Keep watch on your own lie and examine it every hour, every minute. Who am I quoting?
That’s Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov. It’s my favorite literary quote and I keep it inscribed in my journal. That doesn’t, of course, make me any less susceptible to fooling myself or giving myself BS explanations of my behavior. It just reminds me to check in more often.
Right now I’m confronting my own sketchy stories about this supposed goal that I have and how much progress I’m making, which is... not much.
There are a bunch of different types of goals, of course. There are:
Other people’s goals for us, type 1, that we think we want but really don’t
Other people’s goals for us, type 2, that we pretend to want even though we know we don’t
Other people’s goals for us, type 3, against which we rebel rather than pursue our own plans
Goals we know how to reach
Goals we don’t know how to reach
Goals we hold in tandem with mutually exclusive goals
Goals we try to reach simultaneously with other very demanding goals
Goals we publicly set without privately forming a clear plan
At this moment, I am supposedly doing something that I already know how to do, which I have successfully done before, and that is to drop excess weight. I have made zero progress in the last week, even though I set myself a really appealing incentive.
See, I lost my AirPods in Belgium. This has been driving me up a tree. My daily routine is built around listening to audio books, and now I have to do it with cords dangling down my torso, just like the bad old days. They keep catching on every single door handle and drawer pull. I can’t help but notice several times a day that one of my favorite personal objects is now gone.
I decided I would wait to replace them until I hit a certain body weight milestone. Not the ultimate one, which is “healthy weight for my height,” but the closest that ends in a zero.
This incentive is very lively and real to me. These are two things I want, so let’s go! *clap clap* Get a move on!
What is happening is a classic example of a hollow goal without a system.
I have the clearly defined metric. I have the highly desirable incentive. I know both how to reach the goal and how to attain the incentive. I have the next steps of the plan laid out.
(Get replacement AirPods, start outdoor running again as soon as fall temperatures kick in any week now)
What I have not done is the one thing that I know really works, which is to keep a food log and write down everything I eat. I did this meticulously for over a year, out of sheer interest, and then I quit, and then I gradually gained weight again.
There are a lot of cute little lies that many people tell ourselves. The crowd will join in. “It’s muscle!” they cry. Uh, no. “You don’t need to lose any weight!” they cry. I could make a bingo card with all the predictable responses. Everyone understands a bunch of things that pop culture demands of us around body image and women’s body transformation, to wit, adding weight makes people smarter and sexier, losing weight drives women insane. Simple, right?
In my case, I understand that gaining weight on my own personal body, the body that I inhabit and which is my only possession in this world, causes me suffering. It is highly correlated with migraine and night terrors. I was free of both of these conditions for four years, and then I gained weight, and then at a predictable level, they came back. I snapped awake with night terrors again just last night.
The Venn diagrams of “body image” and “quality of life” don’t overlap in my world.
How can I care whether other people think I look cute during a migraine? OR during night terrors?
That’s not what this is about.
What it’s about is whether I do the things that make sense to me and whether I can tolerate the consequences.
It’s true that there is a lot going on in my life right now. We just moved, and we had a chaotic summer, and our dog has been ill, and my husband has been traveling a lot for work, and our schedule is all over the place. Those are elements of background information, not explanations.
The root cause of my problem is that I don’t want to spend three minutes a day writing down what I eat.
Then I remind myself that night terrors are also annoying, and through my inaction I have bought myself an extra week of stasis.
This is where self-compassion comes in. It is more compassionate of me, toward myself, to work toward inner peace. That comes not from ignoring my body or tolerating the intolerable, but from caring for my body.
I could try to fake some level of pretense that I don’t really mind night terrors, that at least it isn’t something else. Actually no. In the moment, my limbic system is busy telling me I’m being chased by bears and wolves and snakes and I’m about to die. There is nothing further from inner peace. It is the worst feeling that I have in my life.
I just don’t think about it much when I’m on vacation, eating dessert every day.
I’m always going to be a “live to eat” person and I’m always going to be tempted by the whole package. Large portions! Desserts! French fries! Five meals a day! I have the appetites of a backpacker, boxer, and distance runner even when I haven’t done any of those activities in months or years. I have to balance that against reality, my desires in the context of my behaviors.
I have to keep watch on my own lie, every hour, every minute, either that or scratch those lines out of my journal.
This summer has really done a number on our waistlines. We went on three trips out of town, adding up to over a month. Between that, moving, and my series of oral surgeries, there hasn’t really been a normal day for us in months. Like most people, that means we haven’t been eating normal meals, either. We’re in our new place, which has a mirrored door on the bedroom closet, and we’re thinking, Oh dear.
Note that I said “normal” meals, not “regular” meals. This isn’t about missing any mealtimes, oh no. It’s more about restaurant food, eating at the airport, and half a metric ton more French fries than we’d normally eat in a year.
This is what happened. We moved into our new apartment, literally were unpacking boxes until 11:00 PM the night before we went to the airport, and then left the country. When we came home, it was a lot like walking in the door of our new home for the first time.
We walked in, and we were both at our highest weight of 2019.
Not everyone cares about this, and if you personally don’t have to care for health or financial reasons, well bully for you. In both our cases, we’re at the point where we either need to replace our ENTIRE WARDROBES or we need to slow our roll.
Since we just moved and went on vacation, we’re not in any hurry to spend money on anything that isn’t a strict necessity.
I don’t enjoy the feeling of the waistband of my pants trying to do stage magic and saw me in half, so the sooner we can make some changes, the better.
The good news is that we’re benefitting from three things. One, we both know we want to have good news to report in four months for the New Year, so we’re intrinsically motivated. Two, we’ve collectively lost 100 pounds and we know what to do. Three, and probably most important, we are structurally supported by our new kitchen.
One of the main reasons we moved is because we were both sick and tired of the tiny kitchen in our old studio apartment. We could only be in the room one at a time. We had one square foot for meal prep. It was hard to reach anything and removing one item, like a bowl or a pan, required moving other stuff out of the way. As a consequence, we started relying on a lot of frozen food.
