Micro-habits, spaced repetition and creating a ‘village’: what I learned from 100 days of coding

Just look at all those lovely badges.

Just look at all those lovely badges.

Being able to code is a good idea. Even President Obama says so. Even if you don’t want a decently-paid job in the new information economy, it’ll let you speak the language of the people who do. I’ve been meaning to learn it for a while. And at the start of the year, I decided to make the jump.

I started with Code Academy. As a learning tool, it has its critics – but probably the best thing about it is that it keeps track of your ‘streak’, or how many days consecutively you’ve done at least one exercise. Inspired by nothing else than this, I managed to go 100 days straight without missing a single one. Some days I’d spend two hours finishing whole slews of the programme, on others I’d go to bed, remember I needed to keep the streak alive, and code for five minutes. On my birthday, drunk and full of cake in Abu Dhabi, I staggered back to my hotel room, fired off two lines of code and passed out. Most days I’d get up early, code for twenty minutes, write some notes, and move on with my day. This is what I call a microhabit – BJ Fogg calls them tiny habits - doing the absolute bare minimum needed to reinforce the idea of doing something every day. Fogg suggests starting a routine as simply as lacing up your running shoes (no running) or putting a pan on the hob (without cooking in it). This makes sense to me: often, as soon as I start doing pullups or shadowboxing, I wonder why I haven’t been all day.

Of course, what makes Code Academy great is that it’s pass/fail – if you don’t do an exercise, however simple, you lose the streak and don’t get it back. Can you do this with 0ther things? Well, there are tons of apps that promise to nudge/cajole/threaten you, but the problem with most of them is that you can lie about whether you’ve done the thing or not. My suggestion (which I’ve tried with press-ups):  just use a calendar. A real, physical calendar. X it if you keep the streak, ignore it if you don’t. Why? Well, unlike clicking a button on a screen, writing on a thing on a wall is outside your normal experience. It’s something you have to make an effort to do. Are you still going to do it if it’s a lie? Maybe, but it’ll be harder to justify than clicking a button.

SECONDLY. I’ve been learning about spaced repetition recently, prompted by a friend who’s using it to memorize the most common kanji. In essence, it means revising things just enough to remember them – ‘upgrading’ and ‘downgrading’ them as necessary. Think about having four decks of flashcards – you’d look at one every day, one just once a week, one every fortnight, and one once a month. Remember something in the daily stack and you’d promote it to the weekly – forget something from the monthly stack and you’d ‘demote’ it. The best resource for doing this online? Memrise, which has done the legwork for you with thousands of user-created ‘decks’ – here’s just one of the available HTML options. Working this into your own training is slightly harder, but well worth doing – for the last couple of years, I’ve kept a log of interesting jiu-jitsu positions I’ve learned, and I occasionally glance back through it to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. I did a similar thing with my Code Academy notes: if it emerged that I’d forgotten something, I’d do practise exercises on it for a couple of days afterwards.

THIRDLY, I’ve been doing something that I’ve decided to call creating a ‘village’. It’s well-established, of course, that you’ll succeed in most fields if you surround yourself with likeminded people – your ‘village’, where your pursuit of a black belt in BJJ or a 1,000lb powerlifting total or 8% bodyfat seem normal. The problem: what happens if you haven’t got any likeminded people? The solution: create a virtual village with Reddit. It’s already my homepage, since I like the combination of world news, scientific breakthroughs, highly-informed debate and pictures of cats. What I did specifically for coding, though, was customised my list of subscribed subreddits to include /r/programming and /r/learnprogramming. That way, even on days when I just went to the internet for pictures of cats, I’d be constantly exposed to people talking and swapping ideas about programming. More than once, I’d be exposed to a new coding resource, shown a new concept or simply prompted to do some revision at a time when I had no intention of coding. It took about a month before I fell down the rabbit hole into Github, which is the next step – collaborating on projects with other people. I’d seriously recommend giving this a try.

Bottom line, then: can I code after 100 days? Not by a long shot. If anything, I’ve discovered that coding is an artform in itself – a learning process that could take years. However, I can write decent HTML and style it up with CSS, I know enough about JQuery and Javascript to have an idea of what’s possible for the more experienced coders in my office, and I’ve learned a new skill.  What’s more, I’ve convinced myself – once again – that there’s really nothing you can’t do, and started work on some new tools for doing it. I’d call that a good couple of months.

HOMEWORK: An actual, proper, pass-or-fail homework this week: sign up for Code Academy, and do the Introduction To HTML course. You could do it in a day, but spread it over the week – make sure you do a bit every single day. Then, decide whether you’re going to carry on, or start a microhabit you care about more.

Hard words: Mike Campbell on Unleashing Your Alpha

This is not alpha male behaviour.

This is not alpha male behaviour.

