10 things I learned by getting in shape

Almost two years ago I decided to get in shape. I stuck with it, and kept showing up at the gym 3-5 times per week. Over time I gradually improved what I ate. I got stronger. I got fitter. I got leaner. You can see the results below.

I show you this not to brag (too much), but to show you that I worked hard, for a long period of time, and got results that a lot of people would be proud of. But oddly enough, the fitness gains are not as important as the side effects of getting in shape. The past two years have taught me 10 lessons that I want to keep in mind for the rest of my life. These are lessons that apply in all walks of life.

  1. Focus on process over outcomes. The scale changes day to day. Your weight fluctuates, as does your performance in the gym. Not every day is going to be a new personal best. Just keep showing up. Keep lifting and working hard. Keep eating right. Keep getting lots of sleep. The results will come.
  2. Results take time. You can’t just eat incredibly healthily and do one intense workout and suddenly be in shape. It takes a lot of time. You have to be patient (and refer back to point 1). Each workout and healthy meal is another brick in the wall that you’re building.
  3. Being a peak performer takes massive effort and sacrifice. There are people in my gym whose fitness is far, far beyond where I will ever get to.  They’ve made a choice to sacrifice a lot of things to achieve that, and I’m not willing to make that trade–and that’s OK. Because…
  4. There is always someone better than you. When I first started CrossFit, basically everyone was fitter than me. Now that I’m in decent shape, I’m in the middle of the pack. But I will never, ever be the fittest in the gym. So be it. All I can focus on is improving my own fitness.
  5. Tangible evidence of progress creates a powerful feedback loop. I’ve tracked my scores on some popular CrossFit workouts, as well as my one rep max lifts. I’ve also tracked my weight, and taken regular progress pictures. When you start to really see results, it’s incredibly motivating. It makes you want to do better.
  6. You will regret not having started sooner. When you do see results, your first thought is, “That’s awesome!” Your second thought is, “Fuck, imagine where I’d be if I’d started a year earlier.” And while there’s nothing you can do on this particular front, it’s worth bearing in mind the next time you’re considering taking up a new habit.
  7. Surround yourself with the right people. The reason I love CrossFit so much is the community: the people I work out with every week who want to get better, and who want me to get better as well. It’s like having a whole crowd of mentors and supportive colleagues. When you find people like that, you should keep them around.
  8. Changing your actions changes your identity. If you’ve ever thought, “I’m not the type of person that works out”, then you’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy, and you’ll never set foot in the gym. On the other hand, if you just lace up your trainers and work out once or twice a week, sooner or later you will start to think that you are the type of person that works out. Your actions shape your identity just as much as your identity shapes your actions.
  9. Sleep and diet are crucial. Obviously, this is true when it comes to getting in shape, but it’s also true for managing energy levels at work, staying mentally sharp, keeping your mood up, and so on. Sleep and diet literally feed into every single other aspect of life. You simply HAVE to get them dialled in.
  10. The hard work is its own reward. Some of the happiest moments of my days are immediately after a killer workout. The kind of workout that you first think you won’t be able to do. Where, halfway through, you think you can’t go on. Then you take a breath, and get back to work. You break it up into small chunks. You chip away, bit by bit. The end approaches. And then, all of a sudden, you’re done. And you look back at what you did with a sense of pride and accomplishment that makes it all worth it. Then you show up again the next day and do it all again.

As I said, these are lessons that you can apply to your career, relationships, finances, or any area where you want to improve. Starting today.

The Cold Shower Experiment

It’s good to have a little torture in your life.

Not a lot. Just a little bit. It helps cultivate toughness and resilience. And it turns out that if you do it right, torture can help you get in shape too.

For the past week or so, I’ve subjected myself to cold showers.

The first time, it was awful. I was gasping for air and lasted about 10 seconds before I got out.

The second time, it was a little better.

The third time, I really tried to control my breathing. I concentrated on controlling my breathing. I slowly counted to 20. And then I went for a little longer.

Today I did a minute, then switched back to hot water for 20 seconds, then switched back to cold for another minute.

It feels fantastic. Now it’s my favourite part of the day.

The benefits:

  • It wakes me up so much faster. I’m instantly alert and ready to face the day.
  • It cultivates resilience. I feel more able to take on challenges.
  • It cultivates mental toughness and discipline. This morning, I REALLY didn’t feel like having a cold shower, but I did it anyway, and for longer than I ever have done. Now I feel great.
  • I haven’t seen this too much yet, but there’s good evidence that it helps with fat loss.

