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.

Protein

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

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.

Carbohydrates

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

Level Up Your Notes with The Cornell Note Taking System

OR by Thomas Leuthard

Even if you do it in a nice cafe, taking notes can be painful if you do it the wrong way.

I used to hate taking notes.

As more of an experiential learner sitting and taking notes did not come naturally to me. It was boring, tedious and seemed like a complete waste of time compared to other ways of studying – even in a traditional classroom / lecture environment where my other options were limited.

Other people in class could sit through one lecture, take fantastic notes and have everything learned inside and out. It was basically sorcery to me.

That is, until I learned a better way to take notes.

Dead Notes vs. Living Notes

A lot of my problems with note taking at the time stem from the fact that I was taking what I now like to call dead notes.

That doesn’t mean I was hanging out with a shinigami, it means my notes didn’t have any life to them. They were just textual summaries and paraphrasing of whatever material was presented in the lecture.

My notes were no better than if I had left my iPhone sitting out to record the class for me like a technologically updated Real Genius clip. They didn’t add anything, they just repeated information for me.

What I needed were living notes. Notes that didn’t just parrot back information from whatever material I was studying, but instead helped me think critically about the material, observe and create connections and develop my own summary of the information to encourage a deeper understanding.

That’s where the Cornell Note Taking System comes in.

Cornell Notes

Cornell notes, named for the university at which they were invented, are a perfect example of living notes.

Rather than just serve as a way to blandly record the information provided by the lesson or source material, Cornell note encourage you to ask questions about the material while taking notes and to formulate your own answers from the material.

This action encourages you to consider the structure and implications of the material you’re studying and, more importantly, to create connections both within the material and between the material and other disciplines.

These connections facilitate a deep knowledge of the source material that bring on all the added benefits of interdisciplinary and lateral analysis.

Essentially, you know the material and don’t just memorize it.

So how do Cornell notes work?

You’ll first divide your note page into three sections. On top you’ll have two columns, one on the left about 2″ across or so and one on the right about 6″ across. At the bottom is another section that goes all the way across the page and is about 2″ from top to bottom, or about the height of a short paragraph.

In the top right hand column, the biggest section, you’ll write your actual notes. Don’t write things down word for word from the material – condense everything as much as you can using shorthand and paraphrasing and stick to the main ideas.

As soon as possible after the lesson or the study session, you’ll fill the left hand column with questions and key words based on the material you’ve written in the larger note-taking column. These should be questions you might expect would be asked on an exam, questions intended to clarify the material and establish continuity between different areas of the topic.

After 24 hours, cover the right hand side of the notes so only the question column is visible. Read your questions and keywords and answer them as best you can without looking at your notes. Once you’ve done that you can uncover the notes to see how you did, then revise and update your questions and keywords.

Lastly, after you’ve gone through that and updated your questions, think for a bit about the underlying principles that form the foundation of the things listed in your notes. Think about how you can connect the things you wrote and the ideas in the material t other ideas and how they can be applied. Then in a short paragraph summarize all of the material in that bottom box we’ve left empty until now.

That’s it!

Rather than just be boring notes for you to re-read later in an attempt to memorize things, Cornell notes encourage you to really think about the topic while you make them and then, once you’re finished, provide a pre-built quizzing system for you to review in an active way rather than just passively re-reading information until your eyes glaze over.

In essence, it automatically converts your notes into flashcards.

This way you developed a better understanding from the start and have an easy and useful tool for reviewing on a regular basis. Combined with a spaced repetition learning schedule this style of notes makes hard to not learn things.

You can find Cornell’s template on their site in PDF format.

Have you tried out Cornell notes? Do you prefer it? Hate it? Found some way to make it even better? Tell us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Thomas Leuthard

How to Learn Multiple Things Simultaneously and Remember Everything

The Juggler II by Helico

Trying to juggle multiple hobbies or learning multiple things simultaneously can be difficult,

I have what I like to call ADADD – Auto-Didactic Attention Deficit Disorder.

When it comes to learning things I have serious trouble picking one thing and sticking to it. I try to tell myself to focus on a single thing – learning / improving my Korean for example – but then I decide I’d also like to learn to play the ukulele, and I really need to work on my handstands, and it would be fun to learn to juggle, and I’d really like to learn more programming and so on and so forth.

In the past before long I would wind up stretched so thin between all my interests I looked like Lady Cassandra O’Brien. I’d be trying to learn ten things at once and in the end wouldn’t really do well at any of them.

While you could certainly take the moral of this story as ‘Focus on one thing at a time,’ I just couldn’t handle that.

So I figured out a way to make it work.

Spaced Repetition

One of the best ways I’ve found to learn new vocab quickly is through spaced repetition learning. For whatever reason in the past I never really connected that strategy with my other areas of learning though.

That was a mistake.

Applying a spaced repetition system (SRS) learning strategy to the other things I was learning made it so that when my ADADD inevitably dragged me off by the collar to some other unrelated interest when I returned to the former one I still recalled everything I’d learned. Actually remembering the things you learn tends to make a large difference in the efficacy of skill acquisition.

Vocabulary is an easy thing to learn with an SRS because for the most part it’s easy to find pre-built structures like Memrise and Anki to just walk you through it. For other things you have to be a little more creative.

You can certainly build your own decks in things like Anki, Memrise or SuperMemo but I honestly think it’s easier at times just to do things manually with good old fashioned note taking.

If you don’t share my penchant for the old school feel free to use those tools instead of my way.

