Productivity & Distraction

Cal Newport dropped Staying Productive on Distracted Days over on his blog and it’s a nail-on-the-head observation for me.

“Productivity” is a slippery term. It’s often used to refer exclusively to the rate at which you produce value for your business or employer. I tend to apply it more broadly to describe the intentional allocation of your time and attention toward things that matter to you and away from diversions that don’t.

A lot of days, this probably involves a solid push on professional activities, as craft is an important part of cultivating a deep life. But not every day. If there are consequential national events transpiring, or you’re dealing with a crisis in your personal life, or you’re not feeling well, a productive day doesn’t necessarily require steady progress through a task list.”

Since the switch to working from home as a result of Covid-19, this has become a daily reality for me. I’ve come to look at it more as being ‘productive’ on the project of what David Cain likes to call ‘getting better at being human’. Sometimes that means day-job work and sometimes it applies to other things as well. In the end, both streams benefit.

Physiological Resonance

Theres a 90+ acre area of river flats about a 10 minute walk from my house. It’s land that is for all intents and purposes uninhabitable – it floods every spring. There’s a road on it and nice access to the Nashwaak River. There are fields on it where hay was harvested. For over 10 years I’ve walked with my dog and ridden my bike down there in every kind of weather. Waded in the river in the summer’s heat and snowshoed across several feet of snow in the winter. I know I haven’t been the only one, I’ve seen lots of locals down there from time to time. Most, like me, respectful of the fact they were on someone else’s land, but some people not so much.

It recently changed owners and when it was up for sale I walked down there and would fantasize about turning into some sort of ‘park’. A place where people could walk, bring their pets, get close to the river and nature. The new owner intends to put cattle on the property and as such they are fencing it all off and the ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Keep Out’ signs have gone up. They are completely within their rights to do so – I have no complaint with them – but I’m disappointed I won’t be able to go down there any more.

I thought of all this reading an article by Lucy Jones, Pathways in the Urban Wild.

Studies suggest that when people spend over twenty minutes in “urban nature,” levels of two physiological biomarkers of stress—salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase—drop.

…If it’s been raining, and I can smell petrichor—that metallic, ferric scent of the earth after it’s rained—then brainwave activity linked to calmness and relaxation may be triggered. Listening to birdsong rebalances my nervous system. Watching the daisies move in the wind soothes mental fatigue.

…Then, there’re fractals. Fractals are abundant in the living world. From ferns to lightning, salt flats to ocean waves, and, for the purpose of my urban nature safari, plants and trees and sprays of “weeds” that peep through the cracks in the pavement. The deep-green leaves on these plants are fractal, meaning a self-repeating pattern of a shape that varies in scale, rather than being repeated exactly. Once you know what fractals are, you’ll see them everywhere.

Richard Taylor, Professor at the University of Oregon, discovered that patterns with a fractal dimension of 1.3 (most fractals in nature fall between the 1.3 and 1.5 interval) provoked brain waves suggesting a relaxed but focused state. It turns out that the retinal vessels in our eyes are fractal, so when they view a fractal shape, our eye locks into place, so to speak. Taylor called this “physiological resonance.” We often forget that humans spent 99 percent of our evolutionary history in contact with the natural world, and there may be a genetic disposition within us to prefer fractal shapes, like Savannah-type shaped trees such as acacias, as well as landscapes with prospect and refuge and water sources. When it feels relaxing to look at these sprays of weed in the cracks in the pavement, it’s partly a response to an inherent genetic memory.

On the news this morning there were discussions around the rise in calls to doctors, therapists and associations for mental health assistance since the start of Covid-19. This should come as a surprise to absolutely no one. I myself have come to the conclusion that the best thing anyone can do in these uncertain times is to keep themselves as physically AND mentally fit as is possible given the circumstances.

People living on the sharp end of nature deprivation are not given fair opportunities for stress recovery, restoration, and relief from mental fatigue that connection with the living world offers. The way land is owned and controlled is connected to who is allowed to feel the deep joy and calm of being with wild things.

…I experienced this recently while paddling and swimming in one of our favorite nearby rivers. It was a scorching hot day, and we’d taken a net out to look at minnows and admire the banks, sequined with turquoise damselflies and cellophane-winged dragonflies. I was hoping to see one of my favorite emergences: pearlescent mayflies on their one day of life on earth. We walked to a stretch of river I’m attached to, spotting swallows and hearing the sound of the cuckoo on our way. Swimming in this bend of river became an essential place of healing for me during periods of postnatal depression over the last few years. Alongside clinical help, being in the cold water, among the poplars and kingfishers, was sometimes the only thing that could ease some of the psychic and hormonal storm.