The idea of Alpha-maleness has taken a bit of a battering in recent times. Mention it to most people and they’ll think Jordan Belfort or someone similar – a loud-talking, drug-snuffling, people-exploiting arsehole who’s just looking out for number one.

Mike Campbell, who I’ve had the pleasure of working with on a couple of things, wants to stop that bullshit. Being an alpha male, Mike Points out in new book Unleash Your Alpha, is about honesty, integrity, and grace under pressure. Like me, Mike believes that training hard and eating right are integral to living the manliest possible lifestyle, because they’ll give you the hormone profile, the energy, and the disposition to act like a fully-formed human being. Unlike me, Mike is a qualified and experienced personal trainer, and so he’s put together an exercise and eating programme to get you there. He kindly sent me a copy, and I read about half of it during one drunken evening, post-it-noting all the bits I liked. Then I asked him for an interview, and he said yes. So here he is:

One thing about being ‘Alpha’ is that it’s often misrepresented – as being like Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross, or more recently Jordan Belfort. What, in your opinion, is ‘alpha’? What isn’t?
For me it’s this misconstrued definition of alpha that is part of the problem – the macho arrogant dick. Historically ‘alpha’ simply meant ‘one who led’ – a leader. Someone who has heart and backbone. An open minded man who’s confident in himself, has control in his life, is compassionate yet strong, healthy and masculine. A man who strives for more and will always welcome a challenge- seeking to step outside his comfort zone. What isn’t alpha? For me it falls into two categories, both falling into what I call ‘The Anti-alpha’: 1: The macho, arrogant dick who is often hiding deep insecurities, and pushes his way around mentally, physically and emotionally. A man too strong in his masculine with no real awareness of his feminine side- all backbone and no heart. : The over-sensitive guy. A guy who is all heart and no backbone. Can’t stand up for himself, and lives well inside his comfort zone. Alpha is the balance- good qualities put to good use.
 
What are the biggest mistakes you see guys starting on the road to self-improvement making?
Lack of direction, or perhaps more specifically – priorities in the wrong place. Many guys say they want one thing but their behaviours don’t mirror that. For me for any long term and meaningful success with health and body, a guy must first get his head in the right place; What does he really want? Where does this sit in his list of life priorities? If he can paint a clear picture of where he wants his life to go and how much he values that, then he’ll be able to apply himself to it, and the training, nutrition and lifestyle factor come in to play. However, without the plan, commitment and purpose to what you’re doing it’s often lost or easily falls away.  As far as wastes of time go – it’s the 1%. I see many guys pour time and energy into getting the minute details of training right, weighing food portions etc, when what they need to do with that time and energy is put it into actual training, into ensuring the rest of their life lines up with their goals and making sure they can live a normal, enjoyable and happy life. More of the 99%, less of the 1%.
 
Conversely, what are the things that every alpha guy you know does? 
Plan, execute, assess, refine and hustle. Every guy I have interviewed for the book, watched, read and admired from afar puts great importance on ensuring their life is going in the direction they choose. They put time and energy into their health. They have a general (or specific) plan for their life, and more often than not this involves a bigger mission- a driving passion that gets them out of bed in the morning. They have the ability to be selfish and say no to things that put them off track, while still being considerate, helpful and giving back. The main theme is direction and balance in their life- never completely satisfied, but always grateful.
 
One thing that’s interesting about your book is that it takes what hippies would call a very ‘holistic’ approach to being ‘alpha’. Why is that? Which bits of the puzzle do most guys miss?
Again, I think most miss what’s going on in their heads. So many of us have ridiculous egos. Egos that end up getting us in trouble, be it from comparing ourselves to others or simply shrugging off injury, illness or weight gain. It’s a massive cause of how fat and unhappy we are. To pull your head in, recognise that you might in fact need to make a change and quite possibly ask for help is a step too far for many guys. However, it’s one thing that could actually make the most impact because from that real change can happen. So as far as being holistic, that’s because it has to be. Life is complex, it’s not one thing or another – it’s a constantly flowing exchange of complicated shit! So in order for any change, be it dropping the gut, getting stronger, increasing your sex drive or simply feeling better about yourself, you need to address the whole – your head, nutrition, training, sleep, stress and the finer points that make you a man.
Another thing is that it touches on some Pick Up Artist-style stuff at times. My experience of PUAs is that they can be decent, nice guys who want to get better at social interaction…or total arseholes. What’s your experience? 
Haha, you nailed it. Firstly: my hat comes off to the over-sensitive guys for stepping (most likely) way outside their comfort zone to challenge themselves and grow as a person. Are the intentions right? Well that’s up to the individual, but if they are trying to become a better man and live a better life- awesome! Hopefully they can take that confidence and apply it elsewhere. The other side of that coin is the arrogant dick. Priorities all fucked, and clearly operating selfishly. Quite possibly hiding a lack of self worth or direction. The guy who does it as a power play. I actually read Neil Strauss’ The Game quite a few years back as a younger single man and it did have an effect on me, but in a (hopefully) positive way. I used it as a tool to help me develop more confidence in social situations with ladies. It worked, but I certainly didn’t treat it as gospel or live as a PUA, I ultimately used it to become a better man and take that confidence into other areas of my life.  So I have developed some of my own practices and challenges over the years which I bring into the book. I also talk heavily about gaining confidence, but it applies to guys at work dealing with their boss, colleagues…anything. To step out of your comfort zone and do things that scare you truly help you grow, and if you do it and do it you’ll notice things start to change. Plus: little games and challenges are a great way to grow, learn about yourself and have fun.
What’s the simplest bit of advice you’d give to anyone looking to improve their life? 
First, decide what you truly want your life to look like, then go after it: make a plan and apply yourself it with consistent, determined hard work. Eat well, train often and with purpose. Prioritise a good night’s sleep and enjoying your life. Every now and then take a good look in the mirror and work on what needs it. 
HOMEWORK: Check out Mike’s book at his page or on Amazon. There’s a lot in there that I like, but your second project for the week is to work on what he calls ‘Tiny goals’ – doing one small thing a day, or making one small commitment a week. Yours could be drinking a litre of water a day, or having less than five alcoholic drinks this week. Do that.

