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Tag: breathing exercises

The New Year is upon us, and with it, a new opportunity to do interesting things, and a time to perhaps take stock and think about what's important. That would be lovely, except right now I'm totally overwhelmed with stuff to do. You might be to, so here's how I deal with it. First, let me take you back a few years….

When I was about 11 years old, I had to do a project on the Second World War at school. I chose British fighter planes. I had three weeks to prepare before I had to hand in my project and give a short talk to the class about it.
The day before the assignment was due, my tutor Mr Rawson found me in tears. I had put off even starting the project until the day before, and had absolutely no idea how to start or what to do. On finding out why I was crying, he pointed out that I’d had three weeks to figure it out or get some help, then showed me a couple of books in the library, and told me what to do. I had found the task too overwhelming to even start it.

I bashed something together, and gave the talk, and handed it in. I got an ok grade, but nobody was impressed.
As you can see from that story, my natural reaction to overwhelm is procrastination.

Overwhelm is a horrible feeling, like drowning in nit-pickery. So many little things, so many big things, all clamouring to be done, and only one me to do it all. Aaaaaaarghhhh! Run away and hide!

I get this feeling often. Right now, I have this list up on the wall by my desk. Lots and lots of different projects, and several continuous processes, all at various stages to be monitored, managed, and done.
The absolute worst bit is the final stages of publishing a book or a course. There are just a gadgillion little steps, and no clear playbook to follow to walk through them all. Again, aaaaaarghhhh!

The little poster on the left of my to-do list has the covers of all my published books and decks of cards (not the courses, they didn’t fit). Clearly, I can actually get stuff done, despite the overwhelm. So here’s how I do it, in the hopes you might find it useful.

1) Slow down. When it’s all piling up, and the to-do list is infinitely long and tedious and tricky and hard, the tendency is to rush. So I slow right down. I literally move in slow motion.

2) Self-talk. “Oh shit I have x y and z to do and only an hour!! Aaaargh!” (Again). This compresses time like no other technique. But I want to extend time, so I slow down, and say something to myself like “a whole luxurious hour. And really, not so much to do! Maybe I’ll take a nap in 30 minutes…”. This changes my perception of the time I have, and dramatically increases the amount I can get done in that time.

3) Do one small thing. The hardest thing, when faced with the badgillion bloody bits of bother, is to find the thread that will unravel the whole thing and make it easy. So I don’t look for it. I don’t spend any time thinking about which bit to do, I just pick one small thing and do that. Then the next, then the next, and so on. And nine times out of ten, it turns out that the first small thing is the magic thread that unravels the whole mess. The only real discipline involved is in not paying attention to the other things, big or small.

4) Productive procrastination. Sometimes I’m just not ready to handle the overwhelming stuff. So I find ways of procrastinating that are actually productive. Such as “I’m not ready to write The Medieval Longsword”. So I’ll build a writing desk.” (You can see it here: Productive Procrastination scroll down to find it). Or, I’ll empty my email inbox. Or I’ll do some training. Or I’ll write this blog post…

5) Break for breathing. Overwhelm is very stressful, and I find that I can break the cortisol spiral by going outside and doing breathing exercises, or push-ups, or kettlebells, or swinging a sword. It all helps. Five minutes or so of exercise gets everything back under control, and makes the process of slowing down and getting on with things easier.

Now that I have productively procrastinated, I’ll get back to the thing that was overwhelming me…

See you later!

If you liked this post, you might also like these others:

Project Management

Following my own advice

What should you spend your time on? My rules for prioritising what to do.

 

In “Following my own advice” I described how I try to get something important done every day before checking emails. In that post I rather blithely referred to concentrating on ‘creating assets’, and loosely defined assets as “anything that adds value to your life. Value in this case is usually either money, or reputation, or both.”
I’ve had a lot of interesting feedback on the post, mostly through my mailing list (feel free to join below), and one point that came up more than once is that I didn't define ‘assets’ clearly enough, so I thought I’d go through in detail what I think I should be spending my time on.
You spotted how I carefully did not say “you should be spending your time on”, right? As ever, take my advice with a sceptical mind, and discard anything that doesn’t work for you. One big caveat: being self-employed means I have a dick of a boss who never gives me time off or a raise, but I can choose literally anything to work on. That's both a blessing and a curse.
Here is the Master Asset List, my top three assets, in order of priority.

1) Mental Health
Every experience you will ever have is mediated and experienced by your consciousness. There is no experience so blissful that you can’t be miserable during it, and no experience so awful that bliss is impossible. Perhaps the best single resource on this is Sam Harris’ book Waking Up, closely followed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow. The key elements to my mental health are:
1. My relationships (primarily wife and children, other family and close friends, everyone else).
2. Meaningful work. Like writing this blog post. Or the next book. What makes it meaningful for me is its ability to transform other people’s lives for the better.
3. Meditation. I meditate every day, and have been doing so (with more or less regularity) for many years. The last year or so has been especially difficult (see here for an idea why), and one of my coping strategies has been to get a lot stricter about doing my meditation every day. It helps. I’ve written a short guide to getting started if you want to try it out.
4. Fun. Much underrated, but it is critically important to kick back and have fun often. Never underestimate the power of silly.

All the rest of these assets listed below are only relevant or useful because they affect my state of mind. It’s easier to be mentally healthy when you’re physically healthy and not worried about money.

