What I’ve Worked Out by Working Out

As I’ve mentioned here before, I have a fitness goal: my Fighting Fit Challenge.

I was hoping to announce today that I’d reached Stage 1 of that goal: to pass the US Navy’s Physical Readiness Test for a man my age, which will soon be 44. (Disclaimer as always: I’m just using this as a standard, I’m not actually planning to join any military force anywhere.)

I kind of passed and I kind of didn’t.

What I mean is that there are two passing levels. To get into the US Navy you need an average score of 60 (there are charts for each age-group to calculate the score), but to pass the test once you’re already in, you only need an average of 50.

My score was 58. And, of course, being me, I was shooting for the higher number.

I have to say, when I came back from my run having missed the goal I was disappointed in myself. But, as Oscar Wilde put it, experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. (Except in roleplaying games, where experience is what you get when you kill things and take their stuff. But I digress.)

When I sat down and calculated it out, it’s not a big miss. Either a 3% improvement in my running time for the 1.5 miles or another 7 pushups would do it.

I know I can do that. I’ve done that many pushups before, in fact, and 3% isn’t much – especially when you consider that just a couple of weeks ago I couldn’t run a mile and a half at all, let alone in 15:10. Compared to where I was even three months ago, I’m doing great.

So I’m on track for my challenge, and I know how to improve in order to achieve it.

In fact, what I mainly want to talk about today is that in the process of working towards my fitness goals, I’ve figured out some things about achieving goals in general.

The ins and outs of motivation

My wife thinks I’m very internally motivated because I do so much personal development work on myself.

I’m actually just stubborn and rebellious. I don’t want an external force making my decisions for me. I’d rather pick my own path.

But what I’ve found is that once I’ve picked my path, I can get along it much further, much faster and much more readily if I have some kind of external motivator. Because I’m lazy, too.

Some of my best personal development changes have come from night classes, and I know exactly why this is. It’s not because of the quality of the teaching, necessarily (that’s varied widely). It’s because I’ve had a specific time set aside, a place that I have to go to, and people expecting me to turn up there to work on whatever it is together.

That gives me enough structure to stick with it and make progress.

At the end of last year, I finished a Certificate in Health Science through Massey University. Massey started out as an agricultural university, and they’ve been offering courses by correspondence for decades so that farmers could upgrade their knowledge without leaving the farm. That meant I could study in my own time while still working one and a half jobs.

Doing the course not only got me access to resources I wouldn’t have got hold of otherwise, it also got me to study them. I had grand plans this year that, just as I had studied my Massey material at lunchtime, so I would read and study some of the nonfiction books in my “to read” stack at lunchtime.

I’ve read exactly one. Without the external motivator of submitting assignments and doing exams – two things I find tedious and unpleasant – I haven’t kept it going.

Tracking works

While night classes and such are great, they’re not essential for me. What I do need, though, is something that’s telling me to push through and do it when it gets hard, even if it’s to meet an arbitrary goal that I’ve set myself.

On simple goals like keeping up a few minutes of daily meditation, I’ve found that I can use the Seinfeld Chain Method. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld (the real one, not the TV character of the same name and occupation who was played by him) motivates himself to write each day by marking a calendar with an X each day that he writes. Not wanting to “break the chain” gives just enough motivation to get him to keep doing it.

For harder stuff like exercise, I need to use more complex trackers. I have an iPod Touch (basically an iPhone without the phone), which makes it simple – there’s an app for almost everything. Nothing I track couldn’t be tracked with paper and pencil and a stopwatch, but the apps make it easier. (Links to all the apps I mention below are on the nifty new resources page.)

Creative Commons License photo credit: jakebwotha

App is short for application…

My Navy fitness goal involves three exercises: situps, pushups and running.

I already went through the Two Hundred Situps and Hundred Pushups programs. I used a printed tracker for Two Hundred Situps and an app for Hundred Pushups. But when I started training for the Navy PRT it had been a little while since I did those, and I needed to build up again.

The basic way both programs work is by giving you five sets of repetitions of varying, but gradually increasing number, three times a week, with periodic tests of how many repetitions you can do without stopping. I thought I could carry on doing that for myself, but found that my progress was a bit slow, so I bought an app called Infinity Reps. It does basically the same thing as the two other programs, but keeps on going up indefinitely.

It’s not as well-designed as the other two – it doesn’t show you good form for the exercises, and it took me a little while to figure out how to work it, as it’s not immediately clear where you tap to start the exercises or what all the settings mean.

But what it does do is push me more than I would push myself.

