Three Reasons You Need to Get Your Hands “Dirty”

When I was in elementary school, my parents insisted that my siblings and I learn to play a musical instrument. Being the scrappy little guy I was, I wanted to play the drums. Like good parents, they said “no” (could you imagine what our little house would sound like with five kids and a little knucklehead banging on drums?!?!?!). But I think my parents knew something (whether intuitively or they read it in a book or magazine haha). They knew that playing instruments helped kids learn better and develop more well-rounded. Long story short, I ended up playing the saxophone, and mostly enjoyed it!

Fast forward to my young adult years…I picked up a few hobbies. I self-taught myself how to play the guitar, I began to become interested in hand-repairing bikes and minor guitar repairs. I never had the exact vocabulary to describe why these things were so rewarding. I think I have found it. Any creative act of your own volition is an inherently rewarding activity. Conversely, any forced act, particularly a non-creative one, is inherently de-motivating (but that’s for another article). I believe there may be a little evolutionary psychology in this phenomenon. For most of human history, creation was synonymous with survival. Creating shelter, weapons, crops and the like determined whether you would survive or not, so it makes sense that these activities are rewarding. Anywho, let’s get into my four reasons why YOU need to get your hands dirty.

You Will Learn How to Concentrate

Opportunities for concentration in modern Western society are becoming fewer and farther in-between. It seems as though our culture, albeit inadvertently, rewards and reinforces multi-tasking and getting “alot” done as opposed to getting things done well. This makes sense, because many production activities can be replaced or augmented with technology.

When you pick up a hobby, you have to reconnect with concentration. Ask any person who has learned to play an instrument how much concentration is needed. Massive amounts! A millimeter in misplacement of a finger is the difference between a beautiful chord and an ear souring mess. When making framing for a wall, or re-wiring a light fixture, your hands are the sole determinant of whether the project is successful.

Having the ability to concentrate enriches every part of your life. Your relationships become imbued with better listening, you are more careful in your work, and (this is my opinion) you may become more physically graceful.

You Will Learn the Principles of Success

There are, in my opinion, too many success books out there. They are kind of redundant. But every success book worth its salt talks about the principle of learning from “failure”. I put failure in quotation marks because failure is a necessary part of success. In essence, every advancement in literature, science, civilization, etc. was created by someone or something failing and then making corrective adjustments.

I would encourage every person out there to take on a semi-difficult home improvement project. I can almost guarantee one thing. It will be much more complicated than you thought it would be. And this is a good thing! Through it you will learn to set your expectations aside and respond to the needs of the situation. This is an invaluable life skill. Any person older than 30 will tell you that life is full of twists and turns and surprises. If that person you talk to is a positive person, they will also say that this is good because through these experiences you will learn to “roll with the punches”.

You Will Learn that Progress is Slow

I want to make an important distinction here. Change can sometimes happen quickly, but progress is always slow. Progress in anything worthwhile such as losing weight, gaining muscle, completing a significant project, learning a new skill, implementing a new habit, etc. usually will take at least weeks, and more likely months to years.

Taking up a hobby you enjoy will teach you to be patient and enjoy the process. You know you have found a hobby when the process is just as rewarding at the product. Progress is slow in every meaningful endeavor in life. This could be something to be upset about, or it could just be something to accept. The sooner you begin, and enjoy the process, the sooner your rewards will come. One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Just begin and the mind grows heated; continue, and the task will be completed!”

If your goal is worthwhile, don’t worry about how long it will take. I promise you it will be worth it! (worthwhile = worth your while/time and energy)

So, there are a few reasons to go out and get your hands dirty. What hobbies are you interested in? Until next time…

Why We Must Create and Embrace Discomfort

Life in the modern western world is good. I would argue too good. We are at the point in technology where almost everyone can take out their phone and enjoy endless streams of entertainment, all while taking a brief break to have food delivered to their front door. Not sure that’s what those Sci-Fi movies had in mind for the year 2020 🙂

However, as our lives get easier and easier, something peculiar happens…we get weaker. There are studies showing that grip strength (a major marker of strength and recovery) has been declining over at least the past 30 years.

I am going to make the argument that progress is neutral. Some could make an argument that it is good, and some could make just as convincing an argument that it is bad. But if you really think about it, it’s neither. Let’s look at two very good examples…

Food and Movement

Let’s take a mental trip back in time. Back to, say, 1900. I’m no historian, but I would estimate that the majority of Americans were doing some sort of manual work. We worked outside, we walked, we did laundry by hand, tended our gardens, and built with our own hands.

