• Filling in the gaps

    TLDR: Stop mindlessly eating and let your body fill in the gaps where it needs to.

    Do you slurp your food? Ever spilt food on your shirt? Choked on a fizzy drink? Scalded your tongue on something hot? If you eat food, the answer is probably yes.

    Most of the time when we eat food, we are not really thinking about what we are chewing or what we will eat next. We are on autopilot. This is the status quo. We are even more automatic when we are rushing, hungover, bored, distracted, talking to others, tapping our phones and especially late at night when no one is watching.

    We are shopping for, cooking and eating food, but nobody is home in our own head. I call this the the demented autopilot.

    Occasionally, like when we get a divorce, or move overseas, we decide to take control from this mad robot. The goal is typically to lose weight, and the diet we follow usually involves some sort of restriction. Sometimes the diet works so well that we believe that the restriction is the solution. But avoiding something like sugar, doesn’t necessarily give you the control you were seeking. Never letting a drop of alcohol touch your tongue is a very different stance to recognizing that alcohol can be pleasurable, but actually not an especially big deal, and often not worth the hangover.

    Diets do offer the positive effect of circuit breaking some of our robotic routines. Like when you help a Roomba that’s been stuck in a corner, by switching out the sights, sounds and tastes of our habits, we may get a better idea of where we’ve been stuck.

    For example, I used to stumble into a my local 7-11 most mornings and buy a cup of cheap, strong coffee, and pair it with an original glazed Krispy Kreme donut. At some point I started to grind my own coffee beans at home and found myself eating healthier breakfasts. The Sugar Express that I unconsciously rode for many months had been exploded. Emerging from the rubble, I found myself relatively unscathed. Our brain isn’t that loyal to any particular habit. It’s already happily laying some new train tracks.

    Some activities are natural circuit breakers, and we’d be better off doing them more often. Like a diet, hiking has lots of built-in, natural frictions that push us in healthier directions and help to disengage this demented button-pushing part of our brain.

    • We notice the taste of food when we camp, not because we have a waiter describing it to us (although that can help), but because we are actually hungry. I realize some of the best meals of my life were eaten after all day on my feet backpacking.
    • We don’t tend to eat large meals late at night (under fluorescent lights), or in the middle of the night. It takes some time to set up and get access to food, so we eat at set, reasonable times of day and then we put the food away.
    • Most of the time we are snacking or nibbling on small nutritious things. We are moving about all day when we hike and we need food that delivers sustained energy.
    • We can’t eat a large, heavy, elaborate meals because we have limited space in our backpack.
    • We tend to wake up earlier and go to bed earlier. It’s not unusual to take a nap when we need to rest.

    To counter the mindless chewing of autopilot eating, we need to seek some sort of balance. Most animals lean on their left hemisphere for targeting and acquiring prey and their right hemisphere for everything else. One way to introduce this sort of balance (without trying too hard) is to fill in the gaps.

    • Adjusting a flapping sail fills in the gaps
    • When we feel tired after lunch, napping fills in the gaps.
    • Resting from exercise when you feel a cold coming on fills in the gaps.
    • On a hot day, coconut water fills in the gaps.
    • Extending your run when you feel good fills in the gaps.
    • Gravitating towards veggies you haven’t eaten for a while fills in the gaps.

    Homeostasis is the natural process where our bodies balance, self regulate and maintain internal stability, but we can get in the way of that too. For example, when I calorie counted, I would dutifully eat back the calories I had burnt in that days activities. That could be quite a bit of food, especially after a long run. Most of the time, I wound up feeling sluggish, bloated and with indigestion. I tried to force my body to balance. Instead, I could have simply listened to my stomach, and noticed that I all I needed to do was eat a tiny bit more over the next few days. I could have filled in the gaps.

    Although friction and structure, like the kind you find while on a long hike can help to circuit break our automatic eating, we can’t spend all our lives hiking. If we are ever going to maintain our health and fitness, ultimately it’s up to us.

    Luckily, when we ease up our reliance on the rigid, controlling left-hemisphere, we seem to be remarkably good at filling in the gaps.

  • Stick with it

    Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
    By Angela Duckworth
    Simon & Schuster, 2016

    What is it about?