Manual SRSing is going to require a good note taking system first and foremost. Personally I recommend the Cornell note taking system – if you’ve never used it before I’ll be explaining how I use it in an upcoming article.

During each study / practice session take notes on the things you’re learning. After the session is over, take a short bit of time to review your notes from the activity. Then review those notes again on a spaced repetition schedule. Personally, I like reviewing at one hour, one day, ten day, thirty day and sixty day intervals for most things although you can increase the interval frequency for things you find more troublesome to recall.

If you’re interested in making it a little more automatic, I also recommend reviewing the notes quickly from your last study / practice session before each new session. That should give you both an easy refresher and an automatic structure for repetitions.

In addition to the SRS style of memorization, there’s another method I like to use to increase recall when I’m trying to do ten things at once.

Chunking

A part of why vocabulary is easy to recall when you learn properly is because it already comes in easy to digest little chunks. We call them words.

Other topics though don’t always come in bite size little pieces like that though. This can make a big difference in how easy it is to actually remember things.

As an example of what I mean, take this string of numbers 15552340660336.

For most people, being asked to remember that would be a little painful. It’s a lot to swallow. If you break it up into chunks though, like this 1 (555) 234-0660 336 it turns into a telephone number with an extension and most people would have an easier time remembering it.

The same thing happens when we’re trying to learn, process and retain information. If you’re trying to force these huge pieces of data into your head it’s going to be a lot more difficult than if you broke them into smaller chunks and ingested them that way.

I call this chunking since you’re breaking up everything into the smallest most digestible chunks you possibly can.

Try not to go too far though, sometimes small groups of things are easier to remember than individual things. When learning chords on the guitar for example trying to learn twelve in one sitting is probably overdoing it, but only trying to learn one per session is going a bit too light. Shooting for three is a bit more of an appropriate amount and by making them three related chords will make them all easier to remember.

Each individual thing is going to deconstruct a little differently, the key is to find the appropriate sized chunks both for you and for the area of learning and then break everything down to that level to use with your SRS note taking.

Time Limits

Another key area is limiting your time spent in each topic.

This may not be an issue for you if, like me, you get sidetracked and wander from thing to thing, but for some they’ll spend long tracks of time focusing on one area then switch to another. Later, they realize that despite all that study or practice time they really don’t have a good recall of what they went over.

Quality will also beat out quantity, and short, focused study sessions are going to be much better for you than long drawn out ones. You can use a time constraining technique like time boxing if you need to. I find that for me an hour – maybe two – is more than sufficient to get a good amount of focused intentional study or practice in without being so long as to damage my later recall.

Keep your study sessions short and you’ll be able to remember more from each area than if you drag them out beyond your limits.

Additional Applications

While I’m long out of university and primarily apply these methods to my personal interests (there are a lot of them) these strategies can be applied to more traditional education as well.

You can use these techniques to juggle a large volume of coursework at once, prepare more efficiently for multiple exams or even to read multiple books at once without damaging your recall. Combine this method of multiple-topic studying with a few basic speed reading strategies and you can process a lot of information quickly with high retention rates.

Have you tried any of these to juggle multiple topics at once? Have you had better success at paring own and focusing on one thing at a time than I have? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Helico

The Easy Way to Kill Procrastination

Time Lost by Matt Gibson

You won’t get it back, so don’t waste it.

Procrastination is a huge problem for a lot of people.

It was also always a huge problem for me for the longest time. Enough so that I had a Pearls Before Swine comic tacked to my office door to remind me not behave that way (protip: turns out taping funny comics to your door doesn’t do much to help productivity).

Chances are good you’re even reading this while putting off work right now, in which case I apologize for the link to the comics. That probably didn’t help you much.

To make up for it, I’d like to share my personal favorite strategy for killing procrastination and ensuring that you get a good bit of productivity out of each and every day.

The Procrastination Death Spiral

I recently shared this strategy with our e-mail subscribers and a handful of people had questions about it so I decided it’d be best to elaborate in an article.

(Not signed up to get e-mail updates? Head over to our About page and get signed up! You’ll not only get special subscriber only content that’s not on the site but also our 68 page getting started guide. Get to it.)

Procrastination comes from two main sources – apprehension and indecision.

You wake up in the morning or you head in to work and you run a quick check of everything you’ve got to do today. Immediately you feel like someone dropped a heavy rock on your stomach. Your to-do list is ten miles long and every single thing on it is miserable.

You steel yourself and dive into the first task headfirst. You’re tough. You can do this. An hour later you’re on Facebook poking around, or maybe YouTube or Netflix if you work from home. You feel a bit guilty about not being productive and try to dive back in but the fire’s gone. You might make a weak attempt, but before long you’re back to screwing around and your day’s wasted.

Sound familiar? What happened?

Apprehension.

Most people don’t have the willpower to fight through that much unpleasant work. Sure you can build up a tolerance, but in the end your subconscious is not a fan of being tortured by a litany of dreadful tasks.

Whether you consciously realize it or not, facing a huge list filled with work you despise destroys your motivation. That dread you feel is potent procrastinatory poison that drains dry your drive to work and leads right to Facebook, or whatever your particular time-sink drug of choice is.

Indecision is the other frequent cause of procrastination. What’s that look like?

You sit down at your desk and get ready to get to work. What should you do first though? There are a ton of things you could work on, but you’re not sure what you should do right now. That little bit of indecision is the wedge that drives open your resolve just enough to let some temptation in.

