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Healthy Habits that can save your life

Healthy habits that can save your life

The opening salvo

I should know better, I do but…

I should have done better, but I didn’t.

When it came to my own habits I was as lazy and disorganised as other people.

I had a heart attack when I was forty-four years old. 

Thats young, my doctor said.

Even poor habits shouldn’t have caused my body to try and reject me in this fashion, but it did.

The heart attack wasn’t a good sign. It was my bodies way of deciding enough was enough and this was how it chose to tell me.

As heart attacks go it was quite a biggie. Five coronary artery stents and in total, a couple of weeks in hospital helped me believe what the doctors and nurses told me — heart attack wise, small is much better than big.

Big means you really need to get your act together as your body is pissed off at the way you are treating it. This was just the opening salvo, a shot across the bows. Next time…well, there might not be a next time.

Okay, lesson learnt I’ll be good from now on. Yeah right, I was way too stupid.

I did stop my daily cigar rituals and cut back a bit on the fatty foods but that was about it.

Thoughtful advice on habits, ignored

Thoughtful advice isn’t very useful.

If you need advice, I mean really need advice, then you what you actually need is for someone to scare the shit out of you in the hope that might make you actually listen instead of nodding and smiling.

Sorry, back to the advice. The advice from a lovely nurse was:

  • to exercise for at least thirty minutes per day
  • eat a minimum of five portions of vegetables and fruit
  • take your tablets when you should
  • avoid stress.

To encourage exercising they sent me to Cardiac Rehabilitation which was actually really good and useful. I continued the classes for two years post heart attack, a testament to how good they were. Other than the twice weekly classes, I have to be honest, I ignored the advice and didn’t do a lot.

As I said, I was stupid.

My wife is a talented cook and at the time we were running a catering business (stress?) so, we ate pretty well. She was also determined that I would comply with as much of the thoughtful advice as possible, so I have.

The shock I needed but didn't want

I guess, in hindsight, I probably wasn’t as stupid as I’ve made out but I certainly could have done a lot better than I did. 

I was lucky. My indolent lifestyle didn’t upset my body sufficiently to provoke any further lessons.

Life continued much as before until the end of 2016 when my father became suddenly and unexpectedly ill, passing away five months later.

After a number of hospital admissions, months of tests and a steady decline they finally realised dad's heart was failing. The damage was so bad that it would keep failing until it stopped.

This brought me up short. 

The heart connection very abruptly brought everything sharply into focus. 

I took a long hard look at myself without the rose-tinted spectacles and was shocked by what I saw.

Time to actually start implementing some of the thoughtful advice I had received nine years earlier.

Getting my shit together - exercise

Exercise, I have since discovered, as well as reducing bulging waistlines and reducing the wheezing and panting when you break into a gentle jog , keeps your heart in tip-top condition. 

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’m not an enthusiastic exerciser, never have been but I was prepared to overcome this aversion and get started.

I had previously been a member of a gym, so I opted to try the gym again. I was surprised. The equipment is modern and controlled by an electronic key, which connects to an app and allows my inner geek to monitor how I’m doing.

Very satisfying and motivational. Also each month the gym runs a competition that tracks a different activity - weight lifted, kilometres run or walked. I have featured in the top 20 twice which gave me a huge boost.

I wouldn’t for a moment say it’s been plain sailing but taking the good with the bad, has started to have the desired effect.

My waistline is reducing, albeit slowly, and my fitness levels are through the roof. Which sounds great but the bar was very low when I started.

My biggest challenge during the cold wet months of a British winter is summoning up the enthusiasm to leave a nice warm house and walk for fifteen minutes to the gym. I mostly do but…

Getting my shit together - diet

My next challenge was dietary. 

Having a wife who is an amazing cook has certainly helped. She is mostly successful in curbing my passion for hot-buttered toast and homemade cake. 

However, my single biggest issue was portion size. I enjoy food and consequently I’ve eaten what I wanted and in whatever quantity I chose. Now I’m training my body that it’s okay to leave food on the plate and satiety is a signal to heed.

This I was sure would be a problem but actually has been far easier than I thought. Having the extra motivation of a reducing waistline in addition to no longer feeling uncomfortable works.

Getting my shit together - mental health

The third healthy habit for a long and productive life actually came from my wife. I pooh-pooh the idea as too hippy and new age. But over time and seeing the positive impact it had on her, I was gradually won over. 

What was it? Mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that encourages you to live in the moment, shut out distractions and quieten the internal noise we all have in our heads. You know, the voices telling you you’re crap and useless and shouldn’t bother trying to be who you want to be; or is that just me?

To begin with the act of focussing on my breathing and not letting my mind continue with its nonsense was extremely difficult. That phase only lasted for a few sessions and then calm happened. 

My stress and anxiety levels have plummeted. I am now finding that I can focus on the things I need to do and I can sometimes ignore the background chatter. This improves week by week.

I was sceptical but I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a try. I use an app called HeadSpace which is excellent but there are a number of other apps and programs out there.

So, any point?

God yes!

Making the effort to transform your habits from dangerous to healthy will change you.

It has impacted every area of my life, transforming me away from the potential train wreck I was in danger of becoming, into a solid work in progress. 

I still have a long way to go but the thing is, once you get started and feel a bit better continuing just makes sense. I mean, why would you choose to feel shit if you didn't have to?

Has developing healthy habits been easy? 

Simple answer is no but it hasn’t been as hard as I expected and as you go on and strengthen the habits it gets easier and easier.

An unexpected bonus is that the exercising has improved my creativity and productivity as well as giving me a new sense of purpose. 

The mindfulness has shown me that I don’t need to live an anxious stressed out life. Cutting back on the calories has meant that I am looking and feeling better than ever before.

Worth it? Definitely, let me know how you get on.

