Mindweek Mini – Scheduling Update and Thoughts on Flow

Firstly I want to say a massive thank you to everyone who is following, reading and sharing the blog. It means a lot to have this support and I’ve really enjoyed hearing about some of the things I’ve helped inspire people to do. Please keep feedback and comments coming!

Today I want to let you know about some changes I’m making to the frequency and nature of the posts on here. The ‘Midweek Mini’ will be replaced by a couple of slightly longer and more detailed posts at the start and end of the week and the longer form posts will come every couple of weeks rather than weekly.

The thinking behind this is that it will allow me to cover more topics in reasonable detail and elaborate on the most interesting and helpful stuff with less time pressure to put out 2000+ words a week. We’ll see how we get on though!

The other topic I wanted to broach with you today is flow. I’m not talking about flow in the sense of what Biggie, Eminem and Jay Z can do with their mouths, I’m talking about a concept that has been around for thousands of years.

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Flow is described by the man who literally wrote the book on it, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, as “A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter”.

Those who have achieved a state of Flow report that it produces a feeling of intense concentration, effortlessness and control. They say they get immediate feedback on the task at hand with a reduced sense of time passing and any self-doubt or self-consciousness disappear. Sounds nice doesn’t it?

I’ve been aware of Flow in this sense for a while but keep hearing more and more about how it has helped sports stars, business people and artists get ‘in the zone’ and tap in to unrealised potential to maximise their performance.

As I’ve heard it talked about more and more, I’ve gotten more and more interested. The more I learn about it, the more interested I get. I’ll go in to more detail on this in my next post.

How Mindset, Perspective and Focus can dramatically increase your motivation to get healthy

I used to work out a lot when I was younger. My goal was to look the way Brad Pitt does in Fight Club. I never managed to do it, probably because I’d go to the gym for a few months and then get side-tracked, feel like I wasn’t putting on muscle fast enough or decide that I needed that gym membership money for delicious, delicious beer instead.

Recently though, I’ve gotten back in to it with a completely different perspective. I’m a Dad of 3 and they’re all boys and they won’t stop getting bigger and stronger. So I’m back in the gym, making sure I can keep up with them.

I’m highly motivated and feel stronger and happier in myself than I have for a long time. My perspective on the gym is totally different now than when I was a younger man and I want to talk to you about why that’s a good thing and what I’ve learned from the experience.

Modern society is obsessed with looks. We might not want to admit it, but we are. I do love the Marvel films (and to a far, far lesser extent, the DC ones) but can’t deny that the superhero movie genre has helped to promote an image of both men and women that is far removed from what most of us will ever achieve.

On our TVs, reality shows and music videos are filled with buff dudes and women that look like they need a slap and a burger (to use my wife’s phrase), with the songs themselves littered with references to various body parts being somehow described as both “tight” and “thick” at the same time. Like a well-wrapped gammon joint?

One of the most popular shows in the UK (and a few other countries too, thanks ITV) is Love Island. The show consists of a bunch of single men and women, all near perfectly proportioned, being thrown together on a hot island somewhere, wearing very few clothes and awkwardly trying to fuck each other for a few weeks. I don’t watch it, but I think that’s the gist.

If you’ve ever Googled anything about exercise of gym memberships, chances are every other ad you see on Facebook or YouTube will be someone who looks like they were carved out of solid marble telling you about their way to look like they do, whether it’s CrossFit, calisthenics or that awful Huel stuff. You know why they call it Huel don’t you? It’s meant to mean Human Fuel. That’s right – IT’S MADE OUT OF HUMANS.

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So what do normal folks like us do in the face of all this human ‘perfection’? We look at them and we look at ourselves and we think “I should look like them”. So we join a gym or get some workout videos to do at home or try and go for a good old fashioned run. The most popular of these options would be joining a gym.

Fun fact: in the UK alone we waste over £500m every year on unused gym memberships. 11% of people with an active gym membership say they haven’t been FOR A YEAR. Over 20% say they’ve been 3 times or LESS in the last year. It’s worse in the US where one article I found suggested that a whopping 67% of gym memberships in the US have NEVER been used at all.