The new kitchen is woefully short on drawers, there is only one cabinet deep enough to hold a lot of bigger stuff like baking pans, and we still don’t have enough space for a pantry cupboard. The spice rack is on top of the fridge. BUT!
There is plenty of counter space, it has a full-size dishwasher, the sink is deeper and it has a sprayer, it’s better lit, and it looks much nicer all around. We basically went from 1980s kitchen to modern overnight.
For the first time in our marriage, my husband can find ingredients and utensils without having to ask me where they are. That is momentous.
He cooked a proper meal the second night. I had already unpacked the kitchen well enough that it was functional. In fact I had managed to heat up a can of soup for lunch while the movers were still hauling things in. We were both more interested in getting the kitchen in order than we were in anything else, at least once the bed and shower were operational.
When you enjoy cooking, it’s relaxing and fun. When you walk into an inviting kitchen space, the first thing you think is, What would I cook in here? I often cook at my parents’ house and sometimes I cook with friends, too. It’s a lot like how musicians display their instruments, and sometimes their friends ask to pick one up. It’s also a lot like Sewing Room Envy.
We were still in the unpacking process and we were already stacking carefully labeled leftovers in the freezer.
There is nothing like eating home cooking after a long absence. DANG this is good!
We had been consciously eating down our provisions for a couple of months before the move, planning to avoid leftovers and finish off containers without replacing them. Our fridge and freezer were almost completely empty the day of the move. This left us with a more or less clean slate in the new place.
Right now the fridge is full of a bunch of chard, a head of cauliflower, and the biggest cabbage that we’ve ever seen, almost the size of a watermelon! When I say “full,” I mean that the main compartment is mostly produce. This is fairly typical for us; we’ll eat the chard and the cauliflower over two meals. The cabbage might take three.
What happens when two good cooks share a kitchen is that they start working to outdo one another. A particularly fine meal inspires a follow-up. As bachelors, we both would occasionally eat cereal for dinner, and of course we could do that any time we like, but it seems really depressing now. Why settle when you have the time, space, and resources to make something better?
We were at the grocery store, stocking up, when I noticed a new kind of frozen pizza. I pointed it out. We both shook our heads, Nahhh. We also walked right past the mini corndogs.
Most people don’t have functional kitchens. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main three are: at least twice as much stuff as necessary, power struggles, and lack of a system. People with far larger and better equipped kitchens than ours are not appreciating them at all! My suggestion would be to rate your mood and energy level against what meals are actually emerging from your kitchen, and then reevaluate all the stuff on your countertops.
It doesn’t take actually relocating to get yourself both a new kitchen and a new dinner!
Sleep is on my mind, as usual, and this time it’s because I got bad news at the dentist.
I need a root canal due to this mysterious process called ‘resorption.’ Nobody knows precisely what causes it. Don’t you love it when you’re on the cutting edge of research? Two things that could have triggered it are grinding my teeth, and inflammation in general.
Both of these things are related to sleep. Bruxism is something I do at night, especially when I’m in pain or my stress level is high. Inflammation is reduced through sleep.
Note that there are no known medical connections between lack of sleep and root canals. This is just a possibility that, for my own purposes, I want to explore.
I’m short about 2-3 hours of sleep a day on average, and sometimes it’s 4-5. Sleeping more is going to benefit me no matter what else is going on. It’s free and it doesn’t have any side effects. It won’t negatively impact anyone else, not like my upstairs neighbor running a high-powered blender over my bed at 6:00 AM.
If I never need another root canal, and I never have resorption problems on another tooth for the rest of my life, I won’t be able to prove whether my behavior impacted that in some way. That’s because this is a complex issue, because I would be an anecdote, and because I don’t even know how to submit data in the world of dentistry.
Still, I add ‘root canals’ to the list of Reasons I Should Probably Sleep More.
File Under: SleepQuest
This approach is consistent with how I approach every problem, not just health issues but problems in general.
I refuse to live with a persistent problem. I won’t accept it. I’ll find a way to work around it somehow. I’ll research it. I’ll test it. I’ll experiment on it. I’ll reframe it. I’ll read up on it. I’ll measure it and document it on a spreadsheet. I’ll ask people from other disciplines what they would do differently.
My endodontist lectured me about not wearing my night guard. He showed me on the scan exactly how he could tell from looking at my teeth that I “clench and grind.” Then he told me that AT MY AGE I couldn’t afford to ignore this and that it would definitely start wearing away my teeth.
Mmm. Love it. I’ve finally reached the point when medical professionals start using the phrase “at your age.”
Night guard. The one in the brightly colored plastic case. In the drawer where I see it at least twice a day.
You can lie to yourself, but you can’t lie to your dentist. I had to admit that I was not, in fact, doing 100% of every possible thing to take care of my precious teeth.
I care about this significantly more now that I have a ballpark estimate of how much preserving a single tooth costs out of pocket. Without dental insurance, ugh. I wonder if this endodontist needs some back-office help?
As these thoughts swirl about my chronic sleep deprivation, my incipient cash deprivation, and my poor middle-aged teeth, I think about the concept of “trying everything.”
Everyone says this, all the time, about everything, but it’s a scam.
There is NO WAY that anyone has ever “tried everything” because not even an expert in a given field even KNOWS everything. There is nowhere that is capped on research, human knowledge, or potential technological development.
We also tend to have mental blinders about thinking that one single input is responsible for stuff. We think that making one change will fix a problem, and if it didn’t work, then the problem is unfixable.
There are so, so many problems with this approach!
One is that we may simply not have tried long enough.
Another is that we may not be doing the thing we’re trying in the right way.
Yet another is that the thing we’re doing may only work in certain situations, but not this one.
More likely, what we’re trying is just very far down the list of Things That Work. Most people will skip the first ten items on the list of Things That Work because we desperately want it not to be that. Please, not that one!
