Locus of Control – I Re-Assembled the Elliptical!

While I have recently joined a new gym in our new city after the move, I have used it once as of writing.  I have yet to work out a schedule that allows me to easily pick up the habit of exercising.  This is, of course, a terrible excuse to not exercise.

Exercising at the gym will either be something I do before work, or something done after work.  Each of these options have complications that provide just enough friction that implementing them is stopped by my slothful lizard brain.

In order to exercise at the gym before work, I’d have to wake up earlier.  This is hard for me for a few reasons:

  • Because I work at the bar a few nights per week, my sleep schedule is variable, so keeping a consistent bed and wake-up time is challenging.
  • I’m a heavy sleeper, so finding a way to wake me up without disturbing my partner is difficult.
  • I’ve developed a habit of snoozing when my alarm goes off.
  • Being late to work is bad, so if I’m late to get to the gym, it throws things off for me.
  • I’m lazy.

In order to exercise at the gym after work, I have a few barriers that I’d need to overcome.  Ideally, I’d go straight from work, but:

  • On days when the dog is at daycare, I’m usually the only one who can pick him up before they close since my work is closer.
  • On days when the dog is at home, I need to go home first to take him out to relieve himself.
  • Because I’m the first one home, it makes more sense for me to start dinner.
  • I have the habit that once my “pants come off,” or if I sit on the couch, it’s hard for me to get up and go again.
  • Exercising after work is challenging if I’m tired from work.
  • I wouldn’t be able to workout on days after work when I also work at the bar or have board meetings (mornings are more likely to be clear of other scheduled activities).
  • I value spending time with my significant other over going to the gym.

These are all excuses.  They are in no way real impediments to going to the gym.  Instead, they provide just enough friction to stop me from making a change.

Another option would be for me to workout at home.  Until recently, we’ve been limited in what we could unpack while the renovations were ongoing.  However, now that the renos are done, we are in a position to reclaim more space in the basement.  The disassembled elliptical was buried behind boxes of stuff, and there was little extra floor space that could be used to set up the machine.

Last week, I decided that I wanted to finally set up the elliptical so that I had no excuses for skipping some form of exercise.  I wanted to take back some locus of control for my fitness.  Everything listed above is coded in language that suggests I have no control over my situation.  There’s always a reason outside of myself that prevents me from committing to exercise – “if only things were different, I’d exercise.”

But this is wrong.

In truth, there is nothing stopping me from exercising.  I’m making excuses on why I’m not modifying my behaviour.  Instead of whining and whinging about why I can’t exercise, I need to address the nagging feeling that I am drifting about in my day to day life.  I don’t feel in control of things, but this is false.  I tend to react, without intention.  I act as if I don’t have an active agency in how I spend my time.  By not making decisions about how to fix my behaviour, I’m still making a decision – only now I’m pretending to be a victim of circumstance and pushing off ownership of that decision to do nothing.

And so, last week I decided to take back some locus of control and re-assemble the elliptical and go for a run.  This is not a behaviour change, but merely a first step.  (Or several steps according to my FitBit…)

Now, I must be responsible for continuing to take those steps.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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The Gap Between Reading and Doing

 

“For studying courage in textbooks doesn’t make you any more courageous than eating cow meat makes you bovine. By some mysterious mental mechanism, people fail to realize that the principal thing you can learn from a professor is how to be a professor — and the chief thing you can learn from, say, a life coach or inspirational speaker is how to become a life coach or inspirational speaker. So remember that the heroes of history were not classicists and library rats, those people who live vicariously in their texts. They were people of deeds and had to be endowed with the spirit of risk taking.”

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Skin in the Game

One of my big personal shortcomings is my inability to turn knowledge into action.  A few weeks back, I talked about how I tend to read a lot in the area of personal development, to the point of feeling over-saturated in the field.  However, for all the books I’ve read in the past two years in this area, I can’t really point to a lot of areas where I’ve successfully translated what I read into meaningful action.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t personally developed myself since 2016; I would say I’ve come a long way in two years to improving my life and myself.  Yet, in a pure comparison of books to identifiable changes, I can’t really say that a lot of specific changes have been made.  This seems somewhat at odds with the nature of the “advice” these books give, where you can deploy specific hacks, tips, and protocols, and everything will be better.

