If I told you I have two simple tips that will give you more energy on less sleep and might even help keep you from getting sick, would you be interested? What if I told you it is all free?
I bet most of you would think “Snake oil…”
Nope. Read on.
Turning Point: On February 14, 2014, I worked a regular day – most of the morning at my desk then four hours of meetings in the afternoon – and then I rushed home to take my wife and girls out for a Valentine’s dinner. After the kids were asleep we shared a great bottle of Californian wine and watched a sappy romantic comedy on Netflix.
At bedtime I had recorded a measly 5737 steps.
It was my second day in a row below 10,000 and after a week sick in late January I’d had a whack of recent days that had missed my target.
In that moment I realized I needed a bigger goal. Something interesting enough to warrant attention and more than a little ridiculous (because that’s how I prefer most everything), but still achievable given the time constraints of a full-time desk job and a busy life with two little girls.
I quickly settled on what I thought would be a fun year-long “mini-quest”.
Goal: 10,000 Fitbit steps a day, everyday for a year. Zero days under 10,000.
I’ve averaged over 10K steps per day since I started with Fitbit in March 2012, but my activity was quite variable. In true weekend warrior fashion I generally had a big 20-30K day on either Saturday or Sunday to make up for 2-3 low step days during the week.
My goal was to re-define the “lazy day” and really not to change anything at the upper end.
Result: Mission accomplished!
I am surprised to admit it actually doesn’t feel like it was much of a quest at all. It was exceptionally easy. There were no frantic late evening exercise sessions required. While aiming for 10,000 steps per day I found overshooting was inevitable. I actually had only a handful of days under 11,00 steps (16 to be exact).
Two Lessons Learned: I learned this goal could be easily accomplished with two simple adjustments, that I believe almost everyone can build into their life:
1. Build activity into your morning routine: I sit all day at work. If I do the minimum activity required – drop the kids at school, work, eat in my office and then drive home – I will be at about 1800-2000 steps at dinner. It’s daunting to try to fit in over 8000 steps in a few hours after work. Some evenings you are burnt out and just need to relax.
To avoid forcing myself into evening workouts, I committed to wake up a little earlier to exercise before breakfast (and before the kids get up). I’ll admit I have an advantage – I bought an exercise bike a couple years ago to rehab an ACL injury and it is very convenient to have something at home for dark winter days.
Most exercise bikes gather dust. I rode mine 274 times last year (stats tracked via RunKeeper), virtually always between 6:00-6:40am. This was less of an adjustment than it sounds. I just quit hitting snooze. Previously I would lay there trying to squeeze in just a few more minutes of sleep, waiting for my wife to clear the bathroom before I would shuffle to the shower. I cut that out and got moving. While my Fitbit One isn’t perfect for cycling (only 1 step per full revolution) it did kickstart my day. To mix things up sometimes I went for a run or to the local community centre gym instead.
I now generally arrive at work with 4500-5000 steps, about halfway to my goal by 8am.
2. Plan your steps: With a desk job I need find opportunities to add steps and this takes a bit of planning. Generally I tried to plan at least a day in advance. If I knew my evening would be jam packed I might get up a few minutes earlier to add to my morning activity. I also found I could generally get away for a few minutes for a quick walk. At my regular pace a 16 minute mid-day walk not only got me 2000 extra steps, but also kept me alert for the afternoon and was often all I needed to reach my goal.
By planning out where I would get my steps I had no trouble finding opportunities to squeeze in a few more.
Benefits: I haven’t been sick in over a year, despite intentionally sleeping less. Not a cough or sore throat. Everyone else in the house has been sick at least once and I’ve managed to avoid it every time. I compare that to an earlier period in life when I worked full-time, did an MBA, had a newborn and paid almost no attention to exercise. In that two years I felt like I was sick every month or two. I’m not trying to claim that if you exercise enough you’ll never get sick but it does feel like there is a correlation.
Despite less sleep I also feel far more awake in the morning and I generally have way more energy throughout the day. The increase in energy then makes me crave a little more activity in the evenings. It’s a positive multiplier: More exercise leads to more energy, which makes me want to exercise more.
I’ll admit to some tired/lazy days but I found I could still use the exercise bike in the morning and just lighten the workload a bit and then simultaneously use the time (and my iPad) to plan my day, clean out my email and read or watch the news.