Why you should stop looking for shortcuts: or, how to do muscle-ups in two weeks

There is no shortcut to being this beastly.

There is no shortcut to being this beastly.

This week, I did my first proper bar muscle-up. No leg kick, no ‘kipping’ no wobbling from side to side. Just hanging below the bar, then – BANG – above it.

It took me about five years. Or, to look at it another way, it took me about two weeks.

It took me about five years because that’s about the length of time I’ve spent trying to shortcut my way to a muscle-up. Looking at form guides on the internet, worrying about whether I need to use a false grip or not, trying to work out what thickness of bar is best, working on my kick. Concentrating on the wrong things, basically. Do these things matter? Yes, for lots of muscle-ups. But for one muscle-up, they don’t matter at all.

Here’s how I did a muscle-up in two weeks.

1. Was shamed by my inability to do more than a handful of strict chest-to-bar pullups in a recent seminar with Gym Jones.

2. Resolved to do 25 strict chest-to-bar pullups every day. I started by doing 25 sets of 1, and pulling hard enough to bruise my chest against the bar. After about six days, I noticed that I was suddenly accelerating so much that my upper ribs were hitting the bar on my 7th or 8th rep. This was hard – some days, you don’t want to do pullups, especially when it takes half an hour, resting between chest-battering reps. Other days, I’d do very short ladders – 1-3, four times – focusing on rep quality instead of going to even near-failure.

3. Two weeks in, I did a pull-up so vicious it took me straight into the ‘transition’ without a kip, then pressed it out. Done.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, you’ll be pleased to hear I think there is a non-workout point to this:

It’s easy to waste more time looking for shortcuts than you’ll ever save by finding them. Sometimes, the path is clear: other people have already walked it, and they’ll even tell you where it is if you look. Meanwhile, other people – who haven’t walked the path, but want you to follow them – will offer you shortcuts. That’s when you end up getting lost.

HOMEWORK: Do some chest-to-bar pullups this week. One a day, Five a day, ten a day, whatever. Can’t do pullups? Do five negatives – every day.

Your next resolution: do one interesting thing a week

interesting

Here’s how to end up with a life worth talking about: just do one interesting thing a week.

Note that I didn’t say awesome, or awe-inspiring. These are words thrown about like confetti by self-help gurus who are more interested in impressing you with how cool they are than actually, you know, helping you. In certain corners of the internet, it’s become more important to make your own achievements sound impressive than to actually achieve anything worthwhile. If you’re already down on yourself or in a bad situation, this isn’t going to have a great effect on you: you’re struggling to afford food, and people are telling you that you have to try the lobster-waffle at whatever hipster bar is suddenly cool. You can’t get away on holiday, and everyone else is Instagramming pictures of themselves hanging out with the indigenous peoples of…wherever. You can’t go to circus academy, or hang out with Terry Crews, or test-drive a Ferrari, or do whatever else the awesome, awe-inspiring people are doing.

That’s okay. All you need to do is one interesting thing a week. Let’s look at some definitions:

interesting
adjective
1.
arousing curiosity or interest; holding or catching the attention.
awesome
adjective
1.
extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring awe.

What’s my definition of ‘interesting’? Simple: it’s something that you, and preferably most other people, don’t normally experience. Something that, if you told someone else about it, wouldn’t necessarily impress them, or make them jealous, but just make them go ‘…huh.’ Something that would inspire further questions. Something interesting. Like what? Glad you asked.

