*In anticipation of your question, no, that’s not a picture of me 🙂
Before I begin, allow me to assume the style of a sleazy, black hat internet marketing spam jockey…
OK. I’m in character.
I’d like to share with you this one weird trick (I’m not sure whether or not it has angered any doctors) which will get you closer to achieving whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.
Obviously, I think a lot about things like manouevering oneself into a position where having a job is no longer necessary or starting a small business (or another, or yet another), but I think I’ll go out on a limb and say that this trick has the potential to increase your degree of success, whatever the particular undertaking.
It might help you to deal more gracefully with a few of the yuckier aspects of life too.
To aid my explanation, I’m going to take a brief detour into my own personal psychology.
Soft on the inside
If you met me in person, on an average day (or if you’ve read the majority of what I’ve written on this site), you might describe me using words like
- maybe a bit, erm… arrogant?!
Indeed, I actively cultivate that personality (well, except for the arrogance I hope 😉 ). I often walk into a room with the premeditated intention of leading the conversation. I like my ‘internal locus of control’ to be very apparent when I deal with people.
Life isn’t just something that’s happening to me whilst I flail around helplessly. Rather, I am a proactive person. I will play the hand I am dealt to the best of my ability in order to get what I want.
I mean, I sometimes charge people money to help them confidently execute a plan to seize the life they’ve designed for themselves.
However, a tiny handful of people are/have been close enough to me to know that confident, self-assured Andy, real as he is, is a wrapper around a person who is altogether different.
I’ve mentioned briefly before that since my late teens I’ve had my share of mental health issues. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had it very easy in this respect by comparison to many other people, some of whom I’m very close to. But I definitely know what it’s like to be ‘down’.
Beside the occasional episode of depression, I actually have quite an emotional temperament in general. I’m deeply introspective. I’m easily moved by stories and pieces of music which ‘press the right buttons’ for me. I have a few very close friends with whom I share very deep emotional bonds.
In fact, when I was much younger, despite having a strong intellectual preference for being very cool and rational, my behaviour was dictated almost entirely by emotional reactions to things that were happening in my life.
Now, I’m not ashamed of admitting any of this. I wouldn’t change my emotional nature or the ups and downs I’ve experienced over the last couple of decades for anything as my experience has shaped me into the individual that I’ve become.
However, nowadays I have big plans. And big plans can’t be executed effectively by a reactive navel gazer. Unfortunately, I have to admit to having done plenty of navel gazing recently.
A confluence of various factors has led to me feeling very jaded for the last couple of months and I’ve decided to write this article both to help anybody else who might be feeling the same and as a reminder to future me about how to fix it when it happens next time.
I mean living is hard. That is, there’s an inescapable truth about ‘the human condition’ that living is always a struggle. If you’re not struggling, you’re not living.
I’ll never forget a particular conversation I had with a friend who I’ve not seen for a while, which went something like this:
Friend: …but it’s hard. Life is hard!
Me: Yes! So we’re agreed. Life is hard. You can’t escape it. Now you’ve acknowledged that, you’re at the starting line.
Life is hard. Go and get what you want out of yours because as well as being hard, life is beautiful, unpredictable, incredible. It’s worth it.
I know it sounds trite. I’d imagine that’s exactly what my friend was thinking whilst I was waxing lyrical about the beauty/pain juxtaposition inherent to being human! But it’s what I wholeheartedly believe.
To do it (get what you want out of life), the secret is to find a way to stop yourself from focussing upon the unpleasantness. I’ve known this for a long time.
Don’t dwell on the past.
Don’t contemplate your mortality.
Don’t be scared of getting cancer.
It sounds easy when you say it quickly. Just find a way to focus upon where you want to go and then keep putting one foot in front of the other until you get there.
But we all know that it’s never quite as easy as it sounds. Shit happens.
If only there was one weird trick that could help to keep you (or get you back) on track. Well, I believe there just might be, and that brings me neatly back to squats.
I’ve been weight training, on and off, since I was about 20 (I’m almost 36 now). My initial motivation was (as is typical for tall skinny guys) to gain some muscle mass and get stronger.
And I did. 21 year old me was much stronger than he looked and 22 year old me was even starting to look like he was familiar with the inside of a gym.
I don’t think Arnie felt particularly intimidated by my arrival on the weightlifting scene, but seeing yourself in the mirror with actual muscles after being a gangly, skinny nerd for your entire life is quite intoxicating.
However, aside from the physical aspects, I also noticed that frequently lifting heavy weights until I was very tired had a few interesting and useful psychological side effects:
- It stabilised my mood. It didn’t cure my depression (or whatever heartbreak I happened to be going through at the time) but it changed me from being a person who was incapable of being effective to somebody who was in control and able to move things in the right direction.
- It boosted my confidence. I could literally walk into the gym with a persecution complex, thinking that everybody in the world hated me, and walk out an hour later feeling like I could talk to anybody and achieve anything.
- It provided frequent positive feedback. When you start lifting weights, you’re basically a weakling. But you get stronger really quickly – and this has a magic effect on your motivation. Stacking ever more plates on the bar every week (and then successfully performing the lifts) proves to you that if you just execute the plan correctly, you will get results and make progress.
- I knew all of this 15 years ago and;
- I’m the kind of person who takes on ambitious projects which require focus and motivation and;
- I know that I have a tendency to get into a mental ‘funk’ when things don’t go to plan
then why the hell did I stop taking my magic medicine last year?
That’s right, you heard me right. Idiotically, around a year ago, I stopped lifting weights!
Last year, things were looking good.
I was enjoying my work (both freelance projects and slogging my guts out on FaderMate). I had no trouble motivating myself to get in to the coworking space every morning and put in a solid day of effort.