While we were sitting on the banks, an angler arrived and told us we couldn’t be there, that the river was “private fishing land,” leased to a local anglers’ society, and we were forbidden from being in it or on the riverbanks. The bailiff might be around, and he had a dog, he said.

Later, I confirmed that this river, the main river in my town which stretches out into the countryside, is indeed leased to a private fishing club (fewer than 80 people), so the townspeople (110,000) are not allowed, legally, into it. I’ve been back once, but I stood still at the water’s edge: held back by a feeling of shame and the discomfort of being in a place that is not meant for you.

I have plenty of other places I can go for walks and ride my bike – literally stepping right out my door. I will not want for lack of places to seek some physiological resonance.

Where I live is already decidedly more rural than Ms. Jones’ locale but her article has reminded me of something I’m always trying to keep within reaching distance of my day-to-day experience, and that is there are a lot of people that simply don’t have access to ‘the Outside’ in the way I do and can’t access it with the ease that I can and I remain extremely grateful for that.

Get More Awe

Almost daily I’ve been walking to this spot and sitting alone in silence. The insight and inspiration it has given me is hard to convey.

In the past few months, I’ve been taking a lot more walks. I take a short one almost everyday after my morning zoom call/meeting with work, usually only 20-25 minutes or so, but I’ve been taking longer ones too. I’m fortunate that I can walk right out my back door into almost wilderness – unfortunately it’s being developed for houses – but there’s still some nooks and crannies you can sneak into and feel like there’s no one around for miles.

I often stop somewhere and sit and just look around. See how many things I can notice. Count various critters seen. Wonder about the type of trees or why leaves change a particular color. Lately I’ve stopped taking pictures, no matter how good the scenery – it’s really just about that moment.

Today I came across this article on Raptitude, The Healthy Emotion We Don’t get Enough Of – and I get it. I’ve been fully awe-ing out on my walks.

A recent study has identified another beneficial ingredient of walking: the emotion of awe.

The researchers believe awe reduces self-preoccupation, promotes connection with others, and fosters pro-social behavior. It does make sense that feeling the vast scale and mystery of nature’s processes might make the human brain less consumed by worries about housing markets and doctor’s appointments.

You don’t need to have Yosemite in your backyard to find awe. A single tree is awesome, in the word’s true sense. It’s a towering plant that grew from a sprout, making wood out of sunlight, spreading tendrils through the ground beneath you, at speeds slower than stillness but with sidewalk-buckling force. It stands there every night, and every day, performing this mysterious and unstoppable work. There are billions of them, and if you give them enough time they’ll cross continents.

I often look around and find myself thinking, “so much of what is here is older than me. So much will still be here when I’m gone.” It doesn’t come from a morbid place, but one of, well, awe. That these things are so complex and resilient and incidentally, don’t give two shits about me and my trite problems. It’s very humbling and liberating. Having just finished reading David Suzuki and Wayne Grady’s Tree: A Life Story has probably helped. Never mind that I didn’t understand half of the biology – it still gave me new insight into the complexity of the earth and its creatures as well as the interconnectivity of all things. It couldn’t have been a better primer for autumn walks.

Dead End Stations

So, often, when I come up with an idea for a post, it comes to me while driving or some other time when I can’t really sit at a computer and write it all down. Sometimes I say to hell with it and let it go, other times I will stop and use Voice Memos on my phone to record a bit of the ideas, or a full on Dennis Leary/Rick Mercer-esque rant that I then go back to later to try and make a post out of. 

I would say 98% of the time, on the listen back, I realize the idea is either a.) stupid; or b.) I was completely full of shit. Another 1.5% of the time, I’ll take the rough idea and mold it into a post. The final .5% of the time I’ll just directly transcribe the audio to form the post, which is the case here. This is my way of saying, warning: if this post comes across as unhinged and rambling, that’s because it is. It’s a transcription of me, pacing the deck in my backyard, gesturing and babbling while my dog looks at me funny from time to time.

Why not just post the audio you say? Well, because that  sounds even worse, and truth be told, I do edit the transcription a little to edit out some of the swearing and sputtering, else the swear words would probably outnumber the decent ones. I’ve left select ones in for emphasis.

So if meaningless screeds are your thing, you’ve come to the right place. Fill yer boots.


