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Last year I wrote The Unconventional Gym Bag: 5 Cool Things You Don’t Use and a few months prior, I wrote about Building the Perfect Home Gym. As expected, my training has evolved over the past year – and will continue to evolve – and the contents of my actual gym bag (and home gym) have also been upgraded. I take my training seriously – more seriously every year – and making sure I’m up-to-date on the latest and greatest is part of the fun.
While I’m a strong believer in self-experimentation, I also “keep it real” with basics in every training session. Loads of bodyweight workouts for general physical preparedness, and of course moving big iron for strength skill work. My strength & conditioning sessions (the primary choice for my entire adult life) consist primarily of the basics: kettlebells, deadlift, squat, bench press, and military press variations. Depending on my goals at the time, I vary the sets, reps, tempo, rest periods, and “supplementary” work. Sometimes the goal is to get stronger or bigger, sometimes it’s to get faster, and sometimes it’s to get leaner. I enlist the help of an awesome, experienced strength coach every few weeks or months to make sure my form is spot-on, and that I’m constantly improving (something I shouldn’t have waited so long to do).
I’ve also evolved my programming and have found a pretty good rhythm. After tearing my right medial meniscus after a July 4th Crossfit workout last year, I realized the hard way that there is a big difference between exercising and training. As much as I loved Crossfit workouts, anyone will sweat and feel spent if pushed to the breaking point. Training is different. Training is personal. Training is about goals. Now, every time I enter the gym, I have a goal to hit. That’s what training is all about. No more random daily workouts with no structure or sound programming behind them.
So what’s new in my gym bag? Let’s get to it.
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Some days you feel like absolutely nothing can go wrong. You’re on fire, unstoppable. Ideas are flowing, confidence is high, and you’re walking around with your chin up and your back straight. There’s no better feeling than knowing you’re at the top of your game. The world is your oyster. Everything you touch seems to turn to gold and you wonder how you were ever stagnant before.
Until the past few years, I had really only been able to identify these times when looking back. Now I’m acutely aware of them when I’m in them and I grab onto them and try not to let go when that train is rolling.
But these feelings never last long. Maybe a day or two, maybe a little more. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a full week of this superhuman ability to create things out of nothing without obstruction. Sooner or later things will return to normal and there’s no explanation why this happens. You just can’t self-motivate like you were able to the day before. Ideas are at a distance, just out of reach. You aren’t feeling flow and a day’s worth of work is taking two full days instead of just three hours.
It’s crazy frustrating when this happens. You try and recreate the environment, the feeling you had, and you just can’t. Your mind has moved on, your thoughts are elsewhere, and your current experience has been altered in some inexplicable way. And you don’t like it at all.
What happened? Well, nothing at all. It’s perfectly normal for creativity to ebb and flow like this. It happens to every single creative person dozens – even hundreds – of times throughout a year. It’s just not possible to keep anything running at its highest capacity all the time.
But are there ways to keep it running for as long as you can? Maybe. There are things you can do that will help but only in the sense that they may be able to prolong that window. There’s no guarantee that these things will work every time, but if they buy you an extra few days or a shorter period in the downswing, it could be worth it.
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As long-time readers know, each year I write down goals for the next twelve months, something I’ve been doing for about twelve years now. This year one of my goals was to “dramatically improve” my presentation skills. In truth, this is a goal every single year but this year I made sure to put it to paper and then I proceeded to read a bunch of books and blogs on the subject. I’ve also spent a lot of time analyzing the presentation styles of those around me, since I have ample opportunities to do that at work.
Why the push? See, about halfway through last year I found myself presenting to medium-sized groups of people (from fifty to a few hundred people) bi-weekly instead of, at best, quarterly. That was clear motivation to get better. No one likes to completely suck at something you have to do all the time. Plus, if you’re not a halfway decent communicator, you’re probably not a halfway decent leader either.
Of course, I’m still far from good at it. This stuff, like most anything else, takes a ton of dedicated practice and attention to really nail it. The difference between star performers and everyone else is that the people who care to get better use deliberate and corrective practice. They set specific goals, respond to feedback, and look at the process of improvement as a long-term thing. Others don’t, they just go through the motions. This isn’t just me speaking, by the way, it’s been exhibited in research by Psychology professor Dr. K. Anders Ericsson.
Now, before getting into the tips & tricks, remember that there’s always room for improvement, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever be perfect. Perfection is a pipe dream. But you can absolutely make your presentations better, in some cases much better, and you can always become better at public speaking. So make sure to have the right expectations going in and then just commit to the process fully.
Look, presenting is hard. Putting together presentations is hard too. It’s all quite scary, especially if it’s not something you do often. I remember a few years ago when I wasn’t doing this regularly, the nerves prior to presenting were so intense that I could barely sleep the night before. If this describes you, then maybe one of these tips will help you get over the proverbial hump. Look at this as just the beginning of a lifelong journey. Here we go.
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A few months ago I came to a long overdue conclusion about myself: I’ve never stopped thinking of myself as an athlete even though I haven’t played an organized sport for more than half my life.
