Sunday, July 17, 2016

No strain, no gain

If I do something over and over again for many years, will I get better at it?  Or will I plateau?

I recently read Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.  Anders is THE expert on experts.  He's the guy whose research everyone else quotes in their bestsellers about what makes people truly gifted.  Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller "Outliers", with its rule of thumb about needing 10,000 hours of practice before you can become an expert?  He was talking about Ander's research.

But Gladwell had it wrong, according to Anders.  More important than an exact number of hours of practice, whether it it 5,000 or 50,000 is the quality of those hours.  If you are a rock band and you just "jam", you won't become the Beatles even after 500,000 hours.  You will plateau.

Practice makes perfect, but only if it is the right kind of practice.  No strain, no gain.  Anders studied historical masters such as Mozart and contemporary masters in sports, chess, art and other fields.  He found that practice only makes perfect if it has these qualities:

  • During practice, you should be working on extremely specific goals.  You are working on snapping your wrist as you flip the basketball towards the hoop.  As you practice meditation, you are focused on the feeling of the air entering and leaving your nostrils.  As you practice listening to music, you are focused on noticing the chord progressions or staying with the melody.  As you practice getting through your emails faster at work, you focus on reaching decisions more quickly about whether to archive, delete, respond, or plan to respond later.  Practice that is more general--I'll just play some tennis or listen to some jazz--isn't going to lead to better performance.
  • Ideally, you will get timely feedback on your performance.
  • You must also push yourself beyond your comfort zone.  No strain, no gain.
I don't want to try to be an expert on everything.  I don't want to push myself beyond my comfort zone in cooking, bicycling, reading, gardening, singing, or many other activities.  Anders is clear that the kind of "deliberate practice" that yields the most improvement isn't fun.  If it's fun, it isn't the optimum practice.  Why would I want to do this painful practice for every kind of activity that I do?  However, I think it's a good idea to do "deliberate practice" in many activities both at work and at home.

At work, I wish I could get through my emails faster.  I waste SO much time getting through my emails.  Could this be a skill that I master?  Are there "drills" I need to go through?  Specific things I could focus on at different times?  How fast can I archive or delete?  Are there measures I can track for feedback such as number of emails left in my inbox after I responded to today's emails?

One thing I've been changing is my approach to meditation.  In the past, I've often taken the easy way out.  I would "count" it as meditation if I just laid back in a "zero-gravity" chair and listened to some music.  Now I'm pushing for the much harder, but probably more rewarding, practice of sitting cross-legged, fighting to keep my aching back straight, and trying to stay focused on my breath even as my mind wants to dwell on an itch on my knee or my plans for tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Day that I Need

I need a day in which I remember to relax.  And meditate.  Exercise.  Eat and drink mindfully.

I need a day in which I'm motivated (I know what I want and I go after it) but flexible (I'm unfazed when someone suggests a different approach and their idea prevails over mine).

I need a day when I remember to save some time for fun.

I need a day when I calmly address things that are wrong (clear as day; black and white) or might be wrong (this should be looked at but I might not be privy to all the facts or I might be blind to another way of looking at the facts).

I need a day when I listen to understand versus rushing to conclusions.

These are currently the thoughts that fit my needs the most, thoughts that I review every morning.  I check, "How did I do against these commitments yesterday?  Did I eat or drink too much?  Did I fail to listen during that meeting last night?  Did I fight too hard to get my way when we debated on what to do next?  Did I fail or succeed in challenging things that were or seemed wrong?  For the day to come, how will I get my exercise in?  My meditation?  What will I do for fun?  Are there things I will need to fight for?"

This is a very personal, individual list.  These are things I need to reinforce, things that loved ones have asked me to work on, things that I recognize are not yet habits but that should be habits.  I add or remove a bullet point off the list every few months because I never know what is going to matter most at any given time.

