April 6, 2014

Lifestyle Change Made Easy

Making a lifestyle change: the difference between “have to” and “get to” when exercising

The most important thing I’ve done for myself in recent months is get a healthy amount of exercise on a regular basis.  And I’ll let you in on a secret: it wasn’t hard. At all. In fact, it’s my favorite part of my routine, which makes all the difference in the world.
Fitness, diet, and overall health is something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember.  I’ve never had an issue with exercise, but the hardest part was always getting up and actually doing it.  To make things trickier, I don’t have a sweet tooth. I have sweet teeth; 32 of them to be exact, and they’re absolutely relentless.  Combining the two, getting healthy was always a mighty chore that I just didn’t have time for.  Procrastination for me consisted of a date with cookies, Netflix, and a lot of blankets. And so when I finally got to the backed up work that had to be done, I’d tell myself I had no time to hit the gym.
A little over two months ago, I stumbled upon some classes my school fitness center was offering.  A brand new facility opened in November with state-of-the-art everything, but the newness faded pretty quickly and what was cool for a month turned back into a huge room full of treadmills that didn’t interest me.  When I forced myself to go after class one day, I found a flier for classes that I had never seen before; Contemporary Dance, Beyoncé Booty Barre (as cool as it sounds), all sorts of styles of yoga, etc.  I ventured out to the next class and the rest is history.
The classes I began to take completely revolutionized the way I started to think about fitness.  I’d come home energized and excited and – somehow – counting down the days until my next class.  Each one brought to the table something that really made me happy – even better than Netflix and food and laziness. Of course, extracurricular activity and schoolwork do take up a decent chunk of my week and sometimes a little TV time is absolutely essential to my well-being.
The biggest change happened when I realized that all of this counted as exercise.  I’d grown so exhausted and fatigued by that word that I was at a point where I couldn’t ever imagine it was something I could love.  It hit me that exercise shouldn’t be a chore, it should be a part of your routine that you look forward to.  Not “I have to exercise today” but “I get to exercise today”.  There’s a reason why most children don’t need to worry about “getting exercise”; it’s because running around and playing outside is their exercise.  No need to look at it as a chore if you’re having fun. There are countless ways to incorporate exercise into your schedule without thinking of it as a task.  To name a few:
- Dance classes. The Beyoncé Booty Class is my new favorite; We spend a portion of the class on a barre warm-up, a portion learning a routine, and a portion sculpting workouts exclusively focusing on our lower halves – entirely to Beyoncé songs.  It’s empowering and a major confidence booster.  Check local studios and gyms for unique dance-oriented classes.
- Rock Climbing. Indoor or outdoor, whatever floats your boat – just make sure you’re doing it safely!
- Hiking.
   - Trampolining.  This was one of my all time favorite activities as a kid and it’s still secretly one of my favorite things to do.  Plus, now they have actual indoor “trampoline parks”, where you can bounce around for your allotted amount of time which is quite the workout, if you can imagine.
- Indoor Surfing.  Heard about this from a friend, still haven’t tried it yet.  Essentially you’re put in a room on an electronic surfboard with screens of waves surrounding the room.  As the surfboard moves, you maintain different postures and positions to improve muscle definition and balance.  Sounds great for those who just can’t get to a beach any time soon.
   - Hula-hooping. Channel your inner-child: they have classes for this, too.
   - Yoga.  One that recently caught my attention is called Anti-Gravity yoga, where you activate your core and engage in different stretches while suspended from a hammock-like cloth on the ceiling.
   - Walking the beach.  So maybe this isn’t necessarily available to everyone, but if you’re fortunate enough to live near a body of water, it can be a major way to energize for the day; I like to do it if I’m up early enough.  Nothing like the sound of the waves to start your day.
At the end of the day, you can do all of these or none of these.  Some people might love the machines at the gym and that’s awesome.  Essentially, I’ve found that the most important thing is just to love what you do;  the sooner you stop thinking chore and start thinking fun, the sooner you’ll find a healthier and happier lifestyle.

Here’s a picture of me trampolining.  It was tons of fun, I recommend it!