You figure you’ll check your e-mail really quick. There are six different things in there you need to respond to that weren’t originally part of what you planned to do today. You deal with all of those and wind up back whee you started. You’ve done a lot of e-mailing though, so maybe five minutes on Facebook or Twitter is in order. You see a link with a title like “12 Most Embarrassing Cat Photos of Despotic Dictators”.

Click.

Like a former drug addict coming off a hard relapse you come to a few hours later with a vague sense of unease over the fact that you have no idea what happened to the past four hours. You’ve seen some weird things, probably been to a few dark corners of the Internet and somehow wound up on a Wikipedia article about the Volsunga Saga.

What you haven’t done is any real work.

Any strategy for eliminating procrastination has to address both of these factors if it’s ever going to be effective.

That’s where the Most Important Tasks list comes in.

Killing Procrastination with Preparation

I can’t claim this strategy is my invention – honestly I think every idea that can be expressed about fighting procrastination already has been – but it’s one that’s worked particularly well for me over the years.

It requires a bit of preparation though. The night before, either right before you go to bed or earlier in the evening, write down the five most important things you have to do the next day. These should be things that can reasonably be completed, but if not you can put in a goal-oriented tasked based around that bigger task.

So instead of “Write my novel” you would put down “Write 2,000 words of my novel”.

You’re going to order your list as follows:

  1. An Easy or Fun Task – This should be either the easiest or second easiest thing you have to get done, or something you’ll actually enjoy doing.

  2. The Most Difficult or Painful Task – This should be the thing that you least want to do. The thing you dread putting on your list.

  3. The Second Most Difficult Task

  4. The Third Most Difficult Task

  5. Another Easy or Fun Task – If you don’t have a second task that sounds fun, schedule in some mandatory play for this task. Lighten up.

Then, the next day when you sit down to work, you just run through your list in order.

Having a structured list laid out for you ensures that you never have to be indecisive about what to do next, just follow the list. Since you did it the night before you also don’t have to worry about indecision over what to put on the list screwing up your work for that morning.

Structuring the list in this way also deals with the apprehension problem.

Starting off with something easy and fun means there’s a very low barrier to entry. You can jump right in and get started in a good mood because the first thing is easy and fun. Once you’ve warmed up on that you’ll have enough motivational momentum to tackle the toughest task you set in the second spot on the list.

If you tried to do it first, it’d be too painful to want to get started and if you put it off until last your motivation would be too sapped by the time you got to it to face it. This way you’re in the best possible mindset to get it taken care of.

After that, you have the promise of some fun just a few tasks down the list. Each task you do leads to an easier task after that second difficult one and at the end you get rewarded with some fun.

Nothing to be scared of.

Like I said there is a lot of advice out there on productivity. Different things are going to work better or worse for different people. This has been my single favorite though, so give a try and see if it works for you too!

If it has, or if you’ve found some way to modify things to make it more effective for you, share it with everyone in the comments! I’m sure there are other people who would find your modification useful as well.

Photo Credit: Matt Gibson

How to Use Negative Emotions As Motivational Rocket Fuel

I Sublimate My Rage Through Needlework by Cross-Stich Ninja

Always a good option.

To get motivated when you aren’t, you first need to find the motivation to motivate yourself.

I recognize that sounds like word soup or an antimetabole, and it kind of is. At the very least it suffers from the problem of infinite regression. After all, how can you get up the motivation to motivate yourself if you don’t have enough motivation to be motivated in the first place? Turtles all the way down.

Thankfully, there are some forces that are a lot more powerful than our conscious minds. Forces we can use as an external push to provide a solid foundation for all those turtles and kick start some motivation without effort on our part.

The Power of Negativity

In general, humans seem to be creatures motivated in a primary way by negativity over positivity.

People tend to remember negative memories stronger than positive ones, they tend to react more strongly to losing something than gaining something and they tend to be more effected by avoiding discomfort than seeking pleasure. Anyone working in customer service will tell you that almost no one calls in to say how great service was, but plenty of people will call in to complain about even relatively minor problems. A bad experience is more likely to spur you to action than a good one.

There are a lot of ways to harness these tendencies and we’ve talked in the past about using similar principles to set up barriers. We’re going to focus on providing the kick start for getting motivated though, and that’s going to involve three primary negative emotions: Revulsion, Fear & Anger.

Revulsion

Personally I think revulsion might be one of the most instinctual, primal & difficult to resist emotions we have so I give it the most weight. Don’t agree? Let’s try a little thought experiment.

Picture a friend or family member vomiting violently into a poorly maintained public toilet, perhaps in a truck stop or something similar. When they’re finished, imagine dunking your head in there.

I’ll wait a moment while those of you with easily upset stomachs or particularly vivid imaginations collect yourselves.

Revulsion is a strong enough force that it tends to completely eliminate any semblance of choice in our decision making. A lot of this is a result of our neurology, our brains make our decisions for ‘us’ before our consciousness is aware of it, but an average properly functioning human would not see voluntarily dunking their face into a vomit filled toilet as a true choice. It probably wouldn’t even register as a possibility.

Another way to illustrate this is to imagine someone walking up to you and pointing to some dog poop nearby and asking, “Hey, aren’t you going to eat that?” It’s an absurd question because you normally wouldn’t have even considered it. You don’t have to stop every time you see dog poop and ask yourself whether you want to eat some or not.

This is the kind of feeling you want to cultivate around not doing whatever it is you’re trying to get motivated to do.

You need to imagine how things will go if you don’t do what it is you’re trying to get motivated to do an fixate on how disgusting and revolting that future would be to you. Imagine not finding a career or starting a business you love and spending the rest of your life in a tedious job you despise. Imagine not learning that language you want to speak and missing out on all the great conversations, relationships, travel, books, music & movies that come with it. Imagine not trying to get in shape and just getting fatter and sicker and weaker.

