What Did You Actually Learn in 2014? Three Lessons That I’ll Carry With Me Into the New Year

The New Year

“[…] just as it is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle; it escapes through the cracks and holes of the mind.”

— Seneca

While I’ve never made new years resolutions per se, I’ve always found the beginning of the New Year to be the best time for goal setting.  I think this is simply due to the fact that during the hectic day-to-day of the workweek, I rarely make the time for reflection that I can during the holidays.

According to Allen R. McConnell, Ph.D, reflection is critical to self-improvement.  He explains that creating change requires not only the goal itself but also the awareness of where one currently is in order to evaluate the gap between the two.  In other words, “we cannot reach our destinations without knowledge of our current location on the map.”

This year has been a true roller coaster.  I made a massive career change (marketing to software development), struggled to learn a foreign skill (coding), and wrestled with bouts of crippling self-doubt along the way.  Reflecting on what I achieved in 2014 as well as where I fell short, I’ve compiled a short list of lessons learned that I thought were worth sharing.  I’ve drawn heavily from Stoicism for this post, specifically from Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, which has been immensely valuable in helping me articulate how I feel as I embark upon the New Year.

Lesson 1: Time Slips Away Unless You Make an Effort to Grab Onto It

“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but we waste a lot of it […] life is long if you know how to use it.”

— Seneca

Throughout 2014, my friends and I have consistently marvelled at just how quickly time seems to be passing. For most of my closest friends, this year has been one of massive career or personal change (or both). New jobs, new businesses and new relationships have left most of us with seemingly less free time than ever. In my case, months – even seasons – passed without seeing friends that I once saw on a weekly basis. Though we’ve all achieved personal milestones this year, most of us also feel uneasy about our changing perception of time’s pace, like it’s literally slipping through our hands quicker than we can grasp onto it. While I can’t speak for my friends, I attribute the source of my unease to not having lived enough this year, having spent most of my time indoors working, studying and just generally being preoccupied. According to the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, “Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn.”

I believe my single greatest failure this year has been not checking enough items off of my bucket list. Up until now, I’ve been content to just continue adding items to this list, without making enough of an effort to check them off. Seneca expresses this common behaviour of the preoccupied: “You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.”

Seneca cautions:

“Just as travelers are beguiled by conversation or reading or some profound meditation, and find they have arrived at their destination before they knew they were approaching it; so it is with this unceasing and extremely fast-moving journey of life, which waking or sleeping we make at the same pace — the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.”

As most of my preoccupation over the past year has been in the name of attaining what I desire, it’s justified, right? Perhaps. But if I were to find out that I was going to die in five years’ time, would I stop putting some things off? Absolutely. That wouldn’t necessarily mean throwing out all of my longer term goals, but I would definitely make the time to fit in many more of my other ones, some of which I really have no reason to put off any longer.

So how can you start living more while at the same time continue to pursue your longterm goals? To start with, Seneca explains that we don’t guard our precious time closely enough: “People are frugal in guarding their personal property, but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are the most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

Though I consider myself more productive than most, I certainly waste time. But a careful distinction is required here, which Tim Ferriss made in one of his most recent podcasts: watching a movie or grabbing a beer with friends isn’t wasting time if you’re enjoying yourself. Rather, “[wasting time] is when you want to do one thing – or you plan to do one thing – and then you end up doing another.”

In addition to being more careful with one’s time and not putting things off, Seneca advises that we have to be mindful of time’s passing and invest our time wisely: “You must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.”

With Seneca’s words in mind, 2015 is going to be a year of setting up the right dominos to knock more items off of my bucket list.  Doing so is going to require a lot of work, so I’ll have to be extremely careful with my time and implement processes to get more out of it.  I need to ensure that I’m striking the appropriate balance between the attainment of short-term goals, such as travelling to a bucket list destination, and longterm goals, which I may never get a chance to realize.  Your last day really could come at any time, so you should live in such a way that you’ll be ready to “meet death with a firm step” when it comes.  Seneca reminds us that life, however short, “is long if you know how to use it.”

Lesson 2: Invest in the Unknown While You Can Afford To

[] the question is: is it better to optimize your strengths or to invest into the unknown, into places where you’re weak?

— Kevin Kelly

During the first six months of last year, during which time I quit my job, enrolled and graduated from a coding bootcamp, and began to search for a new job, the above question, posed by Kevin Kelly (Co-founder of Wired Magazine), is one that I asked myself on an almost daily basis.  Starting from scratch in a new industry while struggling to learn a skill in which I had absolutely no background is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.  Was it a good move?

Six months later, I can definitively say yes.  And while optimizing for what you’re good at is the saner, more reasonable thing to do, Kelly suggests that due to our increasingly fast-changing landscape, “the only way you can get to a higher, more fit place, is you actually have to go down. You actually have to head into a place where you are less optimal, you have no expertise …”

The key to arriving at my own answer to Kevin Kelly’s question was in sticking with this less optimal thing long enough to see it bear fruit.

