Flow 101: How to Love Your Work

Flow by Alejandro Juarez

Flow isn’t just important in parkour, it’s important in not despising your work.

For a lot of people, work sucks.

It’s built right into our cultural perceptions and usage of the word. When there’s something you don’t want to do, or something that’ll be difficult and unpleasant what do we tend to say – that’ll be a lot of work. Clearly ‘work’ as a concept tends to have some pretty negative connotations.

That doesn’t have to be the case though and, personally, I think the world would be a better place if we could correct this issue. Work can be fun, enjoyable and positive. You can love your work again, or at least change your work to make it something you love by using a single principle as your guiding compass.

Flow.

What is ‘Flow’ Exactly?

Flow, loosely defined, is that feeling of being in the zone when doing something. It’s that sense of being one hundred percent in the moment, of effortless and exhilarating activity, of rocking things out with no sense of struggle.

We say someone is ‘in flow’ or in a state of flow when they’re experiencing this. Think of an experienced traceur moving effortlessly through an obstacle filled environment, reacting instinctively, gliding through like a river around and over rocks and pebbles. That’s a person in flow. Think of a writer who sits down and loses themselves at the keyboard, fingers flying in a creative frenzy until a short time later there are several thousands of words on the page and a smile on the writer’s face. That’s flow. Think of someone playing a video game who tears through a level with perfect efficiency and dominates her opponents without taking a scratch the whole time reacting without having to think about what she’s doing. That’s flow.

This state of flow is essentially an optimal experience. Entering a state of flow both signifies and creates a sense of fulfillment and elation that makes each experience being in flow addictive and pleasurable. In general, when you’re in flow you’re happy.

Criteria for Creating Flow

One of the people responsible for studying and defining this concept of flow is Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The main criteria he lays down for what best leads to experiences of flow are:

  • A clearly defined goal.

  • Immediate feedback on progress toward that goal.

  • A task that is challenging, but not to the point of impossibility.

  • Clear indicators of when the goal is completed.

The gamers among you, along with the more astute people ought to recognize immediately that the list of flow creating conditions is almost word for word the foundation for good game design. Think about the last really great game you played and examine it along the items above.

  • A clearly defined goal – Finish the level, beat the boss, rescue the princess, capture the flag, eliminate the enemy team, etc.

  • Immediate feedback on progress toward that goal – Moving to the next level, progress indicators, intermediate bosses, leveling up, increasing scores, etc.

  • A task that is challenging, but not to the point of impossibility – Tic-tac toe gets old quickly because it’s too easy, you almost always tie. Conversely games that are too difficult (Ninja Gaiden series anyone?) quickly get hurled across the room in frustration. The best online games always happen when you’re matched against a team of similar skill level making it a challenge, but one where victory is still within reach.

  • Clear indicators of when the goal is completed – Did you die? Start over. Did you beat the level? Hooray! Here’s some fanfare and a big ‘You win!’ screen. Video games always make it extremely clear when you’ve met your goal, when you’ve failed and when you’ve got a little more to go.

This general set up that all games, intentionally or not, are designed to be perfect flow inducing environments in my opinion leads to their extremely addictive quality. Particularly as an escape mechanism when your life is spent in work and activities you hate and you never really achieve flow having an artificial means designed to let you experience that state fills a deficiency in your life.

Finding or Creating Flow in Your Work

So what’s the best way to create flow in work that you generally hate? A lot of it comes down to manipulating the variables above to find something that feels a lot like a video game. In other words you want to have clearly defined goals, clearly defined progress and it needs to be at the right balance of skill level and difficulty.

Challenge Vs. Skill Flow Continuum

Manipulating the balance of challenge level vs. skill level makes a huge difference in finding states of flow.

The first thing to do is make sure that you’ve defined clear goals. Proper goal setting is huge when it comes to success in general, but it’s also what makes finding a good state of flow possible. A good goal should be something that’s challenging enough to be worth pursuing, but still within the bounds of achievability. A good clear goal might be the completion of a project, or finding five more clients. Whatever fits your work.

It’s vital that the goal you make must be challenging but not impossible and on top of that it must have a clearly indicated completion point. Memorize 10 guitar chords is a goal that has a clear state of completion, learn to play guitar is not. We want specific – not nebulous.

Next make sure that you’ve set up milestones or progress markers so that you can track your progress. Have things in place, whether they’re smaller goals that add up to your larger goal or some kind of system of points to mimic the way the games work. Are you moving forward? Are you not making progress? You should always be able to tell if you’re looking to create a flow conducive environment.

A good example of something that’s used gamification to apply principles of flow to fitness is Fitocracy.

I’ve loved Fitocracy ever since I got to play with it in beta because it makes fitness fun. Exercise, like work, has a lot of negative connotations to a lot of people, but Fitocracy changes that. You have a clear goal (level up), an indicator of progress (points earned from workouts), a variable skill level (leveling up is easier for beginners and becomes more difficult as you get more fit) and a clear point of success (a hearty congratulations on leveling up from FRED).

Working to apply these principles to your work doesn’t guarantee you’ll start enjoying it, but it creates an optimal environment for finding joy in what you do when previously it was all pain and struggle. Sometimes the trick isn’t changing your current work environment to facilitate entering a state of flow, but rather finding other work that naturally puts you in a state of flow. I’ll cover that, including an easy test to see what you’d love to do most, in the next article on flow.

Have any personal experience wit flow? Any tips on the best way to get into a state of flow or understand what it feels like? Leave a comment and let us know.

Photo Credit: Alejandro Juarez

Scientific Sleep Hacking: Easy Ways to Optimize Sleep

There is Plenty to Do in a New Empty Apartment by Bealluc

Some sleep hacking ideas get a little ridiculous – let’s start with what the research says first.

There’s something about sleep and sleep optimization that seems to captivate people in the productivity and lifestyle design communities. I suspect it’s mostly because people who are deep into lifestyle design also tend to be fairly ambitious and, as a result, the thought of spending less time asleep and having more time to accomplish things is tantalizing.

Our very first experiment in fact was with trying to switch to a polyphasic sleep schedule. I called it a success at the time, but I recognize now it was a failure.

I’ve not abandoned my interest in optimizing sleep though, and since then over time I accumulated a collection of methods for optimizing sleep that are backed not only by my own personal experiences, but more importantly by actual research.

To Hack or to Optimize?

I recognize I used it in the title, but I needed something to get your attention. Honestly I rather dislike the idea of ‘hacking’ sleep. It feels adversarial to me, like one is attempting to game the system or to cheat somehow. In my experience that breeds the kind of attitude I’ve fallen victim to in the past of trying to be extreme about it. Being extreme about it is almost never sustainable.

Instead I like to think about it as optimization.

Optimization isn’t adversarial, it’s complementary. Optimization isn’t so much about gaming the system you’re working against and bending or breaking the rules to get what you want, it’s about working within the system to reshape things so as to be more beneficial.

Another key difference is that sleep optimization is not about sleeping less – at least not necessarily. A lot of the sleep hacking community seems devoted entirely to the reduction in hours spent sleeping, consequences be damned. Optimization can certainly shave a few unnecessary hours off your time spent asleep but its primary goal is to help you feel as best as you can and recover as much as you can.

We’re not looking to break sleep and conquer it, we’re looking to redirect it so that we get the most out of it and can use it to fit our schedule without all the struggle.

Monophasic, Biphasic or Polyphasic

Right off the bat, polyphasic is out.

In the past I would’ve suggested giving it a try if you thought you could swing it, but having given it a try myself and having dug a lot deeper into the research supporting it (there really isn’t any), research suggesting it’s either unsustainable or flat out detrimental such as Dr. Piotr Wozniak’s and trying to hunt down confirmed successfully long term polyphasic sleepers (there really aren’t any save Steve Pavlina and his claims are still questionable) – I just can’t recommend even trying it.

To the best of my evaluation science as a whole pretty much doesn’t support the viability of polyphasic sleep and I agree with that position.

Biphasic sleep, on the other hand, shows a great deal of promise.

Biphasic sleep (essentially taking a nap somewhere around that midday slump) has a lot of research backing it as beneficial, both to memory, general cognitive performance and quality of sleep in general. There’s also strong evidence supporting the claims that a midday nap reduces the time you need to sleep overnight by more than the time actually invested in the nap.

This research reflects my personal experience (or maybe it’s the other way around). I’m a big fan of naps. Whether that’s just normal daily scheduled ones or short, focused caffeine naps taking a little bit of time in the afternoon to grab a quick nap makes a huge difference in both quality of sleep and the the amount of sleep you need in a night. I also appears to have a strong beneficial effect to memory and creativity.

Better Sleeping Through Science

There are a lot of recommendations out there for how to optimize sleep.

The problem is, not all of them are effective – some do absolutely nothing and others may even prove detrimental to the end goal of getting the most restorative sleep possible in the most efficient way possible. We need some way to separate the wheat from the chaff without having to spend a ton of time with self-experimentation.