We were also eating meals at home or at restaurants in our communities, stocked with plant and animal foods that we could all pronounce the names of. I don’t think there were 7-11’s selling sodas and ice cream (not that that would have been a problem as you’ll see).

Fast forward to 2019. We mostly do sedentary work. Innovation, automation, and technology has almost (and will soon) removed the necessity for people to do any manual labor at all. Food is plentiful and readily available. Famine is a relic of our distant past. Life is good! Is that a good thing? Yes. Could it also be a bad thing? Yes.

The Gym and Fasting/Calorie Restriction

Napoleon Hill, a success author, has a very famous quote; “Every adversity contains within it the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit”. I would posit that “Every benefit contains within it the seed of an equivalent or greater difficulty”.

What happened to us when we became sedentary and over-fed? Over-fatness and chronic diseases. Heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Now I’m not arguing that these things have a direct one-to-one relationship to our change in lifestyle, but the correlation is rather alarming. When your calorie expenditure goes down (from sedentary living) and your caloric intake goes up (from availability of food), you will begin to gain weight, and with that extra weight comes a greatly increased risk of chronic disease.

But we humans are smart…so we are learning to adapt. Now we interrupt our sedentary lives with trips to the gym and walks on our lunch breaks. We lift weights to make sure we have good bone density and strength. We run 5k’s to keep our hearts healthy and engage in unfortunately fewer opportunities for social interaction. We track what we eat and make sure not to eat too much.

Self-Imposed Discomfort

All of the remedies mentioned above are self-imposed discomfort. It feels better (if only momentarily) to lay around and watch TV than go to the gym. It feels better to eat whatever we want whenever we want than to pay attention to what we eat.

Whenever our lives get better and easier, we have to find ways to induce balance back into our lives, or “too much of a good thing” begins to harm us.

It is a personal prediction of mine that as the need for traditional work dwindles away, we will need to find ways to challenge our minds in productive ways. I think this could take place in the increase of interest in hobbies (learning instruments, crafts, art, any creative endeavor really).

As I have said in other articles, it is all about balance. Whenever our lives get easier, we have to find ways to self-impose discipline and restraint in order to continue leading a happy life.

Until next time…

How to Be Calm (4 Simple Strategies)

Being calm is sometimes an anomaly. It seems the exact moment we need to be calm is the moment we can least attain it. It doesn’t really matter if you are calm while watching TV, but it really matters if you are calm when the guy in front of you at the supermarket starts screaming at his wife and motioning like he is going to hit her.

I am a teacher. Most days are rewarding and even fun. But some days are bad. Rotten. It seems that people (adults and kids) have the sole purpose of pushing you to your wits end. I am no saint. I have lost my cool too many times to count. But I guess that has lead me to noticing those occasions when I can remain calm amidst obnoxiousness, yelling, and even fighting.

Examine your Beliefs

Beliefs are tricky things. A lot of times we think we believe something, but we really don’t. Do you believe that being calm is the best way to diffuse a difficult situation? How can you tell? When one arises! Once we lose our cool all reason goes out the window, so thinking about what we do in that moment really isn’t useful.

But imagine you are watching TV and an asshole character is about to get punched. Do you get excited? If so, you may not actually believe in non-violence. It may just be a politically correct thing you say to fit in. Have I ever wanted to see some jerk get a jab to the face? You betcha! But over time, I have learned that every person has rights and human dignity that we should respect. We don’t have to like them, but we should respect them. And that means not punching them in the face! (physically or verbally) 🙂

Be Fit

As I have written in many other articles, fitness does so much for your life and happiness that the benefits are seemingly infinite. Fitness-specific benefits such as a lower resting heart rate and high heart rate variability allow your body to become more resistant to stress (ahhh, there’s that concept of acute vs. chronic stress again). It will just biologically take more to send a fit body into “fight or flight mode”…the place where the majority of bad decisions are made.

Ever notice how very muscular men (over the age of 30) are usually very kind and gentle? It’s because they have nothing to prove! Just by their physique, you can see that they could punch you into next week. Especially for men, a muscular physique can allow people to become more calm around you. It is as if they know you have discipline and self-control and are less likely to be impulsive. Conversely, how many of us know the loud-mouthed toothpick jerk?

Eat Well

Diet is a finicky thing. Advice for one person would be outrageous for another. Imagine telling a sedentary person to eat 400g carbs a day! When our body is properly fueled, we are better able to deal with life’s inevitable stressors. Don’t believe me? Go on an 18 hour fast and then find an annoying person. Watch your level of irritation triple what it would normally be.

