§1 – Introduction

(Part 1 of 4 in ~ Changes and Results)

I’ve lost a lot of weight and gotten a lot stronger in the last few years. But how, exactly, did I get to where I am now?

In 2011, I didn’t like where I was, and I don’t mean, “I was embarrassed about being fat.” I mean I was physically uncomfortable being sweaty, physically unable to get comfortable sitting, grumpy all the time, tired all the time, and more. I really wanted to change and I knew I needed to change before the Doctor started one of those, “Let’s talk about these numbers,” conversations.

Around that same time I’d discovered a few blogs…

I’d read a lot over at Nerd Fitness. I read all of Steve Kamb’s inspirational and motivational stuff.

The big take-away from NF was the loud-and-clear message about what does NOT work: Simply getting a gym membership does not work, declaring a New Year’s resolution does not work, and generally trying to “turn over a new leaf” does not work. Fortunately, rather than come away hopeless, I took it as a big comforting confirmation that I am not alone in sucking at changes.

Whatever it is that I’d been doing, that is EXACTLY what was NOT working.

I also read everything from Leo Babauta over at Zen Habits. For example, When Willpower is Trumped By Bad Habits is a great example of Leo-zen. Eventually, I finally teased a few more threads out of the Gordian knot that was my problem:

I am weak in willpower.

I need to stop beating myself up about failures and shortcomings.

I began by slowly making progress on some “health” projects, improving my sleep and more. (I’ll go into all of that in detail in subsequent parts.) As soon as I began taking Parkour classes, it became clear that I needed to ease into actual running. I also concluded that “regular” footwear was going to act as a crutch and slow down my progress in Parkour. (Long story. Just go with it for this discussion.) So I also switched to minimalist shoes for Parkour, for running and daily wear.

The result of running and Parkour? I was stiff, achy and sore literally all the time. It became glaringly obvious that I needed to start doing “recovery work” — stretching, massage, miofascial release, and basic range-of-motion movement if I was to have any hope of keeping up my hard work.

…and on and on.

I built upon each small success, one small step at a time.

Which brings me to today, and this series of posts. Here I’m going to document my journey by spelling out all the things I did. Hopefully, this roadmap will inspire others.

Next up, some Philosophy!

§2 – Philosophy

(Part 2 of 4 in ~ Changes and Results)

I wandered a haphazard path until I learned some philosophical lessons and made some critical, first changes. I tried many different things, keeping what seemed to help and abandoning what did not. It is only through hindsight that I can share the things which are the foundations of my progress.

The first step in my journey was realizing I was unhappy. This realization — detecting it, understanding it, believing it, surrendering to it, and finally owning it — was the first piece of bedrock on which I started building. I was clearly in a slow, downward spiral, and this realization led me to thrash around trying to change things.

( I didn’t find this until years later, but Leo Babauta has a wonderful post about, The Spiral. )

My initial progress was glacial as I began working on the twin skills of self-awareness and self-analysis. Although I began my journey blissfully unaware and ignorant, my problems became increasingly obvious. Owning up to each problem required all my fortitude and courage. Step by step I found the motivation to begin changing my life. It was the discomfort of the status-quo which motivated me to change; Without that discomfort — without the self-awareness which created that discomfort — I would simply have continued my downward spiral.

Along the way, it was also important to realize I was fragile (physically, mentally and emotionally), and that I would need to build up a tremendous, new resilience. Becoming mentally and physically resilient creates a comfort zone. It means that bumps in the road may slow, stop, or even set back my progress. But they will never turn my upward spiral into a downward spiral. In truth, I was well into building up my resilience before I understood what I was doing. But as my understanding caught up, it became possible to work intentionally on resilience.

( One article which helped solidify my understanding was about, Anchoring One’s Resilience in Your Authentic Self. )

Although I remain a work in progress, my success is entirely built on the simple philosophy of continuous self improvement. Unfortunately, it is not at all simple to implement. I tried a litany of changes — small and large, easy and hard, crazy and clever, pointless and miraculous — as I incessantly kept learning, experimenting, and building upon each tiny success and advance. The things which worked for me form the remaining parts of this series.

