Tag Archives: motivation

“Everything in Moderation” Does Not Work as a Diet

I’ve been told by people who care for my well-being that I suck at moderation, especially with things I’m passionate about, and that this very fact will be my downfall. This is true. I do suck at moderation, but I believe I’m not alone in this. We are many. And I don’t believe it has to be anyone’s downfall. In fact, if handled properly, this “flaw” can lead to a beautiful way of life, with the help of self-analysis and self-awareness.

The goal of any diet should be lifelong happiness.

moderationThe path to that goal is in learning the strengths and weaknesses of your own brain. Everyone is different, so above all: know yourself. For me, there are some things (lets call them Apples) I can do in moderation and be really happy. There are other things (let’s call them Pizza) that I can’t do in moderation, and I’m never truly happy with them except in the brief moment of indulgence. If I moderate on the Pizza, I’m not happy long-term. If I indulge in the Pizza, I’m not happy long-term. So the path to a happy diet, for me, is saying yes to Apples and no to Pizza. Here’s why…

In a world of excess, moderation requires willpower. And willpower is something that most of us only have when we’re motivated by a goal. (Example: you have to fit into a wedding dress or you want to make a specific weight class for a grappling tournament.) But goals come and go. A good diet is one that doesn’t rely on goals. A good diet is a lifestyle that makes you happy, that is as natural as breathing. There are other diets with specific goals, for instance, protein promo have a good guide on gaining strength.

So my process with food is simple. It’s the scientific method applied to myself. I put food into three categories:

  1. Yes.
  2. No.
  3. Yes, but rarely.

I evaluate food not on some abstract Platonic ideal of a diet, but on personal experience. For each food I have in front of me, I ask two questions (the first being the most important):

  1. Have I shown in the past that I’m able to eat this food in moderation?
  2. Is this food healthy?

I believe that people don’t change. You are what you are. Accept it! Don’t live in denial about what foods you can control yourself with and what you can’t. You might see that your past as something you have grown out of, but sadly, the past is one of the most brutally honest indicators of who you really are.

Sure, I might show restraint now, when I’m motivated. But what about a week from now, a month from now? So, based on these questions I put food in the three categories:

  1. Yes: Healthy food I can eat in moderation.
  2. No: ANY food I can’t eat in moderation.
  3. Yes, but rarely: Unhealthy food I can in moderation.

It’s simple. My diet is made of things I have proven I can eat in moderation (while being happy about it). That might seem at first glance like a diet that is denying me the many pleasures of life. That might be true to an outside observer, but to me, as I live day-to-day, I’m really happy with the food I eat. My brain adjusts to the diet and derives a lot of pleasure from it. No restraint required.


The only pressure there is on me to eat otherwise is peer pressure: the pressure of society to eat the food I don’t have a desire to eat. To me, that’s like coming up to a man happily involved in a monogamous relationship and saying: “Come on! Live a little! There are so many beautiful women out there. Are you really happy with the same girl, day after day?” My answer to that is yes. If I wasn’t happy, I wouldn’t be doing it. I am a man in control of my decisions, my actions, my present and my future.

“Moderation in everything” is an ideal, not a practical likely-to-work strategy for the long-term. It is the gateway drug to excess. It is a myth peddled by dopamine dealers of society who profit by dragging you into overstimulation. Capitalism excels at getting you addicted to more, more, more.

We live in a society where excess, over-indulgence, greed is accepted, often encouraged. In the midst of such social norms, the concept of moderation is nothing more than veiled flirtations: a Siren song luring unsuspecting sailors to their death.

My diet is “select few things in moderation”, because I believe MOST things cannot be handled in moderation, so I cut them out, completely. It’s not restraint. It’s common sense. I am who I am. I know myself. I acknowledge it. I accept it.

Build a Habit: Motivation is a Fickle Mistress, Habit Is Not

The harder you work and the bigger the challenge you take on, the more likely you are to encounter the voice of “reason” inside your head that tells you to take it easy, to slow down, to take a break for a while, maybe even: to quit. This voice comes when the fire (that originally made you dream) fades. Motivation is a fickle mistress. She is there when you’re starting and the world of possibility seems infinite. She’s there when you’re improving dramatically. She’s there when you’re succeeding. But she comes and goes when the going gets tough: when you’re failing, when you hit a plateau, when you have to change and take steps back before you ever can move forward again.

If I learned anything from my work and my training, it’s that I can never count on motivation to always be there. It may be a natural flaw of an overly-introspective brain, but I’ve come to expect that motivation comes and goes. When I’m working at the edge or outside my comfort zone, tension builds, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. There are days and weeks when the answer to: “why am I doing this?” seems to escape my best attempts to find it. So, instead of searching for motivation, I find zen-like contentment in ritual. I build a habit and stick to it every day, no exceptions. I recommend you read Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. This book describes the rituals of some brilliant and productive people throughout history.