Until age 17, my main focus was illustration, and over the years, I became quite good at drawing. There was nothing more satisfying to me than being able to draw whatever I wanted to – to have it turn out exactly how I had seen it in my mind.  I wanted to learn to code so that I could create things, yet four months into software development, I felt like my skill level was on par with a child who could barely draw a stick figure.  Every step I took felt like extremely hard work, and achieving the level of skill that I’d need in order to build the things that I wanted seemed like it would take years.

And then things began to click.  Each month, the problems that I was working on would have seemed impossible the month before, and I discovered that I was able to start building some of the things that I had wanted to on my own.  This gave me a huge confidence boost.  My desire to keep learning skyrocketed, creating a positive feedback loop of learning and motivation.  Before you can decide whether or not you like a new craft, I believe you have to get marginally good at it.

Of course, not everyone can afford to take such a risk – I’m 26 with almost no obligations – but if you can, I think you owe it to yourself to at least consider it.  You can always return to what you know you’re good at.  The less obvious choice sometimes holds greater opportunities, as Peter Thiel explained in his guest lecture at Stanford this year: “Don’t always go through the tiny little door that everyone’s trying to rush through, maybe go around the corner and go through the vast gate that nobody is taking.”

If you’re having a difficult time deciding whether or not investing in the unknown is worth the risk, Neil Gaiman, my all-time favourite author, offers a simple method to determine whether or not a given path will take you where you want to go:

“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time. “

Lesson 3: The Obstacle is The Way

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

— Marcus Aurelius

At the same time as I was wrestling with the Kevin Kelly’s question, I began reading Ryan Holiday’s high-level introduction to Stoic philosophy, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.

The book gets its title from the above quote by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, which appears in Meditations, a collection of his personal writings.

The book’s message is a simple one – every obstacle is an opportunity – but it came at just the right time for me.  In my case, self-doubt on my path to becoming a software developer was my main roadblock, and overcoming that self-doubt was the key to achieving my goal.

In addition to Marcus Aurelius’ timeless message, I found another quote from Neil Gaiman to be especially helpful when dealing with self-doubt or paralysis in the face of an intimidating task:

“Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped.

So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.”


I’ve never been more excited to start a new year.  Overall, I’m very pleased with 2014, but I need to be more mindful of the passage of time and make a real effort to strike a balance between my longterm and short-term goals.

What lessons did you learn in 2014?  I would love to read them in the comments.

P.S. On the Shortness of Life and Meditations are two of the best books I’ve ever read.  Although they’re 2,000 years old, their messages couldn’t be more relevant.  Human beings have had and will always have the same questions about how to live a good life, and some of the best answers are in these two books.  Check them out – they’re both short reads.

If you'd like more reading recommendations and book summaries, subscribe to my newsletter.

Books Mentioned

On the Shortness of Life
The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph

Other Resources

Neil Gaiman’s Keynote Address
Kevin Kelly’s Interview on The Tim Ferriss Show

How to Get a Cover Model Body in 2.5 Hours Per Week: Practical Diet and Exercise Hacks for the Busy Professional (Part 2 of 2)

Above: Mark Milburn training at his Catalyst Lifestyle Services gym in Victoria, BC.  Photo by Nice Lady Productions.

Above: Mark Milburn. Photo by Nice Lady Productions.

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on how to achieve a cover model body in 2.5 hours/week.  If you missed Part 1 on diet, you can read it here.

As I mentioned in Part 1, the single most important step that one can take towards obtaining a great physique is setting up sustainable rules around diet.  To exercise or not to is a choice – eating is not.  Of course, you can’t change the size or shape of your muscles without exercise.  But you can find the Minimum Effective Dose (MED) (explained in detail in Part 1).

My friend Mark Milburn (pictured above), knows a thing or two about training and has attempted to find the MED for busy professionals, the result of which is the Exec Program (available for download at the end of this post).  Having just completed my fourth week of the program, I can speak to its effectiveness.  Since the beginning of my training a month ago, I’ve consistently added 10-20 pounds to almost all of my primary lifts each week, and my core has never been more chiseled.  To give you an example of my gains, my sumo dead lift has gone from 275 to 325 lbs (for 4 repetitions), and I’ve added 15 lbs to my wide grip chins.

A word of warning before proceeding: if you’ve never attempted the exercises described in the Exec, get a trainer to show you how.  Nothing will put the brakes on your progress like an injury, so avoid them at all costs.

Training: Focus on the 20%, Do It Intensely

The concept of MED from Part 1 is especially relevant for exercise – any dose beyond it is not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive .  Finding the smallest dose of exercise required to produce the desired outcome requires identifying the most effective exercises, as well as the optimal duration, frequency and sequencing of exercise.

