The Question For My Next 13 Weeks: Pivot or Persevere?

Preparing for my third 13-week season, working to lose weight, control my Type 2 diabetes, and improve my health. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy (free!) and follow my daily exercise, and maybe even start tracking your own.  A new 13 week experiment starts June 1 2013. Join in!

Okay, this is a long one, just to warn you. Here’s the basics:

I’ve been rethinking these 13 week sessions and how to do them; I’ve written a new explanation.

I’m starting to see how the emotional part plays into the issue.

I’ve used the pattern as I now see it to start planning my next 13 weeks, and provided that as a “worked example” for other people who want to try it.

I’m looking for people to volunteer to try a 13 week experiment of their own, and possibly to try a web site meant to support 13 week experiments. Volunteers should mail me at [email protected]

Now on with today’s show.

As I said last week, I’m taking a little bit of a vacation from attempting to strictly follow some eating plan while I think about my results and what to do next.

The vacation has been interesting. I gave in to one of the things I’d been missing, and had a McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder and large fries for lunch, the same day I was going to my niece’s daughter’s first birthday party. Then at the party, I had a nice piece of cake as well as a bunch of things that were actually low carb.

From this I learned two things: I don’t actually like McDonalds as much as I used to, and I really can manage to drive my blood sugar up to the 230’s with carrot cake. But this was a momentary indulgence, especially since I, sure enough, had some of my old stomach troubles for a couple days afterwards.

As they say in Shangri-La, “Everything in moderation — including moderation.”

In the mean time, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about the experiments, and about the emotional/psychological/spiritual aspects of what I’ve been learning. (Let me just say, I don’t really believe there is a difference between the emotional, the psychological, and the spiritual. We’re not made up of a lot of pieces; what we’re thinking is what we’re thinking, and what we’re feeling is what we’re feeling, all together.)

What I’ve realized is that when I started my first 13 week experiment, I was groping toward something that would let me make changes in a way that didn’t scare me with the prospect of endless and unproductive deprivation, didn’t shame me as so many diets had done in the past, didn’t blame me for the lifelong problems I’ve had with weight, and gave me some emotional support in the process.

For me, writing about it has been a good bit of that support — I learned from Twelve Step programs that sometimes the best support you can get is by honestly admitting to the problems and your feelings about them.

Another big part of the support has turned out to be the rooting you, my readers, have been doing for me, and the sense that by talking about this I’m actually helping other people.

I hope to help other people use the things I’ve learned, and that means I need to figure out how to explain them. I’ve made a couple of previous attempts, but in this week’s thought I have what I think is a better explanation.

The First Insight

This is really what got me started: my first insight was not to think of a diet, not to think of of a weight-loss goal, but just to think of performing an experiment. I now realize that this was a first step in insulating myself from the years of fear and shame that had accompanied Dieting.

I had intimations of mortality based on my mother’s final illness; I have ambitions of being really really old, as old as Lazarus Long or Dr Who, and the only way I’m going to make it is to live long enough for effective anti-aging treatments to be invented. Type 2 diabetes looked to me to be a real threat to that ambition, and I’d seen people dying of end-stage diabetes, ones who weren’t lucky enough to have a heart attack or stroke. Not pretty.

But the idea of another failed diet didn’t attract me. T2DM sort of indicates controlling carbs anyway, I’d had success with low-carb diets, I was going to try one again. And I was going to make it as easy on myself as possible. I made it an experiment, and I made it a fixed duration, and that meant I couldn’t “fail”. If it didn’t work, I didn’t have to continue; I was simply committing to continuing long enough to be confident I was giving it a fair trial.

The New 13 Weeks Pattern

The new pattern is the old pattern, with (I hope) a clearer understanding of how to express it. Here’s the outline:

  • Identify a desired outcome, something you want to change (and in which direction you want it to change!) You might even call this a “goal” but I wouldn’t. This is something you want to be true sometime in the future.
  • Create a hypothesis. Propose a “treatment” intended to move you toward the desired result. Keep it small and simple, and ideally (although I didn’t) pick just one thing you want to focus on.
  • Decide how to measure what you’re interested in.
  • Establish a fixed time in which you will do the experiment.  Obviously I think 13 weeks is a good length of time — it’s a calendar quarter, it’s long enough to see significant changes, but it doesn’t seem like forever. But if you don’t like thirteens, then make it 12 weeks, or 90 days, or 100 days. For some things, even two weeks or a month might be good choices.
  • At the end of the 13 week trial, evaluate your results. At that point, you have a decision to make: pivot or persevere.

