DUMB

Over the weekend, I attended a workshop that, at one point, covered the SMART Goals framework: good goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Resourced, and Time-Limited.  I’ve seen the SMART rubric about a thousand times before, and there’s good research that backs it up. But, increasingly, new research – and my own experience, as long-standing readers here are doubtless sick of hearing – indicates that, for many of the things we want in life, habits are actually more powerful and effective than goals.

Goals work best when they’re essentially big projects, with discrete endpoints.  Let’s say you want to rebuild your grandfather’s WWII motorcycle.  Great!  That’s a perfect goal, as it breaks neatly into sub-goals, then into doable tasks in turn.

But imagine, instead, that you want to write a novel, lose 30 pounds, learn Spanish, or run a marathon.  For any of those pursuits, it’s less clear what sub-goals look like, aside from just smaller versions of the same thing (write half a novel, lose ten pounds, etc.).  As a result, those kinds of projects often yield better to just regularly chipping away.  To take the first example, a more effective approach might be to write three pages today, then three pages tomorrow, and then three pages the day after that.  In other words, a novel-writing habit.

So, goals have their place, as do habits.  But while goals have a snappy acronym (SMART!), habits don’t seem to have gotten similar love.  To give them a fighting chance, I took the liberty of coining them a framework of their own: The DUMB Habit.

To illustrate, let’s look at a habit you hopefully already practice – brushing your teeth – as well as a few other examples.  Off we go:

First, a good habit is DURABLE.  In other words, it’s something you could still be doing, productively, six months (or six years) down the line.  That’s the primary factor that differentiates a habit from a goal.  For your grandfather’s motorcycle, you might need to polish the rust off the fender today, but in a few weeks, that task would neither be needed or relevant.  Whereas you can brush your teeth tonight, and you can brush them in ten years; you can do it for however long you have (and want to keep) your teeth.  So, for example, to keep my Italian sharp, for years I used Google news to find and read one or two of the day’s top articles in Italian each morning.  It took just a few minutes, but it forced me to use the Italian part of my brain intensively, in a real-world sort of way, and kept the language fluent.  As long as there was still news in the world, and Italian papers were still publishing, the habit remained DURABLE and evergreen.

Second, a good habit is USEFUL.  Or, put another way, a good habit has a payoff high enough to warrant the time spent on it.  Why do you brush your teeth every morning and night?  Because you’d strongly prefer not to lose those teeth, or have them turn black, riddled with cavities.  To that end, four minutes daily seems a reasonable price.  Weighing the value of habits is important, because while each is often small in isolation, as you take on more of them, they start to pile up.  It’s surprisingly easy to reach the point where you’re spending two hours out of each day on the full stack.  If all of your habits are worth their weight, great.  But it’s also worth occasionally auditing them, just in case some are no longer as relevant. Though I read those Italian articles for years, per the prior example, at some point, without any trips to Italy coming up, without any Italian speakers in my daily orbit, and with a lot other work on my plate, I decided it simply wasn’t worth the time, and I let that habit drop.  But, whether it’s an old habit or a new one, the calculus is the same: a good habit has to have a future payoff big enough to warrant the daily commitment of time; a good habit has to be USEFUL enough to sustain.

Third, a good habit is MEMORABLE, in at least one of two ways.  A lot of habits benefit from having a ‘cue’ – a place, time, or triggering event that reminds you to enact the habit.  Most people brush their teeth as soon as they get up, and right before they go to bed.  Wake up => brush teeth.  An easy, memorable cue.  Other habits, however, are inherently more amorphous.  Let’s say, for example, that you want to cut back on your drinking.  I’ve had a number off friends successfully achieve that by instituting a ‘glass ceiling’: they set a hard rule that they stop after two drinks in a given day.  (Some even count from midnight to midnight, so if they’re out partying into the wee hours on a special occasion, they can hit four drinks – two before midnight, and two after – by ‘using up’ the following day’s drinks.)  Obviously, there’s no specific magic to the ‘glass ceiling’ rule, but the name itself is stupidly catchy and memorable. “Sorry, I can’t have another, I already hit my glass ceiling” is somehow easier for your brain to latch on to – both as an explanation to others, and as an explanation to yourself – than just ‘I should cut back.’   So, whether your habit is tied to a cue, or has a name/catchphrase that lets you rehearse the idea in your mind, a good habit is MEMORABLE enough that you actually remember to do it at the right time.