Suggested Reading

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How to motivate with consequences, not rewards

How to motivate with consequences, not rewards

As a long time chronic procrastinator with a side order of lazy, I’ve spent years trying to discover ways to motivate myself to do more.

I failed. Miserably.

The approach that I took involved a combination of list writing and goal setting. Each evening I diligently followed the Ivy Lee method to sort out my list for the following day — hold on a minute Ivy Lee?

The Ivy Lee Method

The Ivy Lee Method to achieve maximum productivity is deceptively simple. 

Each evening, write out a list of the six most important tasks you need to complete the following day. 

Place these tasks in order of their importance.

The following morning begin work on the most important task and continue until it is completed.

Continue working through your list in the same way until the end of the day. 

Any tasks that remain, transfer them onto the list for the following day.

Simplicity itself, or it should be. I, however, in my normal dilatory fashion managed to find a way to cock up this system.

I always found a way to excuse myself from conscientiously committing to anything and I couldn’t understand why.

Goal setting

Perhaps I needed a target that would motivate me to perform. I needed to set myself goals.

Excellent. So I did.

Again my inner asshole kicked in and found ways of putting off starting, completing and doing anything in between. I couldn’t understand why.

I had written lists, established goals — reasons for working through my list — but still I resisted even if the ultimate goal was appealing. 

One goal I set myself was to earn enough money from freelancing to allow me to cover our outgoings for a month. Tough, but not completely unrealistic.

I made no progress, zero.

Then I read an article somewhere online, I can’t find the link anymore, that talked about treats and consequences or rewards versus punishments.

Rewards

Essentially you commit to achieving a goal. Maybe, losing a set amount of weight, regular exercise, stopping drinking alcohol or in my case doing what I should be doing and not watching Netflix’s.

If you achieve your goal you reward yourself with a predetermined treat, something that you really like or want and this acts as the driving force towards the goal.

I liked this idea.

However, I found that I had to include external accountability in the form of my wife to ensure that I didn’t cheat myself or do a half-arsed job just to get the reward.

This has worked to an extent and has motivated me to set some longer term, larger goals to work towards with rewards that are substantially larger.

Though I like the carrot idea, and the thought of rewarding myself for achieving, fun and exciting. However, I have decided to try the other side of the coin, the stick, for comparison.  

The concept of losing something rather than gaining has been shown to be a more effective tool.

Punishments

A university of Chicago economist, John List, performed a study on 150 public school teachers in Chicago.

The teachers were split into two groups and both groups were told that their bonuses would be linked to the test scores of their students. Teachers in the first group had to show improved test scores to receive their bonus.

Teachers in the second group were given $4000 at the beginning of term but were told that if their student scores didn’t improve they would have to repay the $4000.

The threat of losing money, loss aversion, worked. The teachers of the students in the second group performed seven percent higher than the scores of the first group.

If the stakes are unrealistic the effect can be the opposite causing ‘choking’ — a drastic fall in performance as a result of a high stress situation — where even seasoned professionals will mess things up.

Consequences

Stick.com offers a service to allow users to sign up, select a goal. It can literally be anything, appoint a referee and then pledge an amount of money they would relinquish if they failed to reach their goal. 

The money can be donated to a charity or if you really want to ramp up the consequences it can be donated to an anti-charity.

Hate guns, donate to the NRA or hate Theresa May, donate to the UK Conservative party.

The threat of losing something seems to be a stronger motivator than the prospect of a reward. This fear, as long as the stakes are not too high, works to persuade a person to perform or even out perform themselves. 

I’m going to sign up to stick.com and see if the prospect of a negative outcome for failing to do those things that I need to do is a bigger motivator than a reward.

If I fail, I’ll donate to my local hospice.

Suggested Reading

This post contains affiliate links. For more information, visit my disclosure page.

Free climber hanging

How to get your shit together

How to get your shit together

Not getting my shit together

I've wondered for a long time what 'getting your shit together' meant and 'how to get your shit together' applied to me. At my age, urban slang isn't at the forefront of anything. 

So, I tried Google. The few sites I looked at didn't really help me; tidying wasn't my problem and neither was life insurance, living wills or for that matter getting over my boyfriend/girlfriend leaving.

However, getting my shit together was my problem.

My problems ran a little deeper, were more complex and would take more to fix than tidying my wardrobe and sorting out my life insurance.

I first heard the phrase 'get your shit together' while watching a boxset on Netflix and it sounded as if they were speaking directly to me. 

The character was behaving in a similar way to how I was behaving at the time. Lazy, no motivation, no idea what they wanted to do, and perhaps most troubling, no real interest in finding out what they wanted out of life.

I, of course, chose to ignore this metaphorical heads up and continued to be the asshole I had been for a long time. 

When some months later I had a scare that was significant enough that I had to revisit getting my shit together, I looked at what was involved a little more closely.

Thinking about getting my shit together

I knew I needed to make some changes; big, ugly changes and the phrase, getting my shit together, seemed to fit the bill as a way of describing what I had to do.

The definitions I had found via Google — tidying, life insurance, living wills — meant nothing to me and they seemed shallow, superficial and prescriptive. Do this and everything will be great, don’t and you’ll be covered in the shit you that you were trying to get together. 

I needed to identify what I needed to do and then I would have my own version of getting my shit together that I could use to move forward.

Identifying what shit I needed to get together

Resorting to pad and pencil I made a list; a long list, of every aspect of me that I wanted to change.

  1. Lazy
  2. Overweight
  3. Unfit
  4. Procrastinator
  5. Unmotivated
  6. Scared of everything
  7. Depressed and miserable
  8. No focus
  9. Few ideas
  10. Lacking in willpower

That is the edited highlights but it gives a flavour or where I was and the size of the task.

Attacking this daunting list, issue by issue, could take a lifetime and as most of them had a common theme, I decided to approach them all head on in one foul, painful swoop.

