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Category: Challenge of the Month

You can't eat too many vegetables…

Last month’s challenge was very simple: prioritise sleep. While sleep quality varies hugely, it’s still basically the same thing for everyone: there’s good sleep, there’s bad sleep, and there’s enough sleep or not. We all know what we mean by ‘sleep well’. But what do we mean by ‘eat well’? ‘Eat well’ is incredibly varied. Eat well for what? The challenge this month is simply this: pay attention to what you eat and why.  

No area of human health is more riven with controversy and ill-feeling than discussions around what we eat. Very few people are actually rational about it, and I’m certainly not one of them. 

You can optimise your diet for many different things, and they will all look different. Here are some common priorities, in no particular order:

1. Athletic performance in your chosen field. Should sprinters eat like marathon runners? Probably not.

2. Muscle gain. All serious bodybuilders have pretty strict diets, and are often eating far more than they really want to, to persuade their bodies to store so much protein as muscle.

3. Fat loss. Probably the most common reason people pay attention to their food habits, and also an area where emotions run very high. 

4. Pleasure. Many pleasurable foods are contraindicated by other priorities. If only chocolate was disgusting…

5. Ethics. The food you choose to buy has been produced, distributed, and sold by people. All three of those steps have ethical considerations. Animal welfare is one; the environmental impact of crops like soy is another. How far the food has travelled is yet another. 

6. Longevity. This usually revolves around restricting calories, fasting, and other unpleasant practices.

7. Social connections. Many food practices have social dimensions. I have dinner with my wife and kids every day. We sit down together for it, no screens. Sometimes what we eat is affected by that priority; if we’re running late and the kids are hungry, I might make something quickly so we can eat together. Making something that is a treat for the kids usually means it’s not good for my longevity, athletic performance, or fat loss. But it’s very good for my mental health to have strong bonds with my children.

8. Convenience. How often have we eaten a less-optimal food because it was right there, instead of taking the time to make or find something better?

9. Cost. Many people can’t afford to buy enough of the higher-quality food that would be better for them. Some people just don’t prioritise food in their budget the way they prioritise other things.

The principles of nutrition are quite straightforward: eat enough of the things you need but not too much, avoid the things that are bad for you, and spend enough time without eating for your gut to rest. Given that we live in a culture of abundance we tend to classify diets by restrictions, and take the “getting enough” side of things for granted. Those restrictions are:

1. Restricting specific foods. Many cultures have a taboo food that other cultures suffer no ill effects from. Most weight-loss diets have some form of ‘don’t eat sugar’. Vegetarianism restricts all meat.

2. Restricting food quantity. You can have this much ice-cream, but no more. For most of my lifetime, most of the popular weight-loss diets have been about calorie counting, and reducing the overall quantity of food. 

3. Restricting when you can eat. Most traditional cultures have periodic fasts, and we all fast while we’re asleep. One currently popular form of this (which I actually find very useful for my body and my purposes) is the not-very-well-named “intermittent fasting”, in which you restrict food to an eating window, such as 14 hours of no food, 10 hours of food (so if you eat breakfast at 7am, you need to stop eating by 5pm). Popular versions of this include 16:8 and 20:4. 

But my own parents remember food rationing during the war. Perhaps half the people currently alive and 99% of all humans who lived before the 1950s are far more concerned with getting enough food than with being precious about when and how much they eat. There are also psychological costs to viewing food as something to be restricted, so you may prefer to think about how do you get enough of the high-quality food, rather than restricting yourself.

So what should you do?  

The Challenge this month is: examine your priorities regarding food, and make choices consistent with those priorities.

I did say that’s a challenge. It’s really, really, hard for most people.

 I would start by asking yourself what your priorities are. Are they even on my list? Then look at what you are actually doing, and decide how closely your actions match your priorities. It might be better to do that the other way round- look at what you are doing, and from there deduce your priorities.

Some priorities are mutually exclusive. Generally speaking, dietary practices associated with longevity are not associated with muscle gain, or pleasure. But most people have many conflicting priorities. So prioritise! Which do you want more? And can you balance your priorities in a practical way?