    What we achieve in life depends on our passion and perseverance for long term goals. In other words, how gritty we are. Most of us go through life unsatisfied, dipping our toes, sampling and quitting early and often, especially when the going gets tough. We can become more gritty with deliberate practice and with some help from our friends, parents, coaches and the environment around us.

    A few key ideas

    Practice like a toddler

    To master something, you need to practice. We’ve only got so much time and energy in the day, and some of that needs to be spent deliberately if you’re going to get anywhere. For me, practice can be described as pleasant and painful. Easy and hard. Sweet and sour. Some days you’re in a flow state, others you’re banging your head against the wall. Ideally, you’re doing both at once. Terry Laughlin thinks you can do so by not judging yourself too harshly. Little kids understand this without needing to read pop-psychology. When they are interested in something, they don’t mind making mistakes or spending hours learning something new.

    The dojo is the teacher

    “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.”

    William James

    Although science doesn’t really back it up, Duckworth intuits that grit is enhanced somehow by a structured activity, outside of your regular routine. I think most parents would agree. Why is that? Pursuits like ballet and basketball tend to have a supportive yet demanding authority figure like a coach and the environment is often designed to encourage you to keep at it, whether it’s motivational lingo or the culture that can rub off on you. If you’re setting off on a long path to get good at something, you want like-minded people around you and structure to help build new habits.

    The benefit of digging an endless hole

    “I’m not afraid to die on this treadmill.”

    Will Smith

    Most people are constantly distracted by more interesting stuff, so nothing ever becomes truly interesting. When we go deep into something, or simply spend a lot of semi-enjoyable time practicing, we learn a sort of reverence for the process. Swimming or maths are bigger than us in every possible way. At enough depth, or with enough time, the activity becomes sort of irrelevant. You learn more about yourself, and most importantly you realize that anything you learn can be transferred to other parts of your life.

    Is it hard to live a gritty life?

    Duckworth uses the example of Tom Seaver, a legendary baseball pitcher who “devoted (his) life” to pitching “the best I possibly can day after day”. It’s tempting, but I would be wary of imitating Seaver. On paper, he sounds incredibly disciplined and gritty. But perhaps these gritty habits were not forced, or designed top down, but naturally unfolded once he settled on something he liked to do. I would bet that Seaver isn’t “gritting his teeth” when he picks something healthy to eat, goes to bed early or doesn’t drink alcohol because he’s pitching the next day. For him it’s second nature, it’s habit, it’s who he is, it’s easy, it’s effortless.

  • Peace and War

    “Those of us who participate in triathlons are unusual people. Most all the participants have jobs and families, and top of taking care of these, they swim and bike and run, training very hard, as part of their ordinary routine. Naturally this takes a lot of time and effort. The world, with its commonsensical viewpoint, thinks their lifestyle is peculiar. And it would be hard to argue with anyone who labeled them eccentrics and oddballs.”

    What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

    I raise my goggles off my face, panting. We’re only 20 minutes into swim squad and I’m completely out of breath. I look up to the pool deck and see a fellow swimmer snapping off her swim cap and clambering out of the pool. I’m surprised. She’s one of the fittest in our squad and usually leads the ‘train’ (that I hang off like a desperate Looney Tune character). “Yeah, I’m not feeling it tonight. Got nothing to train for anyway, you know?” I nod my head. I know the feeling. I remember that she had been tirelessly training for 70.3 Iron Man. Suddenly the motivation and dedication that comes along with a looming event had evaporated. After a race the gleam and promise of training can dull, leaving with you to stare directly at a pile of work to do.

    It didn’t feel good to see her leaving the pool dejected, especially someone who was easily fit and healthy enough to swim a few more laps. Why is this feeling so common amongst triathletes? Why do we put races on such high pedestals? How can we create a training schedule that doesn’t drive us into anxiety or off training altogether?

    We treat race day too differently

    It’s true, weird stuff tends to happen on race day. I’ve had chains fall off, broken water bottles and watches that don’t turn on. But once you control for them, you can learn to take these sorts of upsets in your stride.

    Most people follow the ultimate rule of racing “Don’t try anything new on race day” by literally making sure nothing is new. They try not to wear new shoes or new goggles. But we only need to remember this rule because we treat races so differently than training. If you race like you train, you won’t likely do anything new.