Motivation-is-what-gets-you-started-habit-is-what-keeps-you-goingThere are plenty of books and blogs dedicated to building habits. It’s an industry that actually boils down to the trivially simple advice of: you know what to do, just do it, every day. I prefer to do everything I’m passionate about according to a strict schedule. I make this schedule not based on a dreamy optimism but based on reasonable expectations grounded in my prior experiences. For example, if I can only train 4 days a week in the next 6 months, I pick the days on which I’m going to train and go in to the gym on those same days every week no matter how I’m feeling. If I didn’t sleep the night, am swamped with work, etc, etc, I still come in to train. It will probably be a bad training session, but that’s not the point of coming in on those rough days. The very fact that I came in teaches my mind to stick to the regular schedule I planned on. Habit is built not when you’re motivated, energetic, happy, etc. Habit is built when the last thing you want to do is the thing that you’re supposed to do according to your schedule, but you DO IT ANYWAY.

The main point of building a habit is so that you don’t have to ask the question “why am I doing this?” often, and can ask it only when your motivation is high. If you decide to quit, it should be only when you’re feeling great, because then the decision to quit will much more likely be grounded in a rational evaluation of your life circumstance and goals.

My girlfriend sent me a text awhile ago that I saved and think about often. Among many other things, she is a runner. She’ll regularly do 7+ mile runs in 90 degree heat and make it look easy. But even for her, doing the thing she loves, motivation is a fickle mistress:

“Some days I love running. I relish it. Some days are like: ‘I’m okay, I can do this’. But there are still days, when my mind is like ‘no no noooo.'”

Motivation is the light at the end of the tunnel. Forget the light. Everyone is good at following the light. Success is found by the few who thrive in darkness.


The Role of a Coach in Preparing an Athlete for Competion

A post by Marco Perazzo about what makes a successful competition team got me thinking about the coach-athlete relationship before and during the “competition season”. It may seem absurd for me (a purple belt) to write about the role of a coach, especially given that majority of jiu jitsu tournaments I competed at I attended alone. But I’ve always worked best under a coach, and have gained an understanding of the kind of relationship that works for me. It’s all complicated by the fact that I’m 29 years old with a more-than-full-time career, and am not as focused on sport as I may’ve been when I was 16 on my high school’s wrestling team. So this blog post is about coaching, but from the perspective of a competitor with zero coaching experience.

I think that a coach has three roles in relation to the athlete: (1) on the mat, (2) in competition, and (3) off the mat. That’s in increasing order of time and mind that it takes from the coach. Loyalty, trust, and respect develop with time, and I believe the athlete has to earn the coach’s time through hard work and dedication. A coach’s time is kind of like a father’s approval. Many of us go through our whole life without getting it, especially the  dudes that cry during the Lion King scene where the father dies.

On the Mat (at the School)

The coach sets the mood of the training, provides technical fixes to techniques, and makes sure to push the people that need to be pushed. Not much special one-on-one attention is required here. In many ways, the coach is the conductor/general, and it’s the training partners that really push the competitors to step up their game.

In Competition

I always loved having a coach on the sidelines. I draw a lot of strength from being able to look up and see someone who has been by my side for a long time, who has seen me win and lose tough battles. A coach can provide step-by-step technical instructions, watch the time, the ref, and the score, or most important in my case: yell at me when I’m tired and need to step up the intensity.

Off the Mat

This one is the most scarce forms of a coach’s attention, but I believe it’s one that can have the biggest effect on a competitor. It’s where you sit down and plan out your goals with a coach. Together you outline the competitions, the training regimen, the drilling sessions, the competition a-game, the b-game, the competition strategy. A lot of times all of these things are already known, but they are put on paper, they become hard reality. They become a guiding principle and motivator and a source of strength through the days when the last thing you want to do is drill, train, and watch competition footage.

Coaching an Amateur

1983-dan-gable-with-tim-rileyThe problem, of course, is that most competitors in jiu jitsu, even those obsessed with the sport, are not willing to do whatever it takes. They have work. They have family. They have other aspiration and responsibilities. The following story about Dan Gable as coach is only possible with someone who has a singular unbroken focus on a goal of winning. Coaching someone like that is much easier than coaching a part-time competitor. This is an excerpt from a 1984 Sports Illustrated story:

“You’ll get pinned.” The words snarl and snap as they come from Gable’s mouth. How could anybody allow himself to get pinned? Suddenly, he’s focusing on the efforts of 126-pound Iowa senior Tim Riley, who’s clearly at the brink of mental and physical exhaustion. “Riley,” barks Gable, “you have to move your feet more in order to create openings.” With that, Riley quits and walks off the mat.

