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Six things that Sober October taught me

November 09, 2018

To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him. - Buddha

Call it complacence, lethargy or just letting myself go, but one day in September, I woke up and weighed myself on the scale and saw the digits keep increasing 0>>>50>>>100>>>150>>>170>>> 185 lbs! And I freaked out. Now to give you some perspective, if you would have met me in the winter of 2013, you would have seen me as a mid-20s, 154 lbs, skinny Indian guy. In the past I have always been able to, with seeming “ease”, lose weight at will and do so quickly. However, since I turned 30, I have found out that isn’t so easy anymore. Any half cocked attempted would flail due to lack of a seeming purpose. This might be a psychological falsehood that I repeated to myself but it manifested itself as an undeniable truth.

Cutting back to the purpose of this article, come mid-September 2018, I was thinking about how I should use the month of October to lose weight and settle back into a healthier diet. This nicely coincided with something I heard on Joe Rogan’s podcast, where he was embarking on a “Sober October” with his friends to take on a month of sobriety along with intense workouts.

After listening to that podcast, I was inspired to fashion a “Sober October” of my own kind. As a part of this experience, I learned the following aphorisms that have farther reaching consequences that what I got myself into during the October of 2018.

1. Figure out what is important to you

The first step of any expedition or adventure has to be to figure out what it is that you are trying to accomplish. You don’t necessarily need to have a detailed map of how you will achieve whatever it is, but you need to know what “it” is. Trying to understand the direction in which you want to move towards, is the single most important step you can take and will help you make subsequent decisions more easily. For me, it was losing weight and getting healthier by the end of the month. It could just as easily extend to any goal you want to accomplish, be it related to sports, writing, career or whatever it is that you want to achieve. Different people are driven by different motivations. For me, mental and physical health are at the apex of the pyramid. As they say on aircraft announcements, first take care of yourself before you help others. While on the surface it might seem like a selfish thing to say or do, if you are at the peak of your performance capabilities, you are likely to be so much more useful to your family and friends and people around you, in any situation.

2. Have concrete goals

When we are kids and go through the rigors of education and school, the pattern of progress seems to be neatly laid out in front of us with no effort required on our part ( mostly ), other than execution of the tasks. Intermediate milestones are well defined with totems such as grades, exams and level-ups already setup, in the form of class upgrades. That positive reinforcement in the form of frequent advances - moving higher up from class to class, is something we take for granted as kids and young adults. However, once we cross that barrier and step into adulthood, we seemingly lose the ability to set concrete goals. Sure, we have things such as pay increases or promotions at work, but not a lot of it is set in stone or truly dictated by us. The same is 100% true for personal goals and achievements. When it comes to things like career and personal excellence, as adults we are more likely to “wing it” than have an actual plan about where it is we want to head over the next few years. Everyone knows the classic interview question “Where do you see yourself 5 or 10 years from now?” but not a lot of people know the answer to that for themselves. Sure, you might say “Arjun, you have no idea what you are talking about. I know exactly what I need to do” to which I will say “Good for you!“. I am certainly not trying to say this is applicable to everyone, but it is something I am most certainly guilty of. Circling back to the relevance of this point, to give some “Sober October” context, once I had decided the direction I wanted to head in, my concrete goal was to lose 15 lbs in the month of October. I said to myself that I wanted to be 170lbs by the time November rolled around and set myself a clear and easily measurable goal.

3. Be realistic and keep it simple

When you set out on a self-dictated regimen to complete a task, sometimes it is unclear as to how to execute the minute subtasks. The big picture may be clear in your head, but the day-to-day execution could be obfuscated. Whenever I am faced with such a conundrum, I tend to fall back on Occam’s Razor. Occam’s razor is the problem-solving principle that the simplest solution tends to be the correct one. We tend to conflate numerous solutions together and rack up an increasingly difficult path to achieve that solution. Instead, sometimes just keeping it simple might be the easiest path forward. As an example, when faced with the problem of getting back on to a healthier diet, there were a bajillion diets to pick from. There was paleo, keto, vegan, Atkins, south beach, raw, fruitarian…. and the list goes on and on. To me this was mind boggling and I was very confused what route would be the best for me. I decided to settle on the First Principle of a healthy diet in this regard, which is pithy enough to sound sarcastic, but I truly mean it - “Eat less and workout more”. Now, this is of course not possible for everyone and each person has to pick a road which is the best from the assortment of options available to them, but for me, I thought this was the best way ahead. So I grabbed the bull by the horns and decided to undertake a sub-1500 calorie diet with all the necessary nutrition. What this entailed is a diet where I did calorie counting with a close eye on the macros associated with the food. Essentially, I switched to a low carb-high protein diet, and got rid of all unnecessary carbs and starches such as rice, bread, pasta and all those other delicious food groups. As evidenced by the “Sober” in Sober October, alcohol consumption was of course another casualty of the diet. As a companion to the healthier way of eating, I also did High Interval Intensity Training (HIIT), at least three times a week. I believed that all of these different facets of tackling the problem would give me a good shot at achieving my goal. Some back of the envelope math seemed to support my hypothesis, so I forged ahead.