That’s a lot of benefits in exchanging for 30-60 seconds of mild discomfort. Try it yourself — for at least a week — and see how you feel. My guess is that you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Force multipliers

I’m about to give you the keys to the kingdom.

There are certain cornerstone actions, routines and habits that, once in place, ripple out and have a positive effect in all areas of your life. Combined, they each reinforce each other, combining to have a huge impact on the quality of your life, and what you can accomplish.

I call them Force Multipliers.

1. Exercise

Being healthy and strong is great. In fact, being strong is one of the key ways to slow the ageing process. For that alone, you should exercise regularly. But you’ll also think more clearly. You’ll be less likely to suffer from things like depression. You have more energy and can be more productive. And you’ll become “the type of person who exercises“, making you more likely to eat better, save money, waste less time, and have a positive self-image. Plus, you’ll look better, which means you’ll make more money and you’ll get more attention from the opposite sex.

2. Eating healthily

Just like exercise, eating well is great because of the health benefits. Fat loss, muscle gain, more energy, less feeling sluggish for an hour after lunch. And on top of that: you’ll save money because you cook at home more. You waste less time browsing at the grocery store, or choosing off a restaurant menu, because you’re narrowing down the range of choices you have. (Should I get chips or chocolate? NEITHER!)

3. Living well below your means

Spending less than you earn is good for the obvious reason: that it prevents you from getting into debt and hurting your credit, paying money in credit card interest and overdraft fees, and so on. No arguments there. But there’s other advantages of having cash on hand. You can usually get a great deal on bigger purchases if you can offer to pay in cash, right there and then. You can take advantage of business opportunities that need a bit of capital up-front, or do things that have a smaller short-term payoff, but a big long-term payoff. You can afford to take a different job that might pay less, but makes you happier. You spend less time worrying about bills and juggling payments, freeing up mental energy to spend elsewhere. With money in the bank you’re less stressed, and you sleep better, so you become healthier.

With those three things in place, you’re giving yourself a great base to work from. A solid foundation in your life. And the great thing is that each one makes the others easier: they multiply together healthy, energised, strong, productive, and able to take advantage of opportunities when you see them.

 

The number one way to increase your productivity, get healthier, and become a happier person

There’s a magic bullet in life. You might be ignoring it – even though I know of it, I go through phases where I refuse to use it. But if you’re looking for the keys to the kingdom, they’re right here.

Exercise: every single day.

If you’re already about to close this tab and go back to “inspirational” pictures on Instagram to avoid actually taking any action, you’re an idiot. If you’re about to stop reading because you know this already, then I ask you: do you actually exercise EVERY SINGLE DAY? 99.9% of people don’t. If you’re in the 0.1% then congratulations, but I’m guessing you’re not.

Days I worked out this month
“Yep, I’ve penned in my workout on the 21st, two weeks from today. I fully understand this post and need no more information. Cheerio!”

Pay attention here: I’m not just telling you to exercise, I’m telling you to do it every fucking day. Every day. No days off, no excuses — every single day. It’s Christmas? Fuck you, exercise. Hungover as fuck? Fuck you, exercise. Rushed off your feet all day, finally got home, and you’re just too tired? Fuck you, exercise.

I’m going to go ahead and assume that you know about the health benefits of exercise. Here you go. Literally thousands of results. That’s not what I want to talk about in this post. Instead, let’s look at:

The psychology of daily exercise

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, calls exercise a “keystone habit” – it’s the lead domino that, if you get it right, spills over in to every other area of your life.

When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change. (emphasis added) “Exercise spills over,” said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher. “There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”

– Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

There’s a great reason for this. While it’s tempting to think that you can change your life just by changing your attitude, it’s usually not the case. How many times have you tried to “get motivated” — maybe watch Rocky a couple times, look at some amazing pictures with inspirational quotes on them, and then ended up doing nothing?

Not pictured: inspirational music and self-loathing viewers.
Not pictured: inspirational music, subsequent self-loathing

One of the most self-destructive things you can do is describe yourself as lazy, unproductive, or any of those type of negative terms. If you do — even in a joking manner — it forms a small part of your identity, that becomes very hard to shake. It’s a pernicious form of self-destruction and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But what you can do is change your behaviour first, and your attitude will follow. If you exercise every single day, you will soon start to think of yourself as “someone who exercises”. If you also describe yourself as lazy, that creates cognitive dissonance — you hold two conflicting ideas at the same time. Your brain hates doing that, so it will push one of them out of the way. By maintaining the regular exercise habit, you force yourself to shed the idea that you are lazy.