One morning, for example, I was feeling a bit tired. The last set was 30 pushups, and I didn’t think I could do that many. I did, though – because I was going for an external goal. If I’d been setting my own target I would have stopped much, much sooner.

Same with the running. I wasn’t making much progress because I was running when I felt like it, or more accurately when I knew that if I didn’t run I was going to slip backwards rather than progressing. I wasn’t following a plan, I was just running until I really felt like stopping.

Well, now that I’m using the Couch to 5K app to tell me how to train, it turns out the the point where I really feel like stopping comes a while before the point where I actually have to stop. A friend of mine often quotes the wise words of his grandmother: “There’s a lot you can do when you’re tired.”

Couch to 5k works by starting you out alternating running and walking, and gradually increasing the running and reducing the walking until you’re running all the time. About the second time I used it, I was labouring up a hill and really wanted to drop from a run into a walk. But I was partway through a 3-minute running interval. I had 40 seconds to go – I knew this, because the app was showing me. The nice British woman’s voice hadn’t told me to switch to walking yet. So I thought, “I can do another 40 seconds.”

Using the app is just enough of a commitment that, like Jerry Seinfeld not breaking the chain, I carry on and do something hard because I’ve made a (completely arbitrary and voluntary) commitment to do so. Even though there are no consequences from not doing it – apart from disappointment with myself for not following through.

The thing about exercise is that if you’re doing it right, it’s always going to be challenging. You’re always going to want to stop, because it doesn’t actually feel good until afterwards (at least, not for me, most of the time, so far). Afterwards, it feels great – I’m fitter than I’ve probably ever been at the moment, and I feel alive like I never have before. But while you’re doing it you keep wanting to stop.

Adding in that little extra motivator is enough to keep me going.

Work on the work

Here’s the other thing I’ve learned. When you’re not getting the outcome you want, pay attention to the process.

My shorthand version of that insight is “work on the work”.

We don’t like process. We like outcome. It’s like Mark Twain’s remark on the definition of a classic – it’s a book everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read. But it’s paying attention to the process, working on the work, that creates the outcome we want.

I wasn’t getting the improvement I wanted in running, so I worked on the work. Now I can run a mile and a half, where I couldn’t before.

As a Hero Trainer, what I do is work with you on the work so you can get the outcome you’ve been missing out on. And I provide that external motivator and structure, as well.

So if your life is less amazing than you want it to be, get some hero training.

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How to Celebrate Your Success

I got this email from Eric, who reads this blog, the other day.

In order to be awesome, I need to fully embrace my successes. Sounds simple, but I utterly fail to do this. Is it any wonder I’m not awesome yet?

The other day I realized I had lost a lot of weight one week on my diet after doing everything right for a full 7 days. My reaction? It was probably just water weight. If it was maybe my electrolytes are out of balance and I need to check with the doctor. I’ll probably gain a lot of it back and it will average to a more normally sized loss. The one thing I didn’t say? “That’s freaking AWESOME!” I didn’t embrace my success. It’s hard to be successful if you don’t welcome success into your life.

Now my motto is “Embrace Success”. I think there’s a blog in there somewhere for you.


Indeed there is, Eric, and this is it.

I’m a New Zealander, and we are traditionally very bad at blowing our own trumpets.

There’s a New Zealand myth – I think it’s probably a myth with a touch of reality rather than the other way around – called the “tall poppy syndrome”. The myth is that if you stick your head up above the other poppies you’ll get cut down to size. I’ve also heard it described – not by New Zealanders, so it’s apparently more widespread than just us – as being like crabs in a bucket. They’ll prevent each other from climbing out.

All of which teaches us that we should be modest and retiring and not say anything about our successes.

We’ve all met people who ignore this convention, of course. My father used to refer to someone like that as a “big I-Am”. They’re always on about what sets them above the people they’re talking to.

My father’s boss at one time was a terrible name-dropper. “Oh, we’ve got a venue for the function, Keith’s going to let us use his place…” (referring to the Governor-General of the time, Sir Keith Holyoake, and Government House).

We rightly recognise all this big talk as a sign of insecurity, and don’t take the “I-Am” seriously. We don’t want to be That Guy.

And so we overcompensate and diminish our own achievements. Well, news flash. That’s just as insecure.

I’ll be talking a lot about fear in the next little while. I’m going to be providing a free ebook soon for subscribers to my How to Be Amazing mailing list which is all about dealing with fear. All I’ll say for now is: whether you’re boastful or bashful, you probably worry too much about what other people think.

Celebrate success

When I have a success, I want to tell someone. Fortunately, I have lots of avenues.

I have a loving and supportive wife who I know will be happy for me if I succeed in something.