For most busy professionals, working out is a results-driven activity as opposed to an enjoyment-driven one.  As such, I’ve found that training during the work week to be best for me, which is one of the reasons why the frequency of the workouts in this program – 5 days per week – suits me so well.  Working out so frequently only makes sense if the workouts are short though, which the ones in The Exec are.

Before downloading the workout, take a moment to review the principles behind it as well as the rules Mark and I have identified to get the most out of it:

1. Keep Workouts Short, Frequent and Intense

You only need 30 minutes of high-intensity exercise, 5 days a week to give you a cover model body if you’re eating clean.

In addition to the high opportunity cost of your time, there are three more reasons to keep workouts short:

  • Short Workouts Minimize Recovery Time and Fatigue Exercise should give you energy – not take it away.  Without a significant increase in sleep, marathon workout sessions result in exhaustion the following day.  When you’re tired, it’s more difficult to achieve your other goals and it’s harder to push yourself during workouts.
  • Short Workouts Make It Easier to Push Yourself Since lengthy workouts require significantly more energy than short ones, you may consciously or subconsciously budget your energy in order to have enough to make it through the workout (as noted in the 4-Hour Body).  Therefore, it’s more difficult to push yourself to lift more on a given exercise when facing a drawn-out training session.
  • Short Workouts Encourage Dedication to The Long Term Plan Not only do prolonged workouts require hours of additional gym and recovery time, they also require more willpower and mental preparation.  If you’re forcing yourself to spend countless hours at the gym, it’s going to be harder to stick to the program, since most of us would prefer to be doing other things.

30 minutes is just enough time to adequately warm up, perform two heavy primary exercises as well as a circuit of assistance exercises (primary and assistance exercises are described later in this post).

The short duration of the workouts is made possible by their high frequency.  By spreading your workouts out over 5 days – as opposed to condensing it – you’ll be more mentally and physically rested,  increasing your ability to push yourself harder.

2. Strength First, Visible Results Second

If your goal is larger, more toned muscles, one must focus first on strength.  Why?  If you’re stronger, you can lift heavier weights for more repetitions.  It’s this increased volume that will give you the results that you can see in the mirror.  While training for strength and training for size are related they require different workout protocols, which is why The Exec has multiple phases: Strength, Volume and Power.  You may not see visible results after Phase 1: Strength, but you’ll see them on paper as you become increasingly stronger.

Phase 1: Strength

Studies have shown that gains in relative strength are linked to increases in testosterone.  Testosterone, “considered the major promoter of muscle growth and subsequent increase in muscle strength in response to resistance training in men,” stimulates protein synthesis and blocks protein degradation in muscles, promoting greater strength.  Thus, one of the most important keys to getting stronger is performing exercises that elicit a larger hormonal response.

An increased secretion of testosterone is produced naturally through performing heavy, compound movements intensely.  These compound movements, also known as primary exercises, are exercises like squats, dead lifts and dips.  Compound exercises touch more muscle groups than assistance or isolation exercises, which only hit one or two muscle groups (think deltoid lateral raises).  As Jim Stoppani explains in the Encyclopedia of Muscle and Strength, primary exercises “require the coordinated use of multiple muscle groups,”  giving you the greatest bang for your workout buck.  Primary exercises, performed with heavy weights and low reps, therefore represent a disproportionate percentage of The Exec.

Because heavy-weight, compound-movement exercises have a greater impact than assistance exercises on your central nervous system (CNS), rest is critically important.  Mark prescribes a full three-minute rest between sets to allow your CNS to recuperate.

By decreasing the number of repetitions and increasing the weight of the primary exercises each week throughout the duration of Phase 1, I can now lift my starting weight from week one for 50% more repetitions.

Phase 2: Volume

According to Mark, “Volume is where you begin to see your hard work show it’s physical results.  Now that you’re stronger, you can move more weight more times.”

In lifting more reps per set and resting less between sets, Phase 2 forces you to focus on working your muscles (metabolic training), whereas Phase 1 forced you to stress your CNS (neural training).  Higher rep sets allow you to fully exhaust the muscle, resulting in greater muscle fibre breakdown and in kind, bigger muscles.

Phase 3: Power

While strength is about how much force your muscles exert, power is about how fast you exert it, as it requires the coordination of your muscles by your CNS.  Power training is great for burning body fat as explosive, coordinated movements require the recruitment of more muscle fibres more quickly.

3. Sleep 8 Hours

By keeping workouts short, take the extra time to ensure you get enough sleep (7-9 humour for most of us) to see greater results faster.

It’s during sleep – not during exercise – that you actually build muscle.  Growth hormone, released naturally during sleep, and the nutrition from food consumed during the day are used to help your muscles regenerate.

4. Ignite Your CNS

Every workout session in The Exec starts with a warmup circuit designed to kick your CNS into overdrive.

