I Did It For Me

New Month Resolution #4

As I mentioned a few months ago, I think it’s valuable to consciously mark time as a way to make gradual changes to one’s behavior. I’m trying out the idea of New Month Resolutions; the basic principle is to choose some habit or activity each month to commit to, one that is (a) big enough that it takes a focused effort to get it done, and (b) small enough that one can expect to make real progress in 15-30 mins each day over the course of a month.

Play along from home, if you want. 🙂 (If you do, I’d love to hear about your experience!)

Update from Last Month (Jan 2020)

It’s been an eventful month, and as a result I haven’t written as much as I’d planned. I do have lots of idea for things to explore here, so stand by.

I’m currently in Berlin, for a particle physics workshop organized by my colleagues at Weizmann.

It’s been an intense schedule of talks, followed by dinner and drinks every night. It’s fun! …but exhausting. I like the events and I love seeing old friends, but sometimes I overdo it. I’m spending the weekend in Berlin before returning, but I won’t be mad if I don’t talk to anyone that whole time.

Berlin is a cool city, unique from the perspective of Germany, as it has much less attachment to traditional foods and beers. There are restaurants from numerous countries, and many microbreweries around the city for those who are not that interested in the (really tasty!) German pilsners or weizens.

Also, I accepted an offer to do a second postdoc at the Institute of Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (IPMU) in Tokyo, Japan. So that’s neat!

Last Month’s Resolution (Jan 2020)

This month has been a learning experience. My resolutions were both related to being more mindful about consumption, specifically what I eat and drink. And while it wasn’t a stunning success, I learned enough about myself that I’m calling it a positive NMR overall anyway.

1. Mindful Eating

I started using this app, called Eat Right Now, which was designed by M.D. Ph.D Judson Brewer who studies craving and addiction. The app gives daily lessons and reminders about eating more mindfully. What do they mean by “eating more mindfully”? Essentially, the goal is to just notice what the experience of eating (and of craving) is really like.

A recurring example in the app is the craving for some junk food, say potato chips. The default might be to berate yourself for indulging too much or too often, or even for wanting food that’s bad for you in the first place. Instead, ERN says to just pay attention to the different parts of the process:

  • When you crave that bag of potato chips, what does the experience of craving feel like?
  • Are you actually hungry? How can you tell?
  • If you do eat the chips, actually slow down and try to enjoy them. They’re tasty, why would you want to shovel them in without noticing the flavor?
  • Maybe you ate a lot of them and now you’re uncomfortably full. What does that feel like? If it’s very unpleasant, it’s important to notice how that is part of the full experience of eating chips. Would you have enjoyed them more, all things considered, if you had eaten two handfuls and not half the bag?

By noticing whether you’re hungry (or not), you can make an informed decision about whether the chips will help; until you identify the problem you’re trying to solve, how can you solve it? And even if against your “better” judgement you indulge, you can actually enjoy (or not) the experience you are having.

It’s truly just mindfulness, pointed in the direction of food. And like any mindfulness, it’s simple and very accessible, so much so that you might think you don’t need an app to do it; just pay attention! But of course, that’s hard to do and the app does communicate the principles in memorable ways that really seem to help.

What the app does well is to break the lessons up into manageable bite-size (pun intended) pieces that can be done every day (perfect for my NMR!). It also makes particular advice memorable by giving lots of examples; a few of my favorites include the “what why and how of eating”, and the analogy that “your craving is like a screaming child, don’t teach her that screaming works by giving in”. All of this just somehow puts the right ideas in the right parts of my brain so that I’m reminded to pay attention when I’m eating.

Did I stick with it? Eh, medium well. For a daily practice of 31 days I progressed to Day 18 of the program, so you can do the math on that.

Has it helped? I think it has. The whole thing is a process and I’m still only beginning, but even after only a month I see improvements. On several occasions I was reaching for something unhealthy and the thought popped into my head: “How will it make you feel?” And then I stopped. I also drop into mindfulness more often when I’m eating a regular meal. (A few times a nearby friend asked if my food was particularly delicious; apparently I was making faces as I noticed the flavors.)

