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Category: Habits

My Writing Habit Review

My Writing Habit Review

At the start of the month, I wrote out a habit plan inspired by one of my favourite books, Zen Habits: Mastering the Art of Change. The goal was to develop a daily writing habit of 750 – 800 words.

My Plan

To make the habit simple to begin with, I reduced the core habit to: write for 10 minutes a day.

I then picked a time and a trigger: 6:50am – 7:00am, as soon as I wake up.

I recorded my results each day in my journal, writing down any reasons why I failed if I did. The idea was to understand why I failed and change my approach so I did not fail again.

My Results

To put it bluntly, I failed. I only wrote for 5 out of 31 days.

I didn’t get up once to write in the morning. Straight away I found my mornings too rushed to carve out even 10 minutes to write.

I did manage to write for 5 days in a row, which is more than I had done before I tried the habit. Part of this success completing my core habit on some days, rather than the full habit. Even then, I found those days difficult as I was never satisfied with the core habit, it felt like a cop-out.

I particularly struggled when I had guests staying overnight as I would go out or drink and then not want to write. On these days, I should have excused myself for ten minutes and relied on the core habit.

Once I’d missed a day, I soon started to miss more as breaking the chain of success seemed to put me in a bad mood. Rather than celebrate only missing one day, I gave up.

Finally, I struggled because I didn’t like what I was writing. I felt out of practice at writing fiction and hated a lot of what I typed. I know that’s normal, bit I usually dislike my writing when I edit, so this was new to me.

What I Learned

I learned some valuable lessons trying to start this new habit:

  1. I am not good in the mornings. I don’t get up early enough to write
  2. I put too much pressure on myself to complete the full habit
  3. I need to be ok with missing a day and recovering the next day

I’m trying the same habit again in February. I’ll put what I’ve learned into practice and report again in a month.

100 Things 2017

100 Things 2017

A good while ago I found an article that contained a potentially life-changing idea. Then I forgot about it. I guess potential and life-changing need separating out a little. Despite this, the idea was kicking around in the depths of my mind for a while and this week I set out to give it a try,

Spurred on by the success of my Seven Minutes Exercise experiment, I finally sat down with real motivation to follow Laura Vanderkam’s advice of listing 100 things I want to do. Vanderkam discovered the practice while working on her book 168 Hours and has revisited her list several times.

Here’s her rationale:

“Start writing down a list of all the things you’d like to do during your lifetime. This could include 10 restaurants you’d like to try, 10 financial goals, places you want to visit, etc. Go ahead and include a few you’ve already accomplished, like graduating from college, or having kids. You’ll probably be stumped by the time you get to 100, but if you find brainstorming easy, call it the List of 1000 Dreams and keep going. The point is to shoot for such a big number that you’re not editing yourself. Winning a Nobel Prize in chemistry and maintaining a nice stash of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate covered caramels can all go on there.”

The point, as I see it, is that we can all list a few crazy dreams but writing down 100 means we also have to think about things we want to do and really could if we just got up. It also helps you find your passion as you edit the list over time to remove those you really don’t want enough.

For my part, I’m in no rush to complete these, just like my Library project I’m happy for this to take the rest of my life (in fact one of them has to!). My goal is to achieve at least one dream every six months, so the majority may take 50 to finish.

Here’s the full list, I’ll be keeping it updated at lukemcgrath.co.uk/100 and will blog each time I complete an item and add a link.