2. Physical Health
“If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” Count Rugen was a villain, but he spoke truth here. Physical health rests on two foundations: what you eat and how you move.

Diet: I’ve written up my approach to diet in lots of places, including here, here, and here; and it can be summed up as:

  • learn to cook
  • avoid sugar
  • eat lots of vegetables
  • pay attention to high quality fats, and
  • fast every now and then.

That's a very big topic dismissed in a few lines, so do check out those links if you're interested.

Exercise: How you move… hmmm, I wonder what kind of exercise a professional swordsman would recommend… ok, start with looking after your joints (here’s a free course on knee maintenance), and carry on by finding any physical activity that you enjoy, and do it regularly. That could be walking the dog, ballet, rock-climbing, trapeze, anything. Some activities are better adapted for long-term health than others, but if health is your priority you can probably avoid most of the damage that might be done during the less conservative activities. I’m a big fan of breathing exercises, as you probably know; they are the foundation of my movement practice, and they are specifically designed and intended for promoting health.
An imperfect plan that you actually follow is way better than a perfect plan that you abandon, so it’s much more important to find something fun that keeps you moving, than it is to find the ‘perfect’ health-giving exercise. Moving your body should not be a chore.

Sleep: The best single source on sleep matters (and sleep does matter!) is Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep. In short, the more and better you sleep, the longer you live. Good sleep is really the ultimate time management strategy because it a) buys you more time because you live longer and b) makes your waking hours vastly more productive.  There are so many factors affecting sleep that it would take a whole book to go into them (like Dr. Walker’s!), but I’ll summarise the main things that have helped me:

  • Avoid caffeine for at least 12 hours before bedtime. Yes, 12 hours. I only drink coffee at breakfast. Caffeine kills deep sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol, or at least get it all out of your system before bed. Alcohol kills REM sleep.
  • Keep the bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.
  • Stop eating at least 3 hours before bed. A full stomach affects sleep quality.
  • Nap, but not too long or too late. eg 30-60 minutes at 2pm.
  • All screens off at least an hour before bed, and screens after 8pm are set to ‘Night Mode’, cutting down on blue light.

I could go on, but you get the picture. As with everything, experiment to see what works for you. I track sleep with the OURA ring, but you can use other tools, or just notice how you feel in the morning. Top tip: if you need an alarm to wake up, you haven’t slept enough.

 

3. Money
Once your mental and physical health are being attended to, then the next big thing is money. Money worries are truly toxic to your mental health, and can poison every aspect of your life. Think of those bankers jumping out of windows during the Great Depression, all because some numbers on a bit of paper were not the way they wanted them. Weird, huh? But real. Just choosing not to worry is an option, of course, but it's much easier for most people to actually do something to reduce expenditure and increase income. Incidentally, my favourite money blog is Mr Money Moustache. He's refreshingly unapologetic.
I should point out that I am by no means rich- I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of months since I became an adult in which I had enough cash in the bank to cover the next month’s bills in advance. This is because I have always, always, put time-rich ahead of money-rich, on the grounds that you can always make more money but when time is spent, it’s gone for good. My first salary as a cabinet maker was £6000 per year. I learned fast enough to double that in two years. Woohoo! And swordsmen these days don’t make much cash either.
In Finland, people’s tax returns are actually in the public domain- you can literally walk into the tax office and for a small fee get a copy of anybody’s. Let me save you the bother: here’s mine from last year in case you’re interested.
But, and here’s the big BUT. Since the beginning of 2015, I’ve been effectively living off passive income. My books and other assets generate about enough money to live on, month by month. People buy my books and courses while I’m asleep. And, given that I’ve never made a lot of money, I’ve never become addicted to a large and regular income, so it took relatively little time or effort to get to the point where my assets were generating enough income to cover all normal expenses. This means that I am now much freer to choose the things I spend my time on. Like taking all day Wednesday off this week because it's my daughter's birthday and she has stuff planned from dawn 'till dusk.

In short, my work priorities are:

  1. do I think it's important, in terms of serving the art?
  2. will it be good for my reputation?
  3. will it force me to acquire new skills?
  4. will it produce passive income?
  5. is it scalable?

Let's take those one at a time:

1. Serving the art: In my experience, every single time I've tried to be ‘businesslike' and put what should be a sensible business move in place it's gone horribly wrong. But when contemplating a course of action if I can look into my heart and say ‘yes, this will serve the art', then it's always turned out ok (even if it hasn't made any money).

2. Reputation: Not every asset generates income: some generate opportunity. When The Swordsman's Companion was published in 2004, it made me no money at all (there’s a story there, but after suing the publisher, part of the settlement included a mutual non-defamation agreement. Make of that what you will). But that book put me on the map as an instructor. I suddenly started getting invited to events to teach, which massively broadened my horizons. Students from all over the world started to get in touch, having heard of me because they found my book in a bookshop somewhere. My Singapore branch came into being because Chris Blakey and Greg Galistan stumbled upon my book in the Borders Bookshop there. And when the rights reverted to me in 2012, I self-published it, and now it pays the mortgage.

3. Acquire skills: Time spent working on skills is never wasted, especially skills that you learn for their own sake rather than for a specific objective. Because whatever skill you are learning, you are simultaneously learning how to learn, and, more importantly, if you’re learning for its own sake you are putting process over outcome. Let’s say I learned to speak German because I wanted a job in Germany. If I learned German but didn’t get the job, the time would have been wasted, and I wouldn’t take full advantage of being able to talk to Germans in their own language, to read German books and watch German films. But if I learned German for its own sake, and it happened to lead to a job, well that’s a bonus.
A skill become an asset when they add value to your life. I really cannot think of a single skill I’ve ever regretted learning. And I can think of several that I learned ‘just because’, that then turned out to be professionally useful. Martial arts being the obvious example- I didn’t even think of turning professional until 2000, and I had about 15 years of training under my belt by then!

