The edge of nutrition

The problem

It has been almost two months since I started this blog and three months since I started working with Chris. I look back on my progress and in some ways I am very happy. I have taken huge strides in my ability to monitor and optimize my recovery. I am sleeping much better using CPAP. I am getting steadily stronger. I recently squatted 255# for 5 reps deadlifted 365# for 3 reps. I am as strong as I have ever been and I feel like I am finally ready to take the next steps into a new range of strength for me.

On the other hand, I still weigh 230# and I am not as fit as I want to be. Looking at the big picture, I feel that nutrition is the problem. I asked Chris if he would be willing to coach me on this also. He is very busy with other things right now, however, so he had planned to refer me to a colleague.

And then I read this…

I Know Exactly What to Do

After reading this post, the way forward was obvious. First of all, everything in the post fits with an excellent book titled The Slight Edge. If anything in the blog post resonates with you, I highly recommend getting a copy of the book and reading it cover to cover. Most of the points I will address in this post are taken from these two sources.

With this new idea of committment and accountability being the secret ingredients, I wrote back to Chris.

Snap 1Snap 2

He is on board. And as I said in the text, before I did a little research on the topic, I didn’t even really understand what I was asking him for. I just knew that my nutrition is not great and I can do better. But the realization that (a) I know what to do, and (b) the reason I often do not do it is a product of committments and accountability made a great deal of sense. I am working so hard on other areas that it does not make sense to continue eating bad food and not seeing the results of my work.

So starting today, I will be keeping a food log that I will send to him for review each day. The point, as I stated, is that I know what right looks like. I need accountability to get it done.

The slight edge principles

The principles of the slight edge are fundamental. The idea is that we all pretty much know how to be successful. When your survival is at risk (whether that means actual survival such as the person who just had a heart attack and has to change their lifestyle or metaphorical survival such as financial ruin after a lost job), you figure out how to get the job done. You obsess. You perseverate. You throw caution to the wind and do what it takes. So if we know how to do what we need to do, why do we keep falling down? The answer is not more books, lectures, seminars, and so on. It is not more knowledge. It is also not inspiration. Getting inspired leads to an emotional response. A case in point is the following video.

This is one of my favorite inspirational videos. I watch this and want to go lift something heavy and run for miles. The feeling, however, does not persist. It fades.So how do we maintain the practices when the feeling fades?

Habit.

The point of habits is to allow us to perform complex functions efficiently, meaning that we do not have to expend a great deal of mental effort each time we do something. Whether that is our morning hygiene rituals, our drive to work, or selecting what we will eat for lunch, automation allows us to use far less mental energy for the same outcome.

The first step in managing a habit is to identify the cue. This is the signal that tells the brain to go into automatic mode. In the case of a sleep habit, for example, the cue may be getting the kids into bed, seeing the sun set, or finishing dinner.

The next step in the process is to create a craving. One of the biggest habits I have struggled with in my life, as I have said before, is diet soda. I have spent a good deal of time thinking about this habit, the cues, cravings, and rewards. And what I have realized is that the cue for me is any uncomfortable sensation in my mouth. It is hard to describe, but it comes down to any combination of dryness and a bland taste on the back of my tongue. That may sound strange, but just take my word for it. Once I get this cue, I immediately crave something very cold and stimulating, and diet soda over ice does this exactly. I have tried other things such as ice water and breath mints. Those work to a degree, but recently I discovered La Croix flavored sparkling water. There are no artificial ingredients, just carbonated water with a little fruit juice for taste. As it turns out, this also perfectly satisfies the craving. The rewards, the third step, are immediate relief and a pleasurable sensation. I have not had a diet soda since I discovered this option.

Find a simple and obvious cue. Then clearly define the rewards. This will show you the habit. The next and most important step is to figure out what routine you follow that gets you to that reward right now (diet soda to get that mouth tingle I was looking for) and then identify another routine (in my case sparkling water) that gives you a similar result but that is superior to your first routine.

Mindfully developing habits is the single best way to engineer your life. But while you are developing the neural pathways for the habit to form, you have some hard work ahead of you. There are several secrets to keeping the ship on course while the habit is forming.

Secret #1. Instill a sense of urgency

A perfect example of this principle was my two physical fitness assessment failures during my vascular surgery fellowship. A third failure would have meant being separated from the Navy, effectively losing my job before I even got started. Arguably I would make much more money as a civilian, but it is a sense of pride and mission for me to work in the military. It was intensely personal to remain in the Navy and it would have been humiliating to be let go for a failure of fitness. So after the first failure, I started running regularly, ate less, and greatly improved my cardiovascular endurance. I should point out that it was not a fitness problem, it was a body fat percentage problem both times. After the first failure, I slimmed down, passed the body composition assessment, and then passed the fitness test easily. However, the very next time the test came up, I failed again, in the same way. Once the urgency was gone from the first failure, I had lost the drive to change, to be uncomfortable, to move outside my comfort zone. So once again, urgency drove me to focus on my fitness and get where I needed to be. I clearly had the understanding and knowledge to do what needed to be done. But without the catalyst of urgency, nothing got done.

