Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 38

14 minutes of ANYTHING

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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

(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

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.

By Reinhard Engels

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