Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes, 52s.
If you’re familiar with how big of a nerd I am, it may be no surprise that one of my favorite quotes is from Steve Jobs. During his brilliant commencement address at Stanford, he talked about the events of his life: “you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.” I love how universal this idea is. It also comes to mind when I think about my productivity experiment to lower my body fat while gaining 10 pounds of muscle mass.
Last week I posted a big article about how intimately food and productivity are connected, and how I stumbled through lowering my body fat in the experiment. The other side of my body composition experiment—gaining 10 pounds of muscle mass—went a lot better, and that’s what this article will explore.
One of the biggest lessons I discovered during my productivity project was how productivity isn’t about doing more, faster—it’s about doing the right things, deliberately and with intention.
My body composition experiment was one of the first experiments I conducted for this site, so it’s not surprising that I didn’t approach this experiment with any deliberateness or intention. When I connect the dots looking back at this side of the experiment, it’s surprising how successful I was at increasing my lean muscle mass. By the time my project finished, I had not only met my goal of gaining 10 pounds of muscle, I had exceeded it by 50%, and gained 15 pounds of lean muscle.
Just as it’s amusing to look back to how badly I flubbed reducing my body fat, it’s fun to look back on how this side of the experiment went so well.
Mo’ muscle, mo’ productivity?
Before I get to the biggest lessons I learned, I should mention that most of the productivity benefits you’ll experience from exercise will come from cardiovascular workouts. I found out that relative to cardio workouts (which have great brain benefits), and eating better (which gives you more energy), lifting weights may make you more confident—and in my case, maybe even a bit more vain—but it won’t make a big dent in your productivity.
While a wealth of research has been conducted on how great cardiovascular exercise is for your energy and focus, there is way less research about lifting weights. In practice, lifting weights made me feel great about myself, which was enough to keep me motivated. But I didn’t find that it helped me focus, or that it gave me significantly more energy. When it comes to investing in your productivity, it’s a lot better to hit the elliptical than the weight set—though like with other pieces of productivity advice, your mileage may vary. There are productivity benefits to lifting weights and gaining muscle, but the neurological and productivity benefits surrounding anything that raises your heart rate are much greater.
As a few general rules, I’ve found that it’s most helpful to:
- Eat better to lose body fat.
- Do cardio for the brain benefits.
- Lift weights to gain muscle.
While I didn’t experience many productivity benefits from gaining muscle, looking back I learned countless lessons around forming habits from this side of the experiment. Habits are powerful because, while they take energy and willpower to form, once the changes stick, you automatically level up to become more productive.
These lessons are universal, and will work for any change you want to make to your work or life.
5 simple ways I gained 15 pounds of muscle
In looking back at this experiment, I came up with five rules that helped me gain 15 pounds of muscle. Some of these rules are so simple that I feel like kicking myself for not thinking of them earlier. But like many things, they only revealed themselves to me once I looked back, connected the dots, and thought about what went right and wrong. Before you spend any precious energy or willpower to make changes to how you live and work, it’s worth keeping these five rules in mind.
5. You won’t succeed in making big changes when you don’t plan
This point is so obvious it’s barely worth mentioning. I’ve read about making plans so often that my eyes begin to glaze over. It’s hard to escape the fact that making a plan is boring.
But the reason so many people write about making plans is because planning helps you achieve what you intend to—especially when your goal is difficult.
The more complex a change is, the more you need a plan. The primary reason I failed at reducing my body fat to 10% in this experiment was because I didn’t plan how I would be successful at the experiment. I didn’t approach the goal intelligently, anticipate obstacles, or think about the day-to-day changes I would need to make to get there.
While the plan I used to gain muscle wasn’t too big—it contained a few simple milestones, and which muscle groups I would work out on which days—the plan gave me a framework I could form my new exercise habit inside of. The reason one of my favorite productivity tactics is the Rule of 3 is that it lets you work more deliberately every day. Carving out a plan for a new habit does the exact same thing, and lets you set intentions so you can work changes into your life more intelligently. It’s worth working the other four items in this list into your plan.
4. Reward yourself, frequently
I also approached both sides completely different when it came to rewarding myself. With gaining muscle, before each workout, I would treat myself to a coffee or tasty preworkout drink. I also prepared a big, delicious breakfast afterward, and soaked in entertaining podcasts, audiobooks, and several Taylor Swift pump up jams while lifting weights. Working out was actually fun, because I found ways to treat myself along the way.