The way I look at it, there is a paradigm or a set of behaviors that goes with a certain issue. The group of people who have the issue tend to have a group of traits in common. Then the group of people who do not have that issue have an entirely different set of traits. There tends to be very little overlap.
For instance, my clients who hoard all tend to scatter coins, save expired food, stuff clutter into plastic bags, and have a plain rock somewhere in the home. Nobody else has rocks!
When I want the results of the “other” group, I observe them, ask them, research around what they’re doing, and then try it out. This is what I did when I started running, when I learned about minimalist travel, and when I finally decided to lose weight.
Obese Me had a lot of habits that Athletic Me finds comical, or sad, depending on the day. While I can sum up the habits of Athletic Me in a brief policy statement, it would take pages to try to describe just what the heck Obese Me was doing. Example: Getting a 64-ounce Pepsi with pumps of blackberry syrup. Please, for the love of your pancreas, do not try that at home.
While attempting to figure out what was different about athletic people, I spent a lot of time feeling frustrated and impatient. I’m working so hard, I thought. I did not think “I’ve tried everything” because I knew I spent most of my time lounging around reading and eating cereal.
I’m in a similar state right now with my sleep problems, which are dominating my attention. Certainly I’m as frustrated and impatient as I’ve ever been.
What I wonder is, when I look back on this period of time, what will stand out to me? What could I be doing differently that I already know about? Have I really tried everything?
The thing about goals is that they’re usually much too modest and too ordinary to generate much passion in the goal-setter. For the purposes of this discussion, that would be you. Maybe you’ve been getting stuck on the same goals for so many years because they bore you. Maybe it’s because you secretly resent being held to humdrum societal expectations. Maybe you don’t like the way magazines always use the imperative command: LOSE WEIGHT while trying this brownie recipe! GET ORGANIZED while buying a few sacks full of these objects in our advertisements! I’m tired of it, too. That’s why I’m so proud to share that there are sneaky and cost-free ways to beat the system. Here are some cheats for common goals.
Goal: DRINK MORE WATER. I struggled with this for almost twenty years. It was closely linked to my cola addiction. Advertisers will try to sell you all sorts of special bottles and jugs and jars and hydration systems and custom artisanal additives. What’s the cheat?
Cheat: STRENUOUS EXERCISE. If you haven’t been working out, and you start, one of the first things you’ll notice is that your thirst begins to take over your life, and for once Idris Elba isn’t involved. In marathon training, I found that I could drink 80 fluid ounces on one training run. In martial arts classes, I can empty a 20-oz bottle in two gulps. The concern shifts from “I should probably get around to this one day” to “maybe I shouldn’t shove people away from the drinking fountain?”
Goal: GET ORGANIZED. This is my wheelhouse, because I work with chronically disorganized people, and I know from experience that it can take three months just to have one square foot of space consistently clear. Our culture makes time scarce and material objects plentiful. As of the mid-twentieth century, it’s possible to live in clutter and disorganization the likes of which humanity has never known. What’s the cheat?
Cheat: DOWNSIZE YOUR LIVING SPACE. My husband and I rented a typical suburban house when we first got married. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a two-car garage, living room, family room, laundry room, dining room, and the biggest kitchen I’d ever had. We now live in a 612-square-foot studio apartment. Our dining table is stored flat under our bed. Getting an offer for the Epic Dream Job meant we had just eleven days to downsize all our stuff and relocate to a new city. The differential between a higher income on one hand, and lower rent plus no vehicle expenses on the other hand, means we could handily replace every object we downsized with plenty to spare. This is somewhat of a simplified version of a ten-year process, but this style of downsizing is not rare or radical by any means.
Goal: TOO BUSY AND TOO TIRED. Does this apply to everyone, or what? Being too tired to think straight is probably the biggest killer of goals and resolutions aside from the humble donut. This situation should not be tolerated. Even if you never make another goal or have any other aspirations in your life, finding a way to regain your energy level and get some peace of mind should matter to you. It’s the best reason to do anything. But how is it possible to get everything done without cutting back on sleep? What’s the cheat?
Cheat: GET RID OF YOUR CAR. Believe it or not, getting rid of our car two years ago was one of the most surprising and most effective ways to introduce leisure into our schedule. It takes longer to get places, and this has led to three things. One, we make fewer trips because it’s a bigger deal, so we consolidate or delegate errands. Two, we each have a BMW (Bike Metro Walk) which automatically adds more exercise, more time to listen to podcasts and audio books, and more time to sit and chill. On the bus (or rideshare, occasionally) you can text your friends, play games, read a novel, watch a TV episode, browse recipes, stare out the window, or set an alert and just nap out. Driving means that every minute, you’re either battling traffic, looking for parking, or wondering how you’ll ever find time to clean out your car. Wouldn’t you rather have that time for aimless entertainment instead? Oh, and the third thing is that because we moved and got rid of our car, we are now able to save 40% of our income, which has solved not just our leisure constraints but our financial issues as well!
What we’re talking about is how radical change can quickly and easily resolve challenges when making tiny tweaks to the standard-issue lifestyle cannot. Standard behavior includes standard problems. In our culture, those are stress, chronic sleep deprivation, clutter, money worries, sedentary behavior, and excess adipose tissue, commonly referred to as body fat.
Radical change does not have to be shocking or difficult. For instance, going to bed an hour earlier might be revolutionary for a lot of people, and it costs nothing and requires no extra equipment. All it takes is a willingness to say, I am tired of annoying myself, I am tired of facing the same issues year after year, and now I’m making the executive decision to put a stop to it. Being tired all the time is boring. Being broke all the time is boring. I don’t want the quest to remind myself to “drink more water” be my main purpose besides commuting and working at my job.
The real cheat for common goals is to wipe them off the board. Substitute some uncommon goals and see what happens.