I don’t have a good explanation for why this is the case.  I feel it goes beyond just being lazy (though I am quite a lazy person).  I think the closest explanation that I can offer is something akin to a lack of confidence meeting decision paralysis.  I lack confidence in my ability to make decisions, so I research and read to see what others have done.  But there comes a point where I have too many options available, and I fail to cross the threshold from knowing to doing.  Rationally, I know that seeking more knowledge does not necessarily mean I’ll be more likely to act (there’s a quip that if knowing more was the solution, no one would need to diet and everyone would be healthy).  The gap between knowledge and action, where the will lies, stubbornly refuses to shrink for me.  This could be my fixed reality, but I’d like to think that I haven’t found the right combination of motivations yet that would bring me to where I want to go (setting aside the problems with the notion that I have to wait around for a muse to motivate me).

This could also be a problem because I have too many things on the go (the old “I’m too busy” rebuke).  With too many balls in the air, I’m worn down with just managing how things are going in the present, and I have little cognitive bandwidth left to steer me in a direction I want to go for the future.  This, too, is a personal shortcoming for me, but I think it’s a separate concern from the action-gap.

Truthfully, I don’t have a meaningful, satisfying way to close off this post.  I don’t have a magic bullet that will fix the problem for me.  I can’t say that I’ve found a solution to the problem, and that this post is building towards a resolution.  It’s an ongoing problem for me, and I hope that by bringing it to the surface, I can at least be aware of the problem and try to work around it until the gap can be plugged.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Reflections on Self-Help and Diminishing Returns

If you were to ask my fiancee, she’d tell you I have a book-buying problem.  I buy books faster than I can read them, and I have a small collection weighing down my shelves at home.  In a month’s time, we will be moving houses and part of the burden is to box the books and be mindful just how heavy books in boxes can actually be.  I prefer printed books, but I also have a steadily growing Kindle library and now an Audible library.

For 2018, the pace of my reading has slowed down significantly since 2016 and 2017.  At present, I have only completed 10 books for the year (with many half-read books strewn around the house).

If you go through the books I’ve read since my first reading list in 2016, you will notice a large proportion of my books fall under the self-help and personal development banners.  While I acknowledge that these books have been helpful in kicking off my attempts to make positive changes at work and in my life, I’m noticing a trend – I’m not really getting as much out of the books as I used to.  I seem to have hit a point of diminishing returns.  I started noticing it in the books I was reading, but it’s also spilled over into the daily lists of articles I get from Quora, Pocket, Medium, etc.

There is an over-saturation of the same studies being cited and a dearth of tips, tricks, tactics, protocols, hacks, systems, routines, mental models, and insights that tend to recycle similar themes.  Especially mental models – those seem to be in vogue right now with the online think-pieces and people creating courses for you to enroll in.

I also noticed that the further out from primary sources you get, the more recycling you find.  There tends to be four broad classes of folks who populate this domain:

  1. the innovators who write reflectively about what they did or the systems they created (the Ramit’s, the Dalio’s, the Covey’s, etc.);
  2. the populizers who interview, report, and connect ideas from the innovators (the Gladwell’s, the Duhigg’s, the Ferriss’s, etc.) ;
  3. the repeaters who recycle from columns one and two (this is typically the people writing Medium and Quora posts and asking you to sign-up for their email lists); and
  4. the folks who spend a year doing a thing then write a book about it, which pairs something they experienced with a study/book/system that is supposed to give insight or explain what happened in case study format (I won’t name names here, but the books are usually structured like those in group 3 above).

I wish the insight above was mine, but in full disclosure I had read this idea from someone and for the life of me I can’t remember where (the irony is not lost on me).  I suppose the only thing I’ve added to the above is item four.

I know it’s not fair to pigeon-hole people into only these four categories.  Some people in the second group produce novel insights that place them in group one, and some who write in group one are also guilty of slipping into group two from time to time.  The point is not to dismiss the books that are coming out, but rather to try and objectively draw circles around them in meaningful categories.

I think the diminishing returns I’m seeing is a result of my desire to find a magic bullet to fix whatever problem is “holding me back” from being in a place I want to be, mixed with one of my greatest flaws – I will read, and read, and read, and never make behavioural changes to take action.  Instead of making progress towards my goals in a meaningful way, I instead stay “productive” by reading.

