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.
The Self-Love Experiment is a story about Shannon Kaiser’s exploration of self-compassion. This is a very raw, immediate, real look at what it’s like to do deep inner work. It will speak to anyone who has body image issues or who struggles with self-loathing. Hence, nearly everybody.
Self-compassion is the antidote to shame. Unfortunately, the first level of defense that comes from toxic shame is to convince the ashamed that they are undeserving of compassion, or anything good in this world. It always boggles my mind when I work with clients who are so convinced that they are terrible people, even though everyone else around them sees them as kind, sensitive, caring friends. Trying to love yourself when you feel unlovable must feel like ripping off your own skin, like a nakedness beyond nakedness.
Shannon Kaiser talks openly about her issues with depression, eating disorders, drug addiction, and body dysmorphia. If she could learn to love herself while fighting all of these demons, then surely there’s something here for everyone.
Something I found really intriguing in The Self-Love Experiment was the differentiation between the “rebellion self,” the “reward self,” the “protection self,” and the “lonely self.” These are aspects of the personality with different drives, and they explain a lot about coping behaviors.
This is a very approachable, yet multi-layered and complex book. There’s enough here that some chapters could keep someone busy for a year. If you’re a Feeler, if you’re dissatisfied with your life, or if you are ever mean to yourself, it would be a self-compassionate act to read this book. Try the Self-Love Experiment for yourself.
It never occurred to me that trying to change my outside world was a desperate attempt to feel better on the inside.
To stop loathing myself is to reduce the negativity and pain in the world.
Despite what you might believe about yourself, you are not broken, you are not your problems, there’s nothing to fix, you’re not off track, there isn’t something wrong with you, your insecurities are not hindering you, and your flaws don’t make you weak, unlovable, or unsuccessful.
I’ve always known myself to be a tightly wound, restless, easily bored person. I’ve had chronic sleep problems since I was seven. These are all subjective states. Now it turns out that there’s actually an objective metric that corresponds with these feelings. True to my alpha nature, my first instinct is to go after this metric with the full force of my competitive drive. Blast it! Chase after it! Force it to submit!
Considering that the metric in question is “resting heart rate,” I’m willing to consider the possibility that this project will require a different approach.
What happened? My husband went in for a routine physical. I asked to see his lab results, and he cordially agreed, because he has reason to be smug. He just turned fifty, but his blood work would be on track for an 18-year-old. His doctor asked what medications he was taking. Answer: None. Among all the other numbers, one stood out to me. My husband’s resting heart rate is 55 beats per minute. That is considered athletic at any age. Nice work, babe!
I looked at a chart showing target heart rates for various age brackets. Because I wear a smart watch, I had easy access to my own health metrics, dating back a couple of years. I was distressed to see that my own resting heart rate averages about 77 beats per minute. While my husband’s data put him in the Athletic category, mine is... Below Average for someone over age 65.
Part of what is funny about this is that we do have a chronological age difference, and it works in my favor. I’m seven years younger, and it looks like more. People are still routinely surprised to find that I’m in my early forties, rather than my early thirties, while my hubby is more, um, distinguished. From some of the looks we get, I suspect people think I’m more like twenty years younger than he is. If these casual bystanders were looking at our medical records instead, they’d probably think I was his mom.
Or his grandma!
The difference between us is that my hubby started in athletics as a preschooler. His mom put him on the swim team when he was just four. The picture of him in his tiny little trunks crushes my heart. He kept swimming until he was old enough to make the football team, which he continued through junior college. As an adult, he switched to roller hockey, followed by ice hockey, followed by armored combat. In between, there was basketball and wrestling and who knows what else. While he was doing all of that, I was, well, I was reading. Sitting on my butt and reading, unless I was lying on my side and reading. He was already winning before I even knew there was a game.
Granted, I’m competitive. I always want that A grade. Not only that, I want extra credit, I want to test into the advanced class, I want to be on the Dean’s List, and I want some sort of award at the end of the year. That’s just as true of my health metrics as it is of anything else in my life, from the amount of my retirement savings to how low I can get my electric bill. The first thing I do when I’m confronted with poor test results is to research. These days I think they call it a “rubric.” What does it take to get that A grade in this class? What are the inputs that make a difference? Can I debunk it or, rather, replace it with a more valuable metric?
