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General Progress Report

15 July 2021

I am doing very well in general. I have been working hard at a bunch of things lately, and applying the tools of incremental progress and commitment to process over result. That’s the key: I can’t control results. I can only control the process. Process and result are connected, but not in perfect accordance. Nevertheless, if I commit faithfully to the process, I know the results will follow. Maybe not exactly what I hope for or want, but something in the same general direction as I am working towards.

My biggest personal project lately is fitness. Obviously, I’ve been committed to health and fitness for a long time now, but over the past four months or so, I’ve been working extra hard specifically on weight loss. I’ve been counting calories, increasing protein, and trying very hard to drop fat and build a little bit of muscle. I’ve been maintaining somewhere between 500 and 1000 daily calories of deficit once you include exercise. This has resulted in dropping approximately 30 pounds in about sixteen weeks. It works out to 1.8 pounds per week.

As you can see, it’s a slow and noisy process. But the results are very positive. It’s been challenging but not awful. And the results are not just on the scale, but in my real world experience as well:

This shows the difference between March 21st and July 14th. So not quite four months. Obviously, still a long way to go before I look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club (I will never look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club), but impressive results, and presumably health-changing improvements in my metabolism (though I need to return to the doctor to get bloodwork done).

I’ve also seen dramatic improvements in my athletic performance. I can do 8 neutral-grip pull-ups in a row now, which is 2 more than I’ve ever been able to do in my life up until now. And I ran a sub-7 minute mile for the first time ever, a lung-bursting 6:44.3 as the second mile of a 4 mile run, last week. That’s stunning to me, that I should be setting new personal records in speed and strength only a few weeks from turning 47 years old.

When my parents were my age, they were both already basically disabled by obesity, sedentary lifestyles, diabetes, musculo-skeletal issues, etc., etc., etc.. I don’t even really know what a healthy 47 year old man is supposed to look and feel like. What does it mean to be capable and strong and fit at my age? I don’t have personal examples in my life. Like everything else, I’m cobbling it together as I go along with no personal role models.

Last week I climbed a mountain with a neighbor who is 58, very fit, and on the Search and Rescue team for my county. It was exciting to see what I have to look forward to over the next ten years if I stay on top of my health and weight and fitness. And I know very clearly what I have to look forward to if I don’t.

So I’m proud of what I’ve done, where I am, and I’m excited to continue improving.

Discipline vs. Obsession

8 June 2021

I had an interesting short conversation yesterday based off of this tweet:

And my conversation partner said: “Well, you are obsessive about it.” Which is interesting for two reasons: their feelings about what constitutes obsession, yes, but also how I’ve represented my own behavior to them. I definitely talk about counting my calories, and explain how I measure things and weigh things, etc., and I can understand how that may come across as excessive to someone. And for the rest of this discussion, I’ll expand on ideas that got started in the conversation – but no more direct references. I don’t mean to imply that my conversational partner holds any of the specific attitudes I might go on to describe below.

But I am absolutely not obsessive about my calorie counting. And I say that as someone who has experienced and recovered from pathological obsession. I know what pathological obsession feels like, and this isn’t it. So I think it’s worth trying to informally define the difference between being disciplined about something, and being obsessive about it.

Discipline, or thoroughness, to me, means being careful and detailed, and comprehensive. It’s interesting that we often describe discipline and being detail-oriented as an asset professionally, and a shortcoming personally. Make it to work on time, prepared, and ready every single day? You’re a model employee. But commit to a 5 mile run every day at 5pm, and arrange your schedule around meeting that personal obligation? You’re a fanatic.

Discipline means committing to specific behaviors that are beneficial even when they’re not fun, or I don’t feel the immediate motivation. Healthy food when I want a pizza. A run when I feel like loafing. And yes, measuring the peanut butter so I don’t end up eating 300 calories when I meant to eat 200 (a difference of a mere tablespoon).

Obsession is an entirely different animal. It means, first of all, that the activity disrupts my life and interferes with my ability to do the things I want to do. My obsession with alcohol was like this: I would perseverate and panic about how I could acquire it. I would hide it around the house, I would not go places I couldn’t drink. I arranged my life around the thing, rather than choosing the life I wanted, and working towards that.

