Why I go to the gym less often and no longer care how much protein I eat. And how that’s made me a better person.
My friend Dr. John Berardi caused a stir when he shared my “recovering fitness junkie” philosophy on Facebook:
I was appreciative and humbled by JB sharing that. I was also surprised about the reaction: 402 likes, 29 shares, and 27 comments.
My definition of a “recovering fitness junkie” seemed to stir up some emotions, both positive and negative—which is usually a good indicator that people are interested in the topic and want to know more.
So I decided to take those two paragraphs, dissect them line by line, and explain what I mean and how I got here.
Of course, this isn’t advice for you or your situation. It’s just where I’ve been and where I’m at right now.
So feel free to take what you want from it and ignore the rest.
Recovering Fitness Junkie: The Dissection
Here it is again in its entirety:
“I used to work out 5x per week, balance my ratios of protein, carbs, and fats, and considered myself a connoisseur of nutritional supplements.
Now I exercise a couple times per week and care more about sharing good food with the people I love. I also try to get a good night’s sleep, drink water, meditate, and leave my phone at home most days.”
And here it is, dissected.
I used to work out 5x per week…
I started lifting weights my junior year of high school with one goal: to gain as much muscle as possible. At the time, I was a 140-pound skinny kid, and my self-worth was tied to the way I looked. (Still is, honestly.)
So like most young guys who want to get in shape, I started working out as often as possible. My life revolved around the gym. It’s where I challenged myself. Where I made new friends. It’s where I felt in control and dominant.
(Dominance was a big thing for me back then. I was good at lifting weights and that gave me increased self worth. And because I was in my early twenties, it also occasionally made me an asshole show-off, especially as my knowledge and experience grew and I saw how misguided other guys were in the gym. I started to judge them instead of offering to help. That changed as I got older.)
This allegiance to the gym — to becoming bigger and stronger and faster — lasted a decade of my life.
It consumed me, with both good and bad consequences.
The good: I added muscle, gained confidence and felt better about my body. I became a personal trainer, started writing for fitness magazines, and eventually wrote a workout/lifestyle book for young guys.
My blog took off (hundreds of thousands of readers per year), and I took a job as an editor at T-Nation. I met some amazing people, some of whom would become my biggest mentors. I landed a gig at Precision Nutrition, which I love.
Of course, getting a job or writing for a magazine isn’t a direct result of me working out in the gym. That would be ridiculous. The point I’m trying to make is that my dedication to improving my body bled into other parts of my life. I wanted to be a fitness writer because I was obsessed with fitness and enjoyed writing.
The bad: I hurt my body repeatedly — not stretching, using too much weight, doing exercises that weren’t well suited for me, using questionable form, doing the same exercises with no progression, etc. — my self-worth became tied directly to my performance in the gym and how much muscle I had; I only focused on one aspect of health — gaining muscle — and neglected endurance, mobility, flexibility, and balance.
I became one of the “cool guys” with accolades and magazine logos on my website and powerful friends who looked down on all the “shitty” personal trainers and fitness writers out there and how stupid they were…instead of seeing the positive impact they were trying to make in themselves and the world.
Quite simply, the gym and all the things tied to it became my entire life.
Without it, I wasn’t sure who I was.
Without it, I didn’t feel important.
…balance my ratios of protein, carbs, and fats…
I ate 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. I followed a 40/30/30 (total calories for the day: 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, 30% fat) mesomorphic macronutrient breakdown. I cycled my carbs and fasted and had strategic over-feedings and all that stuff.
In short, I tried really, really hard to get the “perfect” amount of nutrients. I thought food was fuel, and I treated it as such. Especially early on in my career.
But after joining the Precision Nutrition team over 5 years ago and having a small hand in coaching thousands of people I now realize I likely didn’t need that level of obsession over my food to build muscle and get in good shape. (Literally thousands of people get in awesome shape every year with Precision Nutrition without becoming fitness junkies.)
…considered myself a connoisseur of nutritional supplements.
Between the ages of 23 and 25, I worked for T-Nation and Biotest, a supplement company.
Every month for two years my “care package” would arrive at my front door. It was full of stuff and it was all free.
Workout drinks, fish oil, sleep aids, testosterone boosters, energy drinks, creatine, fat burners, protein bars, and lots of other exotic powders and elixirs.
I took it all.
My friends were all jealous of my perfect supplement regimen.
Taking the right things at the right time became an obsession.
Preparing to go work out took 15 minutes of mixing powders, putting pills in baggies, rounding up random shaker bottles, and eating pre-workout bars.
And then I’d have to go write about how awesome they all were so people would buy them.
To be clear, everything I took was natural and totally safe. And certain supplements definitely helped me improve my performance and gain muscle. But since I worked for T-Nation/Biotest at the time, I had to write the equivalent of a love letter for each supplement I took. It was too much.
Here’s me and my friends at the gym four years ago. This is what I used to do every day.
Now I move a couple times per week…
I burned out on the gym after 6-7 years of hitting it hard. Back in late 2010, I was only going once per week. And half the time I only stayed for 20 minutes or so before leaving.