This is paradoxically both not about weight loss, and totally about weight loss. Myself, I’m in a weight-gaining mode as I try to add another ten pounds of muscle. “Weight loss” is both a dumb and an obvious way to talk about physical transformation. For Americans, it’s probably going to be the most straightforward type of physical change, and the one that statistically applies to the most people. Where this is going is that the pop culture way of addressing one of our culture’s most common conundrums is a total failure. One of the ways it fails is in the way that it always puts “weight loss” in the time dimension. Physical change is a non-time-linear process.
I wear a size two right now. More accurately, I’m a shopping-mall zero, an LA two, and a Vegas four. Bikini sizes are so bizarre I had to go to a specialty shop. Wedding dresses? Who knows. Easier to stay married so I don’t have to figure out one more formula relating to feminine acculturation calculus. How long does it take to get into a size two? Is it realistic?
(People always say that my body type is “not realistic” but I promise, I really exist. I am in fact reality-based and I inhabit the physical realm).
It takes me zero time to be a size two.
The reason for that is that 98% of the effort involved in the physical transformation of body composition relates to food intake. I spend precisely the same amount of time eating meals as other people do. It’s not how long I spend eating or cooking, it’s WHAT I eat, coupled with the fact that my meals may be shifted earlier in the day.
If any random person were to match my meals, forkful by forkful, eventually their body composition would wind up being the same as mine.
This is the only way that physical transformation happens along the time dimension, because these changes do take a little while. They just don’t have to take any more moments out of the day. You follow? We both spend 20 minutes eating lunch or 40 minutes eating dinner. Six months from now, either we look the same or we don’t.
We can also talk about physical activity. I used to be a zero-exercise person, like 40% of the American population. I hated P.E. in school, I hated sports, and I despised active people. Couldn’t have been much further along the inactive extreme if I tried. I dropped my first 15 pounds by doing little more than sleeping twelve hours a day, because I quit drinking soda and changed my eating habits.
Now, I’m an active person. I’ve been known to work out for three or four hours at a stretch, depending on what I’m doing. (Training for a marathon, doing a belt promotion in martial arts, hiking, that sort of thing). On average, though, I put in about four hours a week. That means I train for one hour at a time on four different days.
That one hour? It was the same when I could only walk 2 mph on the treadmill at the gym, when I did water aerobics with the granny ladies, when I went to slow yoga, even when I went to physical therapy for my bad ankle. It was the same hour when I ran five or six miles, and it was the same hour again when my husband took me out paddle boarding.
The hour I spend doing burpees and jumping rope in kickboxing class is the same hour of duration as many television shows. Irrelevant, though. Like I said, almost all of the maintenance involved in my being the fabled size two is bound up in what I eat and don’t eat, not in how much time I spend at the gym.
I have gained a bunch of weight during my major fitness projects. I gained 8 pounds while training for my marathon. I gained 15 pounds in the first six months after I started doing martial arts. Some of the weight gain is muscle, but usually most of it is extra adipose tissue, also known as body fat. This is because training hard makes me want to inhale large quantities of food. Eventually I adjust, but the first few months of adding a thousand calories a day has pretty predictable effects.
Physical change happens both in and out of the time dimension. It happens outside of the time dimension when it’s a mental transformation, when additional knowledge and perspective instantly change how you think about something. You look at what is on your plate, in your lunch bag, and in your grocery cart, and you make some quick and easy changes. For instance, I eat potatoes and bread almost every day, but I almost never eat pasta or rice, and I’m probably eating cabbage or other cruciferous vegetables where most people eat starches. It’s possible I spend slightly less time cooking than other people, because greens cook faster than, say, macaroni.
Where physical change happens in the time dimension is that it does take a while to burn off significant amounts of excess body fat. Also, muscle can be grown at about a quarter pound a week. When I made the decision to make permanent changes in my life and finally reach my goal weight, I spent three months on a strict calorie-restricted diet. I lost fifteen pounds during that period. Knowing what I know now, I could have lost the same amount of weight in two months instead of three. A larger person with more motivation and more weight to lose could probably do more, faster, but the trouble is in the emotional activation, not the physical process. Eating our feelings, all the weird ideas we attach to our body image, letting our physical vessel stand in for other issues we may have, like career or relationship satisfaction. Those emotional insights can happen instantaneously if we’re ready to feel them.
I don’t think anything that I do is unattainable or unrealistic whatsoever. I have more energy than most people and I’m able to do more. My posture is better, I can run upstairs two at a time, and I can carry heavier weights. People tend to think I’m at least ten years younger than my chronological age. Not really seeing what the problem is here.
(Of course the problem is that people think the only possible reason someone would deviate from the American standard of body size is due to a sick obsession with photoshopped magazine photos).
I did what I did out of curiosity. I wanted to know what it would feel like to change my body, knowing that I could always change it back. I used science. I tracked metrics and recorded my observations. My body changed and I discovered I liked it better. It’s been a few years now. I continue the process of using my body as a testing ground for new experiments, trials of strength and agility and speed and power. I’ll continue to change my body, both in and outside of the time dimension.
On social media, a lot of people spend a lot of time saying a lot of things that make them indistinguishable from bots. There could be entire predictive text buttons with these bumper-sticker sentiments. You could even write a script that posted them for you while you went off to make a sandwich. Of all these repetitive, commonplace reactions, Quit Posting Your Workouts is one of the most common. After consideration, I tend to agree. I used to post my workouts to Facebook, and I quit... Facebook. If you’ve been frustrated by this particular issue, pro or con, maybe my outlook will be interesting.
Here’s the thing. Everyone does something that is interesting to some friends, irrelevant to others, and annoying to yet others. If we remove all of these topics, what could there possibly be left to talk about?
My workout is a significant chunk of my day and my life. It’s an enormous part of who I am. It’s how I beat illness, it’s a constant research topic, it’s an area where I explore and learn new things, it’s where I see and hear much of what I find interesting. It’s also where I now make most of my friends. Asking me never to share about this part of my life is precisely like asking someone else never to talk about their kids, their job, their home remodel, or any of their hobbies. Wouldn’t it be nicer to just unfollow, scroll past, or otherwise ignore posts that don’t interest you?