My calorie counting isn’t obsessive in the least. I don’t think about it when I’m not doing it. I don’t refuse to eat foods that I don’t know the exact calorie value of. Saturday I went out for a seven course tasting menu and just guessed, “Eh, probably about 1000 calories, whatever.” When I weigh my yogurt into a bowl, I lick the spoon and don’t try to figure out how many grams of yogurt that was. I don’t care.

My calorie counting is liberating, not confining. I am able to achieve my goals for having the body and metabolism I desire while still enabling myself to eat any types of food I want. Either by having reasonable portions or by relegating them to my weekly cheat day. The result has been that my life is less anxious, less frustrating, and I like my body better.

I’ve lost 22 pounds now, in two and a half months. I haven’t starved, I haven’t been miserable. I’ve been thorough. It’s been work, but it hasn’t been an agonizing slog.

I think often times, we want to see people who are successful at things we ourselves are not as secretly miserable or mentally ill. “That person must work 90 hours a week to be so financially successful, how sad for them they don’t get to enjoy their money.” “Oh they lost weight, sure, but look how horrible they feel, starving all the time and obsessing about each leaf of lettuce.” It makes us feel better about our own inability to achieve at that level.

And obviously, there are people with disordered eating, exercise, and professional habits. But fundamentally, I think a lot of us want to see all kinds of success as either unattainable or attended by secret misery. A person who saves and invests is a pinchpenny who never enjoys the fruits of their wealth. A person who is very fit is starving themselves and relentlessly agitated. It’s an attitude that’s about protecting ourselves from ourselves. From our own challenges with committing to something and seeing it through. From making lifelong changes that sometimes means denying base instincts.

There’s a whole swath of industries and advocacies devoted to finding, or demanding, easier ways to do things. Insisting that success is accessible without effort. We should all have high paying jobs without having to work long hours or attain advanced credentials. We should all be able to be fit and sleek without calorie counting or exercise. We should all be healthy and considered attractive without investments of effort in our physical bodies. But it’s all just cymbals.

You don’t have to be obsessed to achieve – but you do have to be thorough and detailed. In any endeavor. It’s not easy for anyone, but that doesn’t mean that those who achieve live lives of hardship or insanity. It’s about cultivating a lifestyle of taking satisfaction in productive effort.

Sobriety in the Time of Covid

27 May 2021

Confession: I haven’t been to more than two or three AA meetings over the past year. I hate Zoom meetings. I went to several in the early pandemic, and I gave up. I didn’t connect. Frankly, I haven’t connected to the AA community here well since moving to Seattle. I attended a fairly large number of meetings in 2018 and 2019, but when the pandemic hit I let them drop off and I haven’t missed them. Neither have I felt any rise in my urge to drink. But I’m aware it’s a dangerous game.

I don’t make friends too easily. Not real ones – acquaintances, even close ones, at work or other such environments pass quickly when the opportunity to interact frequently dissipates. I have only a few friends left from my time in Philadelphia, perhaps only one from AA, two or three from work. There are others I continue to interact with professionally from time to time, but they’re not friends.

Here in Seattle, I made no friends in AA in the two years I was regularly attending meetings. I am feeling out of place and uninteresting. I’ve been asked to speak a few times, and I have. It didn’t lead to actually meeting people and connecting. A few men I thought would make connections clearly don’t have time or interest. Seattle is known for being a place hard to make friends – they call it the “Seattle Chill”, and it’s very real.

So my sobriety has been being maintained by a few things – my few close friends who are sober and interested in staying connected, with whom I speak regularly. And by the fact that I find the prospect of alcohol utterly and totally uncompelling. I have no desire to drink, no interest in inebriation, and cannot fathom developing one again. My partner keeps beer and wine in the fridge and I don’t even notice it, except on the rare occasion when I check if there’s a tablespoon of white wine to cook into a risotto (and I’m careful to cook off all the alcohol).

