Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 31

What is the best piece of exercise equipment money can buy?

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Hi, this is Reinhard Engels from Everyday systems.com. It has been a long time since my last segment, but I have a great excuse -- even better than the birth of a child, which I used last time. Because the podcast for which I've been doing these segments, the Health Hacks Podcast, has gone bust. It no longer exists. No more sponsor dollars, and more importantly, since that never amounted to much, no more motivating deadlines.

So while you may have been thinking "what a slacker, it's been three months and this self-improvement guy can't get his act together." I would argue that the fact that I'm doing anything at all is a sign of tremendous virtue.

Because there is still, even as I speak, some small danger that I'm not in fact going to get this segment out, I'm going to keep it nice and short, just to get the ball rolling again.

My nice and short topic for today is "what is the best piece of exercise equipment money can buy?" You may think you know the answer to this already -- or at least, the answer I am going to give you. But you're probably wrong. Because it's not a sledgehammer. Or even a sledgehammer with a sweater wrapper around it. It's a timer.

Not any fancy timer. Just a regular, simple digital timer that you can buy at radio shack for about 10,15 bucks. There's one button to set the number of minutes, and another button to start the countdown. When it gets to the end, it beeps.

Why is a timer so useful? Because the hardest part of any exercise routine is not the weight or the physical effort. The hardest part is making the time.

It's been my experience that there are two things you need to do to make the time:

1. make your routine sufficiently fun so that you'll want to do it,


2. sharply define and limit the amount of time that your routine will take and when -- what days -- you are supposed to take this time.

Shovelglove addresses both these concerns. It's fun as hell, and you're only supposed to do it for 14 minutes every N-day (N-day is everyday systems speak for a normal day, that is a weekday -- holidays and weekends you get off). The fun as hell part of shovelglove is what appeals to most people, but I think it's actually less important than the other part, defining the time, which is why I'm going to focus on it today. Fun is great. And it's important, but it isn't enough. You also need discipline -- and time is the best dimension in which to apply this discipline. In a way, the fun of shovelgove is just the bait to get you hooked on the discipline of 14 minutes every N-day. Because the truth is, I'm convinced that if you did pretty much any form of exercise for 14 minutes every N-day, you'd be in good shape. Just try doing 14 minutes of non-stop simple body weight exercises like push ups and squats if you don't believe me.

Another reason to focus on the timing is that the fun of shovelglove is difficult to translate to other forms of exercise. Sure you can be inspired by it to look for fun in other routines, but you can drop the idea of fun onto an existing routine and make it so. You can't just say, ah, fun is good, my bowflex machine is going to be fun from now on. Now I'd love it if everyone traded in their bowflex machines and gym memberships for sledgehammers, but I understand that for various reasons that isn't universally going to happen. Still, shovelglove might still have something valuable for you. Because you can use the timing part of shovelglove no matter what exercise you're doing. In the best tradition of software engineering, it's a reusable component -- you can rip it our and reapply it to almost any other form of exercise without going anywhere near a sledgehammer.

The timing component has two parts: the days on which you do the routine and the duration of the routine. 14 minutes (schedulistially insignificant time) and N-days. There is an obvious logic to doing your routine every N-day and skipping S-days. It maps well to the calendar and to our schedules. But even more importantly, it's very clear. You never have to wonder, do I have to exercise today?

14 is, as I've mentioned in previous podcasts, an obviously arbitrary number of minutes. But it's a powerfully arbitrary number. The blatancy of it's arbitrariness reminds you of how ridiculous your excuses to get around it will be. It's a form of what I like to call enlightened self mockery. 14 minutes is not a lot of time. Unless your name is Jack Bauer, you have time to do this. This fact would be just as true with 15 minutes, but it wouldn't be as striking. You'd forget and allow yourself to be impressed by sober seeming excuses. 14 is like the drumroll after a joke.

You kind of need a timer to do this properly, because you can't guesstimate 14 minutes, right? If you're going to insist on this comical level of precision, you really ought to measure it precisely, right? I have to confess, I haven't always done this. After a few months of shovelglove I had a very good sense of how long my routine would take, and often did my routine without using a timer. And that usually works fine -- until massive stresses like having a second child come along. Then even I, 5 years plus into this habit, founder's zeal and all, find a timer indispensable.

There are two other reasons, besides properly delivered enlightened self mockery, that a timer is helpful. One, not only does it nudge you to do something, but it discourages you from doing too much. When the timer stops, so should you. Even if you feel like doing more. This may seem counter intuitive. Why not keep going, you're in bonus territory, right? The reason you should stop is that human nature is such that if you make unusually heroic efforts one day, you'll feel like you have the right to slack -- and maybe even do nothing at all -- the next day. Enough of that, and your habit will go to pieces. So throttle your energy. Spread it out. You want to focus on a consistent minimum of compliance, putting one more link on the chain of habit. Never risk that for the sake of one day's heroic efforts -- nothing you gain in one day could be worth that risk. So no less than 14 minutes, but no more. Let the minimum equal the maximum.

The last reason the timer is helpful is when you're feeling the opposite of heroic, when you barely want to do anything at all. The timer is like a contract that yes, this is really all that is required. You can go slow, whatever, in 14 minutes it'll be over. Over the last few months, we've had a second child, I've written a book, and the dayjob has been as busy as ever. If it hadn't been for the timer (and the habitcal, which I discussed in previous podcasts) there is no way I could have motivated to keep on shovelgloving with close to 100% N-day compliance as I've done.

Well, that turned out to be a little longer than I'd planned. I'll refrain from making grand promises about future podcasts, but have at least a dozen ideas for segments already, so fingers crossed. Thanks for listening.


By Reinhard Engels

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