How I got my shit together

I had planned to take all of my numerous and various issues on together and rip off the Band-aid in one go. However, looking at the list I saw that there were areas that had a natural symmetry with each other and could be treated essentially as one.

Lifestyle

When I say I was unfit and overweight, I'm not exaggerating. I hadn't purposely let myself go, but the end result was the same; an inability to run more than a hundred yards without hyperventilating or throwing up and waistline that was embarrassing.

When I decided to rip off the Band-Aid, I figured that if I could get myself in shape and lose quite a lot of weight that would help a lot of the other problems that I had identified. Don't be under any illusions, this was hard work, really hard work.

Here's what I did.

Food and Exercise

Owning a catering company and having a wife who is a fantastic cook should be a dream. But surrounded by temptation and being presented with amazing meals every night makes dieting difficult.

To make this possible we decided to cut out all processed carbohydrates, most sweets and desserts, and increase the amount of salads and vegetable we are eating by at least 50%. As you imagine, the kids weren't happy but with treat nights included they came around.

The exercise part was even harder.

Running was out of the question, as were team sports and high-impact sports (heart problems), which left the gym.

Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the gym and have continued going reasonably regularly. Some weeks are more sporadic than others but I'm still going, still enjoying it most of the time, and I'm beginning to see a body emerge from the blob that I had been before.

Eat more healthily by cutting back on refined carbs, desserts and biscuits and increase exercise. Most importantly: Keep moving and don’t overeat — the weight will begin to disappear

Mental Health

I had spent years miserable, depressed and scared of everything. The ridiculous thing was that I hadn’t even realised, it had just become my norm. When I honestly looked at how I felt, when I decided to get my shit together, I saw myself for what I was — a very unhappy, unfulfilled person. 

That sounds as if my whole life was shit, it wasn’t. I had a happy marriage to an incredible woman, wonderful children and on the whole a reasonable life, but inside I was miserable. Why? I’ll get to that part in a moment, first I need to fix this part.

The exercise helped, as did a short period on pills from the doctor and counselling but the thing that really worked and I believe saved my life, was mindfulness.

Mindfulness

I’d heard about mindfulness from my wife and had of course immediately discounted it as new age shit from the outer edges of desperation — I was still in my asshole phase. She knew how good it was and badgered me into giving it a try. So, I did.

I tried a week — nothing. 

A second week — less stressed and anxious but hey, that could be anything. 

A third week — calmer, less irritable, occasional small smile.

Fourth week — I was nicer, happier, less anxious, positive and I began to believe. Believe that maybe things could get better.

As the weeks have gone by the effects have compounded — it’s not all unicorns and rainbows — but overall I wouldn’t be without my mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness is definitely worth trying. It won’t hurt and may even help. I found I was calmer, less anxious and able to be much more positive

NB: I’m not a doctor and this is not medical advice. If you feel you may be depressed, see your own doctor for advice.

Getting things done

Lazy, unmotivated, lacking focus, few ideas, no willpower and a chronic procrastinator; that was me. Add in; feeling sorry for myself and expecting the world to provide me with everything I wanted but wasn’t prepared to work for and you have the whole me.

Embarrassing and shameful.

What turned it around?

Exercising because I wanted to feel and look better. That helped.

Losing the depressive, miserable, anxious me. That had a huge impact.

What else?

Getting Started

Getting started.

Whatever you want to do, take the first step towards your goal.

I also found that to avoid intimidating myself with the massive projects that I wanted to take on, it was important to break the project down in to bite sized chunks.

If these chunks still seem overwhelming — break them down further until you get to a size that doesn’t seem too scary and unobtainable.

Nothing kicks motivation and enthusiasm in the crotch harder than looking at a task and feeling that it isn’t possible. 

Why start when there’s no way you can possibly finish?

This website, The Lazy Man’s Guides, is a good example.

I knew I wanted to provide a resource for people who were in a similar situation to me. Excellent idea, now what?

I had little idea what was going to be involved. So, I made a list of everything I could think of that I would need to do. Then I did some research and doubled the size of the list.

Each item on that list represented a significant challenge and to be honest just reading the list made me want to head for the hills and hide.

Mission Impossible, is Possible

The size of the task I had set myself was stupid. There was no way that I could learn the skills needed to design the web page, optimise it, write the copy, optimise it, market the site, link everything coherently and so on.

So I started, just started. I took the first job — setting up the website and I broke it into doable chunks.

  1. Find someone to host the site
  2. Download WordPress
  3. Decide on a theme
  4. Customise it
  5. Design some pages
  6. Write a first post

And so on.

The list I originally wrote still looks enormous and over half of the items on the list are still waiting to be crossed off, but I started and each day I keep moving.

One Step Closer

Starting, moving forward, means that you are one step closer to getting to where you want to be. Each day is a little easier. As you learn new skills and overcome challenges, each day also becomes more exciting and interesting. 

Motivation and focus have stopped being the problem they once were. Willpower is like a muscle I am training and it grows each week. 

Ideas that were once random and only occasional now happen more regularly and they’re not all shit.

Procrastination can sometimes be a problem but I have discovered I like treats. Do the work, finish the article, research the keywords then I allow myself an episode of Suits or something else.

Whatever it is that gets you going and keeps you going is great.

Just get started, that is the key.

Break down whatever it is you want to do — lose weight, exercise, build a website or another dream you have — into manageable repeatable chunks.

Make it fun by treating yourself or if that doesn’t work for you try the opposite and have consequences for not doing what you should be doing instead.

Have I got my shit together?

I think the fairest and most honest answer is that I’m a work in progress. 

I exercise more now than I have done in the last twenty years. Is it enough? No, but I’ll get there. 

It’s a question of balancing my work schedule with the other parts of my life but ultimately my health and vanity need to take more of a priority.