I have good Facebook friends who will “Like” a post about my success. (They’re all people I know in real life. A Facebook page for How to Be Amazing is on its way, though, I promise.)

I have two blogs (actually I have six, but two I update regularly), two mailing lists and a Twitter account, though I’m hardly ever on Twitter and very seldom does anyone respond to my tweets. (Those two things are connected, by the way.)

When good stuff happens, I can tell my world. And my world will be happy for me.

But first – as Eric has so wisely figured out – I need to be happy for myself, or I’ll never think of celebrating it publicly.

I have to recognise my own amazingness.

Blowing your own trumpet
Creative Commons License photo credit: Carlos Aguilera Espinosa

Jump up and shout

I’m not talking here about “accidental” success – good things that just happen to us out of the blue. I’m talking about progress on a challenge you’ve set for yourself, like Eric with his weight reduction. I’ve already talked about how to pick a challenge and how to stick with a challenge. How do you celebrate success in a challenge?

1. Recognise the voice of resistance

Eric, when he made progress on his goal, heard his critical voice start up. It wasn’t attacking him, this time (though it could have done). It was questioning his progress on the challenge.

It started to go into a long sequence of explanations why the change he’d made wasn’t actually good, why it was potentially a bad thing, why this wasn’t really progress, why it wouldn’t last.

Eric recognised that voice and called it out.

Any time we set out to change, there’s going to be a voice of resistance. Our minds and bodies are set up to prevent drastic change. That’s why change is hard and takes a long time. We’re only going to be able to change if we’re aware of the ways we resist change and know how to deal with them.

2. Welcome your own success

Eric puts it well: “It’s hard to be successful if you don’t welcome success into your life.”

I’m becoming more and more convinced of the importance of mental gestures.

In Centering Prayer, which is a meditation tradition that I’ve had some involvement with, meditation teacher Cynthia Bourgeault talks about a mental gesture of releasing which you can apply to anything – thoughts, feelings, patterns of behaviour. It’s like opening your hand, only inside your mind.

There’s a gesture of accepting, too. A gesture of receiving, of embracing. That’s what Eric’s doing when he’s welcoming success.

Practice the mental gesture of embracing and welcoming success.

3. Recognise your contribution to the success

Success in a challenge doesn’t happen by itself, if you’ve picked a challenge at the right level. You have to work at it.

Notice why Eric was succeeding. “I had lost a lot of weight one week on my diet after doing everything right for a full 7 days.”

Eric, mate, that is amazing. How many people can say that? Sticking with any change program at all is hard to do. That’s why some diets are now building in “cheat days” as a psychological release valve – both so you can save up your “bad” stuff for the cheat day, and so that after you’ve taken it you don’t get the “what the hell effect” of having blown your diet, so you might as well give it up. They’re acknowledging that people don’t stick with this stuff all the time and actually making it part of the program.

You stuck with the program, and you got the results. You totally deserve your success and all celebration pertaining thereto.

Celebrate your successes, and make them stepping stones to more and more amazingness.

How to be Happy

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How to Stick With a Challenge

The most challenging part of challenges is not coming up with them. It’s doing them.

If this were not so, we’d all be amazing already and this website would be redundant.

Sadly, ’tis far otherwise.

A key part of the Missing Curriculum is learning perseverance. (Yes, I believe perseverance is a skill that can be learned. I base this on the fact that I haven’t always had it.)

Lack of “talent” is no excuse

If perseverance can be learned, this is good news, because current research suggests that it’s hard work, not talent, that matters.

Jonah Lehrer quotes K. Anders Ericsson:

The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.

There’s recently been research showing that kids with Tourette’s syndrome, which involves involuntary “tics”, have better timing control. The researchers’ theory is that this is because the effort they’ve been exerting to control their tics has developed the part of their brain which is also involved in controlling timing and other self-regulatory abilities. It’s like being in a wheelchair and developing your arm muscles because you use them all the time to move around.

In fact, it’s exactly like developing a muscle. If you use a muscle a lot and subject it to strain, the body will cause it to grow. If you use a part of your brain a lot, that will grow, too. So whatever you consistently pay attention to will change your brain to be better at dealing with that thing. If you play a lot of video games, you get better than average at tracking movement, for example.

That’s why perseverance and consistency work. A muscle you use regularly is probably going to be stronger than one someone else uses only occasionally, no matter what your respective genetics.

Two kinds of reward

There are two main kinds of reward. There’s the kind that you get immediately, as part of the process of doing something, and the kind that you get eventually, as the result of doing something. Let’s call them “process rewards” and “result rewards” for easy reference.

