A Week in Review

A couple of months back, I shared some plans to explore, for a week, the effect of mindfully applying some daily practices centered around wellbeing. You can find that article here. It’s now time to report how it went!

This kind of exercise interests me for a few reasons. One the one hand, there is the outcome itself, the overall effect of adding some rituals to your day. Even within the lens of evaluating outcome, I found that I evaluate each goal differently.

I’m striving to improve my physical fitness, for example, and therefore any improvement in this regard is intrinsically valuable to me. I hold this as a goal, a valuable end in itself and not merely a means to a larger goal, although no doubt it fits into a framework of other related and even superordinate goals, such as, and perhaps most generally, self-actualisation. In pursuit of this goal, I find the act of training also intrinsically valuable, the mental and physical benefits during and after seem entwined with the activity itself. Similarly, abiding by the ritual and discipline of mediation is to some degree it’s own reward, strengthening these traits in a way that seems practically inseparable from the act.

A discipline pill, for example, seems counter-intuitive. There’s something about discipline that we consider inherently linked to long practice, and with the sense of a degree of challenge, or even discomfort. If we could take a pill and suddenly ‘be disciplined’ it seems that something would be lost in translation - our very understanding of the meaning of the word discipline would be altered.

This is in contrast to my two other goals for the week, sleep and diet. I’m sleeping and eating well to try to feel healthy and rested, and if I could achieve these ends by other means, I absolutely would. That is to say, I derive no inherent value from these activities, and sign me up for the sleep and nutrition pills, please!

I find it interesting to tease apart these different types of goals as part of goal-setting, particularly when evaluating performance, pruning goals, and articulating a motivation.

“He who has a why to live, can bear almost any how.”
-Friedrich Nietzsche

The other lens of evaluation that I find useful, is system building. When presented with a new goal, motivation is often the spark. Coming across an inspirational book or speech, or performing some introspection and falling painfully short, is often a catalyst for change. However, what is really required for long terms goals is discipline, and it must be trained. The petering out of motivation is reflected in new running shoes sitting pristine in the cupboard after a few days of stormy weather, a gym pass languishing since February, or a project started and never finished.

However, even discipline cannot be relied upon. It’s few people that have the ability to relentlessly discard circumstances and desires in favour of carrying out repetitive and difficult taks, and fewer still who have it right off the bat. For when even disipline fails, you need systems.

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
-James Clear

Systems are a way of structuring your environment to maximise your chances for success. You do this by making it as easy as possible to do the things you want to do, and as hard as possible to do anything else.

With that said, on to my week.

Physical training was the easiest goal for me. I hit my target of six days of training and one day of rest, and was delighted to, against my expectations, achieve a bench press PR I’d been aiming at since I started weight training.

Related was diet, but here I learned a bit more. For the first few days, I hit my goals of calories and macros. However, after this point I started feeling a little low energy. Checking in with my body, I was craving fats in particular. After practice in diet regulation, I am beginning to be able to intuit the level of caloric deficit I’m in, without adhering rigidly to calculation. Upon reflection, I realised that I had been massively more active during my week off, than during a week at work. Even though my training had been constant, a normal working day has me mainly at a desk, whereas my first few days off had involved a lot of travelling, walking, and DIY - in fact I hadn’t been seated at all. The lesson here was to adapt to your circumstances, and this highlighted for me that more important than keeping intake consistent, was to keep deficit consistent. That day, I reordered my meals to fit in a small additional high fat meal, and in the afternoon was able to set the PR mentioned above.

In terms of effect, these two practices of trainng and diet were positive. In particular, I found I was mentally sharper, and more easily able to focus, and more productive. In a compounding effect, the achievement from hitting these goals inspired confidence, making the projects I was working on during the days off seem more achievable.

The next two goals, which I’ll take together, were sleep and meditation, as these are the ones that require the most work, and therefore, some new systems. It’s notable that these are the areas where, in achieving the least, I learned the most.