To that end I’ve only included things on this list that have some type of research backing them that shows a positive effect. Before some people start yelling about how something can be true even if it hasn’t been proven in a double-blind study, I agree. Some things certainly could have a high efficacy but either haven’t been verified in a controlled setting or have traits that make isolating them in a proper study a logistical impossibility.

That’s fine, and I encourage you to properly experiment yourself with these things to get an idea of whether or not you think they work. I’m not interested in things here though that people think work, I only want things that have been proven to work. That seems like the most logical place to start, then you can start adding your own unproven strategies on top of the foundation of what we know is effective.

Sanitize Your Sleep Environment

When I say sanitize here I don’t mean in the traditional sense of clearing it of bacteria and pathogens and things (though, you know, that’s probably not a terribly bad idea too), but rather sanitizing it of interfering stimuli. Things like light and noise can severely disrupt both your ability to fall asleep quickly and the quality of your actual sleep.

The first thing is to clear your room of any electronics that make noise or give off any light. Claims have been made that even the electromagnetic field generated by said electronics can disrupt sleep although there’s been no studies to confirm it. I’m much more concerned with the bright LEDs and whirring fans of a computer, the glow of an excessively bright alarm clock or anything else that gives off light or noise. Get those out of there, or silence them and cover up the lights.

Next deal with outside sources of light and noise. If you live in a big city spend a little extra to get some light/sound canceling curtains like the thick ones they use in hotel rooms. Even getting some ear plugs and a sleeping mask can go a long way. Neither are terribly expensive and they’re worth the myriad benefits of getting a good night’s sleep.

Eat for Sleep

Your nutritional habits have an immense effect on just about every other physiological process you go through. Sleep is no different. Going to bed hungry can impair your ability to fall asleep quickly. There is absolutely no research supporting the claim that you burn fewer calories at night and that eating late at night will make you gain fat. I’ll say that again because this is a frustratingly persistent misconception.

Eating before bed does not make you gain weight.

The difference between what your body burns when you’re sitting in your chair watching TV and when sleeping is about the same. The importance is the macro composition and net energy expenditure over a longer period of time than just 24 hours.

The primary reason, as best we can tell anyway, your body needs to sleep is so it can fix everything you tore up through the day and clean house a bit. Providing your body a little food not only removes the difficulty of falling asleep through the discomfort of hunger but it supplies your body materials to facilitate the repair work it needs to overnight.

The studies here on the actual effects on quality of sleep have been somewhat mixed in terms of quality, so I’ll concede this tactic is not 100% proven but does show some strong statistical promise of being beneficial. In general the best results have been seen through the consumption of fats and protein prior to sleep with some small additional benefit appearing to come from choosing a slower digesting protein.

My recommendation, based on said research and my own personal experience, would be to go for some cottage cheese (maybe a cup to a cup and a half at least) as a pre-bed snack. You get a little fat and some slower digesting caseinate protein in a relatively small package.

Have a Sleeping Ritual

Without getting into motor patterning and neuroscience and things our brains very much like to go on autopilot when we’re doing something we’ve done repeatedly for a long time. If you’ve ever zoned out on the drive to work and realized disconcertingly on arrival that you kind of blanked out and don’t remember the drive at all that’s sort of what I’m talking about. When we do something repeatedly our conscious minds tend to shut off and we go through the motions automatically.

We can use this propensity for switching to autopilot to help us get to sleep quickly (and wake up) by employing sleep rituals.

A sleep ritual is basically a sequence of actions that you do in the exact same way, in the exact same order, whenever it’s time to sleep. This can be anything you want really, as long as it doesn’t directly interfere with said sleep. Go have your pre-bed snack, let the dog out, brush your teeth and do your other pre-bed stuff then go to sleep. Do that the same way in the same order over and over again and eventually your brain will get the hint and as soon as you go through that ritual it’ll know it’s time to sleep.

It’s important here too to keep your sleeping space sacred. Particularly if you have trouble sometimes falling asleep your bed should be reserved for only sleep and sex. Don’t eat in bed, don’t watch TV in bed, don’t even read in bed (though reading before bed can help you get to sleep, do it somewhere else then go through your pre-bed ritual before slipping between the sheets).

That way your brain has a very clear delineation around your bed that this is where sleep happens and that’s it. If you’re going there, you’re probably going to sleep. Just like the ritual it primes your brain to start the sleep process and get you to sleep quickly.

Be Active

Exercise has been proven over, and over, and over again to have a positive effect on sleep quality.

So go exercise!

Seriously you should be doing this one anyway. In terms of sleep it doesn’t necessarily have to be actual structured exercise either, as long as you’re up and moving around and being active in a general sense your sleep quality will improve as a result. Go for a long walk every day, or go play some games outside. Practice parkour. Whatever.

The point is making a habit of being physically active not only improves your general health but also helps your sleep. To borrow Pokemon terminology, it’s super-effective.

A slight word of caution though – don’t go overboard. Daily heavy lifting followed by HIIT or Met Con workouts or anything that causes too much stress on your system can interfere with sleep. You’ll know if you’re over-training though, so just be cognizant of how you feel.

Use Substances Appropriately

To my knowledge there are no recreational substances that have a positive effect on sleep quality. Caffeine quite obviously serves no other purpose than to specifically inhibit one’s ability to fall asleep. Alcohol tends to make most people sleepy and can make you fall asleep faster but it severely damages the quality of sleep, dehydrates you and can disrupt sleep cycles for a few days following (have you even gotten drunk and then woke up the next morning thinking, ‘I feel super!’?) Marijuana use has been linked to both longer sleep periods and reduced quality of sleep which is doubly counter-productive.

That’s not to say that you can’t still enjoy these substances, but you need to do it intelligently. The effects of these on sleep can last a lot longer than the recreational effects last. Coffee, for example, can disrupt sleep patterns hours after the buzz that you drink it for has faded away. Similarly, even if you’ve sobered up, alcohol can still have an effect on your quality of sleep.

So what do you do? Ideally, you should cut off your use of these substances three or four hours prior to when you intend to sleep. For me 3 p.m. is the limit for caffeine intake if I don’t want it to interfere with my sleep.

Obviously with alcohol this becomes something of a problem since socially it’s most common use is late in the evenings. In general if you’re consuming large volumes of alcohol prior to 3 p.m. there’s a chance you have other problems you need to address. When it comes to alcohol the best things is to just understand the effects of it and regulate your use accordingly.

Every now and again going out and drinking late in the evening is fine, but if you do it every night or even every couple nights it’s going to have a cumulatively detrimental effect on your sleep and your health and everything else will likely suffer as a result. So keep it reasonable. You should also drink a good bit of water before bed to try to mitigate the dehydrating effects of the alcohol. You may have to wake up a few times to go to the bathroom, but interrupted sleep is preferential to the dehydration.

Chill Out and Light Some Candles

Falling asleep is a process that, physiologically anyway, starts well before your head hits the pillow. Putting yourself in an environment before bed that facilitates and encourages those process to start will help get to sleep much more quickly when you actually do head to bed and will make for more restful sleep since you’re primed beforehand.

The first step is to limit your exposure to full spectrum light. Exposure to bright full spectrum light inhibits the brain’s production of melatonin which is a chemical that helps put you to sleep. For hundreds of thousands of years the Sun going down has meant it’s bed time for humans, our brains still operate that way. Shutting off the lights and switching to a non-full spectrum light source encourages the brain to up-regulate melatonin production.

That means no bright computer or phone screens and no TV among other things. It doesn’t mean you necessarily have to sit in the dark though, candles are a good source of gentle non-full spectrum light. So shut off the lights and the bright electronics about 20 – 30 minutes before bed. If nothing else, a house filled with candles every night is a good mood-setter for some sexy time.

The next environmental factor to change is the temperature. People sleep best at an average temperature between 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 to 20 degrees Celsius for our international readers). That’s just a touch chillier than normal room temperature, so turn the AC on gently, open some windows a crack (provided that won’t let too much noise in) or don’t cover up so tightly. You’ll get a much higher quality of sleep.

Putting it All Together

You can certainly experiment with additional tactics to improve sleep quality, but these are the best place to start in terms of building a strong foundation of practices that have been proven to be effective. To recap for all you tl;dr folks.

  • Remove noise & light stimuli from your sleeping environment.

  • Eat some slow digesting protein 15-20 minutes before bed.

  • Follow a pre-bed ritual ever single night.

  • Be physically active or exercise regularly.

  • Limit caffeine and alcohol use.

  • Eliminate light exposure 20-30 minutes prior to bed time and sleep in a 60 to 68 degree Fahrenheit room.

Do you have anything else to add? Something I missed? Have you had success with any of these tactics? Share your experiences with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bealluc

How to Recharge with the Caffeine Nap

Be My Guest and Take a Rest by PoYang

A little bit of coffee and 15 minutes of sleep can work wonders.