My back hurt. My elbow hurt. My pride hurt.
I didn’t know what to do.
Lots of guys find themselves in this situation where they have trouble staying consistent in the gym, especially when their identity is wrapped up in their performance.
My experience in the gym had stunted me. I thought that if you weren’t training hard lifting weights 3-4 times per week, you were wasting time. Now I don’t believe that’s true.
Over the past few years, I feel like I’ve achieved a good, healthy balance, training two times per week in the gym and maybe once more at home.
I’m no longer focused on getting bigger and stronger at all costs. Instead, I want to keep making progress while fixing old injuries and improving all the things I’ve neglected in the past 10 years, including mobility and endurance.
Another thing: I’ve stopped seeing the gym as the ONLY place where you can get in shape.
I go bouldering. I play basketball. I occasionally run sprints. I go on long walks and hikes with friends. I do handstands and bodyweight workouts in the park.
The best part: I look and feel better than ever.
…and care more about sharing good food with the people I love.
I’m still aware of what I’m eating and choose mostly organic stuff, even though the jury’s still out on whether or not it’s better for you. I buy it because I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford it.
I still eat lots of meat and vegetables and healthy fats. I even still take some supplements: fish oil, vitamin D3, probiotic, digestive enzymes, greens, and occasionally a scoop of whey protein.
But I don’t remember the last time I had a “specialized pre-workout supplement.”
My energy boosting beverages are now high-quality coffee and green tea instead of energy drinks. And I’ve started to look at food less in terms of “nutrients” and more like…food.
I enjoy cooking, and drinking a cocktail or glass of beer while I’m at it. I eat at good restaurants and spend time having meals with friends.
I don’t turn down freshly made pasta or sticky rice any more. I have no idea how many grams of protein I eat in a day. (Probably not a lot, at least compared to what I used to eat.)
Food isn’t fuel to me any longer. It’s way, way more fun and important than that.
I also try to get a good night’s sleep, drink water, meditate…
I sleep 7-9 hours per night.
I start my day with a big glass of water and drink tea throughout the day.
I sit down for 20 minutes every day, close my eyes, and do nothing but put my attention on my breathing and let my thoughts come and go as they please. (I use the guided meditation app, Headspace.)
These things make me feel healthy, alert, and in-control.
…and leave my phone at home most days.
I’m sure other people are fine with their phones, but I’m very impulsive. Which is why I don’t have internet, email, or Facebook on my phone. (But that’s a topic for another post.)
But really, I just don’t think I should be available every minute of every day.
I don’t like how I feel when I’m constantly checking my phone to see if someone loves me or is giving me attention or validating something I said
So I started leaving my phone at home instead.
Text messages go unread for hours. I have no idea how many emails I’m getting. I probably have like 10 people to call back.
And I’m OK with all of that.
Of course, I want to be connected to the rest of the world. But I want to be connected to it on my terms, and only when I’m ready to give it my full attention.
Till then, I’m trying to put my attention on whatever it is I’m doing in the moment.
Want to get in better shape, become insanely productive, and break your internet addiction? Then stop relying on self-discipline and use Nuclear Mode instead.
The other day I had dinner with a group of people at a nice Southern restaurant in Austin, Texas. The bourbon list was long and I’d been told the biscuits were legendary — so I was looking forward to a nice meal and conversation.
There were seven us around the table. I knew most of them, but since a few were friends of friends I’d never met before, I decided to sit next to someone new.
The guy to my left, Clay, seemed to be in his early thirties; he told me that he worked at a tech start-up, and that his wife and young son were currently visiting family out of town. He seemed like a nice enough guy.
“So, what do you do?” he eventually asked me.
I opened my mouth to talk, but before I could say anything, his phone buzzed. He picked it up, texted someone, and then put it face-up on the table between us.
“Sorry. So what do you do?” he asked again.
I explained that I was a writer, mostly fitness and self-development stuff. He nodded. Then his phone went off again.
“Hold up,” he said. “I gotta quickly reply to this email.”
He picked up his phone, so I picked up my whiskey, took a sip, and looked around the table. Of the six other people around me, four of them had their heads down and were lost in their phones. I instinctively checked my pocket, but found nothing there. I’d left my phone locked in the rental car outside.
So with nothing to distract me, and no conversation happening, I sat back and enjoyed my drink until a plate of warm biscuits hit the table. I picked one up, watched the little wisps of steam rise off the flaky crust, and slathered honey butter on it. I took a bite and concluded that they were, in fact, legendary.
To my left, Clay took out his phone and held it over the plate of biscuits.
He took a series of photos from different angles. He instructed the person across from me to eat a biscuit so he could take a photo of her. After a good five minutes — and after posting the photo to Instagram with the obligatory hashtags — Clay finally grabbed a biscuit, buttered it, took a bite, and sighed.
“These biscuits are cold.”
The rest of the evening pretty much continued in the same way: small chunks of conversation interrupted by texting, Googling, and checking who commented on Instagram.
At the end of dinner, after the plates had been taken away and the after-dinner drinks poured, Clay surprised me by calling himself out.