Then look at the downsides. Swordsmanship is awesome good fun: until someone loses an eye. So we wear fencing masks.  What can you do to minimise the downsides of your priorities?What are the ethical implications of your muscle-building diet? What are the longevity implications of your pleasure-focussed diet? In all things, you want to cap the downside.  Can you minimise the ethical problems of some of your choices, by choosing a different brand or supplier? Can you minimise the health problems of your pleasure-focussed diet by for instance intermittent fasting?

With your better sleep, and your ability to acquire or drop habits, you should have the internal resources you need to make whatever changes you want, for your priorities.

My only specific advice is this- leave virtue out of it. Deciding you want pleasure in your life does not make you a bad person, and deciding you’re going to cut out meat and fast every week does not make you a good one. Any extreme is self-indulgent: It is no less self-indulgent to starve yourself than it is to stuff yourself. 

If you are looking for ideas about how to proceed, then you may find my other posts on nutrition helpful:

Eat Right for Fight Night

The Myth of the One True Diet

Skittles Beat Watermelon 

How I lost 10kg in 3 weeks without effort or hunger

You can get this post as an episode of The Sword Guy podcast, here:

 

Ah, sleep. The foundation of all health, mental, physical, or otherwise. One bad night’s sleep can ruin a day, and get no sleep at all for 8 days and you’ll probably die.
But we as a culture do not appreciate it nearly as much as we should.
Your challenge this week is to put sleep first: both sleep quality, and sleep quantity. The key source on this subject is Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Buy it, read it, it may save your life. But for now:
Turn off those screens.
Cut out the caffeine.
Get to bed early.
You’ll thank me later.

I’ll address how to get better sleep in a moment, but first I’ll catch you up on how last month’s challenge of adding a good habit went for me. As many of the participants have told me, it is much easier to create a new habit than it is to break an old one. Really, I should have switched the order around, but nobody’s perfect. My habit for February was to start each day with creative work, not reactive work. Creative work includes things like teaching a class, writing an article, working on the next book (current working title: The Principles of Solo Training), shooting some video. Reactive work is responding to emails, admin crap, that sort of thing.
This ties in nicely with this month’s challenge, because I found that for no reason I was waking up horribly early- maybe 2 hours earlier than usual. So I decided that when that happens, I’ll just get up, do some meditation and light exercises, then storm ahead with the book. Which is why the draft currently stands at a bloated 82,000 words. And on days when I haven’t woken up so early, I’ve still put creative work first. The feeling of having made something is so much more rewarding than the feeling of having answered an email. Really. Even to someone I like.
On days when I’ve woken up early, I’ve gone to bed early. Our bedtime has generally shifted an hour earlier, and sometimes I manage to sleep through to a reasonable hour- one glorious night I managed 9 hours. Oh, my, goddess.
On the subject of getting up early, there are some truly insane famous people out there who seem to fetishize the time they wake up. Mark Wahlberg springs to mind: he gets up at 2.30 in the morning. I’m glad to also report that he goes to bed at 7.30pm, but simple maths will tell you that’s only 7 hours. I’d suggest getting up an hour later and skipping the fucking golf.
Perhaps even stranger is Jocko Willink. Don’t get me wrong, Jocko is the real deal: ex-Navy Seal, very tough, very strong, very disciplined. But he gets up at 4.30 every morning, and posts a dramatic black and white photo of his manly watch (a Timex Ironman Triathlon, in case you care), on his manly wrist, at about 04.32 every day, and many of his followers are now doing the same. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this behaviour, except I’d like to see him posting his bedtime too, and have that be 8.30pm. 8 hours, people. As it stands, it’s incitement to sleep deprivation.
If you listen to him describe his routines such as on the Tim Ferriss podcast, he is hauling himself out of bed because he’s deeply conscious of there being terrorists hiding in caves planning to get him. That may be literally true in his case, but it’s a terrible example to set: it borders on paranoia. Honestly, I worry for his mental health. And as he is so influential these days (I think 500k Twitter followers counts as influential), it also worries me that his followers will be becoming sleep deprived trying to follow his example. That is not cool.
Getting up early in the morning to get the things that matter most to you done before the day can get derailed is a great habit to have.
But it must, must, must, be balanced by getting to bed early, or by compensating with afternoon naps.
So, as for sleep quantity, you probably need about 8 hours (Walker says so). If your alarm wakes you up, you’ve not had enough sleep. Simple as, and I’ll hear no arguments to the contrary.
Sleep quality is harder to measure. Sadly the wearables on the market (such as the oura ring) are woefully inaccurate on pretty much every measure except heart rate. My oura ring once had me in “deep sleep” while I was walking briskly across downtown Helsinki at about 1.30am. But here are the general guidelines (borrowed from The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts):

• Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Earlier to bed is better: my Grandma used to say that “one before eleven is worth two after seven,” and as usual, she was right.
• Avoid caffeine (for at least six hours before bedtime). Even better would be to cut it out altogether, as it stays in the body for hours and hours. I don’t touch caffeine after 12pm, usually.
• Avoid alcohol (for at least four hours before bedtime). I find that a couple of glasses of wine make no difference to sleep quality (as measured by heart rate during the night), so long as the alcohol is out of my system before going to bed.
• Avoid eating a heavy meal for at least three hours before bedtime. This makes a huge difference, I find. If my body is working on digesting a big meal, my heart rate remains much higher all night than if I go to bed long after the last calorie went in. If you’re waking up too early due to hunger, then a light snack before bed may help.
• Avoid screens for at least an hour before bedtime. If you absolutely must be using a screen, on an iOS device enable Night Shift, or use F.lux or something similar to adjust the wavelengths of light your screen emits.
• Avoid social media for at least an hour before bedtime. There is nothing more likely to keep you awake than some foolish thing said on the internet. Remember that social media companies hire really clever people whose only job is to get and keep your attention; and nothing says you’re not paying attention like falling asleep.
• Keep your bedroom as dark as possible: use black-out curtains, and cover or switch off any sources of light pollution such as luminous clocks or devices with LED lights on them. This to me is one of the hardest things to get right when travelling. One hotel room I stayed in had an illuminated light switch in the middle of the headboard of the bed. I had to get my old boarding pass out and stick it over the damn thing with chewing gum to get any sleep.
• Create a wind-down ritual that persuades your body that it will be going to sleep soon. Keep it gentle. I find reading a good novel is hopeless, because I stay up late to get to the next bit, but reading a fairly dull but useful non-fiction book is great.
• Get a decent mattress. It’s worth it. You literally cannot put a price on sleep.

So, what are you going to do to improve your sleep this March? And how are you going to know that it has worked, or not?

My Patrons on Patreon.com/theswordguy got this article last week. Want to get everything early? You know what to do…

No, this post isn't a few days late. I posted this last week for my Patrons on Patreon: rewarding their commitment with early access to the things I produce seems fair to me. Want to join them? There's a link in the sidebar.

Now, on with the post.

Challenge: February 2021

Well, that didn’t go quite as planned.
It turns out that quitting the booze in January 2021 is way harder than it might have been in, say, May 2019. Michaela and I got to January 20th, then cracked a bottle of bubbly to celebrate Trumperdink’s ignominious expulsion, and especially to celebrate the United States finally electing a woman to the Vice Presidency- and a not-white woman at that. If anything deserves bubbly, it’s seeing women and people of colour advanced to high office.


But that kind of cracked the seal, and while there have been a couple of dry days since, we’re pretty much back to drinking as normal (I'm writing on January 28th).
I’m not sorry though. Here’s why:
If not drinking is good for you, then 20 days of not drinking is a lot better than none.
The benefits I was hoping for from dropping the booze didn’t materialise. I didn’t sleep any better, have not been more energetic, and in general have not been feeling better. It may be that 20 days isn’t enough, but in my experience I would expect improvements within a day or two. Waking up feeling hungover because you got plastered last night is one thing. Waking up feeling hungover when you haven’t touched a drop for ages is quite another. It did reduce my reflux, but it seems that the wine is less an issue than onions and other foods.
Most interestingly, it turns out that literally none of my self-esteem is tied up with meeting arbitrary goals such as this one. I don’t feel the slightest bit like I “failed”. Which is not what I would have expected.
Here’s a question for you: having dropped one bad habit this month, has it helped you any? Do you feel better for it?