But my kids were still pretty young. My home life was a bit chaotic and I was feeling extremely tired.
Getting myself to the gym at 7:30 in the morning 3 times a week was becoming a chore, almost like being in a new rat race. When I got there, I wasn’t enjoying my workouts either. It literally felt like taking medicine. I hated it, but I knew deep down that it was doing me good.
But then I allowed my good habit to slip. 3 times per week became once per week, and then not even every week, until…
There was an easy way out, and I’m ashamed to say that I took it.
At the time, I was only really keeping up with my weight training in order to keep my moods under control and I hadn’t been feeling depressed anyway. What harm could it possibly do to give the weights a rest?
So I gave it up, rationalising my decision by convincing myself that I would feel fine anyway because everything was looking rosy.
Predictably, I’m going to tell you that I made the wrong choice. And here’s why…
I absolutely believe that you should focus as much mental effort as possible on the things that you can change. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to ignore the fact that life will also throw you plenty of curve balls and there won’t be anything you can do to stop it.
This is why it’s important to be resilient. That is, to proactively maintain the right frame of mind to be able to make the best of a bad situation, should one arise.
Exercise in general, but weight training in particular, has formed the nucleus of my strategy for keeping my head right for my entire adult life.
Of course, that stool has other legs too:
- maintaining close friendships (and actually talking to my friends about how things are going)
- some occasional (although admittedly, not regular enough!) mindfulness exercises
- not drinking very much alcohol
- having a creative outlet (writing music)
…but lifting heavy weights has always been the most effective thing.
Alas, last year, instead of carrying on with the main practice which was keeping me resilient to adversity, I fell into a trap.
If I remember correctly, I felt something like this:
I don’t need this.
I’m feeling good at the moment. I’ve proved that I can be happy without it.
I can sit down, focus on my work and get into flow state every day without ever touching a barbell.
I’m not being a moody fucker.
I don’t have time to spend at the gym and I’m not getting anything out of it anyway.
I was making an argument of the same form as ‘I can’t afford life insurance’ or ‘I can’t afford to save up‘.
I’ve recently reminded myself that ‘I don’t have time to go to the gym’ is just bullshit. I have complete control over my work schedule and besides, 3 hours of focussed, endorphin-fuelled creativity trump 4 hours of being ineffective any day.
The real truth of the matter is that, if I want to experience the life I’ve idealised, I can’t afford not to go to the gym in the same way that I can’t afford not to have close friends.
I wouldn’t die if I didn’t lift weights, but the challenges I’ve set for myself can only be tackled by Competent Andy. And, whether I like it or not, that guy lifts weights, 3 times a week, every week! In fact, he’s not missed a training session for the last 7 weeks.
Perhaps following in his footsteps might help you to move more quickly in the right direction too.
What’s it like?
If you’d like to give weight training a try and you’ve never tried lifting weights in a gym before, there are a few things you’re likely to discover.
The first thing is that it can be a bit intimidating to go and strut your stuff in front of all of the beautiful people and meatheads. I feel your pain, because that’s how I felt too when I was younger. The thing is, some of those people are actually really going to help you.
They’re the ones who will spot you to stop you from hurting yourself when you fail your last rep on bench press.
If you ask, many of them will also show you how to do the lifts with good form.
And the other thing to remember is that, rather than looking down their noses at skinny/overweight you, the lifelong gym-goers are likely to be the ones who actually admire you for making a start and putting some effort in.
I personally am always a lot more impressed by the overweight people who are in the gym on the advice of their doctor than by any of the bodybuilding guys.
The next obvious thing most people experience when they start out with weight training is the dreaded DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). It’s possible to mitigate DOMS to some degree by starting out with light weights and ensuring you have plenty of rest between training days. However, at least for the first few weeks, it’s going to be necessary to harden the fuck up and just accept the discomfort until your body adapts.
If you don’t know what you’re doing and are generally uninjured/in good health, a simple program such as Stronglifts 5×5 is probably a good place to start to build a good foundation of full body strength. Make sure you start with much lighter weights than you’re actually capable of shifting and get your techniques for all the lifts right before increasing the weights very much.
The key thing to remember is that you need to make your gym sessions habitual. This is another good reason to take it steady with the weights you’re lifting to start with. An early injury or a bad dose of DOMS is likely to put you off course before you’ve formed the habit.
I’ve personally just about crossed the ‘habit’ threshold again (I don’t have to force myself to go and train, it’s just what happens on my way home from work on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays).
And finally, remember that weight training isn’t just for vain poseurs with fake tans. It’s a magical activity which makes everything in life better.
You can’t change Brexit, no matter which side of the fence you sit on, or how cross you make yourself about it.
People you love will die in your lifetime. You will watch them suffer. You will suffer yourself.
That business you’re working on – you know, the one that you put your heart, soul and 50 grand of your life savings in to, well it might fail.
You can’t be 21 again and know what you know now.
You can’t change the choices you’ve made, and you will live with the consequences.
You can’t avoid making huge decisions which will affect other people’s lives.
But here’s something you can do. You can turn up at the gym 3 times every week and work your arse off lifting heavy weights.
Then once you’ve formed a habit around that, you can use the resulting sense of focus and feelings of wellbeing to start moving in the direction you’d like to go.
If you’re trying to break free of the daily grind, you can start executing your plan.
If you’re a coder, you can get in to the zone and start building your software project.
If you’re a writer, you can make sure that you’re practising your craft every single day.
If you’re a leader, you can step up and start to lead by example again.
When it all goes wrong (and it will, repeatedly, because life is hard!) you can use the stable moods and confidence you earned at the gym to get yourself back on track.
I hereby pledge to never forget this lesson again. Because, without fail, every time I lift weights I feel like the good version of myself 🙂