I’m a big believer that all people should push for constant change in their lives. Standing still leads to losing one’s sense of purpose and can often lead to anxiety, a feeling of discontent and even depression. Over the last 12-18 months looking back I have made some radical changes in my life some of which have been truly transformation. Here are my top ones
- Intermittent fasting
I have been doing this religiously for the last 18 months, initially to lose body fat, for which its very very effective and fast, but afterwards mostly because of the addiction to the mental focus and feeling it gives you.
There’s lots of literature one can read online about intermittent fasting, some with conflicting views so take what you read with a pinch of salt. Personally I’m a big fan of Thomas Delauer’s channel on Youtube – I find it one of the better sources and one that goes deeper into the science behind things as opposed to voicing generic unfounded opinions.
The important thing to bear in mind is that every person is different – fasting may or may not be for you, or, and quite likely, you will need to adapt it to what works best for you.
In general the thesis is that by paying attention to WHEN you eat, not just WHAT you eat, you allow your body to take a break from digesting food constantly and turn more attention on itself. After twelve hours Autophagy kicks in (Greek for ‘eating oneself’) where the weaker cells in your body get ‘eaten’ by the stronger ones so in essence the body replenishes itself. You start feeling better, your skiing cleans up, your energy levels are higher (we really don’t realise how much energy constant food digestion takes up, our hunter-gatherer body was not designed for this after all) and of course you lose fat because in the absence of food in the stomach your body turns to reserve fat as the next easiest source of fuel.
The other thing to bear in mind is that fasting becomes easier the more you do it. So after a while you don’t feel the hunger any more and the shakiness (if you had it in the first instance) goes away. Your body is very good at adapting to what it’s used to. So if you have a fridge next to your desk and keep munching all day, that’s what your body will get used to and need. If you fast it will retrain itself to accept that feeding time won’t be till hour 16 when you break your fast (another misconception: breakfast which in the modern world has been taken to mean your morning meal, also wrongly called ‘the most important meal of the day’ by many, is meant to mean literally the meal which breaks your fast. If the first thing you do when you wake up is gobble down some food its hardly a fast. Granted you may be asleep for 8 hours but you hardly burn anything during sleep in comparison with daily activity of moving around).
My advice to anyone new to fasting would be to stage it. Kill the classic three meals a day (a completely fabricated practice by the lazy modern Man – our hunter-gather ancestors never had the luxury to feed 3 times a day, unless it was a REALLY good day in the hunt) and go to two, one being lunch and the other an early dinner. Then to one.
Try to fast: feed in 12:12 hour windows at first then make it 16:8, then 18:6. 16-18 hours fast is meant to be the optimal as you get a good few hours of autophagy and fat burn. For me what works well is to mix it up. I usually do a 24 hour fast at least once or twice a week (usually a Monday and Tuesday following a food-indulgent weekend) and 20/4 for the rest of the working week. Weekends I let go and refeed the body. And have fun!
The other benefit of fasting from a physique perspective is that you can literally take whatever you would normally feed on (or actually even more) and cram it in that 4 hour window without putting on the same amount of body fat. In other words when you fast, during the narrow feeding period your body turns into a fat-burning machine, destroying whatever you put in. Which means you can indulge more.
The same goes for splitting your weekly intake (I’ve found) skewed towards weekends. If you fast all week and go nuts on weekends, the net effect body-fat wise is much less than spreading the same intake evenly throughout the week. Your metabolism adapts to be much more efficient at digesting food when food is around, while in the mean time your body is given a chance to replenish and work on itself when it’s not, keeping insulin levels more steady and therefore avoiding the peaks and troughs in energy which you inevitably get when constantly feeding at narrow intervals, especially so with carbs and sugars.
- Training every day
Training, in whatever format it may be (gym or doing a sport) is another one of those practices that the more you do the easier it becomes.
I was never too much of a morning person training wise, and the evenings I often have social or work-related engagements, or just want to chill after as tiring day at work, so for me the transformation was
- to find something I love and enjoy doing which makes it effortless. I got addicted to boxing and Muay Thai
- to find a time of day that works for me and make it a regular. I religiously do it just past midday at 2pm just before’ breaking my fast’ . This also has the benefit of kicking me into Ketosis (as I explain further below) so that I can keep my evenings free and don’t feel drained all day with a morning workout.. plus by splitting my day in half it’s like having two fresh mornings in the day. It’s almost like a restart to the day
- finding a trainer or a training partner with whom you have fun so it makes your time enjoyable. I now interchange a few trainers but literally with all of them we are friends and laugh non stop together.. sometimes too much:) That one hour of my day is not just a reboot but a pleasurable laugh.
