§3 – Strategy

(Part 3 of 3 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.

How our beliefs about what controls our weight may actually affect our weight

(Part 14 of 14 in John Briffa's "A Good Look at Good Health")


Another finding of this recent research was that those who believed weight is primarily determined by activity generally ate more than those who believed diet is more important. I am wondering if this observation is, at least in part, a reflection of a belief some have that they can eat relatively freely as long as they ‘exercise it off’. For the reasons I’ve listed above, I’m not sure this strategy is likely to work out too well. And on top of this, sometimes the issue can be compounded by individuals ‘rewarding’ themselves after exercise with food or drink.

Exercise is a huge part of my health (my goals, my reasons for success, etc). But it has, basically, nothing to do with my loss of weight.

Why we walk on our heels instead of our toes


Humans are very efficient walkers, and a key component of being an efficient walker in all kind of mammals is having long legs,” Webber said. “Cats and dogs are up on the balls of their feet, with their heel elevated up in the air, so they’ve adapted to have a longer leg, but humans have done something different. We’ve dropped our heels down on the ground, which physically makes our legs shorter than they could be if were up on our toes, and this was a conundrum to us (scientists).

Turns out heel-to-toe rolling gives longer *effective* leg length. Our lower legs are exquisite.

The Shoe Cushioning Myth


The above is a great article! It’s long, detailed, and clear. But first, think about this…

You know — intuitively — that some amount of energy goes into your legs any time you move on your feet. You know that shoes are not magic; They don’t magically consume energy making it disappear. So the energy from any impact (walk, run, jump) is still coming into your legs from the ground. Cushioned shoes TRICK your perception into feeling things are going great. In reality, the only way to control/lessen the impact on your joints is to CHANGE the mechanics of your feet, ankle, knee, stride, jump, etc.

Think of your shoes as a power tool! Those who can use a screw driver well — who fully understand everything about screws and all the features of the power screw driver — can really get a lot of quality work done with a power screw driver. Conversely, a lot of damage can be done with a power tool in unskilled hands.

Vitamin D improves energy production in muscles of vitamin D-deficient people

(Part 13 of 14 in John Briffa's "A Good Look at Good Health")


In this study, muscle function was assessed in a group of 12 individuals with known vitamin D deficiency. The assessment centred around timing the replenishment in the muscle of a substance known as phosphocreatine. Phosphocreatine is a key molecule in the production of energy (in the form of what is known as ATP) by tiny ‘powerhouses’ in the cells of our body known as mitochondria (pronounced my-toe-con-dree-ah). Shorter phosphocreatine replenishment times after activity are a sign of better mitochondrial function.

Vitamin D supplementation was found to lead to a significant reduction in phosphocreatine replenishment times, signalling an improvement in mitochondrial functioning. Fatigue ratings improved in all the study participants too.

The more I read, the more I believe that Vitamin D is a keystone for my health and progress. I believe that getting more sun exposure (walking, running, and Parkour outside), combined with taking vitamin D supplements has enabled a lot of other successes: Better sleep, better immune system functioning, better mood (ever hear of “Seasonal Affliction Disorder”?) and now, some evidence that it really does affect the performance of your mitochondria — your cells little power-houses.

Polyphenols, Hormesis and Disease: Part II

(Part 11 of 12 in Stephan Guyenet's "Whole Health Source")


I think that overall, the evidence suggests that polyphenol-rich foods are healthy in moderation, and eating them on a regular basis is generally a good idea. Certain other plant chemicals, such as suforaphane found in cruciferous vegetables, and allicin found in garlic, exhibit similar effects and may also act by hormesis. Some of the best-studied polyphenol-rich foods are tea (particularly green tea), blueberries, extra-virgin olive oil, red wine, citrus fruits, hibiscus tea, soy, dark chocolate, coffee, turmeric and other herbs and spices, and a number of traditional medicinal herbs. A good rule of thumb is to “eat the rainbow”, choosing foods with a variety of colors.

This is part 2 of the best series on polyphenols I have ever found. I bet they don’t work the way you think they work… and they’re NOT antioxidants, except in your digestive tract, where they actually help prevent YOUR OWN GUT from creating trans fats …and they’re actually a toxic stressor… oh, just click already :P

Intermittent Fasting: A Beginner’s Guide


Beyond vanity, the reported health effects of an intelligently designed Intermittent Fasting program read like a laundry list of live longer, live better benefits including: reduced blood lipids, blood pressure, markers of inflammation, oxidative stress, and cancer. Increased cell turnover and repair, fat burning, growth hormone release, and metabolic rate. And improved appetite control, blood sugar control, cardiovascular function, and neuronal plasticity.

This is a terrific overview. It’s writen by a physician and is intended to get you thinking about how you eat; As opposed to trying to talk you into trying it.

How often should we eat?

(Part 12 of 14 in John Briffa's "A Good Look at Good Health")


When I started experimenting with intermittent fasting a year or so ago, it occurred to me that my previous beliefs about our ‘need’ to eat three times a day were just wide of the mark for me and, as it turns out, a lot of other people now. I now encourage a much more fluid approach based on the two guidelines above. One thing it’s done for me and others is to liberate us from the supposed need to eat by the clock. The benefits can be huge. In general, taking a more fluid approach seems to lead to people eating less, having more time, and being less preoccupied with food. These are usually big pluses for people.

Study suggests that, for optimal fat loss, the best thing to eatbefore exercise is nothing at all

(Part 11 of 14 in John Briffa's "A Good Look at Good Health")


The concept of endurance athletes stocking up on carbs has, I think, fuelled the notion that we should ideally have some sort of fuel inside of us prior to exercise. However, as I explain here, there is an argument for avoiding spikes in blood sugar is seeking to maximise one’s capacity to utilise fat as a fuel during exercise. I think there’s an argument for consuming little or nothing before exercise unless, perhaps, exercise is to be very prolonged.

Sometimes people don’t believe me when, around 11am in the middle of some crazy physical activity, it comes up that I haven’t yet eaten anything. I usually ask them why they think they must eat every waking hour? Why is “breakfast the most important meal of the day”? Why do you eat what you generally eat? And then I ask them to consider looking into the notions they have about nutrition…

The Twinkie Diet for Fat Loss

(Part 10 of 12 in Stephan Guyenet's "Whole Health Source")


Then how do so many people maintain a stable weight over years and decades? And how do wild animals maintain a stable body fat percentage (except when preparing for hibernation) even in the face of food surpluses? How do lab rats and mice fed a whole food diet maintain a stable body fat percentage in the face of literally unlimited food, when they’re in a small cage with practically nothing to do but eat?

The answer is that the body isn’t stupid. Over hundreds of millions of years, we’ve evolved sophisticated systems that maintain “energy homeostasis”.

This is why I’ve been losing weight, slowly for years now. Lots of little changes that shift the balance.