So what’s the challenge this month?

Having worked on dropping a bad habit, we’ll now work on creating a good one. Think of one thing you might benefit from, and see if you can create that habit.

  • Getting up a bit earlier to exercise, meditate, or write?
  • Eating more vegetables?
  • Taking up knitting?
  • Flossing? (Your teeth, not the Fortnite dance. C’mon people.)

Try it for a month, and see what happens.
Here’s how to do it.

  1. start slow. If you want to create a meditation habit, start with five minutes. Not an hour. Eating something green at every meal? That could be just a slice of cucumber, to start with. No need to parboil then chargrill a head of broccoli, served with a freshly-made aioli. At least not at the beginning.
  2. attach it to an existing routine. I get the itch to stretch when watching TV in the evening, because I’ve created that habit. It feels kind of weird to watch TV without getting down on the floor and going through my stretches.
  3. this should be a positive thing. It’s hard to get up early for something miserable, but to practice your hobby? To read a novel? To luxuriate in a meditation? To play with swords? Looking forward to the activity makes it easier to schedule and easier to actually do it.
  4. exploit constraints. I floss regularly, because I eat foods like oranges and chorizo (no, not together, you animal) which get stuck in my teeth. I have to floss to get rid of the annoyingly stuck bits. While I’m there, I might as well do my whole mouth. Make the thing you want to do that bit easier to start (leave your knitting lying around, so you can pick it up any time), or put it in the way of things that you want to avoid. Do you have to move your meditation cushion to get to the TV remote?

One word of warning: if your new habit requires getting up earlier to put first things first, as I would highly recommend, then it must be accompanied by going to bed that much earlier.

HEAR ME, PEOPLE: do not sacrifice your sleep for anything.

(OK, babies get a pass. If your child needs you, wake up for her. Everyone else, including you and your late-night gaming habit? No.) Sorry to get all shouty at you, but this is really important.

Me, I'm going for a fairly ambitious goal: meditation and progress on one creative project before checking any kind of social media, messages, emails, anything. Five days a week. So, I will get up, do whatever limbering I need to do to be able to sit or lie comfortably, meditate for at least 20 minutes, then get started on (probably) writing the book I'm currently working on. Let's see how this goes… I'll report back in a month, and issue the challenge for March. (There's a giant clue regarding March's challenge in this post.)

So, what new habit will you create this month?

Happy New Year!

Though really, this is just an arbitrary calendar change. Years, solstices and equinoxes are real, observable, astronomical events. But this dating system is entirely human and arbitrary. And wouldn’t it make much more sense to date the New Year from the Spring Equinox? But I digress…

I don’t do resolutions. They don’t usually work, and this is entirely the wrong time of year to be making serious changes, especially if you live in the Northern hemisphere. Back when I was a member of a gym, I just did not go for the first couple of weeks in January, because it would be chockablock with enthusiastic unfit people, almost all of whom would quit within the week. Which is a shame, really, but it’s an inevitable outcome of the resolutions model.

So what does work?

Good habits and good people.

A rising tide lifts all boats (though may sink the boatless), and I am blessed by the enthusiastic and engaged students I interact with. If there is one key element to my success as an instructor, it has to be the calibre of the students I get to work with. Most of the time I spend interacting with students these days is through my zoom classes, through my mailing list (there’s a link to join below this post, if you’re not already on there), and most recently through a Discord server that I set up for the students at SwordSchoolOnline.Com (If you’d like to join us, and you’ve enrolled in any of the paid online courses, please drop me an email and I’ll send you the link.)

One of the students on the Discord server suggested we do a monthly “challenge”, where I set a challenge for students to have a go at. Of course I have to lead by example, right?