And so my sobriety is clicking along. I don’t think about it much, because I don’t have to. I’ve been sober more than thirteen years now. My life is inestimably better. I’ve got no desire to go back. But I also wouldn’t recommend these actions to anyone in the program. Like a frog being boiled, it’s hard to know when the danger is approaching. And I’ll go back to meetings once they return to in-person status, whether I feel comfortable or not.

Progress and Plateau

26 May 2021

When on a journey associated with personal improvement, we tend to imagine a goal that, once we achieve it, we are finished. For example, I am trying to lose weight, and I set a goal of 23 pounds (chosen because it gets me to a round number that felt like a good endpoint). In my imagination, I can lose weight by dieting and exercising for a few months, and then I’ll hit my goal and I’ll be done. This is an excellent way to succeed in the short term and fail in the long run.

The reason of course is that while I may feel like I’m done making progress toward a goal, my mind and body are not done succumbing to entropy. We often talk about plateauing when we are trying to reach a goal but not making progress despite putting in the work. But our goal is also a plateau of its own, in our minds: the mountain top that we can stay on, rarified and perfect. We are hoping to reach an eternal plateau.

But the truth of it is that as soon as we stop making progress, we start to regress. Without vigilance and effort, we start to deteriorate from the pinnacle we’d like to stay perched atop. In systems engineering, these are called “unstable equilibria”. A ball on top of a hill, perfectly placed with no momentum, will stay atop it. But the instant there is a puff of a breeze, it begins to roll back down.

I am almost to my goal weight. I have lost 20.2 of my 23 pounds. Based on how I look and feel, I will probably extend my efforts out and set a new goal for another five or ten pounds of weightloss. But I’m not sure yet. I’m committed to not changing my goal until I achieve it. As always, my fundamental goals are around not developing diabetes, and feeling fit and capable. In that sense, I’m being successful.

So I’m working out now how to reach and stay at the plateau I’m aiming for. It will involve continuing most of the behaviors I’m currently committed to: calorie counting, food weighing, exercise tracking, cheat day management of cravings, etc.. I will just work on adjusting my calorie count until I find a level that maintains an equilibrium rather than continues to result in losses. It will be challenging because weight is a noisy measure, sensitive to hydration, hormone cycle (yes, men have them too!), constipation, etc., etc..

I don’t know yet how I’ll manage that aspect. I don’t want to get trapped in trying to respond to noise, and becoming reactive and oscillatory in my daily eating – that way lies disorder. So I will probably set a time-factor on changes. Something like, “I will add 100 calories daily to my budget, and check after two weeks if I am level, down, or up,” rather than looking at my morning weight and saying, “I need to eat 300 fewer calories today.”

I am, in this, discovering that I can be successful if I am committed, assiduous, and conscientious about my adherence. If I address my anxieties head on and embrace the discomfort of knowing that my body is not going to react precisely how I want it to on my timeline. Like everything else in life, I need to practice acceptance and patience.

Cultivating a Relationship with Pain

25 May 2021

Biochembelle and I are watching an extreme race show called “Race to the Center of the Earth”. I’m enjoying it. But there’s a contestant on it who annoys me. She is incredibly fit, and describes herself as “gritty”, but she is complaining constantly about pain. Now, I’m not going to try to judge her pain. I don’t know her actual physical situation or how it’s edited. But it is making me think a bit more about my own relationship with pain, voluntary suffering, and endurance.

As any longtime readers will know, I am an amateur endurance athlete these days. I have competed in many half-marathons, marathons, ultramarathons, and mid-distance and longer triathlons. I really enjoy them. And I do regular training and fun runs of up to 20 miles, hikes of many miles, and minor peakbagging. A day in the mountains with 15-20 miles and 5,000-8,000 feet of ascent does not really intimidate me any more. Nor does a 50 mile bike ride.

That doesn’t mean they’re easy. They’re not. Training and playing in the mountains, or a long effort on the bike, are fun. But they’re painful, challenging, and involve a lot of suffering, generally. During and after a long day adventuring my feet, core, legs, knees, shoulders, and crotch may all hurt. I’m tired, and my hips and back ache. I may be sunburned or chewed up by bugs. I am not infrequently bleeding. I haven’t done a lot of camping yet, but when I do, I don’t sleep well.

