“Ask the Strategist” tackles your questions about productivity, operations, decision making, and results.
This month, Sebastian Marshall tackles the age-old question of how to stay fit and healthy while living that hyper-busy executive life.
I was into team sports but living abroad or traveling makes it harder to stay active. I don’t like exercise/gym, but it’s an area of my life that needs improvement since I’m basically on my screen all day. What do you recommend?
— Derek M.
Derek, I love your honesty, and that’s why I chose to feature your question for this month’s column — you don’t love the gym or exercise, you know you’re on the screen all day, and yet, you know this ain’t getting it done for you.
I’ll make you a deal: I’ll give you the real answer instead of some trite internet “you can do it!!”-isms, so long as you promise to actually think about implementing them. Fair enough?
Here’s my game plan for you —
1. Go through what Coach Dan John calls an “accumulation phase” of physical activities.
2. Implement some practical anti-addiction tools to make your life easier.
3. Design your life so that the movement and health you want starts coming automatically.
STEP ONE: START ACCUMULATING MORE WAYS TO MOVE
Coach Dan John holds a variety of achievements in discus throwing, olympic weightlifting, highland games, and the weight pentathlon — this is a true expert on all-around high levels of fitness.
In his excellent book “Never Let Go,” he describes an “AIT Formula” — Accumulate, Intensify, Transform.
Here’s Coach John:
“If I could highlight the single greatest error most lifting enthusiasts make, it would be this: They have no variety. I’m not talking about using the decline rather than the incline for your pec development. I’m talking about doing nothing save going to the gym, walking on the treadmill, hopping off and doing a set of benches, playing with a machine or two, and hitting the steam room.
“This is far from an overstatement. The first part of the AIT formula is and doing just a few exercises a year is the antithesis of what I’m hoping you’ll adopt.
“Accumulation is actively seeking and learning new sports, lifts, moves, ideas, and games. One literally accumulates a number of new training moves and attempts a low level of mastery in each.”
Derek, I don’t know what will “click” with you in terms of physical life and movement. It’s very personal — a mix of your interests, how your mind works, your genetics and what suits your body. I’d challenge you to start adding more movement to your life.
The easiest way to do this, bar none, is to find people you like who are training and ask if you can accompany them.
It might seem surprising, but the vast majority of people who train at a high level are very happy to show you the ropes. The culture around both training is very pro-social… people get intimidated and worry that they’ll look silly doing bench press with only two tiny plates, or that they’ll run out of breath quickly when on a run, or that they’ll be awkward on a ball court.
It’s a fallacy.
Everyone sucks when they start something new, and the vast majority of people who are trained athletes are happy to show people the ropes.
There’s no magic to it — you just get over yourself and start trying new things. Given that you used to like team sports, you might start by analyzing a bit to yourself what about team sports was exciting to you, and trying things that match that. Endurance sports tend to vibrant communities everywhere around the world, and you can find pickup basketball games or soccer at most universities around the world. They’re typically happy to have you go run around with them.
Regardless of how you do it, start looking for different ways to move. Try a lot out. God willing, we’re all going to live a long time — an investment in trying a new movement or sport a few times a year will pay gigantic spades if you find one that suits you incredibly well.
STEP TWO: START USING ANTI-ADDICTION TOOLS TO MAKE YOUR LIFE EASIER.
First, read this essay by Paul Graham, “The Acceleration of Addictiveness.”
Technology and especially modern internet culture has been a Darwinian evolution into maximum addictiveness. The best front-end designers, UI and UX experts, gamification experts, and a whole host of business analytics people are ruthlessly working to keep you glued to the screen.
That’s the best news. The adversary is fierce and very, very good at getting you glued to the screen.
I recommend two very useful apps to fight this off —
- SelfControl lets you set a blacklist of sites you can’t access while it’s active — Facebook, Reddit, or whatever else is getting you down.
- Freedom lets you block the entire internet easily for up to 13 hours.
I typically set Freedom right before I go to bed, so I can’t use the internet when I first wake up. I also constantly run a blacklist via SelfControl of anything that’s been destructively distracting lately.
If I find myself mindlessly click-click-clicking in the day, I block the internet and turn my iPhone off, and then I’ll just be sitting there going — huh, okay, I have some free time now. What do I want to do?
This is a good place to be.
You only need to break free from the grip of distraction for a few minutes in a row to select a new activity you want to do out in the world.
STEP THREE: DESIGN YOUR LIFE SO THE MOVEMENT AND HEALTH COMES AUTOMATICALLY.