Will this stop me from reading these kinds of books?  Probably not. Let’s be honest, these books are designed to be appealing.  They are a mix of relatable narratives and the promise of a better tomorrow.  They are my harlequin romance novels, my pulp reads.  They are easy to digest because someone else has done the thinking for you.  It’s my own kind of soma that keeps me peaceful and happy.  I know it’s not really that nutritious, but I enjoy it as a guilty pleasure nonetheless.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Study Strategies #5 – Application

One of the hardest things I find my students struggling with is not grappling with deep philosophical thoughts, or technical jargon (to be fair, they do struggle with these as well), but it’s in the application of course material.  Most often, when my students submit work for me to evaluate, they submit work that is either:

  • straight opinion (read: a submission that is not structured as an argument with evidence and connecting ideas through logic); or
  • an attempt to solve or provide a definitive response for all the problems of this philosophical issue in about a page.

The thing my students don’t realize is that I don’t care whether they “solve” the philosophical problem.  Granted, I don’t expect them to be able to solve the problem in a page, but that’s not the point.

The purpose of the exercise is for me to check the thought-process of whether they are able to understand the material and work with it.

I was recently chatting with a Program Chair about her time teaching engineering courses.  She noted that often she’d give problem sets that lacked defined measurements, and her students would pause to ask what the length or value of the unknowns are.  She was very frank that she didn’t care what number their calculator displayed because it was more important for her to see whether the students could think through the problem, manipulate the equations, and understand how to go about solving a problem.  For her, the solution was extraneous for the purposes of the class – it was a quick and convenient way to mark an answer right or wrong, but not entirely indicative of whether the student was understanding the concepts.

Now, you may say that this is all well and good for engineering, but how does that apply to philosophy (“But, philosophy has no right answers!!!) or any of the other soft sciences or humanities disciplines.

The truth is that the faster you try to apply the concepts, the easier it is to learn and make the concepts stick, and it’s not all that different across disciplines.  If you are trying to learn a concept, the best thing you can do is to try to take what you think you are learning, and apply it to a novel situation.  By focusing less on the details and working with the core concepts, you get a chance to see what makes sense to you and where your gaps in knowledge are.

For the course I teach, the students work their way through the online module materials, which includes extra readings, embedded videos, probing questions, links to additional sources, etc.  Then, after a round of discussion board posts, the students have a weekly essay prompt related to the week’s topic.

Early in the course, my students will often reply strictly to the essay question with what they think the right answer is.  Through my weekly rubric feedback and general emails to the class, I encourage them to go back to the module content and apply the concepts they are learning to the essay prompt.  What would so and so say about this concept?  How does this school of thought define this concept?  Do you agree with how this concept gets framed?

The point of undergraduate philosophy courses is not for students to generate original philosophical thought.  That is an aim, but it shouldn’t be the outcome.  Instead, the instructor should be guiding the students to think better and understand the concepts being covered so that they can then apply it in novel situations.

When studying, a good way to learn the concepts it to try and extract the ideas from how the author framed them and see how you can apply those ideas in new ways.  It reinforces the learning and helps to spot gaps in understanding in a way that straight memorization doesn’t provide.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Trying Something New – Painting

A few years back, I stumbled across Bob Ross videos on YouTube.  His Joy of Painting series made painting seem accessible and fun, and it stoked in me a desire to try it out.  My experience in creating art mostly was concerned with drawing and sketching.  Only once (in high school) did I attempt to paint a picture (a large Spider-man poster, which was meant for us to experiment with painting along one side of the colour wheel).  Painting has largely been intimidating for me to try until I watched Bob Ross.

A friend who paints suggested I try starting off with an easy medium, like acrylic paint, since oil painting can be both challenging and dangerous if you don’t take the right precautions.  I made a New Year’s resolution to try out painting before the end of the first quarter, and in February I found a local art store that runs beginner acrylics classes.  For four weeks, you learn lessons from a local artist and complete a painting each week to take home.

This week will be the last class.  I’m sad that it’s over already and I’ve really enjoyed the experiences so far.  I’m hoping the store sets up the intermediate class soon, as I will gladly pay to attend that class as well.  When you sign up for the beginner class, you are given the option to purchase a starter kit with some paints, brushes, and canvasses.  I’ve already started buying additional supplies, such as more paint colours, a medium to extend the acrylic drying time, a new kneadable eraser, and more canvasses.  Below are the paintings I made from the first three weeks of the course.