We’ve all been there. You had a rough night and didn’t get nearly enough sleep – maybe it’s because you were out partying, maybe it’s because you were up late finishing a project, maybe you were up half the night with a shrieking infant – it doesn’t matter.

Now it’s about 1 p.m. the following day and you basically want to die. You’re miserable, exhausted and likely to tear the head off the next person who comes near you. You can’t go back to bed though, there’s work to do and just quitting in the middle of the day to go sleep is going to make things even worse. So what do you do?

You use the caffeine nap.

What’s a Caffeine Nap?

The idea behind a caffeine nap is to give your brain a concentrated blast of everything it needs to feel better in the short term without giving in to the longer term solution of actually getting some sleep. It’s basically a nap on steroids. Or, well, stimulants.

Sleep, on its own, is obviously the best long term solution to being excessively tired. The problem is that it’s generally very time consuming. You have to be able to sleep long enough to get through enough REM cycles to actually recover. On top of that if you check out mid-day to go sleep for 6 hours you’re going to wake up at 9 p.m. fully rested and not be able to get back to sleep. That just leads to screwed up circadian rhythms which is taking you down a whole other rabbit hole of problems.

Caffeine, on its own, is also an o.k. short term solution but often just isn’t enough. Due to its lipid solubility caffeine gets into your system and across the blood-brain barrier pretty quickly. Caffeine is more like a bandage though. It covers the problem up and makes it a little better short term but it won’t get you through the day. Before long you’re going to crash, and even while the caffeine is working you tend to still feel like a confused and ornery mess, just one with plenty of energy.

A caffeine nap combines both of these things (plus an additional third one I like to add which I’ll get to later) to not only give you a good sustained boost of energy, but also to clear away as much of the mental fog as possible that administering caffeine alone wouldn’t remove. It’s not a complete substitute for a full night’s sleep, but it will make you feel better enough for the rest of the day to get everything you need to do done without having to worry about being pressed with assault charges when the well meaning barista gets your order wrong.

When to Use a Caffeine Nap

A caffeine nap is never going to be a substitute for a good night’s sleep. Ever.

Where it’s extremely useful is when you just can’t make it through the rest of the day but you’ve got a ton of stuff to do. This doesn’t just have to be because you’re flat out sleep deprived, anytime you feel yourself crashing you can use a caffeine nap to get back on your feet for a while.

The best times for these are a little bit before you need to do whatever it is you need to feel better for, but not so far ahead that it’s like six or seven hours away. The effects of a good caffeine nap do last a while, but they start to taper off after a few hours. You need at least 15 to 20 minutes to get a good caffeine nap as well, so make sure you’ve got at least that much.

I also wouldn’t recommend a caffeine nap if it’s getting to close to when you’ll be able to go to sleep anyway. You are going to be knocking back a good dose of caffeine, and we don’t want the residual effect to disrupt your sleep patterns the next night or else you’re going to be pushing yourself into a bad cycle of general sleep deprivation.

Essentially anytime you need a boost around mid-day or earlier and you’ve got at least 15 minutes to steal away for a nap, a caffeine nap is the way to go.

How to Take a Caffeine Nap

Our goal for a caffeine nap is two-fold, the first aspect is to get a good solid dose of stimulants into your system and the second is to get enough sleep to let your brain recharge a bit.

The trick to it lies in the fact that we can’t let your brain have too much sleep or it’ll go into full repair mode and then you’ll feel more zombified when you wake back up, and we also can’t let the stimulants take effect too long before the sleep or you’ll never actually wind down enough to get any rest.

So here’s what you do:

  1. Ingest a Dose of Caffeine Combined with a Dose of Glucose – There are a lot of options here as to what your drug of choice will be. Ideally you want something you can drink quickly. Caffeine begins to take effect in as little as ten minutes due to its easy absorption, although it can take up to an hour for it to reach full absorption. That means that a hot coffee might not always be the best choice, they’re hard to drink very quickly without risking burning yourself.

    You also want something that has a decent sized dose of glucose with it. Glucose has a synergistic effect with caffeine and in studies has been shown to have a much stronger effect in increasing energy and mental acuity than either caffeine or glucose alone. We obviously want the strongest effect we can get, so adding some sugar to that caffeine will make a big difference.

    In my opinion, that means the best option here is going to be something small and easy to drink, or normal sized and at a temperature allowing rapid consumption. Personally, my two drinks of choice are either an iced coffee loaded up with sugar or a double shot or more of espresso loaded up with sugar. If you want to get a little crazy you can always go for an iced green eye (triple shot in a drip coffee) with sugar.

    Normally I would consider dumping sugar into any form of coffee upsetting – I like mine black – but in this case we’re not out to enjoy this as a beverage we’re approaching this as a dose of a drug. That being said, I don’t recommend turning to soft drinks or energy drinks for a caffeine nap. If you have to, fine, but those things are full of a ton of other crap that’s just not good for you. No reason to not go with the better option if you’ve got the choice.

  2. Take a Fifteen Minute Nap – Now that you’ve downed your dose of drugs, lay down somewhere comfy and dark for a fifteen minute nap. Be absolutely sure to only nap for fifteen minutes. Set a loud, annoying alarm that’s guaranteed to wake you up to make sure you don’t exceed it.

    Much more than fifteen minutes of sleep and your brain will begin to shut down so it can go into repair mode and defragment. Once it does that booting it back up is a long, difficult process. That means you’re going to feel like crap again when you wake up which is definitely not the goal. Everyone’s a little different, but keeping it to no longer than fifteen minutes is a pretty good general rule.

    Don’t worry if you can’t really fall asleep. Just laying there and dozing a little works nearly as well since it allows your brain to start recovering without diving all the way into full on REM sleep. Just make sure to hold to the fifteen minute rule. When that alarm goes off you get up and go back about your day no matter what.

That’s it! Two easy steps and you’re done. Done right and you should feel a ton better – maybe not 100%, but enough to finish out the day with a minimum of pain before you can get to bed and get an actual good night’s sleep.

Caffeine Nap Artistry

The best part the caffeine nap is that it’s versatile. You can play around with it a lot to find ways to make it better or more convenient for you. You can have one first thing in the morning to give yourself an extra boost immediately if you wake up mid-REM sleep and feel groggy. You can leave a pad and pen nearby when you take them or have Evernote ready to catch any inspiration that may pop up as you wake back up (people often find inspiration coming out of sleep, adding a couple nootropics to that is a recipe for interesting ideas). If you’re worried about needing a refresh on the read unexpectedly, or you just hate yourself enough to do them this way instead of with coffee, you can keep a bottle of 5 Hour Energy and four or five sugar packets in your glove compartment.

The more you play around with them the more you’ll find ways to make it work better for you.

Have you tried caffeine naps before? How’d it go? Have any little adjustments or tips you think make them better? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: PoYang

How to Actually Accomplish the Stuff on Your To-Do List

To-Dos by Courtney Dirks

Sure you can make a to-do list, but can you actually cross everything back off of it?

I am a man who enjoys his to-do lists.

There’s just something about getting out a physical piece of paper and a pen and actually putting the things I need to accomplish in a day down in ink that feels really good. It makes it feel like I have something concrete to work from, something to keep me on track and focused. When I make a really solid to-do list I feel like there’s absolutely no way I won’t get all of that stuff done.

And by the end of the day, I haven’t done any of it.

So what’s going on? How do you make the jump from making a great to-do list to actually doing what’s on it?

Listing Vs. Doing

To-do lists are a really effective tool, and they genuinely do contribute to helping you accomplish the things you need to do in a day. The problem is that there’s often a disconnect between listing things and doing things.

This disconnect, when manifested like it has in many of my to-do lists past, leads to a long string of great to-do lists that just never get done. The most frustrating part in my experience is that when you make a to-do list and then don’t actually do anything on it you still have the list as a physical representation of all the stuff you should’ve done that day but didn’t adding insult to injury.

Having quite a bit of personal experience with writing things down and then never doing them, I’ve found most often fixing the problem lies in utilizing a handful of techniques that get around the most common obstacles to completing your lists.

Timeboxing

I’ve talked about timeboxing before and for good reason – it works. If you’ve never tried timeboxing before, you essentially allot a specific duration of time to work on a task and limit yourself to that duration of time to do it. As soon as your time runs out, you stop and move on to something else. It doesn’t matter if you’ve completed your task or not – when time’s up, you’re finished.

So how does timeboxing help get around some of the obstacles that are most common in preventing people from completing their to-do lists?

  • It Gets You Started – As a personal trainer, I come across a lot of people who have a desire to get in shape and improve their health, but lack the motivation to actually do workouts at the frequency they need to in order to succeed. Whenever I have a client who struggles with not feeling like working out, I make their first goal to just come to the gym.

    I don’t tell them to workout. I don’t care if they walk in the door and then walk out. I just tell them that I’ll be looking at their visits history and as long as they scan that card to get in the days I tell them to then I’ll be happy. Everyone agrees that even if they don’t have the motivation to workout they at least can muster up enough to come over to the gym swipe a card and leave.