Finally, a good habit is BEHAVIORAL – it’s a simple, concrete action.  You shouldn’t have to puzzle through what to do when the time comes; instead, you should be able to jump in and get to work.  Tooth brushing?  Put some paste on the brush, add some water, then scrub for two minutes.  Voila.  Whereas something like “eat healthier” isn’t really a clear habit.  Tomorrow, when you sit down for breakfast, you still may not know what to eat.  What is the specific action there?  That’s part of why, in my experience, intermittent fasting (or “IF”) turns out to be an extremely effective and sustainable diet approach for many people.  IF is based around a single, simple behavior: when you would normally sit down for breakfast tomorrow, don’t.  In short, after your last meal of the day, wait a minimum of 14 hours for women or 16 hours for men (I’ll spare you the long, hormone-based rationale behind the different numbers) until you eat again the following day.  Let’s say I finish dinner at 9pm.  Great; then I don’t eat until lunch the next day at 1pm.  That’s the whole thing.  But, miraculously, that has a slew of health and body composition benefits.  In other word, it’s a simple, BEHAVIORAL solution to the thorny problem of a healthy diet.

So, DUMB: Durable, Useful, Memorable, Behavioral.  If you’d like to make a change in your life, see if you can get there with a new habit that fits those four criteria.  Ironically enough, it’s a pretty smart approach.

Harvest Moon

We’re midway through the Jewish holiday of Sukkot – a harvest festival celebrated by building a hut (a ‘sukkah’) outdoors, and then dining, relaxing, and celebrating in it as much as possible over the course of a week.  It’s a beautiful holiday, especially right on the heels of Rosh Hoshanah (the Jewish new year).  The world has been created, and now we have to create something out of the world.

 

But Jews aren’t unique in celebrating a harvest festival at this time of the year – many cultures do the world over, including America, with Thanksgiving next month.  And also, it turns out, China, which celebrates a Harvest Moon Festival on the same lunar calendar date (aligned with the same full moon) as Sukkot.

 

I’ve been (very slowly and painfully) learning some Chinese, and my tutor Michael Fu shared with me this week a pair of 5th Century Tang Dynasty poems linked to the festival.  Traditionally, the Harvest Moon evokes reunion, as with the harvest, workers return home after months away in the fields.

 

Each poem is a 5×4 grid of characters, and Michael took the time to walk me through them literally, one by one.  In that form, the lines are something like: “window light in-front-of through seeing,” so it took a bit of puzzling for me to extract English translations that Michael thumbed up as capturing the meaning and spirit.

 

The first was written anonymously, the second by Ching Dao Lee, a famous poet of the era, who wrote the below to her fiancé, a young captain in one of the era’s many wars:

 

1.

Outside my window,
I see a bright light,
and wonder if it is frost on the ground.
Looking up, I see it is the full moon;
I bow my head, and think of home.

 

2.

Dearest:
You are at the head of this great river,
and I am down where it reaches the sea.
I think of you day and night,
and though we cannot yet be together,
we may still drink from the river: the same water.

 

 

 

Own It

Back when I was in college, starting my first company, I read every business book I could get my hands on.  For a several-year spree, I made my way through all of the business classics.  And then for several years after that, I still kept up with new bestsellers.

But, over time, I found myself reading fewer and fewer business books.  In part, because most didn’t really have anything new to say.  And, in part, because most were terribly, terribly written – a chapter’s worth of ideas stretched to hundreds of pages through needless repetition and bland anecdote filler.

Sure, I discovered a handful of great volumes in the past decade – like Scaling Up and The Lean Startup– that I re-read, refer back to, and recommend. But, mostly, I was out of the business book game.

That’s why, though it was recommended by several different mutual friends, I was initially reluctant to read Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership.  The book extends the lessons Jocko and his co-author Leif Babson learned as Navy SEALs (both as commanders in Iraq, and then leading the SEAL’s officer training program back stateside) to the business and not-for-profit world, where they’d been consulting for several years.  As much as I steer clear of most business books, I tend to skip pretty much all military history books.  So, despite thinking very highly of Jocko, his book seemed like a total miss for me.

But since it was published and climbed the bestseller lists, I kept hearing about it – whether from articles and podcasts, or colleagues and friends.  So earlier this month, I decided to finally give it a read.

And, in short, I’ve very glad I did.  It’s the first business book in a couple of years that I would actually recommend.