Maybe, like me, you’ve posted about workouts in the hopes of connecting with your other friends who also work out. Maybe, like me, some of your friends cross-train, and thus can’t capture everything we’re doing through an app like RunKeeper. Maybe, like me, you have a years-long running conversation with a small group of friends who are constantly exploring different types of workout. Maybe those conversations are one of your main reasons for ever logging on to social media at all. If there’s ever a more suitable social media platform for us, one without all the non-workout BS, we’ll all stampede toward it and never look back.
Or maybe you’re one of the forty percent of Americans who never do any kind of exercise whatsoever, not even walking for fifteen minutes. Maybe all this talk just irritates you to no end. I dunno.
What I found was that sharing my workouts tended to generate friction for a variety of reasons. It brought up disagreements and mean comments from people who I had previously liked, people I considered my actual friends before social media came along and ruined it. I exercise because when I don’t, I suffer physically, and I don’t really feel like I have an option. For whatever reason, other people interpret this as body shaming, as buying into the beauty myth, as some kind of psychological problem, as proselytizing, or as just being a terminal bore. I started to realize that it really wasn’t worth my time to engage in discussions where words were put in my mouth. Why go there if my character was going to be brought into question or my motives were misinterpreted?
This is part of the picture when people say that when your energy changes, your friends change. It’s not always that you become some sort of social climber and abandon your previous loyalties. It’s more that your new thoughts, behaviors, and conversation topics annoy your old friends, who can no longer stand you and don’t want to socialize with you unless you go back to your old ways.
If you want to know, my weekday workout typically looks like this: Ride bike along the beach to martial arts gym while listening to an audio book. See my friends. Crush it for an hour, learning new things, surprising myself with what my body can do that it couldn’t do a month ago, bonding with people from all walks of life. Gossip in the changing room. Ride home along the beach again. Walk the dog. Do an hour on the elliptical, reading articles about space, biomimicry, and robotics for my tech newsletter. Stretch for half an hour. Shower. Sometimes this all starts in the morning, sometimes in the evening.
Some days I work out for nearly three hours. That might sound extreme, but I do longer workouts a few times a year. Distance days for marathon training were two to three hours once a week. Martial arts belt promotions go for four hours. I’ve gone on four-hour bike rides many times. When I go backpacking, we typically hike for six hours or more. On vacation I walk eight to ten miles a day, basically from morning til night except for meal breaks. For someone who enjoys endurance sports, “time on feet” is a valuable training metric. I’ve had several jobs where I stood for forty hours a week. I think back to our pioneer ancestors, who walked thirty miles a day on the Oregon Trail, and I seriously question a modern society that thinks sitting or lying down for 20-22 hours a day is somehow normal. The more I find that I can do routinely, the more I wonder how much is out there for me.
In my life, what I do for exercise is equivalent to what I do for reading. I see both as exploration and adventure, as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. Both are endlessly fascinating and irresistibly attractive to me. The alternative to both I see as “sitting in front of a television for five hours a day,” which is something I did throughout childhood and now find impossibly boring.
I took everyone’s advice and quit posting my workouts. I write about them, sure, and if someone wants to touch base with me and find out what I’m doing these days, Wednesdays are the day for that. Otherwise, some of my most interesting conversations are happening in person, live, in my gym. For those of you who are likewise confounded by constant social pushback, don’t let it get to you. Just move the conversation to a place where it’s appreciated and leave everyone else to go about their business.
I’m going to write about body weight, because this year it’s relevant to my interests. If this is triggering for you, I apologize, and hopefully you already know to protect yourself by closing tabs and stopping yourself from reading further, because this isn’t directed at you. I’m writing about my body, which belongs to me, and my body image, which is A+ and also belongs to me. I can’t write about other people, their bodies, or their body image because those are all outside of my expertise. Probably what I write will not reflect the experience of most people who ever lived. I say that because I rarely read anything written by other people about their bodies that fits my feelings or my life. If you’re still reading, then maybe you’re curious what it would feel like to be someone else?
Someone who likes being a person in a body? Someone who experiences this thing called “my body” as cooperative, convenient, and useful?
Okay, so the main way I relate to having a body is that it is the vehicle I use to carry my consciousness from place to place. Another way I use my body is as a test lab for the performing of interesting experiments. There is a huge amount of divergent “health” “information” out there. The way I make sense out of it is by trying it out on myself and seeing how it goes.
The first thing I discovered is that sleep is my main health priority, without which nothing in my life works. Being sleep-deprived makes me moody, lowers my energy, and apparently interferes with my immune system. I sleep as much as I can and I feel totally entitled to it.
The second thing I discovered is that my own personal body weight is strongly correlated with what used to seem like random, unconnected issues. The heavier I am, the more migraines I get. The heavier I am, the more often I get colds and flu, and the longer it takes to recover. There is a certain specific body weight, above which I get headaches and night terrors, and below which I do not. Above that weight, I’m prone to dizzy spells, and below that weight, I’m not. I have lurking suspicions that all of these things are somehow connected to thyroid function, to the endocrine system, or to hormones in general.
These are the reasons why I monitor my body weight. Apparently other people do it because they care what other people think of their appearance? Or they tie it to some kind of performance metric so that they have a stronger sense of autonomy and control? Perfectionism? Self-loathing? I dunno. I don’t even clean my house for those reasons, although I do run a tight ship. I pay attention to how much I weigh because when I don’t, my life sucks and I feel like crud all the time. When I do, it’s straightforward and fades into the background. It’s just the simplest way I’ve found to keep tabs on the most obvious, easily tracked trend line on my physical dashboard.
(I can step on the scale every morning, and I don’t have to use a measuring tape on various parts of my body, draw my own blood, or take other kinds of samples which I lack the laboratory equipment or knowledge to analyze).
