The Resolution Guide for Everything Else (Non-Fitness Related)

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The New Year’s resolution crowd is going to be out in full force in the upcoming weeks donning new outfits from Christmas time. There will be a slew of people clogging up the cardio arena to work off the holiday cookies and start a new healthy habit in the New Year. Blog posts and articles about sticking to your typical fitness resolutions are all too common around the 1st.

This is not one of those posts. In fact, I won’t mention the word “fitness” after this sentence. If you want more help regarding your commitment to the “F” word, here’s a good one:

Forming Habits, How I Do It, and Why I Hate New Year’s Resolutions by JC Deen

What I would rather talk about is the other 99% of your life that doesn’t reside in the gym – the actual part to make you a better human being. Much of our focus in the New Year is either losing weight, gaining muscle, or otherwise transforming our appearance in some manner. Why? Because those are changes you can actually see and judge.

But, there are a ton of other attributes that can directly influence your health and happiness other than the weight on the scale. In fact, I’d argue that these attributes are more important than putting in your time on the rat wheel. Don’t get me wrong, a couple of gym trips a week is key to living awesome, but even I will admit it can’t work miracles.

Take for example the typical American:

  • Lives in some kind of debt either credit or loan related
  • Doesn’t enjoy their job and goes every weekday begrudgingly to get a paycheck
  • Doesn’t sleep enough and spends the majority of their day rushing around
  • Spends free time staring at the TV as a mindless drone to avoid thinking

A trip to the gym can’t fix all of those problems. Trust me.

Forming the Habit of Being Awesome in the New Year

Rather than getting into better shape during the new year, I’d rather focus on something that is all-encompassing – the state of being awesome or increasing your awesomeness factor.

To become more awesome during the next year, we’re going to focus on creating powerful habits that lead to making you a better person. In order to create those habits, we need to take a more detailed look at the art of habits, how they are formed, and why some people smoke even though they know it will likely kill them or why you back into a relatives car in your driveway on your way to work that’s in plain site (because you neglected to check in your rearview mirror since the driveway is typically clear).

(Many of these ideas are taken from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Great book, recommended read.)

9781400069286_custom-401a0d258f36abc0afccb673d3bab1de7926e20e-s6-c10Habits are extremely powerful. You have them in place throughout your life whether you want to or not. It cuts down on how often thinking needs to take place and greatly enhances our mental economy. You can do more while thinking less – seems like a win-win. Think about the last time you tied your shoes or made coffee. When you first did either of these tasks, you had to itemize them down into complex tasks that involved step-by-step thinking no matter if you learned the loop-swoop-pull method or the bunny ears. You had to taste your coffee several times to wonder if you had enough cream and sugar. Now, you don’t think twice about tying your shoes and you know that two dollops of cream in your coffee is the perfect amount.

Since you do them everyday, they became automated much like checking Facebook when you log on to your computer or locking the door when you leave the house. It happens automatically. You’ve effectively formed a habit from tons of repetition.

So, let’s look at the breakdown of two simple habits (tying your shoes and smoking). In each, you’ll find a similar path from start to finish.

Cue —–> Routine —–> Reward

Let’s take smoking for an example. The first time anyone picks up a cigarette, chances are, they don’t like the taste or the general notion of smoking. Immediately upon lighting the death stick, they take an inhale that burns their lungs and causes them to hack like crazy before foolishly continuing on with the inhale-hack-nearly throw-up trend. At this point, all signs point to smoking being a nasty little devil that should be stopped immediately.

Yet, people continue to smoke packs on end each day. What happens?

They start to experience the effect that nicotine has on the body (apparently an invigorating feeling that’s associated with increased adrenaline release). As a result, they feel like they are on cloud nine. As a result, smoking “feels” good despite causes the smoker to literally and figuratively cough up a lung.

Now, transition this to their every day life. Whether they smoke while drinking, on smoke breaks, or upon exiting a store, they generally pick one specific time to smoke or it may be a combination of all three. Chances are you know someone that “only smokes when they drink” or they grab a cigarette immediately after exiting a store into the open environment or after dinner. They have created a “cue” (alcohol, food, stress) that leads to smoking a cigarette (routine) and feeling the adrenaline release (reward). Thus, a habit is formed.