4. Passive income: There is nothing wrong with being paid for your time. And nothing wrong with being productive. But even in the classic model of employment, you’re supposed to retire at some point and live off your pension. Your pension is created by investments that pay you a passive income. This is how people in professions like dentistry can end up retiring in comfort- they make a good income per hour, being paid by the hour, but use a big chunk of that active income to buy assets (such as stocks and funds) that produce a passive income.
A passive income is defined as income that requires no work on your part whatsoever. If you are packing and shipping your own books, that’s not passive income. If you have to be in a specific place, or awake at a specific time to get paid, that’s not passive income. When I am faced with a choice between producing something I can get paid once for (a woodworking commission, a writing commission, private lessons, seminars etc), or producing something that will generate a passive income stream, even a small one, then I will tend to choose the latter.
Perhaps the most outrageous examples of this choice comes from the original Star Wars movie. Carrie Fisher sold her image rights outright for a sizeable chunk of money. Over a thousand dollars, I think, way back in the 70s when that was worth something. Alec Guinness got paid royalties. Guess which one did better? There was a lot of luck involved, but if you don’t have passive-income producing assets that might go all Harry Potter on you, then it cannot ever happen.
Let’s put some numbers on this. The Swordsman's Companion makes about 10,000 dollars a year in income for me (it’s my best-selling book by a margin!). To generate similar returns, I would need at least 200k in traditional assets. Here’s an article on how that would work. If anyone wanted to buy that book off me outright, I’d therefore ask for at least 200k. Nobody in their right mind would offer me that much, so the book stays with me. Folk might stop buying it tomorrow. But folk might still be buying it in 50 years time. There is no way to know, and that is true of any asset. Stock markets crash like Italian drivers. There is no such thing as a perfectly safe investment- even cash loses value over time. My mother in law saved for a pension for 30 years- and just before she was due to retire, the fund (Eagle Star) crashed and she lost the lot. Nothing is safe, so the only sane course is diversification, which is why you can buy my books on any platform, in any format- so long as people still want to read about how to train with swords, they will be able to buy my books on the subject.

5. Scalable: A scalable asset is one which you create once, and can sell an infinite number of times. I have spent most of my working life producing non-scalable assets. Back when I was a cabinet maker, I would work for hours and hours on a piece of furniture, which was then sold. As a martial arts teacher, I would teach a class, which existed only in that moment. I got paid for that moment, but that was it. There is nothing wrong with this model if you have the energy to work full time forever, and never get sick. A non-scalable asset might produce passive income, but you can still only sell it once. A house that you rent out is a good example. It can be an excellent passive income stream, but you can only rent the house out to one tenant or group of tenants at a time.
A book is scalable- you write it once, and when it’s published people can buy as many copies of it as they want. You don’t have to write each reader a new book. An online course is scalable too; create it once, sell it as many times as you like.

Ideally, my most productive time is spent serving the art, building my reputation, learning skills, and producing scalable assets that produce passive income.

So, that's how prioritise my time; how do you prioritise yours?

This will be my last post this year, so let me close by wishing you a Merry Christmas, and a happy, mentally, physically and financially healthy New Year!

 

SQG7 Breathing Cover

Everybody breathes, but some do it better than others. Breathing training is the foundation of my martial practice, and as with everything else I do, I'm happy to teach it to you. The topic for the latest instalment of The Swordsman's Quick Guide  was chosen by my student Cecilia Äijälä, and she picked Breathing Training. I was delighted when she did so, because it forced me to get on and write up my training methods.

This book comes in three packages:

1.The Book, with Video

This package includes:

  • the book in epub, pdf and kindle format with links to the videos,
  • plus a separate download of all the video clips to teach you the exercises,
  • plus an embedded epub with the video clips built in.
  • It also includes a £10 discount voucher for the course.


I want this book

2.The Book with Audio and Video

This package includes:

  • the book in epub, pdf and kindle format with links to the videos,
  • plus a separate download of all the video clips to teach you the exercises,
  • plus an embedded epub with the video clips built in,
  • plus the audiobook,
  • plus mp3 recordings of the instructions for the individual exercises,
  • plus two bonus exercises (video).
  • It also includes a £25 discount voucher for the course.


I want this one!

3. The Breathing Course

The course is a carefully designed progression of exercises, spread out over six weeks (you can pace it as you wish, and do it faster or slower). Each week begins with a lesson, in which you will learn the exercises for the week. The week then continues with a shorter practice session, which you repeat ideally every day for the next six days. In the final week, you will learn how to create 5 minute, ten minute, and twenty minute practice routines, so that you will always be able to find time to do some practice.

The course material  includes everything in the other two packages, so all of the book, audio, and video files. The course is available now, but the lesson and practice routine videos are not completed yet. Week one is ready, and all of the book with all of its audio and video material too. Weeks 2-4 have been shot, and I'm editing them right now. The rest of the course material will be uploaded by October 1st.

http://swordschool.teachable.com/courses/breathing-basics

I released this to my email list yesterday (they get just about everything first!) with a healthy 50% discount. If you would like the same treatment, you can sign up to my list below, and I'll send you the same discount links. These links expire on Friday 9th September, so if you're interested, now's your best chance to save a packet.