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March 30, 2014

More Productivity Hacks

Productivity Hacks Part 2: Increasing Willpower and Promoting Clear Thinking

A follow-up to Productivity Hacks I’ve Discovered Since College Part 1: Commitment Devices. Here are habits that have helped me make better decisions.
Setting budgets to make trade-offs more intuitive.
It’s hard to decide what is a worthwhile expense and what isn’t. Is eating out tonight worth spending an extra $10? What’s $10 worth, anyway? One reason this sort of question is so hard to answer, as suggested in Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s book  Scarcity, is that it’s unclear what exactly I’ll have to give up if I spend $10 today. It will chip into my savings and mean that I’ll have less to spend in the future, or maybe it will increase the risk that if a health catastrophe hits, I won’t be able to pay for the medical care I need. These costs are abstract and far away, so it’s hard to make smart tradeoffs. [2]
After graduating college, I figured out how much I would need to spend on rent and taxes, allocated 10% of my income to charity and $5,000 a year to savings, and subtracted how much I estimated I would spend on food and necessary home and school supplies. What was left over was for “fun”. I initially allocated myself a “fun budget” of $100 per month, and dropped this number to $70. [3] Up to $70, I spend money as if it doesn’t cost me anything except using up my “fun budget”, and over $70 I’m done.
Over time, it became much more clear which activities have high funness per dollar. I now know what I would do with a marginal fun-directed dollar, which helps realistically evaluate the costs of the tradeoffs I face. Seeing a $5 comedy show? That is much better than spending $5 on anything else I can think of. $18 for a few hours of rock climbing? That’s a few delicious meals. A trip to visit my cousin in Providence… now that buys a lot of falafel!
Costs and cognitive constraints
The main drawback of this policy is that I can’t budget optimally. Some months I don’t have much use for spending money on fun, but I spend it anyway. Some months I could use a lot more fun money, but I don’t have it. Large expenses are nearly impossible. I do permit myself to borrow and save between months, but I try to avoid it: $70 per month is much easier to think about than $8,400 decade, so I think about it on a monthly basis.
Planning in advance and writing everything in a place I look at frequently
I put everything on my Google Calendar on Sunday nights, print the calendar, and carry it around with me for the rest of the week. Now I almost never miss appointments; in the past I missed at least half of the appointments I scheduled that didn’t happen repeatedly.
I also keep a to-do list, which I have been doing for years. However, it’s not very helpful because I haven’t been able to get into the habit of frequently looking at my list the way I frequently check my calendar. When I need to remember something really important I write it on my hand, but it’s amazing how often I don’t notice that something is written on my hand. It’s more amazing how long I can walk around without anyone going “Hey, Liz, what’s that on your hand?”
Setting exercise goals to increase motivation
I exercise because it usually enjoyable, makes me feel better, and will extend my life. Accordingly, I used to exercise however and whenever I felt like it. I was a competitive athlete in high school and was on several teams in college, but for the last few years I’ve avoided taking exercise too seriously, constantly reminding myself that it is only useful insofar as it makes me happier or more productive.
This year, I signed up for a difficult trail race (May 10!) and started training for it. At the beginning of January, I had only been running ten or fifteen miles a week since I was recovering from an injury, so I made a plan to slowly build up to the 40 miles a week I wanted to be at a couple weeks before the race. I planned how how my weekly mileage and long run distances should increase, and I planned to periodically run intervals, hill repeats, sprints up Harvard Stadium, and lift weights in the gym. I wrote down what I did and how I felt every day. I started out motivated, and having a plan to follow and data to track has kept me motivated. On the rare days that I’d rather stay inside, thinking about placing well in the race gets me out the door.
The moral of this story is, pretending that sports is important makes me feel like it’s important, and feeling like it’s important makes it more fun.
(Aside: I’m eight weeks into slowly and reasonably increasing my running mileage. I’m not injured, I’m up to 25 miles a week with a 12 mile long run, and I barely notice hills that used to feel hard. I’m four weeks into lifting weights twice a week. I’m a lot stronger and can do thirty-five consecutive nose-to-the-ground push-ups. You serious athletes can snicker, but I’m proud of myself.)
Failures and Unsolved Problems
These are discussed at greater length above, but I think it’s worth pointing out that “life hacks” have costs and that not everything I try works.
  • I don’t remember to look at my to-do list. I write things on it and then don’t do them.
  • When I initially started setting a “go home and go to bed” alarm, I set it too late by about 40 minutes. Once I got home, I wouldn’t have time to hang out with my boyfriend or even chat with him while getting ready for bed, and I would leave dishes unwashed. Setting the alarm earlier fixed this, but neither the problem nor the solution was immediately obvious.
  • My monthly “fun budget” is inflexible and means that I will basically never go on an airplane for anything other than work or a family emergency.
  • My apartment is usually messier than I want it to be. I feel like I clean it all the time, but I guess that doesn’t happen as fast as it gets messier.
And a final caveat:
  • The fact that everything has been going well for me at once makes me worry that some other variable than good organizing is driving all this.
[2] This is an example of the absence of scarcity and is not really what the book is about.
[3] For people on the same stipend as me following along at home, I overestimated my taxes by a lot. This number could be higher and I’m going to rebudget after I find out exactly how much I’ll pay in taxes this year.