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Clearly there is a problem here. Huge numbers of people who sign up with the best intentions waste a lot of money and probably end up even more despondent about their looks than they did before. Why does this happen?

Well, the most common reasons include; not getting the results they want (be it losing weight, tightening up or putting on muscle) self-consciousness, boredom and lack of energy and enthusiasm. What do these reasons say to you? That exercising is hard and people are lazy? Whilst I’m not going to disagree with you, I think these reasons tell a different story. I think people are signing up to gyms for the wrong reasons.

I’m going to propose that there are two main categories of people that sign up for gyms, and if you’re in the first category then you could well end up being amongst the ones that waste their cash on unused memberships. If you’re in the second category, however, you’re much more likely to stick with it in the face of any of the aforementioned circumstances.

The first category of people sign up because they want to look different, more like the sculpted and airbrushed versions of people they see everywhere they look. They buy in to the fact that if they follow the latest fad diet or work out like Chris Hemsworth for 4 weeks then they’ll be sorted. This doesn’t happen, obviously. It was never going to either because they have jobs or families or other real life shit going on and can’t train 16 hours a day and buy all the ‘magic Hollywood syringes*’ they want. And then they give up.

*Disclaimer: I am not accusing Chris Hemsworth of anything other than being the buffest cyclops since that one at the end of Hercules.

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The second category of people approach exercise differently, and I’ll reference one of my earlier posts here about Mindset. These guys have a growth mindset towards exercising. They are not training just to lose weight or look like a superhero, they are training to run a marathon, to get promoted from the reserves to the first team, to be healthier, live longer or just for the pure enjoyment of it.

Compared to those training for looks, people who are training for growth reasons give only tiny fractions of shits about how they (or other people) might look, because they are much more focused on their journey than anything else. Training for aesthetic reasons places your focus on the wrong thing. Rather than train parts of your body, you’re much better off training your determination, your strength, speed, agility, endurance, grit, focus and commitment instead.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to exercise just because you want to look different. I’m saying that it’s much harder to maintain this type of training over time, and refocusing on progression and self-improvement makes it less likely that you’ll give up for the reasons listed.

Let’s have another look at the reasons for quitting I listed earlier and think about how they are perceived differently when your focus is on improving in a non-aesthetic way.

Not getting the results you want

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OK I’m not going to beat you over the head too much more with this but it’s worth saying again that if you’re training to look different and you don’t look any different after a month, you’ll probably want to throw in the towel.

The wonderful thing about training an aspect of yourself though, whether it’s your strength, your speed over 5 kilometers or how many sit ups you can do before you shit yourself, is that you can measure exactly the results you are getting, and you have the ability to step away from it if you’re not moving in the right direction and think about what else you could try.

When you ask yourself “what else could I try?” you’d rather the answer wasn’t “liposuction” right?

Self-consciousness

Training for growth or progression really helps to minimise the extent to which you feel self-conscious about training. Trying to exercise when you’re surrounded by people who look more like how you want to look than you do can really bum you out.

But exercising around a bunch of people who can’t possibly know how you are performing vs yourself from last week means you don’t really give a shit how they look or what they think. You’re focused on you, not them.

Boredom

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Every time you push that extra rep out at the end of a set, every time you feel strong enough to add another little plate to the bar, every time you shave a few seconds off your personal best, every time you sprint up a flight of stairs, every time you stop and realise just how healthy and confident you feel.

I’ll take “exciting little moments you can experience when training to get better at something” for 200 please.

Lack of energy and enthusiasm

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I’ll also take “moments that help maintain your enthusiasm for training” for 500! See above.

Enthusiasm shouldn’t be a big problem as you track and monitor your progress, but lack of energy could be an issue still. Not as much so if you’re training for looks, as this type of training can make you more likely to lean towards overtraining if you’re really going for it, but you’ll probably still feel knackered from time to time.