For my thyroid disease, I found that the key was strenuous exercise. For my parasomnia disorder, I found that the key variable was blood sugar, particularly how late I ate before bedtime. For migraines, I found that the two main factors were my body weight and micronutrient consumption. I’ve beat health issues that were far more pernicious than a high resting heart rate, and I’m fully confident that I can make measurable progress here, too.
What am I going after?
According to mainstream information, which is where I always start, because I believe in a measurable empirical reality, I’ll be best off if I focus on:
When I still suffered from an Unfit Mindset, I would have locked onto that ‘stress’ item and completely ignored everything else on the list. Well, at least I don’t smoke, but that’s because I’m a cheapskate and I’d rather spend that money on vacations. To be honest, I don’t believe in “stress” as a concept. I don’t think stress causes things, I think stress is a byproduct of underlying physical conditions. I think this for two reasons; one, I’ve felt it as I’ve improved my own baseline state of health, and two, I’ve observed that the three most laid-back people I’ve ever met were a Zen Buddhist monk, a competitive all-natural body builder, and a CrossFit dude. I met two of the three when they were just regular people, before they committed to their chosen sports, and the difference was quite noticeable. They... blink less than other people. They seem to exist in this permanent state of slow-mo, where they could plausibly catch a housefly with chopsticks, or dodge bullets, or pause time and prevent automobile collisions.
I want that for myself.
Going back to the inputs that I can control, I already know that losing weight and exercising are effective. My resting heart rate used to be even worse, if you can believe that, in the low eighties. I remember a big wake-up call for me at age 29, when I walked up a single flight of stairs and started seeing black spots. I knew there were people in their sixties and seventies who were more fit than I was, because I’d met them. I even worked with a few every day. I’m much more fit now than I was as a teenager, which is partly very sad and partly really exciting and hopeful. I don’t have much weight to lose, as far as that goes, so I’ll focus on trying to add muscle. For a restless alpha type, I need to have something tangible, a target, so I don’t simply pace a path into my carpet.
Being a stress case is not fun. It’s not fun under the hood, but it’s also not fun for other people. I’m not good at things like relaxing, having fun, taking naps, sitting through a two-hour movie, or, honestly, even sitting at all. I feel constantly driven to be up and doing something. Accomplishing something. Finishing something. Getting completion on something. Now that I’m looking at these tables of resting heart rates, I’m starting to realize that maybe that endlessly restless feeling comes from my high heart rate. I’ve never had much success in talking myself into a different mindset. Maybe I can go at it from the other angle, and see what happens as a result of physical change.
Most “resolutions” are futile, just as most “advice” is completely bogus. My personal favorites are “everything happens for a reason” - THE most meaningless thing ever said - and the whole concept of “getting healthy.” Please tell me. What does that even mean? (Either one. The vagueness, it hurts my face). We pick a cloudy, non-specific intention like “get healthier” because it sounds psychologically more balanced than the alternatives, like “lose weight.” Speaking as someone who has done both successfully, I have a lot to say. Rant, rather.
The problem with “getting healthier” as a goal is that people are LESS likely to meet their health goals when they choose this as their intention. It has to do with the halo effect. Our culture makes a strong link between ‘healthy’ and:
There are a lot of people who would probably feel more of a sense of genuine welcome at the thought of a religious missionary coming to their door than they would at the thought of a conversation about “health” or “weight loss” or “fitness.”
Especially when we don’t have personal experience with these altered states of being, we find it impossible to imagine what that emotional or mental state would feel like. We can’t even begin to guess at the physical, other than sweat, soreness, and blisters. What story would we tell ourselves? All we have to draw on are guesswork, media representations, fictional characters, and our gut-level responses to advertising images.
What about health, though?
My fitness goals are at least half “moving away from” goals rather than “moving toward” goals. I eat in a certain way and move my body a certain amount because I’m deliberately trying to avoid specific inner states. I can’t alway feel that I’m on track, but when I get off track, the physical consequences come at me hard and fast. I get a rapid internal beatdown that demonstrates, once again, that I tend toward certain patterns. Patterns that are in my control should work for me, not against me. I can’t justify being my own worst enemy.
