Someone once said that a good epic starts in the middle. (Actually it was Horace, it was in his Ars Poetica around 13BC, and he made the distinction between something that started ab ovo, “from the egg”, or in medias res, “in the middle of things”, but then inserting a lengthy side bar with references to Classical Latin in a diet column might seem erudite but really would be sort of pretentious and silly, don’t you think?)
In any case, we’re starting in the middle of this story. Tomorrow, 5 January 2014, I’m starting the fifth (and sixth, more on this later) of my 13 week experiments in changing and improving my health and my life. The first one started in November 2012, more than a year ago, motivated by the most reasonable of things: I don’t want to die. I most especially don’t want to die young, and I felt like both of my parents had.
I have reasons to be concerned. I’ve had problems with my weight since I was six, and at the time I started this I was around 300 lbs, I was well along into type II diabetes, and I had severe sleep apnea that was manifesting in something close to narcolepsy. I live in a two-story house and I was finding that I was pre-planning trips up and down the stairs because they wore me out.
Now, a year later, I’ve made some significant changes. I’m around 265 lbs, my blood sugar is much improved, and I run up and down the stairs with wild abandon and cups of hot coffee. But I’m not done yet. I want to lose more weight, and I’ve got some new challenges in my life, with a new job and a certain feeling that I have more to do.
Last week, I talked about these all as one experiment, but I think that was a mistake: I think I’ve got two kinds of changes I want to make and I need to look at them in two parts.
First, there’s weight, blood sugar, and health. I’ve lost around 35 pounds, and I’d like to lose another 35, and I want to do it in a sustainable livable fashion. I’ve got no doubt that if I cut back to 800 Calories a day for long enough, I’d lose the weight, but there are a lot of reasons — including personal experience — to think that’s not a workable solution.
I’ve also cut my blood sugar, as measured by HgA1c, from 7.5 percent (or an average of around 190 mg/dL) to 6.5 percent (150 mg/dL). This is a good start, but I’d like to cut it to something more like 5.5 percent.
Second, there’s life balance and productivity. I started over the holidays to think about all the things I want to do; I’ve got something like 12 books, fiction and non-fiction, two startups and ideas for several more, articles and ideas and a partridge in a pear tree. I’m basically immensely creative, and have way more ideas than I know what to do with. I’m also inclined to get very immersed in things. I’d call it “workaholic” except, well, it’s not that I’m doing things I hate. Basically, I love writing and I love the whole process involved with building computer systems, and that’s what I spend my time doing. While I’d kind of like to do a few other things — I haven’t painted in years — the truth is I’m doing what I like. You could make a case that I’m already retired — I’m doing what I’d do if I were retired.
Still, there are some things I want to change. In particular, I want to be more effective getting from idea to product, and I want to make sure the various projects I’m involved with get past the skin-prickling excitement stage to the oh-look-people-are-paying-me stage.
The upshot is that I realized I needed to do two experiments this time that are fairly independent. In the first, I’ll be pursuing the weight and blood sugar thing again. In the second, I’ll be working (along with Sarah Hoyt) on being more effective at getting things done.
I do think I’ve learned a good bit from the last year. To start with, I know that any time I thought “I’ve got to do this new thing for the rest of my life“, I got intimidated, and after the first lapse I felt like a failure and went to eat a cinnamon roll. Add to that, especially in the area of diet, I had a whole damn lot of experience that told me the conventional wisdom didn’t work, but I didn’t know what did work. So I decided to try things for a limited, but sufficient, time and measure the effects.
Then I had to decide what a “limited but sufficient” time meant. I’d seen a lot of 90 day plans and 12 week plans; that seemed like a good period, but it then hit my geek-nerd-OCD side. I hated that it didn’t come out even with a year.
Maybe this will make more sense if I tell you I eat three eggs or four eggs depending on whether I bought the eggs in a dozen (2×6) or a dozen and a half (3×6). I really just don’t like that row with an uneven number of eggs in it.
Don’t judge me.
As a writer and columnist, I live my life by weeks; months are an annoying and irregular overlay. And 13 weeks comes out nicely evenly with a year — 91 days, one calendar quarter, 3 months, with New Years Day and leap days off. Plus, I’m a triskadekaphile, I like 13s. Both of my parents were born on the 13th, they married on the 13th, I’ve lived many times at #13 or #1313 or apartment 13 or building 13. So 13 weeks it was.
Recently, a friend pointed out that Benjamin Franklin actually did 13 week programs of self-improvement: he had a list of 13 virtues, and would concentrate on each of them for a week at a time.
Ben Franklin was a writer, an entrepreneur, a diplomat, one of the Founding Fathers, a scientist, and was having torrid affairs with French chicks when he was in his 70s. Hard to argue with that.
So, thirteen weeks it is. For me. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t like 13 or whose life doesn’t organize around weeks, then 12 weeks or 90 days, or whatever. But for me, 13 weeks, and we’ve seen in the last year that it seems to be a natural period for a lot of people.
Setting a limited time meant I wasn’t faced with that “for the rest of my life!” thing, but there was a second issue that I had to confront. I was a bit of a child prodigy, my first time in college was at 7 years old and I was always that odd child who would rather be listening to Beethoven and Rossini in the living room with the grownups than playing tag with the other kids in the yard. Now, no complaints there — I still like Rossini. But there is a strange part to this: you don’t get to succeed very often, because being merely brilliant is just barely meeting expectations; not doing something brilliantly, however, is grave failure. When I was in fifth grade, someone asked me what my biggest fear was, and mine wasn’t, you know, spiders or something, it was fear of failure.