- setting goals that you work towards. Seeing yourself progress towards goals is motivating and gives you stamina to keep going
- slotting the session in my calendar and don’t move it no matter what. Its the only way to stay religious about it
Training has not just been lifechanging because I got healthier and in better shape but again it’s the mental stimulus, higher metabolic rate, more alertness and energy, more balanced hormonal system and a calmness that you only get by sweating it out. Especially with all-consuming jobs like mine, finding time to train – even if its 30 mins – every day is truly transformation. You are more focussed, have a clearer mind and feel better all round.
- Cutting out carbs and sugars from my diet
Unbeknown to most, sugar is the biggest killer in America and more addictive than cocaine. Not only that but it puts you in constant swings of energy from highs to lows and back all the time, hence the term ‘high on sugar’.
I’m lucky because I never did like sweet things too much (apart from desert wine J) but I used to consume a lot of carby foods: bread, pasta, rice etc. I’ve cut those out of my diet almost entirely in the last 18 months and again, much like with intermittent fasting, the first benefit is fat loss, but then following that I got hooked on the feeling of having steady levels of insulin in my blood stream without the highs and lows in energy it creates.
Again, the easiest way for one to understand the science behind all this is to think of our hunter-gather ancestors. When the first Homo Sapiens evolved from our predecessors Homo Erectus we weren’t designed with the idea that a fridge will be next to us 24/7. Or a grocery store round the corner. Our body was designed for infrequent feeding for necessity (survival) when food is around, storing any excess as body fat to turn to when food isn’t around. What we’ve done in modern living however is invert that: we feed constantly out of pleasure (you will not die of starvation if you stop the constant munch) and our body spends more time accumulating fat instead of using it a spare resource.
Equally our diet was composed mostly of meat, vegetables, nuts and berries – things found in nature, in other words starch, protein and small amounts of fructose. Synthetic carbohydrates such as the ones found in bread were not part of it either. We forget that bread and pasta are things we invented in the kitchen.
So when you eat a bowl of pasta, or have a cake, the body isn’t designed to process that at its normal metabolic rate which is why whatever energy is need is instantly released (resulting In spikes in glucose and insulin) and the rest is turned to fat storage, as opposed to the whole meal being digested at a pace akin to the pace you expend energy (therefore avoiding the energy spikes and fat accumulation).
On top of that, the double whammy is that – unlike with longer lasting or in colloquial terms more ‘filling’ meals like starchy veg or a steak – you still feel hungry because the carbs have been digested so fast (hence people saying have pasta for lunch as its ‘light’) so you end up having more of it to fill up. Which is more calories and more carbs again and hence more fat. It’s a viscous cycle,
I’m not a big fan personally of the keto diet, I find it difficult to consume the amounts of fat it prescribes. I prefer intermittent fasting (not that they’re mutually exclusive) coupled with high protein / low carbohydrate diet and – quite importantly – fasted training, especially HIT (High Intensity Training).
Ketosis and a ketogenic diet are often confused. Ketosis is the state you get in when your glucose levels are below a certain threshold. In the absence of glucose to turn to energy your liver secretes ketones which are used to burn body fat for energy. The effect is higher fat burn rate which is why a Ketogenic diet is often prescribed for fat loss.
However it’s not the only way to get into Ketosis. In fact the easiest way is by doing HIT on a fasted stomach. If you’ve done over 12 hours fast and do a high intensity training session without eating anything you’re almost certainly going to be in ketosis.
Ketones are important because they are one of the two sources of energy for the brain, the other being glucose. Studies have shown increased mental activity if ketones are used for energy versus glucose: in other words you think clearer, faster and are more focussed, and even better memory.
So for me what’s worked in terms of getting the mental benefits of ketosis without putting myself through a strict fatty keto diet is to break my fast every day after a fasted HIT session.
Some people measure whether they are in ketosis or not using one o fa variety of methods. For me its pointless. You will feel it when you are in ketosis – the mental clarity and focus is quite profound and addictive.
- Getting a ‘mind coach’
I hate the term life coach or therapist – both carry inaccurate predispositions often associated with the negative. It’s a bit like calling your sports trainer a ‘fat burner’. The focus should be on the positive.
Ultimately what it comes down to is someone helping you train your mind, much like a Personal Trainer helps you train your body or helps you improve a sport. Remember: even the top sportspeople or athletes have a trainer. So if your mind is as important as your body (if not more) why wouldn’t you do the same for your mind? Why would someone help you train your body or get better at sport be seen as so obvious (and indeed common these days) whilst someone a trainer for your mind would not?
Our brains and our body are the two things we need to keep in balance the most. This is not to say you can’t do both alone. Meditation is a form of mind training more often than not done in solitude (though not necessarily) – as is going to the gym for physical training. But the right coach can be transformative for both. Which is why even the best athletes have a trainer and the best business people have as mind coach.