    We cling onto race day for too long

    I’m looking at my race number from a recent triathlon. Something about it seems special. It was a fun race. It seemed like an important one. And this race number, maybe it’s worth keeping as a memento. Maybe it will inspire me… But instead of framing it and lovingly placing it on my mantelpiece I scrunch it into a ball and throw it in the trash.

    I think throwing away your race bib is an important gesture, since it reminds us to stop venerating race day.

    “It’s a nice memento.”Don’t worry, you’ll remember it.
    “This was a really good race!”Oh so you’ll chuck out your race bibs for the races that weren’t so good? Where do you draw the line?
    “It will be like the triathlon never happened!”Yep. But it’s funny you never complain about training sessions fading away…
    “It will look nice in my collection.”Nobody cares about your collection of trophies.

    We think we can control race day with the right training

    For a bigger, longer, tougher race, a triathlete will need to train more. They might need to show up more often. Take it more seriously. Up to a point that makes sense. The trouble is when you start believing that training will solve all your problems. The training starts getting more specific, more targeted or more unique. I’ve seen quite a few triathletes who were happily turning up to group training become distant and anxious when coaches start devising complex personal programs.

    Generally, we want to hear and do things that encourage our sense of control. Iron-man winner Chelsea Sodorao typifies this outlook, admitting that “she sought refuge in the training, in an environment that felt controllable.” This grip on control only gets tighter the more emphasis is placed on ‘the big race’. The target keeps getting smaller. If doing a fun run is like throwing a piece of paper into a trash can, training every day of the year for one race is like trying to shoot a target while on a rocking ship at sea.

    We care about races too much

    I’m most proud of the fact that the same singlet has lasted 4.5 years of sweat!

    How you approach training and races (peace and war), really depends on your personality. Comparing myself to others in my training groups, I seem to be less competitive than most. This means I race less frequently and my performances are less than they could be. But this ambivalence can also become an asset.

    In September 2018, I signed up for my first triathlon. It was an olympic distance in Santa Cruz. The funny thing was, I wasn’t doing a whole heap of swimming, biking or running. I was actually more interested in strength stuff in the gym. But I had made up my mind, and it went well. The experience was exciting, fun, memorable. Things went wrong, things went right.

    4.5 years of heavy aerobic activity later, I realize I had approached this first triathlon with the right mind. I had no expectations. I had no history. I gave it everything I thought I had. 

    The Rucksack Framework

    If you want peace, prepare for war


    If you were a soldier in the Civil war you would be expected to carry “forty rounds of ammunition in the cartridge-boxes and four days’ rations in haversacks.” This was your go-bag, that meant you were ready. I think a similar approach could apply to triathlon training. By being ready, it could help counter some of the gravity pull of big races and help you become more consistent.

    1. Treat your training program like you might have to do a race next week.
    2. If you’d like, sign up for a race in the future (next week, next month or next year, it doesn’t matter).
    3. Rest when you feel tired.
    4. Keep going.

    Success looks like consistency and readiness. It looks like getting to the end of the swim session, more often than not.

  • Zen and the Art of Consciousness – Book review

    What’s this book about?

    Zen and Art of Consciousness (2011) is a short, non-fiction book about the nature of mind, or rather, the nature of Susan Blackmore’s mind. To investigate her own consciousness, Blackmore meditates systemically on a series of questions or ‘koans‘ like “How does thought arise?” In summary, she argues that science should be focused on explaining things like the illusion of ‘self’ and free-will rather than the hard problem of consciousness.

    My review

    Blackmore is a good writer, thinker, scientist, but a fairly average zen student. She doesn’t want to chop vegetables. She’s annoyed with everything. The book sees her hammering a series of zen koans with an embarrassingly large hammer of intellect and logic. She knows there must be an answer and has to get it right. Even her Zen master gets exasperated. At one point he gives her a red card for thinking too hard. Despite shooting waaay past the target, she stumbles across many insights (although even a profound insight isn’t safe from her ruthless interrogation).

    A few interesting ideas

    The world just bubbles up as it is

    It’s all just happening anyway, whether I like it or not.