The same method can be applied to a simple task like tying your shoes. What starts as a very detailed task that seems almost impossible to a two-year old turns into something that we never think of any more. You form a cue (putting on your shoes), tie it to a routine (pun intended), and you reap the rewards (not falling on your face).

So, how do we apply the art of forming habits to things that are going to make you more awesome during the next year?

Forming Your Own Loop

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Any action or task can be turned into a habit using the same formula as tying your shoes or smoking a cigarette. Those three actionable steps (cue-routine-reward) can be used to make almost anything seem completely natural.

Take, for instance, the habit of drinking more water. Establish a cue (perhaps every time you walk by a water fountain or even every time you send an e-mail) and relate it to the habit of drinking water (one sip, a gulp, a few glugs – however much you want). The reward can be anything from feeling better to putting a dollar in a jar every day you drink 10 glasses of water (that jar can be spent on anything). This really depends on whether you are intrinscally or extrinsically motivated.

Here are the rules to forming your own habit loop:

  1. Focus on one thing at a time. Any more and the habits won’t stick nearly as well.
  2. Pick anything you want but make sure it will improve you in the long run.
  3. Set aside time. It may require more investment in the beginning (just like tying your shoes), but it will become automated later on.

So, on to picking your habit to focus on. This is completely dependent on what is important to you, but here are some examples:

  • Reading every day (or finishing a book a month)
  • Drinking 10 glasses of water
  • Meditating
  • Taking a multi-vitamin and fish oil
  • Saving money
  • Feeding your dog

The key is to pick something that is quick and easy. Don’t try to go with a task that is incredibly complex because it takes longer to form a habit out of very complex things. Meditating for 5 minutes a day is easy and can make a huge difference. The problem is that most people leave it off until the end of the day and end up not having time.

So, select your target, and then use the following steps:

  1. Figure out your reward. Is it going to be a cash incentive or will you just feel better overall? Make sure it’s something that will be motivating to you. If your goal is to read every day, be sure that after you finish a book a month, you buy yourself something you want or have an epic, fantastic cheat meal of ice cream and bacon.
  2. Set up a cue so you can do the targeted habit at the same moment each day. For reading, it might be right before you go to bed. For exercising more, it might be something as simple as doing 20 push-ups before every meal.
  3. Establish an action. This is literally performing the habit each time the cue takes place.
  4. Enjoy your reward. Make sure this is something that you really want.

This same method can be used to start any new habit or break an old one. The key is following the right steps.

What habits are you starting in the New Year?

If Health Fit An Equation…

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I remember back in high school being talked into taking AP Calculus. Never mind that the entire class didn’t make sense, I somehow ended up passing and sitting down to take the AP exam at the end of the year.

Sitting down to take the test, I start scanning the paper and saw what closely resembles the Matrix on the page with numbers flowing in orderly fashion. Only problem – I wasn’t anywhere close to being Neo.

For those that aren’t familiar, AP exams are graded out of a possible 5 points (or at least they were back in the day when I was taking them). I quickly learned one thing – unlike golf, the lowest score doesn’t win on an AP test.

I remember the last question describing some sort of scenario where I had to determine the optimum trajectory and velocity of a rocket that wanted to blah, blah, blah. I thought about writing “Isn’t this NASA’s problem?” and leaving it at that. I think I settled on drawing a picture of a rocket ship with a guy on top with an arrow pointing to him labeled “rocket man”.

Not surprisingly, I received a 1 on that particular exam – likely because giving me a 0 wasn’t possible since I had spelled my name right.

Needless to say, I wasn’t destined to join the space exploration team up in D.C.

So, I joined the fitness world where it isn’t necessary to count over 15 on most days.

 

In this age of endless simplification for easier thinking, you’ll constantly hear about the equation for health and fitness.