Again – chemistry with the right person is crucial here. I probably went through a dozen trainers to get one I really ‘click’ with and happy to spend an hour of my day with every day – that’s a serious commitment to keep up if you’re not having fun with that person or on the same wavelength. Same with a mind coach.
What I got out of mind coaching is first and foremost a deeper understanding of myself. Our minds are hugely complex muscles – think of how we can still perform actions in a split second that computers with infinitely more CPU power per say cant. We think we understand how our mind works but we don’t (although Steven Pinker’s book of the same name is a great help). Others simply don’t care which is fine for some – ignorance can be bliss- but if you are interested to make the most of what you truly can in this short passing we have through planet earth, I’d argue you stand as far greater chance if you understand yourself.
What I understood is what truly motivates me in life, what my fears are and how to overcome them. Only then can you understand how you can improve your interactions with others which in turn has a knock on effect on friendship, social life, and relationships pretty much of all sorts, romantic or not, and in my case as a business leader, my interaction with those around me at work which is crucial to any my business success.
You become a more balanced person, less self-absorbed, less insecure, more in tune with those around you; you get to appreciate chemistry – again in all types of relationships – and learn to avoid those who will drain your energy (not because they are bad people but because, now that you understand yourself better, you know you’re incompatible) and spend more time to those with whom you find you recharge each others’ batteries. You cut out inefficiency in your life which leaves you feeling a bit lost, lonely, downbeat and frustrated.
One of the best take-aways I got from my coach puts the above more eloquently I think. He said to me: “we all a Smart Person inside us and a Kind Person (to some extent or other and in varying degrees between us of course). The important thing to realise that the two are constantly in battle. So when we don’t understand a situation, or are fearful of it, we may gravitate toward being kinder but at the expense of doing the smart thing”.
Feeling sorry for someone (don’t confuse sympathy with empathy here) is often a good example. If someone you care for keeps doing the wrong thing then gets in tears, because you cart for them our natural reaction is to say “Aww you poor thing “and give them a hug or a pat on the back. Guess what. You’ve just increased the chances of them doing it again. Kindness got one over Smarts in that battle in that instance. The Smart thing to do is in fact to shock them: scream at them and say you look and sound pathetic. “You keep doing this then come crying,. Get a grip and snap out of it.”
Or in more layman terms: sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind.
I never really believed in meditation but I have to confess I’m a converter. Again, the term is probably carrying negative connotation, and images of a monk stuck in absolute silence for hours on end in a funny and uncomfortable posture.
Meditation is nothing other than emptying your thoughts – as much as possible – from a mind that’s constantly bombarded with information all day, something accentuated with today’s social media ridden world we live in. And we do that by trying to not think at all, and train the mind to push away thoughts when they get in our brain by focusing back on fundamentals like our breathing. The idea is the everything else in life comes and goes: breathing stays with us from start to end in our life.
What worked for me is doing some basics with a meditation coach, then using an app like Headspace.What I’ve found is that frequency is more important than length. Even if you do it for 5 mins every day when you wake up (normally what I do) or whenever, but do it consistently, you will find that your mind empties itself from all the clutter. You become calmer and more focussed. More content. Less anxious and agitated.
The other important effect of meditation I’ve found is that you become more intuitive and less cerebral in your thinking. In other words, once the thoughts clutter is gone it’s easier to follow your intuition, otherwise known as your instincts. This is important in personal and professional life alike. Hugely so.
We forget or perhaps disregard that Intuition is in essence condensed logic, lots of it, accumulated over our lives or even before, stored in our limbic brain at the back of our mind, literally (and hence the origin of the expression). Which is why we know fear as kids before we are logical enough to compute logically that a situation should be fearful.
Equally when an instinct tells you to avoid someone on the street (hence street smart) that’s not a logical computation at that moment. It’s still logical though, entrenched in the back of our brain from past experiences – that tells you instantly to stay away. Hence the term ‘street smart’ vs book smart. If you spent all your life in a library reading books you may well lack that experience to trigger that instinctive thought. Result: you get mugged.
Instinct is also how animals who don’t have a developed cerebral brain like humans can (as dogs do) get a negative vibe about someone and start barking. Hence the term ‘animal instinct’
In short our limbic brain is more mature and wiser than our newer developed prefrontal and new-cortex (hence ‘neo’, Greek word for new) which is responsible for sequential computation of thought otherwise known as analytical thinking or logic. When we think instinctively we short circuit the neo-cortex and go straight to this hub of accumulated condensed knowledge.
Which is why as we get more experience at doing something we stop thinking analytically and start thinking intuitively. We get into a natural ‘flow’ as often called where the activity becomes natural to us.
Granted some people are genetically more intuitive than others but I’ve found that meditation helped me become more instinctive buy removing a lot of the clutter and noise that gets in the way.