Confessions of a PhDumpling

Have any of you had success with weight loss while eating the elephant? Are there any secrets, or is it month after month of chipping away? Please share your experience in the comments section!

Over my tenure in graduate school, I have put on weight steadily. Each new circle of ghoulish hell has marked itself on me, and clothed me, out of necessity, in fat.

I wasn’t always fat. I always was heavy, certainly, but martial arts as a child and wrestling as a teenager kept me fit. I wallowed along for six post-wrestling years until two things happened. I broke my coccyx and slipped a couple of discs in my back in an accident, and I nearly blinded a friend playing racquetball. These two events convinced me that sports–racquetball, at least–were no longer options.

I have looked, once again, into tracking and logging “health and fitness” data[1]. While food is practically fixed by circumstance, exercise and sleep are not. I would like to change these health contributors I can, and be aware of those I cannot. Yet this is problematic. When I start tracking food, I historically get very anxious and end up eating between 800 and 1200 calories a day; not nearly enough. Because of this, and because this time the foods from which I may choose are largely out of my hands, a technically mediated solution to increase exercise is in order.

Academia has shifted my thinking over the years, shifted it from pull-the-trigger-and-barrel-onward to decision-by-committee. However, this is cumbersome, this is lengthy, this is seldom a happy event for all involved. Therefore, rather than wait for the perfect set-up, I am leaning toward starting as soon as possible. Simplify. There are two sides to this equation: input (food I shove into my face) and output (food I metabolically burn off). I will track eating via self-report, but technology can help me report activity.

I seek to do a couple of things:

  1. “Gamify” lumbering around more and plodding up stairs;
  2. Having an external force–in this case, both a display and a human besides myself–prod me to lumber and plod more.

It probably won’t be graceful. It probably won’t be glamorous. But hopefully this can serve as a reminder that little things, done often and routinely, yield big results.

On the technology side of the fence, here is my proposed setup:

With either the Fitbit Aria WiFi scale or the Withings WiFi Body scale (or the next revision, the Withings Body Analyzer scale), my interaction with all this data consists only of tracking food, exercise, and water[2] via the MyFitnessPal phone app. As it can recognize bar-codes, food entry is simple. I already track my daily water consumption, and I don’t plan on getting back into extensive weight-training[3], so the technical side of this transition should be simple enough.

If I am in a good place in the Fall (which means I’m seeing progress in both weight loss and academic status), I’ll probably buy the upcoming Core 2 armband (more details from their press release) for my birthday.

[1] What spurred this latest bout of activity was seeing my girlfriend’s incredible success with The Primal Diet, and my desire to buy her something fantastic for her birthday. This thing (Der Wunderbox!) would track her steps taken and stairs climbed, and evolve into our shared interest in the Fitbit One. And, of course, outliving graduate school.
[2] As described here, this is the supported way to integrate Fitbit and MyFitnessPal.
[3] Extensive here meaning working hard with weights over 5-7 days a week. I do, however, plan to work to muscle failure 3 times a week. If I can actually do this twice a week, it would be beneficial, as it would raise my BMR. Good question from a friend of mine.

Curiosity & Focus

Attention is a tricky, slippery thing to study. Worse, at times, to mindfully direct. I have the unfortunate distinction of having many interests. In the academic world, this quickly becomes debilitating and paralyzing. It am not inattentive, but rather live in a state that is both hyper-attentive and all-encompassing. This state of continuous physiological arousal is wearing, and erodes the soul.

Energy–having physical and mental stamina enough to complete the task at hand–is a necessary but insufficient condition of completion. To this end, Robert Peters writes about scope in Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or a Ph.D. An incorrectly scoped project can quickly overwhelm both author and work, and sap energy away from both.

And this is an excellent point that Peters makes very clear. Contrasting with the approach books like Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis, which coach writers to touch the manuscript every day to increase its bulk (for later revision), Peters spends more time with the reader talking about scope and illustrates with his own nearly-derailed dissertation.

In short, filling pages with words are necessary, but dangerous if the project is over-scoped. In fact, the common traits of the very best faculty members with whom I have worked was knowing where to focus (and with which words), and when to stop (project scope).

I am trying to improve my focus via the Pomodoro technique. The mechanical actions prime me to the fact that I have a block of time within which I must attend almost exclusively to X, after which I may do Y (e.g. checking email). In short, it releases me from the worry of not doing Y by making time for it upon the completion of X. At least, it should release me from this worry. It is difficult for me not to find connections in and between everything, and I blame James Burke’s Connections (it’s a tremendous read well-worth the time) for this, but do not begrudge it him.

What techniques, if any, do you use to remove the guilt of not doing Y while trying to attend to X?