“Sorry about all that,” he said. “I’m trying to get better at not looking at my phone all the time.”
He looked embarrassed and resigned, sitting there twirling his glass of wine.
“My wife gets on me about it,” he continued. “I guess I just need more self discipline.”
I smiled and told him that I used to think the exact same thing.
Self-Discipline Is Overrated
I’ve noticed a certain storyline recently, especially among people who are Type-A achievers like me, people who are always trying to optimize their life and find news ways to learn, grow, and improve themselves.
It’s a story that starts like this:
“I have to build more self-discipline…”
If only we had more self discipline, we say, then we’d actually follow through with everything we want to do; we’d finally find time for everything that’s important to us.
If only we had more self-discipline, well, then we’d wake up earlier without hitting the snooze button. We’d get to the gym more often. We’d stop getting distracted by our phones and start being more present with our family. We’d start eating healthier food and maybe even find time to start that side business we’ve been thinking about.
I know Clay was thinking the same thing.
If only he had more self-discipline, he reasoned, then he would have easily resisted the urge to check his phone. He would have had the presence-of-mind to actually enjoy a warm biscuit and a cold bourbon drink without getting sucked into the vortex of his 4.7-inch screen.
But here’s the thing: I think this story about needing more self-discipline is false. Or at least, I don’t believe it’s the whole story.
I don’t think we really need more self-discipline. Instead, I think it’s better to eliminate the need to HAVE self-discipline in the first place.
Two Problems With Thinking We Just Need More Self-Discipline
Before writing this article, I looked up the definition of “self discipline”.
self discipline: the ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses; the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.
From what I can tell, most of us view self-discipline as a thing we need to constantly exercise every moment of every day. We think we need to police ourselves to resist temptation at every turn.
Resist the temptation to check our phones. Resist the temptation to eat the cookie. Resist the temptation to hit the snooze alarm. Resist the temptation to have a second beer after dinner. Resist the temptation to skip the gym and work out tomorrow instead.
But there are two problems with this line of thinking.
First, it’s incredibly draining to police ourselves every minute of the day. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but temptation is everywhere — from the siren-song of free porn to the outraged articles on the internet, to the mini-computers in our pockets buzzing for our attention. Most of us cannot use self-discipline alone to resist these things. There are simply too many opportunities to fail.
Second, thinking that we need MORE self-discipline is a convenient way of not taking action or doing anything to change our situation in the present. It’s like saying “Yeah, I really should save more money and call my Grandma” while having no intentions of actually saving more money or calling Grandma.
The truth is, we already have all the self-discipline we need. We simply need to use it in more effective ways.
Live Better With Less Self-Discipline: One Powerful Strategy
Over the years, I’ve adopted a few powerful strategies in order to dramatically reduce the amount of self-discipline I need to use in my everyday life.
These strategies vary from the routine to the radical and have helped me:
exercise more often
eat healthier food
become insanely productive
break my dependency on my phone
avoid getting sucked into the internet
spend more stress-free, reflective time alone
spend undistracted time with friends and family
My favorite strategy, and the focus of this article is Nuclear Mode — a radically uncomfortable yet incredibly valuable technique that will help you reduce the amount of self-discipline you need in order to live a more productive, less distracted life.
(And since Nuclear Mode is like ripping off a band-aid instead of slowly peeling it away, it also has the fun side-effect of making your friends think you’ve gone insane.)
You can use Nuclear Mode in every area of your life: to eat less junk food and drink less alcohol; to force yourself to become insanely productive and focused; and if you’re feeling bold, you can use Nuclear Mode to break your phone and internet addiction — while having more focus and free time for yourself and your family.
Here are three ways I use Nuclear Mode in my life, ranked from Beginner to Advanced.
Beginner: How To Use Nuclear Mode To Eat Less Junk Food
My friend and colleague Dr. John Berardi from Precision Nutrition has a saying: If a food is in your possession or located in your residence, you will eventually eat it.
I use Nuclear Mode to remove all of the unhealthy food from my house that I’d normally be tempted to eat — things like potato chips, gourmet ice cream, and fancy chocolate chip cookies.
Removing this type of food from my house has two main benefits: First, it makes it physically impossible for me to eat anything “bad” when I’m at home (where I spend most of my time). Second, it makes the instances when I do eat those things infinitely more enjoyable.
With Nuclear Mode, if I’m at home and want a doughnut, then I really only have two options:
Option 1: Walk or drive somewhere to go get a doughnut. Option 2: Suck it up, eat something healthy instead, and plan the next time I’ll eat a doughnut.
With Nuclear Mode, instead of having doughnuts in my kitchen and available to eat whenever a craving comes on, I put a bunch of barriers in my way. If in order to get a doughnut I must stop working, close my computer, grab my keys, walk to my car, drive to a store, stand in line, buy a doughnut, and drive back home, then it’s almost inconceivable I’d go through all that trouble.
In other words, I don’t have to use any self-discipline to not eat a doughnut because I don’t have any doughnuts to eat.
That means I’ll often go with Option 2: I’ll feel the craving, grab an apple or some beef jerky (or wait for lunch) and then get back to work.