    Thoughts are … like the crackling of the fire, the drifting incense smoke, or the bleating of sheep. By the time you notice them they have already been going on for some time.

    Despite trying to think really hard, and not-think really hard, she notices that her general awareness doesn’t actually require any effort. Sounds keep sounding. The breath keeps breathing.

    Time and again I found that my mind had summed up the options, chosen one, carried it out, and moved on.”

    I thought this was an interesting perspective on free will. We spend a lot of life wringing our fingers over decisions big and small. The pain is often stemming from the fact we are conscious that a conscious decision is even required. Blackmore observes that decisions will continue to get made whether you are aware of that process or not. William James talked about this here.

  • Animal immersion

    Gradually, over millions of years, humans have separated from animals. Not only have we hunted apex predators into near extinction, we have co-opted their likeness for Snapchat filters. We have transcended the animal kingdom.

    However, animal instincts remain deep in our psyche and will likely continue to be a powerful force in our lives far into our future. Carl Jung believed that acceptance and integration of the animal soul was a critical “condition for wholeness” and dangerous if ignored, suppressed or left to run wild.

    A primitive chief is not only disguised as the animal; when he appears at initiation rites in full animal disguise, he is the animal.

    Dancing was part of even the ice age rites. Only heel prints can be seen. The dancers had moved like bisons.

    Man and his Symbols – Carl Jung

    Tarantulas and Peacocks

    These days, most of us don’t really take animals that seriously, unless we are judging them or if there’s a strong chance we might become their dinner.

    Or if you’re an actor.

    In the 1920’s actress Maria Ouspenskaya helped popularize “animal work” to help actors “break out of the traditional ways of movement”. This method continues to this day. Jake Gyllenhaal explored nocturnal scavenger animals as he developed his creepy crime reporter Lou for Nightcrawler. “He’s a coyote. They’re very skinny..their eyes are bulging out. They move in this certain way. That was my main study.” Jim Carrey puts it even more simply when talking about his famously physical Ace Ventura character. “(He’s) just a smart bird at the edge of a pond.” When Sir Anthony Hopkins heard this, he shared that he was not one, but two animals in his Oscar winning performance of Hannibal Lector: A crocodile and a tarantula.

    Main character energy

    Tim Gallwey introduced the concept of ‘Self 2’ in what I think is the best book about thinking (and) tennis. Self 2 is pointing at our inherent, natural and spontaneous skills and abilities. We tend to interfere with this part of ourselves by judging, overthinking and extra conscious control, like when we tell ourselves to “hit it better” or “stop sinking” when we swim.

    Since Self 2 is by definition unconscious, we can’t directly control it. But we do know it likes to communicate with images. “To Self 2, a picture is worth a thousand words. It learns by watching the actions of others, as well as by performing actions itself.”

    For example, when we dream, images and visuals serve as powerful metaphors, archetypes or messages that need to be decoded by our conscious mind. In a similar way, you may have noticed yourself moving differently when you walked out of the cinema; swaggering like Thor or brooding like Batman. Maybe your free throws improved after spending all night watching the playoffs? Think of your unconscious mind like a sponge, curiously soaking up new things and squeezing them out in different ways

    If actors can use the natural movement and behavior of animals to deliver believable and sometimes mesmerizing performances, could the same technique be applied in the pool?

    Kicking like a dolphin

    …pointing to (Mark) Spitz. “My god. He’s a fish.”

    Grit – Angela Duckworth

    To swim better, we know we’ve got to reduce our resistance in the water, to go with the flow, literally. This is something fish do passively: “Flow is controlled mainly by streamlining the body shape to minimize drag. It is no accident that fish, dolphins and even submarines have an elongated, teardrop design.”

    Aquatic animals also manipulate flow actively with fins and paddles. Since we’re not shaped like a submarine, that’s what we need to do in the pool. We need to actively adjust our form to manipulate flow.

    Assuming decent self-awareness, visualizing a marlin, shark or a dolphin might help streamline your stroke.

  • Eat first with your stomach

    Bowl of New Year Food (1808) – Teisai Hokuba

    Since we are social, feeling creatures, humans especially suck at sticking to a diet. Friends laugh at our attempts to fast or eat clean and shove plates of fries under our noses. Swirling sadness and anxiety pry open ice cream tubs and general weeknight apathy sends us scrambling for UberEats.