    What I’ve found is, even when people leave their house with the intent of checking in and leaving, once people get in the door they’re almost guaranteed to workout. Now we’re usually not talking a personal record breaking lifting session here, but they do something. In the end, that’s the important thing.

    Once you get started in a task, even if you don’t want to do it, it’s much easier to continue to work on it for a while. Much like it takes less energy to keep water boiling than it does to make it boil, it takes a lot less energy on your part to keep doing something than it does to get started. Timeboxing helps you take that first step by forcing you to choose a task and focus on it for the allotted time. Once you’re rolling most of the hard work is done.

  • It Removes Task Dread – The brilliant part about timeboxing, in my opinion, is that it sets boundaries. People respond well to boundaries.

    Imagine if you were enrolling in college, or signing the papers for a mortgage and, rather than saying you’ll be on track graduate in four years or your home loan will be repaid in fifteen years, they told you that you’ll graduate eventually, or that your home will be yours someday they guess. I don’t know about you, but I would get up and leave.

    Without an end date in sight it’s hard to justify investing those kinds of resources into something. Tasks are no different. You’re never going to start a task that seems endless.

    When something looks to be so huge that you just can’t imagine ever being able to actually finish it, maybe cleaning out the garage for the first time in 8 years for example, it makes it so daunting and painful sounding that you just avoid it.

    Timeboxing removes that apprehension by placing boundaries on the task. Rather than, “I am faced with the endless task of cleaning the Augean stable is my garage,” it’s “Yeah, I’ll clean for an hour and then be done.”

    The second is a lot less painful sounding, and it gets you started which will lead to the momentum to keep going. I should note though that even if you get really into it, stick to your boundaries. Even if you really get into it and are rocking things out, stop at that hour mark. If you don’t, you’ll start eroding your trust in your own boundaries and it may make it more difficult to get started next time.

  • It Forces You to Take Breaks – Taking breaks has huge psychological benefits. Not only does it help you refocus, but it also keeps you from falling into a repetitive mode of thinking and getting bored with whatever you’re doing. Best of all, by not getting bored and by having a scheduled break to look forward to, it’ll keep you from giving in to the temptation of time sinks like Facebook.

    Since timeboxing restricts how long you can work on something, it forces you to take little breaks between tasks. After the break you can switch tasks or do another block of the same task – either way you’ve had five to ten minutes in between to stretch out, get your social media fix and let your mind wander.

    It may not seem like much, but all those things will make a huge difference not only in how easily you accomplish your tasks, but also your creativity and focus as well.

  • It Eliminates Multi-Tasking – Much in the way that breaks are good, multi-tasking is bad. As Ron Swanson would say, “Don’t half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.”

    Multi-tasking can be seductive because it makes it feel like we’re getting more done when really we’re just doing less and more poorly at that. Doing one thing and doing it well is a much better way to go about things. Timeboxing reinforces that by limiting you to a single task for your allotted time. When you’ve only got an hour to do as much as you can on a task or finish it, you don’t have time to multi-task. You have to focus on whatever it is you need to be doing right then and that means you’ll be able to work a lot better and more efficiently.

Making Good To-Do Lists

Sometimes it’s not that you’re having trouble getting your list done, but rather that you’ve gone and made a really crappy to-do list.

That’s alright – I used to make tons of them.

The two biggest things I see when it comes to poorly constructed to-do lists are overloading it with way too many tasks and, possibly even worse, not including fun tasks.

When your to-do list has 400 things on it, you’re just setting yourself up to fail. Overloading yourself and then having to face the shame of an uncompleted to-do list at the end of the day is not the way to be productive. Instead, limit yourself to a smaller number of tasks that you know you’ll have the time for. Even better, pick a few out of those limited tasks to be designated as your most important tasks for the day and make sure they get done first. That way, even if something gets in the way and you don’t finish your list, you can still feel good about getting the most important things done.

On that note, reading your to-do list should not feel like reading your jail sentence. If you wake up in the morning already annoyed at how terrible your day is going to be because of all the painful stuff on this horrendous to-do list you have to do – then you’re just going to be miserable all day and likely not get any of it done anyway.

Always put some fun stuff on your to do list. Preferably fun productive stuff, but just something fun and relaxing. Having something to look forward to will make a big difference in how you feel and your success rate in actually getting your lists completed.

Do you have any other suggestions for getting things done? Have you used timeboxing before and, if so, what did you think? Tell us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Courtney Dirks

Tortoises, Seinfeld and Productivity: How to Use the Chain System

Jerry Seinfeld by Alan Light

Jerry Seinfeld knows a thing or to about being consistently productive.

Yesterday I introduced my latest challenge, attempting to change my productivity style from oscillating between frantic productive bursts and long depressive periods of idleness to a nice steady stream of consistent if small accomplishments.

As I explained in the other article, I’d like to go from being a hare (someone who sprints through tasks in bursts then goes through an extended cooldown period) to a tortoise (someone who works consistently on tasks for an extended period of time). To get used to working as a tortoise I’m challenging myself to go 330 consecutive days writing one article, learning 15 new words and mobilizing my ankle for 4 minutes every single day. So how am I going to pull it off?

That’s where Jerry Seinfeld comes in.

The Seinfeld Method

Or, more specifically, where Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity method comes in.

The Seinfeld method goes by a bunch of names including the Chain System and “Don’t Break the Chain”. It’s impossible to say if Jerry Seinfeld can be credited for inventing the system, but honestly it doesn’t matter if he did or not. When you look at the sheer volume of consistent work Jerry Seinfeld has produced over his extensive career it’s clear he’s doing something right.

As the story goes a young comedian was performing in a club when he met Seinfeld and he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get a bit of advice from someone who’s regarded by many as one of the greatest comedians of our time. Jerry Seinfeld told him that the secret was to write something everyday, whether it was good or not was irrelevant – just sit down and get something on paper every single day.

To make sure that you do it everyday, he told the young comedian, get a year calendar and put a check mark on it everyday you write. After a while you wind up with a long chain of check marks and it creates a psychological pressure to not break that chain. Hence the other names.

I intend to use the Seinfeld method for my challenge using a big chart I’ve made with 330 squares on it. I’ve marked off some important milestones as well, such as the 100 day marks and where I’ll have hit 1,000 words, so that I have some short term goal posts to aim for outside of the end of the 330 days. Since I’m grouping all tasks together I’ll be using checks instead of lines (which we’ll get to in a moment).

How to Use the Seinfeld / Chain Method for Productivity

Want to give this system a try yourself or follow along with your own challenge? Here are the basics of how to set it up along with a few modifications for different situations.

  1. Choose Your Timeframe – The first thing to do is to choose how long you’re going to apply the Seinfeld Method. That’s not to say that you have to have a limit, you can set off to do it indefinitely, but having some target date to shoot for I think provides a little extra motivation. People like finish lines. The trick is to pick something far enough away to be effective (over 30 days) but not so far as to be potentially discouraging (over 2 years).
  2. Choose Your Task(s) – You can pick one task or many, it’s up to you, although I would advise against starting with too much. The goal is definitely not to overwhelm yourself here. You want to choose a task or tasks that will help you toward some goal but are simple enough to complete without too much struggle. Run 5 miles is probably a bad choice. Run one mile is better. Go for a run is best. Similarly write 30 pages is not so good, but write 500 – 1,000 words is. The idea is for each day’s task to be small, relatively insignificant accomplishments that will add up to something great when compounded over a great deal of time.

    A slight word of caution though, try to avoid time limits. Set minimums instead. If you make your goal ‘write for 1 hour’ then spend most of that hour screwing around and getting distracted it just wastes your time. There can be exceptions (my own stretching goal being one) but in general it’s better to set a minimum accomplishment like a word count.

  3. Get a Calendar, App or Chart – Depending on your personal style you can go as digital or analog as your heart desires. There are lots of apps out there that you can use specifically for this method, Goal Streaks and Way of Life being to for iPhone at least that are decent. Personally, I tend to like to make a big chart since it invests a little of me in the project. Alternatively you can always go the traditional route and just buy a year calendar. Find what you like and go with it.
  4. Get Started – Start that day or the next day. Don’t put it off – the longer you wait the less likely you are to really get into it. Dive in while you’re pumped and use that momentum to keep you going through the first stretch. If you’re going with a single task you can choose whatever symbol you want to mark off your successes, a check mark, a big green circle, a smiley face, whatever.

    If you’ve chosen multiple things to track you can use this method as well, or you can use the line method instead. To do it that way you’ll need one color marker for each task you’ve selected. Then you just make a long connected line through each day you’ve completed that task with its respective color. Before long you’ve got a rainbow of success streaking across your calendar and you won’t want to stop.

  5. Make a Provision for Speedbumps – Eventually, something will come up completely outside of your control that prohibits you from completing your task. If you get food poisoning for instance, you’re not likely to be going for a run that day. Now it would be wrong to mark that day with a check since you didn’t actually do your task. Conversely it hardly seems fair to have a break in your glorious chain just because some moron didn’t cook your chicken right.

