Category: Doing

Ramadan Training in Dubai

 

Introduction

I’ve created this guide to Ramadan in Dubai to help you structure your training and nutrition. My recommendations are based on scientific research and my own observations and experience working with Muslim clients here.

(But I must give credit to my friend Yusef at PropaneFitness for creating the first practical guide written by a devout Muslim who also trains seriously.)

I’ve experimented with fasting extensively in the past for both fat loss and lean muscle gain, including 16/8 intermittent fasting (or “Leangains” after it was popularised by Martin Berkhan) and alternate day fasting (ADF).

But there are important differences between typical fasting protocols and fasting during Ramadan.

The primary focus of Ramadan is spiritual connection, with an emphasis on prayer and giving. Although you may achieve favourable changes in body composition over the holy month, this is a secondary consideration.

Muslims fast from dawn until sunset, rather than simply skipping breakfast.

Drinking is not permitted during the fast. That immediately rules out a lot of the tools that make fasting easier, like coffee and diet sodas. (And chewing gum, since it resembles eating, is not allowed either.)

I won’t discuss the potential health benefits of fasting here, because that’s outside the scope of this article. I do recommend sporadic use of fasts as part of a structured nutrition plan with my clients. Fasting is a tool that may be used to create a caloric deficit, rather than a panacea.

Experiencing Ramadan in Dubai

In 2018 Ramadan is expected to fall on May 16th, although the date may vary depending on local sighting of the moon.

Prayer Times

Fajr ~ 4am

Magrib ~ 7pm

Isha ~ 8.30pm

The Taraweeh prayers follow Isha and usually finish about an hour later, which could be anywhere from 9.30pm to 10pm.

Meal Times

Suhoor ~ 11pm – 4am

Iftar ~ 7pm.

(All of the times listed below are approximate and may vary during the month.)

The climate in Dubai makes it far more challenging to go without water, although this is mitigated by shorter working hours mandated by law and mostly air conditioned work environments.

Non-Muslims must observe the fast in public and typically restaurants stay closed until Iftar. That also means that during the fast, none of my clients drink on the gym floor when they’re training with me, although they are provided a screened off area to drink if they need to. Music is typically not played in public, or at levels that are disrespectful to those who are fasting, but headphones are still allowed.

Challenges of Fasting

Weight gain

Paradoxically, many Muslims experience unwanted weight gain over Ramadan.

Disrupted sleeping patterns and a decrease in sleep quality – most dramatically during the start of Ramadan – results in dietary disinhibition and overeating once the fast is broken, especially with Iftar buffets and family gatherings with an array of calorie dense foods available. Perversely, food companies ramp up their advertising and special offers, encouraging you to purchase junk food.

There is a simultaneous drop in energy expenditure, with decreased activity during the day and increased lethargy. And many Muslims stop exercising completely.

Exercise

Muslims often choose not to exercise over Ramadan because they’re concerned about feeling thirsty, having enough energy to train, and feeling generally fatigued or sleepy before training.  They may choose not to exercise if they feel it distracts them from the main focus of Ramadan. And many simply aren’t sure how to adjust their training around the fast.

A decrease in sleep quality, fatigue, and dehydration all present a significant challenge. Changes to training times and conditions not only affect the physical state, but mental wellbeing. For example, if you habitually train in the morning and usually drink coffee before training, you’ll be in a different state of mind during Ramadan (and operating with less caffeine).

Relatively minor changes to the environment, like training without music in the gym, often create subtle nudges that decrease engagement and performance during exercise.

Fasted training isn’t necessarily optimal, but it’s workable. And it can be done safely. However, a state of hypohydration – when you’re dehydrated during the fast –  creates unfavourable changes both to training performance and the hormonal response to training. Hydrated cells even release more fat and spare more protein: everything simply works better when you’re properly hydrated!

How to prepare for Ramadan

Your checklist is as follows:

  1. Decide how you will modify your training to best match your schedule.
  2. Calculate your calorie and macronutrient requirements.
  3. Start adapting your sleeping, eating, and training schedule before Ramadan.

I suggest that you allow yourself a lead-in time of one or two weeks to gradually adapt your schedule to match what you’ll be doing over Ramadan. For example, it’ll be much easier to switch from training in the morning to training in the evening if you do it ahead of time. And you’ll be able to anticipate any issues before they become critical, like planning around traffic.

