Focusing on a dream vs. merely wishing for it

“Most people … wish for an outcome but make no intention-driven actions toward that outcome. If they would just do something most people would find that they get some version of the outcome they’re looking for.”

- Chad Fowler, computer-languages specialist and author of The Passionate Programmer, who lost 70+ pounds after he applied his problem-solving geek mindset to losing weight and getting fit.

Chad Fowler

Chad Fowler

Fowler is a great example of someone taking ownership of his life and building a solution that works for him rather than constantly seeking (and then ignoring) the latest “expert” diet/fitness advice.

Reading about Fowler’s “Harajuku Moment” in Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Body was part of what eventually motivated me to try developing menu templates for certain days of the week, which is the topic of my most recent newspaper column.  You can read more about Fowler’s “Harajuku Moment” on his blog.

While you’re there, you might want to check out this free chapter from The Passionate Programmer on “value rigidity,” which is “what happens when you believe in the value of something so strongly that you can no longer objectively question it.” It’s a good read, even if, like me, you don’t give a hoot about computers or programming.

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Learning to put down that spoon takes practice

I practice eating the way some people practice to get better at sports.

spoonI’m talking about working on specific skills that do not come naturally to me. And one thing I’ve been practicing lately is to stop eating something if it doesn’t taste good.

This goes against not one but two highly ingrained habits: cleaning my plate and always wanting to “finish off” the last bit of leftovers. I used to think, “This is just how I am. At least I recognize this pattern in myself, and so I’ll compensate by not loading too much on my plate.”

Which is a good start. But I’ve also learned that with eating, as in everything else, practicing an unfamiliar action makes it easier to do in future repetitions.

Stopping the eating process once I’ve locked in on something is really, really hard. And yet … I’m discovering it can be done.

Over the weekend, after a rare Sunday dinner at home, I picked up the bowl of mashed potatoes that had maybe an inch left along the bottom, thinking I’d just finish it off. I hadn’t had any during the meal itself because I wasn’t sure there would be enough for everyone. But when I took a bite, they were kind of bland and watery – which is probably why there was some left in the bowl in the first place. (I’m tempted to say this is what happens when I don’t taste as I cook, but the real problem is that I had Colleen mix these up and I wasn’t paying close enough attention to what she was doing. So this mistake technically wasn’t my doing, but it was ultimately my fault.)

Anyway, ordinarily it takes a lot more than subpar taste to stop the momentum of my eating engines. (It’s almost like there’s some primitive part of my brain that compels me to suck up sweets and fats and starches so that I can survive the coming famine, as outdated a notion as that seems.) But this time, in that split second between the time I registered the inferior taste and before the spoon dipped back into the bowl, I remembered that recently I had successfully terminated such an act.

Even though I couldn’t remember specifically what food or occasion that was (and still can’t, another sign I’m getting old), this vague recollection not only gave me the confidence to try putting on the brakes but – more importantly – gave me the incentive to build on the success of that previous eating session.

So I did it: I put down the spoon.

Having done this twice now, I’m curious to try it again – though I’m certainly not going to go out of my way to taste bad food.

For someone who likes to eat as much as I do, it feels like it could be awfully liberating to eliminate tasteless crap from my life so I’m better able to focus on the good stuff.

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Y-tri update

So I didn’t exactly get off to the best start in the 8-week YMCA triathlon. In week one I ran 14 miles and biked 3. This is what happens when you allow three days in a row to slip by without a workout.

It was frustrating, and I can’t blame any one thing – not even the weather or a hectic schedule, because while both were a factor there’s always a way if you’re willing to find an opening. For some reason it just wasn’t happening for me, and by the end of day three, when a couple of margaritas and a rare dinner out with my husband washed away my resolve, I decided maybe I’d just been in need of a short hiatus.

On Sunday I hit the “reset” button. Our laundry drain had frozen so I took a couple of loads to wash at my parents’ house. While I was there, I ran 3.25 miles on their treadmill and then rode 7 miles on their old stationary bike.

I really love that Schwinn for some reason – just familiarity, I guess — and it felt good to really pound those pedals and knock off three days’ worth of rust. The only problem is its speedometer cable is busted, so I had to gauge my distance by using a conservative time estimate based on my baseline ride at the Y earlier in the week.

The payoff came Monday. Colleen and I intended to go for a swim, but the Y was so crowded I was lucky to find an open bike – the pool and gym were packed and every freaking treadmill was in use. After struggling to complete 6 miles in a little over 31 minutes recently, this time I churned out the same distance in 22:42.

I’m not sure what exact speed that averages out to but it’s better than 15 mph, which isn’t bad for me given my limited amount of cycling in the past. What made the difference? I made sure I had the seat adjusted properly so I wasn’t wasting energy (thanks to a blogger friend’s suggestion), but honestly, I think it was mostly mental. Instead of just going through the motions this time I really accelerated the second half of every mile in a game of “beat the clock.”

