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
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:
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?
Today’s two things come via links courtesy of Daniel Pink. His book Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – has been sitting near my bed for months. Now that I see all the great content on his site and twitter account (@danielpink), I might just be motivated enough to move it up in the queue.
Today I learned:
1. The Streaming Diet:
“Personal Productivity is the new Dieting”
– Daniel Pink
The central concept proposed (linked below) is that information, much like our caloric options, has proliferated to such an extent than an entirely new industry has been created to help us manage the issue. Essentially, he suggests we pile too much information on our plates now, in the same way we started to pile too much food on our plates decades ago.
A useful analogy, in my opinion, and a concerning one.
Despite a multi-billion dollar diet industry, collectively we clearly haven’t figured out food. Obesity rates continue to climb, particularly in kids.
Does the similarity between food and information mean one day ADHD will be the new Diabetes? It’s been 72 years since McDonald’s was founded and we haven’t yet figured out how to deal with the food in front of us. Certainly in the 6 years since Twitter launched the stream of cool stuff coming at us has simultaneously multiplied and become more difficult to say no to. I have never been great at turning down the chance to super-size my value meal. I am no better at avoiding the seduction of another glance at Twitter, email, RSS feeds…the list goes on.
That all said, I actually had some personal success with dieting through 2011. My breakthrough came when I translated a trick that had helped me manage a family with two kids, full-time work and a part-time MBA program for 2.5 years. The solution was simple: meticulous planning, diarizing and recording of everything on my calendar. In translating the idea to food this meant keeping a diary of all food intake via an app on my phone. I set no goals or dietary restrictions, but found the simple act of keeping track kept me honest and motivated. Personal drive immediately and drastically improved the quality and volume of what I consumed. In 9 months I lost about 20% of my body weight – a drastic improvement with almost zero effort.
It all makes me wonder: Could the same “diet” concept translate to managing a information overload?
This seems to me a worthy experiment. So, here is my plan:
For one week I will keep a simple but meticulous checklist recording every time I do the following things:
- Check my work inbox
- Check personal email
- Review my Twitter feed
- Navigate to Google Reader
- Click into Google + (accidently of course, because why else would you visit a ghost town every day)
- Check out my Facebook timeline
If, after a week, the idea seems manageable and promising I will continue my checklist in hopes of seeing if my behaviour changes over time. My working title is The Streaming Diet and March 1 (tomorrow) sounds like a natural place to start.
Link to Daniel Pink: How to Say No…Especially to Things you Want to Do
2. Saved by the Pomodoro? Keeping on task is a problem for just about everybody. If you don’t have issues with it, you probably quit reading this post somewhere in #1 above.
The question is, can a Pomodoro save us from ourselves?
Pomodoro is italian for Tomato, and apparently the shape of most simple timers in Italy, so in North America this idea might gain wider appeal as the Egg Technique (though it would not have the same marketing appeal).
The concept, via pomodorotechnique.com is simple:
- Choose a task to be accomplished
- Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes
- Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper
- Take a short break (5 minutes is OK)
- Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break
I find the concept appealing in its simplicity. I also find it appealing in that there is an app for it.
I’ve been an advocate of mini-breaks for years and I used them incessantly while studying to artificially “chunk” my progress. I like the concept for work too, due to the natural tendency to allow interruptions – phone, email, open-door – to impact my ability to buckle down and keep me from critical tasks for the day.
This seems like another worthy experiment for me. I have a sense that the short time blocks might simultaneously make me more productive, and help me with The Streaming Diet that starts tomorrow.
Time to go shopping in the app store.
Link to the inspiration for this post, Daniel Pink: Can a tomato make you more productive?
Link to the “cheat sheet” on pomodortechnique.com
Today I learned:
1. Leave ’em be:
Today was my first day back in the office after a week at home recovering from surgery. As I sat down with different people on the team through the day one thing became abundantly clear: Everything was under control. This didn’t come as a surprise mind you, but it is good to learn that your expectations have been met, or exceeded. It reminded me of a great quote on hiring and team building:
“Hire people who are better than you are, then leave them alone to get on with it.”
2. What I learned from the Honey Badger: With 39+ million hits on You Tube, most people have seen the hilarious Honey Badger video (linked below). I’ve been exposed to it a number of times, but always from the perspective of humour. When the link crossed my path again today I saw an opportunity to view it in a different light.
Can we learn anything about business from the Honey Badger? It turns out we can.