And bingo! You slowly stop identifying as a lazy person, so you shift away from lazy behaviours like not doing the dishes, or binge-watching Friends for hours on end, getting up only to pee or fetch more beer, and you start doing things that fit with your new identity of a healthy, regular exerciser, like posting ab selfies on Instagram. I’m kidding, that part is optional.

There’s one more powerful reason behind exercising every day:

It creates a small win that means you accomplished something. Even if the rest of the day was crappy in every single way imaginable, hey, at least you exercised.

I can’t overstate how important this is. Look, we all have shitty days where we feel like crap, lounge around the house, and put off things we know we have to do. That’s life — it happens.

But if you exercise EVERY SINGLE DAY, then at the end of that crappy day you can say “Well, at least I exercised.” Retired four-star General Stanley McChrystal and bestselling author Tim Ferriss talk about exactly this principle in a recent podcast.

That creates a small win in your life. You got something done today. It’s something to feel good about. The rest of your life might be going to shit, but you’re making strides in at least this one area.

Exercise every day.

What type of exercise should I do?

Whatever you’ll stick with.

I tried to create a regular running habit last year, but I failed (for a lot of reasons). One of the biggest was that I simply don’t enjoy running. I do like lifting weights, so I do that.

If you like cycling, jump on your bike If you like jogging, lace up your shoes and hit the road. If you like boxing, join a boxing gym.

"OK, good. Now chase this chicken around for 45 minutes."
“OK, good. Now chase this chicken around for 45 minutes.”

What I will say is this: don’t do the same thing every single day, and don’t work out to full intensity every single day either. That’s a recipe for fatigue, burnout and injury. You have to work up a sweat — you don’t have to set new PRs every day.

Mix in a variety of different types of exercise, as well as a variety of intensity levels. Here’s what a typical week would look like for me:

  • Monday: Lift weights
  • Tuesday: Push-ups and sit-ups at home for 15-20 minutes
  • Wednesday: Lift weights
  • Thursday: 2 mile walk at good pace
  • Friday: Lift weights
  • Saturday: Push-ups and sit-ups at home
  • Sunday: Play tennis

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are always the days I lift weights. On the other days of the week I find something to do that I enjoy and want to do. If I haven’t done anything all day and I’m really pressed for time, I’ll do a quick bodyweight workout at home, some combination of push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, bodyweight squats. Whatever I feel like doing to work up a sweat.

How do I make sure I stick with this?

There are a few different things you can do. I recommend a combination of all of these.

1. Make it easy to win to begin with

Don’t expect yourself to run 10 miles a day, 7 days a week. Not going to happen. Start off just working in some short workouts each day, like push-ups and sit-ups. You can do this in 5-10 minutes when you wake up in the morning. Slowly build up the habit, and create momentum.

2. Be accountable

In my company we have a chat channel called #daily-intentions, where we each post what we plan to accomplish each day. When we’re all done with work for the day, we go down our list and say what from that list we got done, and what we didn’t get done — and why we didn’t do it — as well as our goals for the following day. This works for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it keeps us accountable. I HAVE to write down a daily to-do list, and I HAVE to go down that list each day and track my progress. Secondly, it’s public. Having to explain to someone why you failed at a goal is a powerful motivator – an idea I got from Legacy by James Kerr. But we also help celebrate each other’s successes. There’s positive and negative reinforcement.

3. Play for stakes

A recent addition to our company’s #daily-intentions was the idea of the “fun jar.” If there’s a big item that I’ve been putting off for a couple of days that I really want to get done today, I’ll tag it as a “fun jar” item. If I don’t do it that day, I have to put $50 into the company’s fun jar, that gets spent on fun stuff at our regular company meetings. It’s a way of adding stakes to daily life — and again, loss aversion is a powerful motivator.

4. Track it

Lastly, you want to be able to look back and see all the good work you’ve done. You can use the Jerry Seinfeld calendar method, that works pretty well. I used an app called Streaks that is perfect for tracking up to 6 regular habits that you want to maintain. Or you can use an old-fashioned notebook, whatever you want. I also created the Daily Practice Journal to track this and a couple of other things. But long as you have a visual record of your progress, that’s fine.

 

Summary

Working out every single day will literally change your life. Just remember everything I’ve taught you here:

  • Exercise is a keystone habit that will spill over into other areas of your life, which is why it’s so important.
  • Doing it every single day gives you a small win — no matter what life throws at you, at least you exercised.
  • Make sure you’re doing activities that you enjoy, and vary the intensity all the time.
  • Create systems like accountability, playing for stakes, and tracking, to make this easy and fun.