Morning training may also help counter the shift in your sleep-wake cycle, but you have to decide if that works for you.

How to eat

Priorities

Here are your main goals for eating during Ramadan:

  1. Rehydrate.
  2. Eat enough protein.
  3. Set calories appropriately for your goals.
  4. Minimise digestive issues.

Hydration

Drinking water will adequately rehydrate you, but it’s not the most efficient solution.

You should choose beverages with higher energy density that will provide you with additional calories, macronutrients, and electrolytes. This will make it easier to hit your protein and calorie targets.

(The only exception to this rule is if your goal is to deliberately reduce calories.)

The macronutrient and electrolyte content will also promote greater fluid retention, which will potentially delay or reduce the number of bathroom trips you need to make after breaking your fast.

Research on hydration shows that milk and orange juice outperform water and promote a positive potassium balance. I expect that laban will have a similar effect to milk, although there is no study data to support this claim.

Protein

Protein is used to repair, maintain, and build new structures in your body. Protein is essential for life, but also particularly important for promoting favourable changes in your body composition.

When you’re fasting you need to consume enough protein to maintain and build muscle, to reduce muscle breakdown, and promote satiety.

You should aim to get 1.6 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight every day, which means a 80kg adult would aim for roughly 130g to 160g.

You can get protein from a variety of food sources, like meat, eggs, and dairy. You may also consider using supplemental protein sources like whey and casein, or vegan alternatives like soy and pea.

Calories

You can expect your calorie expenditure to go down over Ramadan. With that in mind, I’d suggest that you estimate your calorie requirements conservatively.

There are many different formulae you can use to do this, but I prefer using a simple method:

Calories (kcals)  = 30 (kcals/kg) x bodyweight (kg)

If you’re trying to maintain your weight, use that estimate. If your goal is to lose weight, decrease by 20%. And if your goal is to gain weight, increase by 10-20%. Make sure you track your scale measurements accurately and adjust your calories up or down according to your progress.

 

Protein and carbohydrate provide 4 calories per gram, while fat provides 9 calories per gram.

Start by setting your protein intake using the recommendation given above and working out how many calories that gives you.

Whatever calories you haven’t allocated to protein should be filled up with carbohydrate and fat. I’d suggest getting the majority of those calories from carbohydrate for best results, however.

Example. For a 100kg person trying to maintain their weight we would calculate:

30kcals/kg x 100kg = 3000kcals

Let’s set protein at 2g per kg, which gives us 200g of protein. That’s 200g x 4kcals/g = 800kcals. We have 2200kcals remaining to assign to carbohydrate and fat. Let’s allocate 1600kcals to carbohydate and 600kcals to fat.

That gives us 1600kcals / 4kcals/g = 400g of carbohydate and 600kcals / 9kcals/g = 67g of fat (rounded to the nearest gram).

Digestibility

Breaking the fast properly should involve choosing foods that are easy to digest and don’t create bloating or discomfort later when you’re training or sleeping.

Excessive fibre, fermented foods, and raw foods are probably best avoided. I’d also suggest that you avoid eating meals that are really high in fat, which will slow digestion.

Meal Timing

For best results you want to have several protein feedings as possible, spaced out by at least 3 hours. Therefore I would recommend eating 3 or 4 meals spaced over the eating window where possible: Suhoor, Iftar, an optional meal pre-workout meal in the evening, and a meal before bed.

Suhoor is particularly important if you want to get the best results from your training. The Suhoor meal should set you up with adequate hydration, slow-digesting protein, and fuel to sustain you during the fast.

If you’re training in the evening you should consider having a moderate Iftar meal followed by a pre-workout meal later after prayers. Again, your aim here is to space out protein feedings and set up the best possible environment for training and recovery.

Intra-workout

There are a vast array of intra-workout products available now, but the benefits of intra-workout are overstated in most cases. However, during Ramadan you may find that this is a great opportunity to squeeze in extra protein, carbohydrates, and even electrolytes.

If you’re going to consume an intra-workout drink other than water, I’d suggest using a simple mix of whey for your protein and a combination of glucose and fructose for your carbohydrate.

Whey protein is a complete protein with all the essential amino acids. BCAAs are a waste of time here – and, most likely, in general.

Glucose and fructose use slightly different transporter proteins in the gut. This potentially increases carbohydrate oxidation and promotes faster uptake of carbohydrate from the gut.