Writers, trainers, and reporters alike try to make things as simple as possible, boiling optimum fitness down to X steps. Trust me, I’ve written plenty of “X Ways to Do ____” articles. If you pick up any fitness magazine, there’s a good chance that a list story makes the front page.

Why? Because consumers want to read them.

If you see a story titled “5 Steps to Flat Abs”, you’re likely going to flip directly to it because hell, it only takes 5 steps. How simple!

Since I’m a health and fitness professional that claims to be able to shred your midsection and drop pounds like Kate Middleton on a shopping spree, I should have a pretty good grasp on the equation for a flat tummy.

Well, if you gathered anything from the first paragraph, it should have been that complicated math just isn’t my thing. Yet, the majority of my clients (provided they are willing to put in the work) reach their goals.

The Health and Fitness Variables

Like I said above, I don’t like to count over 15, and I sure as hell can’t solve an inverse dynamics problem or an integral. But, I do know how to whip somebody into shape. Here are the factors to consider:

Sleep – I had a conversation the other day with a client that’s experienced tremendous results so far, but wants to knock off a little more around her stomach region. My reply wasn’t about exercises or about diet, but rather about her sleep schedule. Did she feel rested when she woke up in the morning? No. Did she watch TV before bed? Yes. Turn off the electronics and relax before you hit the hay. Don’t worry about getting eight hours. Worry about waking up rested.

Stress² – Yep, that’s stress squared because it’s really damn important. If you’re stressed out right know, it isn’t the optimum time to reach your goals. Sorry to break it to you. You can make steps in the right direction, but in order to fully commit yourself to whatever your goal might be, you need to manage your stress levels. Your body interprets stress in the same manner so working out and a bad day at work are going to seem exactly the same. Ignoring this fact will leave you facedown in bed tired and exhausted.

Support system – Your friends help to dictate you as a person. If they are overweight and lazy, chances are it’s going to be difficult for you to break the trend. Surround yourself with others that are supportive and understanding of your goals.

Movement – Notice I didn’t say exercise. Working out has a bad connotation to many people. Most of America doesn’t want to exercise but they don’t mind moving around a bit. Focus on moving every day whether it’s yoga, walking, or weight lifting. Move more each week until you’re exercising.

Food³ – If you’re shoving crap in your mouth all day, chances are you’re going to look like crap. Improve your food and you’ll improve your body with all other factors remaining the same. Focus on eating vibrant colors with each meal and you’ll be on the right track.

I don’t believe in one general equation to solve all of your health and fitness needs. 

It doesn’t make sense. It’s similar to saying that there is one main food everyone should eat for their optimum body. In the quest for simplicity, we attempt to boil everything down to one thought or one message. In the end, it’s really not that simple.

Your body is a complex machine and if anyone ever tells you that they know the secret to health and fitness, you know you’re about to hear a sales speech.

In reality, what we do know is what has worked for us and for others. When working with my clients, I’m relying on education and past experiences with others that have the same goal.

I don’t have the answers to health and fitness, but I have a damn good idea of how to figure your situation out. 

Being a fitness expert is similar to being a mathematician: you still don’t know the answers to every equation out there, but given enough time, you could figure it out.

The Take-Home: Your Equation

Your different than everyone else. So, ipso-facto, your variables are going to be slightly different.

Just like an equation can be solved differently every time (which always pissed me off about math), your path to health and happiness is completely different than everyone else’s. So, why boil it down to one particular equation?

Highlight the area that is causing the biggest roadblock to your success.

Is it sleep? That can be an easy fix. Eliminate all of the electronics in your bedroom and leave the bed for sleeping, not watching TV. Go to bed when you’re tired and wake up when you’re rested. At least one day a week, try to wake up without an alarm clock.

Is it food? Forget exercise and master cooking.

Solve one piece at a time and move down the list of variables. Don’t get frustrated. If something doesn’t work, try a new approach just like you did in math class.

Alright, that’s a long enough rant on equations. How would you combine the variables into a cute one-liner? What was your experience in math class? Love it? Hate it? Tell me in the comments below.

