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Always Look on the Bright Side of . . . Life

With echoes of Monty Python running through my head I read through the second chapter of the Heath brothers’ Switch fascinated by an idea that was so obvious and clear as to be routinely ignored: find what works and do more of it.

*plants palm firmly in center of forehead making a distinct slapping sound*

Of course. Why focus on problems if solutions are right next to you? The subtitle of this book is “How to Change When Change is Hard”, and this first lesson hits you like, “Why didn’t I think about that?”

To back up, the Heaths explain that our behavior is governed by two independent forces that are complementary, but not always complimentary. That is, they complete each other, but don’t always cooperate. These forces are our executive function or logical thinking, and our emotional motivation. Without our reasoning brain to solve a problem and find the path, our emotional energy will flail around. Without the motivation and drive of our emotions, our executive function will spin its wheels and never get started. The Heaths borrow a metaphor of an elephant and its rider. The elephant represents the tremendous power of our emotional motivation, but it needs direction from the rider. The rider knows where to go, but needs the elephant’s power to get there. The first section of the book explores how to get the Rider to most efficiently create a winning plan. This is a plan that is reasonable, rational, but most importantly, accessible to the Elephant.

The first technique is to find what already works and copy it. They call it finding the bright spots, and give some great examples of it in action. My favorite came from a children’s malnutrition project. Plenty of expert “Riders” had already assessed the situation and found it too difficult to solve. The malnutrition came from insurmountable structural problems: poverty, lack of sanitation, no clean water, etc. These problems would not go away overnight because they were large in scale and complicated. A new team went to one particular village to investigate. They asked a simple question, “Is this problem universal, affecting everyone equally, or are some people able to get around it and raise healthy children despite the odds?” What they found was that some families in the same circumstances did have healthy children. With the same resources, they were getting better results. The investigators had found a “bright spot”. They followed them around to see what they did differently. Instead of two meals a day like the adults, these families fed their kids more often. And they used a couple of ingredients not usually thought of as appropriate for kids, some leafy greens and shrimp. These few ingredient changes increased both the calorie density and nutrient density of the food and resulted in healthy children. Once this strategy was shared, other families got the same results.

Amazing, isn’t it? The reasoning brain would get stuck at the big problems, but by showing it a practical solution, it can focus on the details. Seeing that success is possible, the emotional side is motivated by the good feelings that success creates. In these villages, Elephants and Riders worked together to improve the health of the children.

So the take home message is to find the bright spots. What has worked in the past? Why did it work? Can we do more of that? Right now I’m tempted to try anaerobic workouts again. I’ve been building my aerobic base for awhile, and I want to get faster. But my bright spot is the Maffetone method, not anaerobic running or cycling. What I need now is better climbing, so I will combine the methods. I will find some hills to climb and climb more and more, but I will keep it aerobic. This way I practice what needs improving, climbing, in a similar way to traditional interval training. But I will keep the intensity aerobic. My thinking is that this way I can build strength in my aerobic slow twitch muscle fibers to climb faster, and do it without the added recovery demands and increased overtraining risk from anaerobic training. At least for one more month. In June I may need to find a new bright spot.


Vacation and Circadian Rhythms

I was very impressed by a blog re-post over at happyhealthylonglife about trying to match your daily schedule to the body’s circadian rhythms. Impressed, as in I kept thinking about it long after I read it in my RSS reader. Using the levels of various hormones as they ebb and flow, there may be best and worst times of the day for certain activities. I thought about it enough that I went back to find the post and copied out by hand the schedule so I could reflect on it more. What I found is that it  resembles the schedule I follow during summer, when school is not in session. It takes me a while to transition from the public school routine to what my family calls “summering”. Yes, we turn “summer” into a verb. It is an action of maximizing the enjoyment of every summer day. With no alarms or bells ringing, my day gradually becomes more like this circadian ideal. Now that I have a more sepcific research based version, I am going to experiment with following it more closely whenever I can. The point of the original post is to maximize productivity by doing the tasks that are best suited to certain times of the day. Since it is spring break for me this week, I am experimenting with it right now. This summer I hope to get into my circadian rhythm right away, so I can take my “summering” to another level.

