My Fitbit Quest to Eliminate Lazy Days

Isnake-oilf 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.Fitbit-10000-Steps

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:

http://sheilarobinsonfitness.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/quick-morning-workout-morning.jpg

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.http://shontejtaylor.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/bigstock-Time-To-Plan-43334488.jpg

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

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The Streaming Diet, plus Saved by the Pomodoro?

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:

  1. Choose a task to be accomplished
  2. Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper
  4. Take a short break (5 minutes is OK)
  5. 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.

Screenshot from ITunes Canada

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


Disney Day 1: Leapfrogging Technology and It’s (Not) a Small World After All

My quest to learn two things a day, and to blog about it for the first 66 straight days, has moved on the road for a short period. Expect a few travel and/or Disney related posts over the coming days. I apologize upfront as the already scattered theme to this blog could get even less obvious in the coming days.

Today I learned:

1. Leapfrogging technology:  We headed south this morning to visit with Mickey & friends in Anaheim.  On the flight I was immediately pleased to see personal seat-back TV’s on what I assumed was a bare-bones carrier.  The novelty wore off quickly though when I realized it didn’t matter for my family. With a laptop, iPad and smartphone (along with a few old school colouring books, newspapers and magazines) we brought enough entertainment for the whole family. And we were not alone.

I took a walk up and down the aisle halfway through the flight and noticed two things:

  • Everyone was awake
  • No one was watching the TV. Not one person in the 15 rows (with 5-6 people in each row) all the way to the back.

From this you should take-away two things:

  • There were only 15 rows to the back. I clearly fly coach.
  • The seat-back TV, a relative youngster, has already been rendered virtually useless.

In my quick little survey of about 80 people I counted 12 tablets, 17 laptops and 2 smartphones being used, and keep in mind many of those devices were being shared. Several were being watched by 3 children at once. The rest of the people were reading, eating or sitting quietly. No one was plugged in to the seat-back entertainment system.

What should this tell us?

At least for short-haul flights – ours was 2 hours 40 minutes – it would be smarter for airlines to focus on services that supplement the devices people want to use. Wifi, for example, would probably have had takers. It would have added value to me. A Netflix-like service that allowed a pay-per-view option on my device might even get a bit of uptake.

My take way is clear. Adding more seat-back TV’s is like stringing telephone wire in China. There is no point. Airlines need to find a way to monetize the technology we already bring in our carry-ons, rather than trying to provide their own hardware. Without any real analysis I have to assume this approach would be cheaper and offer better margins. If they aren’t installed already I would leapfrog the seat-back TV and move on to the next wave.

2. It’s (not) a small world after all:  Every time I travel to America I need to fight the holier than though attitude that seems to kick in. Obviously I keep travelling here because there are so many cool things to see and do. Now, disclaimer aside…

Just about every Canadian will tell you that as soon as you cross the border the world just seems bigger in every dimension. Particulalry in waistline. I came across one tidbit today that seems timely and hits the point home.  One of Disneyland’s most famous attractions, It’s a Small World, was renovated in 2009. According to “The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland, 2012 Edition” p. 240, one of the reasons for this is the waterway needed to be dug deeper to “accomodate today’s heavier guests.”

There is something oddly appropriate about people today being too big for It’s a Small World. How far we’ve come in 50 years.


20 Year Reunion and Fear the Facebook Timeline

Today I learned:

1. 20 Year Reunion: The first thought to run through my head when reading an email invite for my 20 year high school reunion is “I am old.”  The second thought is “Wow. When I graduated we didn’t even have email.”  This realization in turn brings me back to the first thought.

Once that all passes I then also learned my motivation to exercise is heightened by reunion invites, even if the event is a year away. This strikes me as a potential cure to obesity. If we all woke up to a daily reminder of a high school reunion coming up I bet our health and fitness would improve. This would be an interesting experiment…

2. Facebook Timeline: After my recent hiatus from FB, I returned to the site today to check out the new timeline feature, intrigued after reading about it in a Globe and Mail article. The author – somewhat horrified with the simplicity and ease with which any of his friends could track his history on the social network – first took to culling posts. When that was deemed too time consuming he took the dramatic step of deleting his account and starting fresh.

Intrigued by the pain this caused him I activited the timeline feature on my account today to check it out.

He was right. It is a bit scary to see, all in one place every photo, comment, status update, check-in…everything on a shiny little timeline.  You can track my life since I joined the network in 2007. Or at least you can track a few important events like the birth and milestones of kids, along with a about 200 status updates that seemed funny at the time.

At least everything is relatively benign. Nothing to delete, or at least it is not worth my time to bother.

I doubt the lack of true privacy on Facebook (despite using the most restrictive settings) is going to burn me in any future job search or attempt at public office. That is, unless the reviewer attacks my judgement based on what is clearly a poor understanding of how interested people will be in how much I liked my dinner on Aug 12, 2008, or how I played golf on July 1, 2007.

I do fear for people that actually post things that could hurt them in the long run though. I certainly don’t hire anyone these days without scoping out their presence online before making an offer. If I come across a Facebook timeline in this research it will wrap everything up in a pretty little package for me.