 

I'm working on the latest instalment of The Swordsman's Quick Guide, which will cover my foundational breathing exercises. The book is already out to my test readers who have kindly volunteered to wade through the sewage of extraneous verbiage and excessive punctuation in search of the faintest glimmer of useful text. My fellow writers will recognise that moment when first draft hits first readers…

I intend to release this book with a lot of extra material, such as video of all the exercises and audio clips so you can play the instructions into your ears, leaving your eyes and hands free. This is completely new territory for me so I don't expect it to be very good right away. The only way that I know of to get better at anything is to do it, get feedback on the results, then do it again. A tiny amount of that feedback can happen internally- I can usually spot the utter crap and kill it before it escapes. But it's far more effective, I find, to ask the community that the work is intended for to try it out and let me know what works and what doesn't.

To that end, here are two clips, one for “Walking Breathing” and one for “How to Stand”. This is the worst way to encounter the material – out of context of the book it goes with. If it survives, in other words if you can follow it, then it's robust enough. Please listen to the clips, and let me know in the comments on this page, or by email to me at guywindsor@gmail.com, whether it works for you. Is it clear? Can you follow the instructions?

Walking breathing exercise:

[audio-clammr mp3=”https://guywindsor.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Walking-breathing-02082016.mp3″]

How to Stand:

[audio-clammr mp3=”https://guywindsor.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Breathing-How-to-Stand-02082016-10.43.mp3″]

So, how was it? Posting the most amusing comment will get you a free copy of the book when it's done, but the most helpful will get the book package with audio clips and audiobook. Carry on!

I'm a Luddite, it’s true. I resist the march of technological progress because I think that most new technologies aren't labour saving life enhancing devices at all. I was saying this back in the ‘80s when people were extolling the new ‘desktop publishing' thing. “What used to take two weeks can now be done in a single day!” they cried. “Great” I replied. “Do you get the rest of the fortnight off?”

No. What happens, every time, is that as capacity increases, expectations rise, and so you end up with an increase in productivity and more work being done for the same pay. Not fair, and not helpful, except to those who own the fruits of your labour.

But, and this is a very big BUT (I like big buts), there are areas where all this new-fangled gadgetry does actually help people. HEMA would barely exist without the internet, because it is such a niche interest that finding fellow enthusiasts was very hard before the web came along. And for those of us trying to make a living serving those enthusiasts, I think it would be impossible without things like print-on-demand technology, easy-to-use web building tools, and communications of all sorts. I have students in Chile who can send me videos of themselves doing my Longsword Syllabus Form for me to comment on and help them improve. Fantastic.

This is a screen capture not a video link because the video is set to “Unlisted”. Chaps, if it's ok to share it, let me know…

I've also come round to the idea that while the actual use of force (responding to pressure in the bind, that sort of thing) cannot really be taught over the net, there is a place for online courses to help self-study. Lots of people use my Syllabus Wiki in various ways to help them learn, but I am taking a great big step right now and am plunging into creating online courses. The first one is now live, and you can see it here.

I'm using the Teachable platform, because it seems to be the best in class for what I need it to do; unlike Udemy, for instance, I can directly control things like pricing, and tracking student progress.

Another major benefit of the internet is that I can reach vastly more people virtually than I ever could in person. And some of those people are excited by the work I’m doing and want to help. My School and I have benefitted enormously over the years from people volunteering their skills to help. Ilkka Hartikainen shooting the photos and laying out two of my books, for instance. Jari Juslin shooting the photos for the last three. And when I arrived in Ipswich, Curtis Fee (of The Barebones Company) showing up to help unload the lorry for another instance. And when I mentioned the projects I was working on, well, turns out he has a bunch of useful professional skills, which he has applied to making the online school interface vastly more beautiful than it was.
Isn’t this pretty?


It's an exciting time to be teaching swordsmanship, that's for sure. Right now my head is simply buzzing with ideas for other courses that I can create to teach online. Breathing. Meditation. Mechanics. Dagger. Longsword. Imagine if when students finally find a group they can join, or start one themselves, and they already have decent fundamentals in place. Wow.

Medieval scribes had crap posture too! Image from: http://www.booktryst.com/2012/03/medieval-scribes-gripe-about-writing.html

One of the challenges of my new lifestyle is that I don’t have class three or four times a week to keep me to a fitness regime. Before I could make the switch in my head from swordsman-writer to writer-swordsman, I had to figure out how I was going to prevent myself from becoming a weak and overweight lush who was always drunk by lunchtime. Because that’s what writers are like, no?

*Guy ducks and runs away from the many, many, uber-fit sword-swinging writers he knows*

Well, maybe not all writers, but I certainly have the capacity for it.

You may have read about my morning routines for beating jet-lag. I have developed and adapted those for preventing a condition that I will christen “writer’s blimp”. The trick, the key insight, is that this is about developing the sort of habits that will lead to my desired result, rather than coming up with a prescriptive regime. This routine has four steps:

1. Meditation

When I wake up in the morning, I usually go straight into an awareness-of-breathing or mindfulness meditation (guided or otherwise). This lasts from 5-20 minutes, depending on all sorts of things, not least the time. Ideally, I wake up naturally an hour or so before my kids do, which does actually happen about once a week. But one of the greatest privileges of my self-employed (and parental) status is that I almost never have to set a morning alarm. So I don’t set an alarm to be up in time to meditate before breakfast, because if I don’t have time to do it before the kids go to school, it’s #1 on my todo list after the house has quieted down.