Then feel disgusted about it.

Once you’ve cultivated that disgust you can use it to automate your actions a bit. Eventually you can get to the point where certain things, skipping a workout to lay around and watch movies and eat ice cream for example, feels like as much of a viable option as going for a swim in sewage pit.

If you’re not able to generate a very strong feeling of revulsion

Fear

Fear is another powerful primal emotion. Physically I think fear’s a little easier to overcome than revulsion – for example when Fear Factor was on everyone talked about contesting eating disgusting things more than they did them doing scary stuff – but it’s still a strong motivator.

The key here is to follow the same kind of pattern as with developing a sense of revulsion except envision outcomes that terrify you instead. Imagine being publicly humiliated when you fail to reach your goals. Imagine breathing your last breath with the realization that you never accomplished anything you actually care about.

Once that sense of fear is established you can apply it the same way. Allow the thought of being lazy and blowing off what you need to do to reach your goals tie into the thought of where you’ll wind u as a result.

Remind yourself of the consequences of not doing what you need to do and let the fear of them push you into action.

Anger

I list anger last because I think it’s the hardest to really control out of all of them. On top of that, if focused inward anger can wind up hurting your motivation more than giving it a little push.

The key here is to find something to act as a lens with which to focus all of the anger outward. Then you can harness that energy to provide a solid base for building up some motivation.

It may differ from person to person on what works best as that lens, but I think the one that resonates with people most easily is revenge. Now this may just be a reflection of growing up as a shy, fat, nerdy kid and suffering the slings and arrows of public high school as such – it’s hard to say.

Most people have someone though, either now or in the past, who bullied them, talked down to them, denigrated their efforts, belittled them, whatever. Most people have someone in whose face they’d like to throw their success accompanied by a little dance and some select waving of middle fingers. Latching on to that drive and having something to prove to somebody lets you grab on to anger and make sure it doesn’t get turned in on yourself by affixing it to an external entity.

To be fair, even externally focused, this is probably the most potentially detrimental or self-destructive of the three. I know some people are going to click with this one most though, so it’s worth mentioning as an option.

Have you used any of these emotions to provide fuel for your motivation? Do you have something better? Tell us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Cross-Stitch Ninja

The Cheat Code for (Nearly) Unlimited Willpower

Konami Code Graffiti by El Payo

For a long time now it’s been believed that your willpower, loosely defined here as your capacity to make yourself do/not do something contrary to your desires, is a finite resource.

It was said that you have a reservoir of willpower and every time you exercise your will to resist overeating, study or work when you don’t want to or anything else like that it drained a little willpower from your tank. In terms I’m more familiar with, your willpower is like your MP (Magic/Mana Points for anyone scratching their head) – a reserve of limited mystical power that allows you to do awesome things until you run out of it, then you need a bit of sleep or some manner of potion to recharge it.

The thing is, it turns out there’s a cheat that gives you nearly unlimited mana – er, willpower – by making it so it recharges every time you use it.

Playing By the Rules

I’ve written a bit about willpower before (because really, who wouldn’t want to be a bit more like Batman?), but I think it’s still important before we understand how to cheat that we understand how things normally work.

In testing willpower psychologists have found that doing a task that requires willpower makes people perform worse on a subsequent test. If enough time is given between tests the results even out and if the participants are given some glucose (in most studies a sugary drink) they perform better on the second test than without it.

What’s all that mean? It means your mana bar (willpower) is only so big and every time you use it for something it depletes, meaning you have less for the next time you need to use it. If you don’t have enough you can’t cast bigger spells (resist bigger temptations) and if you completely run out it’s hard to do anything at all.

There are three standard ways to replenish it:

  • Drink a Potion – This is the quickest way to go if you just got to the end of a tough level (came home from work) and you need a little boost to make it through the boss fight you stumbled into (having to clean the Augean stable you call a garage).

    Drinking down a mana potion or two (sugary drink) can give you back the little bit you need to cast the spell. It’s quick and easy, but not perfect. It’s hard to get back to 100% on potions alone, and it’s important not to overdo it. Too many potions and you may see your HP suffering. The real reason mages wear robes is to cover up their pudge.

  • Get Some Sleep – Sure this isn’t very helpful when you’ve got a big boss fight between you and the next save point, but stopping at an inn (or, you know, your own house) for a good night’s sleep will completely refill your mana (willpower).

    Just make sure you get enough sleep. If you skip out on sleeping or regularly get a bad night’s sleep you’re going to get fatigued. The fatigued status decreases your max mana (willpower) and makes it take longer to refill, so get your sleep.

  • Wait – The slowest and most painful option is honestly to just wait. Your mana bar (willpower) refills slowly on its own over time. Just don’t expect to win any battles while you wait.

Now even without cheating you can increase your mana bar (not going to say it this time) by leveling up. How do you level up?

Go win battles and earn some experience points, noob.

Using your mana to win battles (successfully exercise willpower) earns you experience. Earn enough and you level up which makes your mana bar a little bigger. You do have to actually win though. Losing a battle (skipping a workout, surrendering to either Ben or Jerry) isn’t going to earn you anything but shame.

Cheat Mode

Remember those earlier studies demonstrating the finite nature of willpower? Well some other researchers tried something a little different. They divided the testing groups into those who believed that willpower was a finite resource and those who didn’t.