Double-Spacing Your Life

snow-mountains-wallpaperRemember back in grade school when you had to write those awful papers? Sitting down to type out your thoughts about Jane Eyre was about as boring as sitting through the teacher reading those drawn-out instructions for standardized tests – which of course they had to read verbatim although they were the same every year. You would sit there and watch your cursor on the screen laugh back at you.

Then, you found it. The magic button that would ultimately lead to your literary salvation throughout English class…the double-space button.

Never mind that your teachers insisted that you use said button to give them more margin for red marks and critiques. Every little bit helped when piecing together a two-page report on an old novel that you couldn’t even make sense of much less read. Such a magical and wonderful sight to see your 3/4 page paper turn into a page and a half in the blink of an eye. It was almost as if the work was cut in half for each paper you had to write.

Double-spacing a paper works its magic in a couple of ways:

  • It separates each individual sentence allowing for clarity of focus.
  • It’s easier on the eyes to read.
  • It makes it seem as though you have a lot to say when in reality, you are struggling to put words to paper.

In the past, I’ve written quite a bit about not overwhelming yourself and living a stress-free life (for examples, see how to live your morning like a hero and how to manage your energy not your time.) The general take home is to spend more time doing the things you love to do and less time doing the things you hate. Makes sense right?

The double-spacing tool can be used in your own daily schedule to reduce stress and improve happiness.

Take, for instance, characteristics of the typical individual:

  • Wakes up to a blaring alarm clock frazzled with not enough sleep.
  • Scrambles to get ready in the morning because they neglected to prepare anything the night before.
  • Lives their day in constant chaos moving swiftly from meeting to meeting on a constant caffeine buzz.
  • Ends their day exhausted but still has family obligations that keep them up far too long repeating the endless cycle.

Sound familiar? In the writing world, that would resemble a long, single-spaced paper that is housed in one complete paragraph – no breaks, no separations. The print would be too tiny to read, and you would be strained to make it through the entire thing while maintaining dedicated focus. It’s the kind of thing that makes your eyeballs hurt after awhile. The page that you read through only to realize at the end of the entire chapter that you really had no idea what went on during the last few pages. What was Noah saying to Allie on that last page? And who the hell is this Lon character? (Full disclosure, I’ve read The Notebook and a few other Nicholas Sparks books.) It’s the type of print that makes you sigh with disappointment when you flip to that particular page (What the hell…no pictures?) – much like this paragraph.

It’s busy, sort of stressful, and makes your eyes hurt – not too different than the typical schedule listed above.

Fixing the Busy Paragraph – Adding Spacing

For books, it’s an easier fix. Increase the spacing and adjust the font so it’s more pleasing to a reader’s eyes. For life, it’s a bit more complicated, but it would go something like this:

Plan out your day in advance. Flying by the seat of your pants is a surefire way to having a packed schedule filled with busy appointments and rushing around to get things done. I recommend planning out your day the night before. What are your must-do’s that absolutely have to get done? Separate tasks into lists based on importance so you can attack the highest priority items first.

Schedule breaks. Just like a double-spaced paragraph has breaks after each line of text, schedule breaks throughout your day depending on stress levels and task requirements. If a certain hour is going to be extremely taxing, schedule a 15-30 minute break afterwards to reflect and recoup. For simpler tasks, this may get cut down to 5 minutes of letting your mind wander before attacking the to-do list again.

Practice clarity and focus. One main reason why a single-spaced page of text is so stressful upon first glance is that it presents too many things at once. Focus your efforts on one task at a time and don’t move on to anything else until you’re finished.

Schedule more time than you think you’ll need. Think something will take you 30 minutes? Schedule 45 instead. That way, you won’t be rushed, and you’ll have more time to reflect – which brings me to my next point.

Reflect. Just like a teacher littering your paper with red marks, take time to reflect on the big events of the day. How did they go? Could you have done better? Part of the benefit of “double-spacing” your life is allowing time for reflection. Take 5-10 minutes and make a list on how you could improve for next time.

Thoughts, questions, comments? I want to hear them. Love Nicholas Sparks books? Tell me your favorite below along with the book you dreaded the most in school.