I’ve even started experimenting with paining at home – last week I attempted my first run at mixing flesh tones to paint people (I hope to attempt a self-portrait in the near future).

I’m glad I invested the money in this experience and am looking forward to practicing this new set of skills.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

100th Post!

EXPEDITION

This post marks my 100th entry on this site!

My first post went live on April 21st, 2016 and, if memory serves, I have managed to post at least once every week since then.

The original motivation to start this site was three-fold.  First, I vainly wanted to snag up the domain name in the off-chance that I wanted to use it in the future.  Second, I wanted an excuse to force myself to write regularly.  It had been a few years since I finished my master’s degree, and I found that my writing skills had softened over time, so I wanted a reason to regularly practice those skills to keep them sharp.

The third, and primary reason, was to chronicle and reinforce my path towards becoming a paramedic.  I had intended to document the application process of returning to school, the time spent as a student, and eventually the transition into a career.  I also wanted to use the website to discuss and teach the concepts I was learning because I believe it is a good mode of reinforcing the material I would have learned in class (an effective way of learning is being forced to teach it to others).

While the first two reasons have been honoured, I have since shelved the idea of becoming a paramedic.

The unfortunate result is that I’ve been maintaining this site up to 100 posts without a clear purpose or direction of where I want to go.  This is amusingly also the case with what I want to do career-wise.

I had my performance appraisal at work last week, and my boss said she was “super happy” with my work and contribution (there are a few areas of growth we identified, but otherwise it was a great appraisal).  When we discussed my future avenues of growth, I was hard-pressed to come up with the next steps of where to go next beyond wanting to take on more responsibility in general.  I have a few concrete skill sets that I want to work on, but nothing that lends itself to an obvious career choice.

I suppose this blog is an accurate reflection of my career trajectory.  On the one hand, the status quo looks good, clean, and polished.  On the other hand, it lacks direction and purpose.  However, the blog also affords me the space to stop, reflect, and document things as I go.

I don’t have an answer as to where I’m intending on going next, but at least I can share my muses along the way.

He’s to another 100 posts!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Zombies, Run! 5K Training App Review

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This blog post is not a paid sponsorship.

On Friday, I completed my last training mission for the Android version of the Zombies, Run!  5K Training app by Six to Start.  While this is supposed to be an 8-week training program, I’ve been at it since mid-October.  Having completed the program, I wanted to give some of my thoughts on the experience.

Overall, I loved it!

Imagine taking an audiobook about a zombie outbreak, and attaching a step-counter/GPS tracker to it.  That’s what the app is at its core.

Story

You play the silent hero, Runner 5.  The adventure opens with you in a helicopter bound for the Town of Able.  While en route, your helicopter is shot out of the sky, and you are forced to make your way to the settlement with the help of Able’s radio operator, Sam.  Once you make it to town, you meet a diverse cast of characters who you “interact” with throughout the 8-week plan.

The bulk of your interactions take place with Sam and Maxine, the town’s doctor, who also serves as your training coach while you build stamina and prepare to take your place as one of the town’s Runners.  The Runners are a group of people who are sent out on missions outside the guarded walls of town to run messages, look for survivors, gather supplies, and occasionally serve as decoy bait to lure zombies away.

While managing a zombie outbreak is bad enough, you still have the lingering question of who would shoot down a helicopter from the middle of the zombie-infested countryside, and more urgently, who is stealing supplies from the town’s quartermaster.

I found the story very immersive.  It brought me back to my old radio drama days from high school, with well-acted characters and sound effects to help you believe that you are being chased by zombies.  The creators took time to ensure the voice acting was well-done as you rely on the characters to help you experience the story.  There is no narrator telling you a story, but instead the story unfolds around you while you run.

Despite the fact that this is a training app, there is a surprising amount of story given to you.  You learn a bit of the backstory of the main players, and there is a lot of world building going on about life and the history of the zombie outbreak.  You learn a little bit about the politics of the various surrounding towns, and you get swept up in the human drama.  Indeed, your final mission is not just a 5k run, but a race against the clock to make a critical delivery to someone you’ll never meet but means the world to a close companion of yours.