A similar thing happened to my father. He smoked cigarettes for awhile when I was young, smoked a pipe briefly, and finally settled on chewing tobacco. He tried many times to give it up and could not seem to break the habit. Until the day when he found a black lesion on his gums. Calling this a “sense of urgency” would be putting it mildly. He quit tobacco cold turkey and never looked back. Fortunately, the lesion turned out to be nothing serious. But the urgency did its job.

Secret #2. Making the important urgent

Sometimes life generates a sense of urgency for us. Our bank account is overdrawn. We suffer a heart attack. We lose our job. Our spouse asks for a divorce. Our child is in trouble in school. Any number of disasters can happen which force us to react. But it is clearly not in our best interest to wait for these times. How can we generate urgency before it is necessary?

When it comes to physical fitness, one technique is competition. Having a deadline at which time we know that we will be going up against others to prove who is the best can be extremely motivating. It can be an organized event, a friendly informal competition, or just a bet with a friend. In fact, this unspoken competition at the Crossfit gym is a big reason why Crossfit is so successful. You go in each day knowing that you have to perform to some degree.

Another technique is touched on in the last point…accountability.

Secret #3. Small steady changes

If you took my advice and looked at The Slight Edge, you will note that the points I have made thus far track closely with what Jeff Olsen has written. We do not need more knowledge; we know how to succeed. But there is a constant shifting between extremes in our life. At one moment, we are in danger of some unpleasant outcome. We are carrying too much bodyfat and swimsuit season is coming, for example. So the urgency strikes and we do what we know we need to do. But once urgency recedes, which it does when we approach whatever defines “survival,” in this case looking good in the bathing suit, we return to what is easy. We lose the urgency. And we start to sink back to where we were before. And the cycle continues.

But if we could keep doing those small, seemingly insignificant things that are so easy to do, but just as easy not to do, then we would see our state continue to improve. In a sense, what we are doing is raising our baseline.

Secret #4. Raise the baseline

Everyone oscillates between extremes. It is where we set the baseline that defines us. For example, if I am capable on average of running 5 miles in 45 minutes, that performance will vary depending on my physical state, recovery, how hard and specifically I am training, etc. Let’s say I have a competition coming up and I train very hard and manage to bring my 5 mile time down to 41:00. Once the competition is past, I would tend to revert to my usual habits and practices and my time would go back up. Possibly over 45:00 for a while, but it should eventually settle out around 45:00. But what if I could change my average, my baseline? How do I make 41:00 the new normal? Alot of this has to do with your personal expectations, your self-image, and your environment and the people with whom you choose to associate. If you think of yourself as a person who runs an 8 minute mile, then you will tend to do the things you need to do in order to maintain that self-image. Other people will reflect that image to you. They will come to treat you in the way you project yourself. There is power in determining who you choose to be; that is the “first creation” image we present to the world, and that is generally what the world responds to.

Secret #5. Lock in the changes through the development of habits

As I mentioned before, the single best means for ensuring success in any endeavor is to create a habit that will support the effort. Want to be financially successful? Make saving part of your income a habit. Automate it. In the current era, it is easy to automate a withdrawal from your paycheck to fund any number of investments. If you never see it, you never miss it. Want to be physically fit? Develop a series of habits that support good nutrition, sleep and recovery, and intense exercise. Small deposits every day lead to large rewards.

 Secret #6. Maintain accountability

This is the final, and in many ways, the most important secret. Attempting to engineer change in your life is difficult, and having someone to whom you are accountable can make all of the difference. As I mentioned to Chris in the text conversation above, knowing that he is there watching, expecting me to give my best effort, makes it much harder for me to do anything less.

It is an uncomfortable step allowing someone to be that close, to see us for who we really are instead of who we pretend to be. But once you find a coach or a friend that you can be completely honest and open with, you have one of the most powerful tools for change you can find. The trick, however, is not sugar coating things. A good coach is going to demand that you be completely honest with him and yourself. Why did you skip the 100 burpee workout? Did you really have to stay late at work, or was that just an excuse to avoid something unpleasant? The first step is admitting the truth. You did not want to do the burpees, for example. Once you get in the habit of being honest, then you will generally tend to change the reality to fit your mental image of yourself.

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So that is it for now. I have been working on this post for awhile, wanting it to be perfect before I publish it, but I have just decided to put it out there. I will continue to flesh out these ideas in the upcoming posts. But to review, the keys are:

  • Develop habits that lead to success by identifying your cues and rewards and then defining the routine that suits your purposes
  • Practice making small commitments and following through
  • Create urgency through competition and deadlines
  • Maintain accountability to someone who will keep you honest
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