Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 38
14 minutes of ANYTHING
Hi, this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com Today I'm going to describe a system I keep on recommending to people on the bulletin board, but have not yet dignified with a system home page or podcast episode of its own. It's an exercise system, and it's called 14 minutes of ANYTHING (ANYTHING in all caps). If that sounds suspiciously familiar, it should. It's basically shovelglove without the sledgehammer. Or at least, without making the sledgehammer a requirement. It takes the temporal aspect of shovelglove, that "scedualistically insignificant time" of 14 minutes every N-day, and turns it into a whole new, more general system of its own. The idea is this: Every N-day you set your timer for 14 minutes and do ANY kind of exercise. (for those of you who are just tuning in to everyday systems, an N-day is a "Normal day" that is a non-holiday weekday. This is in contrast to "S-days," saturdays sundays and "special" days) Your 14 minutes of exercise could be shovelglove. It could be yoga. It could be shadowboxing with very light dumbells (this is actually a lot of fun, if you haven't tried it). It could be bodyweight exercises like pushups and situps and squats. It could be running in place or jumping jacks. It could be WII-Fit. It could be something different every day of the week. It could be something you haven't even thought of till you hit the timer, something you just make up as you go along. As long as you meet the temporal requirement, as long as you do SOMETHING, anything that could possibly be construed as some sort of exercise, till the timer goes off, you're OK. The 14 minutes every N-day is the only hard commitment you're making. The time. The WHEN, not the WHAT. Eventually you'll probably find a kind of exercise you want to do more frequently, but with this time structure, you don't put off exercising until that eureka moment -- and it encourages you to experiment and find that moment sooner. On one level, it's structured experimentation, "experimentercise." It's a framework for identifying exercises you actually like -- while exercising. It's a routine that helps you find the "perfect" routine, without passively waiting around until you do. That new agey cliche "the journey is the desination" is literally true in this case. And I've found that if you look at a particular kind of exercise as an experiment rather than as an end goal that you're obligated to be 100% happy with forever, you take the pressure off. You don't HAVE to like it -- and so you're far more likely to actually like it. And if you don't, well, there's always tomorrow. It'll at least be more bearable, if not actually fun. "14 minutes of ANYTHING" undercuts the two big excuses people have not to exercise: 1) "I don't have the time" and 2) "I don't know what kind of exercise to do." #1 "I don't have the time" won't work because, c'mon, it's 14 minutes. Unless you work for the CIA and your job is defusing ticking time bombs, you have the time to do this. Now that fact would be just as true with 15 minutes as 14, but it wouldn't be as striking. As I've mentioned before, 14 isn't just an arbitrary number, it's a POWERFULLY arbitrary number. The blatancy of its arbitrariness reminds you of how ridiculous your sober seeming excuses to get around it are going to be. If you try to get out of exercising, you won't feel so much guilty or obligated as ABSURD. This "enlightened self mockery," as I like to call it, can be an even more powerful motivator than serious self reproach -- and it's substantially less depressing. You laugh at yourself (good naturedly) instead of screaming at yourself. The fact that you only have to exercise on N-days also means that you avoid a huge class of schedule conflicts which might otherwise interrupt the regular rhythm of your habit. Rather than interrupting, S-days are now part of that rhythm. Resist the temptation to lengthen your routines beyond 14 minutes as you get more fit. Do no less than 14 minutes but also, DO NO MORE. You might think you're being hard core by doing more than 14 minutes, but all you're really doing is setting yourself up with an excuse to do nothing at all. It's exercise hubris. And ultimately it's the opposite of hard core. It's a weak willed indulgence of your ethusiasm. It's letting the horse decide where the rider is going. The truly had core thing to do is to pull in the reigns on your enthusiams. To throttle it into something sustainable. By going beyond 14 minutes you're pushing your routine into schedualistic signficance. All of a sudden it shows up on the excuse making radar. Plus it's not funny. 14 mnutes -- that's grist for motivating enlightened self mockery. But a 15 minute exercise routine, a 20 minute exercise routine? There's nothing funny about that. If you want to progress, progress in intensity. Make the time denser, not longer. Because think about it, are you magically going to have more time as you get better at exercise? No. Obviously not. Though it's amazing how many people seem to think they will. Don't fall into this trap. Because if you do what's going to happen is you'll overextend yourself and quit. I call this the "I'll have more time as I get better" fallacy, and it's actually a self discipline problem that goes way beyond exercise. Onto excuse #2: "I don't know what kind of exercise to do." This won't work because IT DOESN'T MATTER what kind of exercse you do. You could stand on one leg for 14 minutes if you can't think of anything else. Because the truth is, in comparison with simply putting in the time, what you do during that time is an insignificant detail. And yet, using this temporal structure, because it nudges you to actively experiment rather than passsively waiting, you're far more likely to fill in that time with satisfactory details than you would be otherwise. By focusing on the WHEN instead of the WHAT, you're going to wind up with a much better WHAT. I love swinging around a sledgehammer. It's fun. And it's great exercise. But the best thing about it is that the fun makes me want to actually do it -- to actually do ANYTHING. It's particular value is that it encourages me to do anything at all. The "14 minutes of ANYTHING" system takes that one step further. It explicitly targets the general "anything at all." This is useful not just because not everyone is going to be as into swinging around a sledgehammer as I am, but even