Pivot or Persevere

This is simply deciding whether you are happy with the results of this “treatment” or if you want to change something. (I’m stealing the term from Eric Reis’s book on startups).

Now, this decision is one of the reasons for setting a fixed time: you want to give the treatment a fair trial, but you also don’t want to be locked in forever.

So let’s look at my first trials based on this pattern.

Step One: Identify a desired outcome.

This one was simple: I wanted to not be an active type 2 diabetic heading for insulin, and I wanted to feel better, be in better health, and I wanted to look like one of those models on the cover of Men’s Health.

Okay, so maybe the last was a little unrealistic, but remember the thing about feeling like only perfection was good enough? Maybe I’ll write about it in more detail again another time, but in my heart I felt like people wouldn’t really like me unless I was really physically beautiful.

Step Two: Create an hypothesis.

Since it’s an experiment, we should start with a hypothesis, and this one was suggested by Gary Taubes’ books Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat:

  • Reducing my carb intake to 30g a day should improve my blood sugar (measured by A1c) and reduce my weight.

I had a second hypothesis, and to some extent this was a mistake because ideally I’d be testing one “treatment” at a time. But I did have a second problem that was becoming oppressive, and that was my near life-long difficulty with “nervous stomach”, “heartburn”, “GERD” and irritable bowl syndrome. The book Wheat Belly suggested this was consistent with a sensitivity to wheat. So I added a second hypothesis:

  • Eliminating wheat from my diet should improve my GERD and IBS.

But I didn’t stop there, and effectively added a third hypothesis:

  • Increasing my exercise should improve my blood sugar and reduce my weight.

Now, in my case, this third hypothesis didn’t make a lot of difference because I’ve been pretty unsuccessful at really consistently adding exercise. So I didn’t learn anything from this one. I think, however, that actually stating my hypothesis and writing it down would have been somewhat helpful at keeping me focused.

Step Three: Define your Measures

For my hypotheses, there were some obvious measures: weight and blood sugar, with the blood sugar measured daily by glucometer and at start and end by a clinical HbA1c test.

I didn’t make any sort of formal measure of the GERD problem beyond just my perception of it. If I were doing it again, I might do something like track when I needed heartburn medicine or something.

Step Four: Establish a fixed time span.

Yeah, yeah, 13 weeks, you know already. In fact it was two thirteen-week trials.

Step Five: Evaluate your results.

Looking back, at the end of my first thirteen weeks, things were doing reasonably well. I’d lost 25 pounds, my A1c was much better, I was generally feeling pretty pleased. I decided “persevere” — I’d continue the same treatment I’d been pursuing, giving it another 13 weeks, but not revising it dramatically.

At the end of my second 13 week trial, back on 9 May, I wasn’t as pleased. I’d only lost a few pounds, and my blood sugar had stayed effectively flat. (In fact, while my morning fasting glucose had fallen some, my A1c actually went up a little.)

It was time to pivot.

The Keys to Effective Change

I think that I’ve learned some key ideas, guidelines or hints, that go along with trying to make a change. Now, as always, these are what I’ve learned from my own experience, but, well, I’m not that unusual; I think other people can apply them usefully. So here are my key thoughts about making a change in your life.

Make a change.

Something that has bothered me with people for many years is this: they aren’t happy with where they are, but they won’t change. But it’s a law of nature: the one certain way to make sure nothing gets better is to not change anything.

Give it time.

Any realistic attempt to change something significant in your life will take some time. The only way of losing 50 pounds in a week is if you have a humongous tumor taken out. And as I’ve seen with my diet, if a change is happening slowly, it can be hard to tell if it’s happening at all.

Don’t be attached.

Remind yourself “this is an experiment. If it doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. I am not my weight; I am not my results.” Or as Steven Pressfield says:

The problem isn’t you. The problem is the problem.

Forgive yourself.

At least if you’re like me, there’s a lurking sense in the back of your mind that if only you didn’t screw up so much, things would be perfect, so when things are imperfect it’s All My Fault.

Don Miguel Ruiz wrote an amazing book, The Four Agreements. (Amazing, that is, if you can cope with the New Age Woo Woo at the beginning of the book. Juat figure it’s poetic and metaphorical, because once you get through the woo woo don Miguel’s actual teaching is very concrete.) The whole book is worthwhile, but here are the Four Agreements.

Be impeccable with your word.

“Don’t lie,” you say. “Big deal, that’s kindergarten stuff.” But what’s really important here is that you try to be objective and truthful in every word you say or think, including to yourself or about yourself.  If you’re telling yourself that you’re an idiot, or that you can never lose weight because you don’t have enough willpower, you are abusing yourself and making yourself feel worse.