I’m also trying to eat even more healthily and overall I’m succeeding. I now eat very little processed food, love green vegetables (really) and I’ve even committed to stopping drinking alcohol until Christmas. 

If all of that doesn’t do some good then the New Year is going to become a salad fest.

Habits help

Mindfulness continues to help me and is also one of my biggest struggles. 

It isn’t that I don’t want to practice mindfulness, I do, I’ve seen the results. It’s that I haven’t managed to form a habit yet and so I forget.

I’ve decided to try using a trigger which will make the habit easier to form and will be flexible enough that I won’t be able to forget what I have to do.

The thing that had the most significant impact on getting my shit together?

Getting Started Again

I have discovered that I am far more able than I or anyone had realised. Rediscovering the power and pleasure in learning has been amazing and has helped me to set up my SEO copywriting business. 

It has let me indulge my passion and fascination with history, particularly mediaeval and early modern history by starting an online business to help people enjoy history as much as I do.

And finally just getting started has has allowed me to enjoy the research and kept me interested and engaged learning how I should manage my own procrastination or laziness and allowed me to share my experiences — the successful and the failures for anyone else who’s interested to learn from.

A year ago I couldn’t have imagine getting my shit together or how positive an experience it could be, now I can’t imagine going back to my old life.

Suggested Reading 

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Mindfulness

Mindfulness for a healthy mind

Mindfulness for a healthy, happy mind

There is much more to your overall wellbeing than having a heathy body.

Having a healthy mind is equally - if not more - important than having good physical health.  It doesn’t matter if you feed yourself the cleanest, organic food available, exercise every day, sleep for 9 hours and do everything you can to keep your body in tip-top shape, if you only end up having a lifestyle that is stressful, depressing, and frantic it won't have been worth it.

Why we need a healthy mind

Being stress and anxiety free, where you are happy and contented is incredibly important for your mental health. Depression, anxiety and stress can affect your productivity, relationships, and wellbeing, and hold you back from being at your best. 

Focussing on your mental health in order to have a life that is happy and healthy is vital. This is where mindfulness may help.

I spent years pooh, poohing meditation and as the purview of hippies and 'New age' people with nothing better to do.

I was wrong. Mindfulness has calmed me down, reduced my anxiety and helped make me happier and more able to do the things I want to do.

What is mindfulness?

It is a form of meditation that helps to relieve stress and anxiety and can improve our mental wellbeing

Generally speaking, mindfulness is done either silently or guided through following someone's voice. For all forms of mindfulness, there are some key elements to have in place. These are:

  • finding a quiet place to sit with a comfortable posture,
  • to focus on your breath,
  • and to trust that this might work

How mindfulness can improve overall health

Scientific studies has shown that it can positively alter our brains, and helps us deal with our emotions, anxiety, and physical pain. If you've never practiced mindfulness, here are some really good reasons to learn:

  • Heart health: It can calm you and help with better stress management. 
  • Blood Pressure: Blood pressure can be lowered naturally by practicing mindfulness. 
  • Stress reduction and improved energy levels: General health, immunity, and energy levels are boosted by mindfulness in that it reduces sympathetic nervous system activity, resulting in reduced stress hormones released.
  • Increased intelligence: It leads to increased brain matter folding in the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain associated with overall cognitive intelligence.
  • Self-awareness: Brain matter changes correspond with feelings of improved self-esteem and peacefulness.

How you can meditate for a healthy mind

When you practice it sit comfortably in a quiet space, close your eyes, and allow your mind to settle.

When practicing mindfulness, you are always relaxed, aware, and alert. Start with short 5-10 minute sessions daily and increase the duration as you get more out of your practice.

Mindfulness, as with everything, takes practice, ideally daily practice for the best outcome. It's considered better to meditate for short periods daily than long periods occasionally.

I am very new to mindfulness, as I'm sure is apparent but the benefits I have enjoyed were really easy to achieve and far more than I had been expecting.

As I said earlier I was a confirmed sceptic until I read a book  by Ruby Wax, the comedian, called Sane about her battle with depression and how mindfulness had helped. Her book was confirmation that it could work - at least it did for her - and might be worth a look.

I use an app called Headspace and they explain the benefits far more adeptly than I can. Have a look and see what you think. The first ten sessions are free, which should give you a good idea of what's involved , and after that you can choose to subscribe or not.

Whatever form of mindfulness you choose to try, the benefits are the same. It can help to bring about a state of emotional well-being, to gain a clearer perspective on life, especially in stressful situations, to improve your self-awareness and reduce negative emotions.

Suggested Reading

This post contains affiliate links. For more information, visit my disclosure page.

Runners

Get started – the key to everything

Get started - the key to everything

I believe I am lazy, my biggest struggle is doing anything.

I don’t believe that now of course. Now I accept I am a chronic procrastinator with a terrible taste in boxsets...

My urge to get started is non-existent. I will do anything, apart from doing anything.

This is my single biggest obstacle.

I constantly reduce my effectiveness, productivity and success by a combination of a lack of self-belief, a smattering of laziness and not having the tools I needed to get me going.

In his book — Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A concise guide to strategies for change — Dr Timothy Pychyl devotes a whole chapter to the power of getting started.

Even a regular person when faced with a task that they don’t want to do because it is unpleasant, boring, tedious or perceived as too difficult, will want to walk away, put it off for another day or procrastinate.

A chronic procrastinator metaphorically runs for the hills and reverts to type. In my case I waste time, usually watching mindless crap, until it is too late to begin. This cycle repeats the next day and the next day and so on. 

Nothing ever gets done.

Get started

Dr Pychyl put forward, what to me sounds like a radical (I accept it isn’t…) idea. When you have an urge to run for the hills, do the exact opposite and get started.

When I first read this I put down his book in disgust and quietly ranted that he didn’t understand that I am different.