Without realizing it, I did the opposite when I tried to lower my body fat: I made myself feel terrible whenever I ate poorly, and I had unrealistic expectations with how I could change my ingrained food habits. I also didn’t reward myself when I succeeded—something that’s essential for forming new habits. Because I didn’t reward myself, and was hard on myself in the process, I essentially punished myself for trying to make a positive change to my life.
When you frequently reward yourself as you make changes, without punishing yourself when you aren’t perfect, changes are way more likely to stick.
3. Define a few “habit cues”
My favorite book about habits is The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg (here’s my review of it). A couple years ago, I chatted with Charles for the New Year’s Resolutions Guidebook I was writing. One curious thing he mentioned was how “habit cues” fall into one of five categories. (Every automatic habit you have is triggered by a “cue”—for example, after your smartphone vibrates you may instinctually pick it up, and when your washing machine dings, you may instinctually walk to it to change the cycle.)
The five categories habit cues fall into are:
- A particular time of day (e.g. grabbing a coffee every morning)
- A particular place (e.g. walking into the office, and then using your smartphone less)
- A particular emotion (e.g. feeling tired after work, and then making a cup of tea)
- The presence of certain people (e.g. joining a book club, or running group)
- A preceding behavior that’s become a habit (e.g. waking up, and then reading the news)
While I didn’t make much of an effort to define any cues around how I ate, looking back, I realized I had almost every habit cue under the sun for working out. I hit the gym at the same time every day, always worked out at the same place, felt energized beforehand (after my coffee or preworkout drink), saw my new workout buddies at the gym, and always went to the gym shortly after I woke up.
With a plethora of cues that triggered the habit, the habit stuck.
2. Start small, and then chip away
When I tried to lower my body fat, I made huge, drastic changes to what and how I ate, which proved impossible to sustain long term.
But much like with rewarding myself and defining a few habit cues, I approached the muscle side of the experiment from the other direction. I started going to the gym for just 30 minutes a couple of times a week, and only ratcheted that up when I felt comfortable doing so. On days when I didn’t feel like hitting the gym, I would reduce how long I worked out for until I felt less resistance to the ritual—which I figured was better than not going at all.
I’m not against pushing your limits—it’s kind of hard to invest in your productivity when you don’t. But huge changes are much more likely to intimidate you in the moment, and are therefore less likely to stick. This is why going on a big fad diet never works in the long-term: once your initial motivation dies off, no matter how strong it was at first, you’ll revert to your old way of doing things once the original change becomes too much.
When you start small, and then chip away at your most complex habits, changes will actually stick.
1. Know that some changes simply aren’t worth it
One lesson I learned from my experiment to wake up at 5:30 every morning and from my body composition experiment, was how important it is to deeply care about the changes you try to make. Much like with creating a plan, this point is easy to gloss over. It’s more fun to fantasize about what life will be like after you make a positive change than it is to consider whether a change is actually worth making.
When my productivity project finished, I had hardly made a dent in my body fat percentage. That’s when I began questioning whether the change was worth it, much like I questioned the change after solidifying my habit of waking up early. It wasn’t until after these experiments ended that I thought deeply about whether the changes were worth the effort. I had fallen in love with the sepia-toned fantasy of what I thought my life would be like after the change stuck—instead of thinking deeply about whether I actually cared about each change enough to make them.
The idea of slimming down, gaining muscle, running a marathon, becoming VP, and watching less TV is way sexier than the sacrifices you’ll have to make every day to get there—like ordering less pizza, running a few times a week, working extra hours here and there, and picking up a book instead of watching Netflix. Sometimes investing in your productivity can be a pain in the ass—even after you make a plan, reward yourself, define some cues, and start (and continue small). Making changes to how you live and work is hard.
The more complex a change is, the more energy and willpower you’ll need to make it stick, and the more you should question whether the change is worth making.
Knowing exactly why you want to make a change—by thinking about whether you value the change on a deep level—may save you a ton of time, willpower, and energy in the end. And if the opposite happens and you decide that a change is worth making—that it is aligned to what you value—you will connect with the change on a deeper level, and be motivated that much more.
I’ve said this before, and I think it’s worth repeating: intention behind your actions is like the wood behind an arrow. Deliberateness and intention both lie at the heart of productivity, and both are essential when it comes to making changes to the way you live and work.
The best strategies I’ve found to become more deliberate when forming new habits has been to make a plan, reward myself (often), define a few cues for the habit, start very small, and deeply think whether the change is worth it in the first place.