    1. Visit New York
    2. Visit Antarctica
    3. Travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway
    4. Visit Japan
    5. Visit San Francisco
    6. Visit Stonehenge
    7. Go to the Northern-most point in the UK
    8. Drive an Aston Martin DB5
    9. Run a marathon
    10. Run an ultra-marathon
    11. Start a Literary Journal
    12. Run a bookshop
    13. Learn a martial art
    14. Learn Italian (again)
    15. Paint a landscape
    16. Finish a Telegraph crossword without help
    17. Get another A at A-Level
    18. Build an app
    19. Find 1,000 true fans
    20. See a show in London
    21. Visit Rome
    22. Visit Athens
    23. Train across Canada
    24. Visit Iceland
    25. Raise money for a cause
    26. Climb Kilimanjaro
    27. Publish a novel
    28. Get a story in The New Yorker
    29. Write a radio play
    30. Write a screenplay
    31. Visit the pyramids
    32. Go to the natural spa in Bath
    33. Try Transcendental Meditation
    34. Drive across America
    35. Visit Easter Island
    36. Tour the Pacific Islands
    37. Visit North Korea
    38. Learn to surf
    39. Learn to scuba dive
    40. Go to space
    41. Buy Notts County FC
    42. Visit the Reform Club
    43. Drive a steam train
    44. Finish Rupert annuals collection
    45. Visit Loch Ness
    46. Visit Cuba
    47. Visit the Grand Canyon
    48. Do a volunteering project
    49. Explore Jesmond Dene
    50. Walk Northumberland
    51. Have Dinner at the Baltic
    52. Visit the Louvre
    53. Get a PhD
    54. See sunrise on seven continents
    55. Experience life without a five-day work week
    56. Build muscle
    57. Finish my Library project
    58. Watch all the essential old films
    59. Direct a short film
    60. Help people through blogging
    61. Give 10% of my earnings to charity
    62. Mentor a writer
    63. See the Northern Lights
    64. Visit Scandinavia
    65. Visit every country on Earth
    66. Write a book about my philosophy
    67. Do a triathlon
    68. Learn to ski
    69. Learn to snowboard
    70. Walk the Inca Trail
    71. Perform random acts of kindness
    72. Visit Kielder Water and see the stars
    73. Lecture an audience
    74. Get a degree in Philosophy
    75. Learn to play piano
    76. Act on stage
    77. Get on tv
    78. Touch a snake
    79. Find a cause
    80. Meet Ruth Lorenzo
    81. Learn photography
    82. Publish a book of poems
    83. Meditate daily
    84. Do a parachute jump
    85. Choose love not fear
    86. Make a YouTube video series
    87. Publish a short story collection
    88. Read all of Haruki Murakami’s books
    89. Read all of Stephen King’s books
    90. Get a morning routine
    91. Go biking
    92. Keep a journal
    93. Learn more about Buddhism
    94. Practice Yoga
    95. Camp out around a fire
    96. Tour Newark castle
    97. Go to the top of Newark parish church
    98. Climb Ben Nevis
    99. Write an epic (long) book
    100. Live in three centuries
My Plans for 2017

My Plans for 2017

At the start of a new year, I always find it interesting to look ahead at the upcoming 12 months and write down my plans for them. Of course, many such plans can change and fail, but I find writing them down and sharing them helps solidify the ideas and gives them a fighting chance of success.

To help me work out what I want from 2017 and what’s most important to me, I wrote down a number of ideas and looked at my list of 100 Things for inspiration. After some revisions, here’s what I landed on:

  • Become a writer
  • Improve my mental health
  • Read 24 books
  • Sleep 7-8 hours a night
  • Drink 5-8 glasses of water every day
  • Weight 10.5-11 stone
  • Get fit

To achieve these, I’ll be using a method I learned from a book called Mastering the Art of Change by Leo Babauta. If you’ve never read the Zen Habits blog before, please go check it out this year.