A really hard workout

Two suggested caveats for this: you should be able to explain it to someone in less than two sentences, and you should have no idea whether you’re capable of finishing it. A 20km row or run would be a good example, and so would doing 100 pull-ups over the course of a Sunday. None of your Crossfit-chipper nonsense that takes 20 minutes to articulate, ta (‘What’s a wall-ball?’). Single-modality workouts are one of the most interesting ways to test your willpower, anyway. They don’t give you much room to hide. Example: having never been on an AirDyne, before, I went all-out on one for about a minute. I felt like my femurs might explode and then had to sit on the floor for about an hour. Awesome? No. An interesting day? Yup.

Cooking something new

How complex this should be really depends on your current level of cookery. If you can’t cook, just a steak or a chicken would be enough. If you can already cook a bit, expand your horizons: Chris Shugart’s cauliflower pizza is a sure-fire conversation starter, even if it makes people think you’re insane. The ultimate kitchen conversation-starter is, of course, the Turducken – I’m saving that one for a quiet week.

A class in something you haven’t done before

Money a problem? Find a free one. Most jiu-jitsu academies, for instance, will let you drop in for a trial class. Dance academies won’t, but a taster’s unlikely to run more than ten pounds. Do gymnastics. Do basket-weaving. Do something interesting.

A visit to somewhere interesting

I’m privileged in this respect: I live in London, where all the best things (the National Gallery, the Science Museum, the British Library) are free. You may have to work harder, but not that hard. Go to something you wouldn’t normally go to: failing that, just walk somewhere you wouldn’t normally walk, even if it means changing your route to/from work.

Almost anything else

Most things fit the definition, as long as they’re outside your normal weekly experience. Never listened to classical music before? Commit yourself to getting through Mozart’s late symphonies, 34-41. Only ever listen to classical music? Drop £5.99 on Spotify for a month, and listening to everything in the album chart. Read a collection of short pieces in a genre you’d never normally try: the best of WC Heinz for sports writing, say, Isaac Asimov for sci-fi, or This Will Make You Smarter for actual, hard science. Get outside of what you usually do, and watch the paths diverge ahead of you.

Now, the secret. Why should you do all this? Here’s why.

Interesting things snowball. 

Do one interesting thing a week, and you’ll form the habit of seeking them out, rather than shying away. You’ll become inquisitive – less scared of new experiences, and more interested in what might happen. You’ll have more to talk about. Do one interesting thing a week, and soon the interesting things will come to you.

HOMEWORK: Do something interesting this week. Post it in the comments. GET AT IT.

 

 

 

 

 

Recover hard: the other side of non-zero days

Recovery: just as important as killing fish with your bear hands.

Recovery: just as important as killing fish with your bear hands.

So after my post on Non-Zero Days, a couple of people asked a very sensible question:

What about rest days?

 

There are a couple of answers to this.

Firstly: You can have a non-zero day without necessarily disrupting your recovery. Doing a single press-up isn’t going to make you overtrained – once you get to a certain stage, neither is doing 100 press-ups. If you’re still at the stage where keeping a habit alive is more of a concern than burning out your adrenal glands, just do something. Anything. Keep the streak.

Secondly, and more importantly:  Stop thinking about rest days. Instead, think of recovery days. A well-planned recovery day is still a non-zero day. Remember: a non-zero day is one where you do something that gets you closer to your goals, not one where you can post about something cool you did on Twitter. Recovery is just as important as training, but few people attack it with anywhere near the same intensity. What promotes good recovery? A few things that work for me:

  • Band pull-aparts. These counteract all those press-ups you’ve done, as well as the way you slump at your desk – and they’ll give you a more impressive set of lats. Most Sundays I do at least 100 of these while watching TV, because I want a back like Hanma Yuujiro’s. Your motivations may be different from mine, but it’s worth considering.
  • Foam rolling. Everyone’s obsessed with this at the moment, but honestly I don’t think you need to do it every single day – once or twice a week, while you watch TV, is fine. You can get a foam roller cheap, but in the long-term a firmer one might actually save you money – I use a combination of The Grid and a lacrosse ball I bought for £2.50. Do the collection of exercises in Joe DeFranco’s Limber 11, and then chill.
  • Shopping. Very few people think of shopping as badass: that’s because they’re doing it wrong. Set aside half an hour a week to buy a gigantic pile of meat and vegetables and butter. Farmer’s walk them home, and you’re excused from press-ups that day.
  • Cooking. Learning a new recipe or batch-cooking three days’ food makes any day a non-zero day. Please refer to this post for more advice.

Now: how does this relate to non-training goals? I have one suggestion: do something fun. Hopefully whatever your goals are – Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, writing, music, Photoshop, coding – you’re doing them because you find them enjoyable on some level. My advice? Don’t break the streak, but allow yourself a fun day once a week. No dry technical exercises or repetitive drills (unless you like them). Just something fun. In order, this might be: practising flying armbars, writing something stupid and short, playing that one Green Day song that only has three chords, Photoshopping Batman into historical pictures, and…I actually haven’t got a suggestion for coding, so please leave one in the comments if you’ve got something that might work.