This isn't a matter of simple positive thinking.  I'm not claiming that I have mastered something that I haven't yet mastered.  I'm just holding myself accountable to how well I met these goals yesterday and picturing how I might meet them today.  And, as I would expect from the research I've read, this does work pretty well.  When I set my intentions at the start of the day, visualize specific actions that could make the outcome happen, and review what I did and didn't do well the previous day, I find it does steer me to shift in the direction that I'd like to move.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Five Pounds shy of a One-Pack

I think I'm about 5 pounds above my ideal weight.  5 pounds shy of a "1-pack".  I'm not hoping for a 6-pack.  That takes a different kind of exercise plan than walking in circles around my kitchen just before bed until my Fitbit reaches 10,000 steps.  But a 1-pack would be nice.

One thing that has helped me keep the weight off for the last 3 months, besides the scare I had from my February blood test results, has been my new habit of weighing myself every day.  A few months ago, I read about research that shows the benefits of weighing yourself every day.  Here's a link to an article describing the research:  "Daily Weight May Help Manage Your Weight.  In essence, as long as someone doesn't have an obsessive dieting issue, it seems to help almost anyone to have daily feedback on their weight.

I've found over time that, as long as I weigh myself at the same time each day, my weight rarely changes by more than 1 pound from one day to the next . . .  unless I've been bad.  If I have bread and desert and a sweet cocktail, I might be up 2 pounds from the weight I've maintained for weeks.  Just one day and I'm up 2 pounds!  This motivates me to get my act together.  This is "bad news" that I'm better off hearing ASAP. As long as I weigh myself daily, the problem never gets bad enough for me to need more than 1 day to fix it.  This wouldn't be so easy if I waited a week, gained 5 pounds, and got discouraged.

Over time, I can imagine that I might drop a little below my current weight.  Then my standards will change and I'll expect to be a little lighter than I am today.  Eventually, nothing shy of a 1-pack will do!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Thank God it's diabetes!

Being pre-diabetic would not have been enough.  I've been pre-diabetic before.  It's like having fairly high blood pressure, fairly high cholesterol, or being overweight but not obese.  Concerning but not very motivating.  There's no chance that I'm getting off the couch because I'm "borderline" diabetic.

But the numbers from my blood draw in February weren't "borderline".  My doctor told me that a glucose level of 135 is solidly diabetic.  My triglycerides and cholesterol were off the charts too.  Doctor said, "Most doctors would put you on medications right now, but how about a 3 month lifestyle challenge?  Change your eating habits and exercise.  Then 3 months from today, on May 6th, 2016, we'll draw more blood.  After we analyze the results, we'll decide how much medication you will need."

I agreed.  I was weirdly excited about the bad health news.  I'd tried and failed so often to motivate myself to make a lasting change in my eating habits.  This time, I knew things would be different.  I really don't want to give myself insulin shots.  I want to be around helping my family rather forcing them to help me.  I was excited because I was sure that--at worst--I'd lose weight.  At best, I'd also improve my blood test results and would learn both intellectually and emotionally the connection between what I do and the numbers that I get back from the lab.

It wasn't hard at all, given my fear of full fledged diabetes, to immediately swear off starches, crackers, chips, sweets, pasta, and bread.  I didn't restrict fruits or veggies or cheese.  I didn't ban red meat. There is no life without bacon.  But I ate a lot more chicken and fish and less steak, pork and eggs.  I didn't become an exercise freak, but 95% of the time I made sure I got 10,000 steps on my Fitbit, even if I had to do dozens of laps around the island in the kitchen just before going to bed.  My diet and my exercise allowed me to lose 12 pounds and gave me hope that I'd get good news after my May 6th blood draw.

D-day was today, May 16th.  The blood test results were back.  I went to my doctor's office to talk about the results.  I tried to lower my expectations.  "If nothing else--if my results are bad and I still need statins and insulin--it's got to be good that I lost 12 pounds.  Maybe I can have lower doses for my new meds!"

Fortunately, my doctor had good news.  My glucose level had dropped from 135 in February to 99 in May!  That isn't even pre-diabetic!  Triglycerides dropped from 250 to 120!  No new meds and my doctor said something I never expected to come out of her mouth:  "Keep doing what you've been doing."

So tonight I'm blog-bragging, celebrating, and having (just one) high glucose cocktail!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Ask and you shall . . .

If I had to summarize in just a few words the classic book on networking, Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi, I would say, "Offer help and ask for help."  Both are hard to do for many people, including me.  I often limit the help I offer others because I don't want to miss my own commitments and priorities.  I also limit how often I ask for help because asking for help sometimes feels like I'm trying to get others to do my work.  It feels like I'm being lazy or taking a shortcut.