    The solution in my opinion is to have a ‘N/A’ mark to indicate that day was neither a success nor a failure. You could even put a big ‘S’ for ‘Sick’ on there. The point is just to have some kind of alternative ready for the unavoidable consequences of life. Just don’t use those an excuse to slack off without feeling guilty.

You’ll quickly find using this method that once you get rolling it really is hard to stop. In terms of psychology the fear of loss is much, much stronger than the anticipation of gain. I suspect it’s that fact that makes it so difficult to look at a long chain of successes and allow yourself to break that chain and lose your long streak of accomplishments.

Have you ever used the Seinfeld Method? Have any tips or suggestions to make it more efficient or effective? Share them with us!

Photo Credit: Alan Light

Workouts for Wimps: Your First Pull Up

Kyra on the Monkey Bars by OhKyleL

Don’t look so down, you’ll get your first pull up eventually.

Pull ups are easily one of, if not the, most psychologically intimidating exercises for people who are just starting out.

If you grew up in the U.S. you may still be haunted by memories like mine – as a fat kid in junior high I was subjected to the most distilled form of public humiliation inflicted by a school upon its students, the Presidential Fitness Test.

The mile run wasn’t so bad, I managed to walk most of it and still get in under the 12 minute cut off. The push up test wasn’t too bad either – sure I was fat but one of the benefits of moving a large volume of lard around on a regular basis was at least enough strength to outdo some of my skin-and-bones peers. At 26 push ups or so in a minute I wasn’t the best, but I wasn’t the worst of the boys either.

Then there were the pull ups.

Some of you are already nodding in solidarity as you read this, but if you were never a fat kid you may not understand my vitriol and psychological baggage in regards to this particular exercise. Imagine being an obese middle schooler for a moment. Your self-confidence is already severely damaged by a horrendous body image and the crushing force of being immersed on a daily basis into a viciously hierarchical social structure. (Seriously, there are no creatures more emotionally and psychologically destructive than teenagers)

Now that baseline of negative self-esteem is the norm for day to day activities. From there, picture yourself being commanded to come over to the pull up bar, in front of everyone, in a gym uniform that pretty much by definition accentuates how fat you are. You are then told to grab the bar and do as many pull ups as you can. You jump up and grab on and fight, struggle and squirm – hoping with all your might to get at least one so you won’t be the very worst of everyone.

After several seconds of futile dangling and thrashing on the bar like a panicked whale being airlifted back to sea by helicopters, it becomes clear that you aren’t going to even do a single one and you’re told you’ll be tested on how long you can hang there instead. So, publicly defeated, you are forced to hang there in your shame in front of everyone as they judge your inadequacy.

You can see why some of us are a bit scarred from these experiences. There are few things more satisfying than your very first pull up, and few things more frustrating than being unable to do one. (Tweet this.)

There is hope though. I have gone from being completely unable to do a single pull up to currently doing multiple sets of them with additional weight hanging off of me and you can do the exact same thing. All you have to do is follow these easy progressions and you’ll be rocking out pull ups in no time.

Getting Your First Pull Up

The way this program works is to slowly build you up through exercises progressing from easier to more difficult all the way up to a pull up. You’ll want to start at the beginning and then work your way up – you’ll do at least three workouts per week with each workout consisting of three sets of each exercise of how ever many reps you can do up to 12. Once you hit 3 sets of 12 reps on an exercise you can then move up to the next one for your workouts.

I’ll lay out the program in an easy to follow way at the end – first though let’s look at the movements we’ll use.

1. Bent Over Dumbbell Rows

Many people will actually be able to skip this step, but this is where you’ll start if you are a complete, absolute beginner. To perform a dumbbell row you’ll find a bench, couch, wall or pair of chairs about knee height. Hold the dumbbell in your right hand and place your left knee on the bench, then bend over and place your left palm on the bench so that your left arm is straight below your shoulder. Your right leg should be straight down to the ground and you should be bent over with your back flat like a table and your right arm hanging straight down holding the dumbbell.

From there you want to use your shoulder muscles to pull the dumbbell straight up to your right armpit, kind of like starting a pull lawnmower. Make sure to pull with your shoulder and arm muscles and not twist your torso to the left to cheat. Once you’ve done your set on the right side, switch to your left.

Once you can do three sets of twelve repetitions on each side without any trouble increase the weight you’re using. When you can do it with 30 pound dumbbells for three sets of twelve you’re ready to move up to the next weight. If you’re a little heavier yourself, make it 40.

Don’t have dumbbells? No problem, pack a backpack or tripled-up shopping bag full of cans, books, rocks or whatever you’ve got on hand and weigh it to see what you’re working with. You can also make fairly heavy dumbbells by filling an empty plastic milk jug with sand and then running water into it until all the sand is thoroughly soaked.

2. Inverted Bodyweight Rows

Our second movement on the path to your first pull up is the inverted bodyweight row. To do an inverted row ideally you’ll need some kind of bar between chest and knee height – playground equipment, a tree branch, smith machine or broom stuck between two chairs all work.

All you do is lay beneath your bar of choice and pull your chest up to it keeping your body rigid and your heels on the ground like a hinge. The more horizontal you are the more difficult the movement becomes, so if you start out with a chest height bar you can slowly move your feet away from it to increase the difficulty. If you can’t find anything else to use, you can also do these by lying underneath a kitchen or dining room table facing up so your head is poking out one side and pulling yourself up to the edge of the table.

Once you can perform three sets of twelve completely horizontal with your feet on the floor, prop your feet up on something like a chair so your feet are the same height or higher than your hands to increase the difficulty. Once you can do three sets of twelve with your feet elevated without any issues move on to…

3. Assisted Pull Ups or Negative Pull Ups

The next step gives you the choice between using either assisted pull ups or if you’re more comfortable with them negative pull ups.

Assisted pull ups can be done a handful of ways. The most ideal though hardest to do for most people are band assisted pull ups. These are done with an assistance band or a bunch of surgical tubing lopped over the bar and then beneath your feet to help take some of the weight off of the pull up.

Since these can be expensive, the next option would be self-assisted or partner assisted pull ups. For partner assisted pull ups you bend your knees and have a friend stand behind you and hold on to your feet or knees, As you do your pull up they help push you up just enough that you can complete the rep but not so much as to make it too easy. Self-assisted push ups are done by placing a chair behind you then bending your knees and placing the tops of your feet on the back of the chair so that you can push up with your legs as needed while you do your pull ups.

For band assisted pull ups, reduce the strength/size of the band every time you reach three sets of twelve reps. For partner or self-assisted pull ups when you can do three sets of twelve take one leg away so only one leg is using the chair or friend as assistance. When you can do three sets of twelve that way, move on to the next movement.

If you find the assisted pull ups aren’t really doing it for you, give negatives a try. To do a negative you either use a stepping stool or just jump to get into the top position of the pull up with your chin above the bar. (Careful not to lose any teeth here if you’re jumping)

Once you’re in the top position lower yourself back down as slowly as possible. From the bottom climb or jump back up and repeat. When you can do three sets of twelve reps with each rep taking at least 25 seconds to get from top to bottom then you can finally move on to…

4. Your First Real Pull Up!

Ok, so technically this will be your first real chin up, but that’s ok. What’s the difference? A chin up is done with your palms facing toward you and a pull up is done with your palms facing away from you. It may seem like a minor difference, but chin ups are actually much easier than pull ups.

The way you’ll make the jump from negatives to pull ups is to start by working in a single chin up rep at the beginning of each set of negatives. Then next workout go for two chin ups and ten negatives, then three and nine and so on.

Once you can do three sets of twelve chin ups (honestly, once you can do three or four per set really) you’ll be more than able to do a pull up, and likely will be able to do several.

The Full Pull Up Progression

Here’s the full progression laid out in one big list.

Done three days per week with one day of rest between each workout. When you can complete three sets of twelve of each exercise move down to the next on the list.

  • 3×12 Bent Over Dumbbell Rows – Increase weight up to 30 lbs. then move on to next movement.

  • 3×12 Inverted Bodyweight Rows – Move feet away from bar or elevate feet once parellel to increase difficulty. Move on to next movement after 3×12 with feet elevated becomes easy.

  • 3×12 Assisted Pull Ups or Negative Pull Ups – Move on when 3×12 assisted pull ups with only one foot under assistance is easy, or when you can complete 3×12 negative pull ups with a 25 second descent on each rep.

  • 3×12 Mixed Chin Ups & Negative Pull Ups – Start with one chin up and eleven negative pull ups per set, then two chin ups and ten negatives, then three chin ups and nine negatives until you achieve 3×12 chin ups.

  • Go Rock Out Some Pull Ups!