2. Breathing

Then I usually do three rounds of Wim Hof breathing; if I’m too late to meditate before the kids come in, then I do this anyway. In the second round, while my lungs are empty, I get up and do some squats and push-ups. Then after breathing in, I do some gentle stretches, push-ups, that sort of thing, guided by how my body feels. Or I might do some of my classic breathing exercises. You know, like the ones in this book.

3. Engage with strength

I usually then do a couple of clean-and-presses on each arm with a 16kg kettlebell, some squats with a 16kg kettlebell cleaned in each hand, followed by a couple of double overhead presses with the 16kg bells, followed by some clean and presses with a 24kg kettlebell. Maybe some Turkish Get-Ups if I’m feeling energetic. This takes about 5 minutes, and engages just about every muscle in the body. If there’s time and I feel like it, I go for longer and do more.

4. Cold Shock

Shower next; for a long time I used to have a hot shower, then finish cold. Then I went to cold-hot-cold, again for several months, maybe a year or more; I didn't really track it. Now I treat hot water as a delicious luxury for when I really feel like it, and so usually shower on full cold only. It is very invigorating.

I put together a video of this routine for you.

5. Paying attention to food

I always sit down for breakfast with the kids, but I don’t usually eat anything. If I’m hungry, I’ll eat some protein and fat (such as half a tin of sardines and a tomato); I try to avoid any starches or fast carbs first thing. (But oh! Peanut butter and banana on toast with brown sugar sprinkled on! Pancakes with bacon and maple syrup! Nutella with anything! I do miss them all, so they are weekend-only fare.) I almost always have a cup of coffee, and sometimes make it “bulletproof”: a chunk of organic butter, a dash of MCT oil, and whizz it with a hand-blender. It doesn’t taste very nice, if I’m honest (if you take milk in your coffee you’d probably like it more), but it does seem to delay the need to eat lunch, and it may help a bit with mental sharpness. I'm considering changing the pattern to eating in the morning, but last-calorie-in by 6pm, to give me the necessary metabolic cleansing time. Dr Rhonda Patrick suggests 14 hours as a useful minimum in this handy podcast. Dig into that if you want the details (and yes, she's a proper scientist). I have noticed that having an earlier eating window makes jet-lag recovery much faster.

When I settle down to work, it often means doing my 20 minutes or so of meditation, and sometimes some exercise (breathing exercises, kettlebells, that sort of thing) first. My feeling is that I need to maintain a solid baseline of fitness, strength, and agility, so that my body doesn’t deteriorate, and I can still do all the things I want to do (like beat the crap out of people with a sword practice swordsmanship to a high level).

Then I start writing. If I’m working on the first draft of a new book (as I am right now), then I hit my word count, and either keep going, or stop and do something else (edit a different book; do some marketing; write a blog post; empty my inbox). I don’t usually even open my inbox before hitting my word count. I also almost always have my phone on silent*, and check it when I’ve done what I need to do. This period of maximum productivity lasts for about one to four hours from about 08.30.

Ergonomics are really important; this is why I only usually work at home in my carefully set-up study.

[Update: losing this study was one of the worst things about leaving Finland; but I'm nicely ensconced in my new office at the Waterfront Studios, at the University of Suffolk. Kelly Starrett has an interesting take on the problems of sitting to much in his book Deskbound]

I’m done working by lunch, which is always very short on fast carbs of any kind, but long on vegetables. The kids get home from school between 12.30 and 2.30, depending on the day, and I try to avoid being buried in my laptop when they’re here. Of course, these days they often don’t want their old man messing up their very important games, so I might do some work or reading in the afternoons, but it’s not guaranteed.

By 6pm, right when I would have normally been starting a class, I’m free! To cook dinner for the kids, for example, have a glass of wine with my wife, for another example. The day usually ends with my wife and I watching something on TV before bed, and it’s usually sufficiently easy watching that I can get of the sofa and do twenty minutes or so of stretching while we watch it. Assuming I’ve been careful with starch and sugar all day, then I’ll usually eat whatever I want in the evening.  [I think I need to do a proper blog post on diet and weight control. Hmmm. Ok, done.]

So, in a day when I don’t set aside any real time for training, I’ve meditated, done some breathing exercises, done probably 20-50 push-ups, 10-20 pull-ups (there's a pull-up bar in my office; every time I go get a cup of tea, go to the loo, or am procrastinating, I'll do a couple), 5 minutes of kettlebells, and 20-30 minutes of stretching, and watched what I ate. Any part of this can be expanded without having to create a new habit. In other words, if I feel that my flexibility is suffering, I can extend my evening stretches, and add more range of motion stuff in the morning, without having to suddenly find time to stretch. The time is already assigned. If  I think I’m getting weaker, I can add a minute or two to the kettlebell part. For example, I went to the physiotherapist yesterday because my always-dodgy spine started acting up; I've now got some totally specific corrective exercises to do regularly throughout the day… no problem; they are slotted in in place of the pull-ups. If you are interested in the specific exercises I use to keep my arms from going into tendonitis spasm, see my free course on arm maintenance, and my free course on looking after your legs.