Now, my weightloss journey is similar. I am often hungry between meals in a way I wasn’t before. It used to be that feeling the first hunger pangs meant I would grab a snack or start preparing a meal. Now, I sit with my hunger for a while, generally. It gets stronger. I work out hungry; I delay my meal by bathing or watching a show or playing piano. Because I want to eat closer to bedtime so I’m not going to bed hungry, which is awful. But it happens sometimes.

This isn’t real suffering, of course. Not in an existential sense. But it is voluntary suffering, and the pain and challenge are real. I have come around to the emotional position that comfort kills us. Being too comfortable in life is bad for the soul. It breeds softness, gluttony, laziness, and entitlement. We need challenges in life – challenges difficult enough that sometimes we fail. Challenges that leave us half-broken whether we succeed or not. Without them, without suffering for them, we can’t achieve what we are capable of.

And the challenges need not be physical (though I definitely recommend some of that). Intellectual and emotional challenges are also crucial to development. When I was first sober I was terrified that I couldn’t hold a job – I almost didn’t apply for them. My fear of it made me too uncomfortable. I had to learn to let that wash over me and through me. To live in the discomfort of my fear. As a result of doing that many times – of taking leaps of faith and making major moves – my career is flourishing. Do allow yourself to ossify by only being exposed to comfortable thoughts and opinions you already hold.

I have come to love the pain associated with endurance. Long runs and hikes on challenging terrain are fun not only despite the pain, but because of it. Weightloss is satisfying not despite the hunger, but because of it. I am mastering this carcass that shuffles me through life. This is my body. This is my pain. This is the experience I am capable of having in this place, at this time, in this moment.

I am a thing made of edible stuff in a constant battle not to be eaten by microbes. It is a battle I will lose. While it rages on, I will thrash myself against the edges of my world, stretching the cellophane boundary of my place in it as widely as I can. I love the pain. And that is why I love my place in the world.

The Little Voice of Self-Destruction

14 May 2021

I am continuing my weight-loss and fitness journey, and I am objectively having success. I am back down to about my lowest adult weight from a few years ago. Although I am softer and weaker than I was three years ago, and have a ways to go before I recover all my strength. But I’m doing the work. I’ll get there.

If I’d written this post two days ago, I’d have felt differently. I went through a period of 9 days where I lost no weight despite strict adherence to my fitness and diet regimens. Including a massive, 19 mile, 8,100′ mountain trail run that burned 3,500 calories all by itself. And yet the scale was stubborn. I was despairing. I invented narratives: I’m fitter and my resting heart rate is lower, so I’m burning fewer calories.

That might be true. Certainly my RHR is down in the 30s now. But then, in the past two days, a bunch of weight came off the scale reading. It’s possible I was retaining water while healing from the big run. Or who knows what. Weight loss is a noisy process even when doing everything “right”. Only perseverance and commitment to a goal works for me over the longer term.

But the rewards are real; expensive clothes I’d given up on are in the rotation again. I like how I look and my energy is better. I’m sleeping better. I’m feeling productive and capable as I redevelop my strength and fitness. I’m achieving goals. So why is my brain trying to sabotage me?

Just now, proud of everything I’ve done, I was taking a walk and wondering about what I’d have for lunch, and I find myself thinking, “You’re at your lowest adult weight! You can have anything you want!”. I have a habit of self-sabotage that I have to stay on top of. I constantly try to convince myself I “deserve” things that I know are bad for me. While I haven’t had those feelings about alcohol in a long while, I have them about food, or a cigar, or skipping work, or you-name-it.

And that’s precisely why “diet and exercise don’t work.” They are only effective as long as I am able to adhere to the program. Monitor my intake. Don’t “reward” myself inappropriately. It’s far easier to eat a thousand calories than to run a thousand calories. And I’m not even at my first goal yet. I have 5.5 more pounds to go before I reach the initial goal I set for myself. My plan is to reevaluate when I get there, should I keep dropping, or increase my daily caloric intake to hold steady?

