Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 5

Shovelglove Time

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com. Last week I started to describe my sledgehammer exercise routine, shovelglove. I talked about what a shovelglove is and how to use it. This week I'm going to talk about how to make the time to do these movements. Shovelglove is fun, but it does take time, and fun alone is not enough that you can just leave it at that. The system needs to specifically address making the time. I mentioned briefly last week how I do this: I shovelglove 14 minutes every weekday morning, and rest on weekends and holidays. But unless you've peeked at the website in the meantime, that structure probably seems a little mystifying to you.

OK, so what is up with these 14 minutes already? Here it is: 14 minutes is one minute less than the smallest unit of schedulistically significant time. No calendar has a finer granularity than 15 minutes. No one ever has a meeting that starts at 9:05 or 9:14. You have no excuse not to do this. Time-wise, it doesn't even register.

Am I serious about this? I'm very serious. It's a little funny, but that's the point. It makes you laugh at yourself for all the excuses you're going to concoct to get out of exercising. By being a little ridiculous itself, it's a reminder of how ridiculous your excuses are. And once you've made your excuses ridiculous, they are much easier to dismiss.

Look, every self help program has some arbitrary number right? The 7 habits of highly effective people, the nine steps to success. It's like a requirement in this field. This arbitrary number is at least ... a little funny ... and by being self consciously arbitrary, it actually lifts itself up out of arbitrariness. It uses it's arbitrariness to make a useful point.

Would doing 13 or 15 minutes instead of 14 make much of a difference from a purely physiological point of view? Of course not. But it does make a difference from a motivational point of view. And that's the real issue. Our problem isn't that the exercises we're doing aren't physiologically effective, our problem is that we can't convince ourselves to do them. 14 minutes, with this story about sceduallistically significant time attached to it, is compelling in a way that 13 or 15 minutes will never be. Its in your face arbitrariness actually makes it more compelling, because you can't forget the back story.

14 minutes isn't long, but it's long enough to give some aerobic benefit. Half an hour would be better. An hour would be even better. But... You won't do it. You might do that much for 3 weeks, you might even do it for 3 months, but you'll start to resent it and you'll quit. 14 minutes is habit friendly, and excuse proof. It'll burn enough calories, build enough muscle, to get you into great shape. Sustainably great shape.

I find it helpful to set a timer instead of just guesstimating or staring at a clock. First off, you can't guesstimate 14 minutes. There's no point in having this powerfully absurd number if your not going to be absurdly precise about it. Staring at the clock, however, will drive you crazy. So I set the timer on my oven. I think most ovens now days have a built in timer. If yours doesn't, get one of those egg timers. Not a big investment.

And respect the timer. When it goes off, you stop. Extending the labor metaphor, think of the timer as the overseer's whistle. It doesn't matter if you have a few reps left in your set. Just stop. As for how many reps you should do per set, I give some suggestions on the web site, but I don' think it's that important, so I'm not going to talk about it at all here. The timer is the only hard parameter. Don't feel like you are doing something good, something extra, by continuing. You're just establishing a dangerous precedent. You're dragging the routine into schedulistic significance, which sets you up with a good excuse to skip shovelglove altogether next time. Remember the goal is to form a lifelong habit, not to burn a few extra calories today.

Throttle yourself to 14 minutes every N-day and you've got a pace you can keep up with for years and decades. You avoid something I call "The Progress Trap."

The idea is this: when people start exercising after having been slothful for a long time, they tend to make rapid gains at first. They get excited. In fact people get obsessed with this rapid progress, and as soon as it cools down a bit (as it has to) they can't stay motivated and they quit. They need their progress fix, and they can't get it. They're stuck on this plateau. It's boring. It's frustrating. It's uninspiring. So what do they do? They quit. They stop exercising. And then after sitting around for months or maybe years doing essentially nothing, they get sufficiently disgusted with themselves to try again, they make some rapid initial progress, and the whole cycle starts over.

So forget progress. Maintenance is harder than progress. Maintenance is more necessary than progress. Progress is intrinsically temporary and you need to mentally budget for that fact. Most of your life, assuming you don't fall off the mountain completely, you'll be on one plateau or another. This is the best case scenario. So you have to learn to get comfortable on these plateaus.

  • Squeezing the excitement of progress and the relative un-excitement of maintenance all through that same 14 minute pipe is a good way to do this. It turns the flood-drought nature of this stuff into a steady flow. By throttling your progress you draw it out longer. And because maintenance doesn't look so different from progress anymore, it's not as uninspiring.

    OK, so much for the 14 minutes. The S-day vs N-day structure I reuse from the no-s diet is probably less mysterious, but I'd like to say a few words about it. On an obvious, surface level, the N-day/S-day division just jives well with the way the world is set up. It lets you lean on a powerful preexisting social structure to make it crystal clear which days you need to exercise. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. Excuses love ambiguity. Clarity disintegrates them, like vampires in sunlight.

    I know conventional exercise wisdom says let muscles rest every other day, but you know, farmers used to do these kinds of movements for a lot more than 14 minutes a day. More like 14 hours. So there is some precedent. Also shovelglove movements are not the isolated, contrived movements you do in a gym. They're complex, compound movements that use lots of muscle groups. You're much less likely to work one little area till you blow a fuse. And, when all's said and done, it is just 14 minutes.

    Not exercising on weekends and holidays has several benefits. Your body needs some rest, after all. And, assuming you have weekends off from your job, you really get to enjoy them. You don't have this responsibility to exercise looming over you. And because you probably do most of your traveling on weekends and holidays, you're much less likely to take trips that interfere with your exercise schedule. It'll still happen, but less often.

    One last warning before I sign off for today:

    Be careful and listen to your body. Start slowly, and crank it up only as you feel comfortable. Shovelglove shouldn't hurt. If something does, stop immediately, and take the next day off.

    Well, that's it for now. Next week I'll talk about urban ranger, a motivational trick to make a habit out of purposeful walking. Thanks for listening.

    By Reinhard Engels

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