This ‘strategy’ wouldn’t work for me. I guess that's called an expected reaction. You hear something that you don’t want to hear and you rebel.

Yes, expected but also stupid.

So, even though I didn’t think it applied to me, I read the chapter in full. Essentially, he says that the strategy is important for a number of interesting reasons.

Once you start a task, it is rarely as bad as you thought and your stress levels relating to the task go down.

Some Interesting Psychology

To confirm this Dr Pychyl and his team used pagers to gather ‘experience-sampling data’ from a number of participants over the course of a couple of weeks.

Participants were paged randomly throughout the day and asked questions.

For example ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Is there something else you should be doing’ and ‘How are you feeling?’.

They rated their responses on a scale of zero (no stress) to ten (extreme stress).  

At the beginning of the week the response from participants was as they had anticipated.  Tasks were being avoided with comments like "I feel more like doing that tomorrow" or "I work better under pressure". Towards the end of the week there was a change in perception towards the task.

On Monday the task was perceived as stressful and unpleasant. When the participants actually started and engaged with the task their responses to the questions showed a reduction in the amount of stress, perceived difficulty and unpleasantness.

A Little More Psychology

Ken Sheldon of the University of Missouri, Columbia demonstrated that making progress on a goal when you feel happier and more satisfied is more effective. The positive feelings help to motivate us to stay with a difficult or unpleasant task through to completion.

Essentially, by getting started on anything that you don't want to do will change your feelings about the task requirements and make you perceive it in a more positive light.

I'm finding that following Dr Pychyl's advice, just starting anything that I'm avoiding, even if I don't finish the task or job, I'll feel better about myself, more positive as at least I achieve something. I then feel more inclined to get started again the next day. 

Using a small reward helps

Combine this approach with an if … then statement.

For example:

If I finish writing this article then I'll allow myself to watch an episode of my favourite box set. 

This increases the likelihood that I will do what I need to do as it will make me feel better about myself and get me a reward.

When I first read about this it sounded childish and a little puerile. I'm here as the lab rat, so I gave it a go. I have since found this strategy to be far more powerful than I expected and has gone some way to not only getting me started but also to keeping me on track.

Give it a go, and discover how by "just getting started" everything seems more manageable, less frightening and actually more enjoyable.

Suggested Reading

This post contains affiliate links. For more information, visit my disclosure page.

eating healthily

How to eat healthily and stay hydrated

How to eat healthily and stay hydrated

The McDonald’s years were not kind. Nor, for that matter were the take-away years or the red wine decade. Healthy eating … yeah, right.

I lacked energy, looked dreadful, and felt even worse.

A large part of this was my poor food choices. I shouldn't have been making these choices, after all my wife is a talented cook.

At the time when this started we were running a catering business and had already had one significant reminder to be better behaved which I'd chosen to ignore.

Eventually I realised that if I had any hope of turning my life around and starting to do the things that I dreamt of doing rather than wallowing in self-pity, obsessing over which box set to watch next, and being underwhelmed by life, I needed to start addressing the basics.

For me, the basics are:

  • Exercise 
  • Eating healthily and drinking properly
  • Mindfulness - to get and keep the correct attitude
  • And sleeping at least 7 hours 

Eating Healthily

First things first. The one thing I know is that I am incredibly fortunate to have a wife who cooks like an angel. 

Eating a balanced diet is simple with a little thought and preparation. Cooking extra and freezing it for another day gives an easy option for a healthy meal with little effort. 

Likewise, a slow-cooker is a godsend if time is against you.

Put all the ingredients for a casserole or Bolognese into the slow cooker with stock or a sauce. Turn it on and forget about it.

When you arrive home, hours later, you will be greeted by the smell of a perfectly cooked dinner that’s ready to eat.

The Sciencey Bit

Fat - Bad And Good  

Trans fat is a by-product of a process called partial hydrogenation.

Healthy oils are turned into solids to prevent them from becoming rancid.

The trans fats raise the level of LDL cholesterol - bad cholesterol and reduce the amount of HDL cholesterol - good cholesterol.

Trans fat also causes inflammation which is linked to cardio-vascular events (heart disease, stroke), also diabetes and insulin resistance which increases the chance of developing type 2 diabetes. 

Polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat and Omega-3 fatty acids are all considered to be healthy fats that can lower LDL cholesterol.

They decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes and in the case of Omega-3 fatty acids are especially beneficial to your heart.

Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fat are liquids at room temperature.

Polyunsaturated fat is a source of vitamin E and is found in vegetable oils (sunflower oil, flaxseed oil, walnut oil, soybean oil), walnuts, sunflower seeds, tofu and soybeans. 

Monounsaturated fats are found in avocado’s, almonds, cashew nuts, peanuts as well as olive oil, sesame oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil.

A good source of Omega-3 fatty acids are fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, trout, scallops and mussels. Other good sources include walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds.

Carbohydrates

They are a  significant source of energy

There are in two main forms - healthy carbohydrates and unhealthy ones.

Examples of healthy carbohydrates are: 

  • unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains
  • vegetables, fruits and beans—promote good health by delivering vitamins, minerals, fibre, and important phytonutrients. (e.g. brown rice, baked potato)

Unhealthy ones Include:

  • white bread, cakes and biscuits, fizzy drinks, and other highly processed or refined foods.  
  • Easily digested, high in sugar
  • Can cause weight gain, diabetes, heart disease

Protein

Protein is essential for growth and repair of the body

Animal sources contain the full range of amino acids required

Good sources of protein

  • Meat (chicken, pork, beef, lamb)
  • Fish and seafood (e.g. Salmon, tuna, mackerel, cod, prawns, mussels)
  • Eggs
  • Dairy (cheese, milk, yoghurt)
  • Beans and Pulses (lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans)
  • Nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts)

Excellent for weight management as it will leave you feeling fuller for longer than carbohydrates.

