Lifehack: Stop Fucking Lifehacking

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I’m not very good at going to the gym. I never do the same thing twice, I don’t keep track of how much weight I’m lifting or how many times. I go three days in a row, then skip three. I go longer when I’m listening to a good podcast, shorter when I’m not. If I didn’t sleep well the night before I half-ass the entire endeavour, yawning, tweeting, lifting the lightest possible weight the shortest possible distance.

Sometimes I get into these self-improvement frenzies where I look up what I’m, like, supposed to be doing at the gym. I should use free weights. But never on the same day as cardio. And body weight exercises are better anyway. I should stretch when I arrive—no, afterwards—oh wait, I should never stretch. I should go for an hour. I should go shorter, but more intensely.

I implement these little exercise hacks, tell myself I’m optimizing my time. I stick with them for a few days, a week, before I drift back to my routine of doing what I feel like, changing every day.

I’ve been doing this informal survey at the gym the last few months: When I see someone in super-good shape, I go up to them and ask what they do here, how often they come, what they lift and lower, how many times.

So far (and yes, I realize this is completely un-scientific), they’re pretty diverse. Some of them just do body-weight shit, some of them just free weights or machines or they mix all three. Some do cardio, some don’t, some stretch, some don’t, some do hella reps, some do few.

The only real theme to emerge from these conversations is that the dudes who are in good shape, who seem to be winning the aesthetic Olympics, they come a lot. Of the maybe 20 or so dudes I’ve talked to about this over the last six months, most of them come five or six times a week, and they stay at least an hour, some of them two, each time. Within that, it’s pretty diverse what they’re doing, but they all have that in common. That, and the six-packs.

And this is kind of what I’ve concluded about the gym, about this sort of health-and-wellness lifehacking in general: It doesn’t actually matter what you do, as long as you do it regularly. I have managed to go to the gym about three times a week for the last three years. Would I be, I dunno, 12 percent buffer if I was more diligent about what I do there? Lift more, sweat more, concentrate more, focus on feel the burn rather than contemplate the podcast? Sure!

But if I had done all that, I doubt I would have gone as regularly. I have a crazy-short attention span. Doing the same thing over and over, focusing on how Sisyphean it is rather than distracting myself from it, that’s never going to work for me.

It’s the same with food. Probably twice a week I throw a sweet potato or two in the oven, come back an hour later, grate down whatever cheese I have in the fridge and eat it, skin and all. The other day I was in another hackfrenzy and I looked up the best way to roast sweet potatoes. There it was on Food Lab: They taste better the longer they stay between 135 and 170 degrees.

So I did it, I quartered them, submerged them in hot water for an hour, then baked them for another hour. And were they better? Definitely! Am I going to start doing them this way every time? Fuuuuuuck no.

Half the reason I eat so much vegetable these days is because I’ve figured out the easy ones to cook (It’s not just sweet potatoes: Cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, basically any vegetable, douse that shit in olive oil and salt, bake for an hour, blanket with cheese and go to town). If I really tried to make this optimal—the two hour cooking time, the extra dirty pot, the chopping—I wouldn’t do it as much.

And this is what I’m constantly battling in myself, this idea that I’m not being optimal enough. It’s not enough to go to the gym, I have to squeeze every calorie, every protein fiber, out of my time there. I get the guilties about not doing Zero Inbox, or Crossfit, or being paleo enough. It’s not good enough to eat sweet potatoes with grated cheese on them, I have to eat less cheese, Maillard the shit out of those starches.

I’m trying to be OK with this, to stop trying to hack my habits to perfection. I have a friend who lost a bunch of weight a few summers ago by eating steamed chicken breasts and broccoli soup for like two months. And it worked! If I saw him in the gym at the end of that summer, I totally would have interviewed him. Problem was, the minute he started eating like a person again, he went right back to his old weight. That might have been the ‘perfect’ diet for losing weight, but it wasn’t the perfect diet for sticking with long-term, which is the only metric that means anything.

I stopped judging people at the gym a long time ago. If you’re the kind of person who can only talk yourself into getting exercise if you’re going to sit on the stationary bike and read a romance novel, barely get your heart rate up and leave after 30 minutes, go for it. I sound like I’m being passive-aggressive, but seriously, good for you. I have the attention span of a tiny rodent. If you have the one of a large reptile, and you love doing the same thing every time, 60 reps with each weight, the same on both sides, genuinely: Well done, son.

I am sure that there are articles in Men’s Health and on the Well blog and from your friends on Facebook that will tell you you’re doing it wrong. And I guess you, like me, probably are. But if that’s the routine you can stick to, that’s how you’re going to do this three times a week for the rest of your life, that is fine, that is enough, that is what ‘working’ means. And sometimes, I think it’s working for me too. As long as no one ever makes me give up cheese.

11 Comments

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11 responses to “Lifehack: Stop Fucking Lifehacking

  1. I thought I was the only one! Many of my friends and close acquaintances are into running marathons and a couple of them even into triathlons! When the finally came around and asked me how come I don’t work out at all I replied ‘because it makes me tired!”, and jokes aside it also bores the hell out of my mind. I know I have to loose weight but just as you described above, I never stick to any routine, I’m usually thinking how much longer until I go home, never on how much have I achieved.
    Anyway, great post as usual! Congrats!

  2. I didn’t lose weight, but I got in great shape the years that I had twice weekly workout dates with friends. I ran with one friend for an hour twice a week. I lifted weights with another friend 90 minutes twice a week.

  3. I’m the same way about the gym. Ugh. It’s such a chore. I prefer to go on walks near the water. (:

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  4. Something is better than nothing. Being unorganized in exercise might be the best thing you can do unorganized, as long as you aren’t the wrong type of sore, I say gym apathy is healthy.

  5. j

    That fact that frequency is a key aspect of successful workout plans is obvious. What you’re missing here is the importance (to many people) of efficiency Muscles are dumb and will respond to loads in time, hence your anecdotal observations here. That said, one could do things one way and get the same results in 10 hours per week as you could doing things a more efficient way, spending half that time. And there’s also matters of injury risk, etc.
    -John

  6. This post made me laugh. I live in Sweden and I always want to ask these beautifully buff people at the gym, how do you do it? Consistency is probably the key. They find a class they like and go every time. Me, no, I’m listening to my Audible download while on the rowing machine (sometimes making my way down the lazy river.) But then maybe my mind is getting a workout too? If only people appreciated buff brains.

  7. It sounds like me… I have tried for some time, but then I turn out from the current activity and try something another. I like running, but now there is an awful amount of snow so I am stuck at home. And I don’t feel bad about it. Person who tries to achieve goals other people put in front of them are a typical case of neurotic. I prefer to have a whole experience in my life and actually think about what do I want, not the others.

  8. debzywebzy

    I identify with this so freaking much. I do pilates and body weight stuff at home. Never stepped foot in a gym and might not ever, unless the uni gym is super cheap when I go there in a few months and provided I don’t hate it. I don’t know what I’m doing so I just always use youtube. I sit the ipad on the floor next to my pilates mat and do whatever the cheesy American girl is doing. I do a different video or two every day, only returning to the ones I found really enjoyable or helpful. I realised last week that the one arm workout vid I’d been going back to a lot wasn’t going to keep me motivated just coz it was good, I needed to change it up. And food? I’m the laziest f***er in the kitchen. I like to cook though! I just don’t like to do it every day of the week unless I can get it done in under fifteen minutes. So eat a lot of eggs amd salad and bagels and chicken haha.

  9. “And this is what I’m constantly battling in myself, this idea that I’m not being optimal enough.”…I’ve also been known to throw myself into a self improvement frenzy. Well said

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