Additional Tips

The first thing to note is since you’re moving your own bodyweight being able to perform your first pull up may come down to both increasing your strength and decreasing your bodyweight so you don’t have to lift as much. That means if you’re particularly heavy, learning how to get your nutrition into check and shed some excess fat can make a big difference.

The second thing is to do your best not to cheat. That means when doing your actual chin ups and pull ups when you get to that point resist the urge to bend your legs and wiggle and fling yourself around. Sure it makes it easier, but you’re cheating yourself out of the benefit of doing a strict pull up or chin up and you’ll find your progress stalling out quickly.

Have you tried this program to finally get your very first pull up? How did it go? Do you have any suggestions or additional tips to help out? Let us know!

Photo Credit: OhKyleL

Identity Based Habits 101 – How to Build a Habit Forever

More Questions than Answers by An Untrained Eye

The best way to form a lasting habit is to completely re-imagine your identity.

Anyone who’s ever tried to build a new habit from scratch knows – change is difficult.

Think about it, how many times have you gotten really fired up about wanting to start something new, whether it was a new exercise program, studying a second language, writing a book or even just getting in the habit of stretching a little each morning?

As fired up as you were, how long until that initial motivation wore off and you were back to your old habits of not working out, studying, writing or whatever? For most people it’s usually not long at all. So what’s the trick to making a new habit stick if being really pumped about it initially isn’t enough?

The use of identity based habits.

What are identity based habits?

I’ve written about using identity based habits to achieve goals in the past, but in case you aren’t familiar with them the basic idea is that you can best solidify a habit by becoming the kind of person who would perform that action habitually.

Ok, that may actually sound more confusing – here’s how it works.

Without getting too much into discussions of free will, determinism and compatibilism, essentially all of your thoughts and decisions arise out of processes that begin unconsciously. In other words, while it may feel like you consciously decided to have a cup of coffee this morning in reality that decision was made well before you were aware of it by a long chain of neurological and causative factors.

In fact, studies have been done where researches hooked participants up to brain scanners and could accurately predict what the people were going to do when left alone in a room (for example, pick up a magazine, walk around, etc.) several moments before that person was aware they were going to do it. This was possible because regions of the brain the participants weren’t consciously aware of fired well before they had the ‘conscious decision’ to do what they were going to do.

Alright, so that’s kind of freaky – but what does it have to do with building habits?

Well what that demonstrates is that whether you like it or not, your decisions and behaviors really are largely if not entirely dictated by factors that exist outside of or independent of your conscious mind. In other words if you’re trying to form a new habit by sheer willpower alone, you’re already setting yourself up in a losing battle – or at least a battle over which you have very little control over the outcome.

Rather than just throw the dice and hope you roll high enough to form the habit (some D&D player somewhere is reading this and nodding), using identity based habits lets you rig the dice in your favor.

An identity based habit is formed by acting like the person you want to be until you actually become them. So, for example, if you’re currently overweight and want to get into the habit of lifting weights three times per week you would begin to think of yourself as ‘a weightlifter’ or maybe ‘an athlete’ – at the very least as ‘a fit person’.

Then, gradually, you would set yourself up to really live like you were already ‘a fit person’. You would do whatever things in your mind ‘a fit person’ does, maybe read about lifting and nutrition, talk about it with other people, and (most importantly in this case) lift regularly. Before long it become self-reinforcing and the new parts of your identity that you’ve been ‘faking’ would become part of your real identity.

In other words, by thinking of yourself as ‘a fit person’ and strongly identifying as such it becomes contrary to your nature to not go lift. Before long it will get to the point where it will feel strange to not do the very thing you’ve been struggling to make habitual.

This rigs the system by changing the environment, background causes and subconscious neurological factors that determine our choices before we are aware of them. Put simply, you’re making it hard to lose by playing a winnable game.

How to Establish Identity Based Habits

You may at this point be saying, “Ok, that makes sense, but how in the world do I just change my identity? Isn’t that as hard as changing my habits in the first place?”

Not quite as difficult, but to be fair there is some truth to it – suggesting that you should wake up tomorrow and just decide to have an entirely new identity is a lot like suggesting to someone suffering from depression to decide to cheer up – it’s not going to be that easy.

The best ways to make the transition process easier are by playing pretend and using small winnable goals to prove to yourself that you really are the kind of person who you want to be. We’ll look at playing pretend first.

Remember being young and playing make-believe? Well if you can’t try really hard because that’s exactly what we’re going to use to get your new habits to stick.

Rather than try to force yourself to genuinely believe right off the bat that you are now, say, ‘a person who can speak four languages’ rather than someone who speaks one pretend to be that person. Fake it ’til you make it, as the saying goes.

This works because in the end it doesn’t really matter if you believe it, as long as you pretend well enough to do the things the person you want to be would do, then eventually you’ll wake up one morning as that person. Using the above as an example, if you pretend like you’re the person who learns languages easily and do all the things that you imagine that kind of person would do (study up on target languages, read news in those languages, watch TV in those languages, etc.) than eventually you’ll have done so much of that you will actually be the kind of person who does those things – see how that works?

The other good way to ease into it is by using small goals as ways to prove to yourself that you can actually be the person you want to be.

By small goals I mean significant things that are still small enough to accomplish without much trouble. For example, if you want to redefine yourself as a writer you don’t want to shoot for writing a book in a week – that’s just setting yourself up to fail at which point you’ll doubt that self-image. Instead you would pick something like writing 500 words everyday. That’s maybe half a page or so.

That type of goal is achievable enough that you really have no excuse not to do it. No matter how busy you are you have the ten minutes or so per day necessary to write half a page worth of something. After a couple weeks, when you look back at all you’ve written, you can say to yourself, “Hey, look at all this I’ve accomplished. I guess I really am a writer!” Then you can kick it up a notch to 1,000 words per day or whatever the next step would be in solidifying that self-image.

Just like with faking it, before long you’ll find it just feels wrong to not write something each day. After all, you’re a writer and that’s what writer’s do. When you get to that point – congratulations, you’ve just formed a lifelong habit.

The best results will always come from not focusing on the end goal or result (I want to be fit) but instead by focusing on embracing and internalizing the process itself (I want to be the kind of person who trains regularly and eats right).

Have you ever tried to change your self-identity in order to better solidify or create a habit? How did it go? Do you have any other advice for other people who would like to try? Share it with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: An Untrained Eye

The Epic Guide to Becoming Healthy and Achieving Your Fitness Goals

Summer Lovin' by Caro Wallis

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

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

Fat loss is 80% diet, 20% exercise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table of Contents:

Part I. What To Eat

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

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

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

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

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

Eat Real Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thou Shall Not Demonize any Food or Macro-Nutrient

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

I kid, I kid.

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

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

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

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

Most importantly of all…

Eat For Your Goals

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

Part II. How to Eat For Your Goals

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

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

An Introduction to Intermittent Fasting

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

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

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

Your Schedule: 16/8

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

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

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

Why fast in the First Place?

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

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

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

Meal Composition: Macro-Math

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

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

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

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

Estimate Your BMR

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

Mifflin St. Jeor BMR Equation

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

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

OR:

Harris-Benedict BMR Equation

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

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

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

Katch-McArdle BMR Equation

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

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

Estimate Your TDEE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protein, Carbs and Fat: Your Macro Nutrient Targets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macro Calculation Examples

Takeshi

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

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

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

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

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

Mary

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

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

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

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

Making a Meal Plan

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

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

Training

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

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

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

Focus First On Compound Exercises

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

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

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

Pick The Right Program

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

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

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

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

Final Notes on Diet & Training

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

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

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

Again, here are your priorities:

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

Part III. How To Succeed

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

Track Smart

How to Measure Progress the Smart Way

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

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

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

What Gets Measured, Gets Managed

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

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

Remove Barriers

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

Have a Meal Plan

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

Prepare Your Kitchen

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

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

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

Plan Ahead When Eating Out

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

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

Set Ambitious, But Realistic Goals

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

Pick A Smart Deficit

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

Eat Real, Whole Foods

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

Plan For Long-Term Success

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

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

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

Part IV: Go Forth and Succeed!

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

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

Additional Resources for Over-Achievers

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

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

Photo Credit: Caro Wallis

20 Easy Ways to De-Stress and Relax

http://www.flickr.com/photos/h-k-d/

Full moon and bonsai not required.

Are you stressed out?

I know, I know – stupid question. Everyone’s stressed out. It’s just a condition of modern life. We all have pressure from work, family, finances, health concerns and a million other things. There aren’t really many good options for escaping it.

The problem is being stressed out all the time can literally kill you or at least set in motion changes that can bring about a much earlier demise than would have otherwise been in your future. Health problems ranging from heart disease to diabetes to acne can be caused or exacerbated by being too stressed out, and if you’re trying to lose weight the cortisol it floods your system with will make things exponentially more difficult for you. Being stressed is serious business.

So what can we do about it?

How to Fight and Relieve Stress

Everyone’s a little bit different, so some things will work better for some while others may need to try a different approach. The important thing is to find what works best for you and then to make time to do it every single day. Remember, if something’s important you should do it everyday. Relieving stress is extremely important, so don’t neglect it.