If we are active (and we should be) these are some good basic guidelines for proper fueling:

  • On active (i.e. workout) days:
    • 1g protein per pound of bodyweight
    • 1.5 – 2g carbs per pound of bodyweight carbs
    • Rest of the calories – fat
  • On rest days:
    • 1g protein per pound of bodyweight
    • 0 – 1g carbs per pound of bodyweight
    • Rest of the calories – fat

As far as calories go, this is a rough guideline:

  • Sedentary Days: 12-14 calories per pound of bodyweight
  • Easy / Moderate Workout Days: 14 – 16 calories per pound of body weight
  • Hard Workouts: 18 – 20 calories per pound of bodyweight

Centering Strategies

If we have the right beliefs, are fit, and are fueled properly, we will be able to be calm in most circumstances.

It helps though, to have ways to center ourselves. Particularly if we know we are about to enter a difficult situation. Some methods that I have found effective are:

  • Box Breathing: Inhale, hold, exhale.
  • Rhythmic Breathing: Taking deep, controlled breaths.
  • Listening to calming music.
  • Light Movement: Pacing, slow gentle fidgeting, etc.

Well, those are the methods I have found very effective in making me more calm. What are your experiences?

Until next time…

The Importance of Space

I am a teacher. You probably hear teachers all over humming “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” around this time…SUMMER BREAK (unless you have year round school :-))!

Some days I wonder why I decided to go into this profession. Other days I am almost overwhelmed with gratitude that I get to earn money in such an agreeable way. One of my favorite things about being a teacher is the time off.

Surprise, surprise, I know! But seriously, the time off is not so much about not having to teach (although that is a welcome break too), but about infusing space in what is often a super cluttered world.

I think we have all had the experience of a stall of ideas and energy that suddenly begins to flow once we have a chance to relax and breathe. Much like exercise, if we continually provide a stimulus (training) without adequate recovery (sleep, relaxation, and food) we begin to accumulate fatigue. Similarly, if at all possible, we need to balance our mental-emotional training (work) with recovery (time with friends and family, drinks (in moderation), walks in the park, naps, video games, watching TV, hobbies, and just plain doing nothing!). I think we will find that a lot of our “problems of practice” will begin to unearth solutions once we can take our stimulation level down.

As with all things, balance is key. If we do not work enough, we become sluggish and less sharp. On the other hand, if we work too much, we ALSO get sluggish and less sharp! I think there is a universal truth pervading these ideas, one that is not so popular in American culture at the moment. The principle that life is cyclical. Every season is not (and should not be) a season of growth. Imagine a world with eternal summer. The trees and flowers would be begging for rain! Imagine an eternal winter. Nothing would grow! I think the same is true in our lives. We go through cycles of being super productive, and cycles of being less productive. Each is part of a bigger natural cycle that provides us with difficulties so we can find new ways of looking at and interacting with the world, and opportunities so that we can grow.

I think Jim Rohn said it best when he says “Six thousand years of recorded history reads like this: difficulty mixed with opportunity”. Sometimes there is more difficulty than opportunity, and sometimes there is more opportunity than difficulty. We don’t need to be uselessly optimistic and say we like difficulty. We don’t like difficulty any more than we like having a cold. Perhaps the best we can do is find a way to accept difficulty and look for opportunities to become stronger and wiser when our season of rest reappears.

Taking (or creating) space to balance stimulation and rest is a sure fire way to lead a happier life. What season are you in?

Until next time…

The Importance of Balancing Recovery and Stress

Lately I have been BUSY. It seems that on top of the normal work day, lots of errands and other responsibilities piled up too. Now, this isn’t that big of a problem, but throwing training on top of a markedly increased daily activity level can do a number on recovery. Just to give you an idea…I took 20,254 steps one day, 19,326 another day, 16, 574 another, and 14,196 on another day. This is all in the span of one week…on top of my normal training routine. Needless to say, my recovery has taken a big hit. I have been trying to eat to support all of the activity, but you can only eat yourself out of so big a hole.

So I decided that it was time for some rest and a little less training stress. When we take a break from training, we naturally begin to lose fitness. If we just take days off, we can lose some of the work capacity and skill that we recently gained. I have been happy with my progress lately, and I don’t want to risk losing gains because of a busy schedule at work.

This is where light training comes in. Light training is NOT meant to overload your body, but is meant to ensure that you preserve your recent fitness gains. Usually a light day will have about half as much volume as your normal training and almost as much (maybe 90% or so) of your normal intensity level.