This is where the mindset and perspective of training for progression can benefit you. You can take a week off to recuperate and know that you’re doing it to benefit your overall training goals. You won’t experience guilt from not working out and you’re more likely to take the initiative on things like extra rest (going to bed earlier) or changing up your diet to increase your energy levels as those things also fall in line with your mission to improve whatever characteristic you are training for.

Here it is in a nutshell: if you are training to look a certain way then you are more likely to give up, but if you are training to be a certain way, you are much more likely to succeed. Competing against every idealised image out there is too big of a task for most people. It is de-motivating, bordering on depressing. Competing against yourself, by contrast, is measurable, focused and empowering. Plus you always win, one way or the other.

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So there you have it. If you’re wondering what my training programme looks like, it’s not complicated but it is highly focused. I do 15 minutes of cardio to warm up, 15 minutes of stretches for flexibility and preventing injuries, then I follow Joe Wendler’s 5-3-1 programme but condense it so I do two exercised per session over two sessions each week, rather than four sessions per week each focused on one exercise. Then some core work for stability and warm down and I’m out in about an hour and fifteen.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether you already use this approach to exercise or whether it’s something you think could benefit you. If you want to find more information on the Wendler programme I mentioned, you can find it here.

What to do when you Fall off the Horse (and you will).

Right, first things first, this post is late. It’s crashing through the front door at 3.30 in the morning when it promised it was only going out for “a couple of drinks with the work lot” and would be “back at 11 at the absolute latest I swear”.

Why is it late? Because I fell off the horse. No, I didn’t get smashed and come home in the early hours making shitty excuses like I lost track of time or my phone ran out of battery or they made me do shots, what am I supposed to do? Those bastards.

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I fell off the horse that I sat proudly atop when I started this blog. The one I’ve been carefully feeding and grooming and training for the past 2 years. That horse is my mission to constantly work to improve every aspect of myself.

Your horse could be a diet, an objective or outcome-based goal or a different attitude or outlook. Change and growth is not easy. Very few things worth doing in life are easy.

This isn’t the first time I’ve fallen off the horse and it won’t be the last. Chances are you’ll do the same thing a few times along the way too.

I’m going to share with you my 4 step plan for getting back on my horse, maybe there’s something there you can use if you have a shitty day, week, month or whatever to get back on track.

1. Allow yourself to fall off the horse

This is the most important thing, and it’s something I wasn’t always very good at. You’ve got to have some compassion for yourself and realise that you’re human and getting off track is just part of the journey.

If you can’t allow yourself the odd failure then you’ll end up allowing yourself to slump back in to inertia. Then self-doubt will creep in and strangle your ambition and you’ll end up going backwards.

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You’re better than that, as long as you want to be.

Chalk it up to experience (as they say) and resolve to get back on that horse as quickly as possible using the rest of the steps below.

2. Re-establish your mindset

So once you’ve made friends with yourself again you’ll want to re-establish your mindset. Remember the reasons why you started pursuing your goal or decided to try things a little differently. Write them down if that helps.

Compare the feelings you had before you decided to get back on the wagon (disappointment, frustration, fear) with the feelings you had when you were on it (excitement, enthusiasm, motivation). Decide which person you want to be and you’ll be ready.

3. Reinstate your routine

Just like when you first start out chasing ambition, don’t wait for motivation to poke its head out from behind a tree and blow you a kiss. Don’t let past behaviours or the opinions of others hold you back.

Maybe you used to get up and go for a run in the morning 3 times a week but haven’t done so for a month? There is no other option save just getting up and doing it again one morning. Your body will resist at first, sure. You’ll have to drag it kicking and screaming out the door the first few times, but it gets easier every time.

World's Toughest Rodeo
1/13/2012, Wells Fargo Arena

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Perhaps you’ve been dieting for months but had a blowout week or two? The office summer bash falling on the same week that Linda turns ‘Naughty 40’ AND your old drinking buddies are in town for the weekend? Yeah, you’re not getting through that lot without drinking enough to fill the Adriatic are you?