  1. Meditate – Meditation is number one on the list because it’s probably the most obvious and yet the most potentially intimidating if you’ve never done it. The key is to not think of meditation as some mystical or spiritual thing, it’s just exercise for your brain. Exercise that has been shown to reduce stress, improve clarity of thought and train your mind to focus more easily. Some studies have shown that meditation even helps your brain build more grey matter to help you deal with stressful situations on a day to day basis.

    The easiest way to get started if you’re a beginner to meditation is to just set aside five minutes to sit down and not think about anything. It’s harder than it sounds, but once you can sit five minutes with no thoughts popping into your head, try for ten, then for fifteen and so on. Guess what? You’re meditating!

  2. Read – As little as six minutes of reading has been shown to cause significant reductions in saliva cortisol levels – that means a reduction in stress. The studies in question used fiction, so the jury’s still out as to whether curling up with a technical manual is going to help you much.

    I know my preference for de-stressing is a good work of fiction anyway. Few things offer the kind of imagination powered escapism that a good book has inside of it. Don’t think you can half-ass it and de-stress with TV either, with the exception of comedy shows TV increased stress levels on average so ditch your TV.

  3. Listen to Music – Music is extremely therapeutic. The trick is in finding the right kind of music for you. There have been studies on the calming effect of classical music, so if you’re not sure you can always turn to that to unrustle your jimmies.

    Now while I personally do enjoy classical music, I’ve found I de-stress equally well to all the 90s music I group on. Well, almost all of it anyway. The point is there are even some thrashing, screaming Finntroll songs that I’ve found I can sit down and close my eyes and listen to that calm me down – find what music works for you then spend a little bit of time each day or night listening to it. Really listen to it too, don’t do anything else or try to multitask, just listen and relax.

  4. Have Some Pet Time – Whether you’re a dog person or a cat person, spending time with pets not only helps de-stress you but also helps lower your blood pressure. Spending some quality time just loving on your pet of choice is so effective they even use them in some nursing homes and hospitals to help improve the condition of residents and long term patients.

    If you have your own pet, take some time each day to just sit and pet them or play with them. If you don’t have any pets see if you can hang out with a friend or family member who does or volunteer every now and again at a rescue or animal shelter.

  5. Scream Profanity – If a lot of your stress is manifesting itself as anger and tension, go scream some curse words at the top of your lungs until you feel better. Screaming is a really good way to vent and let off pent up frustrations, and the use of profanity actually helps us deal with physical pain better – so it stands to reason that it would help deal with stress as well. Aside from being cathartic, it’s usually pretty fun.

    On a side note, if you get hung up over the use of profanity, grow up and deal with it. They’re just words. It’s the intent that’s important, and if your intent is to blow off steam and relax as opposed to intending to harm someone else then there’s nothing that makes any of those words ‘bad’.

  6. Smile and Laugh – Even if you don’t have anything to smile about, forcing yourself to think about something that makes you smile actually triggers a feedback loop that releases the feel good chemicals in your brain that cause you to smile. That means forcing yourself to smile can physically make you feel happier.

    The same thing happens when we laugh. Every time we laugh our brains are triggered to release the chemical cocktail that makes us happy and want to laugh more. You can either force laughter by trying to think of something funny, or just go out and find something funny to watch or listen to. Spend 5 minutes every night watching something hilarious on YouTube or find a funny show you really love and save them for when you’re particularly stressed. Laughter not only improves your mood, but it also lowers blood pressure – so you get a double benefit.

  7. Go Play – Just because you’re a grown up doesn’t mean you have to act old. Playing is not only an inherent part of being human, it’s an inherent part of being a mammal. Getting out and playing not only gives you something to focus on other than the reasons you’re stressed out, it also gives you an outlet to work out some of your energy and get a little bit of exercise. It’s also a social activity, and being around other people you’re comfortable with is another good way to help lower stress. Make it an outdoor game and you even get the mood elevating effect of Vitamin D exposure.

    Grab some friends, or your kids or even your dog and go find a game to play. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated, it can be as structured as an organized game of football or as irreverent as a game of chase. The point is just to go have fun and forget about everything that’s troubling you. Make it an actual physical game though, video games don’t count.

  8. Have Sex – If you’re reading this, sorry Mom. The fact is though that sex is an excellent way to relive stress. I’m reasonably certain I don’t have to explain in too great of detail why that’s the case. It should be noted though that this tactic is one best taken when you’re in a committed relationship as trying to use sex as a stress reliever outside of a committed relationship can increase the probability of creating situations which will lead to much more stress down the road.

  9. Workout – A good workout acts as stress relief in many of the same ways good sex does – the physical exertion not only encourages your body to release all the pleasant chemicals and hormones that make you feel calm, serene and happy, it also allows you to physically vent any pent up frustration and anger that may be adding to your stress levels. Exercise pair extremely well with meditation as vigorous physical activity also leads to changes in your brain that improve your clarity of thought.

    Really you should be on a structured fitness routine anyway, but if you aren’t on one or are strapped for time you can always make good use of a quick 5 minute morning bodyweight circuit There is no such thing as being too busy to work out – you have time to exercise – you just have to make it.

  10. Go for a Walk – Vitamin D is a natural mood elevator, and there are few better ways to get a little bit more Vitamin D than taking a nice relaxing stroll outside. Going for a nice walk is effective as a stress reliever for a variety of reasons, the physical activity encourages the release of pleasant brain chemicals, the exposure to sunlight provides an extra little does of Vitamin D and lastly a good long walk allows you time to reflect on the things that are stressing you and work through them.

    Thoreau (who penned an entire essay entitled Walking) wrote, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements”. It’s that freedom from worldly engagements, the feeling of which I second, that provides so much needed relief from life’s stresses.

  11. Explore Nature – I’ll resist the urge to follow one Thoreau quote with another, or perhaps one from Emerson, but both would tell you that it’s extremely important for a person’s well being to spend some quality time immersed in nature. I’ll tell you the same thing – getting outside into the wilderness is a wonderfully calming experience and I think a lack of time truly enjoying nature leads to a great deal of the stress most people feel in their lives.

    Take an afternoon and head out to a park or the nearest woods and go for a stroll. Sit by a stream and listen to the birds or climb a tree and just hang out up there for a while. If you want, combine your exposure to nature with some of the other stress relieving tactics – exercise outside, read a book in a tree, or meditate on a log. Just be careful about number 8, depending on where you are that might lead to embarrassment and a night in jail.

  12. Call Home – I know, I know, you’re a big boy or girl. You don’t need your mommy. You might change your mind though once you see how much stress she can take off your shoulders. In a study on college aged girls researches found a ten minute call to their moms brought about a significant reduction in saliva cortisol. A quick call home to the folks may be just what you need to stop feeling like you’re going to rip all the hair out of your head.

    Of course, if you have a strained relationship with your parents this option may not be the best one for you. It goes without saying that you know your situation better than anyone, just don’t dismiss it as an option because you feel embarrassed.

  13. Eat a Small Piece of Dark Chocolate – A small piece. A small piece of dark chocolate can trigger all of the same good feelings as a round of hearty laughter or some good grins, as well as all the feel good chemicals that come along with it. Cocoa also has a positive effect on blood pressure and HDL levels, so there’s an added bonus there. The important thing is to not go overboard. A small piece of dark chocolate is good for you, an entire bag of dark chocolate is not good for you. Especially if you use your stress to justify tearing through one each night. Keep it in moderation.

  14. Vent to Someone – If screaming out profanity isn’t really your thing, you can always verbally vent to someone else. Being able to just unload on someone who cares and is patient enough to listen not only helps by providing a comforting social experience where you bond even more closely with a friend or loved one, but also allows you to openly examine what’s stressing you and get all of the internalized pressures off your chest.

    Sharing your burdens with someone willing to help you with them is a huge relief, but make sure to actually vent to someone willing to share your burdens. It can be even more disheartening to open up to someone about how stressed out you are only to have them react dismissively or negatively. You know which people in your life you can open up to, so pick the right one.

  15. Breathe – Breathing is an incredible physiological process. Deep calming breaths have a profound ability to calm the mind, slow down your heart rate and bring clarity of thought. It’s why a focus on deep breathing is such a key element to many forms of meditation. You don’t need to meditate to use breathing as a stress relief technique (although, seriously, you should try meditation), you just need to take a second to take a nice deep breath through your nose and out your mouth.

    Focus on breathing from your diaphragm. That means when you take a nice deep breath instead of your shoulders coming up, your belly should push out and down. This allows you to get a much bigger, deeper breath which means more oxygen. More oxygen means a happier, calmer and more focused brain. That means less stress.

  16. Get a Massage – Again, if I need to explain to you why this is a good option for how to de-stress, you are way too far gone for me to help. Go on out and treat yourself to a professional massage every now and then if you have to – some people swear by it. A better option in my opinion is to trade massages with your significant other. Not only are the massages a good way to relieve stress and increase intimacy, they tend to lead to another stress relief option I mentioned previously.