At the centre of your ability to exercise, your CNS needs to be adequately warmed up before heavy training.  Some exercise scientists argue that the “force exerted by a muscle is increased due to its previous contraction”.  This phenomenon, known Post-Aactivation Potentiation (PAP), has been harnessed to maximize power development in athletes who perform a series of explosive preparatory exercises before heavy training.  Explosive, short-duration exercises like kettle bell swings, sprawls and jump squats performed before heavy training have been shown to enhance subsequent muscle performance rather than impair it.

5. Track it

Recording your weights, reps and sets is critically important to success with The Exec, as each week, its sets, reps and weight will change.  In order to push yourself to lift more each week, you have to know how much you lifted the week prior.

Not only is tracking your progress necessary for systematically adjusting your workouts each week, it also reduces decision fatigue (discussed in Part 1).  When you have a sheet of paper to dictate exactly what you have to do at the gym, you won’t waste precious mental energy deciding what to do, allowing you to focus all of it on the task at hand.

Introducing The Exec Program: 30 mins/day, 5 days week.

Please post any questions or feedback in the comments.  I’ve experienced great gains from The Exec so far, and I’d love to hear how you find it.

Gain Access to The Exec Program

How to Get a Cover Model Body in 2.5 Hours Per Week: Practical Diet and Exercise Hacks for the Busy Professional (Part 1 of 2)

Above: Mark Milburn training at his Catalyst Lifestyle Services gym in Victoria, BC.

Above: Mark Milburn training at his Catalyst Lifestyle Services gym in Victoria, BC. Photo by Nice Lady Productions.

Want a cover model body but too busy to work out?

Instead of telling you a version of the same thing you’ve heard a dozen times before, about how hours of hard work and strict dedication are mandatory, I want to tell you that it’s actually pretty easy.

Among most of my peers, there’s persistent misperception about the time required to achieve a chiselled physique.  If you can spare 30 minutes/day, 5 days/week, and commit to a few rules around what you eat and drink, you can have the body you’ve always wanted.

This is Part 1 of a two-part guide synthesizing the most important principles, tools, tips and tricks for staying fit in spite of a busy schedule.  The post may take you 10 minutes to read, but it will save your hours in the gym.

To help me with this post, I’ve enlisted my friend Mark Milburn (pictured above), the founder of Catalyst Lifestyle Services, a gym and personal training studio where he trains a clientele of busy executives and young entrepreneurs.  I came to Mark about a month ago after realizing that my inconsistent, sporadic workouts weren’t going to give me the results that I wanted.  I needed a training program that would fit into my busy schedule – no more than 30 minutes/day – while at the same time delivering superior outcomes.

Attempting to find the Minimum Effective Dose for an elite physique is not a new idea.  Tim Ferriss, whose ideas are a central to this post, popularized it in 2010 with his best-selling 4-Hour Body.  While The 4-Hour Body is filled with great material, the prescribed workout, consisting of two 30 minute training sessions twice per week, didn’t give me the results I was hoping for.

In response to my ask, Mark designed the Exec, the training program that will act as the finale to this post.  Before digging into the specifics of the workout though, I’ve identified a handful of principles which will help you maximize your results.  The focus of Part 1 is on diet with Part 2 focusing on exercise.  Together, they should give you all of strategies and tactics you need to conquer your biology.

But first, a bit about Mark.

 About Mark

I first met Mark Milburn 4 years ago when I needed a model for a photo shoot.  In the years since, Mark has been a powerful force in convincing me to do things that I wouldn’t otherwise do, like racing down Whistler on a mountain bike with no prior experience (which didn’t work out so well for me).

Mark’s modelling background included gigs with Abercrombie & Fitch, Nike and Adidas.  After training for less than a year, he was ranked in the top 10 for sprint cycling in Canada.  As an avid skier, climber and surfer, he believes that the gym should be a tool to break down limitations and enable people to cross off bucket list adventures.

Minimum Effective Dose and The Choice Minimal Lifestyle

While the inputs required for a top body are the same as they’ve always been, the set of constraints placed on our time, energy and willpower have increased.

Two concepts that are key to doing more with less are that of the Minimum Effective Dose (MED) and the Choice Minimal Lifestyle, both of which I discovered through Tim Ferriss.

Ferriss defines the Minimum Effective Dose as “the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome,” with dose representing “both exercise and anything you ingest.”  The idea is that any dose beyond the MED is not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive to one’s goals.  If you’re having to spend hours in a gym on a daily basis to maintain your physique, it may limit your ability to accomplish your other objectives.

A Choice Minimal Lifestyle is a lifestyle in which one sets up rules to eliminate unnecessary decision-making, thereby preserving one’s attention for when it’s truly needed.  As John Tierney explains in his fascinating essay on decision fatigue, studies now demonstrate that, “there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control.”