Process rewards are easy to illustrate – just think of anything that needs minimal skill to sell. Sex, drugs, sweet and fatty foods. You don’t need a degree in marketing to sell crack cocaine.

What all process rewards have in common is dopamine. Dopamine is the “reward-reinforcement” brain chemical which gets you motivated, and literally gets you moving (people with Parkinson’s disease have a fault in their dopamine system, which is why they find it hard to move). Every addictive drug, without exception, acts to release dopamine in the brain or keep it around for longer.

Ultimately, no dopamine means no movement, no motivation. And this gives us an important clue about sticking with challenges. If you’re going to achieve a goal, it’s not going to be enough that the goal is rewarding. There has to be some reward in the process.

Nobody, absolutely nobody, will stick with something that they find completely unrewarding indefinitely, in exchange for an eventual possible reward. You only have so much ability to “will” yourself forward. Eventually, you run out.

But equally, nobody ever achieves anything who can’t stick with things that are, for now, unrewarding. How is it that anyone ever achieves anything?

Disney Stars and Motor Cars Parade
Creative Commons License photo credit: JoshMcConnell

The Mary Poppins Strategy

We stick with the process for two reasons. One is that we figure out how to make the process more rewarding, which I call the Mary Poppins Strategy.

One of my first jobs was processing entries for New Zealand Who’s Who. I would get a big stack of forms that had been posted in by people who’d been invited to be in the book, and I would have to go through them and turn them into properly-formatted entries (which got more difficult when, instead of filling out the form, they sent a sixteen-page handwritten CV of every unimportant achievement of their long lives, and I had to pick through and find the few relevant bits). For each form I got paid some trifling amount of money.

You can imagine how tedious it was. But I managed to make it a game.

I would spot the patterns. I was processing hundreds of these entries, and I discovered some things. I would do cross-references, for example, where people from the same family were both in the book (that happened a lot), and I noticed that sometime around the 1970s, the doctors started to go from having a father who was a doctor and a mother who was a nurse to having two parents who were doctors. I noticed that pharmacists are often pillars of their community (unlike other people who supply drugs). At one time, I could probably have listened to someone’s CV and predicted with 90% accuracy whether they would receive a Queen’s Service Medal or a Queen’s Service Order.

The other thing I learned, without realising at the time, is this: If the process isn’t rewarding, find a way for it to be more rewarding. Work on the work. Turn it, as much as you can, into play.

Imagination is like memory

I said there were two reasons we stick with a process until we get the reward. The second one is that we’re capable of time travel.

A lot of the same brain pathways that we use for memory have been given a second purpose: imagination. We can imagine receiving the reward we’re going after, and that motivates us – because imagining that we’ve received it is just a bit like actually receiving it.

In fact, our imaginations are so good that this can backfire. For years, I was so good at getting the rewards by visualising the outcome that I saw no particular reason to do the less enjoyable part – working to make the outcome actually happen.

When I was about 11 years old I showed a classmate a design for a robot to be built out of cans. A few weeks later he asked how I was going with building it. “Oh,” I said, embarrassed, “I wasn’t planning to actually make it.”

Nor am I alone, as PsyBlog reports. A 1999 study by Pham and Taylor showed that students who imagined doing well in an exam studied significantly less than those who imagined the process of achieving good marks. (Sorry, Flaw of Distraction believers, just visualising your goal won’t make it happen. In fact, it makes it less likely than if you did nothing at all.)

But bringing part of the reward back in time is still a valid strategy. We can do it by celebrating milestones, by holding the goal in our minds as we struggle through the process, or by building stepping stones of imagination between where we are and where we want to be. And the great thing is that this doesn’t actually reduce the amount of reward we have in the end. We get to use it twice.

The shrinking reward gap

The other nice thing is that typically as you keep on with a challenge, the gap between effort and reward will start to shrink. At first, you know nothing, your muscles (literal and/or figurative) are undeveloped, and it takes a great deal of effort for very little reward. Soon, though, you start to see some hints of results.

I seem to use running as an example a lot, probably because it’s the hardest thing I’m doing at the moment. When I started running, I was sore for a couple of days afterwards. But now that I’ve been doing it for a little while, I start feeling good within about 20 minutes of stopping, and I’m not sore at all the next day.

With perseverence, I’m hoping that the reward (feeling good) will actually start to overlap the challenge, and it’ll become a process reward instead of a result reward.

How to be Happy

Do you want to be amazing? Become an Amazing Member and get immediate access to member-only resources like the How to be Happy ebook.

(I naturally won't pass your email address on to anyone else.)