For me, it’s not a question of “healthier” but of:
Waking up several times a night with nightmares or, worse, night terrors
If you’ve never experienced a true night terror, it would be really hard to explain why this would be a motivator. Imagine waking up shaking and crying in another room, with no explanation of how you got there. Imagine someone having to pin you to the bed for three minutes because you were thrashing and screaming and you wouldn’t wake up. Imagine your heart rate doubling in fifteen seconds, launching you out of bed and onto your feet like you just touched a hot stove burner. After three years of that, I was humbled. I was ready to do anything to be free.
For the last four years, I was free. Free both of migraines and night terrors. Then, in the past couple of months, I’ve started experiencing alarming symptoms again. Flailing around in bed. Nightmares that last for two hours. Sitting straight up in a panic. About a week ago I got a headache with one of my classic migraine symptoms, jaw cramping. These two conditions don’t have anything to do with one another, as far as I know, but they are both signs that my system is out of whack.
I ate more sweets over the holidays, specifically dessert on two consecutive nights. I ate more in general. The weather got cold and I changed my default fitness habits. My weight crept up a few pounds.
Pop culture would say that I should lighten up, be gentle with myself, and quit caring about social norms or body image. (Assuming that I do in the first place, because I’m a woman, when actually I find body image norms to be irrelevant to my emotional world). Nothing about any of that remotely impacts whether I wake my husband up on a work night because I’m shouting in my sleep, or whether my eyelid starts twitching.
There’s a lot of standard, mainstream “health” advice that I either disregard, find irrelevant, or experience as harmful to my physical state. For instance, I hate coffee, I don’t care for chocolate, and alcohol doesn’t seem to work on me, so I ignore all the articles about their supposed health benefits. I don’t take a multivitamin for two reasons, one, because it’s linked to higher mortality from all causes, and two, because of consistent quality control issues turned up in independent lab testing. What they’re selling on the label is not always what’s actually in the bottle. I’ve tried a high-protein, low-carb diet and it made me feel like I ate wet cement. Not compatible with endurance sports! I gravitate toward strenuous exercise and endurance sports because they work better than anything else I’ve found when my stress level goes up.
I’ve never had night terrors on a night after I went for a run.
Where I’m going with all this is that when we look for “motivation,” the concept of “getting healthier” seems to backfire. When we choose literally anything else, such as “impress my cat,” if we find it personally meaningful, it works. I once coached a client whose goal was to look hot in an evening dress because she knew she was going to see her ex at a New Year’s party. She nailed her weight goal and reported back that she felt really smug and proud on her way home from the party. Worked for her.
Trying to escape a harsh physical reality, like a persistent skin rash, is usually more “motivating” for most people than an aspiration like a goal weight or clothing size. Emotional realities may work, too, depending on the person.
I would suggest tracking your metrics if you have issues with, say, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep apnea, gastritis, chronic pain or fatigue, or any mystery issue. This is especially true if you’ve felt that doctors were condescending and dismissive toward your concerns. Bringing them a health log with specific observations and health metrics occasionally tends to get their attention. It can also reveal patterns that you can observe and correct yourself.
When I started having night terrors, I did a ton of research. It turned out that, at the time at least, very little was known about it. I would have gone to a sleep lab, but I only had episodes about once every three weeks, with a pattern so sporadic and inconsistent that I doubted the lab would catch one in action. I talked to doctors who completely, rudely scoffed at me and told me I just needed to have better sleep hygiene. Nobody said, “watch your blood sugar and quit eating three hours before bedtime” or “stop eating sugar” or “do more strenuous exercise, at least 45 minutes per instance at least five days a week.” Those were the modifications that actually worked. I consider these behavior modifications to be objectively quantifiable and testable. That’s the goal with tracking health metrics.
Not some vague cloud of woo-woo and positive thinking - although I believe in both! When I’m experiencing a real-world, measurable problem that comes from my body, I want real-world, scientific approaches to get rid of it. I don’t want “healthier,” I want something specific that actually improves my life. When I make a resolution about my health, I want to know when I’ve completed it and what counts as “keeping” it.
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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