On the plus side, I was able to meditate every day, and did derive a strong positive effect. I still find meditation uniquely profound, an oddly centering experience that provides a hugely beneficial perspective reset.

In fact, towards the end of my week, I managed to have my car break down. While not a huge deal on the scale of stress-inducing problems, I would say that in anyone’s book this is a pretty irksome event. The problem was mitigated though, by the fact that I was able to drive another car, my recently acquired Z3 from the 1990s, and experienced a profound sense of gratitude. Until, that was, this one also broke down, quite dramatically, and after midnight, when I was alone, on the way home. This left me with no transport for the final days of my holiday, with updates from a specialist auto electrican as to how they could not diagnose the fault with my usual car scant consolation. I did allow myself a couple of hours to be frustrated with this situation, but quickly was able to reorient to appreciate that everything and everyone was largely fine, luckily I was off work and didn’t need urgent transport, and these things have a way of working themselves out in time. I have no doubt that the practice of mediation and the lessons learned from it was a huge part of the ability to reframe my thinking so quickly.

However, I did not achieve the amount of time in meditation I was hoping for. In my experience, I find 10 minutes useful, 15 minutes much more so, and 20 minutes profoundly beneficial, and I suspect this will scale with time. I found I made two major mistakes. Firstly, I left mediation to the end of the day. This meant I was tired, and was less able to maintain focus. Counter-intuitively, I was also rushing it in before bed, as the impending other goal of getting to bed on time provoked a little anxiety, impeding my ability to fully relax. Further, as I had been so busy throughout my time off, I found there were a lot of unanswered thoughts and loose ends vying for my attention.

There’s a great quote from Kent Beck, “for each desired change, make the change easy (warning: this may be hard), then make the easy change”, that applies to software engineering. I think about this idea often, but I like to repurpose it for life in general.

“Don’t do the hard thing. Make the hard thing easy, then do the easy thing.”

How to make meditation easier? I’m planning to build a system. Firstly, I’m going to try to ensure that I’ve mentally addressed and filed away most of the demands of the day prior to beginning. In this way, the threads of the thoughts of the day should not be as attractive to pull upon when I’m trying to focus my mind. To this end, I may schedule in some dedicated ‘thinking time’. This is distinct to meditation, but also important for wellbeing, focus, and perspective.

Usually, I run accompanied by music, a podcast, or an audiobook, but am planning to try using this time to put my thoughts in order in silence on cardio days. I don’t find it as possible to multitask when weight training, beyond some music, as I’m more consumed with form, reps, sets, and calculating how to load the right weight on the bar (😅), so in those days a 20 minute session with some paper, or online planning tools, should do the job. I’ll also move my meditation slot earlier in the day. With these two small changes, hopefully I will learn more about how to get closer to my goal.

This nighttime rush to fit in meditation also compromised my sleep. I was going to bed feeling slightly rushed, and throughout the week averaged 6-7 hours of sleep rather than the 7-8+ I had hoped for. I found at the final day of the week, my training rest day, I was a little tired, and not as productive as I could have been. It’s hard to say if this is a symptom of over-training relative to my calorie intake, or less than optimal sleep, although likely both, but this is something else to monitor in future and make tweaks where necessary.

In summary though, and on balance, throughout the week I felt extremely happy, focussed, engaged, and relaxed, compared to when these practices have been less consistent. In writing this, I find myself noticing how those descriptiors are similar to the flow state, and so it’s interesting to ponder how much of the wellbeing is due to the practices themselves, or to the value I place on them, which defines their adherence as personally meaningful. It’s worth noting too that these practices took place around the perimeter of my days, which I otherwise filled with other endeavours I found fun and worthwhile. So we have a sample size of one and a host of confounding factors - I never claimed this was good science!

The next step, of course, is to try this again! As I write this, it is a Tuesday of another week I have taken as leave from work, in which I am attempting to meet the same goals again, this time armed with the knowledge of what worked and what didn’t work from before. Stay tuned :)