But my reluctance disappears when dealing with family.  My best "networking" successes have involved my kids.  I can think of three good networking successes involving my oldest son, Mackenzie, including one that happened this week.

  1. When Mackenzie was in high school, he thought he wanted to become a college football scout for the NFL.  I wanted him to find out more about potential careers in sports.  By reaching out to friends, I was able to get him a conference call with a scout for the Buffalo Bills, a conference call with the former Director of Football Operations for the Cincinnati Bengals, and almost got him conference calls with a sports radio announcer at WLW with ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon.
  2. When Mackenzie was looking for a summer internship after his freshman year in college, I wrote to several people in City Hall and got him an interview that led to an internship with Vice Mayor David Mann.
  3. And, three days ago, after Mackenzie decided to apply for the Criminal Law Internship Program (CLIP) in Washington D.C., I contacted every lawyer I know asking for opinions about the program.  One of my friends put me in touch with two attorneys who had several years of experience with the CLIP program.  One of these former CLIP attorneys lives just 3 blocks away from me!  I'm looking forward to finding out the plusses and minuses of this program and passing this on to Mackenzie.  
If only I could learn to be as brazen about asking for help for other things as I am about asking for help for my son!  As long as I'm generous to others in return, my hunch is that the power of networking would live up to all the hype.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Don't be good. Be "good for . . .".

So why did I treat myself to cheesecake the other day after I used the treadmill?  I consumed twice as many calories in that cheesecake as I had burned off on the machine.  The book The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, makes it clear that we often give ourselves "license to sin" after we perceive ourselves to have done good.  She cites many studies in which test subjects were far more likely to lie or cheat or indulge themselves after they do something they perceive as good behavior.

Does this mean I'm doomed?  If I make good choices about exercise, about diet, about helping my family or my community, will I necessarily follow these good choices with bad ones that cancel out whatever I've accomplished?

Not necessarily.  McGonigal says that the key is to stop moralizing your actions.  Get on the treadmill, but stop kidding yourself that you are being "good".  A treadmill is not a path to sainthood.

Most of our daily decisions are neither sinful nor heroic.  They are just either harmful or beneficial.  We choose between a donut and a salad more often than we choose between stealing and charity.  For almost every good choice you make, instead of  thinking that you are "doing good", reflect on what your behavior is "good for".  Think about the benefits to your health, you happiness, your loved ones, society, the environment, or whatever.  This keeps your attention on your goals and values.  It engages and strengthens your prefrontal cortex--the part of your brain that reasons, plans, sets goals, and tracks progress against those goals.

If, instead, you focus on the morality of your good choices, you turn all your attention toward your internal battle between good and evil.  When you think of exercise as being "good", you are emphasizing that part of you would rather sit on the couch and eat cookies.  When you commend yourself for having just one or two drinks in an evening, you are implying that part of you wanted to polish off a six-pack.  When you pat yourself on the back for eating a salad, you are implying that part of you wanted to eat Twinkies.  Your attention turns to your worst impulses and your struggles to overcome those impulses.  Putting all this attention on inner conflict almost guarantees that, after the "good" in you has a small success, you will feel compelled to give the "bad" in you a chance to even the score.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Cheesecake and the Treadmill

Why did I have to start reading a book on willpower now?  Why now?

So I'm reading and blogging about the book The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, and I'm feeling pretty psyched about how I'm suddenly going to eat right, drink in moderation, and exercise like an Olympian.  I just started a business trip in Georgia today.  I use Google Maps to find the fitness room of a hotel I've stayed at 100 times.  I spend 20 minutes on the treadmill, lift a few weights, and I'm feeling unstoppable.  I have dinner and then the waitress says, "Nobody's ordered dessert tonight.  You can't let that happen to me!  You've got to get the chocolate lava cake, the key lime pie, or the cheesecake!"  I order the cheesecake.

Delicious.  But then I go to my room and open The Willpower Instinct,  I'm just starting the chapter "License to Sin".  It's all about how, when we do something we think is good, we give ourselves permission to be bad.  Oops.