I am blessed with a metabolism that puts on weight very easily if I don’t watch what  I eat, a spine that produces agonising spasms if I don’t exercise it regularly, and pathetic little wrists that will swell up with tendonitis if I neglect my forearm maintenance for even a few days. This means that I am obliged to keep reasonably fit, or it all goes to hell very fast. It also means that I have had to learn how to do so, or I break. In this case, inherent weakness really has been a virtue.

So, that’s what I’m doing to remain a martial artist while becoming a full-time writer. What do you do?

*Here is a list of the things I might be doing that a phone-call might interrupt. In no particular order: writing something you might want to read one day if I ever get round to finishing it what with all these interruptions; editing video; training; breathing exercises; meditating; eating; playing with my kids; sleeping; bathroom stuff; thinking; writing up my notes; lying on the sofa doing nothing; watching a movie; sharpening a pencil; doing woodwork; cooking; talking to my wife; planning stuff; and that's me just getting started on this list. So, really, why would I want to answer the phone? The chances of it being either really time-critical, or something I really want to hear, are pretty small. Most of my phone calls are scheduled in advance by email, so I know not to be doing something else when the phone rings. Wife, kids, parents, siblings and very close friends get a pass. Everyone else? make an appointment 🙂

Arriving in Wellington

I travel a lot, and by the end of this year alone I'll have been to Finland, Germany, Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Singapore and Australia. That's a lot of time zones. Fortunately this is not new for me, and I’ve been working on solutions to jet lag for many years. Here are my top seven tips.

1. Morning routine

The blogosphere abounds with morning routine advice. Really, from Tim Ferriss (it’s a question he asks every guest on his really interesting podcast) to this great article on BrainPickings  it would seem that all the major players have a set routine.

The problem has been that my days vary hugely. From the times that my kids have to be off for school (0745 some days, 0840 on others), to the amount of my energy it takes to get the little beasts fed and dressed, every morning is different. I have found that having a set morning routine made me fragile; if anything derailed it, then the whole morning (my most productive writing time) was shot. Instead, I have developed a more flexible approach, and can switch on productivity mode pretty much instantly. However, this autumn, having to operate professionally after a 30 hour trip on a 10 hour time zone shift has made me create one.

The point of a set morning routine is to make my body associate specific stimuli with a certain time of day. My current morning routine looks like this:

  • Wake up, and immediately go into a new breathing exercise, which I got from Wim Hof (the Iceman). It starts with 15 deep slow breaths, then 30 hyperventilations, then hold empty for as long as possible, then breath in and hold for 15 seconds, then breath out. I usually do 1-3 sets, and some gentle push-ups and stretches, often during the hold-empty phase.
  • Then I do a few kettlebell overhead presses with either my 16kg or 24kg bell.
  • This is followed by a nasal rinse and teeth brushing, then a cold shower (yes, really). Either a cold-only shower, or if I'm feeling a bit delicate, a cold-hot-cold shower.
  • Then breakfast, including coffee. This is the only time of day I drink coffee (it keeps me awake otherwise), so that by itself is a clear indication that it’s morning.

As you can see, that’s a pretty strong set of stimuli, none of which require special equipment except the kettlebells. I am also pretty strict about the rest of the day; Earl Grey at about 4pm, for instance. Lots of little triggers that tell me what time it is, and trick my body into believing it.

2. Naps

The problem with jet lag is fatigue, which is best cured by sleep. It doesn’t matter so much what time of day I’ve slept, so long as I’ve had enough in the past 24 hours. One of the privileges of my job is that I set my own schedule, and I almost never work in the afternoons. They are for playing with my kids, reading, or naps. I usually nap at least twice a week. This means that I can sleep in the afternoon at the destination without it telling my body that it’s night time, so it doesn’t interfere with my time adjustment.

3. Get ahead of the curve

The moment I get on the first flight of the trip, I set my watch and all other clocks to the destination time. Then I am careful to follow the proper routines for the time of day. So dinner on the aeroplane might be called “lunch”, or even “breakfast”. And sleeping on the plane, which I’m not great at, is either done at “night”, or is an “afternoon nap”. This means I’ve been adjusting to the new time zone for at least a full day before arrival.

4. Noise cancelling headphones

Oh my. These make such a difference. I was deeply sceptical until a friend of mine in Singapore (Chris Blakey, top chap), suggested I try them. They massively reduce the background noise on the plane, making sleep much easier, and reducing fatigue (again, the real problem of jet lag). I wore out my first (cheap) pair in about 7 years, and bought myself a pair of the Bose QuietComfort 25s in Sydney. Something about the exchange rates made these half the price there that they are in Europe! And the sound reduction is STELLAR. They also make watching movies on the plane much nicer, as you can really hear every bit of the soundtrack. Quiet and very comfortable!

Sorry! Can't hear you!

 

5. Melatonin supplements

I tried these for the first time on a trip to New Zealand in 2015, and they were great for getting me to fall asleep at the necessary time. One of the curses of jet lag is waking up too early, after not enough sleep. These seemed to put me right back out again, in about 10 minutes, without any of the side-effects or other problems of sleeping pills (which I never take). At 13 euros for 30 pills they are not cheap, but they paid for themselves in sleep on the first day.

6. Eat early

I got this idea from Dr. Rhonda Patrick on Tim Ferriss's podcast. Basically, your muscles have a metabolic clock in them, which is strongly affected by the timing of your meals. Eating early, and leaving a solid 14 hours between last bite at night and first bite in the morning, co-ordinates the metabolic clock with your circadian rhythm. You know the feeling of being awake, but your body seems to be still asleep? This knocks that right on the head. I was astonished at the difference it made the first time I tried it.