Forget rest. Think recovery. Think fun. And keep the streak alive.

HOMEWORK: Sit down and work out a recovery/fun strategy that works for you. Re-read Rest Hard, which is a companion-piece to this post. And do some god-damned band pullaparts.

 

Your new resolution: no more Zero Days

Zorro days are still, of course, totally fine.

Zorro days are still, of course, totally fine.

We live in an incredible world. Once, self-improvement was the domain of charismatic people and anyone who could get a book deal: now, it’s been democratised by the internet to the point where anyone with a good idea can pitch in. One such insanely good idea – so good that I’m pissed off I didn’t think of it myself – was the concept of the ‘zero day,’ posted on Reddit’s GetDiscplined forum recently. Here’s the original post, and credit goes to ryans01, who is probably doing good things somewhere else on the internet right now.

Basically, a Zero Day is any day where you do nothing towards your chosen goals. A day where you don’t do a single press-up, or write a single line of your novel. Your new rule? No more of these.  If it’s 11:58pm and you’ve done nothing towards your chosen goal: do that press-up. Write that line, or an idea, even if it’s on a scrap of paper. A better idea would be to start in the morning: get up 5, or 10, or 30 minutes early, and scrub out that zero just as fast as you possibly can. Whatever else you do, however busy or bad work is, whatever crisis comes up, that day is non-zero. Firstly, as ryans01 points out, this will often snowball – with the hard part (starting) done, you’ll often do another 10 pressups, or write something else. Secondly – and maybe more importantly – this gets you in the habit of doing something productive every single day. Habits are the most important part of success in anything – automate good behaviours, and you’ll never need willpower again.

Here’s how I’ve been using this recently:

Coding

I’ve decided that I ought to be able to code: at least at a basic level. I’m using Codeacademy to learn – legit programmers are mixed in their opinions on it, but easily the best thing about it is that it records your ‘streak,’ and sends emails that encourage you to keep the streak going. Most days it’s the first thing I do in the morning: I get out of bed, get some coffee on, then do an exercise or two before I hit the shower. Even when I was recently on a trip to a foreign country, working days where almost every hour was occupied, I’d get in at night and hammer out a single line of code – just enough to ‘pass’ something – before going to bed. This has worked magnificently well.

Pullups

At a recent event with Gym Jones (the guys who trained the 300), I realized that, while my pullups are fine (personal best with an overhand grip: 15) my strict, chest-to-bar pullups are shockingly bad. This is not the kind of thing that needs to be fixed with a dedicated training plan – it can be sorted out just by doing chest-to-bar pullups. Quite often, I’ll get these done pre-coding – I might do a couple of sets of 3, or 5, while the kettle boils. Sometimes this snowballs into doing 25 – other times, it doesn’t. Either way, I’m getting better at pullups. Don’t have a doorframe pullup bar? Skip the pub this week and buy one.

Boxing

For ages, I’ve been putting striking practise off ‘until I have more time’. Recently, I decided that I’m never going to have more time, and just started doing it instead. When I can, I hit the gym first thing in the morning with a friend of mine, and spar. When I can’t do that, I’ll just throw jabs or practice head movement in my flat. On days I can’t even do that, I go through Jack Slack’s enormous archive of striking technique clinics, and note down things to work on. Keeping myself emotionally invested in getting better pays dividends, and makes me more likely to hit the gym.

Writing

I’m working on the sequel to Zombie Titanic, and I try to add to it – even if it’s just a couple of words, or a phrase I like, every day. Failing that, I’ll read what I’ve already done. In tandem with not playing fucking Candy Crush on the train, this means I often spend my commute thinking of solutions to plot problems, or clever bits of dialogue. It’s helpful.

These are my solutions. Think about yours.

HOMEWORK: Pick your two biggest goals, and resolve to avoid non-zero days on them every day this week. How long can you keep the streak alive? Watch the original Tyrone Power Mark Of Zorro – if it’s good enough for Batman, it’s good enough for you. Oh, and stay tuned for next week’s upgrade on this idea: One Interesting Thing A Week.

Of course you can teach ‘heart’

There are many fine things about old-school boxing gyms. The basics-first approach to instruction, the camaraderie, those little funnels some of them have duct-taped to the ring posts for you to spit down – it’s a fine environment for learning something about yourself. One thing I don’t like about old-school boxing gyms is the popular expression among the old-school trainers who often hang out there.

“You can’t teach heart.”

This is bullshit. Yes, it sounds clever. Yes, it sort of superficially makes sense – you can’t ‘teach’ someone to suck it up after a liver shot the way you can ‘teach’ them to throw a jab. And yes, it’s actually sort of appealing – if you aren’t the fastest or strongest or cleverest or trickiest guy, you might always be able to scrape by on the ‘heart’ that the other person doesn’t have.