So, I’m thinking about this as I go into the ‘corner store’, the convenience store, the ‘gas ‘n’ sip’, to get my Jones root beer – which has a picture of a cat in a toilet on it – and my Reeses’ Big Cup, which is a normal Reeses’ peanut butter cup that actually has Reeses’ Pieces shoved inside the Reeses’ peanut butter cup, you know, because just one peanut butter cup isn’t enough, you gotta have more candy inside a candy, and I’m getting this because, let’s be honest, I’m fucking addicted to junk food, and, um, I can’t even figure out where, or why it started or what happened or where my diet went to shit, now it’s just a constant daily struggle to try and eat right and fucking succeed and fail and succeed and fail and succeed and fail and try and be fucking zen about the whole thing – but that’s a whole ‘nother post.

So  I go into the ‘corner store’ – and I think about this all the time – if an alien species came and looked at us they’d say,

“well, what are they doing? – well, they’ve got these little ‘stations’ set up everywhere – sometimes within blocks of each other – and these stations do 2 things: first of all, they fill their vehicles from these stations with this fuel that’s simultaneously destroying the planet and also enabling them to drive around these vehicles that destroy the planet and, second,  while they’re in there, they buy this crap that they eat that ruins their health. “

-The Aliens

I mean, think about it, you go into these ‘convenience stores’ and, except for the three, weird-looking, bananas they put there as the token health food, there is nothing in these stores of any nutritional value. Except water. Maybe water. And yet we are constantly in and out of there, we are constantly buying this stuff, we are constantly putting it into our bodies and fucking ourselves up and it’s just this perpetual cycle.

And so, if you look at it from an outsider’s standpoint, we – you know – it’s just the stupidest fucking thing we can do. And, I don’t understand – I’m ‘friends’ with the guys that work at the store near me – they know me by name (presumably because I’m consistently in there, ‘fucking myself up’), “Hey how’s it going…” –  how does it feel to be these guys that are the merchants of this stuff, they’re making a living off this stuff. It’s like, “hey, here’s this crap – you know – that stuff’s really terrible for you, let me sell that to you.” And have no compunction about that.

And, like, I mean, it’s not their fault, they’re just making a living, but how did we get to this point as a society where we have like, literally, stations set up everywhere, where you can go in and, in one fell swoop you can fuck up the planet and fuck up your health at the same time.

I mean, wow. If only we could get that efficient about the opposite. It seems like a no-brainer. But instead of setting up a system whereby we could stop in at someplace and improve the planet and improve our health in one go – how come there’s no gas stations that just sell nothing but healthy food – or maybe there is somewhere – I don’t know, I haven’t been to every gas station around, but I’ve been to what would seem, a lot in my lifetime, for one person. Think for a second about how many different gas stations you’ve been at in your life. Let that sink in.

Yeah. Man. But I’m the same, I’m just locked in to that same pattern, just like everybody else, I just keep doing it. And keep going. I mean, I’ll go a day or two, and get gas, and not buy anything at these stores, but then eventually again, there’s the freakin’ candy and the soda talkin’ to me and I cave….

I mean, nobody talks about that – we talk about addictions – we talk about addictions to drugs and alcohol, I mean how is this any different – if this was just a store where you went in and crack was on display there for sale – people would say, “You can’t do that, this is bad” – but here’s a store that’s just stocked to the gills with what a huge majority of the people on the planet now – ostensibly – are struggling with – and that is diet, health, obesity – and these things are just there, and it’s like ‘regular ol, day in – day out’. Stop for the gas. Get my junk. I’m on my way. Have a nice day everybody! Go fuck yourself!


A few notes. First off, if you’ve ever tried to transcribe any sort of audio diatribe or speech, and you think you’ve gotten the punctuation right – you’re wrong. All convention goes out the window. You’d be hard pressed to form textbook ‘sentences’. There’s also something that can’t be transferred from the audio – the delivery, the tone. You’d be hard pressed to get that bang on.

Second, I realize in transcribing this – that it comes across as me saying this is an issue for everyone – it’s not. I know there are folks out there who don’t have this problem, and I know there’s folks in third-world countries who don’t have any food, never mind worries about eating too many chili-dogs at the 7-11. I know this. Don’t comment or write me letters. I know there’s people out there that do get it though, and I realize there are entire industries out there – who may have started with the best of intentions – but have now gone far astray of any moral or ethical culpability with regards to their products and the effects on their consumers. They are about dollars – nothing else – even at the expense of the lives of the very people they require to consume their product.