7. Sunlight.

This is so obvious I left it out of the first version of this post, but I shouldn't have. Get sunlight in your face in the morning of your target timezone, and avoid it in the afternoon and evening. It makes a huge difference; the slowest t jet-lag recovery I ever had was after a return from Seattle to two weeks in the UK where I didn't see the sun once, it was cloudy the whole time. It was awful.

I hope you find this useful, wherever and whenever you travel!

A good swordsman must be able to handle a range of different opponents, and so must train to face lots of different styles of attack and defence. This is quite difficult to accomplish within a relatively small group of training partners, which is one of the reasons that it’s a good idea to travel a lot to fence new people, and one of the reasons why I encourage my students to attend tournaments even though they are not our focus of study. But travel is time consuming and expensive, so it helps to have ways to shake things up a bit at home. We addressed this problem in last Monday’s class, so I thought I’d write up my class notes for you here.

We started as always with a quick chat about goals; what were the students currently working on? The answers ranged from the moral:

  • Win or lose, do it gracefully

To the general:

  • Closing the line to avoid double hits
  • Be more committed when attacking
  • Maintaining flow and stability under pressure

To the really specific:

  • Generate roverso attacks from my opponent onto my prepared parry-riposte.

They decided to start the class as normal, with breathing training and Syllabus form, and then kitted up for freeplay.

I had them start with our favourite set-up: hold the field. In this set-up, one person holds the field and is attacked in turn by each other member of the class. When they have faced everybody, the next fencer takes their place, and they join the queue to attack. I left them completely free to attack and defend as they pleased. (You can read more about freeplay set-ups in the third instalment of The Swordsman's Quick Guide.)

I then pulled out a deck of Audatia cards (the Galeazzo deck, if you’re interested), and separated out the posta (guard) cards. I used these as a randomiser; the defender had to wait in whatever guard I pulled from the deck. Oh, and of course I took out their usual favourites. This forced the defender to act from a less familiar position, and also the attacker got some variety.

After a round of that, I let the defender choose freely, and took the strike cards (with all the mandritti fendenti cards removed, because why not?) and the attackers had to attack with whatever card I drew for them. This generated even more variety than the guard restriction, and forced the attackers to be much more imaginative.

On the third round I added in the stretto plays cards, and each person (attackers and defender) drew a card; whatever they got, they were supposed to generate the conditions in which they could strike using that action. Mandritto mezano, not so difficult to engineer. Soprana tor di spada? Much more so. Incidentally, as they were all wearing gauntlets, I drew for them, and reshuffled between each draw.

This round was very interesting, and made certain gaps in our training curriculum quite clear. Also, in this round, the fencers could come and choose a new random card at any time.

This was perhaps the most difficult round for them, so we broke up into pairs once everyone had held the field, and they worked on how to generate the necessary conditions for whatever action they were trying to accomplish in freeplay.

Then the last five minutes was spent in freeplay, with the fencers either just letting off some steam, or carefully trying to get the action they had been working on, to work.

This sort of training is really useful (they all agreed, in the after-action review), because not only does it force the individual fencer to change their game a bit and try something different, but it also creates much more variety in opponents, without having to find new people.

Of course, to win fencing matches, you should get very good at a few favourite moves, and then learn how to make other fencers give you the necessary conditions for your move. (What Harmenberg describes as your “Area of Excellence” in Epee 2.0 (that's an affiliate link, BTW).) But it is also true that anything you don’t train against you are vulnerable to. We tend not to attack with sottani blows, because they are less powerful and harder to close the line with than fendente blows; they are less perfect actions for attacking with. But if you never train against sottani attacks, you will get hit by them every time. This may be why Vadi explicitly tells us how to defend against them, but not how to attack with them. (See chapter XV of De Arte Gladiatoria Dimicandi, or pp. 99-102 of Veni Vadi Vici, or here on the wiki, for details.)

This sort of practical, in the salle, sword in hand application is one of the main purposes of Audatia; if it couldn’t be used to train students, I wouldn’t have gone to the effort of producing it. And oh my lord, what an effort it has been. But it was totally worthwhile, because not only does it work, but it has made a small but fierce cohort of seriously dedicated players very happy. I was inspired to use the cards this week in particular by an amazing video, so I would like to dedicate this blog post to its creators, Carlos Loscertales, João “Sig” Gregório, and Paulo Peixoto. I cannot tell you how pleased it makes me to see my game getting this kind of fan feedback.

Fear management is the key skill underlying all martial arts. If you are not afraid of getting hurt or killed, there’s something wrong with you. But if you are frozen in place by that fear, prevented from acting, then your training has failed.

As you may have read, I am a great big fraidy-cat, and so am always on the lookout for ways to practise handling fear. And there is nothing scarier than the dentist. I have sensitive teeth, which doesn’t help; that metal spike thing they use to poke and scratch around your teeth feels to me like sticking splinters under my nails. But in my mouth. In addition, and for no good reason, people prodding about in my mouth has a similar shudder-inducing effect on me as scraping nails down a blackboard. Seriously, if you want information out of me, don’t bother with the waterboard; the threat of dental torture would break me in no time. Not like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man.

Laurence Olivier setting up a generation of moviegoers for a phobia of dentists.
Laurence Olivier setting up a generation of moviegoers for a phobia of dentists.