Will I continue? Yes. In part because I forgot to cancel the $30 subscription ( 😋)… but in all seriousness, I think it’s helping and it’s a pretty minimal time input to continue for at least another month.

  • Commitment: 3/5
  • Difficulty: 1/5
  • Results (+/- relative to my expectation, which corresponds to 0): +3/5
  • Likelihood to do it again the following month: 5/5

2. Non-Excessive Drinking

A second resolution was to monitor (and potentially reduce) my alcohol consumption to the standard I outlined here. Most of the risks associated with alcohol consumption are significantly mitigated if one stays close to the “moderate drinking” benchmark, 2 drinks (1 drink) per day for men (women), and away from the “excessive drinking” benchmark, >4 drinks per day or >14 per week for men (replace numbers with 3 and 7 for women).

This was the resolution, and I did not stick to it (data below). But keeping tabs (pun not intended?) on myself for the first time ever was a good exercise, and one that I’ll continue.

Here’s some data (potential TMI here):

Approximately once per week (little more), I drank excessively. I did worse on the weekly count, 3/4 weeks going over the limit.

I learned a few things here. First, notice the units are SDUs (“standard drink units”), which corresponds to 12oz of a ~5% ABV beer. When I used to count drinks in the States, I’d for example go by the number of beers, i.e. if I drink a pint (16oz in the US) it counted the same as if I drank 12 ounces. In Israel, the standard beer size is 0.5 liters = 17 ounces, so “two beers” is three SDUs, not two. Being more precise about this has helped clarify the situation.

Last month I had some fun speculating about the effect of drinking on how well I sleep. Now, I have better day-by-day data, by number of drinks (above) and by FitBit Sleep Score, which is tracked automatically. I’ve been curious to see if there’s a correlation. Well:

Super super super consistent with zero correlation.

So I cannot reject the null hypotheses (no evidence here for drinking hurting my sleep on average). For comparison see the correlation between how much time I spend sleeping and my Sleep Score, which is small but positive (as expected):

Standard deviation ~ 0.15, so linear fit only very marginally better than the null result (horizontal line).

Not drawing any big conclusions from any of this; it’s just kind of fun to have data about myself.

The upshot? I have work to do.

My brother is fond of pointing out the hypocrisy of deciding that it’s necessary to do more / less of something before actually knowing how much you are doing. (Should we increase education spending in the US? “Yes!” everyone cries in unison, having no idea how much we are currently spending or how much would be optimal.) In that spirit I’m glad to have some data, and to know with some confidence that I’m drinking too much. Next month, we begin again.

  • Commitment: 1/5
  • Difficulty: 4/5
  • Results (+/- relative to my expectation, which corresponds to 0): -3/5
  • Likelihood to do it again the following month: 5/5

Up Next

I’ve already said I’ll continue to use Eat Right Now, but this will drop into the background so I can try other things this month.

In terms of drinking, my goal will be only to improve: fewer days and fewer weeks over the limit, and less drinking overall for the month.

I think it’s also time to bring exercise into the equation, as I try to improve my health. To this end, I will (1) sign up for the gym (as soon as I get back to Israel), (2) go at least once per week, and (3) go to yoga at least once per week. This is a weak goal but one that I can totally attain!

I know already that I’m going to be out of town the last two weeks of February. I’ll try to figure something out so that I can keep the spirit of this resolution going even when I’m away.

Resolution #4

Starting February 1, until (at least) the end of the month, I will go to the gym (at least) once per week, and go to yoga (at least) once per week.

Known impediment: I’ll be traveling the last two weeks of February.

I will also improve on last month’s attempt to stay below the threshold of “heavy drinking”, defined by >4 drinks on any day or >14 per week. This means fewer days and fewer weeks over the limit.

Results and new Resolution will be given on or around March 1, 2020.

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