But it’s bullshit.

Of course you can teach – or, more importantly, learn – heart. You learn it the same way as people learn Japanese, and improve it the same way as you improve your pull-up score. Some people will ‘naturally’ have more than others, but that’s just because of their parents, childhood influences, how many Jet Li films they watched as a teenager, and a thousand other environmental factors. I know this because I used to be quite soft, and now I am…slightly less soft.

You will not be surprised to hear that I think the best way to learn ‘heart’ is by training. Training is an easy, relatively risk-free way to put yourself in positions that demand heart, and build it – if you do it right. Here’s how I  think you get it done.

  • On-the-minutes

Done right, these are awful. The basic idea: you take a nice, non-ruinous full-body movement and set yourself the task of doing X number on-the-minute for X minutes. 10 (or 5) burpees on-the-minute, every minute, for 10 minutes, is a good example. You know whether you’ve done this or not – there are no excuses. If you’ve got the rep range right, the first two minutes will be fine, the next three will give you an inkling of what you’re in for, the next three will be pretty nasty and the last two will be sheer horror. Get through it, then do it again next week, with another rep.

  • Rowing

Better than running, because you won’t fall off the machine (well, it’s harder to do) and you can’t cheat it. Pick a time – 7:15 for the 2000m is a good standard – and try to hit it. Does that counter click over before the time runs out? Great. If not: you failed. This isn’t a bad thing: just do better next time.

  • Anything with friends

This only works with friends who can be trusted to push you. Haven’t got any friends like that? Find some. Do either of the above, but have someone there to push you through it. This also works with enemies.

You can teach heart. More importantly, you can learn it.

HOMEWORK: Do one of the above this week.

 

 

Why MMA is the greatest sport ever created

[ED NOTE: This is a bonus post - it's a bit outside the normal remit of Live Hard, but is something I wanted to write and so I did. Normal service will resume with the next post - or you could always revisit the archives. The archives are brill]

‘Sport is war minus the shooting,’ Orwell once wrote. This probably depends on the sport: American football, for instance, is clearly a game about territory and position (and concussing people), curling not so much. What’s less arguable is that sports, when things get heated, tend to degenerate into violence – either on the pitch, or afterwards. A team loses a close basketball game and conversation swiftly moves to who could kick whose ass. Things get heated in football in football and someone lashes out with a petulant hoof. A pitcher beans a batter and a bench-clearing brawl ensues. By contrast, no boxing bout has *ever* ended with the loser challenging the victor to a dunk-off or a penalty shoot-out. 

 
This is the main reason that mixed martial arts, or MMA as it’s known to fans, is the greatest sport ever created. There are rules, let’s be clear on that – 31 of them just to deal with infractions inside the ring/cage, including everything from striking groins and bending back fingers to holding your opponent’s shorts or smearing yourself with Vaseline. It’s not just unregulated carnage. But it is the closest thing to war that society’s ever likely to sanction as a sport – more so, even, than boxing, kickboxing or Olympic wrestling. It’s the last argument, the ultimate test of ingenuity, skill and heart. This is why so many fighters hug after their bouts – after spending 15 minutes where you’re legally allowed to do (almost) anything to knock your opponent unconscious or make them give up, there’s a sense that nothing has left undone, and no need for further closure via yelling or throwing things.
 
The (relative) lack of rules is, of course, the other reason mixed martial arts is so endlessly entertaining. A game of football where the object was ‘Get the ball in the net’ would be a fight. Debut a new style of stroke in swimming, and you’d be disqualified before you did your first kick-turn. Cycling will never be more innovative than the UCI’s labyrinthine edicts allow. In MMA, though, a lack of technology to worry about (fighters wear shorts, promoter-provided gloves and little else) combined with a very loose brief (make the other person stop fighting) makes for endless permutations of violence. Every year in the UFC, someone sinks in a variation of choke or joint-lock that’s never previously been seen by casual fans. New tactics evolve monthly – once, shoving a grounded opponent into the fence was seen as the best way to keep them on the mat, but now, fighters have learned to ‘wall-walk’ their shoulders up the mesh to get up more efficiently. Once-useless moves from ‘traditional’ martial arts like karate and Capoeira suddenly work – in a pure kickboxing match you’d never land a Karate-Kid style crane kick because the opponent would see it coming, but in the UFC, where there are dozens of potential attacks to worry about, it might be exactly the move you need. This isn’t theoretical: karate expert Lyoto Machida knocked out former heavyweight champ Randy Couture with one in 2011. New moves are still being invented – lightweight champ Anthony ‘Showtime’ Pettis has made a career from running up the cage and launching kicks off it like a character from the Matrix – and old ones are being revived. Another point to consider: if you learn a new play in football or a new shot in tennis, it’s only applicable on the court/pitch. When fighters start using oblique kicks to the knee in the Octagon, we learn more about how they work in real conflicts, which has applications in everything from military training to women’s self-defence. It’s probably fair to say that fighting has evolved more in the 20 years since the invention of the UFC than it did in the 200 previously. 
 