The discussion to be had is how to get off the treadmill. How do we as a society break free from the cycle, and the normalization of these types of behaviors, especially when there is a whole component of industry with extensive means determined to keep people locked in that cycle as grist for the mill.

Fitness Landscaping: Me and My Dirt Spot

Most folks get right frustrated with dead spots in their lawn. I, on the other hand, have really been working at one, nurturing it. I’ve been pouring fitness into it. In the past 33 days I’ve fed it:
  • 355 Arm Curls @ 20lbs
  • 460 Arm Scissors
  • 200 Back Extensions
  • 150 Back Stretches
  • 440 Basic Burpees
  • 870 Butt Kicks
  • 130 Climbers
  • 50 Close Grip Push Ups
  • 1095 Crunches
  • 100 Dead Bugs
  • 260 Elbow Plank
  • 200 Flutter Kicks
  • 1680 Half Jacks
  • 50 Half Wipers
  • 5920 High Knees
  • 210 Hops on the Spot
  • 36 Jump Knee Tucks
  • 2550 Jumping Jacks
  • 320 Knee to Elbows
  • 50 Leg Raise Hold
  • 100 Leg Raises
  • 2620 March Steps
  • 100 Modified Leg Scissors
  • 200 Overhead Punches
  • 80 Plank Jacks
  • 2660 Punches
  • 160 Push Up to Back Extension
  • 340 Pushup Planks
  • 565 Pushups
  • 820 Raised Arm Circles
  • 260 Raised Leg Planks
  • 200 Reverse Crunches
  • 240 Scissor Chops
  • 100 Side Leg Raises
  • 260 Side Planks
  • 1680 Side to Side Hops
  • 210 Side to Side Steps
  • 300 Sit Up Punches
  • 300 Sitting Punches
  • 210 Step Jacks
  • 140 Tendon Leg Holds
  • 140 Tendon Leg Raises
  • 140 Tendon Raised Leg Swings
  • 140 Tendon Side Leg Holds
  • 140 Tendon Side Leg Raises
  • 140 Tendon Side to Side Legs
  • 55 Wide Grip Push Ups

My Fitness Program

I’ve been working for quite some time on losing weight with my target being getting to 200lbs. I lost almost 20 lbs during a stint last year but for quite some time now, I’d plateaued and even with an increase in exercise, I wasn’t losing, I was just maintaining. In addition to wanting to lose weight, I wanted to feel better and be stronger. I was also having some stomach issues and wanted to address that. After talking to my doc and doing some research I decided to change two things. One, I wanted to introduce more strength/conditioning elements to my lifestyle and two, I would finally have to get serious and honest about my diet and what I was and wasn’t eating something I’ve danced around for years.

33 days ago I kicked in the strength element. I started the DareBee 30 Day CardioTrim program. I dig the DareBee ideal and ethos. I don’t have the time or money to join a gym or do Crossfit, as much as I’d like to. DareBee is the poor man’s Crossfit. Literally hundreds of weight/equipment-free exercises and demos, plans, nutrition advice, a support community. Fun stuff. It’s great  – check it out if you’re looking for that kind of thing. I can’t recommend it enough. I know what you’re saying. 30 day program, started 33 days ago? Um, that math doesn’t add up. You’d be right. I took a day off here and there when I felt my body was saying to. I was tired. Listen to your body.

At the same time I started using My Fitness Pal to track everything I was eating. Actually I’d been using it a month before as well. This has given me great data on what fuel (or lack thereof) I’m putting into the tank as well as allow me to correlate that to how I’m feeling and how workouts are going. As a bonus it syncs with my Garmin Vivoactive activity tracker and keeps track of calories burned etc. There’s a great iPhone app (and prolly Android as well) that makes it easy to enter food or even scan barcodes anywhere, anytime. I’ve found that having a data stack to refer to both motivates and excites the geek in me to stick with the program and also keep me honest.

I’ve changed up my diet pretty radically. For the past month and a half or so, I’ve been on a – don’t laugh – shake program, and finding it works pretty well for me. One of the huge hurdles initially for me was trying to teach myself how to eat properly after literally decades of not doing so. After reading and some advice from a buddy, I’ve been using GNC Lean Protein shakes for breakfast and lunch and then eating sensible, whole food dinners. Dinners had always been pretty good at our house, Lyn is a great cook and I’ve become more involved and so have the kids. We’ve always pretty much made everything from scratch trying to use the least amount of processed crap as we can. In addition, we’re using more white meat instead of red, more fresh veggies and even trying out a vegetarian recipe here and there.