Weight loss wasn’t my goal, but you might assume it was also a benefit. That was not the case. My Fitbit Aria wifi scale tells me I am essentially the same weight now as a year ago. I can track this to my diet. While I exercise more, I also logged more calories on my food tracking app (myfitnesspal) so the net impact on my weight was basically a wash.
Over the year I actually came to the conclusion that the bar was set too low and 10,000 steps everyday started to feel too easy. I decided to up the ante and move to something tougher: 100,000 step weeks. I’ve managed to keep up that goal since mid-September and have learned that as long as I can still find one big day a week it is fairly easy to achieve.
Downside: I’m now a step junky and I tend to skip exercises – fun exercises – that don’t increase my step count. I am less inclined to go swimming as my Fitbit is not waterproof and lengths get no steps. Same goes for the rowing machine at the gym. These are great exercises but I have become too obsessed with step count.
Summary Stats: I finished the year just shy of 6 million steps (5,968,887 to be exact) and my daily average increased from 12,363 to 16,353, a whopping 32.3% year over year increase. The big change was confined almost entirely to the complete elimination of inactive days. My lowest step days was 10,253 versus 1,785 in the previous year. In fact I had 127 days less than 10,000 in the year prior to setting my goal and I cut that down to zero.
The chart below captures step count in 1000 step buckets and shows my biggest days weren’t bigger or even much more frequent – the goal was to keep constantly moving to eliminate the low end of the scale.
Click Chart to Expand
Today I learned:
1. Birthday candles: I always wondered at what age people give up trying to add the correct number of candles to your birthday cake. Today I learned that age is 37, and there is a very simple reason for it: Economics.
Everything up to 36 requires only one box of candles. It costs the same to decorate a cake for my 2 year as it does for my 4 year old, or for that matter for my wife.
But not for me.
As of today I am officially a 2 box’er. In a monetary sense at least it just isn’t worth it.
2. Kids: Sitting at the table tonight eating a 36-candle cake (lovingly made by my wife and kids) it occured to me that I enjoy my birthday now far more than I did a few years ago. You might expect that the reverse would be true. I am getting to an age where people start to worry about the number, but that doesn’t bother me. 37 is no worse to me than 35 or even 25 as far as I am concerned.
It is more that before kids I just didn’t pay much attention to birthdays. Now I can’t avoid them. At any moment in time the kids can spout off the next three birthdays in our extended family, and the number of sleeps to the next one. They love birthdays and a celebration is required. What I saw as just another day is to them a very, very big day. I don’t think they could even comprehend the possibility that I might not have agreed with them.
I think a lot of adults are like me. We go on day by day and don’t pay much attention to things like our birthday. Not everyone is like that though – I work with a few people that take a vacation day on their birthday every year. I always considered it kind of silly – why waste vacation day on a rainy Tuesday in November? -I am now just starting to get it. My kids have helped teach me that I need to rethink my position. It can be a good day, and if I want it can be a great day.
Time to open a nice bottle of wine.
Today I learned:
1. Blueberry Yogurt: My kids love yogurt. We have to buy in bulk to keep up with their appetites. They go through strawberry, vanilla and raspberry at an insatiable pace.
The problem is bulk packs all come with 25% blueberry flavour.They love blueberries but they hate blueberry yogurt.
Faced with an ever growing stash of the stuff I have two options: Eat it or waste it.
I just can’t bring myself to throw it out, so day after day I eat more blueberry yogurt. I love blueberries and there was a time in my life that a nice bowl of blueberry yogurt was appealing. That time has passed. At this point I hate the stuff. Can’t stand it. But day after day I eat more blueberry yogurt.
It occurred to me today, as I choked down another spoonful at breakfast, that life as a dad can be summed up in a bowl of blueberry yogurt: Ultimately what is in their bowls is more important to me than what is in mine. I know I am not alone in martyrdom. At my brother’s place it’s the leftover food. I haven’t seen the guy eat an entire meal from his own plate in 8 years. I think he feeds himself entirely off leftover scraps on the plates of his 4 kids. That’s life. We’re dads. That just what we do.
2. The Power of Suggestion: As I peered into my daughter’s dresser this morning to help her pick out clothes I noticed something odd in the corner of the drawer. Odd but not unexpected. With two little kids you learn that something odd is always going to be there. I actually check spots like this frequently to reclaim items like the whisk, TV remote or one of my shoes.
With today’s find I just couldn’t resist the overwhelming desire to mess with the kid.
Casually I laid out her clothes – pink socks, monkey shirt, striped pants – all typical 4 year-old garb. On top of the pile I added the piece de resistance: Ski Goggles.