Want more? Okay. There’s plenty of evidence that MMA is safer than boxing, alongside a handful of other sports. In the sweet science, your options are limited to a) Get punched in the head or b) Punch your opponent in the head. If you’re knocked down and given a concussion, you’re given 10 seconds to get up and get another one, compounding the damage. There are no other options: you can’t go for a takedown, or kick them in the leg, or roll for a knee-bar, or do anything other than cover up and try to concuss the other guy. Compare and contrast this with Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert and UFC welterweight Demian Maia, who once said that his idea of a perfect fight was to “To submit my opponent without him hurting me or me hurting him,” Maia, by the way, has come close to this – in one fight, he submitted his opponent after landing a single not-very-hard punch. 
 
Finally, the UFC’s one of the most progressive sports in the world in terms of treating its female athletes with respect. Ronda Rousey, former Olympic judoka and current bantamweight champion, makes pay comparable to the top men in the sport, and regularly tops cards just like any other title-holder. Among fans, she’s regarded as one of the finest athletes in the sport. To date, John Merrick hasn’t said anything about this state of affairs. He probably wouldn’t dare. 
 
There are dozens more reasons why MMA is the finest sport ever created – the camaraderie, the excitement, the openness, the universality, but if the above doesn’t convince you, only watching it will. I’d urge you to give it a go, either by catching it at a bar, or (preferably) enjoying some of the many fine fights available on the UFC’s Fight Pass system. If you still don’t enjoy it, that’s your perogative: unlike a footballer, I’m unlikely to challenge you to a fight about it over Twitter.  
 
HOMEWORK: Go check out just how violence has evolved – check out Jack Slack’s excellent breakdowns of striking, BJJ Scout’s incredibly detailed analyses of grappling, then watch a fight and apply your newfound knowledge. Fighting: it’s the best sport ever.

Don’t be too hard on yourself

Not pictured: Robin Williams' amazing beard.

Not pictured: Robin Williams’ amazing beard.

If you’ve spent any time at all in the burning crucible of internet self-help websites, you’ve probably come across at least a dozen people who’d have you believe that everything they have ever achieved has come through sheer force of will. That they simply decided to change on day, and did it, and that if you can’t do it too then you are weak and pointless. They’ll shave all the missteps and wrong turns out of the narrative, and tell you that self-improvement is a linear path that only an idiot stumbles from.

What I am here to tell you today is this: fuck those people.  

Perhaps you’ve seen a film called Good Will Hunting. If not, I recommend it. Apart from Matt Damon’s magnificent takedown of that one guy with the ponytail and Ben Affleck’s amazing Boston accent (‘So this is a Haaavad Baaah’), the single best thing about it is the moment Robin Williams wraps his arms around young Will, holds him close, and repeats a single phrase until young Matt’s reduced to tears.

‘It’s not your fault.’

Well, internet, please think of me as a bearded psychologist, yourself as Will Hunting, and imagine my arms – please note all the chin-ups I do – hugging you as I whisper into your electronic ears. Because it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. 

See, the thing is, whatever sort of self-improvement you’re into, it is easy to mess it up. Much, much easier than it is for you to succeed.

For starters, you have ingrained habits that are difficult to change – a Duke University study suggests that around 40% of your behaviour is automatic, and if those automatic behaviours are bad, you need to fix them before anything else can happen. Your friends and co-workers are likely to resist change, and having cake and pub invitations in front of you makes things even tougher.

But it goes much, much further than that.

Your caveman brain is basically set up to encourage terrible behaviour: back when berries were scarce and awful-tasting, sugar was a precious, scarce way of topping up your insanely necessary fuel reserves, and so your brain goes crazy for it – which isn’t great when it’s one of the cheapest, most widely available foodstuffs on the planet. Your body’s basically hard-wired to act as if food is hard to come by, when actually it’s everywhere.

And it goes further.

Broccoli is harder to monetise than crisps. Happy, satisfied people, are less likely to try to buy their way to happiness.Or, to put it another way, there’s very little incentive for anyone who has the money and resources to influence your behaviour to help you genuinely improve (or even enjoy) your life. Most companies rely on perpetuating needs, sugar is a cheap, addictive ingredient, and content people don’t tend to buy as much. Massive effort by marketing and advertising is put into making people discontented and unhealthy – not because anyone’s evil, just because of how capitalism forces businesses to evolve.

And the final thing?

Sitting down to have a serious look at your own life isn’t something most people are comfortable with. Now, it’s easier than ever to avoid it – you’re never alone with a phone, and messing around with Flappy or Angry Birds is much more fun than coldly evaluating where your life might be going wrong.

So accept my virtual hug, internet stranger, and breathe. It’s not your fault. 