“Sorry you couldn’t make the end of practice,” Gable calls after him.

“I could have made it,” says Riley, “I just didn’t want to.”

“Naw,” says Gable. “You just weren’t tough enough to make it.” Gable shakes his head sadly, as if unable to grasp how an athlete—especially one of the best collegiate wrestlers in the country—couldn’t finish practice. The next day, of course, Riley is back with an apology and excuse, and of course Gable takes him back. And Riley redoubles his efforts. But Gable muses softly, “In wrestling, you don’t break down, you don’t quit. See, that’s the problem in life. It’s too easy to turn on the TV and pull up the covers.” Gable has never pulled up the covers. He’d have to be tutored to learn how to quit.

Get Sleep Not Rest

Michael Arnstein is an ultrarunner (runs ultramarathons and longer distances) and like most ultrarunners is a facinating person to read, listen to, and learn from. Here is a good lecture from him on some details of why he runs, his diet, his motivation, his routine, etc:

There are a lot of things mentioned in this video that I’d like to comment on at a later time, but there is one thing he said that really struck me. Michael said that his main challenge in his running life and the most important part is getting enough sleep. He said that if he gets 10 hours of sleep the night before a run, he can run any distance without a problem.

He drew a distinction between rest and sleep. He said that a lot of runners tend to taper before a race. Tapering is reducing the training mileage as you approach the race, so your body is sufficiently recovered and well rested. He suggests that this is a crappy alternative for simply getting a full night’s sleep night after night, and most importantly the night before a race. You may agree or disagree with that idea, but one thing is for sure, most of us recreational athletes do not get enough sleep, and I would venture to guess that most professional athletes do not get enough sleep either, especially before a big competition.

That served as a reminder that I need to take sleep, not rest, more seriously. And also, if I know that I have to wake up at 6am for a tournament next weekend, I better be waking up at 6am for many consecutive days before then.

Anyway, I’m officially declaring to myself as a goal that I’m going to get at least 6 hours of sleep every night for the month of May, and shoot for 8 hours as often as possible. You should do the same.

Hard Work or Hardly Working

Main point: Everyone has a personal definition of words like “productive”, “busy”, “hard work”, but progress is driven by the evolution/expansion of these definitions.

Yes, here comes another obvious “wisdom” of the relativist variety.

I like to use sport for analogy, because sport somehow boils down the basic struggles of life into a concrete measurable game of skill and chance. So let’s talk about the treadmill (here’s me running on a treadmill). I used to think that an 8 minute mile was hard. I mean I have friends that are runners and can keep a 5-6 minute mile pace for several miles, but I never even acknowledged that as reality.

To me an 8 minute mile was something I could do, but would have to put in a lot of “hard work”. Anything faster than that was for physical freaks, who I completely ignored in my analysis. The reality however is that those people struggled with an 8 minute mile as well at some point in their life. But unlike me, they did not settle with this limit. They changed their definition of “hard” first to 7 minutes, then to 6, and finally to bellow 5.

I did the same a couple years back with a 6 minute mile. I just one day decided that I will run at a 6 minute mile pace for as long as I could. I would not quit until my body completely quit. It was torture, but I actually did it.

I think the same is true with everything we undertake in life. I too often settle for my idea of what is “hard work” and don’t try to push the limit. But that’s where growth happens: trying to do the things that seems obviously impossible. It turns out that some of them are actually possible.

Since I don’t run much, and suffer through it every time I do run, I like to use running as an indicator of my mental toughness (or lack thereof). For this reason, I hope to one day be able to run a 5 minute mile. Of course, my real goals are all surrounding research and academia, but those are a lot more difficult to put into words and numbers than the time it takes to run a mile.

Top 5 Reasons to Compete in BJJ, Judo, and Grappling

The following are some reasons I compete in jiu jitsu and judo. Not all of these may be true for everyone, but hopefully they give a little encouragement to those looking to compete in their first, second, or 100th tournament.

1. Refocus your training

Competition adds an urgency and focus to your training. For example, the knowledge that I will have to pass the guard of several opponents that will be resisting it at 100% while trying their best to sweep me motivates me to drill the crap of my guard passes, and take every detail of the technique seriously. I’ll watch instructionals on guard passing. I’ll watch competition footage on guard passing. I’ll find the guys with the best guard and work my ass off to pass theirs and when I fail, figure out why I failed, and how I can succeed.

That applies not just to guard passing, but to all techniques. The “threat” of competition focuses and motivates me to where I can’t help but get better in how and what I train.