I like numbers. They feel like a neutral feature of the world, like... sand. Or pebbles. They’re just there and they only have the meaning that we ascribe to them.
All right, so here’s what happened. I’ve been training hard at martial arts all year, and along the way, I gained a bunch of weight really quickly. Some of it was muscle, and most of it was adipose tissue, also known as excess body fat.
This became a problem because, for the first time in 3-4 years, I started having headaches and scary sleep episodes again. I kept thinking, Oh, that’s just a fluke, until one morning when my husband remembered me doing stuff in my sleep and I did not remember. I HATE THAT. There’s basically nothing more humiliating and dreadful to me than when I... sleepwalk, flail and hit my husband, scream, have conversations... DO THINGS in my sleep and my conscious mind has exited the building. I’d genuinely rather have incontinence than this. It makes me feel like I’m developing dementia. That was the trigger. I absolutely cannot allow myself to continue up that road. My sleep gets shattered, and when that happens I can’t focus during the day, it destroys my productivity, I feel weepy all the time, and I just start getting sick a lot. None of these things are what a fork is for.
Time to slow my roll.
I knew exactly how I’d gained the weight, because I’ve done it so many times and also because it was somewhat intentional. I had this idea that if I added more muscle, everything would be fine. Apparently not. I think what goes on in my body is that whatever blood sugar conversion process is happening when I up my calorie intake and add body weight, whatever it’s composed of, that’s the thing that triggers all my other health issues. I was doing it too quickly.
My goal was to gain 15 pounds of muscle in a year. I put on 4 pounds the first month, maintained for three months, and then put on an additional 5 pounds the fourth month. May 1 I weighed ten pounds more than I did on January 1. By my birthday I’d gained a full-on fifteen pounds. Okay, that would be AMAZING if it all came from muscle! Muscle on a female frame of my size happens at a rate of about a quarter-pound per week. Let’s say I had 8 pounds of muscle which I dearly loved, and 7 pounds of (additional) extra body fat which I did not want or need.
What to do?
Handle it in a competent, businesslike manner, the same way I would pay off a debt or clean out a closet, of course. The same way I tackle most problems.
It was surprisingly simple, again because I know what I’m doing. I had gained the extra weight by adding about a thousand calories a day to my diet, often in the form of French fries and cake. This was on the advice of my husband, who noticed how exhausted I was when I would come home from class, and suggested that I eat more. Once I built my endurance, stamina, and strength from training hard for 8 months, I was ready to switch gears.
This is what I did. I set a deadline: my wedding anniversary trip. I set a goal: two pounds per week. I made guidelines, which I followed: keep a food log every day; avoid desserts, fries, appetizers, and sweet drinks for the duration; add cardio. I was very, very pleased to find that I could handle an hour-long martial arts class and an hour on the elliptical on the same day!
My arms and legs have been getting really strong, and I’ve been seeing muscle definition I never had in my life before. I also had this tubby belly. As far as I can tell, almost all of the 8 pounds I lost over four weeks was sitting right there, right in the stroke-risk, heart-disease sector of my midriff.
During the process of cutting weight, I felt more energetic. I’d really missed my cardio workouts, and it seems like it has helped my overall mood and energy level. I also use that time to read the news and catch up on my email, which is helping me to feel more organized and productive. The result was that not only did I make my goal, I came out on the other side feeling like I had my life more together.
My hubby bought me a new bikini for our anniversary, which, let’s just say they come in every size for a reason. If you want to wear one, wear one. For us, it symbolizes a commitment to spend more time relaxing in the hot tub.
For my next trick, I’m going to work on learning more core exercises. This is the one obvious area of my body where extra muscle and attention would be interesting and useful. I’ve never known what it was like to have a strong core, and I’m determined to find out.
The more I study productivity and positive psychology, the more I think that pop culture has everything backwards. How many trillions of articles are there going to be about these topics before everyone starts to realize? Common tactics don’t work. What we need is more strategy. Then we can finally speed up, bounce right over these little speed bumps, and move on to the next thing.
The thing about “getting organized” is that it’s far too vague to mean anything. How do you know what it looks like? I know my clients don’t. They punish themselves with guilt and shame, meanwhile living out the same frantic calamities day after day. The real problem is that they just don’t know what to do. When they start to realize that their problems have simple root causes, they’re always so surprised and relieved! We start with a pain point, like “always being late” or “not being able to find stuff” or “mixed up about money.” Changing just one keystone behavior can completely eliminate all the problems it causes, thereby ending the need to “get organized.”
Those keystone habits?
Almost all household tasks take about five minutes, except for putting away laundry, which is more like 10-15 minutes per load, and cooking, which can be under thirty minutes for dinner and 5-10 for breakfast and lunch. Not a very big time investment for living in a relaxing environment and eating nice meals!
That’s a major part of “weight loss.” I put that in quotes because it’s something that athletes only think about if they’re competing in a sport with weight classes, like boxing or wrestling. Right now, in fact, I’m thinking in terms of weight GAIN because I’m actively trying to put on ten or fifteen pounds of nice solid muscle. Weight loss is a problem for average people because the Standard American Lifestyle is ineffective. It’s ineffective for financial independence, physical fitness, health, ability to stay off pharmaceutical drugs, and also minimalist housekeeping. Whenever you look around and find that 70% of people are in the same situation you’re in, it’s a cultural issue, not an issue of “motivation” or “willpower” or whatever else. Stop “losing weight” and start trying to figure out how to beat the system, the system that is failing us all.
This is how I lost weight.
2, 4, and 5 were permanent. 6 is seasonal but ramps up every year.
I haven’t had to think about “weight loss” for four years. I just put on my clothes. The fit of my favorite jeans tells me more than a scale will. I maintain a capsule wardrobe all in a single size, out of the eight sizes I’ve worn in adulthood. Regaining a lot of body fat would mean replacing my entire wardrobe, and I’m too stingy to pay for that.