Part of the method is breaking down the things I want to achieve into teeny, tiny habits that I can’t really fail at. Starting with the goal (above), I work out what habit I need to reach that goal, then make that habit ridiculously easy. Here’s what my list looks like in that format:

Goal: Become a writer
Ideal habit: Write for an hour every day
Starter habit: Write for five minutes a day

Goal: Improve my mental health
Ideal habit: Meditate for ten minutes a day
Starter habit: Mediate for one minute a day

Goal: Read 24 books
Ideal habit: Read two books a month
Starter habit: Read one page a day

Goal: Sleep 7-8 hours a night
Ideal habit: Sleep 8 hours a night
Starter habit: Be in bed 6 hours a night

Goal: Drink 5-8 glasses of water
Ideal habit: Drink 8 glasses of water a day
Starter habit: Drink 1 glass of water a day

Goal: Weigh 10.5 – 11 stone
Idea habit: Eat 3 meals and 2 snacks every day
Starter habit: Eat breakfast every day

Goal: Get fit
Ideal habit: 21 minutes of exercise every day
Starter habit: 1 minute of exercise every day

Each month, I’ll be working on just one habit and after 30 day’s I’ll review my progress before deciding whether the habit is safe enough to move onto the next challenge. I’ll post these reviews on my blog as a way of keeping some public accountability to my year.

What will you do this year?

Today’s featured image is by Bill Ward.

Seven Minute Workout Review

Seven Minute Workout Review

At the start of September I decided to try a seven minute workout once a day and tracked my progress over the month. Here’s my honest review of the routine and the apps I used to develop the exercise habit.

What is the Seven Minute Workout?

The Seven Minute Workout was popularised by a 2013 article in the New York Times written by Gretchen Reynolds. The article drew on a study published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal.

Essentially it’s a short Hight Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) routine for the whole body and works by pushing you incredibly hard with snappy rest breaks of a few seconds between sets. The idea is to get a gym session done in just a few minutes and, according to the research, “allows for opposing muscle groups to alternate between resting and working in subsequent exercise stations.”

It’s worth noting that, while the research states you can benefit from just 4 minutes of this workout and one full circuit takes about 7 minutes, the authors recommend at least 20 minutes of HIIT. To get myself started, I’ve just been doing a single set every day for about a month.

What Exercises Are Involved?

Although there are now many versions of the Seven Minute Workout, the original study suggests 12 complementary “stations” which cover the whole body and a specific order to complete them:

Seven Minute Workout

 

What Apps Can Help?

Thanks to the Seven Minute Workout’s popularity, plenty of smartphone apps exist to help you follow the routine. They vary from sought to polished, independent to corporate.

I looked at several apps and chose one called ‘7 Minute Workout’ from Johnson & Johnson for a few reasons:

  • It has the exact original routine from the study
  • It has excellent demonstration videos
  • It has an audible countdown to your next set
  • I like the trainer’s voice

There are plenty of features in the app I don’t use, including ‘smart’ routines based on your likes and fitness level, exercises beyond the 12 standards and some social media sharing.

As you use the app, it occasionally sends you articles designed to teach you a little about health, fitness and nutrition. These work well and manage to be just the right side of snappy after a tough workout.

As well as the training app, I used my favourite habit tracker Momentum to record every workout I completed over the month.


Does it Work?

The proof is in the pudding, so here are two pictures of me from before and after my 30-day experiment:

I think you can see some progress, which isn’t bad for only seven minutes per day.

My weight has hardly changed over the month, dropping from 10:5.5 to 10:4.4

Weight Chart

My fat mass also dropped slightly from 16% to 15.8%.

Body Mass Chart

 

 

Conclusion

The best thing about this routine is, unsurprisingly, the duration of the workouts. At just seven minutes, it’s easy to fit a session into your day. For the most part, I scheduled mine between putting the kids to bed and making dinner for the night, but where I felt too tired I just squeezed it in before bed. It’s reassuring to know that as long as you start by 11:53pm, you can still tick off another day.

The routine itself, provided you go at it hard enough, leaves you with a post-gym feeling of tight muscles and I tended to feel it in my legs the next day. After just two weeks I noticed myself feeling healthy and standing taller, walking around at work I feel stronger and sturdier than I have since I used to regularly go to the gym.

I recommend this routine to anyone who wants to get a bit healthier but doesn’t want a gym membership or massive time commitment. There’s no equipment needed, no cost and it takes less than ten minutes of your day.

Next up, I’m going to cut the weekly target to five days and not seven and I’m going to change this habit from one-off experiment into a lifestyle choice.