BUT.

Does this mean you should give up, or even slack off on your efforts? Of course not. What it means is this: you should recognise that change is hard, and that things are stacked against you. That almost everything, from your stupid primate brain to the entire modern techno-industrial complex, is stacked against your efforts to live a better, happier, healthier life. So sometimes, it is inevitable that you will fuck up: you’ll eat the cake, or buy something you don’t need, or spend six hours playing some game that’s been hand-crafted and ruthlessly selected by app-store evolution to be as addictive as humanly possible instead of hitting the gym. Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s not your fault. But try again tomorrow, because it’s better than the alternative.

HOMEWORK: Watch this TED talk for more on how your ape brain operates, and if you fuck up this week, forget it and move on. Ate an entire birthday cake by yourself? Fine, it’s done. Move onto the next positive thing you can do. Missed the gym? Go tomorrow. Lose a step on your latest project? Get on with it the next chance you get. Just don’t be too hard on yourself. There’s no point.

Cooking for fun and profit: why it’s an essential life-skill

One of the most common complaints I hear about healthy food is that it’s expensive. Another is that it’s difficult to get hold of. Both of these are true: if I wanted to save money and time I could live on cereal, Gregg’s pasties and beans on toast, but then I’d be a pale shadow of my normal testosterone-filled self. You have to eat healthy – it makes you more productive, aggressive (not a bad thing) and mentally acute over the course of the rest of your life. So how do you eat healthy and cheap? Simple.

Throw away your cookery books

They’re largely useless. If you try to learn to cook from most cookery books, you will a) Be intimidated by the ingredients b) Forget one of the many steps and c) Get disheartened early. If you can already cook but get hooked on cookery books, you’ll constantly buy things you don’t need. Throw them away. Resolve not to buy any annato seeds or sundried tomatoes or goose fat until you can at least cook a chicken properly. Concentrate on principles, not recipes. Which leads to…

Learn to cook

Non-negotiable. If you’ve literally never cooked before, start by mastering scrambled eggs and mashed potatoes. Next, do meat – learn to grill a steak and roast a chicken. If you can cook a bit, move on to stews – they’re difficult to mess up, last for days, can be easily bulked out with inexpensive ingredients and actually taste better if you get engrossed in Youtube fight analysis and leave them on the hob for an extra half hour. Next do steak and roast chicken. Once you’ve got those down, I suggest learning to make curry and a decent home-made burger – all good ways to avoid the crap you get in the processed versions, and all decent treats. Your endgame is to have 10-15 meals that you can whip up easily – with those to rotate through you’ll rarely get bored, and you’ll be ready for…

Look for bargains

There are two parts to this. Firstly, your local shop almost certainly reduces the price of fresh food when it’s ready to go off, and knowing how to make a meal out of whatever’s on offer is basically free money. At the minimum, you should know how to make something out of all the main meats (pork, lamb, beef, chicken), and preferably you should have options for when different things are on offer (2kg of pork shoulder takes different prep to a load of pork steaks, and some chicken recipes work better with bones in/out). Secondly, load up on whatever cans you normally buy when they’re on offer – my staples, coconut milk and canned tomatoes, quite often go for half their usual price. Buying what’s cheap, and making healthy stuff out of it, is half the battle.

Make stuff that produces decent leftovers

Many people would just tell you ‘Eat leftovers.’ This is reductive bullshit. Second-day broccoli tastes like wrong whatever alchemy you apply. Roast chicken tastes amazing when you cook it, then not great the day afterwards, unless you throw it in a curry until it tastes amazing again. Chili tastes better on day two, and so does my beef stroganoff.  And here’s a nice rule of thumb: if it’s wet, you can probably get away with chucking a fried egg on top of it and calling it breakfast. I’m not sure it would work with soup, but who the hell even eats soup?

Make time to cook

For many people, this is the sticking point. Everyone’s busy, and stuffing a pizza in the oven rather than spending 20 minutes prepping vegetables seems like a sensible time-saving device. Unfortunately, it also means eating stuff that isn’t classified as food, so cut that shit out and resolve to make everything from scratch. I have a reasonably demanding job, a decent commute and a four-night-a-week fighting habit, and I still cook most evenings. Firstly, stop watching TV – or get Netflix, and watch TV while you prep. Secondly, just get better at prepping – these days I can peel and chop an onion in about 30 seconds, and just knowing what you’re doing will save an enormous amount of time. Thirdly, if you really haven’t got time in the evening, just cook in the morning – throw stuff in a pot and get it to a state where it just needs to be heated when you arrive home. No time in the morning? Get up earlier.

Healthy, cheap eating: it isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding and useful. It will give you more energy, and make you better at life. What’s more, it’s a skill you’ll be able to use almost every day forever. If you haven’t got on it already, start now.

HOMEWORK: Cook something this week. Easy.

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