For me, there are three key lessons:
1. Be fierce:
“The most fearless animal in the animal kingdom. It really doesn’t give a sh*t. “
The Honey Badger knows what he wants, and he goes after it. In his case the prize is a treasured Cobra and maybe a taste of larvae. For you it may be additional responsibilities, a new contract or just a chance to bend the bosses ear. Whether your goals are personal or career driven, it pays to clearly identify what you are after and then be fierce in your pursuit.
2. Be relentless:
“It’s getting stung like a thousand times. It doesn’t care.”
The Honey Badger takes its problems in stride. Stung by a swarm of bees? Bit by a cobra? Day to day, hopefully at least, you are not likely to be taken down by a cobra, but other pitfalls and speed bumps are all around us. Downsizing? Negotiations falling apart? Crappy boss? We have problems every day. And we choose our own response. Take your licks, get back up and continue driving forward with both eyes squarely on your prize.
3. Accept pursuit:
“The Honey Badger does all the work, while these other animals just pick up the scraps.”
You wouldn’t surround yourself with Jackals by choice, but they are a sign you are doing something right. In business the jackals will multiply in the good times. Don’t be concerned when they are hanging around. Be concerned when they aren’t.
I should note, I chose a business angle to this post, partly because I googled the subject and it turns out I am not the only person with a slightly odd sense of humour who thinks we can learn something from the Honey Badger. I actually found a couple other blog posts referencing personal learnings and life lessons from the Honey Badger. These are the two best I found:
- In Pursuit of Happiness – 3 Things We Should Learn from the Honey Badger
- Scenes of Life – 5 Life Lessons from the Honey Badger (because he don’t care)
As well, for those of you who would prefer to see the Honey Badger video in the light context that I am sure it was originally intended, I apologize. Here is a link to another hilarious video that I promise not to analyze and ruin for you. There is certainly nothing to learn from it, other than the fact is it an obvious reminder for self-censorship.
Today I learned:
1. I’ll never be a wine writer: I fancy myself as a bit of an oenophile – my expertise may be questionable, but it is improving and I at least approach the subject with a relentless enthusiasm to which the empties in my garage can attest.
That is why I am saddened to admit I would never make it as a wine writer.
This lesson hit me today, like the feeling you get after quaffing too much (or really any) Yellowtail, as I read this month’s edition of Ask an Oenophile in BC Business Magazine. One quote sealed it for me:
Everybody should drink more Beaujolais. It’s romantic, it’s sexy, it’s lyrical, it’s ethereal. Really good Beaujolais smells like you just made out with your first love in a field of fresh strawberries – there’s a smell of wet earth, a little sweat, ripe strawberries…This wine, especially the 2009 vintage, has this incredible Audrey Hepburn character. It’s lithe, but there is this enormous charm and depth behind it all.
I can’t talk like that.
More precisely, I won’t talk like that.
I could learn, but I need to be able to enjoy a nice bottle of Syrah and then respect myself in the morning.
2. Raising Successful Kids: I came across a thought-provoking blog post today about 5 Unusual Ways to Raise Successful Children (link below).
Several interesting points are made – I think there could be merit to the concept of giving incentive to learn from the masters. I particularly like one of the responses to the post which included a suggestion kids could learn alot from Ted videos. This seems like a viable way to introduce new ideas and it may be worthy of experimentation with our oldest daughter. With the recent explosion of TedxKids events, I expect age appropriate content may be more and more available, making this idea quite tangible.
The point I really keyed in on though was the final one in the article – teach kids to be powerful.
This led me to reflect on our approach to parenting. As the author recommends, we try to avoid any form of negative self-talk. We encourage the kids to avoid expressing actions in terms of accomplishment (i.e. “I am good at riding my bike,” or “I can’t tie my shoes.”) and instead we ask them to frame everything around the idea of practice. The thought is that this will ensure our kids understand that if they set a goal and then put in the time and effort, eventually they will be able to do whatever they want.
For example, when my daughter learned to stand up on skates, we congratulated her and then we talked about how the first time she tried she was not able to get up, but she practiced (by doing x, y, and z) and she gradually got better, to the point she was able to do it by herself. The idea is to re-enforce the concept that it doesn’t matter what you can or can’t do, it only matters what you are willing to put the time in to learn.
Thinking back now, this approach seems to be working.
Our oldest daughter now tends to frame her comments around the process of learning as the accomplishment, rather than the activity itself. We don’t hear things like, “Mommy, I cut my fish!” but rather she says “Mommy, I learned to use my knife!” Hopefully in the long run this type of framing goes a long way to helping our kids understand that setting goals and practicing will allow them to do anything they want.
Link to the original blog post referenced above: 5 Unusual Ways to Raise Successful Children.