Further, though it’s pitched to a corporate audience, Extreme Ownership is actually about leadership in the broadest sense.  Anyone who works with other people, on pretty much anything, would probably benefit from the book’s insights.

Each chapter follows a simple, standard structure: a story from the authors’ time as SEALs (whether coaching young officers through a training boat race in San Diego, or rescuing hostages in Ramadi), a broader principle drawn from the story, and then an example of how that principle applied in their civilian consulting work.

The chapters are concise, engaging, and fluff-free.  And all of them gave me food for thought.  Fundamentally, they each boil down to the titular idea of extreme ownership – taking responsibility for everything that happens around you, even if it seems like it’s out of your direct control.  If your subordinates are dropping the ball, perhaps it’s because you’re not sufficiently helping them get things done; if your boss is constantly demanding updates and micro-managing, perhaps you’re not providing proactive enough upstream communication; and if you’re caught flat-footed by an unforeseen move by a competitor or in the market, maybe you didn’t deeply enough consider and prepare contingency plans.

Blaming everyone around you is a common default – in the business world, and the world as a whole.  Jocko and Leif make a strong case for taking the opposite approach – pointing the finger at yourself first, then building positive strategies and responses based firmly in the belief that the buck, at all times, stops with you.

As compared to Scaling Up or Lean Startup, the book falls short in providing a specific, actionable business road map.  But it’s also much broader in focus than either of those two.  While they’re only useful if you’re starting and quickly growing a company, <i>Extreme Ownership</i> is applicable to basically everyone.

In summary: Extreme Ownership – two thumbs up, and definitely worth the read.

Quotidien

This Thursday and Friday, Jews around the world gathered to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.  And though there are a slew of customs and commandments associated with the holiday, there’s one that stands above all the rest: the commandment to hear the blowing of the shofar, the simple bugle made from a hollowed-out ram’s horn.  The shofar’s blast is a bracing sound, a sort of primal cry, and it’s meant to ‘wake up’ the soul, in preparation for Yom Kippur, the day of judgment, ten days later.

If you can play the trumpet, you can play the shofar.  So, as in a handful of prior years past, I was asked to be the Ba’al Tekiah, the shofar blower, at this year’s Rosh Hashanah services.

But I was also asked to come in every morning for the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, the Hebrew month of Elul, to play the shofar then, too.  While hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah itself is a commandment, doing so for the month leading up is simply a custom – albeit one that’s stood for thousands of years.  Essentially, it’s meant to be a sort of warm-up lap for the main new year’s day event, a way to pre-awaken the soul.

I agreed to help out.  So, for the past month, early every morning, I found myself standing in the synagogue sanctuary, shofar in hand.  It was, without a doubt, the longest stretch of morning prayer attendance I had ever clocked (or considered) in my life.

By the end of the month, I thought I’d be happy to drop that responsibility from my already full morning routine.  But I found myself yesterday evening, as I played the final shofar blasts that brought the Rosh Hashanah service to a close, thinking it now seemed slightly strange that I didn’t need to attend this coming week.

After the service, helping to clean up, I ended up thumbing through a book of Jewish writings, and came across a story I knew well about Rabbi Akiva:

Despite eventually becoming one of the super-stars of the Talmud, by age 40, Akiva was still illiterate.  Then, one day, as he stood near the mouth of a well, he noticed a hollowed out stone that was used to hold drawn water.  How had it been hollowed out, he wondered aloud.  From water falling on the stone, day after day, he was told.  Which led Akiva to famously reason, “if water can wear away a hard stone, then surely the words of the Torah can carve a way into my heart.”  That set him on his late-life learning path, on the way to eventual greatness.

But what I hadn’t seen before was a response to that story, from Rabbi Israel Salanter in the 18th century: “The waters carved the stone only because it fell drop after drop, year after year, without pause. Had the accumulated water all poured down at once in a powerful stream, it would have slipped off the rock without leaving a trace.”

As I’ve written about before, I’m increasingly convinced that anything worth doing is worth doing every day.  So, with my shofar experience fresh in mind, I’ve been thinking about how I might intregrate some kind of daily Jewish practice into my morning routine (even if it’s one that doesn’t involve schlepping to the synagogue every day).

More broadly, between now and Yom Kippur, I’ve resolved to think about my daily practices and habits in general.  About the kind of person I want to be, about what I want to have accomplished, by next Rosh Hashanah.  And, working backwards from those questions, about the small things I need to do, every single day throughout the whole year, to make it happen.

