13 Weeks: The Thirteen Weeks Method

Okay, so back to work.

I’ve now completed the first week of my second 13 week program, which is like the first 13 week program with more cowbell exercise. I’ve also been thinking a lot about something that had been in the back of my mind for awhile: that this notion of thirteen week “programs” was applicable to lots more than lowering blood sugar. Dave Swindle noticed the same thing, and mentioned it in one of his own self-improvement pieces.

So let’s think about this in more general terms. My first, unformed, thoughts went like this: If I don’t do something about the diabetes I’m going to die, and I don’t want to die. But I’ve been on a million zillion diets and they’ve always been heartbreakers, appealing and attractive and exciting and then after a while leaving me flat. So I decided to try something I’d had some success with in the past, a low-carb diet informed by Gary Taubes books. Somewhat coincidentally, going low-carb meant not eating much wheat, and about the same time I read Wheat Belly, and realized my lifetime stomach problems might have something to do with wheat. But then I thought “I’ll never eat chocolate and pasta and bread again?” and wanted to shoot myself.

Which would really screw up the “I don’t want to die” part.

So I decided to make it an experiment. Limited time, limited goals, just doing something that I supposed would be helpful and seeing what happened. How long? It had to be long enough to see some real differences, but not so long that it seemed endless. I narrowed down to thirteen weeks sort of by intuition, based on liking the number 13, but thirteen weeks turns out to be 91 days. It’s basically one meteorological season, and when I was a kid at least it was a TV season — would Batman get picked up for another 13 episodes? There are four 13-week periods in a year, with a a day or two days change.

And it worked — I’ve lost 30 pounds, my blood sugar is back into more or less normal range, and as a side effect my stomach troubles are much much better.

By accident, however, I’d noticed a process, or pattern.

  1. Decide there’s something you want to change.
  2. Find ways to measure your progress.
  3. Decide on some small unthreatening things you can do that should affect those measures.
  4. Track the results for 13 weeks and see what happens. It helps to pick appropriate tools and techniques for that tracking, but something as simple as a Seinfeld calendar, where you just draw an X on a calendar for every day you do something can be very powerful.

I also, over this thirteen weeks, have realized there are some things that have been key insights for me.

First, “the goal of no goals” — I purposefully didn’t say “I want to lose 50 pounds” or “I want my blood sugar  every morning before breakfast down to 90.” Instead, I said “I would like my weight to go down, and my blood sugar to go down, and I’m interested in how they respond for the next 13 weeks.”

The thing is, when you set a goal, you can fail at a goal: if I’d have said “I want to lose 50 pounds”, my 30 pounds would have been a failure. As it is, emotionally, I can say “cool! I lost 30 pounds!” instead of feeling guilt or shame.

In Buddhism, we talk about “establishing a Buddhist practice”; by refusing to set goals, I’m saying “this is a practice. I’m going to perform this practice. I’ll see what happens.” This is always what I’ve told people about meditation too: just do it for a while and see if it’s productive for you. So it took me 40 years to figure out it didn’t apply just to meditation.

Second, I made myself accountable by announcing it to people. Me, I’m a writer, and tend to be a fairly personal writer, so I announced it to thousands and thousands of my closest friends on Facebook and at PJ Media. (It didn’t hurt that I was hoping to write a book about my experiences.) But I think it would be just as effective if you only make yourself accountable to your partner, or your lover, or maybe even your cat. In fact, though, I think whoever you make yourself accountable to has to be able to be uniformly supportive. At least with me, if I had a girlfriend tracking this and nagging me about noncompliant days, I’d begin to resent it pretty quickly.

Third, I had to learn to keep a very special attitude. On the one hand, I had to learn to focus on the instant: if I had gained weight this morning, or I had eaten wheat the day before, it was in the past, it was no longer important. What is important is right now.

At the same time, however, each instant itself isn’t very important. Instants are like streetcars: wait a little while and another one will come by. And when you’re setting a limited time, this is much easier — no more “omigod, this for the foreseeable future”. I replaced it with “If I’m not happy with this by February, I can quit or change what I’m doing.”

Any progress over that 13 weeks was acceptable progress, and if I wasn’t happy with the progress after 13 weeks I’d just try something else. Three months was no big loss.

The thing is, none of this is just about weight or blood sugar. It could be applied to anything you want to change, anything you want to do.

Need to stop drinking? AA already has the idea of 90 meetings in 90 days.

Want to lose weight? Find a sustainable, confortable diet for yourself, try it for thirteen weeks and see what happens. Or plan to walk at least 20 minutes a day every day, or make sure you take 10,000 steps a day, for 13 weeks, and see what happens.

Writing a screenplay? A page a day for 13 weeks is a 90 minute screenplay.

Want to have a baby? Be pregnant for … okay, maybe it doesn’t apply to everything.

Speaking of accountability, here’s where I am this week. You’ll recall that in this season I’m continuing to track wight and blood sugar, but adding to that by body fat and amount of exercise. Right now I’m reporting Fitocracy points as an easy measure, and I’ll report the total points accumulated that week.

Weight 272.63, Glucose 114.57, body fat 30.79% (by Withings scale.) All of these are the 7 day moving average of my regular measurements. Total Fitocracy points: 1881.

Next week, more reports on progress, and I’ll start talking about the tools you can use to measure your progress.


Images courtesy shutterstock /  catlook /  Bertold Werkmann

Previously from Charlie Martin:

13 Weeks: Week 13 — in Which We Speculate

13 Weeks: Week 12 — In Which We Get Cross and Fit

Billiard Buddhism