Whichever I choose, my old way of approaching food is over. I am not “on a diet”. I am trying to find an overall strategy of diet and exercise that results in health and satisfaction. A good relationship with my body and my fitness. Eventually, I think, I will increase my intake by a few hundred calories a day, and on days I exercise I’ll eat a little more to compensate for the extra burn. But I will be mindful about it, not subject to guesswork and a sense of “deserving” more.

Much like sobriety required a shift in how I think about my life, or how becoming an amateur endurance athlete required a shift in how I live and train, having a healthy diet and fitness routine to maintain a healthy metabolism is something that has required a fundamental change in how I think about myself and my eating. And it will require vigilance against my own sense of entitlement.

Meeting Lapses

5 May 2021

“Meeting Makers Make It,” is one of the most common phrases you’ll hear in AA. It’s said all the time because it’s true. Regular meeting attendance and sobriety maintenance go hand in hand. We tell newcomers to go to 90 meetings in 90 days, more if they need to. People who makes excuses about why they can’t attend? They don’t usually stay sober long. I don’t know if it’s the meetings, or if it’s being the kind of person who makes excuses. But finding yourself “too busy” or “too inconvenienced” to go to meetings regularly when in early sobriety is a bright shining hallmark of people who tend not to stay sober. There are exceptions, of course.

I haven’t been to more than about 4 meetings the entire pandemic. That’s not good, of course, but Zoom meetings just don’t work for me (he says, making excuses). I don’t feel any connection the way I do when I’m in person. I’m hopeful for a return to in-person meetings soon. Truth be told, my meeting attendance had been slipping before. I had settled into a twice a week schedule, then once a week. Then every other or so.

Moving, and losing the core group that you’re in sobriety with is hard. I don’t make friends easily, not even in a room full of people just like me. I’d been feeling uncomfortable and disoriented in meetings my entire time in Seattle. It took me 2-3 years before finding a group of sober friends in Philadelphia. Now I’ve lost that again. I have a few important sober people in my life I am in constant contact with, which I see almost like “little meetings”. Connections with people who know me, understand sobriety, and I can connect with.

I do not feel that my sobriety is in any danger. Missing meetings isn’t ideal, but I nothing about the plague year has been ideal. I’ve been sick with anxiety multiple times, had minor running injuries, been unable to go to they gym, had long hours of frustrating work. It’s been a massively challenging time for everyone – and I’ve been extremely fortunate to be healthy, employed, and sober for the entire thing. There’s been alcohol in the house that BB drinks sometimes, and I don’t even notice it. Right now I know there’s wine in the fridge – but I couldn’t tell you how much or what kind. Or if there’s beer or not. Neither answer would surprise me. I just don’t see it.

But I wish I could recapture the feeling I had in St. Louis among the men of my Wednesday night men’s group. I miss it.

Progress not Perfection.

30 April 2021

One of the bedrock principles of AA is progress, not perfection. We do our best, as much as we can, sometimes we fail, sometimes we quit, but for the most part we move forward towards better lives and more peaceful, serene existence. I’ve mostly succeeded at that throughout my sobriety, and one of the other bedrock principles – practicing the steps of AA in all of our lives – has enabled me to establish a life I enjoy, feel at peace in, and enjoy the fruits of accomplishment in. I’ve become a goal-setter and achiever. Not always, not successfully every time, but I’ve learned how to make progressive improvement in crucial ways.

Today, I am in the midst of weightloss. The reason, fundamentally, is that I went to the doctor after a year of the pandemic, and while I hadn’t put on weight, a few of my blood numbers were trending in the wrong direction for a person at severe risk for metabolic disorders like diabetes. So, I decided on the spot that I had to do something serious. My consistent exercise is no longer doing the whole job, and I need a way to maintain my heath that doesn’t rely exclusively on every-lengthening endurance athletics.

That means losing weight. I know it’s fashionable these days to say people can be healthy at any size (and surely, a few can), but generally speaking, excess weight comes with health morbidities, and I was, 40 days ago, somewhere between 20-30 pounds overweight. So I set a goal of losing 23 pounds, which would get me to a nice round number, and reassessing. Technically speaking, I’ll still be slightly overweight if I reach that goal, but I think I will have made a dramatic change in both health and appearance.

