Diets and break days

Tim Ferriss’ new book “The 4 hour body” seems to have become pretty popular among hackers and programmers I follow on Twitter. Among people who I know are Alex Payne (formerly of Twitter, now BankSimple) and Sarah Gray. I’m not sure why this is the case. One reason could be that the simple, strict nature of the diet gels well with the logical thinking us programmers are used to.

The slow carb diet is simple, with a small and well-defined list of things you can and cannot eat. No “white” carbs or liquid calories and no fruit. You make some fixed meals out of non-carb, high protein ingredients and eat them in rotation. An interesting feature of this diet is that you get a once-a-week “break day”. One day every week you get to eat literally whatever you want — all the sweets and carbs and unhealthy stuff that you want. This helps fat loss by preventing your body from going into starvation mode. I think the psychological effect is just as important — you’re not starving yourself of tempting, fatty foods for an indefinite or even a long period; it’s at most another 6 days before you get to make up for all the delicious stuff you stayed away from yourself.

I’m doing this diet myself, though I will admit that I don’t stick to it as strictly as I should. In particular, skipping breakfast and drinking beer are great temptations. But I am seeing good effects and I certainly feel more healthy so I think I’m on a good path. I’m interested in taking the slow carb lessons rules and applying them to be other areas of my life. There are things in my day to day life that are poisonous (over the long term) in the same way that unhealthy foods are dangerous over years.

To start off, movies and television (including Netflix) can instantly kill off productivity. There is absolutely no way I can get serious work done with the TV or a movie going in the background, and yet I keep trying to convince myself that I can. It’s like eating a bowl of french fries with every meal even though you know all that is going straight to your waist and heart. Watching a movie while trying to “work” isn’t going to hurt me while I’m actually watching, but in the long run I get less work done (and certainly much lower quality). Unfortunately I’ve been fooling myself long enough that I’m starting to feel the effects (akin to being unable to go up a flight of steps without getting all out of breath) and something’s gotta give. Watching video during work has got to go.

The second thing that needs to go is thinking that I can get serious work done at a library or lab machine. I alluded to this in my rules for computing happiness. I use a lot of specialized software that helps me to work faster and better and I lose all of that when I sit down at a stock public machine. The only thing I can realistically get done is reading and answering email (which lives in Gmail) or using Microsoft Office. Even reading feeds or Hacker News doesn’t work because I often send stuff to Instapaper or Pinboard.in and I need bookmarklets or plugins for that. So no more public computer use unless it’s for email (or printing stuff).

On a similar note, I find it very hard to do any kind of programming work on my netbook. Even though I run Ubuntu with all my favorite software, the 10-inch screen and smaller keyboard is just a bit too small for me. I know I’m being whiny here and I’m sure there are people who crank out great code on netbooks, but I like my full size keyboards and multiple monitors, thank you very much. As such, I’m going to be phasing out my netbook over the next few months (see my nostalgia post) and so I’m going to make sure that when I need to get work done, I’m in my room sitting at my work laptop, hooked up to an external display.

Finally, and this is a biggie, is accepting that the programmer’s life is a lonely one, especially if I want to become anything resembling an expert. As a senior college student, this is really hard to stomach. I have friends I want to hang out with and I only have two months to spend with them. But spending the better part of the morning in the library working on and off while “socializing” isn’t killing two birds with one stone as I’d like to believe. It’s more like getting not much work done and having a bunch of disconnected short conversations with people as they move between classes. Like the videos, it doesn’t have a big immediate impact on my work, but it’s certainly something is building up and I can start to feel the effects. So with two months of school left I’d rather buckle down and spend mornings doing solid work and leave socializing for actual get-togethers at night and over weekends.

In many ways, what I’m planning is a productivity slow carb diet. Instead of getting short bursts of immediate feel-good I’d rather work and live in ways that have a much better long term payoff. Like slow carb, the rules are simple: no video during work, work only on personal, adequate machines and work hard, play hard. I also want to include a break day. I’ sure hours of concentrated, isolated work without entertainment for more than a few days on end will break me and cause my productivity and general happiness to plummet. So I get Saturdays off to do whatever I want — watching as many movies and as much TV as I like. Saturdays have generally been my off-days from school work, so that should work out fine. On a daily basis, lunch and dinner are never to be eaten alone. I generally have lunch with a group of close friends and I’m sure I could make similar plans for dinner. I won’t be missing out on socializing and relaxing, but won’t have it interspersed with work time either.

Balance is generally considered a good thing, but I think most of us approach it the wrong way. We tend to take a “don’t work too hard” approach to balance, whereas a better way to go about is the way the slow carb diet works. Pick a seemingly difficult (or even impossible) goal and dedicate yourself to reaching it. This will take hard work and perseverance. The balance comes from the periodic rest and refocusing that helps keep you on track. Through these changes I want to incorporate this sort of high-level balance and throw out the mediocre working-but-not-really  that I’ve been trying to get to work so far. Guess we’ll see if it works in a few months.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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