When you’re “organized” and you don’t have to “lose weight,” there aren’t that many things to put on a to-do list. I used to love writing lists to clear my head when I felt overwhelmed by life. Usually they would include basic household chores. I teach my clients an exercise I call the “101 List,” in which I ask them to walk around their homes looking for tasks that need doing and trying to write down 101 separate items. It’s a great help for a chronically disorganized person who hasn’t yet set up any systems.
That’s the secret, though. Well, one of two. First secret: Build systems and put everything on autopilot so you don’t have to think about it anymore. Basic tasks should not be eating up your mental bandwidth or taking up any more time than they deserve.
Second secret: Don’t write lists; schedule reminders. Put these things on your calendar. Then ACTUALLY DO THEM at the time slot that you decided would work the best for you.
The problem with writing out to-do lists is that it’s like a pressure valve. It makes you feel accomplished, and then you can relax. (This is obviously true in the case of people who add tasks to their list just to cross them off). This is great if you do the things, and if writing out the list helps you to fall asleep more quickly that night. It’s bad if writing the list is the thing you do INSTEAD OF doing the things. The existence of multiple lists in various stages of completion will indicate if this is an issue.
What I finally learned was that most of my energy did not go toward what was important to me. I beat myself up for being disorganized, feeling guilty and ashamed, when my real problem was not understanding what to do about it. I thought I was procrastinating, when my real problems were managing my energy level and mental focus, and of course battling my chronic disorganization. The better I got at managing my schedule and my stuff, the easier it became. That’s when I started to be able to help other people, which is important, because all of us have better things to do than to spend our lives trying to Get Organized and Lose Weight.
If you have only one spoon today, I’m honored that you’re using it to read this. If you are fortunate enough not to know what “spoons” refer to, I’ll briefly explain that it’s a subjective unit of measure for people with chronic pain and fatigue issues, or other hidden illnesses. I’d like to share some thoughts that came up when I recently got some reader mail thanking me for writing about my experience beating fibromyalgia. (I see you! <3)
It puzzles me that virtually all of the online presence for invisible illnesses seems to be about emotional support and painstakingly tutoring “well” people in the details of our diagnoses. Aren’t we... trying to feel better? Shouldn’t we see a disease as an opponent, not a roommate or a spouse? Shouldn’t we be trying to GET MORE SPOONS??? Stop sleeping with the enemy and tell it to pack its bags because it is out of here.
First off, the concept of chronic illness drives me crazy. I believe that it is unscientific for a doctor or anyone else in the medical community to describe something as “incurable.” Just because nobody has cured it YET doesn’t mean it will never happen. Isn’t your entire job to try to cure and treat illnesses?
I’m pro-science. Let’s not get confused about that. I always get my flu shot and I’ll promote vaccinations to anyone who will listen. If a doctor gives me a prescription for antibiotics, I fill it and I take the full course. If I get a printout of instructions to do physical therapy exercises, or anything else, I follow those instructions. I’m obedient and open to input. This is why it upsets me so much when I’m treated with condescension by doctors.
The doctor who patted me on the shoulder and assured me that there were in fact zero ways I could modify my diet, exercise, or lifestyle to impact my thyroid disease. - FALSE
The doctor who told me he doesn’t “believe in germ theory” - UHHHH....
The doctor who told me I must have been misdiagnosed because “people don’t get better from fibromyalgia” and she knew, because her sister-in-law has it. She told me not to mention that diagnosis to doctors, because they would “automatically write you off.” Then she tried to prescribe me an anti-depressant, although I am not depressed. - HUH?
The point I’m trying to make is that just because you waited forty minutes for a fifteen-minute time slot with one overworked, obtuse physician who wasn’t able to help you, does not then mean that you are beyond help. Just because you’ve suffered for many years doesn’t mean you always will. Just because your pain is extreme does not mean it will always be that way, or that it will get worse. There are no reasons to believe that a physical illness will remain permanent and debilitating until the end of time.
I always felt that if I had to suffer, then let it be toward a purpose. Take notes on my condition and track my metrics. Record everything I tried on my search for relief and wellness. Use these notes to build a better treatment plan for the next generation of sufferers.
Then I take that attitude to my primary care physician, who invalidates my position. I’m game, try me! How many people like me constitute “anecdotal evidence” that is 100% disregarded by the medical community? How many more are laboring under false stories of sickness because this information is withheld from them?
I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at age 23. I also had a thyroid nodule that disappeared without treatment. I suffered debilitating migraines for about ten years. I would say that I actively manage sleep issues that began 35 years ago, and I’m successful now about 90% of the time. Since then I’ve run a marathon, completed a mud run, and gone on several multi-day expeditions carrying a 40+ pound backpack. Now I’m studying the martial arts of Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing. Four hours a week I repeatedly catch kicks, punches, and shoves, get thrown onto the ground, and do a full circuit-training workout. If I can think of any more extreme sport that demonstrates how fully I beat fibromyalgia, I might try it.
I’m a middle-aged woman with a history of multiple chronic illnesses. I crushed them.
I’m a formerly obese woman who fully recovered from thyroid disease. Now I wear a size XS.
How is it possible for someone of my age bracket and health history to be in better shape than I was twenty years ago?
How is it possible, when my doctors told me it wasn’t? How is it possible, when my doctors brushed off and invalidated my experiences? How is it possible, when I never took medication or had surgery?
There are three reasons.
First, I didn’t have a choice. My ex-husband divorced me when he realized how sick I was. I didn’t even have health insurance, much less another human who could help me get out of bed or fill in for tasks I couldn’t do. I had to get up and take care of myself because I was the only one I had.
Second, most of my insights and epiphanies and realizations and hypotheses came from TOTAL ACCIDENTS and coincidences. I would notice something that didn’t seem to make sense, and as it caught my attention, I would start to track more details while I tried to figure it out.
Third, being told that something is impossible is something that deeply annoys me. It’s stupid! It’s a wrong thought. It is unscientific, if I might be pardoned for repeating myself. I’ll trust a doctor who tells me to get a tetanus shot or change bandages or take eye drops. I’ll never, ever trust a doctor who tells me I’m stuck with some health condition for the rest of my life.