I’m firmly in the “willpower is overrated for solving long-term problems” camp. If you have to ask yourself “do I really want to go get some fitness?” — the battle is already lost. You might win the battle today, but it’s just a matter of time until you answer wrong a few days in a row — and then the vicious cycle starts.
I travel about as much as anyone, and one of the best policies I adopted was “lift weights once per calendar week.”
Before that, I might try to lift weights three times per week. Inevitably, it would be impossible during some particularly harried week, and then everything would fall apart.
By setting a much lower and more flexible goal, I was always able to meet it. “Once per calendar week” means I might go 13 full days between lifting sessions — if I lift on a Monday one week, and then don’t get to it until two Saturdays later — but it’s been very sustainable. I’ve been lifting at least once a week for almost a year now, with zero weeks missed. You can always find time to lift once.
Perfect can often be the enemy of good — so I might recommend to you to pick just a single activity you’re going to do at a minimum every single week. If you’re very achiever-y, you’ll probably want to get your mandatory once-per-week workout done early in the week. But then, you don’t have to hit the panic button until the week is almost over if it’s a really ugly week.
Likewise, building a low level of movement into your days is terrific.
To that end, for the regular traveler, I strongly recommend you get mixed functional clothing that looks get enough for a business meeting, but which you can also do fitness in.
My friend, Executive Director Ted Gonder of Moneythink, recommended Lululemon’s ABC Pants to me — they’ve been a godsend since I bought two pairs. Black ABC pants look good enough for any business casual, but they’re immensely suitable for fitness. I can take a business meeting in them, then hike a few miles across the city in them. I can go play sports, go for a run, or go to the gym in them.
You should also look into Merino wool clothing — it dries ultra-fast, and again, is suitable for both sports and business meetings. I wear an Icebreaker long-sleeve dark grey shirt every day (I have two pairs), and it means I can go right from the boardroom to the weight room. I wear Merino wool socks, boxers, and a good-looking black wool jacket — again, I can go do business in these in any but the most formal environments, and immediately go train without changing clothes.
If you pair this with a good professional—looking backpack or rucksack, you’re basically always ready to commute by foot or by bike. I have a GoRuck, which is designed by former special forces guys — my computer is well-protected in there even if it’s pouring rain. I often do long hikes or runs to commute to and from meetings instead of taking public transit or a cab. A night hike from the airport is particularly relaxing for me when I land in a new city — the fact that it saves $20 to $50 in train or cab fare is a nice bonus.
This might sound hardcore, but I promise it’s not. It’s actually not a big deal. If you travel a lot, invest in multi-purpose clothing that you can do fitness in and train in. It’s really life-changing. I can’t describe quite how life-changing it is. Try it and see.
And finally, a stupid little hobby I have is researching places and activities to do for fitness when I’m traveling. I like to “favorite” things on my Maps app, so as I go to a city more, I wind up knowing where to eat, where to lift weights, where to swim, where to get healthy groceries, and so on.
It actually doesn’t much time at all to do these things — just a shift in mentality. Start gradually working it into your plans. Go on Google Maps or Apple Maps before you land somewhere, and start searching for whatever you’re looking for — universities very often have great facilities to play sports or train, and are a good place to start looking.
But again, it doesn’t have to be a huge deal. Building a single commute-by-foot into your week instead of a train ride is enough to keep your legs fresh and strong, and undo some of that damage that comes from being on your butt all day behind the computer. If you’re in a city that has those short-term bicycle rental machines like London, learn to use them — they’re terrific. A little movement build into your week goes a long way.
So to recap,
- Start accumulating new ways of moving, sports, and exercises. This is one of the best investments of time for a thriving life — you only need to find one or two activities you really love to have it dramatically change your life. There’s something for everyone, if you look enough.
- Use tools to fight off internet addiction and click-click-click neurosis. The smartest people in the world are fighting to get addicted to their web properties; fight back proactively to give yourself some space.
- Design your life so you have a basic low level of movement. Set very reasonable baselines to sustain long-term. (I like once-per-calendar week for fitness as a minimum, which everyone has time to do.) Get clothing that’s multi-purpose if you travel a lot — it’s life-changing. Start casually doing research on the area you’re going to be living when traveling, looking for ways and places to get fit.
You’ll note that none of these suggestions are “get out there now, bro!!” — it’s all about long-term changing up how your life runs. Small changes that produce big gains in health and movement. None of these changes are hard; you just slowly start putting them in place over the coming months of your life, and your life winds up flowing and flourishing ever more as you do.
Godspeed in your movement,
Got a question for “Ask the Strategist”? You can write to Sebastian at firstname.lastname@example.org — next month’s column is on money and money management, so have it with your questions via email or here in the comments.