So: shana tova u’metukah – a good and sweet year to you all.  May you grow through it, day by day.

Process, Results

A few days ago, I ran into a friend at the gym. He’s an executive in his mid-50’s, a guy in good shape who takes fitness seriously. When I saw him, he had 315 pounds racked for a back squat. But, he told me, his knees had recently been acting up on heavy squat days. Could I watch the next set, he asked.

I did. And sure enough, my friend’s form was atrocious. Valgus knees and ankles, forward weight shift over his toes, depth about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way to parallel.

“That was a disaster,” I told him.

“Oh, I know,” he replied. “But if I squat with good form, I can’t lift nearly as much weight.”

He was willing to humor me for the sake of his knees, however, so we went back to the basics. Beginning with a 45 pound dumbbell goblet squat, drilling until it looked perfect. Then we went back to an empty barbell, until that looked perfect, too. And then we added weight, ten pounds at a time.

At 135 pounds, his squat looked great.
At 145, it was back to disaster.

“If you want to fix your knee issue,” I told him, “then squat with 135 pounds next time, and only add weight in subsequent sessions, no more than ten pounds from one session to the next, if your squat form still looks this pretty.”

At which point he balked.
“I can’t do that!” he exclaimed. “The guys here will think I can only squat 135 pounds.”
“And they’d be correct,” I told him. “That’s how much you can squat right.”

Still, I understood my friend’s concern. Six months ago, I tweaked my shoulder while bench pressing. For two weeks after, it hurt every time I lifted my arm above my head. And just when I thought it was getting better, concluded I could just power through, I benched again and tweaked it a second time.

So, taking my own medicine, I went back to ground zero. I worked face-pulls, bottom-up kettlebell presses, scapular drills, perfect bench press reps with just the empty bar. And then I slowly built back up, in ten-pound jumps, one workout to the next.

At the end of those six months, I’m now back to using more weight than I was before, and my shoulder feels great. But for the first few months, I dreaded seeing anyone I knew at the gym when I was building back up. Members and trainers I was friendly with would walk past, and I had a nearly irrepressible urge to explain, disclaim.

“Rehab,” I would tell them, gesturing sheepishly at my nearly empty bar.

It’s a hard impulse to fight, and one I see people struggle with all the time. Most people training in any gym are, first and foremost, trying to look cool while they’re training. But there’s a difference between developing a skill, and demonstrating it. Almost by definition, when you’re learning something new, or building strength or endurance, you make progress only when you’re right at your limit, out of your depth, looking terrible and incompetent, but challenging yourself enough to grow.

Which leads to a fundamental choice: you can either impress your buddies in< the gym with your performance, or you can impress the rest of the world later with your results. Put differently, you can look good while you’re working out, or you can look good from your working out.

So choose. Because, in my experience, you can’t really have both.

Epicure

Though I read Aristotle, Plato, and Seneca – in school and after – I’d previously never made it to Epicurus, a philosopher I therefore knew only through the eponym ‘epicurean’: from the OED, “devoted to the pursuit of pleasure; hence, luxurious, sensual, gluttonous.”

This past week, however, I actually dove into Epicurus’ direct teachings. And, on at least one level, his legacy in our vernacular is well-deserved. Consider:
“I don’t know how I shall conceive of the good, if I take away the pleasures of taste, if I take away sexual pleasure, if I take away the pleasure of hearing, and if I take away the sweet emotions that are caused by the sight of beautiful forms.”

Or:

“The beginning and root of every good is the pleasure of the stomach. Even wisdom and culture must be referred to this.”

But on further reading, it becomes clear that our current usage of ‘epicurean’ miss Epicurus’ intended mark, at least in some rather important respects.

While Epicurus extolled pleasures, he was first and foremost interested in simple ones. “Send me a pot of cheese,” he once wrote to a friend, “so that I might spread it on bread, and have a feast any time.” Indeed, most of what Epicurus ate were vegetables grown in his backyard garden. Sure, he was happy to eat richer meals, too. But he doubted whether those foods – or the finer thing more broadly – actually made for a better life. As he explained, “one must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is already overflowing.”
Epicurus didn’t believe that having more was bad, but rather that it wasn’t sufficient or necessary for happiness. As he succinctly put it, “nothing satisfies the man who is not satisfied by little.”