If you do this for 6 months — exercise 180 days in a row — then I guarantee your life will be better in so many ways.

Any other advice on how to build the regular exercise habit? Have I missed anything? Do you disagree? Leave a comment below!

 



Why your New Years Resolution will fail – and what to do about it.

I completely failed. I set a goal and fell so far short of it that it’s embarrassing to talk about. And Nike decided to rub it in my face.

I did what you’re supposed to: I set an ambitious goal that was a SMART goal: it was specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. I wrote it on an index card that I kept close to me at all times. I read a lot about the topic and knew exactly the steps I had to take to reach my goal. I tried to stay “motivated”.

And still, it didn’t happen. Not even close.

I wanted to run more, so I decided to run 3x per week, with the ultimate goal of being able to run a 10k race in less than 50 minutes.

How did I do? Well, here’s how.

nike 2014
Thanks for the reminder of my failure, Nike. I really appreciate it.

I ran an average of 0.28 times per week, aka less than 1/10th of what I wanted to do, and the fastest 10k I did, I didn’t even break an hour, let alone 50 minutes.

So what did I do wrong, and how can I fix it?

Mistake #1: Made a huge, unsustainable change

I went right out of the blocks trying to run 3x per week from the beginning, which was a) a huge increase in the amount of exercise I was doing at the time, and b) a huge increase in the amount of sweaty laundry I created, both of which were an added hassle that I had to deal with. It was unsustainable, such that I’d run 3x per week for 1-2 weeks, then not run at all for a few weeks, feel shit about myself, get motivated again, then run 3x in one week, then take another month-long break, and so on. This cycle repeated itself a number of times until I just gave up.

What I should have done instead: eased into it by starting off exercising 1x per week, to make it easily winnable to begin with, so I’d feel good about myself, and begin to create a habit of running. Then slowly increase the frequency until eventually I was hitting the goals that I wanted to hit.

 

Mistake #2: No accountability

I wrote down my goal on an index card, and put it in my wallet. That’s what people recommend, right? That should be a daily reminder of my goal, right? No, not when you put it in a hidden part of your wallet that you never look in. And I didn’t tell anyone about this goal, so I didn’t have any skin in the game. There was no pain or forfeit if I didn’t make it. So it wasn’t a big deal.

What I should have done instead: told multiple people about my goal and had them check in with me on a regular basis to ensure that I was following through. Or even better, put some money on it and have friends and family bet against me achieving the goal, which provides a carrot (I win money and get to show off to people that I hit my goal) and a stick (I have to pay out and everyone knows I lost).

Mistake #3: I tried to do it alone

Not only did I not tell anyone about this, but I was always running alone. And I was the only one chasing this goal. I didn’t talk to anyone about it, I didn’t have a running partner to motivate me to go out, and I didn’t join any sort of running club. No-one would miss me if I didn’t lace up my shoes and head out the door.

What I should have done instead: joined a running club or found a running partner, or at least someone another runner I knew that I could talk to about running that would keep asking “Been running recently?” which would make me embarrassed to keep responding, “No, I’m a lazy shit”, so I’d actually go running.

 

Mistake #4: I picked something I hate doing

I don’t like running. It’s boring, it’s always cold and raining here in England, and you step in dog shit all the time. You have to avoid cyclists and old people and you’re always out of breath and you get injured all the time. Running sucks. I chose it as a goal because running is what you’re “supposed to do” if you want to get into shape and lose few lbs, right?

What I should have done instead: pick an exercise activity that I actually enjoy, like lifting weights, or cycling, or football, or boxing. Any of these would have been good as I would actually look forward to doing the activity, rather than dreading it.

This is how I felt on every single run I ever did.

 

So, I picked a goal and an activity where I:

  • tried to do too much too fast
  • on my own
  • with no accountability or stakes
  • at an activity that I don’t like doing

I don’t think I was ever really going to succeed.

So this year, with the same aim of exercising more and getting healthier, I am going to:

  • start off slow and build the right habits
  • in a group or community setting
  • with some stakes or public accountability
  • at something that I like doing

Basically, I’m going to start doing Crossfit.

For more on building the right habits and making positive changes, check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Willpower by Roy Baumeister and Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink. All fantastic books.

Life advice from Will Smith

The two keys to life: running and reading.

When you’re running, and you’re out there and you’re running, there’s a little person that talks to you, and that little person says “Oh, I’m tired, my lung’s about to pop off, I’m so hurt, I’m so tired, there’s no way I can possibly continue.” And you want to quit, right? That person, if you learn how to defeat that person when you’re running, you will learn how to not quit when things get hard in your life.