This is a short story of why I haven’t posted here in a while. I’ve been pretty busy reorganizing some aspects of my life around this mini-epiphany.
When I was a kid I played baseball, football, practiced martial arts, and would beg anyone around me to catch whatever I was going to throw at them… for hours. The notion of treating my mind, body, and emotions as seriously as an athlete would has stuck with me since those days.
When I was in school, being a “student athlete” was an achievement worth recognizing. Kids who would do well in school and sport were somewhat rare and it was obvious they had mastered a life skill so many others hadn’t.
Yet as an adult, it seems all we’re trying to do is survive. Somewhere along the lines, people give up on being extraordinary – to be that “student athlete” in life. They’re just trying to get through to tomorrow.
Through years of business, marriage, kids… ups and downs… my system is still running that base ‘student athlete operating system’. It forms the foundation of who I am despite the fact that I’ve never been very good at any sport!
Shortly after realizing this, I started embracing it more as a part of who I am. This meant thinking about myself as an athlete “in training” instead of as someone who “stays in shape”.
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After more than 16 years in the gym, I’m finally starting to train smart. Quality over quantity, strength over mass, and health over ego. Fitness is a lifelong journey, something I fully expect to be doing until the day I’m no longer around these parts.
I’ve learned a lot of great things through training, been (mostly) able to keep exercise as a habit over the years, finally created my ideal home gym, and even branched out and tried all sorts of new stuff like running, swimming, kettlebells, and different martial arts. It’s been a fun ride to-date.
So what prompted the recent change in intensity? I don’t really know. But it’s been building for some time and, starting with the birth of my son last year, everything about my training got more… well, focused. Could it have something to do with the fact that I’m now a role model for a little boy who looks kind of like me? Maybe. Probably. I really don’t know.
One thing that’s clear is that my gym bag these days looks quite different from years prior. My training itself has gone back to the roots. I don’t use any sort of machines at this point; I stick to dumbbells, kettlebells, and fixed bars. Yet I’ve become more interested in using toys like the ones below to help me progress, and I like to have them with me all the time at the gym. It’s the geek in me.
In order to benefit from any of these items, you need to already have a base of both knowledge and fitness. Don’t jump right into any fitness program without doing the obvious stuff first like talking to your doctor and ramping your training up over a period of months.
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I’m writing this overlooking the Pacific Ocean with an iced coffee by my side, and a gentle breeze on my face. I’ve spent the last week in Maui with my family, so please excuse the obligatory photos of paradise!
While on the island, I’ve been doing everything I can to unwind. I’ve been devouring scones, French fries, margaritas, Oreos, bacon, Frosted Mini Wheats and other junk I don’t allow myself to even consider eating most of the time. I’ve stopped tracking my habits. I’ve exercised just once if you don’t count swimming and chasing my kids; a short run near the beach on our first day here. I haven’t spent any time checking tasks off of my lists; in fact I had moved them all over to a "Post Vacation" category before we left the mainland so I wouldn’t even stumble upon them accidentally. I haven’t done much writing, stretching, or flossing, and I’ve had a metric ton of Maui Coffee. It’s been great!
Yet I’m not too concerned about slacking off, or at least not as much as my Type A personality would suggest. Though I’m itching to get back into my routine, I’m not worried about what would normally be viewed as a setback.
Planned breaks like these are required to reset my passion meter from time to time. I try and force myself to "unplug" from my (somewhat) normal intensity to help me remember why I do what I do to begin with. It’s hard to hit the ‘off’ switch… it’s frankly just as hard as turning it back on again, but I try and view it as sort of like stopping at a gas station before a long road trip; breaks like this fuel me for at least a few months, and after six days of gluttony and objective laziness, I always realize that it’s not the permanent life for me.
But what you do for a few weeks out of the year doesn’t define the year, and it doesn’t define you. It’s what you do most of the time, not just some of the time, that makes the difference over the long haul. Have consistency in the fundamentals (modulo a week here and there) and personal growth is inevitable.
If you don’t know what I mean by shipping, you might want to read Real Artists (Plan to) Ship first.
Shipping is hard. It’s especially hard if you’ve never done it, or simply haven’t done it often enough to know what it feels like. You suspect that ‘inspiration’ will pull you through it, yet in reality inspiration usually doesn’t last more than a day or two.
Inspiration is an ephemeral feeling that tricks you into thinking it will always be there. Of course, it can’t be… and won’t be.
Inspiration has never shipped anything. Grit is how you ship. If you think you’re always going to be inspired and that you can just “lean on” that feeling everyday to power you, you’re going to fail. It doesn’t work. Inspiration will disappear as soon as the caffeine leaves your blood stream, you get distracted, or you wake up with a headache. You need a model for shipping, something that helps get you through the emotional dips you’re bound to experience.
When you’re inspired, you don’t expect to have dips in your motivation. You’re above that. You’re made of steel. The feeling will last forever. People who ship know better.
The art of shipping is the same the world over, no matter what the subject is. Paint, code, words, chords, clay, whatever. If you’re creating anything from nothing and expect it to see the light of day, you’re looking to ship something. Creating something without delivering it may still be considered art by some, but it’s not shipping.