How Important is Sleep?

How Important is Sleep?

Last month, I wrote about how I’d started drinking a healthy amount of water every day. Having given that habit some time to bed into my lifestyle, I decided to add a second habit to my routine.

Continuing my focus on physical and mental wellbeing, I chose to improve my sleep. We all sleep, so this isn’t a case of doing something others aren’t. The challenge here was to find out how much sleep I need for my health, whether I was getting enough and whether I could improve what I was getting.

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

Before trying to set a gold standard for myself to reach each night, I spent some time reading through research into sleep and health.

The first number that springs to mind for most people is probably eight hours a night. This is actually a number more focused on work than sleep, as it comes from Henry Ford’s introduction of the 40-hour work week back in the 1920s. The idea was to carve up the weekdays into three eight-hour periods of work, play and sleep. With eight hours free each day, Ford hoped his workers would spend more money (especially on cars).

Eight hours has persisted, because like all good ideas it’s simple. If we had a 21-hour day, we’d probably all think seven hours each for work, rest and play made sense. Yet, knowing the source and why it’s remained doesn’t make it right.

The purpose of sleep is to recharge mind and body for the following day. So, it makes sense that the amount of time we need to sleep should be the time it takes to do this. According to James Clear, who has looked in-depth at many sleep studies: the tipping point is usually around the 7 or 7.5 hour mark.

Of course, opinions differ. Buffer looked at some sleep research and found that “people who sleep between 6.5 hr. and 7.5 hr. a night, live the longest, are happier and most productive.” In fact, sleep is not one-size-fits-all, as The Sleep Foundation shows with its breakdown of sleep ranges against age.

With all that in mind, it made sense for me to start by targeting seven hours a night to begin with. I’d try this out and see if I felt I needed more or less after a month.

Quality v Quantity

As useful as finding my nightly sleep target was, I knew it was meaningless unless I also focused on the quality of sleep I was getting. My research into sleep quality unearthed some surprising information.

It turns out that not only is the eight-hour sleep myth a recent creation, so is the idea of taking all our sleep at once. As Gabriel Roth explains in his recent article, we used to sleep in two phases before the spread of artificial lighting. Retiring at 9 or 10pm, we’d rise in the early hours to eat, drink and pass the time with our family. We’d head back to Bedfordshire an hour or three later and wake in the morning refreshed.

With that fresh morning feeling in mind, it’s also important to wake up in the right way, or we risk ruining the night’s work. According to research, snoozing in the mornings can be damaging to our sleep health. Closing our eyes again in the morning can send us into deep sleep, which is the hardest to then wake from.

As Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, says:

Taking our waking slow, without the jar of an alarm and with the rhythms of light and biology, may be our best defense against the thoughtlessness of a sleep-addled brain, a way to insure that, when we do wake fully, we are making the most of what our minds have to offer.

Can I Get Seven Hours of Good Sleep?

Tracking time asleep is easy (as long as you look at the clock before you close your eyes), but I wasn’t sure how to track sleep quality. A few friends had recommended using an app called Sleep Cycle so I thought that was a good enough place to start.

Sleep Cycle is simple to use, you just turn it on as you go to bed and leave it under your pillow. In the morning, the app can wake you up at a set time and you get a range of stats about your sleep quality, including:

  • Duration
  • Quality score
  • Mood
  • External factors

Over time, you can build a picture of how healthy your sleep is and what you can do to improve it. For example, after logging 58 nights in bed and 16.1 days of sleep, I can see that:

  • My sleep quality has gradually improved
  • I go to bed at very different times each day
  • I get an average of 7.5 hours sleep
  • My sleep is better when I’ve read and drank water
  • I sleep best and longest at weekends
  • Tuesday night seem to be a problem for getting enough sleep

Over time, this will become more useful as trends begin to emerge I can act on such as ensuring I read before bed and drinking enough water. For now, just having the app is enough to make me conscious of my sleep health, which is the main reason I believe it’s improving.