And if after I finish work I still want a doughnut, then I’ll look up whoever makes the best goddamn doughnut in whatever city I’m in at the time, call up a friend, and ask if they want to meet me for doughnuts on Saturday.
And when Saturday comes, that doughnut will be a million times more delicious and satisfying than anything I would have mindlessly shoved in my mouth at home.
5 Steps For Using Nuclear Mode To Reduce The Amount of Junk Food You Eat
Step 1: Go through your fridge and cupboards and throw away (or give away) any tempting, unhealthy foods.
For most people this is junk food like chips, cookies, and ice cream. But for others, it can be beer, Chinese take-out, or even calorically-dense foods that are easy to overeat like peanut butter.
Step 2: Replace those foods with healthier options that will help you look and feel good.
For snacks I like fresh fruit, baby carrots, beef jerky, sardines, yogurt, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and mixed nuts.
Step 3: Don’t bring tempting foods into the house.
Once you’ve gotten rid of the unhealthy stuff, try not to bring it in again.
Step 4: If you do bring those foods into the house, get the best stuff you can possibly afford — then get rid of the leftovers.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you should never bring certain foods into your house. Personally, I love cooking big meals for people with plenty of bread, booze, and something sweet for dessert.
But I always give the leftovers to my friends as they’re on their way out the door. And if I have a half-pint of ice cream left that nobody wants, I don’t put it back in my freezer. Instead, I throw it away.
My friend Marisa—who loves to bake cookies—does something similar. Whenever she wants cookies, she buys the best ingredients, makes a few dozen cookies, eats one or two, and then puts the rest into Tupperware and delivers them to friends and coworkers.
Step 5: Plan when you’ll enjoy your favorite unhealthy foods.
Just because you don’t have this stuff in your house doesn’t mean you can’t ever enjoy it. (After all, I started this article with me slathering honey butter on biscuits and washing it down with bourbon.)
Instead, the goal is to use Nuclear Mode to make your home a safe-haven. That way you don’t have to use constant self-discipline to stop yourself from eating things you’ll regret later on.
Intermediate: How To Use Nuclear Mode To Become More Productive
Author Cal Newport has written extensively about “deep work”, which he defines as the ability to focus—without distraction—on a cognitively demanding task.
As he makes clear in his fantastic book Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World, the ability to focus for long periods of time is both a rare and valuable skill, simply because so few people can do it.
The ability to get into deep work is essentially a superpower that allows you stand apart from everyone else, create a better career for yourself, and do work you’re proud of.
The main way I get into deep work is by going Nuclear, and using a web-blocking software like Freedom. Once installed on your computer, you can set Freedom to automatically block news, porn, social media, and every other site you use to distract yourself from doing the things you’re supposed to be doing.
Personally, I have two sessions that run every single day. The first session is from 6AM to 4PM. The second session is from 5:00PM to Midnight.
That means I only have ONE HOUR per day to check email and social media, read articles, watch YouTube, and argue with people on the internet.
4 Steps For Using Nuclear Mode To Become More Productive and Focused
Step 1: Download Freedom or another web-blocking software on your computer.
Step 2: Select and disable any websites you use to distract yourself.
I have 46 websites blocked, not including the usual suspects (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc).
I leave Netflix and Spotify on, mainly because I listen to music when I work. And I still watch Netflix once or twice per week in the evening (but never during the day).
Step 3: Set a schedule and play with it.
Freedom lets you start a session whenever you like, but I prefer to put myself on a schedule. (Like I mentioned above, I set Freedom from 6AM to 4PM and again from 5:00PM to Midnight.)
Having a schedule that turns on as soon as I open my computer ensures that I can’t “check email real quick” or do whatever stupid thing I was going to do instead of working.
If you try this yourself, I suggest playing around with your schedule a bit. Since I work for myself and rarely have anyone waiting on me, I can afford to have a fairly Draconian schedule.
However, you may need to adjust your schedule so you can have Freedom running when you’re the most productive and don’t need to be immediately available.
Step 4: After a week of playing with your schedule, go into Locked Mode.
Freedom won’t do you any good if you can disable it at any moment in order to check your email or watch cat videos. That’s why after you get comfortable with your schedule, I recommend putting it on Locked mode.
Locked mode makes it impossible to disrupt an active session, which basically means you won’t be able to “unlock” the software and get access to your email or Facebook any time you want.
Instead, in locked mode, you’ll have to wait it out and see what life is like when you don’t have immediate, automatic access to the most distracting parts of the internet.
Of course, you can always update your settings and change your schedule as soon as your Freedom session is over.
Advanced: How To Use Nuclear Mode To Put Down Your Damn Phone and Start Being a Human Again
At this point, it’s not controversial to say that lots of us are addicted to our phones. In fact, one recent digital habits survey showed that more than 29% of Americans would GIVE UP SEX FOR THREE MONTHS rather than give up their smartphone for one week.
I will pause to let that sink in.
The drawbacks of always being connected to a device are obvious: We spend less time and attention on things that are really important to us while simultaneously experiencing a constant low-level stress and fear of missing out.