    But we know the right path. All around us we might see influencers or our more motivated peers diligently cooking, meal prepping and studying nutrition labels like they it’s required for the MCAT. And we’ve all likely had some success by measuring our food or stocking up the fridge with veggies.

    But are those healthy habits and diets really so healthy? We all have stomachs that needs to be filled with food at regular intervals. The question is, whose stomach is it? Who are you eating for?

    Eating for the calories

    If you count calories, you are likely working to meet a certain target or ‘budget’ every day. If you spend more energy, you ‘get to’ eat more. When I worked at MyFitnessPal, we noticed the detrimental impact of what is essentially a reward/punishment system. It was effective in teaching people the basics of nutrition, but sadly turned eating into a transactional, antagonistic experience.

    Personally, I got very good at sticking to my target numbers. This meant I always had energy, was rarely hungry and maintained my goal weight. However, it created a strange feedback loop where, instead of resting after a heavy training session (the natural response), I had to eat back all the calories I had burnt.

    Fundamentally, if you are eating for a calorie target, you are not eating for your body.

    Eating for the fridge

    Behavioral economist Dan Ariely thinks we tend to open the fridge “when we are already hungry, and are looking for something to pop in our mouths right away.” The fridge tells you what you can immediately eat, a feature I use multiple times a day. But there’s a catch. If junk food is available and visible, it’s going in my mouth, whether I’m hungry or not. Placing sugary things around your house is really no different than leaving a trail of dog treats on the floor for your pooch to hoover up.

    Another feature of my fridge is it makes me feel guilt. It makes me feel guilt when I see a 3 day old broccoli starting to wilt or a bag of spinach about to turn to soup. I hate wasting food and my fridge constantly reminds me that I’m only a few days or hours away from doing so. All the leftovers, rinds, crusts, spares and dregs I need to deal with inevitably end up in my stomach. I find myself ‘polishing off’ a loaf of bread before it dries out, ‘topping off’ my cereal with that last bit of milk or mounding up my plate because ‘there’s only a little bit left.’

    My frugality and ethical concerns trumped simple feelings of hunger or fullness.

    The Nearly Full Stomach

    “Eight parts of a full stomach sustain the man; the other two sustain the doctor”

    Zen proverb

    To shift slightly away from calorie algorithms and prison-like diets consider the bodily sensation that has helped humans eat since, well, forever: Satiety. It’s a fiendishly complex process, but all you need to know is that if you are human and possess a functional brain, it will probably tell you when your stomach is empty or full.

    If that’s not enough, our ancestors (thanks lads) have handed down a heuristic that suggests to “eat until your stomach is 80% full”. I’m guessing this has been useful for thousands of years because it forces you to think before eating.

    Here’s my rough guide to eating stomach first.

    1. Before you eat: When you are loading up your plate, take a second to consider how your stomach is going to feel 20 minutes into the future. Your eyes are actually a really good gauge, especially if you are not ‘starving’. Ask yourself, when all this food in front of me is in my body, how will I feel?
    2. While you eat: Eat slowly. Chew your food. Everyone from ancient Ayurvedic practitioners to your Grandma will remind you to do this for a good reason: it takes a little bit of time for your stomach to register as full. If you buy some time for your brain and you’re less likely to overeat.
    3. After you eat: This might be the most difficult in practice and a reason why we pay surgeons to slice open and staple our stomachs. It’s really up to you to decide what 80% means. We all know what our stomachs feel like once the plates are cleared on Thanksgiving. Work backwards from there and you’ll be on the right track.
  • The Art of Sighting

    During the triathlon swim leg, it can be challenging to maintain a straight course. There are no lane markers or painted lines below you. Most of the time, the water is murky, opaque and churned up by hundreds of nervous feet.

    In order to swim straight, a triathlete must learn the art of sighting. That is, lifting their head out of the water and looking for a stationary object, typically a colored buoy.

    But what about what happens after your eyes lift out of the water? When you are trying to look for something?

    The Art of Seeing by Aldous Huxley might have some answers.