(Including electrolytes, or at least sodium, will also promote increased uptake of glucose, since some of the transport proteins are dependent on sodium.)

You can mix dextrose with ordinary table sugar to get the ideal combination of sucrose and fructose: use an equal amount of dextrose powder and ordinary table sugar (sucrose is a 50:50 ratio of glucose:fructose).

Honey also works as a carbohydrate source instead of table sugar (it has a roughly 50:50 ratio of glucose:fructose), but it may be harder to mix properly with other ingredients.

You may go as high as 60g of total carbohydrate per hour of exercise, but start with a lower dosage to make sure you don’t cause any gastric distress.

Supplements

You may consider using supplements over Ramadan to make it easier to get all the protein you need and to stay hydrated. They are by no means necessary, but you are free to experiment and see if they help.

Whey protein

Whey is a high quality, relatively fast digesting protein derived from milk. I’d suggest using this when you break the fast or before training in the evening if you need to boost your protein intake. You may also use whey protein intra-workout.

Learn more about whey protein

Buy whey protein

Casein protein

Casein is a high quality, slow-digesting protein also derived from milk. You may find it convenient to use this if you’re struggling to get all of your protein from food. I’d suggest using it with your Suhoor meal.

Learn more about casein protein

Buy casein protein

Electrolytes

An electrolyte powder mixed in your intra-workout drink may help with rehydration, especially if you lose a lot of fluid during training. (You can actually make your own rehydration solution at home, but it’s probably time that you’d rather spend on something else.)

Buy electrolytes

(I don’t have any kind of affiliate deal with or get any referral bonus from MyProtein, I’ve used their products for years and feel comfortable recommending them to you now that they’re available in the UAE. But don’t take my word for it!)

How to train

I have based my recommendations around weight training. This is your best strategy for maintaining and improving body composition over Ramadan, especially if you have limited opportunities to train.

Priorities

Your program should aim to do the following:

  1. Maintain or build muscle.
  2. Maintain or build strength.
  3. Maximise recovery and time efficiency.

And most importantly, you must be able to fit your training around your sleep, prayer, and work schedule.

Timing

There are three possibilities:

  1. Train before sleeping.  (Suhoor > Fast > Iftar > Train > Sleep)

Optimal. You’re able to properly rehydrate and consume protein before and after training.

  1. Train in the morning. (Suhoor > Train > Fast > Iftar > Sleep)

Less optimal. Although you benefit from training when you’re adequately hydrated and fed, you are missing out on protein for several hours after training. But training in the morning does help anchor your circadian rhythm and counters the shift in your sleeping and waking cycle.

  1. Train before Iftar. (Suhoor > Fast > Train > Iftar > Sleep)

This is the least optimal scenario. Counterintuitively, you may find that performance is maintained or even improves when you train shortly before Iftar, with increased motivation in anticipation of breaking the fast and an increase in stress hormones. But physiologically this is the worst case, training without protein available, with depleted glycogen, and in a state of hypohydration.

(It’s for you to decide which option suits you best, but I would always recommend choosing option 1 where possible.)

Load, Volume, and Intensity

Try to maintain the load and intensity of your training over Ramadan, but do consider dropping your volume and increasing rest times. In practise that means fewer sets, but higher quality.

I’d suggest abandoning any supersets or circuit-based training in favour of straight sets. You won’t see any benefit in terms of calorie expenditure by doing supersets, but you’ll probably compromise performance and end up sweating more.

You should aim to hold on to neuromuscular adaptations – strength, basically – by sticking with the movements you’ve been doing and the same working weights as much as possible. You won’t lose muscle if you provide an adequate stimulus by handling heavy weights with conservative volume and working within your recovery potential.

Remember, your goal is for the most part to hold on to what you have rather than overworking yourself and trying to gain muscle under unfavourable conditions.

Sample Program

Here’s a sample program that you can do 2-3 times a week, alternating between upper and lower body workouts.

Day 1 – Upper

Barbell row – 3 sets of 5, 1 or 2 back-off sets of 8 to 12 (or 12 to 15)

Barbell bench press – 3 sets of 5, 1 or 2 back-off sets of 8 to 12 (or 12 to 15)

Optional movements…

Face pulls – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Lateral raises – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Tricep extensions – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Bicep curls – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Day 2 – Lower

Squat – 3 sets of 5, 1 or 2 back-off sets of 8 to 12 (or 12 to 15)

Back extension or reverse lunges – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Optional movements…

Hamstring curls –  3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Leg extensions –  3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Calf raises – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12

Loading. For your main compound movements you’ll do 3 sets of 5 reps with a challenging weight, which will be in the neighbourhood of 75% of your one-rep maximum.  You’ll continue with one or two back-off sets where you drop the weight and do 8 to 12 or 12 to 15 reps, depending on how you feel.