So what did Epicurus think was necessary for happiness? His list is rather short:
1. Basic shelter, clothing, and food.
2. Good friends with whom to enjoy it.
3. The freedom and flexibility to spend our days as we choose.
4. And some time each day reflecting and self-analyzing.

Less flashy, perhaps, than the eponym he’s come to define. But, so far as I can tell, not at all a bad recipe for a good life.

Type 1

Over the last decade, there's been a bunch of new research around the idea that type 1 diabetes might actually be caused by allergic reaction to food. In short, in certain genetically susceptible individuals, specific foods might be the trigger that kicks off the autoimmune attack on islet cells in the pancreas, the core of the disease.

While that's interesting for discovering ways to prevent new cases of type 1 diabetes in the future, given the very slow regeneration of pancreatic beta cells, researchers long assumed that it didn't really apply to people who are already diabetic. Once those cells were gone, they appeared to be gone for good.

However, a recent set of mouse studies, and a follow-up set of studies with human pancreas biopsies, has shown that intermittent use of the Fast Mimicking Diet led to substantial regeneration of beta cells, even in current type 1 diabetics.

It’s all still preliminary stuff, but it’s certainly suggestive of a route to a cure for current type 1 diabetics, and, even better, a safe and non-invasive one. If you or someone you know has type 1 diabetes, keep an eye on this research going forward.

[And, while we’re on the subject, if you or someone you know has type 2 (‘adult onset’) diabetes, the news is even better: we already know it can be reversed by lifestyle change.]

Unexpected

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel

Crashing

A couple of years ago, to test out some software I was helping develop, I installed the MacOS and iOS developer betas on my iPhone and trusty MacBook. And, in short, it was an unmitigated disaster. Features suddenly disappeared (apparently still in development), both devices unexpectedly rebooted repeatedly, and my productivity ground to a near halt. Eventually, I ended up rolling back both to stable, released software, and all was well, save the week or two of lost time.

In the time since, I completely forgot about that episode. Until this past weekend, when I once again, with software to test-drive, installed the developer betas of iOS 11 and MacOS High Sierra. And, once again, both of my daily-use devices are a total mess.

Given their fairly late-beta stage, this time I may just try to limp along through subsequent releases. But, if nothing else, it’s a good reminder: apparently, I just never learn.

It’s the Shit

I get asked a lot of questions about gut bacteria these days, and for good reason; over the last decade, research on the importance of the intestinal microbiome for fitness and overall health has exploded.

Take, for example, one particularly persuasive study, which took fecal bacteria samples from pairs of identical twins in which one twin was lean and one was obese, and transplanted the samples into the intestines of germ-free mice. Lo and behold, the mice with transplanted microbiota from the lean twins stayed lean themselves, while the mice with obese twin microbiota quickly piled on weight.

Similar microbiota transplants between humans are already being used very successfully to fight deadly infections like C. difficile colitis, and are being researched for conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis to Parkinson’s disease.

Which leads to the obvious question: will poop transplants for weight loss be the next big fitness craze?

In short, I hope not. While I strongly suspect that managing our microbiome will be an important part of health in the decades to come, at the moment, we just don’t really know what we’re talking about. Clinical data is still scarce, and possible complications are immense. Even if getting microbiota from your skinniest friend did turn out to be a great diet plan, we still have no idea about all of the other effects of that same bacteria down the line.

And, based on historical record, there’s good reason to be concerned. In the 1950’s, for example, doctors began prescribing transplanted Human Growth Hormone to smaller children deficient in HGH. While the treatment proved effective for spurring growth, it wasn’t until decades later that hundreds of cases of the rare and fatal neurodegenerative Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (colloquially “mad cow disease”) began to crop up in those HGH recipients. Scientists quickly discovered that prions (the cause of CJD) had inadvertently come along for the ride with the transplanted hormone.

So, in short, the microbiome is something we should be keeping an eye on.

And it probably would be wise to start doing the common-sense things that research has begun to show as likely to help your microbiome: eat a whole food diet, and include some pre-biotic (raw garlic, onions, etc.) and pro-biotic (pickled stuff, yogurt, etc.) foods; avoid unnecessary antibiotics; get a dog (seriously!); exercise; manage your stress.

But when it comes to more invasive ideas – whether fecal transplant or even just probiotic supplements (which are currently a bit of a wild west), I’d hold off for now. Whatever the short-term upsides, from my perspective, at least, the long-term unknown risks are just too great.