The mental energy required for exerting self-control, aka willpower, is finite, so each decision that we make – no matter how small – has a biological cost.  By “setting up rules to automate decision making,” Ferriss argues that we can create routines that reduce decision fatigue, enabling “innovation for when it’s most valuable.”

Diet and exercise are perfect candidates for the Choice Minimal Lifestyle.  By creating routines around food preparation and adhering to a predefined training plan, one can automate one’s inputs (diet and exercise), thus increasing the likelihood of achieving the desired outcomes.

Part 1 – Food: Master your Inputs

When it comes to upgrading your body, no single lifestyle change will give you a greater delta than taking control of your food.  Unlike the decision to exercise or not, you can’t choose not to eat.  It takes the same amount of time to eat a cheeseburger as it does to eat a nutritious, tasty pulled pork salad, so you may as well eat healthy.  Here are the six rules for mastering food:

1.  Eliminate Drinks that Aren’t Water, Tea or Coffee to Cut 200+ Calories/Day

Yes, that includes alcohol.  No, I don’t expect you to cut it from your diet completely, though doing so for just a few weeks can shave off the excess fat that keeps you from attaining your goal.  Most alcoholic beverages – excluding mixes – contain 100-150 calories.  Save drinking for special occasions.  Calories cut by skipping your after work beer: 150.

It goes without saying that sodas or sugary drinks of any kind – which include unlikely suspects such as coconut water and performance drinks – are full of empty calories (e.g. calories that don’t contain any nutritional benefit).  The diet varieties of these drinks are even worse for you.  While diet sodas are calorie free, they’re totally unnatural and have been linked to increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and strokes.  Calories cut by avoiding sugary drinks: 140.

Even your morning energy boost, a 16oz latte with 2% milk from Starbucks, contains 190 calories.  Stick to espresso, Americanos or black coffee instead.  Calories cut by swapping a latte for an espresso: 185.

Total calories saved by cutting out unnecessary beverages: 475.

2. Eat Paleo or Slow Carb

While Mark doesn’t advocate sticking to a strictly-paleo diet, he admits that Paleo is “the easiest framework for eating clean.”  Eat more protein, consume fewer carbs, and get lots of fibre from fruit and vegetables.  Instead of getting your energy from processed carbohydrates like bread, rice or pasta, consume vegetables like yams, sweet potatoes or squash.  Avocados are another secret weapon, which Mark eats with “absolutely everything.”

From personal experience, I can say that the Slow Carb Diet from The 4-Hour Body is another extremely effective dieting framework.  After having gained some unwanted weight in 2010, I used the Slow Carb Diet to carve off 30 lbs in less than three months.  That being said, I believe it’s also the harder diet to stick to long-term, as it bans some of my favourite fuel sources like fresh fruit, yams, and quinoa.

When it comes to debugging your diet, try not to lose the forest for the trees.  It’s not the specifics of any single diet that matter but rather the broad strokes, which both of the aforementioned diets share: avoid processed carbohydrates and get the majority of your calories from lean proteins and vegetables.  In my experience, it’s these broad, sustainable changes that represent the key to finding your global maximum.

3. Prepare Your Own Food to Avoid Eating Out

Adhering to the guidelines of the Paleo or Slow Carb diet is a level of magnitude easier if you prepare your own food.  You can’t control the nutritional content of food served in restaurants, so cook your own.  By cooking your own food, you’ll not only save hundreds of dollars/month, but you’ll find it much easier to eat clean and therefore see results faster.

Cooking your own food doesn’t mean spending hours in the kitchen.  For Mark, “Lunch is always set up by the dinner you cook the night before.  That’s the easiest thing you can do.  Just cook twice as much as you need for dinner.”

For me, cooking dinner every night represents too much decision-making and time commitment.  I prefer to batch all of my meals (except breakfast) to save time and eliminate all unnecessary decision-making around food during the workweek.  It takes just as much time to cook one chicken breast as it does 5.

I generally prepare two meals for the week.  For lunch, I’ll make a stew or roast, and for dinner I’ll have grilled meat or fish with fresh salad.  I also keep some yams or quinoa on hand to give me extra fuel at lunch.  I cook enough to last me the whole workweek.  By preparing all of your meals for the week in advance, you can minimize the decisions you have to make around eating during the week and avoid unhealthy and costly trips to the food court.  My entire weekly meal prep, from picking up groceries to hitting ‘start’ on my slow cooker, takes less than two hours and is a perfect opportunity to listen to an audiobook or podcast.

Tim makes an important point on the Choice Minimal Lifestyle that’s especially relevant for food: “Don’t confuse what should be results-driven with routine (e.g. exercise) with something enjoyment-driven that benefits from variation (e.g. recreation).”

Eat for your goals during the week, and eat for enjoyment on the weekend.

4. Schedule A Weekly Cheat Meal

In order to eat clean for the long-term, I’ve found weekly cheat meals to be absolutely necessary.