With the optional movements you should aim to do 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps, leaving 1 or 2 reps in the tank on each set.

Warm-ups. I’d suggest that you restrict your warm-up sets to a few 5s, 3s, and 1s, climbing up to your working weight without introducing too much fatigue on the way there. Finish your warm up sequence an “over warm-up” where you do a single rep with a slightly heavier weight than you’ll be working with to prime you for the working sets.

(Over warm-ups are a technique I borrowed from strength coach Paul Carter and I often use with my personal training clients.)

Example. Let’s suppose your working weight on the bench press will be 100kg for 3 sets of 5. You might start with your warm-ups like this:

Bar x 10

50kg x 5

75kg x 3

100kg x 1

110kg x 1 – the “over warm-up”

And you would continue with your working sets like this:

100kg x 5

100kg x 5

100kg x 5

80kg x 10 – first back-off set

70kg x 13 – second back-off set

Scheduling. Setting up the program for two workouts a week would look something like this:

Sunday – Upper

Monday – Off

Tuesday – Off

Wednesday – Lower

Thursday – Off

Friday – Off

Saturday – Off


And three workouts a week would look something like this:

 

Sunday – Upper/Lower

Monday – Off

Tuesday – Lower/Upper

Wednesday – Off

Thursday – Upper/Lower

Friday – Off

Saturday – Off

Exercise selection

I’ve suggested compound lifts here, like squats and barbell rows, assuming that you’re familiar with them and are proficient in their execution. But if you’re a novice, consider seeking instruction before attempting to follow this program.

You may also choose to make appropriate substitutions to better match where you’re at right now. Here are some ideas:

Squat

  1. Dumbbell goblet box squat or full squat
  2. Landmine squat
  3. Cable squat

Barbell Row

  1. Chest-supported dumbbell row
  2. Seated cable row
  3. Machine row

Barbell Bench Press

  1. Landmine press
  2. Dumbbell bench press
  3. Machine chest press

Lunges

  1. Step-ups
  2. Single-leg leg press
  3. Split-squats

Back Extension

  1. Barbell glute bridges
  2. Dumbbell sumo deadlift
  3. Dumbbell Romanian deadlift

You’ll need to modify the loading and rep schemes accordingly, but in general you could aim for 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps with a weight that’s challenging, leaving 1 or 2 reps in the tank on each set.

Cardio

My general recommendation would be to schedule your aerobic training on your off days, when you’re not doing weight training.

Low intensity cardio in the morning would make the most sense. But I think that it’s best to simply try and stay more active during the day to fight the decline in activity levels, taking more breaks to walk around at work, for example.


If you insist on doing medium to high intensity cardio, such as interval training, you should try and schedule it like you would with your weight training, either in the morning after Suhoor or in the evening after Iftar when you’re fuelled and hydrated.

Again, the goal here is to simply maintain rather than to make dramatic improvements in your fitness over Ramadan. Try to keep your activity levels up during the day instead of doing lots of cardio to compensate.

Sample Day of Eating

Suhoor

  • Baby spinach omelette. See recipes.
  • A glass of fresh orange juice.
  • Coffee with milk.

Iftar

  • Roughly 1 cup of lean meat and 2 cups of rice from a traditional dish like Mansaf or Machboos.

Before training

  • Banana and date smoothie with 1 or 2 scoops of whey protein added (vanilla flavour works nicely). See recipes.
  • A glass of fresh orange juice.

During training

Water (or an intra-workout drink with protein, carbohydrates, and electrolytes).

After training

  • 1 litre of low-fat chocolate milk.

This would give you over 3000kcals, with at least 200g protein, 365g carbs, and 75g fat. You can scale the serving sizes and ingredients up or down based on your requirements.

Recipes

Banana and date smoothie

Ingredients:

  • Medium ripe banana, frozen.
  • Medjool dates, three pitted.
  • Low fat milk, 250ml.
  • Cinnamon to taste.
  • Salt to taste.

