as I can with an attempt to be as objective as possible.

This encourages you to question your reasons for coming to your own decisions and correct them if they’re faulty.

6. Learn About Yourself Externally

“To know oneself is to study oneself in action with another person.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

We are terrible at coming up with accurate models of ourselves in our own heads.

It’s not necessarily for conscious reasons – people just have a subconscious tendency to picture themselves a certain way and then delude themselves into thinking that’s accurate. It’s very easy to overestimate your good qualities and underestimate the negative things about you because, when it comes to evaluating yourself, you’re by definition the single most biased person in existence.

Instead aim to learn about yourself through observation of your actions and interactions with other people.

You may think you’re a super kind or thoughtful person, but don’t just take your own word for it – critically examine how you treat other people. Are you really as thoughtful as you thought you were?

One of the best judges of a person’s character is to observe how they treat someone or something from whom they have nothing to gain and nothing to fear. You should hold yourself to the same standard in order to determine if you actually exemplify all the traits you desire.

7. Be Yourself

“Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself.” – Bruce Lee (Tweet This)

I know. Everyone tells you to be yourself.

It bears repeating though, because it’s easy to lose yourself and start acting like someone else. Check every now and again by asking yourself if what you’re doing is what you really want to do or if you’re doing it for the sake of others.

I don’t need to tell you how or why to be yourself, but it’s on you to keep yourself on the right track.

There are way, way more quotes and more lessons from Bruce Lee on how to lead a better life.

Do you agree or disagree with the ones here? Have one you’d really like to add? Share it in the comments!

Photo Credit: Chris Zielecki

How Pain Warps Your Decision Making

Wretched by Piers Nye

An instinct to avoid immediate pain is something we never grow out of.

I do my very best to be in the presence of people who are much smarter than myself as often as possible. One such person, Jonathan Fass, recently posted an interesting thought on Facebook.

Paraphrasing a bit, he asks whether you’d rather have a fingernail torn off or get an unexpected punch in the stomach. He surmises most people would choose the punch – something I agree with. The pain of a blow to the stomach seems mild and temporary compared to the shudder inducing thought of having a nail torn off.

This is extremely irrational though. Tearing a fingernail off, while painful, is not extremely threatening outside of the ever present risk of infection to exposed tissue. A strike to the stomach on the other hand can be deadly. Outside of Jonathan’s example of Harry Houdini there are plenty of other examples of punches to the stomach causing internal bleeding and ruptured organs which are easily fatal.

Even with that information, I think a lot of people would still chance death to avoid the pain of having a fingernail removed. Ask your followers and see. This kind of behavior isn’t just limited to physical pain though, and that’s where it starts to ruin your decision making.

The Power of Pain Avoidance

I’ve written before about some of the mental traps we fall into that stop us from making better decisions. One of the bigger ones is this instinctual inclination to avoid pain and discomfort at all costs.

In studies people have been found to be more motivated by the avoidance of pain than the gain of pleasure. We see this at play in the way a lot of companies structure advertisements and promotions – people are more likely to act in order to avoid losing $5 than they are in order to gain $5.

This is essentially the same type of thinking that leads us to instinctively make the choice above of taking less painful but potentially lethal damage than an extremely painful wound with little chance of permanent damage.

It may seem abstract when talking about it in terms of choosing between a punch and losing a fingernail, but we apply it to every kind of pain and that’s where we get in trouble.

Non-Physical Pain

Imagine these things: quitting a stable but unfulfilling job to pursue a dream, asking out a guy/girl you’ve had a crush on for a long time, talking to strangers in a foreign language in order to learn, and sticking to a strict weightlifting program.

What do all of them have in common?

They all take resolve and willpower to do, because they all have the potential to cause discomfort and they all have an easy out.

It’s scary to quit your job to chase your dream because of the potential for failure and all the perceived pain and discomfort that will come with it. It’s easy to never go talk to that guy or girl to avoid the emotional pain of being rejected. You might decide not to practice a foreign language with someone because of the potential for making painfully embarrassing mistakes. Plenty of people put off working out because of the amount of discomfort they expect it to cause.

This makes no sense.

Like the fingernail and the punch, choosing the option that avoids the potential for immediate discomfort leads to situations with the potential for more severe or long lasting damage.

Sure, it would be uncomfortable right now to drag yourself out of a warm bed extra early and go strain and struggle to get a lifting session in before work. The less painful option right now would be to say ‘screw it’, stay in bed and get some extra sleep.

In ten years though when you’ve got 30 extra pounds hanging of of you, when you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, further down the road when you have a massive heart attack, was that worth another 30 minutes in bed?

This follows for the other examples too. Is living the rest of your life stuck in a miserable job worth avoiding the potential pain of failing on your first attempt to pursue your dreams?

Is never learning that language you’ve been wanting to learn for however long and missing out on all the experiences and benefits that come along with it worth not facing the immediate pain of an embarrassing mistake or two?

In all of these cases choosing to ignore your instinctual drive to avoid the immediate pain leads to a worse outcome than accepting the immediate discomfort for longer term benefits.

So how do you avoid falling into this way of thinking?

Taking a Step Back

Some people may be tempted to conclude that the best thing then is to go in the opposite direction and always choose the course of action that leads to the most immediate discomfort. Beyond leading to rhabdo stricken Crossfitters this kind of thinking is likely to lead you into as many bad decisions as the opposite way of thinking. The trick is learning not to think in absolutes, but to take a step back and rationally evaluate the potential outcomes on a case by case basis.

Here are a few tips on how you can do that.

  • List Worst Case Scenarios – I recommend a similar tactic when addressing the fear of failure. Sit and write down the absolute worst case scenarios you could foresee coming from each choice. Chances are you’ll find that one of them is not nearly as bad as the other – that’s the choice you should probably make.

  • Get a Second Opinion – If you know your decision making is likely to be biased or compromised, take yourself out of it as much as possible.

    While your bias toward avoiding immediate discomfort will skew your decisions other people are not affected by this bias in regards to making decisions for you. If I’m in a position where I know I’m likely to make bad decisions out of my inclination to avoid something I find uncomfortable I’ll have Caroline consider it and see if her decision differs from mine and why. That way I have an objective viewpoint to help me pick what would be best for me in the long run, not just right this minute.

    Have someone you trust critique your decision whenever you find yourself making it on instinct or feel like your rational thinking might be compromised.

The important thread through both of these is doing what you can to take a step back and be as objective as possible in your decision making. When you understand that you’re likely to make bad decisions based on pain avoidance it’s easier to take deliberate steps to correct it.

Do you have any other tips for correcting or mitigating the effects of this particular bias? Help everyone out and share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Piers Nye

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