When we hire new program managers at Microsoft, one of the most important things we look for is people who are good at all phases of the product cycle. We expect people to be strong at the beginning, coming up with creative ideas and unique approaches to solving tough problems. We look for strength in the middle, people who are able to execute and get the team through the grind without giving up. And we want people who can pull the team all the way through to the finish line, dealing with the (very hard) act of pushing something real out the door to a few hundred million users.
This means that the best people are the ones who can decide what to do, figure out how to do it with the team, and then start it, drive it, and ship it.
Anyone can have an idea. And just about anyone can write a strongly worded email or document about how “obvious” that idea is and how everyone who doesn’t “get it” is an “idiot”. But the people who are able to sell the idea, line the people up, and bring it all the way to the finish line, imperfections and all, and then do it over and over again are the real stars.
The funny thing is how these people usually aren’t the same people who think they’re superstars just because they have some ideas. The best people are too busy shipping to care what you think.
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With every single bit of forward momentum, there will come a setback at some point. It’s an inevitability that nothing good will continue uninterrupted forever. This is the case with everything, human or otherwise, and is a fact of life that most unrealistic optimists don’t embrace early enough.
If you think there won’t be speed bumps on the road ahead – if in fact, you don’t plan for them – when you hit one, the wheels are going to come flying off. You’ll be done for.
When you look at self-control, or having the discipline to do the things you don’t necessarily want to do, there’s an expectation that it’s either on or off. You’re either exercising self-control or you’re not; hot or cold, black or white, Reagan or Clinton.
The problem with this approach, as I wrote about in The Exercise and Science of Self-Control is that self-control is exhaustible. Which means if you’re always on, you will eventually be off because your muscles, your self-control muscles, will become exhausted.
If you know this, why not plan for it?
Lots of times these aren’t predictable dips in your self-control momentum. They’re unplanned, unexpected, and unwelcome. It’s the cinnamon roll instead of the gym, the Rocky marathon instead of Excel, the impromptu party instead of laundry and dishes, and so on. It’s the feeling of failure – or just disappointment – that you weren’t able to hold true to the promise you made to yourself.
You spent all that time getting your self-control built up, just to have it come crashing down with a single mid-day cinnamon roll.
And if you’re anything like I am, once you break one or two promises to yourself, you might as well break them all. For months on end. It’s so easy… you’ve already proven that you’re not trustworthy. That you aren’t strong enough to hold up your end of the bargain. You’re weak and not worthy. So why bother trying anymore?
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Do you frequently find yourself staying focused on a single task until it’s complete, or do you fall victim to the "I’ll do it later" or distraction mentality? Are you able to walk past the table of donuts each time you see it, or do you give up and take a huge bite out of one? If you’re someone who struggles with self-control, or the ability to regulate your actions even in the case of overwhelmingly appealing stimuli, you’re certainly not alone. Most people the world over deal with the inability to self-supervise their actions on a consistent basis. The exercise of self-control is hard. Or at least people think it is.
It’s just so much easier to give in, isn’t it? Hell, it takes real effort to fight the urge, especially if restraint isn’t something you’re used to. More on that later, but first let’s take a look at exactly why self-control is important.
“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” — Jim Rohn
Self-control is the basis of all change; nothing can be transformed without first determining what needs to happen, and then being consistent and predictable in implementation over time. It is, in fact, the most important skill to have when it comes to achievement. Self-control is really the platform in which achievements are built upon. It’s an essential ingredient in any high performer’s personality, just as impulsiveness and “action without consequence” is central to the self-defeatist.
If you want to start modeling success, the most important thing you can do is to start exhibiting self-control.
Show me a successful person who doesn’t have a superhuman amount of mastery over his or her daily actions and I’ll show you someone who has benefited only from chance and circumstance – and that type of success is not repeatable or transferable. Anyone can win the lottery or sign a book contract, but it takes true dedication to be able to maintain success over time.
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For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to workout alone. While my first “official” workouts didn’t start until my 18th birthday – not coincidentally about 6 weeks after arriving at Cornell as a freshman – I spent a lot of time in my teens messing around with weights in the basement of my childhood home. We had a beat-up old bench with rusty plates and a few bars to go along with it… and it was heaven. Some of my best workouts to-date were in that (usually flooded) basement, and they didn’t require a Power Rack, a treadmill, or Freemotion cables.
Here I am, many years later, still longing for the same. They say some things never change. Over the last few months (and the next few really) I’m piecing together the home gym setup I’ve been thinking about for almost two decades. Below is my list.
First, a word about the investment required. Depending on your bank account and your tolerance for spending, the list below may seem extravagant… or perfectly reasonable when compared to a pricey gym membership. No matter how you slice it, different people have different priorities and not everyone wants to spend money to improve their overall health, mood, or strength. You can tell where I fall on that spectrum.
The great thing about having the ability to workout at home is that you have no excuses. Not a one. You can get a great workout finished in less than 20 minutes and you don’t have to wait for your turn to use any equipment. You can listen to whatever you want, you can wear whatever you want, and you can be in the shower 10 seconds after your last rep. The convenience simply can’t be beaten.