Method:

Blend ingredients together until smooth.

Spinach omelette

Ingredients:

  • Eggs, 4 large.
  • Parmesan cheese, 3 tablespoons freshly grated.
  • Fresh spinach, 2 cups.
  • Garlic powder, ½ teaspoon.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Method:

Beat the eggs in a large bowl and add the spinach and Parmesan cheese. Season with garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Lightly coat a small pan with cooking spray and cook the egg mixture on a medium heat for roughly 2 to 3 minutes until partially set. Flip with a spatula and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat and continue cooking until it reaches desired level of doneness.

5 Lessons From Travelling Alone

Introduction

“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.”
Basho

I find that travelling alone is like counselling. You meet people with no expectations: you can be who you want to be, or perhaps who you truly are (assuming you know who you are in the first place). And you decide how much you share with them. You have time and space to reflect and let go of your emotional baggage.

(Hopefully not your actual baggage though, that makes travel substantially more difficult.)

My situation may be different to yours. I run my own businesses and although I can travel whenever I please, I still have to work. That means I have different constraints and different freedoms. For example, I may have to schedule a client call at 3am because of the time difference, even though I’m on holiday.

You may travel for different reasons, you may travel with friends,  but I think these lessons apply more generally. I know that they’ve improved the rest of my life, even when I am back home.

1. Change your environment

“Your body does not eliminate poisons by knowing their names. To try to control fear or depression or boredom by calling them names is to resort to superstition of trust in curses and invocations. It is so easy to see why this does not work.”
Alan Watts

I have lived through depression and anxiety for most of my life and I have learned how to resist them. Marcus Aurelius talks about the fortress of the mind free from passion. You should build your own inner fortress and rule it. When thoughts that torment you arise, treat them like invaders and act ruthlessly. You don’t need to know where they come from or why, all you need to know is that they do not belong.

But despite practising this I find that the winter is difficult for me. I feel burnt out and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain that fortress: the cold and the darkness are a constant onslaught.

I decided to break out of the seasonal cycle.

Now I travel over the winter to escape the worst of the weather back home. It gives me time to regenerate and return with renewed focus and energy.

Are you struggling with bad habits? Are you stuck in a destructive cycle of behaviour?

Remove yourself from the environment.

Remove distractions.

Remove toxic influences.

Pull out the hooks that keep dragging you back to your old ways.

2. Invest in yourself

“Only by exhibiting actions in harmony with the sound words which he has received will anyone be helped by philosophy.”
Musonius Rufus

I’ve often struggled to justify spending time and money on myself. It’s a kind of thinking that creeps in when you’re self-employed. You hold back from buying new clothes, eating out, and going on holiday.

I believe it’s important to have times where you live modestly, eat plainly, and appreciate simple things.

But how can you ask people to invest in you if you don’t invest in yourself?

All that you pray to reach at some point in the circuit of your life can be yours now – if you are generous to yourself.

Marcus Aurelius

And if you invest a lot of time and resources in cultivating your lifestyle and your appearance, then what about your thoughts?

(But at the same time, you’ll find that it’s easier to elevate your thoughts if you dress well and look after your body. And it would be foolish to think that other people will not notice if you neglect your appearance.)

Nourishing the whole person goes beyond what you eat and how you exercise: it’s about what you think and how you act.

That’s why I read philosophy; I’m looking for practical insight into how to live a better life.

The problem with self-help books is that they’re telling you how to think.

They’re offering you an easy solution: but what you really need to do is examine your own life and learn how to think for yourself.

And you have to start taking action.

3. Let go

“For every challenge, remember the resources you have within you to cope with it. Provoked by the sight of a handsome man or a beautiful woman, you will discover the contrary power of self-restraint. Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate.”
Epictetus

When I say let go, I mean let go of things outside of your power. Stop trying to control everything. There’s nothing wrong with sensible planning, but don’t stick rigidly to your plans or allow yourself to become anxious when they don’t work out. When you book a flight there is the possibility that it may be delayed or cancelled. Trust yourself to be able to cope with those challenges.

And be prepared to let go of things that were only temporary to begin with.

You spent money on your travels. You can earn it back and more.

You worked hard on your physique for years. You can let it go for a few weeks.

You can stop obsessing over macro tracking and training. Eat an adequate amount of protein when you can, judge your portions, eat when you’re hungry, and savour your food. Train using basic equipment if that’s all you have. Use bodyweight movements if necessary. Or do nothing at all, it doesn’t matter.