So for the past 40 days, I’ve been limiting myself to 2125 calories a day, except for Saturdays when I increase my calorie budget to account for my long run. This has been very effective. I am down 12.5 pounds in 40 days, and my belt is in danger of needing new holes soon. I’ve taken a few specific steps designed to help with the weightloss beyond the calorie budget:

  1. I record every calorie I eat, by logging foods
  2. I exercise in moderation – not extending out my weekday runs beyond 3 miles
  3. I added strength training to maintain muscle
  4. I eat less dense calories (fatty meat, baked goods) in exchange for voluminous ones

For the first week or so I was routinely hungry. Now, I am generally not, except before mealtimes, which it makes sense to be hungry for. I have changed my relationship with food: instead of eating whatever I want whenever I want and trying to run off the excess and failing, I am constructing an intentional, meaningfully nutritious diet that I enjoy eating and deviate from for treats according to a plan and schedule.

I’m very much at peace now with this system. It’s working, I’m enjoying the sense of a little more control over my diet and health. I’m hopeful of a dramatic change in my appearance, and of fitting into my fancy Philadelphia suits again. And I’m succeeding – slowly, steadily, and with purpose.

Commitment Beats Motivation

26 April 2021

Being motivated for things is great. Motivation for a job, for sobriety, for fitness, for budgeting – gets you started and helps establish a baseline. But motivation always wanes over time. Sometimes in a cycle, sometimes in a slow decay. But like New Year’s Resolutions, we are often highly motivated in the beginning to begin a journey, but when it becomes difficult or boring, we almost always relent, and dramatically reduce or abandon our efforts entirely. I’ve stopped thinking about motivation as a driving factor.

Instead I think about commitment. Discipline. Motivation is about something I want to do. Commitment and discipline are about someone I want to be. I’ve struggled with laziness my entire life. I’ve found that’s common to alcoholics. I don’t want to do the work I have to do to get to where I want to be. I want a shortcut. An easier, softer way. But for many things, there just is no shortcut.

Take wealth. It’s relatively easy in concept to build wealth if you have a job that covers anything more than your absolute basic needs. Take a small amount of your paycheck. Put it in a separate account and don’t spend it. Ideally, invest it in something relatively safe that will grow at a steady rate. Repeat every single paycheck. Even if you don’t have much you can afford to put in there, after a few years, the amount will feel pretty large in comparison to your income.

But it’s VERY easy to give up on that. Progress is slow. Needs are many. Desires are many more. It’s easy to look at that pot of money after a while and say, “Hey I can afford to go on a vacation now!” We all deserve vacations. But take it now, and it might wipe out a year of progress or more. While staying the course for a few more years might result in an account that produces enough income to take an annual vacation. I’m not judging the choice a persona makes, but I am pointing out that the choices we make have long-term consequences. All of us, myself absolutely included, frequently make short-term choices that have long-term consequences at odds with our stated goals.

This is the millennial “avocado toast” problem. It’s fun to mock those who say that “young people spending too much on avocado toast is why they can’t buy houses”. But it is absolutely true for people with limited means (almost all of us) that making routine small-but-unnecessary purchases undermines our ability to make occasional large purchases like cars and homes. And the people who are so offended, often indignantly proclaiming, “we deserve little luxuries too!”, are often failing to see the power of long-term budgetary discipline, even at the low levels that they can command.

I am currently on a journey of weightloss. I’ve heard from many people in many places that “diet and exercise don’t work”. This is nonsense of course, diet and exercise are the only things that do work. When people say “diet and exercise don’t work” what they usually mean is, “most people gain the weight back over time, and so dieting and exercising aren’t an effective long-term strategy.” And I’ll agree with that.

But the reason that people gain the weight back is not that somehow, dieting and exercising magically stop obeying the laws of thermodynamics. It’s that people stop doing them. Either because they are demoralized that they are not seeing big enough and fast enough gains, or because they do see those gains, reach a goal, and then rationalize changing their behavior back to a prior baseline. And that’s hard. I’ve done that several times. But it wasn’t dieting and exercising that failed. It was ME.

