On Thursday, November 3, I sat down on my couch with a curious tinge in my lower back. It was the sort of tinge where you think “huh, little stiff there” and try to take it easy. I told myself it would loosen up and woke up the next morning and went about my day.
On Saturday, November 5, I woke up screaming in pain. My back was in knots. I couldn’t even find a comfortable position to sit down without wincing. I tried to bend over to loosen everything up and almost fell over. I canceled everything I wanted to do for the weekend and relegated myself to the couch to binge on Netflix.
“Old!” I cried. “This is the first sign! I’m going to have to be careful from here on out about any strenuous activity from here on out. What does that mean for my love of weightlifting? Will I be able to run or play basketball again?”
I am prone to melodrama.
On Monday, May 30, I posted my May blog post. I hated it. You can see me talking about stuff I did, and books I read, and things I lifted, but I hated how I felt at the time of writing it. I was struggling to get through it because I felt like I hadn’t really been doing anything productive for weeks. I’d just been playing video games and watching Netflix and making myself work out at home so I wouldn’t feel awful about myself for not going to the gym.
But it didn’t stop there. I proceeded to watch the entirety of Doctor Who (the new seasons) throughout the rest of the summer and fall. Over 120 hours of butt, glued to couch, watching TV. I didn’t read books, not at the volume I had been, anyway. I wasn’t slinging code. I was doing that which was required of me, day in and day out, and nothing else. Nothing at the next level.
On Monday, October 31, I declared “time to start getting myself hardcore in shape again!” I did two-a-day workouts every day that week. I ran. I lifted things. I played basketball for two hours straight against kids who are out there all the time. I haven’t gone running heavily in at least a year. I haven’t played basketball in months. And yet, I was going to do it! All in two-a-day format!
And on Saturday, November 5, with my back in knots, I cried “woe is me, I have grown old.” Took me about five days to put two and two together and say “bro, you’re not old, you’re just out of shape.”
AS IT TURNED OUT TO MY UNENDING SURPRISE AND CONFUSION, one can not stop doing heavy deadlifts and squats, stop running, and stop doing any flexibility training whatsoever and suddenly expect to start doing hardcore two-a-day workouts without injury. Human beings don’t work like that, and my back muscles are perfectly happy to remind me of that.
As I’m prone to do, I started pondering what this meant for other areas of my life. I was so blinded by my insistence that I was a certain person - a person committed to fitness - that I was really scared to admit that I might have lost it. And I have this mental picture of myself as someone with a ton of grit that it really shook me up to write about certain months this year where I didn’t really do a whole lot of productive stuff and played video games instead. In both cases, I couldn’t give myself an honest assessment of my current status - which was exactly what I needed to do to make things better. I needed to get off the mental high of “self improvement” and just start doing things that made me a better person and made me happy.
So this month is about recovery. I’ve been losing ground.
How am I recovering?
First things first, and the number one priority, is getting my physical fitness back in order. This starts with yoga. I’m choosing yoga because my overall strength has gotten out of whack: certain muscles are still reasonably strong, while certain muscles have weakened. All of them are in flexible. That combination means that I can do serious damage to myself when the strong muscles start to compensate for the weaker ones with unexpected movements, which triggers the inflexibility, which puts me on my rear again. I’m also starting to run again, but short distances: one block at a time until I get back to a distance I’m happy with.
I could go to a yoga studio, but I really hate scheduled workouts. Instead, I’ve been using the Gaiam Yoga Studio App to put myself back in order. It’s got a load of things that make it awesome. It’s cheap ($4), it’s got a one-time cost, it lets me download videos ahead of time instead of throwing my mojo off by bad streaming, and it’s got plenty of different workout times while I’m ramping back up. It even lets me follow the fifteen minutes principle. That has translated into doing yoga in some form or fashion every day since November 14, which is fantastic.
Long term plans for physical fitness are still TBD - I’m rebuilding my flexibility first - but I am envisioning something like the workout plans I used to follow back when I was doing P90X. That means two days a week dedicated to yoga, two days a week dedicated to strength, and two days toward cardio. I’d like to get back to being able to run six miles again, and I’d kinda like to be able to do a handstand, too.
For the productivity, that’s about taking out wasted time. I’m defining “wasted” time not simply as unproductive moments, but as moments that are distinctly spent doing something I don’t really care about. If I’m out with my friends, that’s not a wasted moment, even if I don’t get some productive thing done that I’d planned on. If I’m mindlessly scrolling through Reddit, that’s a wasted moment. Yet I’ve never had the ability to effectively block out time-wasters until this month, when my buddy John told me about an app called Freedom. Freedom blocks you from opening certain web sites, but it also allows you to choose certain apps that you want blocked as well. I have a blocklist that includes Reddit, Hacker News, and Instagram, and I flip it on for 30 minutes whenever I need to get something started. (like this blog post!) I use BlockSite for the same purpose on Chrome.
In addition, and at the encouragement of my girlfriend, I’ve taken some of this time to proactively keep my place clean and organized. I’m making sure that laundry is either in the hamper or folded and put away by the time I leave the house in the morning. I take a few more of those fifteen minute intervals to make sure things are in their right place. On Sundays I do a bit of a deeper clean. Does any of this make me inherently more productive? To be honest, I don’t think so. The benefits are mental. There’s no time spent saying “oh, you know, I really should fold that laundry…” and no time spent rushing around stressed because people are coming over and my place is a wreck. It’s always already taken care of. The worst case scenario is now good enough that I don’t sweat it if it happens.
As a closing statement, I know I’m not the only one who feels like they’ve lost ground in something. Maybe it’s your fitness like me, or maybe it’s your work ethic, or maybe it’s something even deeper and more personal. Just remember that point you feel like you’ve lost - you got there somehow, and you backslid somehow, and acting like you’re somewhere that you’re not isn’t going to help you get to where you want to go.
This post is titled “Hypertrophy” because I am choosing to focus on the physiological principle that human beings get stronger when their muscles are forced to hit the limit. There is no growth without somehow getting knocked down.
- Read three books
- Code Complete by Steve McConnell (by the way, this thing is a monster. It’s good knowledge to have and I’m glad I read it as an engineer, but it is the size of the biggest Harry Potter book ever and nowhere near as easy to read)
- Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman
- Cracking the Coding Interview by Gayle Laakmann McDowell (not applying for jobs, this is just one of the best refreshers on basic algorithms out there)
- Enjoyed Thanksgiving with 18 of my family members right here in DC
- Went camping in sub-freezing temperatures at the treehouse camp in western Maryland
- Wrote my first full app in Scala and learned a thing or two about functional programming
- Did two-a-day workouts for a week and landed on the couch with a back injury as a result
- Finished Doctor Who
- Watched all of Stranger Things
- Watched all of Luke Cage
- Watched Pacific Rim
- Did at least fifteen minutes of yoga each day for 15+ consecutive days and counting
- Began blocking website and app distractions using Freedom and BlockSite to improve productivity
- Began maintaining a clean house through regular, dedicated small doses of effort