Dietary Fibre

Dietary fibre cannot be broken down by human digestive enzymes.

It's found in cereals (bread, beans, lentils,) and fruit and vegetables.

Good for digestive health:

  • Recommended minimum intake is 18g/day.
  • Helps us to feel ‘full’.

And lots and lots of vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, B (lots of B’s), C, D, E, K, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorous, Potassium, Sodium Chloride as well as trace elements Boron, Chromium, Cobalt, Copper, Fluoride, Iodine, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Selenium, Silicon, Sulphur, Zinc.

Water

The average adult is 55 - 60% water. 

Without water our bodies cannot function correctly. Two-thirds of our bodies water is intracellular (inside cells) the remaining one-third is extracellular (outside of cells). 

Around 20% of our bodies water is in blood plasma.

Water is the primary building block of cells, acts as an insulator regulating our internal body temperature, metabolises proteins and carbohydrates in food and is the main component of saliva which aids swallowing foods and digesting carbohydrates. 

It acts as a shock absorber by insulating the brain, spinal cord and other organs and flushes toxins and waste out of our bodies in urine.

To put the importance of water into perspective...

An average adult can survive without food for between six and eight weeks, though Thomas McElwee survived 73 days with just a little water during the hunger strike by IRA prisoners in 1981. 

Survival without air for the average adult is approximately 3 minutes.

However, survival without water in ideal conditions — not too hot or cold — would be between 3 and 5 days. Water is impossible to live without for even short periods of time.

Water is vital to our survival and without it we will die... 

The Food Standards Agency recommends that we drink 1.5 - 2.0 litres of water/day.

We lose water everyday. On average we lose 1400 ml through urination,  200 ml in our faeces , 400 ml when breathing  and 500 ml via the skin.

That totals 2500 ml or 2.5 litres. This has to be replaced to avoid dehydration. 

Being well hydrated helps you lose weight!

A study in 2010 by Virginia Tech found that people who drank two 8 0z glasses of water before eating consumed around 75 calories less per meal. Over 12 weeks this amounted to an additional 5 pounds of weight loss.

Ice water will also increase metabolism because your body has to burn calories to warm the water up. 

There are other consequences to dehydration

If you are dehydrated fine lines and wrinkles in your skin are deeper and more noticeable.

It leaves you feeling tired and drained and bowels motions are drier and more difficult to pass.

Did you know constipation and can encourage the formation of kidney stones as the salts and minerals are in a more concentrated form?

Drinking adequate water every day is vital and will keep you healthy, productivity and looking great!

Suggested Reading

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Mana and child sleeping

Sleeping, an unexpected miracle.

Sleeping, an unexpected miracle

The power of sleeping

Lack of sleep will have a real and visible impact. Let me explain.

I had a row with the cat. Moan, moan, moan, he hasn't stopped complaining since I came down to make tea at 6:15 AM.

My teenage daughter sat at the kitchen table giggling hysterically while I, very firmly, explained to the cat that if he wasn't happy with breakfast and didn't want to go out he should go and have a nap as he was overtired and showing off.

I'm a bit frazzled this morning. I didn't sleep that well and now everything is irritating. The cat, the labradors, the giggling teenager are all causing me a degree of stress that is out of all proportion to the situation.

When I sleep my normal eight hours I can crack jokes, ignore the cats moaning, and giggle along with the teenager at the absurdity of trying to have a meaningful conversation with a cat.

Sleep deprivation destroys your concentration

In 1965 Randy Gardner a high school student in San Diego California this stayed awake for 11 days and 25 minutes.

He is the holder of the scientifically documented record for the longest a human has intentionally gone without sleep without using stimulants of any kind.

Gardner set his record as part of his high schools science fair. His health was monitored by lieutenant commander John J. Ross and observed by Stanford sleep researcher Dr William C. Dem.

The main side effects from his marathon of sleeplessness included moodiness, problems with concentration, paranoia and hallucinations. Gardner’s record shows that extreme sleep deprivation is possible but is it sensible?

So how do we sleep?

Our sleep cycle is regulated by two systems in our bodies: sleep/wake homeostasis and the circadian or 24-hour body clock. The sleep/wake homeostasis tells our bodies when the need for sleep is building up and our 24-hour body clock regulates the timing of sleepiness and wakefulness.

When we sleep we go through a series of 90 minute long sleep cycles. During that time we move through five stages of sleep:

  • Very light sleep during stage 1 to a very deep sleep at stage 4. 
  • The fifth stage of sleep is known as REM sleep — Rapid Eye Movement, this is where dreaming happens.

How much sleep do we need?

The World Health Organisation recommends eight hours of sleep per night.

In developed nations two-thirds of people fail to achieve this amount of sleep and suffer the consequences.

In his book, Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, Professor Matthew Walker looks at all aspects of sleep from why we need to get our eight hours a night to what happens if we don’t.

Walker believes we are in the midst of a ‘catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic’ the consequences of which are far greater than we could imagine.

He argues that sleep needs to be incentivised. Sleep deprivation (less than seven hours a night) affects every aspect of your health and costs the UK economy over £30 billion a year in lost revenues.

How sleep deprivation affects health

The effects on our health from sleep loss are numerous and serious. There are significant links to Alzheimers disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and poor mental health.

A telling example he quotes in his interview with The Guardian is that after just one night of four or five hours sleep our natural killer cells, the cells that attack cancer, reduce by 70% and that lack of sleep is linked to bowel, prostate and breast cancer. 

Sleep deprivation also affects the bodies control of sugar. You are more susceptible to weight gain because inadequate sleep reduces the level of leptin, a hormone that signals to your brain when you are full, and increases ghrelin, the hormone that signals hunger.