About adaldrida

I'm a college student. I like knitting, running, economics, and computer science. And maybe blogging.
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March 23, 2014

How To Find More Time

Productivity Hacks I’ve Discovered Since Graduating College Part 1: Commitment Devices

I maintain a regular sleep schedule and almost never procrastinate. This is a huge improvement. I struggled for years to make this happen with willpower (hey, self, get off Reddit! go to sleep!) and was mostly unsuccessful. Over the past year, I’ve used external tools to turn me in the right direction. Sometimes they work by making the “right thing” much easier to do than the “wrong thing”, and sometimes they block me entirely from doing the “wrong thing”.

A theoretical framework: Discounting and time inconsistency.

Say that you have to choose between getting a marshmallow today and two marshmallows a year from now, and you choose the marshmallow today. Then say you have a choice between one marshmallow in five years and two in six years, and you choose two. If I wait five years and again ask you the “now or a year from now” question and you say you want one today, you’re being inconsistent: That decision reverses your choice from the initial “one in five years or two in six” question. This is the quick version of David Laibson’s model of quasi-hyperbolic discounting, which describes a person who treats the present as if it is special, but doesn’t value the future dramatically higher than the slightly-farther future.
I used to think about problems like procrastination as if I have two different preferences at the same time. I want to look at funny pictures of cats, but what I really want is to get my essay done early, and then have free time to look at funny pictures of cats. [1] The quasi-hyperbolic discounting model proposes something different: I only have one preference at a time. In the future, I want myself to be a good student and get essays done early. But right now, the benefits of another five minutes goofing off seem well worth the costs of cutting out five minutes somewhere else.
This way of looking at inconsistent behavior suggests a natural solution: If I know that I and my future self won’t agree on what she can do, I should try to constrain her actions. A way of constraining my future actions is a “commitment device”. Here are a few commitment devices that help me.
Leaving my laptop at school overnight.
I used to spend way too much time on my laptop in the evenings: In between tasks I would get distracted by a New York Times article that looked really important, checking the weather, or answering emails. I would get to bed much later than intended and was much less efficient than if I had tackled necessary tasks earlier and left unnecessary ones to a time when would be more alert.
Now, before I leave for home at the end of the day, I check the next day’s weather, print anything I need to, and jot down a plan for the next day. Then I leave my laptop in my locker and go home. This hasn’t just saved me from inefficient end-of-day laptop use; I also get cooking and cleaning done more quickly once I’m home.
Setting an alarm to remind me to go to bed.
This one is a reminder, not a rule. I figured out what time I would need to leave work in order to be able to get up at 7 am each day and set an alarm for that time. Then I head home once I wrap up what I’m working on and get everything organized for the next day.
Melatonin for healthy sleep habits.
The best way to be alert in an 8:30 am class is to regularly go to bed eight hours before the time I need to get up for my 8:30 class. If I go to bed early but am not used to going to bed that early, I will sleep poorly and feel groggy in the morning. When I need to be alert in the morning but haven’t been maintaining an early sleep schedule, I take 1 mg of melatonin, the hormone your body makes at night, about half an hour before bed. I will wake up about seven or eight hours later feeling quite peppy. It is also helpful for the first few days of shifting to an earlier sleep cycle. The drawback is that if I take melatonin and am woken up too early, I will feel bad until I can go to sleep again.
This one goes under “commitment devices” because once I’ve taken melatonin, I will become very sleepy and dysfunctional within an hour, so I have to head to bed without procrastinating or trying to get more work done. However, aside from the transition off Daylight Savings Time, I haven’t needed to use melatonin as a commitment device since I’ve started leaving my laptop at home.
Blocking distracting websites.
I block Reddit and Facebook using the Firefox add-on LeechBlock. It allows these sites only between 9 pm and 9:30 pm. I customized it so that I can’t easily disable the app, and uninstalled Chrome since, last time I checked, Chrome doesn’t have a productivity app that is difficult to disable.
CSA share as a vegetable commitment device.
I get lots of vegetables from Enterprise Farm every week. In addition to being fun and teaching me about what grows in my area in different seasons, this forces me to eat vegetables since I’ve paid for them ahead of time and would have to pay a lot more to eat something else.
Using friends to stay on task
I make a point of telling people my plans: “I’m going to go for a run and then work on the micro p-set, so let me know if you want to talk about that. I’ll be here tomorrow afternoon by 1 pm.” This is usually enough by itself to get me to follow the plan, since I don’t want to look like a flake or let someone down. I’ve also told some of my friends that they should feel free to chastise me when I don’t look like I’m using my time well. Most of them are too polite, but feeling like the productivity police are nearby helps me anyway.
[1] I think that the model of having two preferences at once has some truth to it, but it hasn’t been useful for me in generating suggestions to improve my behavior. But here’s a technique from Paul Graham that implicitly uses the “multiple preferences model”: “If you have two choices, choose the harder. If you’re trying to decide whether to go out running or sit home and watch TV, go running. Probably the reason this trick works so well is that when you have two choices and one is harder, the only reason you’re even considering the other is laziness. You know in the back of your mind what’s the right thing to do, and this trick merely forces you to acknowledge it.”