No one likes to think of themselves as a failure, so it’s easy to externalize the deficiency. “Diet and exercise don’t work,” is more comfortable than, “I fail, or I am dishonest with myself about what I’m actually doing.” But that’s how motivation isn’t effective. No matter how motivated I am to achieve something, demoralization and rationalization can erode my efforts.

Commitment is different. I have decided to become someone who measures my food, accounts for my nutrients, and exercises daily. It’s often not fun, sometimes doesn’t provide the results I want immediately. But I’m not quitting despite my frequent demoralization. Because I’m not doing this for the purposes of reaching a specific weight or completing a specific race. I’m doing it because I want to be a person who exerts control over what I eat and how I move. Rather than being controlled by my laziness and appetites.

So I do the same things every day, in a disciplined and consistent way. And so far, slowly, messily, two steps forward for every step back, I am achieving my goals. Sometimes I’m not finding much motivation. But I am committed.

How I Make Life Changes, Part II.

8 April 2021

I’ve written before about how I am satisfied by incremental change. It’s a disposition that has served me well, and I don’t know exactly where it came from. A friend once described it as a “completionist” instinct, when we were talking about summitting a bunch of mountains (an activity I’ve gotten into during this blog’s long semi-hiatus). But that’s not quite right. I am not energized by completing things so much as I am by accumulating things. I like seeing things grow steadily, or waste steadily. I like watching progress. Like the time-lapse of a glacier moving – relentless, irresistible progress toward an end state or goal. It doesn’t actually matter if the goal is achievable always. What matters is moving in the direction of success, one day at a time.

This is how I’ve managed to accrue 4,801 consecutive days of sobriety, as I’m writing today on April 8th, 2021. These days, the maintenance of my sobriety is more of a background process. I haven’t been tempted by a drink in years. The obsession, as they say, has been lifted by a force beyond me. Take your pick about what that is, I don’t much care. All I know is I never had the power to do it myself. And then something changed and I joined a group of ex-drunks and started working on the steps, then I didn’t need to drink anymore. And day by day, hour by hour, I’m accumulating time in sobriety.

And so leveraging this satisfaction in incremental progress has become a cornerstone in my life regarding change, and I can apply it to almost any aspect of myself I want to improve. I wrote yesterday about being baffled by holding a job when I was in my first year of sobriety. But I was lucky (luck is a recurring theme in my life) that I had a boss who was an academic deeply devoted to mentoring and growing the careers of junior academics. He taught me to write papers and grants (not something I learned in engineering graduate school – partly because engineers do less of that and partly because I was a fuckup.).

And he taught me something else: every year, add a line to as many sections of your CV as you can. Publish a paper. Get a grant. Take a class. Add a position, or get promoted. Take on a new student. Teach a new class. Speak at a conference. Whatever you can do in each section of your CV, to make that section one entry longer, do that. And so I have. And over the past 13 years, my CV has grown from two pages to twelve. And I continue to, even though for the time being, I am in positions where a resume is of more value than a CV.

I have applied this incrementalist perspective to investing, to fitness, and to many other aspects of my life. I have found there are several key things about it that help me achieve my goals. The focus on progress, rather than perfection (a tool I’ve stolen directly from AA) allows me to take satisfaction in the process rather than the end product. Even though I do have, say, a financial goal for my retirement, I think less about how far I am from the goal and how little difference the next saved dollar makes, and more about how much more I have now than I did a month or a year ago. Every paycheck, I have a little left over from what I budget to spend each pay period, and that goes into my investment account. And it’s grown and one day I will have the resources to retire on what I’ve saved.

I’ve done the same thing with fitness. Jogging first a quarter mile, and slowly working myself all the way out to running marathons and ultramarathons and long triathlons. And as I wrote yesterday, I am currently in the beginnings of applying this (successfully at least to begin with) to weight loss. For which I needed additional tools. More about that tomorrow, maybe.