Nobody needs to run an obstacle course or go backpacking or start taking karate classes. That’s a high bar. All I’m asking is that we question this chronic illness paradigm. I ask that we allow for the possibility that we may one day be free. What if we’ve been misdiagnosed? What if we become “anecdotal” and have a spontaneous remission? What if we age out, as it often happens with migraines, because our hormone levels change over time? What if new research leads to new treatments, new medications, or new understanding of root cause?
Please stop sleeping with the enemy. Illness is not your body part. Illness is not one of your internal organs. Illness is not your heritage. Perfect health is your birthright. Track your metrics and keep asking questions until you have all the spoons you could ever want.
There should totally be “lady size” burritos. It always amazes me that every person gets the same size portion in a restaurant, even people like my husband and myself. He’s ten inches taller than me and weighs twice as much as I do. In what universe would we eat the exact same size of meal?
Same thing with little kids. People are always hovering over them and telling them to finish what’s on their plate, even when they effectively have an adult-size pile of food. Maybe part of why kids will always prioritize snacks and treats is that they come in child sizes?
I’m 5’4” and I have a small build. I usually find that if I try to eat an entire restaurant meal, I’m in physical pain afterward, like a manatee that’s about to go into labor. I will feel ill and too lethargic to do much of anything. Meanwhile, Future Me is already opening the fridge and sadly looking for leftovers that aren’t there. There are several ways that I deal with the absurdity of 21st-century foodways, and one of them is to package up half the meal for the next day’s lunch. Another is simply to make small changes to my order. This is a lot easier than it sounds.
My hubby and I don’t eat out that often, partly because it makes it too hard to keep our weight under control, partly because we’re trying to become financially independent, and partly because... we don’t have a car. The only place within walking distance of us that we like is a local build-your-own burrito bar. (Not the national chain that’s renowned for putting people in the hospital with food poisoning! I wouldn’t touch their doorknob). The fact that we really only have one option we like is another help, because really, how often are you going to pay to eat the same meal at the same place?
The foil-wrapped imitation submarine in the photo is my hubby’s choice, a classic bean burrito. He asks for no rice in his. Just: “No rice, thanks.” The tortilla is plenty.
Mine is a “bowl.” I do like rice, but when they start mine, I just lean over and say “Just half the rice, please.” They give me one ladle instead of two, and it’s just right. Slightly less effort, slightly cheaper for the restaurant. Nobody cares. This way I get the amount of food that I want and I don’t have to throw any of it away.
I’ve tried saving half my Mexican food for lunch the next day, but it’s never really very good. The lettuce gets all wilted. Almost all of my meal is vegetables, because that’s how I roll, and also because I can eat a big meal in one sitting without feeling like I’m going to explode.
What’s in there? Lettuce, red cabbage, grilled onions and peppers, corn, jicama, mango, tofu, guacamole, mild salsa, cilantro, and of course the black beans and brown rice. SO GOOD.
I know what my hubby has under that foil because I keep his regular order on a note in my phone. Flour tortilla, pinto beans, grilled onion, salsa, lettuce, pico de gallo, and cilantro.
What’s most important here is what’s missing, or, where about two-thirds of our calories would have come from ten years ago.
When we were both obese, that amount of food seemed normal. It WAS normal, because everyone at every table around us was eating the same amount.
It also felt normal to feel bloated and sluggish after the meal, too full to do anything but lie around and watch TV.
Most people go out to eat because it’s fun. It’s fun! We like sitting around a table, laughing and talking and enjoying a delicious meal. It’s fun to choose from a menu, it’s fun to get appetizers and desserts and specialty drinks. It’s most fun of all to get up and leave the cleanup to someone else! What isn’t always as fun is making the connections, like we did, to our credit card debt and to our energy level and to our size. There’s also a connection between me wearing a white shirt and us choosing a restaurant with tomato sauce, but that’s for a different day. What we’ve found is that we can keep the fun parts of dining out - the laugher and conversation and the atmosphere - while dropping the bogus parts, like the debt and the tight pants. Just a few tweaks in what and how we order and we’re there.
We still order French fries occasionally. It’s rare, though, and by quantity we eat significantly more broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, chard, and kale. We also skip the fries when we know they’re mediocre, just like onion rings are either awesome or horrible.
We never, ever, never ever never ever never ever order soda. Not anymore.
If we get dessert we usually split something.
Sometimes we split an entree and add a salad or side. When we do this, we tip the same as we would if we had ordered two entrees. This keeps the staff glad to see us when we go back.
Personally, I almost never order a soup, because restaurant soup is usually way too salty.
Neither of us eats any dairy whatsoever. No sour cream, no cheese, no whipped cream, nada. I haven’t touched it in over 20 years, and my husband quit when he started Weight Watchers and realized that even one ounce of cheese used up a huge amount of points. (He then memorized the list of “zero point” foods and gamed the system, or, lost weight and kept it off).
We try to stick to only one starch, either bread OR rice OR pasta OR potatoes OR a tortilla. It feels like combining two or more at the same meal leads straight to a major nap attack.
We almost never eat waffles, pancakes, muffins, or scones. I don’t like croissants or bagels and I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen my hubby eat either of those.
We go out to brunch maybe once a year. If we do, it definitely serves as two meals and we’re only eating dinner afterward.
On vacation, we’ve also started having just two meals. Sleep in, eat a late breakfast, and then eat an early dinner. Alternately, drink tea for breakfast followed by a proper lunch and a late dinner.
All of this might sound like a list of personal preferences. What could be more boring than that? The reason it’s relevant is that we’ve lost a hundred pounds between us. We started paying attention to what we eat and taking notes on how we felt afterward. Not just that night, but the next morning, and the next month. This is how we’re still able to feel like we’re indulging ourselves, without feeling punished afterward.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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