About adaldrida

I'm a college student. I like knitting, running, economics, and computer science. And maybe blogging.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Productivity Hacks I’ve Discovered Since Graduating College Part 1: Commitment Devices

  1. Pingback: Productivity Hacks Part 2: Increasing Willpower and Promoting Clear Thinking | blog

March 9, 2014

Exercise Is Not A Great Way To Lose Weight

Exercise is not a great way to lose weight.

This may sound like heresy coming from a fitness professional, but it is true.  If you are looking to lose weight, exercise alone is unlikely to get you there.  Even if you work out an hour a day 7 days a week, those other 23 hours (especially if you spend most of your time sitting) can override the benefits.   You may be an “active couch potato”. 
More importantly, when it comes to losing weight, diet counts more than exercise.  Despite the noise from various diets advocates,  it really is a matter of caloric balance.  If you take in more calories than you burn you will gain weight.  Conversely, to lose weight you must take in fewer calories than you burn. If your goal is weight loss it is very hard to burn enough calories through exercise alone.
This does not mean that exercise is useless.  It is actually crucial, but must be paired with healthy eating. Exercise (specifically strength training) helps prevent the loss of lean muscle tissue that can occur with dieting.  You may say you want to lose weight, but it is really fat that you want to lose.  If you take in fewer calories than you burn, your body may use your muscle tissue as an energy source.  Resistance training helps prevent this.   Having a higher percentage of muscle compared to fat helps your body burn more calories, even while at rest.
Exercise plays a star role in keeping weight off.  Many people lose weight only to gain it back again (and again).  Those who partake in a regular fitness program are much more likely to keep the weight off.  In addition, just a small amount of exercise (even 10 minutes a day) can have major health benefits such as reduced blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol.  Positive behavior leads to more positive behavior.  Make exercise a regular part of your life and it will be easier to resist the call of the freezer or pantry.