So this morning I did a light workout and it felt great! I got enough time in the gym that I felt productive and energized, but didn’t push myself far enough that I felt more fatigued afterward.

We can accrue stress from a variety of sources. Most people automatically categorize stress as bad, but in most cases, acute stress is actually a great thing. These short-lived times of discomfort (such as a challenging workout or an occasional rough day at work) provide a stimulus to our bodies that, if we know how to recover, make us stronger and better able to handle the next challenge.

Chronic stress on the other hand deserves all of the negative press that it gets. A relationship that is a continual drain, a job that pushes us to emotional and mental limits consistently, and the like, ARE NOT THINGS THAT MAKE US BETTER! They slowly destroy us. We have to do our best to find a way to leave the situation, change it for the better, or do our best to stay present and not accumulate unfavorable fatigue.

Well…I hope you found something here that helped you out! Until next time…

My Workout 5/7/19

Being out of shape can mean so many different things. This weekend I did a 20 mile bike “race”. It was fairly easy. I didn’t go fast, but I was able to keep a reasonable pace despite only training for it in the week leading up to it. I was “out of shape” for that race. One thing that I have noticed is that my cardio ability takes a big hit once I stop training. As far as strength goes (NOT work capacity), it can stay, in my experience, for weeks to almost a month with little or no training. Not so with cardio. The moment I stop training, my ability begins to decline quickly.

Anyway, I say that to say that my goals have changed a little bit. As far as the gym goes, I am mostly focusing on my upper body work capacity. This means a good deal of volume. For my lower body, I plan on doing steady state cardio interspersed with some HIIT. At the moment, I am not interested in growing my legs at all, so I feel comfortable backing off training them with weights for a little bit. For me, during the summer and fall, participating in 5k’s, going on long walks and hikes, and bike races are much more exciting!

So for my workout today I am getting my body revved up for some increased volume. I am starting out with 3 sets of each exercise, and hopefully over the next month or two will bump that up to about six sets. I use the Strong App to track my workouts. It is great because I can track everything as I go, and there is an awesome rest timer so I can be pretty exact on seeing how I am (or am not) improving that week/session. Below is a screen shot of my workout minus the 3 sets of machine back extensions with 250 lbs.

I have been inconsistent and training with a much lower volume lately. So since my goal is increasing my work capacity, I am mostly getting a feel for the set and rep schemes that will be the best for building off of. I will probably keep my bench weight the same and go for 3×8 and then up my rep numbers for the lat pull-down. I’ll also probably start the next sets of rows with 115 lbs.

Until next time…

My One-Month Experience with Meditation

I have “known about” meditation for a number of years. My introduction probably started with reading books by Thich Nhat Hanh when I was in college 10 years ago. I never had a serious meditation practice though. I would attend a yoga class here or there and try following my breathing here and there, but never consistently. “Consistency is key” really rings true in my experience as within just one month of a 5-20 minute daily meditation practice, I have noticed some real benefits.

I Can Re-Center More Easily

The biggest and most impressive benefit I have noticed is “coming back to myself” quicker when confronted with a difficult situation, thought, or feeling. It is almost as if I can feel myself being pulled out of relative mindfulness, and it is easier to get back into it. I work as a middle school teacher so there are literally hundreds of moments of distraction in any given day. I am noticing that although I may still feel nervous, anxious, angry, etc., it is easier for me to notice and (depending on the weight of the situation) pull myself out of it by using a meditation anchor (breath, quotes/mantras, feeling the inner body).

I Look Forward to My Meditation Practice

This was quite unexpected at first but makes complete sense. I guess on a deeper level I can see the benefits in my life and don’t want to miss an opportunity to deepen my practice. I often find myself getting excited thinking about my 5-20 minutes of meditation like you would get excited about a concert or a nice dinner.

Meditation has Deepened other Areas of my Life

I began to notice rather quickly that I had more energy and willpower in other areas of my life (such as working out consistently and staying on top of my nutrition). Perhaps it is a positive feedback loop, but I began to make beneficial choices with relative ease (of course knowing what changes to make is a key part of that).

How I have been Meditating

My main practice is centered around guided meditations. I find body scans and following breathing to be the most beneficial. I have been using a number of apps this month, but my favorite has become the “Calm” app. Although the meditations often discuss ideas and content at the end, they always begin with some form of centering meditation. As I said earlier, most are 5-20 minutes long and I do them each night before bed (which doubles as a great way to wind down after the day).

Well, that has been my experience thus far with meditating consistently for one month. I look forward to talking more about my experience after 3, 6, and 12 months as well! Until next time…