Just think about how most of us spend our days:
Wake up and check text messages, social media, and emails
Listen to Spotify while getting ready for the day
Listen to podcasts on our commute to work
Work behind a computer for most of the day
Get distracted dozens of times by Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, email, or reading articles online
Listen to more music or another podcast on our commute back home
Listen to music or podcasts while at the gym
Listen to music or podcasts while cooking food
Read articles or check email while eating
Read articles or check email while using the bathroom
Watch Netflix in the evening
Check texts, email, social media one more time before bed
If we assume that being slaves to our phones is a problem worth addressing, how should we go about weaning ourselves from the constant onslaught of information and entertainment?
Instead of constantly policing ourselves and using self-discipline in order to resist temptation, simply use Nuclear Mode to eliminate the temptation altogether.
7 Steps For Using Nuclear Mode To Break Your Internet and Phone Addiction
Step 1: Grab your phone and delete any app you use to distract yourself (that’s not mission-critical for your job).
For most people that includes:
Social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat
Games like Candy Crush, Fruit Ninja, or Clash of Clans
Messaging apps like Facebook messenger
Web browsers like Google Chrome
What’s “mission critical” depends on your job. Some teams use Slack, Basecamp, HipChat, and the like to communicate. If you absolutely need something like that in order to perform your job, then keep the app on your phone.
But if you have Slack on your computer and on your phone, ask yourself if it’s really necessary to keep it on both devices. Do you really need to talk to your team when you’re at the grocery store or watching a movie?
How many times in the past month have you received a message outside of work hours that was absolutely critical to your job or performance?
You may be mistaking convenient for critical. And if Slack (or whatever) is simply convenient, you can probably delete it off your phone and just keep it on your computer for when you’re actually working.
Step 2: Recruit your partner, roommate, or a friend you see often to help.
To help save yourself from screens, you’re gonna need a friend, ideally someone you live with or that you see every day (or nearly every day).
Also, the rest of these instructions are for the iPhone since that’s what I have. Though I’m sure it’s just as easy to do the same thing with an Android device.
Step 3: With your friend next to you, go into the “Settings” app for your phone, and tap on “General.”
Scroll down to the “Restrictions” tab and tap it.
Step 4: Turn your restrictions “On”.
The screen will ask you to enter a “Restrictions Passcode”. Give the phone to your friend and have them enter in a passcode without showing you. (Tell them to enter a code they’ll remember.)
Step 5: Go through the list of restricted apps and toggle off anything you normally get distracted by.
Personally, I turned off:
The “installing apps” selection is super-important to get rid of. Otherwise, you’ll just re-download Facebook and Instagram as soon as a craving hits. Remember, we want to eliminate the need to have self-discipline in the first place.
Step 6: Enjoy both the feelings of dread and liberation that come with not being able to check all the distracting shit on your phone.
Notice how after a few days you start not to miss it. I’ve recommended Nuclear Mode to a few people and most of them report feeling immediately more calm and less overwhelmed. And those good feelings carry over for weeks and months.
Step 7: Once per week or so, have your friend enter the “restrictions” code, and give you access to all the things you’re missing.
I usually only toggle two categories back on: Podcasts (so I can catch up on anything interesting) and Installing Apps (so I can update all my other apps).
My partner Richelle leaves these on for me for the weekend, before I have her re-enter the restriction code and turn everything back off on Sunday night.
Nuclear Mode Is Incredibly Powerful — But It’s Not For Everyone
Some of my friends think I’m crazy when they learn I don’t have email on my phone, or that I only give myself internet access for an hour per day.
“Don’t you have enough self-discipline?” they ask.
The answer, of course, is complicated.
Yes, I have enough self-discipline. But I don’t have enough to constantly police myself every minute of every day across every aspect of my life.
I don’t have enough self-discipline to resist every single temptation and distraction that tries to throw me off course, whether it’s my phone buzzing with another notification, or a pint of whiskey-pecan ice-cream calling my name from the freezer.
I have to pick and choose my battles.
In other words, I have enough self-discipline to handle whatever the day throws at me: big decisions, difficult problems, unexpected situations.
But for everything else — daily routines, my relationship with technology, what I eat, and how I work — I try to find ways to eliminate the need for me to have more self-discipline.
The goal, whether we get there with Nuclear Mode or any other strategy, isn’t to deprive ourselves or become militant Luddites who refuse to use technology. Instead, it’s to get clear on what’s important to us, what we’re trying to accomplish, what pitfalls we’ll need to avoid, and how to make everything easier.
What we’re doing with Nuclear Mode is eliminating the need to have more self-discipline.
You can’t check Twitter on your phone when you don’t have Twitter on you phone. You can’t eat ice cream when you don’t have ice cream in your freezer. You can’t “quickly check email” when you still have 3 hours and 12 minutes before your internet access kicks in.
And as restrictive as all that may sound, once you try it I think you’ll see just how liberating it can be.
Last year, my friend Kyle was hit by a car while he was crossing the street on his way to work.
It was ass-crack early — six ayem — and the driver of the car had sped up to make it through a yellow light.