Getting too little sleep can effect the brains ability to remove the amyloid deposits that accumulate in the brains of those suffering from Alzheimers disease killing the surrounding cells. When we sleep deeply these deposits are effectively cleaned from the brain. 

A couple of other worrying statistics from this interview :

  • Men who sleep too little have a sperm count 29% lower than those who get enough sleep
  • If you drive a car after just four hours sleep you are 11.5 times more likely to be involved in an accident
  • There are 100 diagnosed sleep disorders. The most common is insomnia

How does sleep-loss affect procrastinators?

Getting less sleep than you need leaves everyone edgy, a little irritable and a lot less productive. 

I’ve found if I’m tired my motivation to do what needs to be done will significantly lower.

I’ll be more inclined to procrastinate and revert to type by watching something on Netflix’s or Amazon.

On tired days achieving anything is a struggle and will leave me feeling guilty when I do nothing. I’ll get frustrated and snappy if there’s no choice but to buckle down and work.

I also find that the quality of what I manage is poorer than when I am rested and my creativity and ability to generate ideas is a lot lower than normal.

For me, if I want to do what needs to be done, I need to sleep a minimum of seven hours a night, preferably eight hours and to sleep for this amount of time consistently.

Bottom line: if we want to achieve, we have to be ready, prepared to do battle and overcome our innate desire to do nothing, otherwise we stay where we are and be the things we really want to avoid. 

Suggested Reading

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Man doing handstand on beach

Exercising – you can get so much from just a little

Exercising - how you can get so much from just a little...

I have never been an enthusiastic exerciser.

No I actually think I’m understating the case, I have spent the last nearly forty years doing the absolute bare minimum.

I walk, sometimes. Dog walking, walking to the pub or strolling around town, but that’s about it really. Exercising really isn't me...

So why am I writing an article about exercise and more importantly why should you bother reading it?

What to choose

Over the last few months I have had cause to re-evaluate a number of my life choices, in fact, all of my life choices. 

This was a difficult and uncomfortable process, so difficult and uncomfortable I almost didn’t bother. One of the areas that cause me the most anxiety and discomfort was how I looked. 

I realised that there was a huge disconnect between how I mentally viewed myself - a bit on the chunky side and less fit than I should be - with the reality that was closer to; borderline obese and unable to do much more than walk.

With the above in mind, I needed to find a form of exercise that was indoors and would help me deal with my uncomfortable reality.

So, I chose the gym for three reasons:

1. Indoors

2. Lots of new and exciting equipment to play with and

3. I had been to gym’s a couple of times in the past for brief periods and even at the size I had become, I knew I would be anonymous and invisible.

That I realised something needed doing was given.

I needed to lose weight and get fitter both for self-image and to give my knackered heart a fighting chance. 

But apart from losing some weight and breathing a little easier when I did anything more vigorous than walking, what really was the point?

I enjoy reading and researching things and was curious as to the impact exercise had on our health and not just our waistlines.

How much do we need?

My starting point was: how much exercise you actually need to do per week?

The answer; one hundred and fifty minutes of moderately intense exercise per week i.e. you can just about hold a conversation but couldn’t sing a song.

That equates to thirty minutes a day, five days a week. Not an unreasonable amount and as I was going to the gym for an hour five times a week, I’d blown that out of the park already.

Okay, so we need to do one hundred and fifty minutes of exercise per week and over time I’ll become slim and sylphlike. Excellent, but what else? 

I had a look at the NHS website (National Health Service in the UK) to see what their thoughts on what exercise could do for me. 

I really had no idea it could do so much.

The overwhelming benefits of exercise

It has been medically proven that people who do the recommended one hundred fifty minutes of exercise per week can:

  • shrink the risk of heart disease and stroke by 35%
  • lower the risk of type II diabetes by 50%
  • reduce the chance of colon cancer by 50% 
  • breast cancer by 20%
  • reduce the chance of early death by 30%
  • lower the risk of osteoarthritis by 83%
  • decrease the chance of hip fracture by 68%
  • lessen the risk of falls by 30%
  • reduce depression 30% and the chance of dementia by 30%

In addition to the purely medical benefits of reducing your chances of falling victim to any of the above unpleasant and potentially life threatening conditions, getting your quota of exercise each week has numerous other advantages.

Happiness and euphoria is triggered by the secretion of endorphins which are released when you exercise.

The endorphins also act as analgesics, reducing the perception of pain, and as sedatives. Regular exercise has been proven to reduce stress, ward off anxiety and feelings of depression, boost self esteem and improve the quality of sleep. 

Growing evidence suggests that physical exercise may protect against cognitive impairment and decline as we get older. Research is showing that regular exercise really does improve creativity.

What happens if you don't exercise

More worryingly for the dedicated couch potato is research published in The Lancet that suggests inactivity is causing as many deaths as smoking.

With 5.3 million deaths a year reported it has become so bad that inactivity should be treated as a pandemic.

Additionally, inactivity could be killing twice as many people as obesity in Europe a study by the University of Cambridge suggests. Prof. Ulf Ekelund has said that eliminating inactivity in Europe would cut mortality by nearly 7.5% or 676,000 deaths.

The research and reading I have done is stark and depressing.

On one hand showing inactivity — just not moving enough — is more effective at killing you than being morbidly obese and as effective as smoking.

However, on the upside, it is possible to improve your chances of not falling foul of a number of unpleasant diseases and conditions by just moving at a moderate pace for thirty minutes a day five days a week. Easy.

The beauty of exercise, as I am reluctantly discovering, is that it needs no prescription from the doctor. It will lift your mood, make you happy and improve your creativity and productivity.

Best of all, exercise keeps you alive and healthy for far longer than being slumped in front of a box set.

What’s not to love?

Suggested Reading

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Stress and overwhelm

Overwhelm? What to do and why you should

Overwhelm? What to do and why you should

The Problem

 I’ve been lazy and procrastinated for the majority of my adult life. I have barely achieved half of what I could have achieved but on the upside I have an intimate knowledge of American television box sets. 