A cheat meal is a scheduled meal – I advise one per week – where you let your regimented diet slide and eat whatever you want.  By giving into your cravings once per week, you’ll stand a much greater chance of adhering to a healthy diet longterm.  Craving doughnuts?  Eat an entire box.

Believe it or not, eating whatever you want once per week won’t negatively impact your progress.  In a post written for Equinox, nutritionist Ryan Andrews explains that if, “someone eats a bit below their needs or a bit above their needs, the body compensates and keeps things stable to prevent weight gain or loss. If someone eats a bit too much day after day after day, though, then it can lead to weight gain.”

Some experts argue that in addition to satisfying cravings, cheat meals also spike your metabolism, increasing fat loss. After eating clean for almost a week, your metabolism can actually slow as your body strives to conserve energy.  A cheat meal shocks your body into metabolizing the increased quantity of calories consumed, helping to keep it elevated.

5. Keep Snacks at Work to Crush Office Cravings

One of the secrets to controlling cravings is eating before you’re hungry.  When you’re ravenously hungry, you stand a much greater risk of impulsively grabbing a fast food burger.

To keep hunger at bay while you’re working, buy a bag of almonds, a bag of apples, and a tub of greek yogurt to leave at the office.  Combine these three foods for the ultimate quick snack that will give you the protein, healthy fat, and carbs required to keep your energy high throughout the day.

6. Be Religious About It

According to Mark, religious people understand diet better than anybody: “Individuals belonging to religions with dietary restrictions get it: there are some foods you just don’t eat.  You should have the same level of dedication towards your diet.  Make eating well your religion.”


Stay tuned for Part 2: Training, next week, which will include the first month of Mark’s Exec program.

Further Reading

Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? (New York Times)

Paleo Meal Plans (PaleoLeap)

105 Slow-Cooker Favourites (Cooking Light)

The Choice Minimal Lifestyle (Tim Ferriss)

What Tinder Can Learn From Evolutionary Psychology

Couple on Potsdamer PlatzMy favourite software applications to discuss are those that reveal interesting facets of human nature.  I find apps like Facebook and Instagram fascinating because they bring to light our surprising psychosocial quirks.  In my opinion, no app has revealed more about human psychology over the past year than the mobile dating app Tinder.

My experience with Tinder has been a positive one, and the matchmaking app is certainly the most successful of its kind, due to its simplicity and double opt-in connection mechanism.  In March, Tinder’s CEO announced that it has made 1 billion matches between its 10+ million daily active users.  It’s an impressive number, but I’d be curious to know how many of these matches have resulted in actual dates for its users.  From speaking to numerous Tinder users  – both male and female – I’m guessing that actual dates result from only about 10% of total matches (on average). 

Why isn’t this number higher? 

Evolutionary psychology has the answer.

Enter Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a theoretic approach to human psychology that seeks to explain psychological traits through an evolutionary perspective.  At its centre, evolutionary psychology holds that there is a universal human nature, which is the collection of adaptations that furthered our genes in the human ancestral environment (the environment in which our cognitive processes evolved, approximately 125,000 years ago).  The field offers fascinating explanations for psychological mechanisms like sexual attraction and compassion (among countless others).  Our modern environment is vastly different from the environment of hunter-gatherer-like societies in which human brains evolved.  However, many of the same adaptations that helped our genes propagate 100,000 years ago still persist to this day.  As Robert Wright explains in his bestselling book, The Moral Animal:

“The classic example of an adaptation that has outlived its logic is the sweet tooth. Our fondness for sweetness was designed for an environment in which fruit existed but candy didn’t. Now that a sweet tooth can bring obesity, people try to control their cravings, and sometimes they succeed. But their methods are usually roundabout, and few people find them easy; the basic sense that sweetness feels good is almost unalterable (except by, say, repeatedly pairing a sweet taste with a painful shock).” 

Sexual Selection: The High Price of Eggs

According to evolutionary psychologists, much of sexual selection can be explained by the imbalance of sexual resources between males and females.  Males in most species are physically capable of reproducing hundreds of times per year and until a very old age.  Women, on the other hand, can only reproduce once per year and for a far shorter period of time (mid-teens to mid-forties).  Wright adds that this asymmetry is “exaggerated by the details of mammalian reproduction; the egg’s lengthy conversion into an organism happens inside the female, and she can’t handle many projects at once.”  

Given this asymmetry, it makes sense for males to reproduce as much as possible and for females to be as selective as possible.  Because of this fact, males are more eager for sex than females.

According to Wright: 

“It makes Darwinian sense, then, for a woman to be selective about the man who is going to help her build each gene machine. She should size up an aspiring partner before letting him in on the investment, asking herself what he’ll bring to the project. This question then entails a number of subquestions that, in the human species especially, are more numerous and subtle than you might guess. “ 

It’s in these subtle cues that Tinder breaks down for many of its users.