She looked at me a little funny, but she didn’t say anything. She certainly didn’t object. The goggles actually went on first, making it tough to execute the shirt phase in our daily dressing drama, and 2 minutes later she was at the table laughing, sucking back yogurt and just generally looking at life through rose-coloured goggles. When I left for work she was still wearing them.
My wife walked her to daycare and apparently she was pleased to have them on – they kept the rain out of her eyes. The kid was still wearing them when my wife left for work too.
8.5 hours later when we returned to pick her up? Still on.
It all got me thinking about the impact we can have on our kids, and potentially on just about anyone, with just a subtle suggestion. I didn’t ask her to wear the goggles. I just put the idea in her head and she ran with it. She got to be the centre of attention. People around her got a smile or two. Everybody is happy. Win-win.
The power of suggestion is huge with little ones. Kids run with whatever tools you give them. Leave a few sheets of paper and some crayons on the table and within minutes you will find them drawing. If we leave out cookies they will eat them. Put out grapes instead and they will be gone, no questions asked. We can get them to do pretty much anything. Except eat blueberry yogurt.
When I kicked off the two things project I set a simple goal: Learn two things a day and blog about them for 66 straight days.
This post marks my achievement of that goal. To celebrate the accomplishment, for today only, I will go past my usual two things to reflect on what I have learned from the experience and to discuss next steps for this blog.
Today I learned:
1. Be Consistent: Practice, practice, practice. I am not saying practice made me perfect, but it made me better. Looking at my early posts, one thing is clear. I wasn’t very good. With practice, I feel like I got better, or at the very least I got more confident. This led me to take more risks in my writing and at the very least helped me feel better about what I was doing.
2. Be Experimental: The most fun I had came out of trying new things. Throwing Smurf into a conversation and finding enlightenment in the Honey Badger are just two of the things I would not have done without the blog experiment. As well, Email Free Day, The Streaming Diet and The Helping List have all improved my life in some small way. Life gets better when you take a few risks and try new things.
3. Be an Artist: I didn’t need to buy brushes and an easel to create art, and the energy that flowed out of committing to create something new from nothing everyday felt amazing.
My behaviour also changed unexpected ways. One impact was in how I consume things. After two months of blogging, Facebook is basically dead to me. It’s an exaggeration of course, but there is an aspect of truth to it. My consumption of media has shifted 180 degrees, moving away from passive sources and on to more active or creative forms. I was a classic Facebook lurker, visiting the site 3 to 5 times a day for several minutes just to see what other people were up to. Now I rarely visit the site – 1 to 2 times per week at most – and typically to communicate with a friend through messaging services. Instead, I now spend my internet-time reviewing sites that inspire learning and creativity.
4. Be fearless: This is easier said than done, and in truth it was an unintended result rather than an initial goal. When I launched the blog I was clearly fearful, and the emotion did not dissipate quickly. In fact, when it disappeared on day 24 I made a note of it. It was then that I realized my self-talk had shifted from “What am I going to write about today?” to “What do I get to write about today?” My post that day focussed on emotion, and at that point I finally felt fearless. Day 24 was also the first time I got up the courage to “publicize” what I was doing to people I actually know too – that is when I first referenced the blog on my personal twitter account (@darrenmcknight) and put up a link on my personal website (darrenmcknight.com). The lesson for me? Do something 23 times and it will finally get easier.
At the outset I found I immediately listened more closely. This in itself was a good thing, but my motivation initially wrong. At first I was trying to find a “nugget” in my conversations that I could write about. Eventually this faded away and I simply felt more engaged. Once I stopped looking for things to learn it was easy to focus on just listening. That’s when I started to find true nuggets.
All in all, this was a planned exercise in introspection and from my perspective it has gone very, very well. So well in fact that, goal accomplished, it is time to change things up a bit…
What’s next for two things I learned today?
The journey is not over, but the pace of blog posts is changing. I will still endeavour to learn and record two things every day, but from here on out I only plan to post a new blog piece when I feel the lessons learned contain ideas that are so “big” in my journey that I should share them with the world.
How often will that be? I really have no idea, and you will notice that I make no attempt to define “big.”
I will say this though: I have thoroughly enjoyed the self-reflection and creative outlet this blog has added to my life. With that in mind, some days big might be huge and some days it might be pretty small. Hopefully, at least, big will be entertaining…
Today I learned:
1. Smurf’ing Through Life: Since my initial Smurf-based post, I have been curious if other people speak “Smurf” as well as my four year-old. To test this out, and simultaneously amuse myself, I decided to try an experiment.