They found that the people who believed willpower ran out performed as on the previous studies, worse on the second tests unless boosted by glucose. The second group though, those who didn’t agree with that view, didn’t behave at all that way.

People who thought willpower wasn’t decreased by exercising it saw no degradation in performance between tests. The people who believed that willpower was replenished by using it behaved exactly like that’s what was happening.

What’s better is that the researchers were able to take people who had previously believed willpower was finite and performed as such and then prime them by reading statements about willpower to make them behave like the group that performed equally well on both tests.

So what’s that mean for you?

It means your state of mind directly affects your willpower. By changing how you think about it, by telling yourself that using your willpower gives you more of it, you can turn on your own personal cheat mode.

This can be a little trickier than it sounds. Changing your views on something is not quite as simple as ↑ ↑ ↓ ↓ ← → ← → B A.

The easiest way is to keep telling yourself that every time you use your willpower you get more of it, then go practice on some easy battles. Remind yourself that every time you win, you get a bit more mana and after a while it’ll actually start working that way.

Sure, this little cheat isn’t perfect. There are still limits in the end so don’t go thinking this is going to allow you to stay awake for a week complete an Ironman and write a novel all at the same time. What it will let you do is win all the regular battles you face everyday with a lot less struggle and even the occasional boss fight when they come up.

Have you tried forcing yourself to believe willpower is increased by using it? Did you believe that from the start anyway? How has it helped you? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: El Payo

How to Master Skills Like the Huns

The Hun Lifestyle by Dandoo

Pillaging not necessarily required.

Lead by Attila and his descendants the Huns were one of the most successful civilizations of their time militarily, finding victory even over the Roman Empire and building an empire that stretched from southern Russia and Iran all the way to what’s now France. Attila even gets referenced in the Volsunga Saga of Norse mythology.

The success of Attila and the Huns obviously can’t be boiled down to a single factor, but the one that gets referenced the most is definitely the skill of their horsemen.

Like the Mongols centuries later, the popular legend is that the Huns learned to ride horses before they even learned to walk. They were claimed to live almost their whole lives in the saddle, and as a result they became some of the most expert horsemen that the world has ever seen.

While nowadays you probably don’t need to master your horsemanship, we can apply this same principle to get exceedingly good at any other skill you want to master.

Born in the Saddle

A lot of the credit for the impressive horsemanship of the Huns is given to the fact that they were introduced to horseback riding at an extremely young age and then it became a daily thing for essentially the rest of their lives.

Now I know since you’re reading this the ‘from a young age’ ship may have long since sailed. That’s no problem – we can still use the same kind of technique to achieve similar results.

The 10,000 hours theory put out by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers (which I think, by this point, just about everyone has either read or heard of) suggests that someone needs 10,000 hours of focused or directed practice to become world class at a skill. The actual research supporting that theory has been put into question a bit, but as a rough guideline it’s probably a practical estimate.

10,000 hours if you’re practicing something most of the day is going to be about 832 days – about two years and 3 months or so – since even if you’re doing it all day you still have to sleep. In terms of becoming world class at something two years or so is actually pretty quick. There are two catches though.

The first is that we don’t really care about being world class. The difference between being in the top 10% (better than 90% of the population) and in the top 1% (better than 99% of the population) is relatively small in skill, but enormous in the amount of work required to get from one to the other. This disparity is a result of the severely diminishing returns on your efforts once you get beyond average skill levels.

As an example getting good enough at guitar that you’re better than most people, good enough to put out a professional album for example or play small concerts, is going to be much closer in skill level to someone who’s a legend (say Jimi Hendrix for example) than an absolute beginner. Even so, it would require substantially more effort, and possibly a measure of luck, to get from expert to legendary than it took you to get from beginner to expert.

So why bother? I have broad interests and would much rather be better than 90% of people at a wide range of things than better than 99% at a single thing. Each takes roughly the same amount of effort.

The second catch is that Gladwell says we need 10,000 hours of intentional practice. That’s practice with a clear goal, with focus to it. Unless you have resources that rival Bruce Wayne’s you probably can’t devote entire days to intentional practice – you’ll be doing this more like the Huns and going about your daily business, just doing it while on your horse so to speak. If non-intentional practice counted as much as intentional practice everyone who commutes to work everyday would drive as well as professional race drivers.

This isn’t really such a problem though since we’re not really interested in hitting Gladwell’s world class goalpost. Our goal is to just get really good at something and, while intentional practice will play a part, you’re not going to need 10,000 hours of it.

So how do we actually go about doing it?

Putting it Into Practice

Now most things, unlike horseback riding, are not things you could conceivably do as you go about your business all day. (To be fair, you couldn’t ride around and do all your errands on horseback anymore either) So we’re going to use a couple different strategies to try to achieve the same general effect. The first involves making use of your downtime.

Filling the Gaps

I’ve talked about ways to make use of downtime in language learning in the past, and all of those strategies apply here as well.

The first is going to be filling your day with as much passive learning or practice as possible. For things that are more learning focused this means always being surrounded by the information you’re trying to absorb, but in the background. For language learning that would mean leaving the TV on to shows in your target language or listening to music or conversations in your target language while you go about your day.

For skills, which are by nature more active, passive learning is going to involve running through the skill in your head while you do other things. If you’re working on your Wing Chun for example you can run through your forms and techniques in your head while doing the dishes or whatever else needs to be done. You can passively practice in your head what you can’t necessarily actively practice physically at the time.

You also have the hundreds of little downtime periods every day that you can fill with active practice. Think of all the times you have a minute or two to wait, for the elevator, the bus, a file to download, etc.