Do you track your sleep? What have you learned?

P.S. I didn’t use it in this article, but this post on Brain Pickings about famous writers and their sleep habits is incredible: www.brainpickings.org/2013/12/16/writers-wakeup-times-literary-productivity-visualization.

Today’s featured image is Sleeping Tom by Tambako the Jaguar.

How I Started Drinking Enough Water

How I Started Drinking Enough Water

Habits aren’t easy. They take time, effort and concentration to get right. When I decided to start improving my habits I wanted to start with one that meant a lot to me, one that I could focus on and develop a pattern for getting good at making (and keeping) habits.

That’s why I started with water – the source of life. Drinking enough water is associated with both physical and mental well being, two things I know I want to work on in the future. It seemed to me there was really nothing else I could have chosen to begin with.

How Much Water is Enough Water?

As I started this challenge I remembered an article I read a while ago that explained why the common ‘eight glasses a day’ measure of water is wrong . In his article, Aaron E Carroll explains that this is a myth as, although it may be close to the right amount, it doesn’t take into account water consumed through food. In fact, nor does it consider individual body size, diet or exercise regime.

I did some more research and found many of the types of article that Carroll debunks – fluffy articles on getting eight glasses with no reference to science. Then I stumbled on a recent piece from one of my favourite writers, Oliver Burkeman of ‘This Column Will Change Your Life’. In it, he argues that the ‘eight glasses’ guideline remains useful as it forces us to cut out sugary drinks to get in eight glasses of pure water, gets us thinking about how much we drink and going to the bathroom more often keeps us active.

I found a lot of wisdom in these words and in Carroll’s suggestion that our bodies are finely tuned to tell us when we need water – it’s a survival instinct after all. I decided that, for me, drinking about one litre or five glasses a day seemed manageable and healthy. I’d keep my mind open if this didn’t feel right later on.

How Do I Drink Enough Water Every Day?

The short answer is, I don’t. Sometimes I don’t quite get my five glasses, but most days I do. On a technical level, according to Aaron E Carroll, I always get enough because I haven’t yet suffered from fatal dehydration.

That said, I now consider five glasses to be ‘enough’ for me. However, I didn’t start with five, I started with one. And I drank it when I got up, so my habit was done before I left for work. Nothing to worry about for the rest of the day.

After two weeks, I added a second glass. Again, I thought about exactly when I’d drink this glass so it didn’t become a floating obligation. I’d drink my second glass at 11am in place of my usual tea break.

Another two weeks and I added a third glass, this time at lunch. I was now drinking three glasses of water a day before the afternoon really began. I’d gone from hardly ever remember to drink water to over halfway to my target in just six weeks.

As you’d expect, I added my fourth glass in week eight. That’s where things got tough. I found myself feeling full of water by the end of the day, struggling to drink anything in the evenings. My body wasn’t used to the water intake, even though I’d built up slowly. I decided to hold off adding the fifth glass until I was ready for it.

That took longer than I expected, but I now feel able to add my final glass over the next month. Most days I’m already there, so I know I can do it.

What Did I Learn?

The main lesson to take from this experiment is that habit building takes time, but not as much time as you might think. Once I let go of the impatience that told me I should drink eight glasses of water every day, immediately, I found a way to make the habit work for me. With a bit of research, I was able to settle on a healthy and realistic target. And, even though I spaced out the increases in my routine, I was able to go from no regular water intake to one litre in just two months.

The hardest part of my new habit is the weekend, where my schedule can be very changeable depending on what my family are doing that day, what the weather is like and if we have any visitors. Throughout the week, it’s easy to tie each glass to a regular event, but the weekends have saggy middles and I often find myself drinking late at night to catch up. Oliver Burkeman was certainly right about one thing – it’s a great way to get some exercise going to the bathroom in the dark.

How do you make sure you drink enough water? What does enough mean to you?

Today’s featured image is ‘Wild Green Sea’ by Stewart Baird.