This can be paralyzing: it’s hard to start something if you don’t foresee a reward but you fear failing. And diets were something I’d failed at many many many times. I had to find a way around that, and frankly that paralysis was something that had been in my way in a lot of things; I needed to change.
By choosing a limited, 13 week, period, I could just look at it as an experiment. If it worked, good. If not, I’d try something else. But the key was not to let fear, and shame, and embarrassment, paralyze me. For me, at least, the key became:
- Make a change. If you don’t like the way things work now, do something else.
- Give it time. Bodies, minds, and lives don’t change instantly. Unless something really unexpected happens, stick out the whole 13 weeks.
- Don’t be attached. It’s an experiment. There will be more experiments. Don’t fixate on goals, don’t think about “success” or “failure”. As the AA folks say, one day at a time.
- Forgive yourself.I finally had to let go of all the times I’d failed — at dieting and other things — in the past, and I had to remember to continue to forgive myself when something didn’t work the way I wanted.
- Pivot or persevere? At the end of an experiment, decide whether those changes have been productive. If they have, continue; if not, change.
Now, last week I said I wanted to continue to lose weight and improve my blood sugar, get more exercise, get more done, and improve my life balance. During the week, I realized that was really two experiments, so here’s the plan for the next 13 weeks.
Diet and Exercise
I’ve plateaued pretty firmly at about 265 pounds. It’s become clear that there are a whole bunch of metabolic knobs that control weight regulation, and not merely calorie intake versus outgo. One that makes a difference for me is my intake of easily metabolized carbohydrates. I considered several alternative diets since the low-carb diets seemed to have lost effectiveness, but some of them I knew I’d have trouble maintaining — like going vegan. Keeping high-glycemic index carbs down I think is one reason I’ve had better luck with my blood sugar, so I didn’t want to change that, which eliminated the Body for Life diet, on which I’d had some success years ago — it depends on potatoes and whole grains fairly heavily. And full-on paleo was too daunting — eliminating coffee and cheese weren’t on my list of things I was anxious to try.
I could combine them into my own variant. As a type II diabetic, I need to keep my blood sugar low, but I’m also affected by blood sugar atypically — I start feeling real symptoms of hypoglycemia at higher blood sugar levels than most people do. We’ve also talked at some length over the last year about the research collected by Gary Taubes into the effect of high carb, and especially high carb high glycemic index diets. So the new dietary experiment combines a Taubes-inspired low carb diet with some paleo aspects (P) and some of Body for Life (BfL) and will be intended to keep my metabolism high and my blood sugar stable. The new diet rules are:
- Eat 5-6 times a day. (BfL)
- Emphasize unprocessed food and in particular natural fats, avoiding trans-fats and concentrated sugars. I’m going to try to add more grass-fed beef and more bison. (P)
- Maintain a low carb intake, 30g a day or less (P and Taubes)
- Maintain a low glycemic index on what carbs I do eat, staying below 50. (Taubes)
- Take a higher-carb “vacation” once a week, while maintaining the low glycemic index. (That’s inspired by BfL but modified by the requirements of blood sugar control.) Limit grains to vacation days. (P)
- No other rules. Well, one other rule, in that I’m continuing to avoid wheat, but that’s not so much a diet rule as an “I don’t enjoy stomach pain and intestinal cramps” rule.
The metabolism knob also has another way to affect it, and it’s certainly one of my least favorite cahnges: exercise. Instead of going for a real firm exercise plan, though — I know I have compliance problems with that — I’m adopting a couple of simpler rules:
- At least 15 minutes of some exercise every day.
- Some high-load strength exercises every week.
Life Balance and Productivity
This is a second experiment, and honestly I’m starting this one with about as few clues as I really had on the diet issues when I started dieting last year. Here’s the problem: I spend every day working on something from about 6AM until I fall over, and still I don’t feel like I’ve gotten enough done; at the same time, I feel overworked and harried. Starting in November, I joined a small startup, sumazi.com. In a company with about 5 people, titles aren’t important, but basically I’m the entire Engineering department and the entire Operations department.
I’m loving it. It’s work at home, I get to actually build things, and unlike my previous job, management isn’t threatened when I have an idea. But it also is real easy to find myself completely consumed: my writing, especially my columns here, and all the things going with diet and exercise, have suffered. When you work at home, it’s tough to leave the office.
My buddy and occasional writing partner Sarah Hoyt is noticing the same thing: she’s got a husband and family, and a million books to write, and her publishing ventures. She’s busy enough she’s working herself into the ground, and still doesn’t feel like enough is getting done.
So starting next week, we’re going to combine on a life-balance and productivity 13 week experiment. This time, we’ve got a couple things in mind, but for me at least the life changes are going to be:
- Shower and dress before sitting down at the computer. (I keep realizing it’s 4PM and I’m still in my underwear.)
- Leave the house and see natural light for at least 15 minutes a day.
- Limit the number of active projects running concurrently. When I have a new idea, write down the first flood of ideas and put them into the pile. Only activate a project when one of the others is done.
- Adopt/adapt the Getting Things Done and Kanban approaches, to make sure I’m making actual progress on the projects that are active.
- Learn how to stop work. Immediate goal is to stop work no more than 12 hours after I started.
Sarah and I are also going to be exploring tools and techniques, and talking to people who seem to be better at this, and writing about what we learn.
So there it is, and Dave is going to have convulsions when he sees I’ve written a 2374 word column. But I wanted to get these things all down. [Editor’s Note: Heh! Sarah’s been turning in 13 Weeks columns longer than this for months! :-P But thanks Charlie for doing such great work! – DS]
We’ve got another exciting season coming.