Workdays have always been the hardest for me as the temptation to get crap for lunch and/or snack on junk food all day while hammering on a computer was pretty much the norm. Having the shake routine set – in combination with smart, healthy snacks has taken the heavy lifting out of trying to figure out what to eat, was well as eliminated the temptation to fall off the deep end into the deep fat fryer. It’s not my intention to use these shakes forever, but for me they’ve been a great tool for re-learning how to eat as well as managing diet. Overall the shakes in combination with the change in diet have alleviated some persistent stomach issues I’ve been having as well.

Other small things I’ve done that everyone always talks about but do make a huge difference are drinking lots of water (I usually get about 3L a day) and not eating after 7ish at night.

Finally, I’ve continued to strive for something I set out over a year ago and that is to run or ride the bike every day. Doesn’t have to be a monster workout – sometimes it’s just a half-hour cruise, but do something. Every. Day. I’ve missed days for sure, but only 2 in a row at most.

The Progress – Has It All Been Working?

In the first week or so I lost 4lbs. That’s a lot, and I think mostly due to water weight. It was encouraging, but I realize unrealistic to think that trend would continue. Over the remainder of the month, I didn’t lose or gain, just maintained. I think this is pretty much due to diet and touch on that later. I did read an interesting article on why you shouldn’t exercise to lose weight that I found very informative. Thanks to Gewilli for the link.

My fitness is improving radically. Everyone has their own definition of what fitness is. I feel better physically and mentally. I have more energy. I feel stronger. I have less fatigue. The Mojo Tank is full.

I gots all kinds-o-progress, yo.

Sometimes You’re the Hammer, Sometimes You’re the Nail

What’s important is that you keep driving.

Repeatedly I have to remind myself:

  1. Weight loss doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. It took 30 years to put the weight on, it’s not going to come off in a week.
  2. Fitness and strength is as important as the weight loss. What you’re doing will not always have immediately tangible benefits.
  3. See #1.
  4. See #1. Again.

In this world of instant downloads, one day shipping and live streaming, I too have become impatient. Expecting to see significant weight loss returns in a matter of days is unrealistic. Keep focused. Keep with the program. Keep going. It will come.

There have been days when the last thing I wanted to do was the workout. Sometimes I would forget until almost bedtime. It would be dark. Cold. Raining. Sometimes I was able to do Level III reps and all the extra credit. Sometimes I could barely manage Level I and  be whimpering. What matters is that I did it. And I also proved to myself that I could both handle it physically AND establish it/fit it into the daily routine/schedule, the latter being something I always was skeptical about or used as an excuse.

Remember. The Spot isn’t going anywhere. The Spot is hungry. The Spot wants sweat and reps.

The Takeaways So Far: What I’ve Learned

  • Be patient. This stuff doesn’t happen overnight. Nothing does.
  • I’m still eating too many calories. Though I’ve definitely changed what I’m eating for the better, my snacks and meals are still too calorie-heavy. I need more green veggies and protein and less calorie/carb/fat heavy snacks. Working on it.
  • I’ve cheated on food for sure over the past month. But I’ve learned to be more conscious of what I’m eating and why. Do you really need something to eat? Or are you just bored, distracted or stressed and circling the kitchen, one of my major traps. Stay busy, stay focused on the goal. When I have urges or cravings I’m learning to stop and take a second and ask if I really need anything, and if I do, to make a smarter choice vs. acting impulsively. I’ve learned to enjoy ‘treats’ more – like a Blizzard with the Fam at DQ, but I can be ok with the mini-I don’t need the medium with extra stuff. When people want to go to Wendy’s, they have salads there too (who knew?) not just Baconator combos. An online buddy of mine, Paul told me once: “One salad doesn’t make you skinny just like one piece of pie doesn’t make you fat.” You’re trying to change habit and routine, and if you fall (or intentionally get off) the horse, don’t beat yourself up, just get back on.
  • Just because you rode 100km, doesn’t mean you should eat that many calories worth of crap.
  • Keep a journal. Don’t feel like you have to write everything in it or everyday, but have one. Maybe not for everyone, but working for me.

One Day at a Time

It really is just that ridiculously simple. I’ve realized there is no ‘end’. There is no ‘fail’. What I’m trying to do is perpetual. Organic and ever-growing. It’s now a process that will end, really, only when I finally check out. So time to keep doing it. Today.

Gotta go pick out the next DareBee 30 day program. #feedthespot