It was fun. It also boosted my mileage totals to 18.25 miles* of running and 16 miles of cycling. Still a big fat zero on swimming miles, though.  Now I need to figure out how to have fun swimming laps.

*Did 1 mile jog on treadmill after the bike.

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The mental benefits of a 28-day challenge

At the beginning of February I could barely hold a 1-minute wall sit. Over the weekend I nailed a 5-minute wall sit. That’s a weirdly obscure achievement, because who really cares, right?

And yet … that kind of progress in just 28 days, following a simple regimen requiring less than 5 minutes’ effort per day, kind of blows my mind.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you just keep working at something a little bit every day, with the right kind of focus.

To be honest, with just a week left in the 28-day challenge, I didn’t think I could do it. It took me three attempts to endure a 4-minute sit, and that was really,  REALLY hard.

But then something changed. Over the last week I took ownership of what I was trying to accomplish. Because I needed a confidence boost, when Monday’s session called for 5 1-minute sits, I decided to do them with only 15 seconds rest in between. That was tough, but workable. And it helped me reframe a 5-minute sit as five 1-minute sits with no rest breaks.

When I missed Tuesday’s session, I doubled up the next day and did one in the morning and one at night. On Thursday I planned to shorten the rest breaks on another 5-x-1 minute session to 10 seconds – only we were so busy that night I forgot all about it.

Suddenly it was the day before the big final challenge and I’d missed a crucial step in the process. But I couldn’t make it up without tiring my quads for the next day.

So then I decided, what the heck: I’ll just do the 5-minute sit a day early.

I donned my grippiest shoes, told my daughter/timekeeper to remind me to press my shoulders into the wall, and queued up the same Johnny Cash song that had gotten me (eventually) through the 3- and 4-minute sits.

One problem: “One Piece at a Time” is only 3:58 long.

“Start the timer,” I told Colleen, “and when we get to the 1-minute mark, then start the song.”

That strategy worked perfectly. The first minute went by pretty quickly, and it was a huge morale boost when she started the song. I know the verses and the video pretty well by now, so I just followed along, trying not to think in terms of time but in the progression of the story.

By the time Johnny took his wife “for a spin” in his one-finned Frankenstein’s monster of a Cadillac, I knew I was going to make it.

In the end, the 5-minute sit turned out to be far less stressful than the previous two – all because I was mentally prepared, much more dialed in. This wasn’t something that was happening to me; it was something I was doing.

On Saturday, the last day of the challenge, I doubled up and did the sessions I’d skipped on Thursday and Friday as a kind of “victory lap.” (For some reason, it mattered to me to get all 28 sessions in as well as nailing the final 5-minute sit.)

As I did them, I couldn’t help thinking: “What the heck am I going to do with this freakish new super power I’ve acquired? This isn’t exactly a useful skill. Was it even worth it?”

How much this helps my running remains to be seen. With all the sub-zero weather we’ve had the last couple of weeks, I haven’t been out charging up any hills. But I do feel like my quads are stronger. And I think my mind is, too.

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A kid’s point of view: A pain-free foot AND a 6-pound loss!

Guess what: The doctor finally cleared me from my stress fracture AND I lost 6 pounds last week in our family weight-loss contest!

colleenI think I had a good balance of activity and healthy eating. Also, after my workout the night before weigh-in I didn’t let myself have a snack like I usually do.

I give a shoutout to Grandpa, who during the first week was like, “Your team is so far behind. I predict you and Madison will not win.” We will show him!

And now that I am pain-free, I can work out more. (Don’t worry, I am still being careful, though.) Mom and Ben and I signed up for a triathlon at the Y, so I will be swimming, biking and running in addition to soccer and basketball.

week 2 final resultsNote: Weight loss is in parentheses; other numbers represent a gain.

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Wise words from WordPress’ surprisingly cool overlord

“ ‘Find three hobbies you love: one to make you money, one to keep you in shape, and one to be creative.’

 “… I’m not sure the provenance of this quote, but I read it and it really resonated with me, and I’ve found myself repeating it frequently.” – Matt Mullenweg, gazillionaire techie who created WordPress and runs Automattic, the most influential company you never heard of.

Who knew the guy whose company powers more than 20% of the Internet  was such an interesting yet down to earth guy?

Or maybe I’m just biased because he’s a runner who’s not afraid of his inner pig, admitting in this interview with 4-Hour Body author/blogger Tim Ferriss that he once downed 108 chicken McNuggets in one sitting.

Other interesting nuggets from this fascinating podcast: Mullenweg, who just turned 31,  is a musician and college dropout who doesn’t cuss, drink coffee or see any point in building a Microsoft-sized campus for his empire, figuring it’s cheaper and more interesting to let his employees live wherever they like on the planet.