people like me, may, perhaps while travelling, temporarily not have access to a sledgehammer. And this isn't just a hypothetical case -- it's how I thought of the system to being with. And I know this may sound like the pope speaking heresy, but sometimes, maybe a few days a month, even I don't feel like swinging a sledgehammer around. This structure gives me a way to keep up my N-daily exercise habit and ultimately, long-term, do more shovelglove, than I could as a shovelglove purist. It keeps me from burning out. The truth is, I still almost always do shovelglove and nothing but shovelglove for the entire 14 minutes. But that little bit of spice, of ocassionally throwing in some other stuff, keeps it from getting too dull and predictable. Even just the knowledge that I COULD legitimately throw in other stuff, without actually doing so, is sometimes spice enough. It's kind of like a adding "whisper" of vermouth to your martini. But let's say, purely hypothetically, that one day I do burn out on shovelglove. I doubt I will, but it could happen. And for shuggers without my "founders zeal," it's signficantly more likely. But If your contract with yourself, the structure you've build for your habit, is purely about time and not about the kind of exercise, you can easily switch to another totally differnt kind of exercise with minimal disruption. The important part, in terms of habit, the WHEN stays constant. To speak like a programmer for a minute, you can easily swap out one "implementation" of your exercise routine "interface" for another. I'll close this episode by considering a couple of potential objections to this system. One is the same one that people have leveled against shovelglove: that 14 minutes just isn't enough time for real exercise benefit. I think that anyone who has actually done shovelglove knows that this is hogwash. But if you haven't experienced shovelglove and aren't inclined to buy a sledgehammer, just try this: set a timer for 14 minutes and bang out as many pushups as you can do. Then squats. Then pushups again. Then squats. Etc. Just keep maxing out. My guess is you will be a quivering mass of jelly long before your 14 minutes are up. In fact, I strongly recommend not maxing out squats because you won't be able to walk for the rest of the week (I speak from experience). Just match your maxmum pushup count on the squats. But what about cardio? You've probably heard this thing about needing at least 20 minutes. Or maybe even an hour, as someone recently posted to the bulletin board. If all you're doing besides your 14 minutes is lying on the couch, I'll admit, 14 minutes, no matter how intense, aren't going to be enough to keep you in decent shape. But if you also incorporate some purposeful exertion into your life -- like urban ranger -- that is to say, walking -- 14 minutes is plenty. Or at least, it can be. Which brings me to the next objection: since all you're commiting to is 14 minutes, what's to prevent those 14 minutes from being really, really lame and utterly devoid of exercise value? Nothing -- except human nature. The hard part about exercise is not the exercise itself, the muscle work. The hard part is making the time. Or rather, making a habit of making the time. Once you've done this, once you hit that timer and start moving, you've done the hard part, the discipline part. Physically doing the exercise is actually kind of fun. Or at least it will be if you give yourself some freedom and don't start sodomasochistically micromanaging all the fun out of it. Building the temporal frame, the scaffolding, is the hard part, the part on which you should focus your self-discipline efforts. Filling in the scaffold in is fun and easy. If you don't believe me, try it for a week. Then there's the opposite objection, that exercising five consecutive days a week is TOO MUCH, that you should let your muscles rest on alternating days. If getting an optimally effective workout physiogically were your primary goal, it's possible there might be something to this. I actully have no idea. It doesn't even interest me. Because that's not my goal. And unless you're some kind of semi professional athlete, I don't think it should be your goal either. My goal is to have a sustainable exercise routine that keeps me reasonably fit. Something I can envision doing, barring seroius injury, into old age. And for that, the simplicity of "work on weekdays / rest on holidays and weekends" is perfect. I know that if I had a more complex schedule, I just wouldn't stick with it. I'd find some way to weasle out. The weekday/weekend division is so natural, so unambiguous, so excuse-proof. It works with the calendar, with the natural rhythm I already have in place for the rest of my life. I don't want to let some dubious locker room "premature optimization" risk that tremendous, obvious advantage. And in terms of 5 straight days of exercise being dangerous, pre-agribusiness farmers and laborers did hard physical work for a lot longer than 14 minutes every N-day -- and they had 6 consecutive N-days a week. They probably worked harder than this on their one day a week off. That being said, not all 14 minutes have to be equally intense. Remember that the "contract" you're making with yourself is only about time. If you're feeling beat by all means allow yourself to take an easy 14 minutes. There is a huge difference, in terms of exertion, between a full on, hard core 14 minutes and a relaxed 14 minutes -- but they're very similar in terms of habit. As with shovelglove, if anything hurts, stop immediately and take the next day off. This isn't wimping out, it's true discipline, hard core moderation, another example of throttling your enthusiasm into something sustainalbe like I was just talking about. And the better you are about doing this up front, the less often you'll have to resort to it later. I'll close with a self-quote from something I wrote on the shovelglove bulletin board a few years ago: "I think of injuries and pain not as a sign that I am hard core and awesome, but as the MOTHER OF ALL EXCUSES to stop exercising. The Badass Dude who brags 'no pain, no gain' is inevitably whining in bed shortly thereafter. Pain is for wusses and fools. Avoid it. (No offense to anyone unlucky enough to have injured themselves -- this is pep-talk to spin safe as macho. It can be a tough sell so strong words are required." That's it. Thanks for listening.
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