( It wasn’t until far into my journey that I learned of the Observer, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop. )

Which would boil down to these essentials:

– I owned up to being unhappy.
– I built up my skills of self-awareness and self-assessment.
– I built up my mental and physical resilience.
– I began making continuous self-improvement changes.

§3 – Strategy

(Part 3 of 4 in ~ Changes and Results)

The bulk of this series is about the various major changes I have made. In the big picture sense, it’s just a long list of posts with actionable ideas for you to consider. Unfortunately, accomplishing any of these changes requires you to be able to break old habits and create new ones.

There’s plenty of information available on habit change, so I’m leaving the psychology of habit change out of this series. Instead, I’m going to suggest one activity: Keep a habit journal. I started my habit journal, began by trying to fix my sleep, and slowly began my upward spiral.

For the rest of this series I won’t – I promise! – tell you the back story of how I discovered and explored each change I’ll be describing. Instead, I’ll compress each as much as I can, with as much actionable intel as possible. But for this “Strategy” part of the series, I want to tell you the story of how I discovered and started my habit journal.

This entire “Changes and Results” story begins with me realizing I needed to get more, quality sleep. It was a slow realization, and it sprang from some online articles I had stumbled upon. As I read more, I became curious about my sleep, and found I was often thinking about my sleep and how to improve it.

To make any change, new knowledge is required; What would the change look like? What are healthy sleep cycles, duration and times-of-day? What temperature, light and sound levels are conducive to good sleep? What room details (the bed, the colors, the room layout) and room uses (is the room multi-use or a space where I only sleep) are conducive to good sleep? It turns out that all of that knowledge is out there, and so I dug into it to varying degrees until I felt I had satisfactory answers to some of my questions.

But, all that new knowledge accomplishes nothing.

I had identified a problem, (“get better sleep”,) which gave me new questions. From there, my curiosity led me to new knowledge. At that point, I knew what I wanted to change, but right there is where I had always failed.

Enter, stage left, Benjamin Franklin.

One day, still frustrated and making no progress on improving my sleep, I read an article about Ben Franklin. Franklin had set out to improve himself over the course of several years. He came to the conclusion that there were too many different things to focus on for him to improve himself in one broad effort:

It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; Habit took the advantage of inattention; Inclination was sometimes too strong for reason.

I had reached the same conclusion, (but, alas, without the same eloquence,) when I was unable to change things by simply desiring them to change. Goals such as: sleep better, be less grumpy, and lose some weight, all failed to materialize.

Franklin went on to create a grid, with a row for each virtue and a column for each day of the week. At the end of each day, he put a mark if he felt he hadn’t lived up to that virtue on that day. The goal was then to have no marks on the grid at the end of the week. Each week he would focus particularly on one virtue (and he cycled through his 13 virtue goals.) He began each week by re-reading a small reminder he’d written about the week’s focus virtue (for example, “Humility: Be not Achilles; Imitate Socrates.”) He would then set about focusing on that virtue during the week. Franklin was working on a list of virtues such as Tranquility or Temperance, but his system works perfectly well for anything.

[O]n the whole, though I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.

Inspired by Franklin, I began my habit journal more than ten years ago. At the beginning of each month I create a table with the dates across the top, and a row for each thing I’d like to work on that month. Initially, I had a small notebook just for these monthly habit journal tables. I started with rows for 6, 7 or 8, hours of sleep and put a corresponding mark for each day. This created a rough graph running across the month. That visual graph really gave me a push: “Yesterday’s mark is 6.5 hours, if I go to bed right now, I can put tomorrow’s mark at 7.” (I’ll go into the details of my sleep changes in the next post.)

Eventually, if something becomes an ingrained habit, I remove it from the grid; If it becomes a problem again, I add it back and work on it again. Sometimes I don’t get around to filling in the table, and the next day, I’m thinking, “Not two days in a row! Fill it in!” Which serves to further reinforce my paying attention to my daily goals.

(When I travel, I usually leave the habit journal behind and track nothing. Generally, I don’t have the time and my schedule is changed, so filling it in or even sticking to the habit plans would be tough. But such trips — little breaks from the habit journal — serve as test runs with the training wheels off. A three-day weekend, for example, gives me a lot to think about when I pick up my habit journal upon returning home to my normal routine.)