Kyle, like the optimistic idiot I’d known for 15 years, didn’t wait for the signal to flash before walking. He stepped off the sidewalk and into the road, apparently anticipating that the car would stop.
The car hit him and sent him flying into the middle of the crosswalk.
That was a Thursday. Kyle died on Sunday. On Monday I typed this into Google: “How to give a eulogy – Esquire.”
I knew Esquire would have something real to say. Something that would help me think through this shit. Something that would help me cope and proceed with new perspective. Like a man.
I knew Esquire would be there for me in the same way that my dad, my brothers, my best friend Jason are there for me: With understanding. With wisdom. Always.
On the flight to Colorado, I wrote down stories and memories of Kyle — that summer where we made fake IDs out of plastic cutting boards and a laser printer; the first time he took me to the gym and showed me how to lift weights; the way he’d sit in the driver’s seat of his shitty Toyota pickup and punch the roof of the car in time with the bass drum of the Deftones.
I got into Colorado late. The next morning, I gave the eulogy. It went about as well as a eulogy can go.
Later that night I split a pot brownie with my friend Mike and we walked the streets of Denver, talking, laughing, remembering.
We obeyed traffic signals and looked both ways before crossing the street.
I’ve read the magazine in bathtubs and in public parks, during thunderstorms and after sex. I’ve read it during lazy Sundays on the couch with a glass of bourbon and an hour to kill before dinner.
I’ve learned a lot from Esquire over the past eight years, since I first picked up an issue of the magazine. I’ve grown to trust and admire Editor David Granger and his stable of contributing editors and writers: Tom Chiarella, Mike Sager, Ross McCammon, Nick Sullivan, Stephen Marche, Richard Dorment, Chris Jones, Tom Junod, Scott Raab, AJ Jacobs, Cal Fussman, David Wondrich, John H. Richardson, Colby Buzzell.
Their stories taught me, inspired me, challenged me. They made me laugh and, yes, they made me weep.
I’ve read the magazine in bathtubs and in public parks, during thunderstorms and after sex. I’ve read it during lazy Sundays on the couch with a glass of bourbon and an hour to kill before dinner. The ink always smeared and got on my hands.
I just finished the May 2016 issue of Esquire, David Granger’s last as Editor in Chief after nearly 19 years. Some of his writers (but not all) are leaving with him.
It’s the end of an era.
In honor of him and all the writers that have entertained, educated, and challenged me over the past decade, I want to share a few things I’ve learned from Granger’s Esquire.
I hope you’ll indulge me.
Lesson 1: Be generous with your time.
Eight years ago or so I emailed writer Tom Chiarella and asked him how I could become a better writer. I didn’t know this at the time, but unsolicited emails asking broad questions rarely get answered.
Tom answered anyway. His advice: set deadlines, cancel appointments when the writing is going well, and get a good chair.
His response was great, but it was the fact that he responded at all that blew me away. Having an email from Tom Chiarella sitting in my inbox made me feel connected to something big, like I had a direct line to God. He was (is), in my opinion, one of the best in the world at what he does.
I’m so far from being the best at anything.
But I have an audience now and whenever I get an email from someone who needs some help or just wants to say how much my writing has impacted them, I respond. Because Tom would.
Lesson 2: Steal from the best.
Hunter S. Thompson knew how to steal.
When he was a young journalist, Thompson would sit down at his typewriter and copy great literature, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
When Esquire writer Chris Jones agreed to do an interview with me a couple years ago, I knew I was going to steal, too.
After two hours on the phone, four hours of transcribing our interview, and another four hours pulling out the best snippets of conversation, I had my very own “What I Learned” interview, a style I stole from Esquire’sCal Fussman, who removes his questions and leaves only his subject’s answers.
Thanks to Cal’s format and Chris’s answers, You Don’t Belong Here is one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever done.
Lesson 3: Buy simple, classic clothes that will last a long time.
In 2012, I moved from a small town in Montana to Portland, Oregon. Say what you will about hipsters — the flannel, the work boots, the beards — these people had style. Or at least more style than I did.
I remember coming home from the grocery store one day, after spending the better part of an hour watching beautiful people buy craft beer and artisan salami, and looking down at my two-sizes-too-big jeans and my too-long-and-billowy button down shirt.
I needed some new clothes.
I took some money out of my savings account, searched through the Esquire archives, and put together a list of essentials to build my wardrobe from scratch.
Call it what you want — a shopping spree, a waste of money. I call it an investment in myself.
The clothes made me feel confident. Capable. Like I could go anywhere in the world and be taken seriously.
I remember putting on the suit in the J. Crew changing room — my first ever suit, at age 27 — and thinking: Now that is one good-looking motherfucker.
Lesson 4: Choose a favorite drink. Learn how to make it.
The best birthday presents I’ve ever received in ascending order: an Orlando Magic Penny Hardaway jersey, skateboard lessons, and a one-on-one cocktail class at one of the best bars in the country.
That was four years ago.
I showed up to the bar at 3PM on a Saturday, an hour before it was set to open. I knocked on the door. The owner, Dan, let me in. “You’re young,” he said. “I thought you were going to be 50.”