    Straining to see

    “The anxious effort to do well defeats its own object.”

    “Seeing is greatly lowered by distressing emotional states.

    The Art of Seeing (1942)

    The sky was black, the water was grey and the occasional white cap would slosh into my face when I came up to breathe. I’m 500m into 5km of swimming and I was doubting if I knew what I was doing, or where I was. “Where is the buoy… Is that the buoy? Are you sure? I think I’m going off course…” It’s exhausting to read these sort of thoughts, so you can only imagine how it feels to think them.

    I’m also physically straining to see the next buoy to swim to. I know it’s yellow and I know roughly how far away it should be, but I’ve lost sight of it, and now it feels like I’m trying to will it into existence.

    In Art of Seeing, Aldous Huxley argues the harder we strain to see, the worse we see. When I was sighting for the buoy I was very tense, stressed and straining my eyes to do things they don’t naturally do – similar to what I might do when I drive without glasses at dusk.

    He offers some exercises to help, like blinking more or breathing more steadily but I would suggest something even simpler for swimmers. If you are struggling to see anything clearly when you sight in open water, stop swimming. Although it will feel like eternity, even a few extra seconds treading water can calm you down and you might be surprised to see the buoy swing back into focus.

    The Mind’s eye

    “We see familiar things more clearly than we see objects about which we have no stock of memories.”

    The Art of Seeing (1942)

    I remember an art class where our teacher instructed us to carefully notice and draw the ‘edge’ of every object in a still-life scene. We weren’t allowed to lift our charcoal off the paper or look at what we had drawn until the timer rang. The end result was noticeably better than the drawings we had done before this exercise.

    To use memory as an aid to vision, Huxely instructs readers to do something similar:

    1. Look at objects more analytically. (“For example, when looking at a house, note the number of windows, chimneys and doors. Follow with your eyes the outline of its silhouette against the sky. Let your glance run horizontally along the line of the eaves and vertically up and down the wall space between the windows.)
    2. Then, close your eyes briefly and conjure the clearest possible ‘mental image’ of what you have just seen. 
    3. Open your eyes, compare the image with reality. 

    The sad fact is, most of us “spend our lives looking at one thing, and thinking of another”. Maybe that’s why reading a book is so painful for most people. Although this routine might sound both mundane and pointless, you will be improving your minds familiarity with every day objects that it needs to perceive.

    Sighting while swimming could be a useful way to practice both relaxed concentration and more analytical looking.

  • Excuses

    When a 12 year old Carl Jung banged his head in a scuffle with a bully, he heard his inner voice telling him ‘this would be a good excuse not to go to school anymore’. Most of us aren’t as perceptive as Jung, and excuses like this can be hard to notice, automatic and influence our decision making.

    When we exercise, excuses appear and invariably lead to a way out of doing the work. Excuses often sound intelligent, fair and rational. For example, “I don’t want to overdo it and get an injury” sounds perfectly acceptable to me, and I use it all the time because it gives me an easy way out. Like water running downhill, we find the path of least resistance, and over time, a groove will form.

    Let’s look at a few different kinds of excuses that commonly appear during a run.

    The Nerves

    “I think I ate something bad last night, I don’t feel very good.”

    Why do I always need the toilet before I race? I guess I’m no different than my competitors. We fill our body with water and calories and want to clear out anything extra. No one wants to stop, think about stopping or <insert worst case scenario>. Usually this is explained by nerves, or where the blood is rushing, but if you look at this phenomenon another way, an upset stomach 15 minutes before starting a race is a great excuse to not race. Likewise, if you’re doing 10x200m sprints, it’s interesting that you’re suddenly feeling a strong urge for the toilet on rep #8. It’s a good excuse to wrap up early.

    The Cramp

    “It’s so annoying, I was feeling great, but my leg is totally locked up.”

    Athletes fear the cramp. It’s because of their power to stop you in your tracks. I believe cramps serve a similar purpose to pain in general. A cramp is a very bright neon sign that says “Hey, please check out this damage.” For good measure, they also immobilize the body part. A cramp is a big parking ticket slapped on the windshield and a wheel clamp. The maddening aspect of cramps is that the more you ignore them, or fight against them, the worst they get. The clamp tightens. Cramps are confounding, but also offer a very obvious excuse out.

