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.

Stop Optimising

 

Here’s a quote from one of the gods of computer science:

“Premature optimisation is the root of all evil”

Donald Knuth

Let’s apply this to fitness.

That quote neatly encapsulates what you’re doing wrong.

You want to get the best possible results. You want to get them in the shortest possible time. And you want to do that with the least amount of effort.

This is an optimisation problem, right?

We’re minimising things and maximising things. We want to minimise time, effort, cost… We want to maximise our results…

We can’t model this precisely, it’s far too complex.

But you keep searching for the optimal solution anyway.

You’re spending too much time trying to optimise everything you do. That’s time you could be spending on actually doing stuff!

Stop hacking, start working

Maximal results usually requires maximal effort. What do I mean by that? If you want more, you have to do more. Don’t worry about overtraining before you even come close to doing it.

Train smarter, not harder, right? But there’s a limit on how smart you can train. One working set is still one working set. To quote Henry Rollins, 200lbs is always 200lbs.

(OK, let’s ignore fancy stuff like cluster sets, Myoreps…)

The problem with hacks is a basic principle that I call conservation of difficulty. Think about how much time and effort you have invested working out how to spend less time in the gym. By hacking your training you have transformed physical effort and time in the gym into mental effort and time on the internet. But unfortunately you can’t build muscle by thinking about training.

Satisficing, not optimising

“If you are an optimizer, you are after the best possible solution to a problem, be that an engineering puzzle, choosing a car, or finding a mate. If you are a satisficer, however, you’ll establish certain criteria that have to be met, and then stop your search at the acceptable first solution (or car, or mate) that fulfills such requirements.”

Massimo Pigliucci

The idea is to apply heuristics, rather than looking for an exact solution. You trade off exactness for finding a “good enough” solution in less time.

(Once you’re in the neighbourhood of a solution using a heuristic, you can iteratively improve if you like.)

Less choice, more freedom

“What does have this to do with happiness? Turns out that optimizers are more unhappy than satisficers, because the latter can stop worrying and enjoy what they’ve got, while the former will keep searching forever, or will settle for something (or someone) out of necessity, and yet feel like they could have gotten a better outcome had they continued the search (as in “the neighbor’s grass is always greener,” or “look for the one person who is your soul mate,” and similar nonsense). Moreover, the difference between the two groups is most striking when there are many choices: contrary to what most people seem to think (witness the American obsession with health plans that allow unlimited choice of doctors), too many choices have a paralyzing effect, and start a perennial chain of conterfactual thinking (“had I gone with the other brand of cereal I would have been happier”) that increases frustration and diminishes happiness.”

Massimo Pigliucci

If your natural tendency is to try to optimise, to find the smartest solution, or hack, then maybe you should try to satisfice instead. Don’t let too much information and too much choice paralyse you and get in the way of doing the work.

Freedom through discipline is what you get when you create a structure in your life, your diet, and your training, that allows you to free up mental resources for important stuff. You spend less time thinking about small details that don’t matter and more time getting the important stuff done.

You trade off the freedom to make more choices for the freedom from anxiety and fear. For example, instead of working out the most creative way of hitting your macros every day, you just follow a basic meal plan and you don’t have to think about what you’re eating.

There’s an analogy with chess: a beginner sees all possible moves, an intermediate sees a few because they know the basic principles, and a master sees all possible moves again.

Be honest: have you mastered the basics?

Without mastery, choice is paralysing. Without a clear vision, a direction, a broad understanding grounded in practical experience, you don’t benefit from more choice.

Does it work?

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.”

Bruce Lee

You probably know too much about nutrition and training. While you spend hours reading the latest research on protein intake, someone else is in the gym training. And if you haven’t been learning from your own unique experience then all of that time is wasted anyway.

You need to develop the ability to filter out knowledge that doesn’t help you right now and master the basics. Focus on the stuff that works – and works for you.

“Knowledge is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting.”

Michel Foucault

Be ruthless and apply the via negativa principle, removing the mental, emotional, and physical junk from your life. Instead of adding complexity, look at paring back, taking away stuff that’s harming you.

Is your sleep poor? Fix it.

Eating junk food when you’re bored/tired/craving? Remove it from your cupboards.

Take home points

  1. Work harder.
  2. Learn to satisfice.
  3. Remove the junk from your life and find out what works for you.

 

Evolution of a Cyclical Diet

It started with controlled refeeds. The first diet I ever set up was based on carb cycling, I would have high, medium, and low days. Each day had fixed macro targets. My high carb day usually consisted of 3 meals with rice and 3 meals with oats. How exciting.

(Oh, and I would have a protein shake with Gatorade and waxy maize during training. I thought that was the secret to astronomical gains.)

Then I found out about Skiploading. This was developed and popularised by coach Ken ‘Skip’ Hill. You have a single refeed day with a fixed eating window. You eat high carb, low fat foods to satiety within your eating window, which usually starts in the morning. You don’t track macros and you don’t train.This is much more exciting!

Then I experimented with just eating whatever I wanted within a fixed eating window, including high fat foods, like cheesecakes, brownies, ice cream, and pastries. I found that this approach worked for me and I refined the process over the years, tweaking it with each new diet.