The App

I found the app easy to use and well-designed.  As I mentioned above, the app is basically an audiobook and a step-counter.  There is a bit more to it, but those are just extras that help with customization.  The app tracks your progress in one of three ways – a GPS tracker that lays out your run via a Google Maps integration, a step-counter if you want to use a treadmill, and an estimated distance tracker for use on rowing machines and ellipticals (how many minutes it takes you to go 1-kilometre).  I chose to use the step-counter feature despite using an elliptical, which meant my in-app distances were skewed, however I corrected the distances with the tracking done by the elliptical itself.  I also used my Fitbit to track caloric expenditure and heart rate, since they were calibrated to my height and weight.

The best part about the app is that you can choose to use an external audio player when the app isn’t talking to you.  I used both Stitcher and Spotify and found that the integrations were smooth.  This allows you to listen to music on the run.  When the training app needs to deliver information to you, it pauses what you are listening to and continues the story, before switching back to your preferred audio.  Even taking phone calls mid-app worked well.  There was only one time where my music didn’t start back up after I took a phone call.

One note of caution is that the first 3 or so weeks of the app are free to use, but you need to pay a nominal fee ($5.49) to unlock the rest of the missions.  While this might be annoying, or a bit of a barrier for people, I liked it because a.) I’m in favour of companies making money off of users to keep creating good content; and b.) letting you use the app for free lets you test it out.  By the time I was ready for week 4, I wanted to find out what happens next, and I thought a buy-in of around $5 was worth it to continue on the adventure.  The full (non-training) app uses a subscription model, but still allows you to trying things out before you need to unlock the full app.

Training

I found the 8-week program to be a little easy for me, but using an elliptical meant that there was only so much crossover I would experience.  If I were to have tried running, I suspect the app’s difficulty would have been scaled more appropriately to me (and my knees would have taken a beating).  But the main purpose of the training is similar to most other “couch to 5K” training programs – get you moving a couple days per week while the difficulty is slowly ramped up.  I appreciate this approach, as it is enough to challenge you, but easy enough to keep you coming back for more.

To keep the difficulty scaled for me, I would often run through rest breaks, and I ensured that I kept the resistance level at a good place to maintain a heart rate of around 140bpm.  To ensure I was running fast enough, I monitored the elliptical’s RPMs, and used the following markers:

  • 40-50rpm: slow walk/rest
  • 50-60rpm: brisk walk/warm up
  • 60-70rpm: steady running pace
  • 70+: hard exertion/sprint

Before each mission, you can review what the day’s exercise routine will look like.  The training sessions involve a combination of walking and running periods, and some sort of ancillary movement to develop your leg muscles, such as knee-ups, skipping, and body-weight squats.  Some days are straight training, where you get little story development, but learn more about the people you are interacting with.  However, some training days morph into mini missions where you need to divert due to zombies or pick up critical supplies nearby.  One time, you even risk you life to help a downed runner in the field.  This is probably what kept me so engaged.  If it were just a disembodied voice telling me when to walk and run, I doubt I would find it very engaging and would have likely lost interest quickly.  However, because the training prompts are integrated into a narrative, and the characters are cheering your development on (because you are expected to take you place as a member of the community), it breaks the monotony of running up into more interesting chunks.

I’m not entirely sure to what degree I improved my cardiovascular health.  Because I didn’t feel like I struggled with the difficulty, it’s hard to measure my progress.  The best I can estimate is that my running distances did increase over time, even if you were to control for the duration of walking in the training cycles and the differences in run duration from week to week.  Despite having not measured with any amount of accuracy what my abilities were pre-Zombies, I’m fairly confident that I am in a better state of cardiovascular health having completed the training program.

Final Thoughts

If I have one complaint, it’s that the narrative move from the training app to the full app ends up restarting the story a bit.  The first mission in both the training app and the full app is  the same, meaning your story doesn’t really continue after the training app.  I suspect that once you start running the story missions, things will feel more integrated, but I was a little sad to have to “meet” Sam and Maxine for the first time again after having “developed” a relationship with them while I trained.  This is a relatively small nitpick on my part because narrative and story are important to me, but it’s not something that takes away from the experience.

I have already recommended the app to friends of mine, and I officially recommend it here.  I got well more than $5 in value from the app’s minor cost.  This is a well-made app that is easy to use, and integrates well into my exercise routine.  It makes exercise fun and engaging and the story is compelling enough to keep me coming back for more punishment.  If you are looking for a way to help you commit to a cardio routine, but you are starting off from scratch, this is a great option if you don’t mind running from zombies.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan