A calm manifesto

I have had a number of opinions over the last few months. Well, that would be an understatement; I’ve had a lot of different opinions over the last few months and years. All of which, when considered in the round, when averaged up and combined, thought about deeply and evaluated for their impact on my life, have added up to a sum total of very little at all.

I’m writing this because I’m starting to grow weary of my own constant desire to change and improve myself. My life over the past few years has been an undercurrent of love and gradual progress – as my wife and I have got over illness, conquered assorted fears together, overcome a myriad of barriers put in our way to have a child, and together grown up and experienced our lives through the eyes of Freddie, who is now nearly two years old.

In that time, I’ve managed to convince myself that I should write more, lose weight, exercise, take on big challenges, learn to code, teach myself formal project management, run a team, write more (again), learn to code (a different language this time), read more management books, become more entrepreneurial, and a whole host of things, most of which I don’t really stick to for that long. The vast majority of these things have made little or no difference to my life as I plod along.

While reviewing some project management documentation this morning, preparing for an exam in about a weeks’ time, I started to panic. “I’m not ready” I thought, “I’m going to fail!”

You can argue that the concept of failure is something that has roots in our very evolution – after all, failing to run or hide from that sabre-toothed tiger will result in our very demise – but that argument falls a little flat when considering the challenges of modern day life. I won’t die if I fail this exam; in fact, I’ll learn a little, try again, and probably pass – albeit a little later than expected. My family won’t starve or become homeless if I don’t learn Javascript or Ruby or some other new fangled programming language. Sure, being an entrepreneurial type would be really nice – I have, after all, come back to this subject many many times – so there must be an inkling of desire in there somewhere, but even so, it’s not the end of the world if I don’t achieve it *right now*.

But seeking the constant rush of self improvement has led me to forget (sometimes) that underneath all this is a life that makes me happy. I am fortunate enough to have a good job, a loving wife, and a happy son who makes me laugh in ways I never expected. When I write about how I should take on a new challenge and then promptly shame myself when I don’t hit that goal or series of steps immediately, I take away a little bit of the life that truly makes me whole.

When I get up that little bit earlier to get into work so I can study, or I get home that little bit later so I can finish off some piece of work or another, I may make some progress in one area, but I’m trading it for happiness elsewhere.

I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles in my life. I’ve beaten cancer, for a start; I’ve recently battled depression and come out the other side with a better understanding of myself, I’ve been promoted at work and now have a team. I’m slowly and surely making things better, and trying to be a better husband and father has always been at the top of my notional agenda, even if I sometimes fail to make it the top of my actual one.

Rather than make a series of promises, and set even more goals, I’m just writing this as a note to my future self. Hitting – or missing – a new target every day, or every week, is not really necessary; being happy is the real goal – and I can do that without constant challenges.

14by17 week 7

I have come to some sort of realisation, regarding my weight. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I was given another series of medication recently to control my blood pressure, and with any new course of medication, I always pause and consider my health and wellbeing.

Sure, I don’t rattle like a pill jar these days, but I still have to control my INR level through warfarin, and now control my blood pressure through another drug whose name escapes me at present. So, I consider my weight and the lifestyle I lead, and wonder if there is anything I really should be doing better.

I’m starting to take more notice and responsibility. I am starting to walk around a little more, and take more notice of the crap that I’m feeding myself, and saying “no” that little more often. But part of the realisation is another reliance on metrics and data that I’ve gathered for quite some time:

That graph above shows the number of steps taken per day for nearly two years now, and the increased density in the last year shows a direct correlation between physical activity and my weight loss. No surprise there, I hear you cry, but please note the right hand side – in the last couple of months the activity has dropped off dramatically. I have to do something about that.

Over the next week or so I’ll work out how to plot my steps data alongside my weight loss – adding to the public shaming – and I’ll add some more insight into the 14by17 journey.

14by17 week 6

I’m starting to wonder how long I can continue without major change in any direction.

Looking at the last week in particular, my weight has peaked and troughed but overall hasn’t really changed. I have made the major step (insert droll laughter here) of reviewing the couch to 5k programme and understanding what it expects of me; I have plans in place to do more walking both at work (during lunchtimes, I have walking routes in place) and at home – using the couch to 5k plan around the park.

The next step is actually to put on my training shoes and do the walking. At the very least I can put the trainers in my bag or in the car so they are accessible; this is about reducing the friction required to get out walking.

Beyond that, I do need to make a conscious effort to cut down on the junk. I am still allowing myself to slip far more often than I should, and am willingly allowing myself to slip rather than being aware of my consumption.

14by17 week 5

Flatline.

My weight has not changed by a single pound in the last two weeks. I have been starting to wonder if my set of scales had actually given up the ghost and refused to show any changes in weight but no – it’s perfectly capable, I just haven’t changed a bit.

This is very odd. Sure, I haven’t been pigging out but despite my suggestion of last week, I haven’t been very good either. (Diet starts next week, I promise). I would have expected to see a change in the last two weeks – probably more up than down – but nothing.

Let’s not celebrate just yet. It’s not a change for the worse, but it’s not a change for the better, either, and I’m a long way from my goal.

So I’m going to promise to really, really try this week. Even just to shift down by a single pound. Funny how the baby steps are getting smaller, but I have to show progress – this is getting ridiculous.

Needy Facebook

A few weeks ago, I stopped logging into Facebook regularly; simply because I started to hate having to scroll endlessly to catch up with people I barely knew. The absolute bombardment of ads and sponsored content didn’t help, either.

I feel much better, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much, and my life is just that little bit simpler. Facebook, however, has decided that my absence is not good enough – so knowing that I’m not using the app, it’s decided to spam me with email instead.

I think I’m going to have to log in one more time – just to turn off email notifications.

14by17 week 4

Once again, slow progress.

It’s easy to interpret no change upwards as one that is a positive step. At least I’m not gaining weight. It would be equally easy to say that I’m not losing it, either.

Can I honestly say that my diet has been better? No, not in all truth. I am still at the point where I succumb to cheap, high calorie snack food; nothing short of a ruthless approach to change will stop that – but I have done it before, and I can do it again.

It’s also easy to toss out the platitudes about doing something again, but I will need to commit to a date – and even the thought of doing that invokes the gods of snack foods: “No! You can’t! You’ll just slip again! You’ll just let yourself down again!”.

As with anything that requires commitment, at some point I will have to commit.

Monday the 1st of Feb. That’s when I start. One snack day a week when I can’t make myself feel guilty about eating sugary garbage, but the rest of the week I relentlessly track and shame myself if I give in.

Friday the 5th will be the reckoning.

14by17 week 3

Hmmm. Things have not been going well.

Despite my hope that the gradual progress downwards would be repeated this week, that’s clearly not the case. I was thrown by a huge leap on Saturday, and then the measurements stagnated at a small increment higher than last week – so when viewed on the graph below, the trend is starting to lurch upwards.

Now, I can prevaricate about this some more, moan and complain that despite my best efforts things aren’t working, but I’m kidding no-one but myself. It’s a lie. I have been not paying close enough attention to the food I eat, and I’m still not able to resist the multitude of small treats that float around the office.

I know that my weak point is the afternoon, when my energy levels slump and I start to hunt for little snacks to help out. Of course, this is the point when I should just double down on the work, push out the siren calls of chocolate, and drink water. Lots of water.

More baby steps, I suppose, and at least by writing about them every week I can’t claim to have forgotten.

(Addendum written after this was composed on Friday morning: having indulged in Jamaican Jerk Chicken for lunch, and pasta and garlic ciabatta for dinner, I suspect the carbs will weigh heavily upon me tomorrow.)

14by17 two weeks in

Alright then, let’s review.

I’m two weeks into the desire to hit 14 stones in weight by 2017. So far, progress appears to be improving, not least because I have been a little more mindful of the crap that I eat and the exercise that I do – without yet committing to do a 5k yet – and I think the weight is ever so slowly coming off (with the occasional wobble from here to there).

Of course, as my wife pointed out, the daily monitoring of my weight can lead to false impressions of weight loss. It’s far too easy to think that there is a trend downwards when, in fact, the data captured is just a tiny fragment of an overall trend which could be in completely the other direction.

To make this clearer, I’ve decided to change the tracking data a bit – as you can see in the graph below, I’m now including the data back to before Christmas, and also showing where the target is; this makes my progress (up or down) much clearer in the context of where I want to be.

I’m at the start of that slope which could either lead upwards into obesity, or downwards into fitness (or at least being thinner). Right now I could say that I have no idea where that slope goes, but I have the ability to influence that slope – through diet and exercise.

I also have to be mindful of talking about this a lot without actually doing something about it. For me, that has previously resulted in a great deal of written promises and very little follow up – but by using this format to check in with myself once a week, I can consider where my decisions have taken me, week by week, and hold myself accountable.

I called this project 14by17 for a reason. It’s pretty unambiguous. All I have to do is stick by it. At least this week appears to be better than the last.

The Do button

I was browsing through Medium today and came across a post written by Niko Canner from Incandescent called Sasha Dichter’s Do Button that gave me a great deal of clarity, all in a single burst, about why I loathe social media with increasing frequency these days.

The blog post to which he refers is here on Sashas’ blog: The Missing Do Button and is a masterpiece of observation on the current practice of blindly sharing web content without the intent to do something with it. Go ahead, read the posts, then come back; I’ll wait.

Without massively paraphrasing either Sasha’s original post or the inspired piece of work that is Niko’s medium post, the essence is that we all frequently share content written on the web that inspires us, but rarely if ever actually ask ourselves or others to do anything with it.

Sasha’s idea that a Do Button should exist that prompts us to commit to do something with the content we are sharing is a fantastic one and has caused me to think about how many times I’ve sent off inspiring links, without telling the recipient what I’d plan to do as a result of the writing I’ve shared.

Equally, this expresses in a nutshell why I’m so disillusioned with social media; as referenced in an earlier post of mine here, we are all guilty of re-sharing mindless crap into the streams of our friends simply to mindlessly titillate or blast our opinion down other peoples’ throats.

I am a fan of neither approach, and given that I look up to people who work with intent – in that they seek to illuminate or teach others all the time, or use content they find or create to add value to others – I can do well to spend a little more time thinking about what my intent is, before I do the same thing.

I will endeavour to do that in the future; consider what it is that I am doing to enrich other people whenever I create or share anything. So in a way, I’ve taken Sasha’s post and done something with it – even if it is to add my own voice to the argument, observe my own behaviour, but also uncover why my own frustration with facebook and other social media outlets is so prevalent.

14by17 one week in

So, after a week of the “diet”, how have I done?

Well, in a word, poorly. I’ve put a little graph at the bottom of this post to show how my weight has fluctuated this week, and generally, the trend is up, not down. This is not a great surprise.

I’ve found it harder to steer myself away from the chocolate treats and little biscuits as they are still around after Christmas. I’ve also found it hard to control myself when it comes to grazing; the availability of the aforementioned biscuits and chocolate doesn’t help much in this regard, but even so – self-control is failing me here.

Thankfully, my weekly budget is shrinking and the opportunity to casually snack on stuff will disappear, and be replaced by sticking to the food I bring with me to work. Couple this with increased physical activity – I’ve walked to site in London three times this week for a total of over 15 miles covered – and I should start to see a gradual lowering in weight.

Mind you, I’d be happy with it simply not creeping upwards right now.

More progress reports next week.