Interval Training for My Mind

Last Sunday I notice something: There is a local fitness lesson that happens in a boxing gym near my house. At some point in their work out the instructor must tell them all to run out the building to the traffic lights up the road and back.


I felt a little smug: As a parade of fit looking sweaty messes pass me by I couldn’t help thinking, hey they aren’t in any better shape than me….


A lot of upset is caused by a very specific idea that just won’t die. The idea that: more-is-more. It has caught me out so many times. I have killed every pot plant I have ever tried to own, because this is a perennial problem for me. When I want to do something, I tend to be unrelenting in my pursuit. But if you want a big healthy pot plant the secret ingredient is time and consideration.


Beyond a certain point, no matter how much you water it, it isn’t going to grow any faster. If you go much beyond the “correct” amount eventually, you are going to see side effects. The soil around the route will be too damp. There won’t be enough air; bacteria will rot the roots and the plant will suddenly become unwell. Or more perniciously, you will just have weeks and weeks of retarded growth.


When you are watering the right amount, what do you do next? You test to see if another factor is limiting the growth of the plant. Light: Is it getting the correct amount of light? If this is a limiting factor; increasing it to a point will help. Once you have light and water calibrated properly, think up another variable, and test that. Each new optimization will increase the rate of growth.


How many people do you know who take that methodical approach with their own bodies?


I would say very few. I typically:  decided want to achieve goal X. I think what are the ways people have achieved goal X in the past? I do all of it. I make fast progress for a while. I become exhausted, I burn out, and I miss my goal.


The last two times I have tried to learn French this has been my pattern: 14hrs straight of continuous study followed by a psychotic break down that resulted in me stood out in the street holding a baguette and dressed as a mime.


If I had a cricket bat and someone through a ball at me I’d swing the bat. The bat would miss the ball, the ball would hit me. It would hurt and I would learn fast that I am bad at cricket and I should just try and block the next few balls. After a couple of games, I would learn that I am really bad and should switch to athletics, which although I find intensely dull, means I can be congratulated for throwing heavy things further than people who aren’t as strong as me. I won’t get any more swollen fingers, or a cracked jaw.


We are really good at learning that cricket balls bloody hurt when they hit you in the throat because a cricket ball to the throat can kill you a lot quicker than a lack luster pot plant. We are optimized for that temporal scale. This is the rate of feedback we like. We see things that move faster than a snail and slower than a bullet well because; those have tended to be the important things.


We fail to realize we are just pot plants that can leave the room when a sheep walks in. As a result I am a sucker for a puritanical binge. Often, I don’t take a moment. I act to fast and I am not productive. What I need is always just to the side of what I want.


I am learning to code. I want to learn to code. In order to learn to code I needed to understand how I learn to code: 20 intense minutes at a time, 3 times a day every day without fail. This is interval training for my mind. As it happens it is very similar to interval training for my body.


Body and mind both need the same thing: The Minimum Effective Dose.


Once you have that understanding and certainty, once you know the Minimum effective dose, you don’t feel the need to binge. You know when to stop and you can handle unusual situations that can affect your progress negatively.


Through this process of elimination I have found the minimum effective does of exercise I need to stay fit is: 2 sessions of 4 30second sprints per week, 2 ten minute sessions of strength work and two days as of calorie restriction, is my dose and I use an egg timer to measure out that dose, just like it was medicine.


In total I have to find 1 hour per week for this including the time it takes me to put my trainers on.  There is a lot more to think about here. And that hour is spread thinly through the week. It isn’t just a Sunday binge. But Like adding weights as you get stronger I built up this complexity slowly. I started with one thing and added more as I felt more comfortable.


Understanding what little and often looks like and that binging is ineffective, has a fun consequence: Rather than a puritan binge on something good for me, I hedonistically overdose on bad stuff: Sugar. My rule is one sweet thing a week: But if you’re going to eat something bad, eat a fat one! I have found this has far fewer side effects for me, than allowing myself small amounts of sugar during the week.


In summary:


Good things: Do a little-and-often.


Bad things: Do a shit load only occasionally

                     (Obviously: Don’t kill yourself with a toxic dose)


I know because I test my VO2 max, that I have a level of fitness that would be acceptable to a professional athlete. I am no Mo Farah, but the benefit of testing an iterating is that you always know where you are. Anecdotally: I feel fitter because occasionally I go out on long rides on my bike and I am always surprised how easy it is.


It really feels like I have no right, to be this fit.