Whatever you lose, you can get it back.

4. Spend time alone

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
Seneca

(Of course, Seneca would say that, he was exiled on Corsica for eight years…)

When I say alone, I mean truly alone: you and your thoughts.

Put your phone away.

How can you spend time with your own thoughts if you’re constantly bombarded with trivial notifications, desperate for your attention?

The apps you use every day are designed to hook you. They create powerful habits that pull you back to that glowing blue screen.

And will a sleep quality app be able to tell you about all the problems in your life that are keeping you awake?

No.

Do you need a meditation app to tell you to spend five minutes in your own company?

If you do, you have bigger problems than an app can solve.

One of the best decisions I made this year was to use an alarm clock instead of the alarm on my phone. I leave my phone switched off at night, often in a different room. My sleep has improved tremendously.

5. Live with less

“But in fact the more a man deprives himself of these or suchlike, or tolerates others depriving him, the better a man he is.”
Marcus Aurelius

Travel is an opportunity to pare down to the things that are important, the things that are essential for life.

(That means a laptop, adequate wifi coverage, and maybe clean drinking water.)

It’s powerful to know exactly how much you need to live anywhere.

Your list might look like this:

  • Credit card
  • Laptop
  • Aeropress (and good coffee)
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • Pair of Oxfords

(In fact, you could reduce that list to one item: a credit card.)

But more importantly, it’s liberating to know what you can do without.

I don’t need all of my books.

I don’t need dozens of pairs of shoes.

I don’t need a waffle maker.

I’ve enjoyed all of those things, but if I had to throw them out tomorrow, I could do it. And because of that, I’m not afraid if my circumstances change.

3 Lessons From Doing Online Coaching

I’ve been working as an online coach for a few years now. What I’ve learned has changed my perspective on many things, and I’d like to share a few of those lessons with you. Even if you’re not involved in fitness coaching, if you’ve ever thought about working for yourself, I think you will learn something too.

1. Find out what freedom means to you.

When I was younger I knew that I would never work for anyone else. I hated the idea of working to make money. And even worse, I believed that everyone slaving away at a desk for a living was a fool. It was all beneath me. If I could’ve lived on pure ideals and knowledge, I would’ve done that.

I thought that was freedom.

Then I realised that money is permissive.

Now I don’t care how much money I have, but I care about what it allows me to do. When I started working for myself, I struggled to make enough money to live. I couldn’t buy new clothes, travel, and I didn’t have any savings.

For a long time I struggled with a poverty mindset, I wanted to spend less in case I made less. I lived each day as if everything would be taken away from me.

Then I realised that I needed to change. The freedom I imagined before was actually a prison.

I decided that if I wanted more, I would work harder and make more.

I refused to be limited by money.

I learned that you cannot have complete freedom. I believe there is a kind of universal conservation law at work. You have to pick which type of freedom is important to you.

For example, being free to work for yourself, to dictate your own schedule, requires you to motivate yourself too. You have to plan your time, push when you need to work harder, accept the uncertainty of having no guaranteed income, and every decision you make is your responsibility.

Working for someone else means that you’re almost always free from worrying about those things. But you trade that freedom off for having to do what someone else tells you to do.

Find out what freedom means to you, and choose wisely.

2. Make deeper connections.

It’s easy to connect with people on social media.

(Especially on LinkedIn.)

But how deep are those connections?

Do you care about any of those people at all, or pay attention to what they’re doing?

When you run an online business, it’s easy to lose touch with the people that matter in your life. If you don’t cultivate friendships, you will be left alone at your laptop, talking to people on Facebook.

Force yourself to go out and meet people, to make time for them, even if you have a million things you need to do for your business.

When you network with people professionally, look at what you can offer them, and not just what they can offer you.

And when you do use social media, remember that it’s not a funnel. It works both ways. Don’t talk about yourself all the time and expect everyone else to care about what you’re saying.

If you want strangers to help you, smile. For those close to you, cry.

Nassim Taleb*

Remember that the reason you’re doing all this is to build a life that you want. But don’t forget to build friendships too.

*Yes, I know I quote him a lot…

3. Make many small trips, a few big trips.

I now keep a suitcase packed with travel essentials, ready to go.