Nothing about this is original, I’m just going to show you my own take on it and how you can implement it yourself.

“But I thought you did flexible dieting?”

I do. If I want to eat a small amount of ice cream, some marshmallows, or Reeses’s peanut butter cups, I’ll fit them into my macros.

But what if I don’t want a small amount?

And what if I don’t want to eat protein pancakes with zero-calorie syrup?

Maybe I want to eat a giant stack of real pancakes with bacon and maple syrup…

There is no way I can reasonably fit that into a rational set of macros and I have no intention of trying.

I’m not going to decide how much ice cream I can budget for, weigh it out, and then hope that it satisfies me. I’m going to eat as much as I want and enjoy it.

Mental flexibility is important. This is flexibility in the way I think about food. We create mental prisons with our macro targets and we need to break out. Think of this as a controlled demolition.

And I know that at some point when I diet and it gets really tough I’ll want to say “fuck this” and just eat whatever I want anyway, regardless of how flexible I’ve been. I decided to create an environment where I can do that and still make progress.

Is this right for you?

You need to avoid this kind of cyclical dieting if:

  • You have unresolved issues with food.
  • You can’t delay gratification.
  • You can’t go a day without tracking or analysing everything you eat.
  • You can’t trust yourself with regulating hunger and satiety.
  • You don’t like eating stacks of pancakes with bacon and maple syrup…

This is NOT for everyone.

How to do it

Step by step

  1. Pick your refeed day.  Initially set a 3 hour window where you can eat whatever you like. If you normally start eating at 8am, eat from 8am until 11am. Then return to your regular diet food.
  2. The other days aim for 10-11kcal/lb. For example, if you weigh 90kg = 200lbs, you’ll aim for 2000-2200kcals/day initially.
  3. Track your weight every day.

Notes

Take daily weigh-ins. You take a baseline measurement (borrowing Skip’s terminology) on the morning of your refeed day. Then you find out how many days it takes for you to drop below that baseline. In general you should aim for 3-4 days if your goal is fat loss. If it happens earlier, you may need to increase your eating window or increase calories slightly during the week. If it happens later, you may need to do the opposite, or increase your training volume.

You need to experiment to find the right adjustments.

Severe calorie deficit. This is not designed to offset the cheat day, but to create a supercompensation effect. This is one of the key ideas behind Lyle McDonald’s UD2.0. Scott Abel also uses this concept with his cycle diet.

I would suggest 10-11kcal/lb as a starting point on your regular diet days. Any sensible set of macro targets will work.

I prefer low fat, moderate protein, and high carb. Interestingly, with low fat during the week you seem to get a fat supercompensation effect. I’m not sure what the mechanism is, it may just be intramuscular triglyceride storage.

It makes you look really good the day after your refeed, whatever it is.

Depletion. You don’t have to train for glycogen depletion, like with UD2.0. It should happen naturally as a consequence of your training volume. Moderate to high volume bodybuilding style training works just fine. Higher volume is usually better, assuming recovery is adequate.

As you get leaner you’ll find it harder to get a pump, especially towards the end of the week. I recommend putting your most demanding training sessions right after your refeed day.

I train 6x/week: chest and shoulders (heavy), back (heavy), legs (heavy), chest and shoulders (light), back (light), and arms.

Timed eating window.  Don’t count macros on your refeed day. Eat when you’re hungry and eat until you’re comfortably full but not stuffed. It’s important that you don’t eat outside of your regular feeding times, so try not to eat in the middle of the night on Friday if your refeed is on Saturday!

Start with a 3 hour window, which is effectively like a large cheat meal, and increase as necessary. If you get hungry afterwards, just go back to your regular diet food.

Don’t worry about protein. I don’t mean you should avoid eating a burger or a steak, just forget about hitting the leucine threshold with all of your meals. A day with lower protein won’t hurt you. I could attempt to justify this by talking about methionine restriction induced autophagy or something, but I’m not going to do that.

Rest. Don’t train on your refeed day, just eat and relax.

Mistakes to avoid

Stuffing yourself. Don’t try to eat yourself into a coma, basically.

Low volume training. High intensity, low volume training won’t work very well with this approach. You just won’t get the same supercompensation effect.

Stockpiling junk food. It’s better to eat out or prepare structured meals at first. Go for quality over quantity. Remember that the idea is to enjoy food, not to eat everything in sight because you can.

Liquid calories. This isn’t about satiety, it’s just that if you demolish a stack of pancakes then guzzling down a milkshake is going to leave you feeling bloated. Don’t overdo it.

Examples of what I eat

Diet day

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The leaning tower of pancakes. #protein #pancakes #chocolate #raspberry

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A quick and easy lunch: lamb steak with roast butternut squash and broccoli.

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Chicken, ham, chorizo and tomato pizza. All kinds of meat gains.

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A fantastic day for protein fluff. #raspberries #strawberries #fluff #protein #iifym #breakfast

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Refeed day

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French toast with maple syrup.

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Sometimes it's not a dessert.

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It's that time again.

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Chocolate mousse with raspberries and raspberry coulis.

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Did I get fat?

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Pausing for a moment before that first cup of coffee.

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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.