The lights were off and sunlight poured through the windows. There was no music. I sat at the bar and Dan put a series of glasses in front of me: simple syrups, spirits (whiskey, rum, gin, but no vodka), lime juice, and lemon juice.
During the next hour, Dan showed me how to make three drinks: an old-fashioned, a whiskey sour, and a daiquiri.
He taught me their history and showed me how to stir, shake, and strain. He gave me a list of the tools I’d need to make them at home. He got me drunk and then sent me out the door, stumbling and smiling.
I don’t remember the cab ride home, but I do remember what Dan taught me. Since then, I’ve made an old-fashioned nearly every night. I’m getting pretty good at it.
I can thank my girlfriend for the gift and Dan for teaching me. But I must thank Esquire first: I found the bar in the magazine.
Lesson 5: Take risks, respect your readers, and try new things.
Blogs are like magazines on a rack: they all try to get your attention and stand out. But in the end, most regress toward the average. They start to look and sound the same.
Granger’s Esquire always stood out. Not just the covers of the magazine — with their notes, arrows, and quotes — but the words inside.
Granger’s Esquire wasn’t filled with predictable celebrity interviews, ephemeral news stories, or vapid commentary on the state of the fashion industry. It was something deeper, more creative, more thoughtful.
That kind of risk-taking is inspiring and it takes a kind of pact between the writer and the reader to work. The writer says: Trust me, I’m going to make this worth reading. And the reader, hopefully, goes along for the ride.
I’ll let you in on something: I never know what I’m gonna do next with this blog. All I know is that I want it to stand out and I want it to connect with the right people.
Partly thanks to Esquire‘s influence, I’m always trying new things, pushing my boundaries, thinking of what could be fun and scary to try.
Last month I started the process of co-creating a book with my audience. We’re gonna write it together and give it away for free, something I’ve never seen done before. (Will it be worth reading? I have no idea. But I’m gonna try.)
And now here I am, writing a love letter to Granger’s Esquire in attempt, I guess, to say this: I’m really gonna miss it.
The interviews. The writing. The people. All of it.
In his last column in Esquire, Scott Raab wrote this: “The magazine means more to me than any teacher I’ve had because this magazine has taught me more — about America, about manhood, and about believing that every man’s work might matter to the world.”
I may not love the magazine the way Raab loves the magazine. But I will say this: When my friend died and I had to figure how to deal with it, I sought the company and advice of the people I trust most: my girlfriend of 8 years; Jason, my best friend of 15 years; my parents; my brothers.
A one-hour exercise to help you celebrate your biggest wins, identify your biggest opportunities, and dominate the new year.
I spend most of my time planning for the future. With the help of my meditation practice, I’m getting better at living more in the present. But something I still find incredibly difficult is reflecting on the past.
I rarely celebrate achievements for more than a few minutes, and I almost never “look back” on projects or situations to identify what I learned. (And I certainly don’t use that information to guide my future decisions.)
This, as you can imagine, is a problem.
“Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Sometimes being “doomed to repeat” stuff can be a good thing. I think I did a lot of things right this year, and I’d like to continue to do them.
But I also did a lot of stuff wrong.
If we don’t learn from our past, we we won’t be able to identify our biggest opportunities to make life better. Which means we’ll likely suffer through the same situations and thought-patterns again and again.
So this year, I’m continuing with a new tradition I started last year: a personal retrospective.
A retrospective is when you look back on past events to identify what worked…and what didn’t work. A retrospective helps you celebrate your wins and identify your weaknesses. It helps you learn from the past and correct for the future.
How to do your own personal retrospective
To do a personal retrospective, you simply pick a particular project or time period and ask yourself the following questions:
What’s working? (“What did I do right? What am I proud of?”)
What’s not working? (“What could be improved? What are my biggest opportunities for growth?”)
How can I fix what’s not working for a better result? (“What specific things can I focus on next time?”)
Then you spend 15-30 minutes writing about each.
Nate’s 2016 Personal Retrospective
To give you an idea of how it’s done—and to encourage you to do the same—I want to share mine with you.
QUESTION 1: WHAT’S WORKING? (“WHAT DID I DO RIGHT? WHAT AM I PROUD OF?”)
If I had to give 2016 a title, I’d call it “The year of gaining perspective.”
Big Win #1: I lived out of a suitcase for seven months and traveled to Mexico, Thailand, Vietnam, England, Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy. (And Canada, but who counts that?)
Traveling like this taught me a few important things:
I have all that I need to be happy. It may sound trite, but it’s true. I have hot water, a comfortable place to sleep, enough food to eat, full functionality of all my limbs, a good group of friends, a family I love, and I don’t live below the poverty line. (Fun fact: If you’re single, live in the US, and make $50,000 gross per year, you’re in richest 1.3% of the world’s population.) Traveling is the ultimate perspective-giver.