All these times add up, so why waste them checking Facebook or screwing around on your phone?

Instead use them to get a little bit of practice in. These are the times to get more active practice in if you can – flashcards on Memrise for example, or running through a few martial arts techniques in the air – though if you need to passive practice works too (Busting out your gong fu moves at the bus stop may get more attention than you’re looking for).

The idea is just to squeeze as much practice time as possible out of these countless lost fragments of your day in order to compress them into something useful.

Greasing the Groove

Greasing the groove is a concept borrowed from Pavel Tsatouline’s Naked Warrior. Boiled down to its essentials, Pavel treats strength as a skill and seeks to improve it by small, relatively easy practice sessions spread out over the course of a full day.

For example, if you can only do a single pull up and want to be able to do ten, rather than doing a more standard workout of 5 sets of 1 pull up three times a week, you would set a timer and go do a single pull up every hour all day long.

This creates a simulated version of our ‘practice all day’ Hun method by making you practice all day just dispersed rather than constantly.

There are two sub-divisions of this method – the standard timer method and the cue method.

The timer method works just like what Pavel recommends. You set a timer on your watch, phone or whatever and every time it goes off you stop what you’re doing and do a short session of whatever it is you’re trying to become skilled at. If you’re learning a language that might be 5 to 10 minutes of conversation practice, writing or reading. If you’re learning martial arts that might be 5 minutes of shadow boxing. It really can be whatever, just keep it short and to the point.

The second method, the cue method, uses physical cues to replace the timer. You set up things in your environment that trigger a quick practice session of whatever it is you’re learning. When I was in high school and was first getting involved in parkour I hung a pull up bar in our stairwell and then tacked a piece of string across my door at waist height.

Every time I came up or down the stairs I’d do as many pull ups or chin ups as I could at that moment. Every time I entered my room I rolled under the string and every time I exited it I jumped over it (provided I wasn’t carrying a drink or something).

Since I was going in and out of my room a lot, that added up to lots and lots of pull ups, rolls and jumps everyday. Even more so compounded over weeks and months.

If you’re pursuing something more learning focused you can use notecards or sticky notes to learn things all day long. If you’re learning a language you can plaster everything with vocab and sentences so you’re surrounded by little cues to review those words, sentences or grammar.

These two aren’t equally exclusive either, so feel free to mix them together.

You may not have learned your skill of choice before you could walk like Attila and his horseback riding, but that doesn’t have to stop you from getting just as good at your skill of choice. Just try not to lead an army in conquest of most of the known world, ok?

While you still can’t neglect some intentional practice time, by remembering to practice passively as often as possible, fill in all those downtime gaps and use the grease the groove strategies you can easily become an expert in something in a relatively short time period.

Have you used these strategies in the past? What did you think of them? Is there anything you would add to make them better or more effective? Let us now in the comments!

Photo Credit: Dandoo

Retain Holiday Peace Through One Second Meditation

Buddha Dog by SuperFantastic

This dog clearly knows how it’s done.

The holidays are stressful.

Whether it’s fighting through the grocery store the day before Thanksgiving trying to find the last few ingredients on your list, having to listen to a semi-inebriated rant by that one relative whose ideas on equality hail from a time when the phrase ‘coloreds only’ didn’t necessarily mean you were doing laundry or dealing with the near anarchy of a major retailer on Black Friday – it helps to have some way to maintain your centeredness. When you factor in all the horrible physical side effects of stress not having some way to deal with it all may genuinely be killing you.

Thankfully, one second meditation is an easy technique you can use at any time anywhere to regain a little bit of your inner peace.

Learning to Meditate

The first step is learning to meditate. If you don’t know how yet, go check out our beginner’s guide to meditation first. If the turkey’s in the oven and the relatives are banging on the door already and you seriously need the TL;DR version here you go, meditation in 3 easy steps:

  • Step 1: Close Your Eyes – Not necessary once you’re used to meditating, but it helps if you’re a beginner.

  • Step 2: Focus On Your Breathing and Nothing Else – Put all your attention on breathing in, and breathing out. Other thoughts will pop into your head, ‘Am I doing it right?’, ‘What should I have for dinner tonight?’, ‘Boy, it’s dark with my eyes closed’, but you need to acknowledge their presence and then let them float away. Don’t try to fight it, that’s like trying to read this sentence without picturing a pink elephant, just accept them and then let them continue on their way.

    If it helps you can create a mental cue to signal the brushing away of unnecessary thoughts. This can be as esoteric sounding as the stereotypical ‘ommm’ sound or you can just say ‘hmm’ to yourself and let go of the thought.

  • Step 3: Be Empty – Eventually, the thoughts will taper off and stop pestering you and you’ll be left with an entirely empty mind focused completely on your breathing. Congratulations! You’re meditating! Remember this feeling.

Once you understand how to meditate, it’s time to compress the time you need to do it down to as small a period as possible.

Meditating in a Moment

Once you’re comfortable meditating for longer periods of time, say five to ten minutes, start practicing reducing that time by setting progressively shorter timers. It’s easiest to start with a minute and then cut down from there. Set a timer and meditate for a single minute. Focus on using your mental cue to brush those nagging thoughts away.

Next time set a timer for 45 seconds once you’ve got that down. Then set one for 30 seconds and then for 15. Below that there’s really no point in setting a timer. You likely also won’t have time to have thoughts pop up, so the real goal of meditating in a moment is brushing out all the clutter in your head right that moment to let a breath of fresh air in.