The Problem With Tinder: Looks Matter Less to Women Than They Do to Men

For most Tinder users, many of their matches break down during the messaging phase.  This seems surprising, given that there would have to have been some element of physical attraction on the part of both users in order for the match to have occurred in the first place.  The truth is that physical attractiveness, represented by photos in this case, just doesn’t matter as much to women as it does to men.

Wright explains the why:

“Though both seek general genetic quality, tastes may in other ways diverge. Just as women have special reason to focus on a man’s ability to provide resources, men have special reason to focus on the ability to produce babies. That means, among other things, caring greatly about the age of a potential mate, since fertility declines until menopause, when it falls off abruptly.”

“The importance of youth in a female mate may help explain the extreme male concern with physical attractiveness in a spouse (a concern that Buss also documented in all thirty-seven cultures). The generic “beautiful woman” — yes, she has actually been assembled, in a study that collated the seemingly diverse tastes of different men — has large eyes and a small nose. Since her eyes will look smaller and her nose larger as she ages, these components of “beauty” are also marks of youth, and thus of fertility.  Women can afford to be more open-minded about looks; an oldish man, unlike an oldish woman, is probably fertile.”

While women care less about looks than men, Wright explains why they are far more selective than men in other areas:

“In 1989 the evolutionary psychologist David Buss published a pioneering study of mate preferences in thirty-seven cultures around the world. He found that in every culture, females placed more emphasis than males on a potential mate’s financial prospects”

“That doesn’t mean women have a specific, evolved preference for wealthy men. Most hunter-gatherer societies have very little in the way of accumulated resources and private property. Whether this accurately reflects the ancestral environment is controversial; hunter-gatherers have, over the last few millennia, been shoved off of rich land into marginal habitats and thus may not, in this respect, be representative of our ancestors. But if indeed all men in the ancestral environment were about equally affluent (that is, not very), women may be innately attuned not so much to a man’s wealth as to his social status; among hunter-gatherers, status often translates into power — influence over the divvying up of resources, such as meat after a big kill. In modern societies, in any event, wealth, status, and power often go hand in hand, and seem to make an attractive package in the eyes of the average woman.” 

In addition to social status and financial resources, Wright notes that, “ambition and industry also seem to strike many women as auspicious.”

And the evidence isn’t just theoretical.  Arizona State University psychology professor Douglas T. Kenrick explains the results of an experiment in which groups of men and women were exposed to physically attractive members of the opposite sex: 

“The whole body of findings points to a simple conclusion about beautiful women: They capture everyone’s attention and monopolize downstream cognitive processes. The conclusion about handsome men is different: They grab women’s eyes but do not hold their minds; good-looking guys quickly get washed out of the stream of mental processing.”

In another study, Kenrick proves that traits other than handsomeness, such as social savvy, appear to be more important to women:

“Seeing a series of socially dominant men undermined women’s commitment, just as seeing attractive women had done to men’s.”

If a man finds a woman physically attractive, that alone is enough for him to consider her a worthy mate (at least in the short-term).  While physical attractiveness also matters to women, it’s usually not enough.  Much more important is how the man handles himself socially, which can be observed through a number of verbal and nonverbal cues, most of which can’t be communicated through mobile dating apps like Tinder.  Tinder and its competitors don’t take the difference in men and women’s evolved sexual preferences into account.  Mobile dating apps present men and women with the same information: a set of photos and a tagline.  

As male physical attractiveness is a relatively weak indicator of genetic suitability for women, a woman’s initial attraction to a Tinder match is often fleeting.  Attributes such as social status, charisma and ambition – proven to be much more important to women than a man’s looks – are difficult to portray through profile photos.  Relevant nonverbal cues such as body language and touch don’t exist in the context of a mobile application, and women are forced to then evaluate a match’s written communication in order to size him up.  As women will always have a significantly larger pool of matches competing for their attention than men will, an unimpressive first message or two will cause even the best looking guys to be quickly forgotten.

Conclusion: Make Mobile Dating More Closely Resemble The Real World

I’ve had a great experience on Tinder, but I believe that it could be better.

Tinder, and online dating in general, fails to present women with all of the information required to effectively evaluate potential partners.  It also penalizes most men by eliminating many of the means with which they’d use to present their value to women in a real world setting.  The result for both men and women is a large collection of low-quality matches, most of which go nowhere during the messaging phase of the interaction.  When so few matches turn into quality dates, users get discouraged and leave the platform.

Mobile dating is still in its infancy.  Snapchat succeeded in making mobile communication more closely resemble the real world – moments disappear.  I believe that the matching experience in mobile dating apps can also be improved to more closely simulate real world interactions.  The key lies in applying what evolutionary psychology has taught us about the differences in how men and women evaluate suitable mates.