We started this in November, and my first challenge was to post a video or photo of yourself working outside your comfort zone. I had just started playing with GMB Fitness online courses, and so posted this:

December’s challenge was to add at least one rep to your maximum in any exercise: I did push-ups, and went from a rather pathetic start to a much more satisfactory maximum set. I won’t share the numbers here, because they are not relevant. Depending on your own experience of push-ups you’d be either intimidated or decidedly unimpressed (probably the latter!).

The challenge this month, for the start of 2021, is different.

We all have habits that do not serve our long term goals. They vary hugely from person to person, and can range from negative self-talk to smoking cigarettes, with almost infinite variety in between.

So here’s the challenge. This month, drop one of those habits. Just for the month. You can take it up again later if you want to.

The habit I’m dropping for the month is drinking alcohol. I love drinking. Especially wine. But I tend to drink more than I should, and more often. It’s bad for my reflux, and bad for my sleep. Cutting down would make sense, but it’s really hard to quantify and stay on top of. So for the whole month of January, I won’t touch a drop.

That should help my sleep, at least. And my finances. And my reflux. I’ve been meaning to take a month off the sauce for ages, but haven’t done so for at least two years! So it’s about time.

Drinking alcohol is a simple, clear, easy-to-keep-track-of habit to break. There is no fudging it- I either consume an alcoholic beverage, or I do not. But others are much more elusive, such as negative self-talk. And the essence of a habit is you can unconsciously start doing the thing- it’s become an unconscious response. The loop goes like this: stimulus-habitual response-reward. The habit can be broken at any of those three points, and it’s worth taking some time to be very clear about what those three points are for the habit in question.

  • You can avoid the stimulus.
  • You can change the response to the stimulus.
  • You can change the reward.

Changing the stimulus usually requires changing your environment. The old adage for alcoholics is “if you don’t want to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery”. So, if you normally drink in bars, don’t go to bars. Meet your friends somewhere else instead! Or if you usually smoke when you have a coffee, switch to tea. (Unless of course coffee is an addiction, which you might need to break before you quit smoking).

Changing the response is basically learning a new habit that gets you the same dopamine hit. The stimulus for me to have a drink is usually making dinner. Changing that would be very hard, somebody has to feed the kids! So I’ll need to do something else instead, to get the ‘reward’ which is actually the feeling of “I’m done for the day”. Having a drink is for me a signal that it’s ok to switch off. So I need to find something else.

Negative self talk is much harder to break at the point of stimulus, and at the point of response. But it’s possible to change the reward to something negative. One trick that works for some people is having a rubber band around your wrist, and when you catch yourself in negative self-talk, snap the band, which stings. If done consistently over time, this can lead your brain away from the behaviour that causes the sting (brains are weird- you’d think you’d just stop snapping the band, but it’s much easier to control that active choice than it is to control an unconscious response).

It is much easier to change a habit if you have social support for the change (good people, remember?). I’ve let my wife and kids know I’m off the juice for January, so they will expect me not to drink. Do what you can to recruit some social support. This can be positive, such as joining a group that’s centreed around quitting that habit, or negative, where you set up some consequences for failure. One classic is to write a cheque for a painful amount of money, to an organisation you despise. Then give the cheque to a friend who will send it to that organisation if you fall off the wagon. Personally I don’t like this approach, seeing failure as a one-time lapse and you’re done. I prefer to think of failure as a normal part of the process. If you could quit completely cold turkey with no lapses, you’re either extraordinarily motivated, or the habit wasn’t that strong.

Expect that it may occur (snap that band if you have to), and get right back on the wagon again. No negativity, no judgement. It’s like when meditating, and you’re supposed to be focussed on your breath. When your mind wanders notice that it has done so, and bring it gently back. The practice is not focussing on your breath. The practice is returning your attention after it has wandered. Same with this challenge.

I'll post this challenge in the Discord, and will be happy to discuss it there. Especially for habit-changing, getting the support of a community is incredibly helpful. See you there!

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