Don’t take anything personally.

Remember, everyone you meet has their own problems, and those problems spill over into the way they treat you. If someone calls you a name, it’s at least as much about them as about you — you have a choice whether to agree or not.

Don’t make assumptions.

Imagine you have a fight with a significant other, after which you can’t reach this other by phone for hours. If you’re like most people — sure as hell me — then you go from anger, to a calmer state, to worry that this other person isn’t “speaking” to you, to panicked calling to all the local hospitals. You suffer the tortures of the damned imagineing this other in someone else’s arms — or in an emergency room after an accident — or dead in a ditch.

Then the phone rings: it’s the other, who tells you about dropping the phone in the toilet.

Always do your best.

This is a tricky one, because it sounds like perfectionism creeping back in. What don Miguel means, however, is a little different from how it sounds: he’s saying “you always are doing your best.” You, and everyone around you, is making constant decisions that seem like the right idea at the time. If it didn’t work, learn from it and let it go.

Pivot or Persevere

The final key lets you adapt as time goes on. If, after you’ve given a “treatment” 13 weeks it isn’t working, detach from it. You can try another treatment. The question here is “did that experiment work? Should I persevere in this treatment? If not, can I find another hnypothesis for the next trial?”

Making Your Own 13 Week Experiment

So now, let’s walk through the process of proposing your own 13 Week Experiment by example, as I lay out my own thoughts for my next 13 week experiment.

Step one, stating the desired change, is easy — it’s the same issue. I want to live. No, seriously, that’s what it really is. I want to get (keep) my blood sugar down, I want to feel strong and look good.

At this point, I’m going to bring in another book, Robert Fritz’ The Path of Least Resistance. He proposes some guidelines for stating the change you want. First of all, it has to be stated clearly enough that you’ll know if you get it. I’ve been basically thinking about this for more than six months, and I think I can easily state the outcome I want. Fritz takes it a bit farther thought, and suggests this:

  • Start from a clean slate. No history, you’re starting at your start date and where you are is where you are. (No matter where you go.)
  • Ask yourself what do I want? Don’t think about how you’re going to get there or whether it’s possible, just what do I want?

Okay. So what do I want?

  • I want to be completely off diabetes medications because my blood sugar is normal
  • I want to weigh less than 220 pounds,
  • I want my waist to be smaller than my hips.
  • I want to be healthy and strong.

Step two, the hypothesis. What could lead to this change? After the plateau with a straight low-carb diet, I want to try something different. So here are the treatments (and yes, I’m doing multiples again. Seriously, kids don’t try this at home.)

  • Following a basic “slow carb” diet will reduce my weight while keeping my blood sugar as measured by A1c at 6.2 or below.

That accounts for the first two desired changes. For the second two, I think there’s good reason to think changing my exercise habits will make the most difference on waist size and being “healthy and strong.” Previous experiments with exercise haven’t been terrifically successful, so I’m going to try a new program there too.

  • Following an exercise program (which I’ll fully define later) will improve my waist/hips ratio and increase my feelings of well-being.

But I hate exercising, so based on a Facebook suggestion, I’m adding one more thing.

  • Trying one new activity a week has a better chance of leading me into an exercise i like.

Step three is defining your measures. Now, this is a place that requires a bit of thought. The obvious measure is weight, and the method of measuring it is with a scale, but weight alone isn’t the issue because it’s too “noisy”. Especially with a slow weight loss, normal variation can mask it.

What we want is something that consultants call a SMART statement: Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Reasonable, and Trackable. We want a specific numerical measure if we can get one; weight has that. It’s certainly measurable.

Acceptable is a bit of a puzzlement, since we know that body weight has its own measurement problems. So instead of talking about weight, let’s look at weight over time, and estimate the slope, median and standard deviation. For blood sugar, we’ll use fasting blood sugar before breakfast (same half hour, probably.)

Reasonable and trackable now fall out: with no unreasonable images of what I must do, we’ll concentrate on these measures, and track them.

  • Rate of change in weight over time
  • Rate of change in glucose over time
  • A full set of body measurements once a month.

Step four is setting a time scale. This will be a 13 week trial starting June 1st 2013, so the experiment will run until August 31st, 2013.


I would like see how this works with other people; I think it’s good but I’ve got a sample size of, like, 1. So now I’m looking for people to formally create their own 13 weeks experiments. I’m hoping to build a web site to support people doing 13 week experiments. If anyone is interested, please send me a note at
[email protected].