After I left the Navy in 2005, I slowly gained weight for six years. At my largest, I weighed 150kg.
I told myself that I carried this 150kg well: I’m about 6’3”, and I’ve always had a fair amount of muscle mass. Nevertheless, I was still carrying around too much fat, and I knew it.
I’ve been slowly losing it ever since. At the time of writing, I’m at 110kg, and about 16% body fat – not mega lean, but healthy enough, and as you’ll discover, this is fine to me.
I’m always looking for lessons from my physical fitness routine that I can apply to my mental fitness. What follows is a great example of creating mental efficiency with the physical practices I followed to lose weight and get in decent shape.
- I’m not a doctor.
- This post is not about improving health.
- This is a post about mental efficiency.
The Physical Stuff – What I Did
October 2011: As a motivational exercise, one of my oldest friends signed me up for a Tough Mudder event. Having something to aim for, and wanting a body that worked for me and not against me, I started running a couple of times a week, and I took a few Parkour lessons so I could climb all the obstacles.
I also started eating better. Well, I started eating less, at least. For the most part, I ate 3 Subway sandwiches a day because they were cheap, effortless, and they told you exactly how many calories you were taking in. (This was before everybody started doing it). They also had vegetables (of a sort) in them, which made sense to me at the time.
I would still have a few beers with friends from time to time, and I would often grab a pizza or some ice cream instead of eating real food. But, generally, I was eating better and exercising more than I had for about five years.
April 2012: I was down to 130kg. I survived the Tough Mudder, and felt pretty good about it. I also knew that I didn’t want to regain all the weight – I liked having a body that worked for me, not against me. So I kept running, kept eating healthy-ish food, and figured that this was how I kept myself out of Heart Attack Land.
September 2012: I saw the CrossFit Games on TV, and basically thought, “These people can do some pretty amazing stuff. They can run well, lift heavy, move their bodies around. I want to be able to do that!”
Remembering what I said about having a body that worked for me, I found a great CrossFit gym, and started working out there. That’s also when I found out that the Paleo diet was a thing, and that everybody at CrossFit hated grains and loved avocado.
So for a few years, I did CrossFit, and tried to eat Paleo. There were times when I lost a lot of fat, but I would always regain it because ice cream and burgers are the best things ever. I loved CrossFit, and tried Paleo, macro-based eating, and my own system of “eating whatever I damn well wanted”. While I gained a little muscle and subsequently became a (slightly) leaner version of 120kg, that was essentially my baseline for over four years.
April 2017: I read Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss, and decided to give his Slow-Carb Diet a go. After two months, I’ve come down to the weight and body fat percentages I described above. Better yet, I know this is going to be the best way for me to eat from now on.
The 80/20 Rule: Why I Know That I’ve Found Something That Works
There’s nothing special about the Slow-Carb Diet compared with other eating plans. It’s basically Paleo with legumes instead of fruit, and a cheat day every week. And any healthy eating plan will work if it’s adhered to strictly.
The reason I know that this works for me is because it follows the 80/20 rule, and that is the thing that works for me.
The story behind it is worth a read, but the essential idea is that 80% of the results come from 20% of the possible actions. For example, I came up with the first draft of this post on a plane ride in about twenty minutes. To complete it will take about 100 minutes in total. And I want to write a great post, so I’m willing to put in the effort it will take to do that.
However – and this is important – I am not willing to put in the effort to become super lean, super muscular and super healthy. I don’t need a physique like Rich Froning; I just want to body that works for me instead of against me. This is the realisation that makes the 80/20 rule work for me.
Think about this and ask yourself if you’re the same. You’re busy. You have work, family, and social life to take care of. If you’re reading this blog and you do CrossFit, you’ve probably combined your social life and health tasks, which is why it’s so effective. The efficiency of CrossFit follows this principle.
What Makes the 80/20 Rule so Effective?
Whether it's writing, exercise, weight loss, or anything else, this rule helps you to do two things:
- Play to your strengths while compensating for your weaknesses.
- Decide how far you're willing to go.
Point 1: When it comes to managing the way I ate, I needed a plan that was easy to implement and did not require a lot of discipline.
The 80/20 rule has allowed me to put together an eating plan that plays to my strengths (cooking food in batches and eating the same food all the time) while addressing my weaknesses (I don't deny myself junkfood, I schedule it for Saturday!)
Point 2: In considering how much I optimise my eating from here, it's worth knowing what 100% of the results might be, and what it would take to get there.
Here’s a list of potential options that I could take if I wanted to get more than 80% of the results:
- Eat clean every day
- Cut out the legumes from my current diet
- Count macronutrients and limit food intake to optimal levels
- Introduce intermittent fasting
- Work out every day
- Sleep at least right hours a night, without fail
- Walk at least an hour a day
- Take vitamin, mineral and BCAA supplements
- Get regular deep tissue massages (I currently use a foam roller and lacrosse ball for a couple of minutes most nights)
I’m sure there’s more, but I’m starting to get tired just thinking about it. Still, I could always add one or two of these things if I start to plateau, preferably the ones that don’t require any extra effort. (The sleep one is the most likely candidate!)
Knowing both your outcome and your boundaries is critical, because then you can take action that is sustainable, and that is what make things happen.
Further Action: What Do You Do with This Information?
This is about mental efficiency. There’s only so much we humans can care about, and unless you’re trying to become the best in the world at something, there are very few things that require 100% of your effort. And remember, if you’re putting your full time and effort into something, you’re probably neglecting something else that is equally important.
Consider how you might benefit from this kind of approach the next time you want to improve something. Here are some questions that you can ask when you’re setting a target, planning a project, or seeking improvement:
- What is an acceptable level of success?
- What are your strengths? How will you use them?
- What are your weaknesses? How will you compensate for them?
- If you were forced to do or change only one thing, what would yield the most results?
- What requires the most effort? Is it the thing that yields the greatest result?
- If you cut back on the things that didn’t make much of a difference, what would you do with the time that you’ve saved?