As a result of a moment being such an immeasurable, transient thing just focus on using your cue to empty your mind. Close your eyes for a second, take a deep breath and go ‘omm’ or ‘hmm’ or whatever. As you do, smile and breathe out all the thoughts that were occupying your head.

There you go, you just meditated in a single moment.

When to Take Momentary One Second Meditation Breaks

Honestly, whenever you’re stressed.

It doesn’t just have to be through the holidays, this is a skill that will serve you well forever. Anytime you feel stress getting the best of you, close your eyes for a second and empty your mind. Anytime you find yourself getting really angry over something, use your mental cue and exhale all of that away. You can even use it when you’re feeling nervous or worried about something and need to calm down a bit.

Once you’re used to the technique you can even use it in times when you’re not stressed or anything but just need a small moment of clarity, maybe when you’re working on a project or experience writer’s block. Even when you’re just trying to get some sleep and your mind won’t quiet down, a moment of meditation can silence all those buzzing thoughts keeping you awake.

Have you used super-compressed one second meditation in order to get you through stressful situations or ride out a wave of anger? Do you have any tips that would make the process easier to learn or implement? Share your experiences with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bruce

Screw Time Management – Manage Your Energy

Sad Clock by Elena Fidanovska

Sorry Clock, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. You’re just not as important to me.

Time management is a big deal for a lot of people, especially if you’re in the category of people concerned with accomplishing a lot of things. I’ve written about time management before along with other strategies like timeboxing for getting the most out of your time.

The problem is I see a lot of people focus entirely on time management at the expense of other areas. They become obsessed with trying to squeeze every little productive moment out of their day and in the end wind up less productive than they were before. Their problem isn’t that they’re poor at managing their time.

Their problem is they don’t know how to manage their energy.

The Failure of Time Management

Ok, so I’ll admit – time management is still important.

Regardless of how well you manage your energy if you procrastinate and screw around all day or waste lots of time on things that are unimportant or superfluous then you’re not likely to be very productive. That being said, for most people it’s easy and intuitive to make at least the most basic of changes to improve their time management.

Where you run into problems is that time management, particularly in the productivity and lifestyle design communities where it’s endemic, becomes an obsession.

Using myself as an example, for a while I got caught up in the obsession in an attempt to achieve all of the things I was working on. I had to fit learning a second language, training clients at the gym, teaching English online, writing articles, working on our book, my own fitness, practicing instruments, parkour and martial arts training and a number of other pursuits into my schedule all on top of the day to day trappings of life.

Faced with this mountain of tasks I went kind of insane with time management and optimization techniques, but I still never could manage to get everything I wanted done. What’s worse, my performance across the board started to suffer. The quality of everything I was doing dropped sharply. I felt horrible. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was tired, stressed and depressed constantly.

It was hell.

After a while, I had to come to terms and say screw it – clearly something was not working because everything was falling to pieces. It was useless to me to optimize my time if I didn’t have the energy to actually produce quality work.

So I turned my tactics around and starting focus on managing my energy levels instead of my time.

Finding Your Energy Rhythm

What gets measured, gets managed. Conversely, it’s extremely difficult to manage something you don’t measure. How are we possibly going to manage our energy if we don’t start by identifying exactly what it is we’re managing here?

The first step then is to take a look at your energy patterns throughout the day. To that end I’ll begin by defining what we’re talking about whenever I say ‘energy’. I’m not talking about the mystical, pseudo-scientific woo version of ‘energy’. This isn’t going to involve spirits, chakras, or harmonizing with the Earth Mother (whatever that means). Nor am I necessarily talking about the strict scientific definition of ‘energy’ in terms of electric, kinetic or potential energy – though defined loosely in physics terms as ‘the capacity to do work’ it’s probably the closest.

When we talk about ‘energy’ here I mean solely the kind of energy people get when you drink some espresso, get a good night’s sleep, or find yourself in a flow state. It’s both physical and mental in that you can have a lot of mental energy but have no physical energy (e.g., fatigue) or have plenty of physical energy but very little mental (e.g., depression).

Got it? Excellent.

So the goal is to take a look at an average week and determine when you feel like you have the most energy and when you have the least energy on a day to day basis. Keep a journal for a week, make notes on your phone, whatever it takes. The goal here is to identify if there are any patterns, do you have more energy in the mornings or in the evenings. Do you have a mid-day slump and then a bit of a rebound? Write it all down and find out.

Take as detailed notes as you can too, because there may be other factors. Do you always find yourself more drained after certain activities? Are there things that always leave you feeling more energetic and pumped up? Identifying these things is important to getting better at managing your energy.

Everyone’s going to be a little different. Some highlights from my own notes showed that it takes me about 20 minutes to feel fully energized after I wake up, workouts give me more mental energy, I tend to slump around 1:30 to 2 p.m. everyday and I’m an introvert – social interaction drains my energy while alone time recharges it.

First, figure out your energy rhythms. Then you can move on to the next step.

Block Out High & Low Energy Times

Once you’ve got some patterns identified in your energy rhythms you need to slowly start reorganizing your activities around these patterns. In other words, try to do most of your really important work during the times when you’re naturally more energized and try to schedule your relaxing and recharging time for when you’re naturally in a slump anyway.

I know that I tend to hit a slump mid-day, so I don’t try to get important work done (or often, any work done) during that time. It’s far less productive for me to force myself to work through the low energy periods. When I do, I produce seriously shitty work and I just drain myself further leading to misery and substantially longer recovery times. Not terribly conducive to getting things done.

Conversely, I know when my energy levels tend to be highest, so I schedule my most important work then or the work that I am least enthusiastic about or dreading most.