Oh yeah … and he’s hiring.

From wikimedia commons

From wikimedia commons

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I can’t believe I ate the whole thing

There’s this catch phrase I remember from when I was a kid, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” apparently tied to this 1972 Alka-Seltzer commercial.

Sometimes I wonder if this pop-culture slogan took root in my second-grade self as a personal challenge. How else to explain my attempts over the years to finish off an entire pizza or a carton of ice cream?

Interestingly enough, both of those conquests – one successful, one not — came AFTER I lost weight, rather than before.

Conducting research on my Inner Pig

I think all the time I was overweight I secretly wanted to try competitive-eating style feats of excess, but felt too constantly guilty to carry any of these fantasies through to reality. I might’ve eaten the equivalent of an entire pizza in calories during a binge, but I could never bring myself to do it for real.

Losing weight freed me up to experiment with my inner pig. Not to placate or encourage that part of myself, but to try to figure it out – and ultimately, hopefully, learn to control it.

Step One was finding a safe place in which to conduct these experiments. And by “place,” I actually mean “time” – as in a place on the calendar where I could afford extra calories without spiraling into uncontrolled weight gain.

Initially, when I was still going to Weight Watchers, this came right after the weigh in, when I still had an entire week or month to make amends. Later, during last fall’s experiments with the Slow Carb Diet, a Saturday “cheat day” fit the bill.

The ‘conquest’ collection

Over the last three years here are some of my attempted conquests:

*An entire bag of peanut M&Ms. (Finished about ¾ of the bag before I had to give up).

*A container of chocolate-peanut clusters. (Again, managed to down about ¾ of these. At the time, we had a “candy locker” at the city gym and I deposited these in there after a weigh-in for later consumption.)

Yes, I ate the whole thing. But I won't try it again, because this cookie really wasn't very good.

Yes, I ate the whole thing. But I won’t try it again, because this cookie really wasn’t very good.

*A large Little Cesar’s pepperoni pizza. (Managed to choke down all eight pieces, though I was pretty miserable by the last two.)

*A 1.5 quart container of ice cream. (This was a Cheat Day Conquest, and I was somewhat disappointed to discover that I couldn’t quite finish it off.)

*A Daddy Ray’s “Big Bite” 1/4-pound chocolate chunk cookie. This one was no problem. After all, what is a ¼ pound cookie compared with a large pizza? I’m sure I could’ve eaten two quite easily. But I wouldn’t have wanted to. This cookie just wasn’t very good and I’ve never been tempted to try one again, despite the fact that they are prominently displayed on the checkout counter at the discount bread store I frequent.

What I Learned

After conducting this “research,” my most immediate finding was that these conquests were a one-time thing. I’ve never been tempted to repeat any of these experiments with previously conquered foods, even those I wasn’t able to finish. That’s not to say I’m now immune from overeating pizza or ice cream. But I no longer pine for the chance to eat as much as I as I possibly can. I’ve got a better feel for what satisfies me, and while that’s a serving that’s still larger than ideal,  it’s somewhat liberating to know the score and no longer be nagged by unfulfilled possibilities.

The other thing I discovered is that in general I’m much more satisfied by “finishing things off” rather than “eating the whole thing”.

This used to be a source of guilt as well, and I’m sure it goes all the way back to my childhood, growing up in a family of six and wishing I could have as much as I wanted rather than having to share. As a parent, back in my fat days, I sometimes secretly finished off packages of cookies or pans of brownies when my kids weren’t around. I had absolutely no self control. (This continued to happen after I lost weight, too, except that I’d finish off packages of low-cal ice cream bars and the like.)

Now, knowing my tendencies and having calmed down quite a bit, I try to match this desire to “finish things off” with leftovers that other family members aren’t especially interested in. Recently I finished off a partial container of fat-free Cool Whip in the freezer, for instance, crushing some chocolate graham crackers into it for an inferior but nonetheless workable imitation of Oreo ice cream. I knew I’d be tempted to finish off the wax-paper pack of graham crackers, but I also recognized that I was running out of steam, so I packed up the last whole cracker in a sandwich bag and put it in the cupboard where I keep the kids’ lunch-packing supplies.

The one conquest that remains a regular part of my diet is my Monday lunch of an 8-ounce bag of cashews. I justify this by not eating much else the rest of the day (there’s no need, as this is completely filling and satisfying both hunger-wise and otherwise).

Funny thing is, though, I’ve started carrying a ¼ cup measuring cup with me and removing one serving from the bag before I get started to add to the kids’ “lunch cupboard.” I don’t miss it when I take it out ahead of time, before I rev up my eating engine. Maybe at some point I’ll try taking out two servings.

But I’m not too wound up about it. This is what works for me now, and unlike the days when I was both fat and terribly self conscious, I don’t really care what anybody else thinks about it. This is between me and my inner pig, and we’re working things out.

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