The plan: Casually replace a verb with the word “smurf” in a conversation and observe the reaction.
- Test #1 – Starbucks: “Can you smurf me a grande non-fat latte please?”
- Test #2 – indepedent sandwich shop: “I’ll have a turkey sandwich, and can you smurf me a chocolate chip cookie too please?”
The outcome: Other than getting exactly what I asked for, I noticed no reaction at all. People understood what I wanted, and were not phased by phrasing.
This raised a few questions: Were they even paying attention? Were the scenarios so routine they were only listening for key words? If yes to either of those, what does it say about how they are approaching their jobs and their lives?
This taught me a great lesson in being present and listening to what someone says rather than just listening for what I expect them to say. After all, what kind of life are you living if you just smurf your way through it?
2. An Epiphany in the Shower – Insights into Disability:
This section of the post requires a disclaimer. I am not disabled and in no way do I intend to offend anyone by trying to draw a parallel between my recovery from a relatively minor knee injury with related surgery and any permanent disability. It is simply that two weeks of dealing with limited function and mobility has taught me a few lessons about accessibility and treatment by others.
It hit me in the shower this morning.
I hate baths.
More specifically, I hate being forced to take baths. They are tolerable when you want one, but not when you need one. I’ve been taking baths for 2 weeks due to an inability to stand in the shower (and a restriction against getting incisions wet). As I enjoyed my first hot shower in what felt like forever it struck me that I simply didn’t want to get out.
This got me thinking about other things I have noticed in the last two weeks – things I would never notice if had no functional limitations. The lessons are interesting, and tell me a little about things I normally take for granted:
- Few people hold the door. I am on crutches. You can see me and hear me coming. In many cases you just passed me on the way to the door or elevator because I am so damn slow. You can see I don’t have a free hand. Why then won’t you do me the courtesy of holding the door? Obviously this is not true of everyone, but a lot of people – my guess is 15-20% – are either completely oblivious or just plain mean.
- Driving is awesome. The bus is terrible. Walking to the bus is worse and trying to do so on crutches is worse still. Cabs waste money. Waiting for rides from family and friends sucks. Being in control of when I come and go from places is a simple pleasure that I look forward to enjoying again soon.
- Carrying things kicks butt. If this was going to go on much longer I think I would invest in a jacket with about 100 flexible pockets that I could stuff full of everything I would need for the next 12 hours.
- Rain is the enemy. It makes paths – particularly those made of marble – into a beautiful and gleaming death trap. Plus, with crutches you can’t carry an umbrella.
- Snow and ice are the enemy’s evil siblings. A couple inches of snow and I was a prisoner in my own home. My neighbour - a very nice guy – did a great job clearing my path and sidewalk without being asked, but I was still not able to go out because a good chunk of the rest of the world doesn’t take the same care to make the walkways clear and safe. My guess is these are the same 15-20% of people referenced above.
My hat is off to both to those who need a bit of help to get by everyday, and those who selflessly help them. Two weeks of it was difficult to endure. A lifetime would be much harder to accept. Keep your head held high, and don’t worry I’ll get the door, even if the other guy won’t.
Today I learned:
2. The Helping List: As my surgical recovery continues I am still stuck on crutches, meaning my ability to carry things remains significantly impaired. Our 4-year old has really stepped up to the plate as “daddy’s little helper,” completing all sorts of tasks she would not normally take on. She has done this willingly, and she is very proud of herself for being able to help out.
The other night at bed time we sat down and reviewed all the things she had done to help out that day. As we talked, I wrote out “The Helping List” on a piece of paper. Even though she can’t read yet she was absolutely beaming as the list grew longer. This has continued for a couple days, and she is now excited about trying to do more and more to add to her list.
The thing to keep in mind here is this: Other than hugs and encouragement I have offered no reward. She doesn’t get anything tangible for all the help. The only thing she gets is the list itself, and how it makes her feel.
This got me thinking about how I interact with other people, and how helpful I am to family, friends, colleagues and strangers throughout the day.
If I knew I would be sitting down at the end of the day with someone to recap and write down all the good things I had done for other people throughout the day, would it change my behaviour? I’d love to say no – I am perfect already – but obviously that is completely false. There is no question it would change my behaviour, and there is no question it would make both my life and the lives of others better. The only question then, is why not do it?