#4. Sometimes not knowing everything is good

This point somewhat contradicts my previous dialog, but only ever so slightly. It is one of those things that I have started valuing a whole lot more in the past few months. Since I have been reciting some self-evident truths throughout this piece, here goes another - “Ignorance is bliss”. There are two aspects to this. On the one hand, these days we are obsessed with knowing everything about everything. We have to have the latest news, gossip, podcasts, photos at the tips of our fingers, for the fear of missing out on a conversation/experience or appearing to be an ignoramus in front of someone else. On the other hand, as we progress through life and accumulating all that knowledge, we become increasingly risk averse and hesitant to take on new adventures with the innocence of youth. Whereas, if I was younger I would be more open to the option of failure, now I am far more cynical about the payoff of a particular venture. However, sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and believe in yourself and your ability to achieve something. Before I decided I want to lose 15 lbs during the month, I had zero benchmarks to compare against. I thought it was perfectly reasonable lose that amount of weight because I just did not know any better. It was only two weeks into October that I read somewhere that for my body type and weight, losing somewhere around 1.5–2 lbs per week was what was a reasonable expectation. If that was something I had read before I set off on Sober October, I would have cut down my end goals by almost half to keep in line with what was someone else’s reasonable expectation. I am so glad I did not. Since I was already midway into Sober October I decided to march on, and just put in the work I had already decided to invest and see where the currents lead me.

5. The power of No

One of the tougher challenges during this month, was giving up on all those things that had become a part of my lifestyle. This included indulging in some of my favorite foods or being a part of social experiences that involve some degree of alcohol consumption. The most important aspect of executing tasks in sight of your goal is your ability to say no to things that do not directly contribute towards it. Saying no is tough. Saying yes often is the path of least resistance. Saying no makes you feel queasy and uncomfortable. Sometimes, you might feel like you are walking on a lonely road, but if the objective is important to you, you must persevere. It is of course, entirely left to your prudence as to what should be said no to, but making the right judgement calls about what constitutes a no v/s a yes is what can differentiate between the success and failure of an outcome. There were plenty of things I turned down during the course of the month such as social events or eating lunch/dinner outside because it would mean that I did not know what exactly went into my food. Given that I was calorie counting, that was not an optimal outcome. However, I did make sure that I gave attention to my friends by being part of some outings but not partaking in any food or drinks, as that would be a balance of both worlds. The human brain can be extraordinarily powerful when it sets it’s sights on something.

6. Build, Measure and Learn

One of the best ways to achieve a goal is to be able to set a measurable goal and do consistent check-ins in order to determine if you or your process needs to be self-calibrated in order to achieve it. I was using My Fitness Plan to track all my caloric intake and for recording my workout sessions. Seeing a visualization of my food intake as well as the progress of my gains, was a great booster, propelling me forward towards completion. In my opinion, it is so much more powerful to be able to visualize mentally as well as graphically where it is you are trying to get to with your goals. Build, Measure, Learn is a philosophy born out of the Lean Startup Methodology school of thought, propounded by Eric Ries and is something that actually cuts through disciplines and lifestyles.

Wrapping up

I successfully stuck to my guns until the end of the month, at which point, I stepped on a weighing scale and saw myself clock in at 170.2 lbs! Not quite the 170 lbs I had hoped to achieve but darn near close. Instead of beating myself about the minutiae of failure, I took it as a net positive with respect to the attitude that the month of October imbued in me. In any case, as time bore on, it was less about the actual number than it was about the holistic discipline that was being inculcated. I look forward to continuing this as a sustainable lifestyle going forward and applying these principles learned, in the rest of my endeavors.