To be honest it’s probably done you some good blowing off steam like that, but once you start counting those calories and watching your booze intake again you’ll notice very quickly how much better you feel and why you’re glad you only see your old drinking buddies every 6 months now.

Or it could be that you’ve been doing really well managing stress, anxiety or anger issues but have let yourself regress to a point where you’re not in control of it any more. That’s fine too. You’re waging a titanic war and are bound to lose the odd battle here and there.

If this is the case, go back to basics with managing it and be honest with those closest to you so they can support you too. I’m not a mental health professional so I’m not going to go in to detail here but I do have to keep an eye on my anger and when I feel like I’m starting to lose control of it I focus on other things to try and direct that energy elsewhere.

For example – if I start getting angry at my kids, I try and focus on how much I love them and how amazing they are, so I start from there and any anger gets swallowed up by that love.

If I start to feel angry about stuff I feel I’m missing out on, I focus on feeling gratitude for what I have and the anger is dwarfed by that gratitude.

If I start to feel angry or frustrated about work, I focus on trying to make changes and helping those around me instead. If you’re in a job that’s making you angry and you don’t feel like there’s anything you can do to change things, then fucking quit and find another job.

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4. Shut the doors and windows

This is the final thing you need to do in order to get fully saddled up again. The phrase ‘shut the doors and windows’ comes from a great little book about selling called ‘The Wideboys Handbook’ that I read a few years back. Don’t let the title put you off, if you work in sales it’s definitely worth a look and you can probably pick it up for about a quid on Amazon now.

What I mean when I say ‘shut the doors and windows’ is that you should find a way to stop yourself falling off the horse in the same way again.

This may mean that you stop hanging out with certain people as much as you did before. It may mean you resolve to not keep junk food in the house. It may mean committing to developing a new behaviour to help train you out of old tendencies.

Do whatever you feel you need to do to minimise the risk of this happening again. This is a really positive step as it turns the whole episode in to a learning experience and can improve your chances of success dramatically in the long run.

So there it is, my 4 step plan for getting back on the horse. Again, this is almost certainly going to happen to you at some point if you’re pursuing a self-improvement type objective. It’s not the end of the world, you can jump back on and rejoin the rodeo in no time.

Now go ride ’em, cowboy!

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Midweek Mini: why I don’t use the term ‘Self Help’.

‘Self Help’ is one of a few terms that are used interchangeably to describe the field that this blog concerns. Others are ‘self-improvement’, ‘personal development’ and ‘personal growth’. You might think that these all mean pretty much the same thing. I respectfully disagree.

All of the two-word terms I mentioned just now may look similar, the first half of each of them are certainly interchangeable, but does ‘help’ have a different connotation to ‘improvement’, ‘development’ and ‘growth’?

I think so. ‘Help’ implies that you’re in trouble, that you need ‘saving’. Whilst this may be true for some seeking to change for the better, it doesn’t have to be.

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In fact I’d argue that if more of the principles of personal development, growth or improvement were taught to children at a young age, there would be less adults in the world who feel they need ‘self-help’.

What do you think? Am I on to something? Or am I talking out my arse again?

Mindset: The Basics

Mindset is, for me, one of the absolute foundations of improving yourself. By that I mean your mindset can determine how successful you are in pursuing any avenue of self-development, and setting out with the wrong mindset will scupper every effort you make to learn and then act on that learning.

Why is mindset so important? The answer starts to make sense when you look at the two different forms of mindset commonly referred to in this field – fixed and growth. Can you guess which one is the one we want to adopt for ourselves? No prizes for getting the answer right. Let’s look at the other one first though, see if anything sounds familiar.

A fixed mindset is just as the name implies – a mind that is fixed in its definitions of things (like ‘success’ or ‘happiness’ for example) and also fixed in its understanding of itself and others. Someone speaking from a fixed mindset might say something like “there’s no way I could do that”, “I’m just not a creative person” or “Dave was an absolute melt back in school, how’s he running his own company now?! Some people get all the luck! I’m so unlucky, nothing like that will ever happen to me”.