    The Bargain

    “Let’s do the long run another day.”

    When I’m nearing the end of a run, some strange things start happening. Although I had planned to follow my regular loop, all of a sudden I find myself hatching several new plans out of thin air. They involve stopping earlier, getting groceries, taking back streets, doubling back. Anything but what I’m doing now. If I had planned to run to the cafe, suddenly I’m deliberating if stopping at street before ‘counts’. Is that close enough? The water wants to run downhill.

    The Reward

    “Omg we did it! We’re so strong. Ahh, let’s put our feet up.”

    When we do something physically hard, like run up a steep hill, it’s pretty common to stop at the top. I do this all the time, but I’ve never questioned why. Is it because I’ve reached my physical limit at that exact moment? The fact that my heart rate continues to rise afterwards tells me probably not. I didn’t consciously tell myself I would stop. And even if I stopped because my body had slammed on some imaginary self-preserving hand brake, why does it seemed to happen so much more frequently at some obvious ‘finish line’ point, like the top of a hill?

    One answer might lie in what you are thinking, rather than anything physical that is happening. Maybe I’m both encouraging myself as I run up the hill and congratulating myself at the top. With that warm congratulation, I automatically offer myself a nice sweet rest. I didn’t want to stop (I’ve got a time to beat), I didn’t need to stop (my legs feel fine), but I’ve listened to a very persuasive excuse.

    Try it yourself: Next time you reach the top of a steep hill, don’t try and prevent yourself from stopping, but notice if you do anything else automatically. For example, when I finish running an interval on a track, I put both hands on my head and let out a big sigh. See what yours is.

    We’ve looked at some common excuses that tend to appear when the run gets tough. Here are two strategies that, in different ways, work by challenging our usual automatic responses or habits.

    Do the opposite

    To treat a strong fear response, Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) asks patients to do what they are afraid of doing. If someone is fearful of rabbits (something that actually poses no real danger), they need to spend lots of time with rabbits. While spending time with rabbits, they should carefully look at what is actually happening and most importantly notice that they are safe. In doing so, they can learn to move against their surging emotional currents and hopefully start scratching a new groove for their habits to flow in. Our excuses that emerge when we exercise are also a kind of automatic emotional response and I think we can treat them in a similar way. 

    Stick the plan

    The psychological concept of pre-commitment is a means of committing to a specific plan or decision before any excuse crops up. This could look like simple goal setting, like ‘run for 5 km’. No matter how small the goal, because we tend to automatically twist and bend things, it’s harder to complete than you think. Run 5km, no longer or less. Brag to your buddies that you’re going to do a thing, then do exactly that thing. It’s not about the content of that goal. The power of pre-commitment is in doing exactly what you stated.

    As long as you run, excuses to stop running will present themselves. What’s important is to notice them and aim to prevent them from making you act in ways you didn’t intend.

  • The presenting of intent

    Think about the project you’re working on. It’s likely focused on helping our customers achieve some sort of goal effectively. Maybe it’s surfacing a mistake in a pay run, or finding an old bill faster. As the designer, you create solutions to make that goal or outcome a reality. Jared Spool refers to design this way as “the rendering of intent.”

    Discovery activities like talking to customers and studying analytics help product teams uncover what is happening, why, and what we’d like to change or do better. That’s the intention bit. Then we need to make that intention real, that’s the rendering. When designers share their work back to their peers and collaborators, we might be talking about drop-downs and buttons, but we are presenting a rendering of intent.

    If design is about rendering intent, when we share our work, we should present clearly with strong intention. To explore this concept, let’s look at how it can play out in different scenarios.

    Unclear intent, unclear presentation

    What it looks like: Without clearly explaining the problem or the solution, your audience will be left wondering exactly what’s going on.

    How to fix: Rather than working on the presentation, take a step back and ask yourself “What problem is this solving?” A good next step from there could be to spend time diverging, exploring and thinking through lots of options.

    Unclear intent, clear presentation

    What it looks like: The prototype is dazzling and everyone want to ship it, but it’s not solving the agreed on problem. You find yourself struggling to answer why you made certain design decisions.