Blocking your normal high and low energy periods out like this doesn’t have to be any kind of strict schedule. It can just be a general understanding that around one time you feel better and around another time you feel drained and planning things accordingly. You can be as strict in your scheduling or as general as you like provided you’re cognizant of your rhythms and plan accordingly.

The point is to maximize your efficiency so you’re getting your best work done when you’re best able to do it, and your hardest work done when you’re least likely to give in and put it off while not trying to force work during times when you have to struggle extra hard to complete it.

This alone will get you pretty far, but there are a handful of other tactics that can assist a broader energy management strategy.

Work Cycles and Planned Breaks

Work is a fight.

It can run the range from a fun, lighthearted sparring match to a 100 man kumite to the death – but either way every task you do is one you’re stepping into the ring with.

So which sounds like a better plan, going in for ten rounds with zero rest in-between or having a little time now and again to sit down and have some water? Sure if it’s just for fun you can probably go a little longer, but if it’s a tough fight you’re going to want a minute to rest between rounds.

If that’s the case, why don’t people treat work the same way?

Rather than sit down and spend four hours fighting your way through a difficult task, take little breaks in-between to have some water and tell Mick to cut you. Your work’s a champ, it’s not about to get tired and give up on you. I’ve found that a standardized 90 minute work period followed by a 15 minute break gives me the best results. It’s a long enough work period to get a substantial amount of work done followed by a long enough break to relax, but neither feels too long.

This tactic allows you to maintain the energy you’ve got, and often even recharge a little, to avoid getting crushed by the attrition of painful or grinding work. You can certainly adjust based on case, if the work’s fun or enjoyable go longer without a break and if it’s hellish take them more frequently.

Nap When Needed

Naps are awesome.

They help you recharge. They help refresh your brain and tidy things up in there. They improve mood and creativity. They lead to better, more restorative sleep during the night. They’re just wonderful.

So why not take one?

Most people have a time during the day when you have a really bad slump. For a lot of people this is in the middle of the day – this has led a lot of people to suggest that humans in general are naturally biphasic (hardwired to sleep twice in a day/night cycle rather than just overnight.) Whether that’s true or not, taking a short nap is the single best way to deal with that slump in my opinion.

I take between a 20 minute and one hour nap almost everyday between 1:30 and 2 p.m. when I hit my normal daily slump. Whether I nap longer, or shorter, or not at all is entirely dependent on how I feel and how much I think I need. If I’m feeling absolutely destroyed I’ll take a little longer and if I feel pretty good or have a lot to get done I may skip it or just take a speedy caffeine nap.

Experiment a little with naps during your lowest energy periods and see how much of an effect it makes. Generally naps also allow you to get the same amount of rest in a shorter period of sleep overnight as well, so beyond the immediate effect of bringing your energy back after the mid-day dip you may find your energy levels are higher in general with less overnight sleep.

That being said, if you’re not getting enough sleep then fix that first. The easiest way to guarantee your energy levels stay in the gutter all day is to be running on four hours of sleep.

Obey Your Biofeedback

That’s basically a fancy way of telling you to listen to your body – which is really the core of this whole exercise.

If you have downtime scheduled because you normally feel terrible during a certain time but you feel great then for some reason, go ahead and get something done. Conversely, if you feel awful when you normally expect to be 100%, don’t stress out about skipping whatever work you had planned. Do it when you’re recharged and refreshed and ready for it.

Be honest here though, because this isn’t license to just say, ‘Meh, not feeling it,’ whenever work comes up and procrastinate until the end of time.

You need to be listening to your body enough to know when you can be productive and when you can’t and do your best to follow that. If you find that you never feel 100%, then you should examine why you never feel good. This can be a sleep issue, a diet issue, being overly stressed or just not knowing well enough what things genuinely recharge you. Examine your habits and what things you think are draining you so much and start experimenting with ways to correct the problem.

Use Deliberate Practice

Like with a lot of things, deliberate focused practice can help you increase your energy levels throughout the day. This works a lot like how working on increasing your willpower works – intentional practice forcing yourself to extend your energy a little past it’s normal limit followed by enough recovery time to reset.

Treat your energy levels like a muscle. When you lift weights you’re not getting stronger right then, you’re wrecking things and providing the stimuli to get stronger. When you’re actually getting stronger is later that night when you’ve had dinner and are asleep in your bed. Without adequate recovery exercise can be useless or even detrimental.

When working on your energy levels you shouldn’t push yourself until you’re completely burned out – that isn’t going to help. You need to push yourself just a little beyond your threshold then take enough time to recover. Once you’re recovered you can push just a little farther than that and so on.

Just like there are practical physical and genetic limits to how much you can build your muscles there’s a limit to how much you can build your energy reserves. Just like sometimes a shit day comes up and you can’t move a weight you’ve lifted for reps a week ago sometimes no matter how much you’ve trained your energy maintenance other factors are going to wreck you.

Both of those are fine. You can still work to feel a little better overall by deliberately pushing your limits in a controlled way.

Everyone’s a little different, but overall I think this strategy of managing energy rather than time tends to give much better results. Time is a lot less flexible than energy, and though we all only have 24 hours in a day even if you somehow had double that if you were too drained to get anything done it wouldn’t matter – you’d still get nothing done.

Stop worrying so much about fine tuning your schedule and start paying more attention to working along your natural energy rhythms to get the most, and best, work done that you can.

Have you tried managing your energy instead of your time? Do you think it’s better or do you think I’m totally wrong here? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: Elena Fidanovska

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