What makes this mindset so dangerous is that it fits with how we see the world, often through the lens of social media where everyone puts their best self on show and we compare that to how we’re doing that day and think we come up short. We’re also heavily influenced by the world in how we define success and force ourselves to measure up against that yardstick. Very often, deep down we will have a different definition of success but we keep quiet about it because it’s clearly the wrong definition and we don’t want to look silly in front of the actually successful people. The other thing with a fixed mindset is that it’s self-fulfilling and therefore hard to break out of. We assume our lack of creativity is hardwired, so we never bother trying to train ourselves to be more creative. What would be the point of that, right? Might as well train ourselves to levitate or shoot lasers from our eyes! Pointless.

Bollocks, say I (and many others). What if, going back to the questions from a couple of paragraphs above, there was another way to view things? What if we asked different questions like “if I was to do that, how would I go about it?”, “why can’t I be a creative person?” and “I should get in touch with Dave for a catch up, I’m interested to find out how he got to where he is from being a complete and utter twonk back in school”. OK, that last one isn’t a question, but you take my point. This is how the growth mindset thinks and sees the world.

The growth mindset is not interested in limitations, it is unfazed by the achievements of others and it is constantly looking for opportunities to learn and develop. What’s more, the growth mindset is backed by a strong belief that, with the application of effort, you can achieve whatever goal you set yourself, you can learn any new skill if you put in the time and focus and that others can do the same. If you can adopt a growth mindset you will be forever open to new opportunities to see, do and learn something new. You’ll have the confidence to set goals, plan your way to achieving them and then put that plan in to action. I’m not saying you’ll immediately be the next Elon Musk, but you will be a step closer, if that’s what you ultimately want.

Where a fixed mindset is frustrated by your lack of natural talent for something, the growth mindset looks for a way to learn to be talented. All talent is, really, is a skill that someone has developed through hard work and practice, you just don’t always see the hard work and practice, just the end result. Yes, some people are gifted at certain things, but without hard work and long hours, they will never rise to the top of their field among the most talented.

In fact some of the most ‘gifted’ figures in history were forged through many long, hard years and countless knock-backs before getting to where they wanted to be. Einstein hated most of his school years and failed on his first attempt to study physics at University. Morgan Freeman, a ferocious natural talent, had to put in decades of hard graft before hitting the big time. Or how about Steve Jobs getting fired from Apple in 1985 to then be re-hired to save the company a full 12 years later?

Granted, not all talented, successful individuals have quite as bumpy a ride to the top, but I promise you that each and every one of them possesses the growth mindset, and that this mindset has been fundamental to their success. If you don’t feel like you possess it, but you want to, then I have good news – you can. It probably won’t happen overnight, but here are a few exercises you can do to start shifting your focus;

  1. Ban the word “can’t” from your vocabulary. There is a way. “Can’t” means you choose not to. Also, if you choose not to do something, that’s OK. Make peace with your reasons and move on.
  2. Ask yourself more questions that start with words like “how” or “if”, as in “how can I be more independent?” or “if I was going to start a business, what would it look like?” – do this the next time you start wishing for something. Stop wishing, start planning.
  3. If there is something that you’ve been wanting to do but telling yourself you can’t – set some time aside to practice. Perhaps you want to create something or learn a new skill. Consider what would be a realistic amount of time that you could devote to it, an hour one evening maybe, and keep that appointment with yourself. Tell your husband, wife, brother, mother, cat, whoever you live with, so they can help make sure you get that time.
  4. Remember there is no pressure from anywhere to do any self-directed learning. It’s entirely down to you making that investment in yourself.

That’s it for this post, it’s a bit longer than I planned it to be, sorry. Next week we’ll talk about setting goals and where a lot of people go wrong. Thanks for reading, see you soon!