WillPower: The Book

The single best nonfiction book I have read this year, and maybe the best one I have read in three or more years, was Willpower:  Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister, and  John Tierney published by The Penguin Press in 2011.  I will save you the trouble and provide you the Amazon link here.  According to Wikipedia Roy Baumeister is the internationally known “Francis Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida.”  You can also visit his faculty web site.

This book offers remarkable insight into the obstacles we face when losing weight, exercising, and otherwise trying to lead an organized, healthy, fulfilling, and productive lifestyle.

I always highlight, and write notes when I read, if the book is intriguing. I then go back and take notes.  I have not done that yet, but below is a list of the most memorable, and useful items, that I remember from my first visit. In no particular order:

  • although we can increase our capacity for using willpower, it is also something that can be depleted.  When it is depleted you make bad choices you regret later.
  • making too many decisions too fast can deplete willpower. This phenomenon is known as decision fatigue and is related to the next item:
  • willpower requires energy (our brain is 2% of our body but consumes a whooping 20% of the total calories we burn).  If our energy is depleted our willpower, along with other functions, decreases.
  • we can have too many goals.  It is not a good idea to have a large  laundry list of goals (and goals are not to be confused with tasks).  Finishing a degree, writing that novel, and remodeling the house, while you are trying to lose weight is probably not a good idea.
  • organization is the friend of willpower.  The more organized you are the less stress, and cognitive energy, goes into finding things, doing things at the last minute or missing deadlines, and worrying about what has not been done.  Unfinished business, commitments, and obligations creates an “open loop.” This leads to yet one more item:
  • I personally think that it is essential to have some kind of organizing system like the Getting Things Done (GTD) system of David Allen which postulates the aforementioned “open loop” problem.  Tame your tasks. Unfinished business creates an open loop and we often have lots of little, and big, unfinished tasks, commitments, and promises. We are into something else, or maybe two other things, and suddenly remember another thing we forgot to do because we have no system of keeping track of what needs to be done, and what has already been accomplished.  That is known as a todo list my friend.  Get one, and love it.   The GTD system is specifically mentioned in the book and I have had fantastic results with it so far and I am just in the early stages of learning it.  I will be reviewing that book next since I am still reading it.
  • avoid having to make too many decisions and especially trivial ones.  Make a decision, and unless it is a disaster or obviously the wrong one stick with it.   Either have yogurt or egg whites for breakfast and stop worrying about it. They are both good choice.  Wear the gray or black socks.  Does it Preplanning meals, workouts, and activities is a best practice.  You can be flexible but don’t fret too much about first world problems or matters that well, don’t matter.
  • habits are your friend.  If something is habitual you don’t have a chance to think about it.

I also think that reducing clutter (in all areas of your life), and practicing some degree of minimization is helpful.  Everything is connected.

The book is not the complete instruction manual for building willpower I was hoping for.  It was also written in 2011, and I am sure there has been a lot of good research since then.  But, it is entertaining, and filled with lots of great information that you can apply.  I will be investigating the phenomenon of what we call willpower from the psychological and neuroscience perspective to try to see what best practices are being developed.  It is a fascinating and useful field.

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Will Running a Marathon Make You Skinny? A Surprising Answer is Not Necessarily

The marathon is the iconic distance shrouded in mystery, and crowned with glamor. Just finishing it is considered an accomplishment.  At one time it was widely believed that just running a marathon would make you immune from a heart attack, and this belief was widely held until running evangelist Jim Fixx, and best selling author of The Complete Book of Running, died of a heart attack – while running:

Fixx often quoted California pathologist Tom Bassler who stated that any nonsmoker who could run a marathon in under four hours would never die from a heart attack.

www.villages-news.com/remembering-running-guru-jim-fixx/

So, can people run marathons without necessarily losing weight?  The study is small, the exact implications are not clear, but fitness researcher Mary Kennedy of the Harvard Medical School was surprised to find  that for whatever reason some people who run marathons will not necessarily loose. weight. There are many breathless iterations of this story on the web, and I have not been able to find the original research, but New York Magazine’s “The Science of Us” web page carried the most reasonable version of the story stripped of the sensationalism. Here is a quote from that story:

She conducted a small, simple pilot study, limited to her group of 64 charity runners, comparing their weight before starting the training program to their weight after completing it. About 11 percent of them did lose weight, but just as many gained weight (and of those who gained, 86 percent were women). But for the remaining 78 percent, their weight stayed almost exactly the same, even after three months of running four days a week.

This summer Runners World ran a remarkable article about Mirna Valerio who is a 250 lb, and they actually use the term, “obese runner.”  She is a distance runner who also runs the occasional marathon.  You can read the story here:  http://www.runnersworld.com/runners-stories/ultra  and I urge you to visit her  interesting blog Fat Girl Running.

So now we know that running marathons does not guarantee that you will not have a heart attack, and there continues to be reports of runners who look fit, but who die while running like my friend and mentor Arne Richards, of whom Joe Henderson has written so movingly.

We need to understand that being thin, my friend Arne was very thin with practically no body fat when he died while running at age 42, does not guarantee being physically fit or healthy. Same thing applied to Jim Fixx.  Conversely, we need to understand that running long distances is no guarantee of shedding pounds.  It is more complicated than that.

A life of holistic moderation lived mindfully is the target that I am aiming for.  That includes a good diet, adequate sleep, reducing stress, and an exercise regime that is backed by empirical evidence rather than wishful, and simplistic, thinking.  All of these things work together.  I will close now by referring you to an article in Women’s Running by Rachel Cosgrove which is simply outstanding.  It is entitled Weight Loss Fact and Fiction.  Please read it.

Mindfulness, Minimalism, and Fitness: What do they have in common?

To me fitness is not an end into itself but a tool for better living.  My path to fitness started with diet, evolved to include fitness, from there to mindfulness, and finally to minimalism.  I forgot to mention the very beginning  of all this was getting away from a cigarette addiction. What do all those things have in common?  Getting rid of what you don’t need.  Eliminating what is either harmful or burdensome.  Eliminating the foods you don’t need,  the weight that holds you back and breaks your health, the excessive stress and relentless pace of modern life, and then finally all that “stuff” we don’t need.  Travel light.

Tomorrow I am giving a presentation on mindfulness at the Lake of the Ozarks for the Missouri chapter of the National Association of Social Works (NASW).    You can find the  presentation here as a PDF file.  It is subject to change – a work in progress.