    How to fix: Step away from the tools. All the elements are there, but it’s important to return to research or re-interrogate the problem with others around a whiteboard. The design process is your friend here and there’s tons of methods that can be used to look at problem from a new angle.

    Clear intent, unclear presentation

    What it looks like: When we feel unsure about committing to a specific approach it’s easy to miscommunicate or even over-communicate rather than keeping things simple.

    How to fix: Sometimes all it takes is rearranging your slide deck or talking through your work with peers to sharpen what you’re trying to say. These are quick tactical things that are easy to learn. If there’s good thinking, you’re 90% done!

    Clear intent, clear presentation

    What it looks like: It’s a cliche to say that good design is simple, but it’s true. The designer has done a ton of thinking, exploring and deliberating before settling on a strong approach that they feel confident in explaining (and defending if need be).

    How to fix: Not much to fix here, but it’s important for a designer to remain flexible and open to feedback. Rather than dying on a hill, it’s more about having “strong opinions, loosely held”.

    To present designs more effectively, aim to make a strong, clear argument for your solution. If you’re in a coaching position, here’s a few ideas I think might help designers:

    • Remind the designer that at the end of the day, this is your work, your thinking and we trust you know what’s best. 
    • There’s usually not one ‘right’ answer – there’s many ways to solve a problem. As long as you think it through, and answer the goal, you should be fine!
  • Fighting the Water

    Why is it difficult to relax?

    1. Relax? Sorry, I’m too busy trying to (dance, box, code, paint, sing…). I’m concentrating on that thing right now, no time to relax thank you very much.
    2. You can’t fix what you don’t notice, and it can be difficult to notice that you are physically tense or overthinking a movement. For example, I’m always surprised how different I feel after a massage. Maybe I did need that massage after all.
    3. If relaxing is the goal, trying to relax won’t get you there. Trying by definition is something forced and thought, rather than simply done. To illustrate this difference, consider how it feels to catch something reflexively compared to planning to catch something.

    Let’s look at how relaxing might help you swim more easily.

    Not pretty

    I finally relaxed…I actually started to listen to my hands, to what’s going on in the water around me… I began to develop a relationship with the water, as opposed to just fight(ing) the water.

    Lionel Sanders (maybe the most powerful yet least graceful triathlete)

    I know how to swim, but my stroke has many strange and curious habits (see above). I’m comfortable in the water, but I don’t have a great picture of what I’m actually doing in it. For example, when I kick, I don’t know what my feet are doing. I often forget that my hands cross over my body.

    Also, rather than swimming smoothly, I rely on muscles to power through the water. My most dreaded swimming drill is kick board. I feel like I’m sinking, so I thrash my legs, which makes me feel like I’m sinking. Then, I get anxious that I’m holding up traffic, and I thrash even harder.

    Do not frown when you read. Frowning is a symptom of the nervous muscular tension produced in and around the eyes by misdirected attention and the effort to see.

    Aldous Huxley

    On Australia Day, I swam 5km in open water. It was a big distance and the water was rough, so I knew I had to conserve my energy and swim calmly. On the swim, I planned to focus on holding my head lower in the water, hopefully making me more streamlined.

    After a few kilometers, it dawned on me that I was tensing my neck and back. I thought that’s what I needed to do to swim! So rather than trying to hold my head down, I stopped forcing it up, releasing these tense muscles and letting my head hang gently in the water.

    I’d been so busy swimming, I’d forgotten that my body was effortlessly floating on the surface, without any added effort from me. Instead of groaning and pulling through the water, I imagined I was gently snorkeling over a beautiful coral reef. Although I didn’t suddenly start smashing PB’s and win the race, I finished feeling calm and refreshed, an achievement in itself.

    I thought I was relaxed, but I was swimming like an angry man stuck in traffic. I’ve been drilling for years, yet coaching cues designed to help me relax floated over my head. So, bearing in mind the futility of words, I’ll leave you with this image to play with.

    Imagine you’re lying face down in a cotton rope hammock that’s strung over a 100ft ravine. Every muscle in your body will want to tense and grab the hammock for support. Feel that tension. Now, imagine fully relaxing into the hammock. Completely release the weight of your head. Now swim.