Regular readers of this blog (all, well… ME of you…) will remember that a few months ago I went through a transformative personal crisis. As part of that experience, I took stock of my life, looked around, and realized that I really was not happy – with my circumstances or with myself. So I sat down and I made a list of the things about my life that made me unhappy. Then I made another list, of steps I could take to improve or fix those things. It’s been three and a half months since I began that process, and I’m glad to say I’ve made progress on several fronts.
Running and Fitness
Perhaps most impressively, in three months I’ve managed to lose almost 30 pounds and reduce my body fat by about 5 percent. According to Fitday, which I use to religiously track my caloric intake and exercise, I’ve gone from “obese” to “overweight,” and I’m steadily approaching “healthy” weight.
The secret to my success? First I stopped eating so much. For the first few weeks I was making the most of depression-inspired loss of appetite, and eating 800 calories a day or fewer. But I took advantage of that time and realized that it was possible to really significantly reduce my caloric intake. Until June, my average caloric intake each day was between 2,500 and 3,500 calories. Depending how much exercise I did, I’d burn between 3,000 and 4,000 calories a day. Today, because of my reduced body mass, I burn fewer calories even doing more exercise – generally between 2,200 and 4,000 calories daily. Unless I’m really indulging, though, I generally eat between 1,200 and 2,000 calories each day. I’ve cut out fats and processed carbohydrates as much as possible, and focus on vegetables and “natural” proteins from sources like eggs, lentils, and beans.
The other component, of course, is exercise. Since early May I have been lifting weights three times a week almost every week, and I credit that with a lot of my body fat reduction. I can easily see the differences in the mirror. The one thing this experience has taught me, though, is that no amount of exercise will lead to weight loss by itself – the majority of successful weight loss is in reducing your diet.
I’ve impressed myself most with my running. I took up running somewhat reluctantly in May, floundered in my efforts, and resumed in late June. I followed the Couch-to-5K plan published by Cool Running, and struggled for the first few weeks to push out just one minute of running at a time. I clearly remember a run in mid July, when my running intervals were only ninety seconds, gasping for air like I might die. I kept at it, though, inspired in no small part by my run-crazy friend Elizabeth who is currently working up to her very first marathon. As my distances went up and my time went down, I came to realize something about myself: I did not believe I was capable of running.
The last time I’d ever made any effort at running was in high school, and back then it was forced. Twice a year the state of Pennsylvania required public high school students to run one and a half miles as a “fitness test,” a day I always dreaded. I was a terrible runner, afflicted with painful side stitches and real difficulty breathing. In hindsight, I think there were two reasons for that: (1) I don’t think I drank any water, ever, until I was about 21 years old, and was likely chronically dehydrated throughout high school; and (2) I had sinus issues that impaired my breathing for most of my life, probably more than I realized, until they got bad enough early this year that I had surgery to correct them.
Thanks to those bad experiences in high school, I had at some point written off running as something I was incapable of doing, and spent more than a decade claiming that I hated it and that “I only ran when something was chasing me.” The few efforts I made between high school and age 31 were all cut short by shin splints. So when I found myself running first 1 mile, then 2, and then a full 5K, I also found myself with a new and restored confidence. I started to wonder how many other things I’d never done, not because I didn’t want to, but because secretly I didn’t believe myself capable.
These days I’m running four or five days every week. My average distance is about five miles, and my longest so far was eight. Recently, I ran a mile in under eight minutes for the first time in my life. Like most runners, I admit that I don’t enjoy every mile, but I enjoy most running and I especially enjoy the results I’ve been seeing. Though I’m down almost 40 pounds from my heaviest weight on record (December of 2008), my current goal is to lose another 15-20 pounds, and get my body fat down between 9 and 11 percent. If I can achieve that, I expect I’ll have a body like an underwear model, which may require more work to maintain than it’s worth – but if I can do that, I figure why not give it a shot?
Adjusting my financial habits has been far more challenging, especially because results take much longer than my fitness goals have. I’ve been disciplined, however, controlling my impulse spending and putting my funds toward savings and paying down debts. It’s never painless to cut expenses – I recently decided that I couldn’t afford to play the winter season with the hockey team I’ve backstopped for almost a decade, for instance – but I figure that responsible decisions now will lead to the kind of stability that will allow me to indulge more in the future.
I can’t point out any specific result here, except that I feel a little more at-ease with my financial situation, and I don’t find myself scrounging for lunch money in those last few days before each payday. I expect it will take a year or two of real financial discipline before I start to see any real change in my cash flow, and it’s going to be painful to stay controlled for that long – but the alternative is a return to the days of constant calls from debt collectors and scrounging to make ends meet, and that’s something I’m happy to avoid.
This one has been easy enough. My main stress at work was in balancing the many diverse projects and tasks I’m responsible for since I became the sole fundraiser on staff – a circumstance which should hopefully be changing in the next few months. My approach here was simple enough – I started using Google Calendar, which is available from any computer with an internet connection and syncs automatically with my Blackberry. Google Tasks, which doesn’t sync with my phone but works with the Calendar, has been invaluable. The only real change I’ve had to make in my own approach is to take the time to record each task and assign it a date, rather than trying to commit everything to memory. I can’t say that this means I get everything done on time, but seeing all of my projects laid out by date, side-by-side with vacation plans and any other commitments I’ve made, helps keep me on target.
This is the one area where I haven’t made progress I’m happy with. Back in August my plan was to take that month off, and then on September first to sink my teeth back into the first draft of my latest novel. Well, it’s October 12 and I haven’t written a word of fiction in about six weeks. As so often happens, writing is the first thing I push to the back burner – and since my work, fitness, and social schedule occupy much of my time, writing is the first thing to go.
The reason for this, I think, is that writing requires a sizable block of time free of distractions – or at least I tell myself it does. To make progress, I think I need to shift my thinking away from that ideal. I need to seize those small opportunities to get some writing done, and not defeat myself by looking at the clock and deciding “30 minutes isn’t enough to write anything real.” If I take those little opportunities and produce a half-page here and a quarter-page there, over time it will add up. Certainly, if I’d been doing that for the past six weeks, I’d have a lot more to show for it than the zero new pages I have now.
So there you have it – a quick run-down of my progress changing my life. I can’t say that I’m totally thrilled with all of my circumstances at present, and there are certainly still things I would change if I could. I still don’t have an instinct for time management – I’m often inclined to just lay on the couch and watch Good Eats for more time than I should – but I’m getting better about that. It’s only been three months, after all. I wonder what kind of progress I’ll have to report in January.