Everyone is seeking connection and potential friends are everywhere. Wherever Richelle and I went, we had people to hang out with and new things to try. We made friends with a young group of entrepreneurs in Playa Del Carmen; we ate strange noodle desserts with the owner of a a coffee shop in Chiang Mai; I nearly got myself killed while riding on the back of a scooter in Vietnam (on my way to a karaoke bar no less); and we had one of the best meals of our lives at Hisa Franko in Slovenia, thanks to Luka and Matej.
If you’re creative, you can get (or stay) in shape anywhere. I lifted water jugs in Mèrida, did handstands on a rooftop in Bangkok, hiked in the Julian Alps, played frisbee in Danang, and hit up an old school gym in Croatia. (The guy behind the counter was named Goran, which means “mountain man” in Kurdish. He looked the part.)
Long-term travel isn’t for me. After seven months on the road, we were ready to come back to the States. We missed our families, our community, and our basic routines. We’ll continue to travel, of course, but we’ll likely do it for a few weeks at a time (at most) and turn it into a full-fledged vacation instead of a “workcation”.
Big Win #2: I maintained my key habits and adopted a couple new ones.
Old habits I stuck to 90+% of the time: Meditating in the morning for 20 minutes; doing a daily gratitude practice with Richelle; exercising a minimum of two times per week; doing undistracted creative work for at least four hours per day; taking weekends completely off.
New habits I adopted: Giving 5-10% of my income to charity; cutting my meat consumption in half.
Big Win #3: I did work I was proud of.
From January to November I sent an average of three newsletters per month. (I took the month of December 2016 off completely.)
I advised a handful of companies that are doing great work in the world.
QUESTION #2: WHAT’S NOT WORKING? (“WHAT COULD BE IMPROVED? WHAT ARE MY BIGGEST OPPORTUNITIES FOR GROWTH?”)
Big Growth Opportunity #1: Continue to work on flexibility and mobility (for real this time).
Big Growth Opportunity #2: Spend at least 50% of my creative time on my own projects.
If you read my 2015 retrospective, you’ll notice that Number 1 is a carryover from last year.
Here’s what I said then:
I’ve paid lip-service to flexibility for the past couple of years, half-heartedly following a daily stretching routine. But honestly, I still tend to skip a good part of my warm-up and “forget” to stretch at least half the time.
Because of that, I often wake up tight and sore and often require a hot shower to “loosen up.”
Well, a full year has passed and I’m disappointed to report that not much has changed. Old habits die hard, apparently.
One potential reason for the fuck-up: I gave myself way too many (four) action steps last year. Here’s what I said I’d do at the beginning of last year:
Action step #1: Do my morning mobility and activation warm-up at least 80% of the time. That means I can only miss one day out of the week.
Action step #2: Follow a simple 5-minute mobility, stretching circuit before bed every night.
Action step #3: Set a timer for 60 minutes and do one stretch for one minute for every hour that I work at my computer.
Action step #4: Sit on the ground for at least 10 minutes and play with positions till they become more comfortable.
That’s WAY too much.
After watching thousands of people go through the habit-based coaching programs at Precision Nutrition, I know that most of us can only stick to one new habit at a time. (Sometimes you can get away with two, but it helps to have those habits in different domains—like one for personal and one for professional.)
So this year, even though I have a lot more to work on (trust me) I’m going to narrow my focus to these two things, plus reduce my action steps.
Both of these opportunities—increasing mobility and working on my own projects 50% of the time—will have a significant positive impact in my life. Probably more than any other habit I could adopt.
In other words, if everything else about my life stayed the same and only these two things changed, I’d consider 2017 a huge success.
QUESTION #3: HOW CAN I FIX WHAT’S NOT WORKING FOR A BETTER RESULT? (“WHAT SPECIFIC THINGS CAN I FOCUS ON NEXT TIME?”)
Action step #1: Set a timer for 20 minutes of stretching, breathing, and movement directly after I finish my morning meditation.
Rationale: I’m already meditating in the morning, so I might as well use that to my advantage. By linking this new practice (stretching) to my old practice (meditating), I’m more likely to stick to it. And the fact that I’m already wearing sweat pants and sitting on the floor helps.
Also, for someone who loves routines, I hate following rigid programs. That’s why I’m purposefully keeping the stretching and movement portion of this action step vague. My only goal is to set a timer for 20 minutes and do some kind of movement for the entire duration. If I can do that, I’ll consider it a win.
Action step #2: Immediately fire 1-2 companies I’m currently working with in order to free up 50% of my work schedule.
Rationale: The way my schedule is structured right now, I’m spending 90% of my time on other people’s projects. This has been fun and lucrative, but it’s not allowing me time to work on stuff that matters to me: writing blog posts and books, creating new projects, and working with personal coaching clients.
I’ll likely take a significant financial hit in the short-term, but that’s no big deal. Best case scenario: I use that free time to create things that help people and earn money directly. Worst-case scenario: I try it for a year and pick up another corporate client or two in 2018 if needed.
Write your own Personal Retrospective
So that’s mine. Now it’s your turn.
It’ll take you roughly an hour, but it could be the most important thing you do this year. After all, 2017 is already here.
What are you the most proud of? Where are your biggest growth opportunities?
And the biggest question: What are you going to do about them?