  17. Make a List of Positives – Being able to take what’s stressing you and get it out of your system, either verbally or through physical exertion, is a common thread running throughout many of these stress relieving tactics. That’s because it works. Another equally good option is to sit down and make a physical list of all the good or positive things in your life.

    There’s something psychologically powerful about making physical lists. While you can certainly type it, I really do think getting a pen and paper and writing by hand is a much more powerful exercise. Take some time and do it mindfully, write down as many good things in your life as you possibly can. By the end I guarantee you’ll feel a lot less stressed and a lot more grateful.

  18. Smell Something Really Good – Out of all the senses, scent is the most strongly linked to memory and emotional response in our brains. You can use this to your advantage by finding a particular scent that reminds you of something you love, be it home, the smell of your favorite flower or a special fragrance your significant other wears, and exposing yourself to it when you really need to relax.

    If you don’t have any smells ingrained in your mind as particularly calming or pleasant you can make one. Pick a unique scent, lavender works well and so does incense as they’re easily available and very unique. Once you have your scent every time you employ one of the other stress relieving techniques fill the room with it first. Before long just exposing yourself to the scent will trigger the same emotional response as the calming activities you normally do with it.

  19. Visualize Something Happy and Calming – While visualizations aren’t quite as powerful as scent for triggering an emotional or memory response, they’re still pretty strong. It’s why we employ visualizations to enhance our memories to encode a lot of new information very quickly.

    In this case, we want to use our visualizations to recall a happy or serene moment rather than to encode new information with a memory hook. Sit somewhere comfortable, close your eyes, take a nice deep breath and picture your happy place. I know it sounds cliched and silly, but it really does work.

  20. Stretch – Stretching is a good idea for a lot of reasons, but the one we’re concerned about here is the relaxing effect it has. Most people already stretch instinctively when they’re trying to relax. You can use the natural physiological response from stretching to lower your stress levels and increase your flexibility a little bit all at the same time.

    While I’m of the opinion you should already have a good flexibility routine in place, you don’t need one to use stretches to relax. Just set aside 5 to 10 minutes either right when you wake up, right after a workout (not before) or right before bed to do a couple easy stretches. If you want to get a little more advanced, try some nice slow yoga. (Though you should avoid hot yoga at all costs).

I’m certain there are lots more quick and effective ways to reduce stress, but these were the first ones to come to mind. If you can think of any others or have some that have worked particularly well for you in the past, share them in the comments! We’re all stressed out and I guarantee they’ll be appreciated.

Photo Credit: H.koppdelaney

How to Not Suck at Evaluating Claims

From the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary by Double--M

You don’t need all this stuff to properly evaluate the veracity of a claim.

Most people really suck at evaluating claims.

It’s not their fault – to be honest at least in the U.S. very little in our society or education systems properly prepares us to evaluate claims and make proper reason-based decisions.

The good news is, even if you’ve been awful at it your entire life, you can easily learn how to evaluate claims properly by starting to use some basic guidelines.

But first, why is it even important to have this skill?

Sic Semper in Excretia Sumus, Solum Profundum Variat.

It is staggering at times just how much bullshit there is out there – even more staggering is how willing people are in general to accept it.

Whether it’s Deepak Chopra making rambling, nonsensical claims about quantum mechanics, Dr. Oz touting the latest scientifically unsupported miracle health fad or a pop up ad yelling to you about a guy who “language professors hate” because he came up with the secret formula for easy language acquisition – there are a lot of people asking you to believe a lot of claims out there.

Some of these claims are legitimate, others are not. When the consequences of failing to properly evaluate a claim can range from something mildly annoying like wasting $10 to something dire like serious injury or death it’s vital to separate out the two as best as we possibly can.

While this skill applies across the board to essentially all aspects of life due to the manner in which we’re assaulted with information and advertisements on a daily basis I think it’s extra important for those interested in fitness and looking to improve their health because the fields of health, fitness & nutrition are some of the most saturated with unsupported and potentially dangerous claims.

So what are some easy ways to begin separating out the claims you should probably accept from those you probably shouldn’t?

The Bullshit Detection Kit

I have to give credit to the incomparable Carl Sagan and his excellent book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark for the concept of a bullshit detection kit (sometimes also called the baloney detection kit). The idea is to have a set of tools that can be easily applied to new claims that you come across to help you determine if they are likely to be true or not. Our bullshit detection kit differs a little from his, but the concepts are the same.

A note on the word ‘true’ – ‘True’ here means supported by reality. If you’re the kind of person who vociferously claims there is no objective truth and that everyone determines their own equally viable personal truth I invite you to decide gravity is a subjective truth and step out of a second story window.

The bullshit detection kit is in no way infallible, but it can offer a little bit of guidance in the right direction. As we unpack our kit we’ll apply each piece to a fitness claim that was made recently enough to still be in memory but far enough back that it’s been solidly disproven – the efficacy of power bands.

So let’s get to work.

  • Who’s Making the Claim – The first thing to look at when evaluating a claim is who’s making it and with that do they benefit directly from acceptance of this claim. In other words, if the only people making the claim are the manufacturers and sellers of a product then that claim should be more suspect than one independently verified by a source with nothing to gain by verifying that claim.

    In the case of power bands while companies made claims that the efficacy of their bands was scientifically demonstrable, they never actually released any studies or proof that didn’t come from a place funded entirely by the company that sold them. When the only people making the claim are the people trying to sell the claim to you and they’re only backed up by their own non-independently verified research, you should be suspicious.

  • Has the Claim Been Tested Properly – Whenever possible you should always look for a properly controlled double-blind study on whatever claim you’re evaluating. A proper double-blind study with a control group does the best job of guaranteeing that any confounding factors (variables that affect the outcome of the test and obscure the validity of the claim) are removed and only the claim is being tested.

    Anecdotal evidence or evidence from personal experience is insufficient – people are very easily deceived and we’re always the best at deceiving ourselves. Someone may tell you that a claim is true, someone may tell you that something worked for them, they may even genuinely believe what they’re telling you but the claim still may be false.

    It’s equally important that the claim be tested properly because then other independent testers with no personal stake in the outcome of the testing can run the same test. If they come to the same conclusions and get the same results then that lends credibility to the truth of the claim. If not, either something was done improperly in the testing or the claim is more likely to be false.

    Many power band companies used a kinesthetic trick where they would put the band on you and tug on your arm. You would appear to be much stronger with the band on and, hopefully for the sales person, be so impressed by this ‘proof’ that you’d drop $50 or so on a 10 cent piece of rubber and tin foil. When these same products were put to a double-blind study wherein the participants didn’t know if they had the band on or not, there was absolutely zero effect.

  • Is There Definite Causation – The post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) fallacy is a common misstep in the evaluation of the truth of claims. It’s due to the tendency of people to conflate correlation and causation – or just to see causation where there isn’t any.

    A good example might be that you have a headache. You take two aspirin and spin around ten times. Your headache goes away, but which actually cured you? This can even happen sans the aspirin since sometimes headaches just go away. You might spin around ten times and your headache disappears, but did the spinning actually help or did the headache just go away on its own or for another reason.

    Another good example might be the fact that there’s a strong correlation between having black hair and eating a diet high in rice. Does that mean that having black hair makes you more likely to eat rice or that eating rice makes you more likely to have black hair? Clearly not – it just happens that black hair is genetically more common in Asia and agriculturally rice is a staple food there.

    In the case of power bands they claimed that big name athletes that used them were performing better in games and pointed to statistics of professional athletes who had bought into their marketing to back it up. Even though they pointed to improvements in the performance of these athletes it still didn’t prove that the bracelet itself was having any actual effect.

  • Does the Claimant Rely on Arguments from Authority or other Fallacies – A common tactic for puffing up a claim with little actual substance behind it is the argument from authority. The argument from authority is essentially the argument that because someone smart or important says it’s true, it must be true.

    While in certain cases the support of a knowledgeable expert can add credence to a claim – for example a respected astrophysicist agreeing with a claim about astrophysics – it should not be the sole reason for accepting it.

    Even if a ton of experts agree a claim is true, it may still not be. Even if everyone in the world agrees that a claim is true, it may still not be. A claim must stand on its own merits and not rely entirely on its acceptance by others.

    Power bands companies, either through genuinely convincing them or via large payments, secured the endorsements of a lot of pro athletes. This was a big selling point for most people who thought, “If NBA star X wears one it must work! I’ll buy one too!” Unfortunately for the consumer, just because someone else says something is true doesn’t actually mean it is.

There are a lot more ways people who make false claims will try to convince you of there veracity and many more ways to help sort out the true from the false – but this will at least get you started. If you have any other tips you think people should keep in mind in order to not suck so bad at evaluating claims chime in and share them!

Photo Credit: Double–M

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