So an ideal circadian day might look like this:

7 AM Wake

7-9 AM Socializing time. Ever notice that morning radio is mostly talk? And coffee junkies chat while getting coffee? How many people check social media right away?

9-11 AM Brain Time: the best time for the most intense creative or intellectual work.

11 AM- 2 PM Errands and to-do list tasks. Good blend of mental and physical ability. This is when I do my training in summer, so that my post workout recovery is  . . .

2 -3 PM Lunch and a nap

3-6 PM Routine tasks or exercise session #2. The brain is done, so things that don’t take a lot of concentration are ideal.

6-8 PM Dinner

8-10 PM wind down, read, watch movies. Stay away from the computer! Close proximity to a bright monitor interferes with sleep.

I find that in summer, my meal times gradually drift later for all three meals and get closer to this plan. Mentally I’m sharpest in the morning between breakfast and before my main training session, so that will be my writing time. Like right now.

So the experiment begins. Can this circadian life hack make me more productive or feel better? We’ll see.

Weeknight Success Starts with Weekend Planning


They always get our attention don’t they? And for good reason, they are powerful forces in our life. But we can control them to a much greater degree than many of us actually do. Many people, myself included, have said that we wanted to eat better and healthier, but when the day’s end arrives, the fatigue sets in and myriad versions of convenience food beckon us far more strongly. Only the well prepared can resist such a siren song.
The Bad News: it takes thinking ahead.
The Good News: it really doesn’t take that long.
The Best News: it’s actually fun! Here’s how I do it.

  • Figure out what is season at your local farmer’s market (you do shop at a farmer’s market on the weekends, don’t you?)
  • Brainstorm dishes around those ingredients,and write out a workweek plan.
  • Cook bulk foods over the weekend to be used later in the week.

Et voila! A plethora of things you don’t have to think about! Even if you forgo the farmer’s market, at the market those ingredients will be fresher and cheaper. These are all tricks I learned from my mother and I suspect that they were tricks she learned from her mother. The crux is the planning. It doesn’t take long at all, but with just a little foresight, you can make meals much faster and more economical. If you’re like me , then you already have a list of meals you want to prepare, either old favorites that you’re hungry for, or new ones that beg to be tried. So, combine your recipe list with what’s in season and simplify your planning.

  • Post the recipe list on the fridge, or in electronic format somewhere you can check easily. As recipes get used, or no longer seem appealing, cross them off or delete them.
  • Create an actual written plan from your recipe list. It can always be changed, but if you already have a plan you avoid temptation.
  • Try to combine ingredients, so you can use the same effort for multiple meals. Cook up a big batch of beans for multiple uses.
  • Learn to enjoy leftovers for lunch. That alone is the best thing you can do for eating healthy in my opinion. It’s much easier to scale UP a recipe and use the leftovers than it is to cook constantly.
  • Recognize the rhythm of your weekly schedule. Where do you have time? Where are you crunched? Where do you have the least energy? Where are you most likely to succumb to temptation? Find those moments and plan accordingly.
  • Use your freezer for more than ice cream and ice cubes. Freezing dishes in small containers makes healthy eating much more convenient.
  • Crockpot, CROCKPOT, CROCKPOT! The slow cooker is your friend. It can cook big meals with very little effort on your part.

I like to front load my cooking for the week, doing most of it Sunday and Monday. As the week progresses, my motivation for cooking and healthy eating wanes. Here are a couple of things that I like to use my weekends for besides long rides, runs, and reading Analog and Ellery Queen magazines.

  • I use the crockpot to either cook a big batch of beans for other dishes, or a stew for dinner that can easily be frozen for later.
  • I also bake a batch of potatoes for later meals or snacks. Baked potatoes can be topped with all manner of soups, stews or other side dishes to make a great meal. From chili to a green salad, I’ve done it all.
  • I try to cook different dishes Saturday night, Sunday lunch, Sunday dinner, and Monday dinner that will leave leftovers for weekday lunches.

For instance, this weekend I’m cooking batches of black beans and garbanzo beans for dishes later this week. Maybe I’ll make some hummus too. I’ll also bake some potatoes, and make a stew. This bounty will last me the week and keep me from coming in after a workout at dinner time, starved and fiending for some unhealthy food. After all, what’s more convenient than what is already in the fridge?