(Including protein powder and protein bars, to trick people into thinking that I’m part of the #fitfam)

I like knowing that I can throw a few clothes in there, grab my laptop case and leave. In the last year I made a decision to make more small trips to see friends, experience new places, and break out of the routine of sitting at home, or in a coffee shop, working on a laptop.

But because I run an online business, with a little more care I can also plan big trips. I spent New Year in Sydney and I didn’t come home until February. While I was out there, I signed up new clients and I made more money than I was making back home. This year I plan on visiting Thailand.

I realised that the winter is a difficult time for me, my mood is low, I feel drained, and I find it tough to stick to my usual routine.  Why stay at home and suffer through it? Living in Sydney allowed me to break out of that cycle and come back feeling refreshed, avoiding the seasonal depression I struggled with in the past.

There’s a balance to maintain. If I travel all the time, I won’t have a stable routine. But if I don’t travel, my routine will become stale and destructive. Small trips are easy to plan and fit around my schedule, even at short notice. They don’t disrupt my routine.

A big trip, a planned disruption for a few weeks, is important. I take time to rest and recover, and to find fresh inspiration and motivation. I don’t train, I eat what I want, and I try to let go of all the things that worry me.

So make many small trips, and a few big trips.

A Tale of Two Extremes

(Or a tail of two extremes if you’re familiar with power laws and long tail distributions…)

I have a natural desire to strive for perfection.

In the past this made me deeply miserable and depressed.

I was trapped in all or nothing thinking: either I achieved perfection, or I failed completely. There was no middle ground.

With experience I learned that it was better to aspire for perfection and accept that I can’t always achieve it. And I learned that failure is sometimes valuable, even necessary, if you want to develop and grow.

I nearly fell into the trap of thinking that moderation was the answer.

Robots and humans

A robot is a machine characterised by relentless, flawless consistency. Robots don’t feel emotions. They don’t get tired or stressed.

(And they always use #machinemode on social media.)

Automaticity is good, especially when you harness it to establish good habits. Consistency is necessary for getting results.

But being human is important too.

Humans are organic, with the ability to adapt and grow. We do things consciously. We feel emotions. We enjoy time with family and friends. And occasionally we get drunk, eat too much, and skip the gym.

These things don’t benefit from mindless repetition, so robots don’t get to do any of the fun stuff.

What about the middle ground?

In a conflict, the middle ground is the least likely to be correct.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Think of the middle ground as no-man’s land. You don’t want to be stuck there.

The illusion of moderation is that you can achieve balance by avoiding extremes. The reality is that aiming for the middle ground results in mediocrity.

It may limit the depth of our greatest failure, but it also limits the height of our greatest success.

We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain.

Alan Watts

But it’s tempting to believe that you don’t have to work too hard to be successful, isn’t it? Or rather, it’s tempting to set your sights lower and achieve limited success, because it’s easier.

And it’s comforting to think that we can insulate ourselves from failure too.

The reality is that just doing enough and just doing it some of the time is not necessarily going to give you the results you want.

There is a time for relentless hard work, total dedication, and complete focus.

But not all the time.

You must disturb the balance every now and then because constant, perfect equilibrium is deadly.

I think the middle ground is probably how things will appear if you look over the long run. But I also think that we’ll benefit more from contrasting methods that average out to moderate over the long run, rather than actually training in the middle ground. Your body responds to exaggerations and extremes – to volatility – more than it does to nice predictable rhythms.

Matt Perryman, Squat Every Day

How to achieve balance

You must recognise when you need to push and when you need to let go.

Learn to refine your own internal feedback loop. You don’t push when you’re burnt out and you don’t just let go when things get tough. You will make mistakes, but if you master this process then the reward is huge.

Understand that most of your efforts may end up falling in that dreaded middle ground, but don’t deliberately aim for it.

Moderation is your reward when you have pushed hard enough and built up enough momentum to let go when you need to:

Moderation must be earned through hard training and consistent good habits.

Bryan Krahn

I recently took a few weeks off training and dieting to renew my appreciation for the whole process. I didn’t plan it that way, I just felt like it was time to let go. Now I’m ready to push again with more motivation than before.

Create Your Ritual

Rituals are powerful.

(No, not the kind that involves incantations and sacrifice. You may try to achieve the physique of your dreams using sorcery too, just be careful…)

Why are they powerful?

A ritual creates the right environment and encourages focus.

It helps you develop mastery.