The monthly habit journal tables grew in size and complexity as I added and tracked more things, and eventually tracked many things. But there’s no need to start with complexity. Start with columns for the days of the month, and make a row for that one thing you want to work on first. Next month, assess how you did, adjust as necessary, and add a row if you want to work on a second thing.

In the very beginning, I used a small, square-gridded, notebook, but my tables eventually outgrew the page size. Years later, I started journalling and I didn’t want to have both a habit journal and a “regular” journal. So I invested the time to copy all the historical grids into my journal so I’d always be able to refer to them.

So what does this actually look like? Here’s my (recopied) habit journal table from the very first month, December 2006:

…and here is the table from, February 2017:


That’s really all there is to it. These little grids are the framework on which I hang whatever it is I’m trying to change.

§4 – Sleep Prologue

(Part 4 of 4 in ~ Changes and Results)

I’ve been talking about writing a post about sleep for years. But as I started writing, it turned into a huge article. Which makes sense, because fixing my sleep is the single most important healthy change I have ever made.

I realized that if I wanted to get a sufficient, healthy amount of sleep — let’s say around 8 hours — I would be spending ONE THIRD of my life sleeping. That means sleeping vastly outweighs any other activity in my life. I became determined to optimize the time spent sleeping and to ARRANGE MY LIFE AROUND SLEEPING. This was the critical, first step.

Failing to plan is planning to fail

I only know how much sleep works for me. You’ll need to find out for yourself how much sleep you need. This is another spot where the habit journal will really pay off. If you can track when you go to sleep, when you wake, how much sleep you get, and your quality of sleep, then you can make changes as you review each month.

One detail I’ve discovered is that some days I simply need extra sleep. So while I have a consistent plan, some days I’m stumble-down tired a half an hour before I’d normally turn in for the night. In these cases I just go to bed a little early, and with that extra half hour I usually feel terrific the next morning. There’s no feeling to match that of walking up, fully refreshed, a few minutes before the alarm.

I started by considering the time I needed to be at work, and subtracted time working backwards (commute, breakfast, shower, etc.) to determine what time I actually needed to get up. It was basically when my alarm was already set for, but it was good to double-check by consciously figuring this out. From there I just backed up 8 hours and that told me when I needed to go to sleep.

That gave me my very first sleep hack: Get to bed at the appointed time. That would lead to sufficient sleep (sufficient is the first hurdle, quality comes next), and a reset of my life at the start of each day. But it was immediately clear that I would have to change much of my evening habit. Dinner had to be coordinated at a more consistent, earlier time, and I had to break the habit of lounging in front of the TV.

This is all VERY hard to do.

I worked to consistently use my habit journal, and to review each month. Each day that I wasn’t in bed on time, I reminded myself that SLEEP was the most important thing in my life. These days — a decade later — I do deviate from the plan. Usually it’s when I’m traveling, or intentionally out late. But the point is: I HAVE A PLAN. My sleep plan sets me up FOR SUCCESS, rather than having no plan, and sabotaging the rest of my life each day, before I even open my eyes.

Partner Buy-in

Since I share sleeping space, this was the first, serious issue I had to solve.

I found that every night we enacted the following scene: I would get sleepy, and ask her, “What time do you want to go to bed?” The response was usually, “I just need ten minutes to finish this up.” Ten minutes later, it’s role reversal: She’s ready for bed, but I’m busy with something new and it’s my turn to ask for 10 more minutes. We’d then repeat this until 1am when we’d both crash, exhausted, and get yet another terrible night of sleep.

( Sound familiar? Maybe for you it’s roommates, or guests that are around all the time. Whatever. )

Our solution was to set a bed time, and a lights-out time. Everyone goes to bed at bed time. At “lights-out” time, the ready-for-bed person, is permitted to turn off EVERY light in the house (because we sleep in darkness), leaving the other to stumble into bed IN THE DARK — no turning lights on after bed time! This means you have to learn to plan the end of your evening so you can have time for your bedtime routine.

Why bed times? Why lights out rules? Because we realize that we must go to bed on time, so we can wake up on time, having slept well.

Sleep is priority number one.

Next up

A long list of sleep hacking ideas…