This irrational fear is of course excellent and very useful, because as a responsible parent I have to set a good example and get a check-up once a year. I went the other week, and was horrified to hear that an old filling was cracked and needed replacing. Which meant THE DRILL. We made the appointment for the following week, and I had seven whole days in which to build up a profound sense of dread.

What can I say about the drill? Except that if it doesn’t terrify you, with its hideous shriek, happening inside your head, and the promise of pain (which never comes; what an improvement in oral anaesthesia since I was a kid!) then there must be something wrong with you. Really. It’s just a nightmare made flesh. It’s actually worse than the anaesthetic injection, and, to me, a hypodermic syringe is an object of terror. I loathe and fear those things. When someone is giving an injection on TV or in a movie, I close my eyes. It’s just wrong on every level. I spend my professional life working on ways to NOT get stabbed, and you want me to let you stick a spike in me? Are you mad? When someone comes at me with a syringe, it takes all my willpower not to disarm them and stick it in their eye. Which is also totally irrational, but there you are. Knives, swords, and guns? Not scary. The tools of modern medicine? Fucking terrifying.

Let me point out here that my dentist is a lovely, kind, and expert woman, gentle and professional. But she’s still a DENTIST. Indeed, all my dentists have been good, and gentle, and caused no unnecessary pain. This is a totally irrational fear.

So there I was, as my dentist started to work… and actually quite relaxed. Pulse under 80 the whole time (well above my normal 55 or so, but manageable). Manual dexterity ok. Maintaining full use of my rational faculties despite gibbering terror.

How?

I chose to focus on something else.

I experimented in the chair with several different approaches, and the one that worked best was to place my attention on my breath. After every ten breaths, I went through a manual dexterity drill (finger wiggling, to the uninitiated), then back to my breath.

The hard part was staying still; every now and then I had to bring my attention up to my neck, because the effort of not moving my head was causing stiffness. Relaxing my neck was harder than keeping my pulse down.

I was hugely pleased at one point when she stopped to ask me something, and I hadn’t immediately noticed that the drill had stopped. That was a major success.

So, how do you cultivate the ability to choose your focus to this degree?

The answer is meditation. It is the best and fastest way to develop focus, because it isolates focus and works on that to the exclusion of all else. The routines I use vary hugely, but the one I used in the chair was a variation on this very simple exercise:

  1. Set a timer, for 5 minutes or so.
  2. Sit or lie somewhere safe and comfortable (before you try this in the Chair of Terror)
  3. Breathe normally.
  4. Pay attention to the sensation of breathing in and out.
  5. Count each in-breath.
  6. When you get to ten, reset to zero.
  7. When you get distracted and lose count, start again at zero.
  8. When your mind wanders, bring it gently back to your breath.
  9. Keep doing this until the timer goes off.

Repeat daily; or more often; do it for longer if you like. The point is that your mind will wander, and you then return it to your chosen focus. The enemy is frustration or annoyance with yourself; it's a distraction (and a powerful one at that!). Be gentle with yourself, and remember that the exercise is not the paying attention to the breath, or getting to ten, the exercise is controlling your wandering mind despite its tendency to wander. Distinctions of “success” or “failure” are irrelevant. If you absolutely must have one, here it is: do this diligently for 5 days in a row, and I hereby declare you successful. Does that help?

And now for something completely different:

A couple of years ago, after a particularly intense dental hygiene session, I wrote this on the way home:

To my dentist and her team:

I sit in the torture chair,

My mouth is open wide.

A highly trained professional

Pokes around inside.

Carefully she grinds my teeth

Carefully she scratches,

Polishing the grime away,

It comes off in batches.

Black coffee, chocolate, and the red,

Red wine leave their trace,

But what is life without them,

Is this not the case?

Teeth are there to be of use,

To strain the fiery brew,

Is it really tooth abuse,

To smile drink gnash or chew?

The dentist though, I hear her whine

D’you think you’ve gone too far?

With coffee, chocolate, red red wine

And the odd cigar?

I do it just to keep my team

Active in their profession.

If I only did as I was told,

There’d be no future session!

My next book, Swordfighting, is, from a creative perspective, done. It is still being edited, tweaked into better forms, and has yet to be published, but the creative work, by which I mean “writing new material”, is over. I have a bunch of started book projects on my computer, and  I am wondering which of them most takes your fancy; which one would you most like to see finished first. I posted a poll yesterday, and the top three contenders are:

1) Mastering the Art of Arms vol 3: Longsword Advanced Training. The sequel to my latest longsword book, which would cover advanced training, techniques, and concepts. (40% of the votes)

2) A new rapier book, to replace The Duellist's Companion. This will take into account about 9 years of teaching rapier regularly, and so be much easier to follow and use. (22% of the votes)

3) How to Train which has sections on strength training, nutrition, range of motion, meditation, and breathing. In other words how to craft your body to be able to do what you want it to do. The emphasis will be on being able to swing swords, but the principles are sufficiently general that it can apply to any area of life. (31% of the votes)

Or is there something else? I'm open to suggestions, which so far have included: a beginner's Bolognese book, Sword & Buckler, combined martial arts and swordsmanship (whatever that is!), and my interpretation of all of Fiore's plays on foot, among others.

So, if you have an opinion, please let me know it by answering my poll. I added 3000 words to my draft of Advanced Longsword today, inspired by yesterday's responses…

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