2. Learn to relax and breath

When I watch or train with a top notch jiu jitsu or judo player, I notice that they are exceptionally good at finding positions where to relax and rest. Well, it depends of course. Some are great athletes that can push the pace the whole match, but they are doing so without wasting any energy. So they are relaxed even when they are aggressively attacking.

A big part of staying relaxed is breathing. The harder the training session, the more likely I am to hold my breath during scrambles. Competition matches are often one long scramble and are thus excellent opportunities to practice breathing in the midst of battle.

Good breathing is the key to having fun in jiu jitsu and judo. Without it, even the best athletes run out of gas prematurely, and have to then suffer out the rest of the match. The better I get at breathing the more I am able to train for many sets in a row, sometimes as long as 2 hours straight. I think you can get away with holding your breath in training (and many people do) but you can’t in competition. It’s where you have to honestly confront the counter-intuitive fact of grappling: in order to perform optimally, you have to relax and breath.

3. Bond with fellow grapplers and coaches

Not sure why, but nothing brings people together like kicking each other’s ass 😉 in a friendly and controlled environment. The judo and jiu jitsu mat attracts a community of people that respect the tradition and art of these sports to where many people can appreciate a tough loss as much as a tough win. At the end of the day, everyone’s tired, happy, and complaining about bad referee calls over a bunch of beers. I’ve made many friends over the couple years that I’ve been competing. Some of these are already beginning to develop into lifelong friendships.

4. Learn to not quit

There is a feeling that comes knocking on the door to my brain when I’ve been going hard , I’m out of breath, I’m being smashed by my opponent, I’m behind on points, and there’s still three minutes left in the match. It’s a feeling that says “quit”. That’s a test. It’s a test that comes up in different ways in all aspects of my life. If I quit, no one will yell at me, fire me, or hurt me. And yet, despite all that, I refuse to quit, for no reason other than a kind of proud stubbornness. Overcoming that feeling ripples through the rest of my life to where I can face each day with the confidence that I can take on whatever challenges it has for me.

5. The feeling of victory

I may lose over and over again (and learn a lot from it), but eventually, if I preserver, I will win, and it will feel damn good. Maybe not right away, maybe I’ll be driving back home or just getting an “attaboy” from a coach next day on the mat. I’ll smile and somehow the world will feel lighter on my shoulders. It’s foolish perhaps to attribute much value to winning, but life is fundamentally a foolish endeavor. And yet, there is something beautiful about working hard as hell for something, failing time and time again, but eventually getting it. That’s what life is about. Few places in life provide the chance for clear victory like the competition mat.

Polyphasic Sleep: A Look at Sleeping Patterns

sleep-stagesSleep is fundamentally a social phenomena in that when (and how long) you sleep is often determined by the social norms, personal responsibilities, and the people in your life. The more freedom you have in this regard, the more freedom you have to experiment with different sleeping patterns.

This is definitely the case for me. After graduating high school, and moving out of my parent’s house to go to college, I gained the freedom to sleep whenever. I very often pulled all-nighters in high school, but the criticism from my parents was always a disincentive. I remember frequent (as in non-stop) reminders from my mom that such sleeping patterns are “not normal”.

I viewed sleep as an adversary in the quest for productivity. Getting less sleep was a victory. I certainly don’t feel that way these days. I believe that there are more hours in a day than a body can handle in terms of exceptional productivity, and sleep should be used to get sufficient rest to be able to achieve the mental state required for such productivity.

That said, I have often read about and tried sleeping patterns that involve sleeping 2 or more times a day for short periods of time. This is referred to as polyphasic sleep. For it, the guiding medical idea (which seems to be widely accepted) is that the most “restful” stage of sleep is REM, which constitutes only a small fraction of the sleep cycle. The motivation of polyphasic sleep patterns is that you can train your body to achieve REM through short naps.

On average, it takes about 90 minutes to hit the first REM cycle and that only last for about 10 minutes. The idea of polyphasic sleep is that you can reduce that 90 down to single digits. I believe that it works, as I have experienced it myself, however I believe (and a lot of literature seems to agree) that you need to be (severely) sleep deprived in order to achieve this. Therefore, it is indeed possible to follow The Uberman pattern, but it seems that the mental clarity achievable in the waking state under that pattern is just not up to the same level as under the more traditional sleeping pattern.

Steve Pavlina experimented with the Uberman lifestyle for 6 months, but quit. His experience is not convincing to me, despite his mostly positive commentary.

I think the main lesson Steve and other takes away is that napping is a powerful way to re-energize yourself and to achieve the kind of mental state that leads to long periods of productive activity.