I always wear a pair of battered Converse to squat. When I walk to the squat rack, the first thing I do is retie them. It doesn’t matter if they were securely tied already, that’s not the point. I do it every time I need to focus on an important set, when I need to summon intensity, and clear my mind of any doubt.

I’m naturally an analytical person. I often get lost in small details, worrying about things, and not moving forward.

Rituals remove my anxiety. They clear those mental roadblocks and enable me to take action.

Using your ritual to take action

Your ritual must create the belief that you’re in control.

It should flow: moving from simplicity into complexity, and from certainty into uncertainty, like small streams flowing into a large river.

That means you start with easy tasks that you know you can do, building naturally to difficult tasks where the outcome is not certain.

It’s easier to visualise completing the task after a string of small successes. It should almost feel inevitable.

Here’s how you create your own ritual

1. Elevate the mundane

Take an ordinary task and breathe new life into it. If you stretch before training, use this as an opportunity to become aware of your body and your breathing. Go through the movements mindfully.

2. Create focus

Become totally immersed and let everything else fall away. If you’re just making coffee, it’s now the most important coffee in the world.

3. Follow a fixed sequence

Imagine you’re following a set of instructions that you must carry out in the same order every time. The sequence should flow naturally.

4. Use triggers

External triggers are things like notifications or reminders that contain the information for what to do next. Use external triggers at first to set your behaviour in motion.

Internal triggers are things like emotions where the information is stored through association in your memory. These triggers manifest automatically.

5. Repeat

Repetition is important. It builds habits and establishes a feeling of control.

Examples

Morning

  1. Get out of bed. I think it’s important to do this without hesitation. But during winter I’ll switch on my lightbox and go back to bed for 15mins.
  2. Step on the scale. Daily repetition removes the emotion, the scale weight is now just a number to note down.
  3. Make coffee. I leave my coffee and aeropress right by the kettle. The aeropress is delightfully manual, you have to kind of assemble it to make your coffee. I take my time and forget about everything else.
  4. Shower. Personal hygiene is important, even if you’re working from home.
  5. Eat breakfast. If I don’t eat breakfast now, I’ll get distracted by work. I want to enjoy the food.
  6. Work. I start with labelling my emails, removing clutter from my inbox, and responding quickly to the easy stuff. This sets the scene for the important stuff.

With this ritual I don’t have to think about when I’m going to start work, it just happens. I don’t check any notifications before I’m ready, because that would disrupt the flow. Breakfast is always planned out in advance, I don’t spend time thinking about it.

Training

  1. Eat. This is when the countdown begins. I imagine it’s like a self-destruct sequence that can’t be disengaged. Nothing will stop me from training now.
  2. Pick the right gym clothes. You need a baggy hoody to show everyone that you’re hardcore. But seriously, use your clothing to become the thing you want to be. Inhabit the role and create the right mindset.
  3. Listen to music. Music creates the right environment for me to train, it supports my mood, and it motivates me. Do you want to dominate? Listen to Meshuggah. Do you need calm focus? Listen to Meshuggah… or maybe Eric Prydz.
  4. Check equipment. Do my knee sleeves fit snugly? Are my shoes tied exactly the right way (I often untie and tie them again repeatedly when I squat, remember)?
  5. Pause. I like to take a moment before I hit the squat rack, clear my thoughts, and let go of any anxiety or stress that might interfere with my training.

I follow this sequence to shift my thoughts away from work and everything else going on in my life. Training is my meditation.

Evening

  1. Wrap up work. This is the cut-off point where I finish whatever I’m working on. No exceptions.
  2. Switch off electronic devices. I silence my phone at this point.
  3. Set the scene. I make sure my room is completely dark and quiet.
  4. Clear the mind. I focus on letting go of anxiety and worry.

It’s important to create the right environment for sleep. Blue light from electronic devices suppresses melatonin production, which means that your laptop and smartphones are stopping you from getting good quality sleep (it also disrupts your natural circadian rhythm). They also distract you with notifications when you should be resting.

How to start

Identify an action you want to take. It should be something that benefits from thoughtful and deliberate practise, like writing.

This isn’t a hack.

It’s not about making it easier, it’s about getting better at doing it.

Find the right time to do it. I find it easiest to write first thing in the morning. It’s important to perform your ritual at the same time every day.

Look at smaller actions you can take that prepare the environment. Do them with intent.

Now go and create your ritual.