My behaviour and the effects it was having on me, finally came to my attention one Saturday morning when I unconsciously walked past a mirror. I glanced up, and saw the real me. I had forgotten to put on my rose tinted spectacles saw the whole unvarnished truth.

A few days later, once I had got over the horror of what I’d seen and I’d accepted that I needed to do something about my life choices, shape, attitude, well actually pretty much everything. I started devising a plan of action.

I began to list all the things that I wanted to change. My shape or perhaps more accurately the fact that I wanted to have a shape other than circular. My procrastination, my lack of motivation, my inability to stay on task and persist — why don’t I have any ‘grit’? The list continued on and on and on.

Now I was on a roll. I’d looked at the problems, lets look at the solutions.

Solutions to the problems

1. Start The Lazy Man’s Guides to help other people with procrastination and motivation issues — excellent.

2. Write a monthly newsletter — obviously.

3. Set up and design a website and fill it with relevant, well written content — it’ll look fantastic.

4. Write a book, or perhaps a series of books — a whole library of books.

5.  Design write a course on how to stop procrastinating — this could be the first of many courses.

6. Go to the gym every other day — maybe everyday…

7. Continue my part-time Open University degree.

8. Oh God, help, I can’t manage all of this. I can’t even start to do all of this. What’s on Netflix’s?

Overwhelm

Just by writing the list I’d hit overwhelm.

Why had I set myself so many tasks, so many aspirational projects, things I really wanted to do, ways I felt I’d be able to genuinely help?

The enormity of what I was planning hit me and I was paralysed.

Recognising this feeling from the half finished projects that were scattered through the previous two or three decades and the resultant failure to move forward on anything was uncomfortable. 

I always reverted to type — hide from anything difficult, normally in the depths of a box set and stay there until the danger of having to actually do anything had past. ⁠

This time I had to make it work to prove to myself that I could  see something through and to prove to my family that I wasn’t just the flaky dreamer that they’d been living with for years.

What everyone else does

I began reading and researching, what else can you do when you have absolutely no idea? I discovered some interesting facts and imaginative solutions.

John Grisham’s first book A Time to Kill, was written in blocks of 30 minutes each day. Whenever he had a few moments to spare time he would retreat to a law library and hiding amongst the shelves, he would write a little bit of his novel each day.

That’s how it is when you want to beat overwhelm — do the bare minimum everyday, it adds up and adds up until, remarkably you have something to be proud of.

Baby steps work

So how could I incorporate this into my aspirational plan? Baby steps.

Baby steps are how I am learning to manage all the disparate parts of what seems to have become a complicated life.

Exercise — Go to the gym for an hour every other day. So it doesn’t eat a large chunk of time when I want to be working, get up a little earlier and go before breakfast.

Newsletter — Write one article per week. Plan on day one, outline on day two and write on day three. Four weeks equals four articles. I have to be honest, this hasn’t worked this month as I’ve let myself get sidetracked too often. Next month I’ll do better.

Website — Write one article a week following the steps above.

Book — Planning at the moment then the aim is to write one chapter per week

Course — Still in the planning stages

Degree — Use the evenings for reading and essay planning - 2 hours and all of the course books come as digital files so I can read anywhere on my phone or iPad.

Now I have a system. I know what I have to do each week and it now doesn’t look as daunting and overwhelming.

By starting with baby steps and just doing the bare minimum I can begin to build habits.

Now, I write everyday, little and often.

Initially, the goals I set were unrealistic. I wanted to go from zero to five thousand words per day and couldn’t understand why I wrote nothing, not a single word.

The paralysis caused by my unreasonable expectations only got worse because the work I hadn’t done on day one rolled into day two and so on. At the end of the week I promised myself I would make up the slack next week, and so the weeks rolled on without a word written.

Habits also work

Writing has become a habit. I don’t set myself any unreasonable goals, all I have to do is write a little, a paragraph or two maybe each day and write everyday. Easy.

Most days I write considerably more than a couple of paragraphs but if I don’t that’s fine, I’m building the habit by repetition. Baby steps.

The feeling of overwhelm has disappeared because I have a system, I am building habits that will make these tasks automatic, something I just do without thinking. 

Habits work. Did you brush your teeth this morning? Did it cause you stress or anxiety? No, of course not, because it’s something you do everyday without thinking — it’s a habit.

Using triggers to help build positive habits can help. 

Let’s say you want to get into the habit of taking a daily walk but life often gets in the way. How can we fix the habit of going for a walk? 

Setting a reminder won’t work as you may be busy when the reminder pops up and it will be dismissed and forgotten.

Using a flexible trigger like breakfast or lunch is more effective because even though the time may change they will still happen. So, going for a walk after lunch as a habit is achievable irrespective of whether lunch is 12, 1 or 2 pm. 

Summary

  1. If overwhelm strikes, take a step back and look at why you’re feeling overwhelmed.
  2. Don’t become paralysed by the enormity of a goal, break it down into achievable baby steps.
  3. Do the bare minimum to achieve the goal and initially take small steps, baby steps, towards the goal.
  4. Baby steps quickly add up to a significant achievement - remember John Grisham.
  5. Small realistic goals that are easily achievable and repeatable will become habits.
  6. Habits take time to become automatic but it can help to use flexible triggers as a reminder to do something — take a walk, read, exercise or anything that you want to become a long term part of life.
  7. Habits form over time and with repetition. The most important step is to get started, don’t delay, take the first baby step.

Words of inspiration from Charles Duhigg - Journalist


'You have to actually believe in your capacity to change for habits to permanently change.'

and

'You can't suddenly say, 'I want a brand new habit tomorrow,' and expect it to be easy and effortless.'

Suggested Reading

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