Some ideas for technology entrepreneurs:

  • Experiment with providing asymmetric information to male and female users.  It may make sense for women to be presented with more information then men.
  • Offer users the ability to sign up through linkedIn, after which the software would generate an instant summary of their careers.
  • Instead of a text-message-like interaction, matches could be forced to interact through a videotelephony program like Facetime.
  • List the number of Facebook friends, linkedIn contacts and Instagram followers a user has (as a measure of social influence).

I’m not suggesting that one of the above ideas will necessarily lead to better quality dates or the next billion-dollar startup, but by experimenting with the types of information presented, and the ways in which they’re presented, technology entrepreneurs may be able to deliver on mobile dating’s promise.


The 5 Best Quotes from Zero to One

Zero to One

Before having read Zero to One, I knew that Peter Thiel was one of the founders of PayPal and a billionaire investor.  He’s also known for controversial ideas (his Thiel Fellowship offers promising students $100,000 to drop out of school to pursue other work).  When I’d see quotes of his in the news, I’d often disagree with his contrarian views, perhaps because I misinterpreted the conviction with which he said them as arrogance.  But after reading this Zero to One, I can now honestly say that I agree with almost all of them.

If you’re interested in helping shape the future, this book is a must-read.  There are so many gems in Zero to One, but the following stood out to me as the most important.

“We cannot take for granted that the future will be better, and that means we need to work to create it today.”

According to Thiel, past generations believed that luck was something, “to be mastered, dominated, and controlled” and that the future was less a matter of chance than design.  Previous generations were lead by definite optimists, people who believed the future would be better than the present and worked tirelessly to create a richer and healthier world.  Tremendous progress in science, medicine and engineering began during the Renaissance and continued until the mid-20th century, when it stalled with the baby boomers.  The baby boomers can described as indefinite optimists, those who believe that the future will be better but don’t know how so and therefore don’t make any concrete plans for it.

In the past 40 years, “we’ve had enormous progress in the world of bits, but not as much in the world of atoms.”  In other words, we still don’t have a cure for cancer, we’re still dependant on fossil fuels, and we still don’t know how we’re going to feed and care for an increasingly expanding population.  In order to solve these problems and others, we need to become definite optimists again.

“Rivalry causes us to overemphasize old opportunities and slavishly copy what has worked in the past.”

The ideology of competition is destructive, causing individuals and corporations to focus on trivial scoreboards rather than creating new things.  Beginning in elementary school, we instil an obsession with competition in children by assigning them grades and teaching them all in the same way, “irrespective of individual talents and preferences.”  This gets worse in post secondary where “elite students climb confidently until they reach a level of competition sufficiently intense to beat the dreams out of them.”  He writes that instead of changing the world, top students settle for conventional careers, adding that, “All Rhodes Scholars had a great future in their past.”

In the business world, Thiel argues that focusing on one’s competitors instead of a unique mission is costly, and cites the battle between Google and Microsoft, who lost their dominance to Apple as both competed on both search engines and browsers.

“As computers become more and more powerful, they won’t be substitutes for humans: they’ll be compliments.”

Today, many Westerners fear that computers will replace them in the workforce, but Thiel reminds us that we shouldn’t fear machines, because unlike cheap labour, they don’t compete for jobs and resources.  More important though is the fact that man and machine excel at fundamentally different things.  Computers “excel at data processing, but they struggle to make basic judgements that would be simple for any human.”

Thiel argues that because of this fundamental difference, “the most valuable businesses of coming decades will be built by entrepreneurs who seek to empower people rather than to make them obsolete.”  Computers will help us do “what was previously unimaginable” and discover truths that we wouldn’t have been able to discover on our own.

“Every one of today’s most famous and familiar ideas was once unknown and unsuspected.”

Critical to building an important business or helping design the future is the discovery of secrets.  Thiel describes a secret as “something important and unknown, something hard but doable.”  Such truths are responsible for our greatest achievements, and actively seeking them out will carry us toward a better future.

He laments that most people today “act as if there were no secrets left to find,” which may be because “the unknown seems less accessible than ever.”  There are no new places to go on earth, and the stars seem farther away than ever.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson would say, “We stopped dreaming.”

Not all secrets are bound to the physical world; some secrets are social, “things that people don’t know about themselves or don’t want others to know.”  There are still secrets left to be found, and discovering them will be hugely profitable.  As examples, Thiel sites both Airbnb and Uber, which both saw an untapped supply and unaddressed demand – a secret about how the world works that was hiding in plain view.

“If insights that look so elementary in retrospect can support important and viable businesses, there must remain many great businesses still to start.”

“The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.”

How does one uncover secrets?  Thiel suggests asking oneself the following contrarian question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” Good answers to this question, he writes, help us see into the future.

In order to go from 0 to 1, we need to ignore convention, but simply opposing the crowd won’t get us there.  The “essential first step”, he says, “is to think for yourself.”