Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

Experiment results and changing tactics

Posted by Trixter on October 31, 2019


At the beginning of October, I pledged that I would do two simple things to see if I could improve my physical and mental state: Get enough sleep, and get a small amount of exercise every morning. I chose several physical, mental, and emotional aspects of myself to record during the month to see if they improved with regular sleep and exercise:

  • Foot pain
  • Back pain
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Procrastination
  • Bad food decisions
  • Anxiety level
  • Anger/irritation

Twice a day, I’d make a note of how these felt on a scale from 1 to 10. Since they are all normalized to the same scale (representing “bad” things) lower was better. The goal was to see downward trends in the data throughout the month.

While I gained some insight about my behavior and motivation, the experiment broke down: I was only able to get decent sleep about 38% of the month (up from 25%, but far short of the intended 100%), and I did not exercise at all because I couldn’t consistently get up in the morning to exercise while still getting to work on time. Despite this, some of the results were interesting enough to examine, so I’ll present the data here.

Physical

My left foot suffers from a longitudinal tear due to having flat feet, and needs surgery. Walking is painful, and sometimes my right foot gets tired because it is working harder than the other foot during my stride. I know that my left foot won’t get better on its own, but I was hoping more sleep might alleviate the discomfort a little. Did that improve?

I was not expecting that to improve, but I guess “more sleep = more time to heal” is glaringly obvious in hindsight :-)

I’ve been worried about my core, as I’ve had lower back pain for seemingly no reason ever since I turned 40 (a multitude of humanity cries out “Join the club!”). I have also had upper back pain (neck, shoulders, limited mobility) on and off for the last five years. Did those improve?

Same obvious results: If you get more sleep, your body has more time to heal. A tiny downward trend, but I’ll take it.

Getting more sleep should have helped my feeling of tiredness or general fatigue. Did it?

Anything under the midline is good, but I neither like nor can explain the upward trend.

Mental

I go through cycles of depression that, regardless of the trigger, I’m pretty sure are chemical: They usually last a few days, and then I’m fine again for 6-8 weeks. Did slightly more sleep help with that?

The takeaway here is not the flat trendline, but that my daily feeling of depression was all over the place. Some days I’m really depressed; some days I’m not. Maybe I don’t have a 6-8 week cycle like I thought I did. Maybe these numbers are linked to my levels of procrastination. More study needed.

The genesis of this experiment was myself getting alarmed at my anxiety levels, and frustrated with myself on how I am procrastinating more and getting things done less. These two factors combine into a perfect storm of compelling me to eat bad food to feel better. They’re all linked, so let’s see how all three did:

It’s possible anxiety got worse because I could see, day by day, that I wasn’t getting enough sleep. Because anxiety got worse, eating bad food stayed constant. Procrastination decreased slightly, which is what I was hoping for, although I wish it were a more significant change than what was observed.

Not listed on the chart: Continuous bad food decisions resulted in gaining 4.7 pounds this past month. Yikes.

As I get older, my mental state has shifted from more logical to more emotional. I’ve talked about this before, and gotten some good advice along the way (from “embrace it!” to “here’s how you can slow this down”). While some people like this natural transition that happens to most men as they age, I do not want. Besides, the last thing my family needs is a more emotional me. So, did slightly more sleep help with fleeting anger and irritation?

This is a very welcome outcome. :-) I guess it’s also obvious in hindsight, that more sleep reduces irritability, but it’s still nice to see.

Self-evaluation, and one more round

Despite mostly failing to improve myself during this experiment, I made some correlations that weren’t obvious to me going in (or, maybe I didn’t want to admit them until I saw hard data).

My self-evaluation: I suffer from anxiety. When it flares up, it manifests as mild OCD or unproductive behaviors, such as not being able to start (or finish) projects due to fear of… something, I don’t know, but it leads to procrastination. Instead of working on a project (which would be a good outlet for nervous energy), I end up wasting time in an effort to squash the anxiety. At night, I stay up late in a frantic cycle of trying to find something (computer games, youtube videos, movies) that will either calm me down or make me so tired that my mind finally shuts up and my body gives out — but this always leads to not getting enough sleep… which then leads to a higher anxiety level the next day… which perpetuates the cycle. And since I don’t have decent coping mechanisms for anxiety, I also make bad food decisions during the daytime (fast food, sweets, etc.) to try to reduce my anxiety level.

I probably need therapy or treatment for anxiety. Before going down that path, I want to exhaust my options for coping with it some other way. I’m not against drugs or therapy — several close friends and family have had great success with both — but I want to tell myself that I gave the problem a thorough, logical, scientific examination before I go that route.

So what will I change in November? I’ll go after the exercise I attempted in October. My excuses for not exercising in October were not entirely rational:

  • There’s no benefit to exercise unless it’s in the morning, to raise your overall metabolic rate
  • If I exercise too late at night, I won’t be able to sleep
  • Getting more sleep in the morning is more important than exercise

…etc. I’m going to throw these excuses out the window and commit to doing 20 minutes of moderate-to-intense cardio every single day, regardless of what time it is, even if it’s right before bedtime (that’s neither desirable nor optimal, but it has to get done). Ideally, the earlier the better, but if it has to be at 7pm when I get home from work, so be it.

I’ll check back at the end of November with a new set of data.

2 Responses to “Experiment results and changing tactics”

  1. Neil C. Obremski said

    At the risk of sounding starry eyed: the season, the weather, and the moon are going to affect your anxiety. I don’t know how (otherwise I’d be making a fortune) but I’m sure of it. However, those aren’t things you can really do much about. It seems logical that small changes would be easier to make like, 10 push-ups as exercise instead of committing to some time amount. But I’ve found it difficult to get even THAT into a routine. Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Sure, it simply takes a heck of lot more effort specially when you’re trying to teach yourself.

    You’re BURNING neural pathways when you’re working through procrastination. Watch a child when you force them to go through with something you KNOW they’ll enjoy and appreciate. This is what I have to do to myself. I KNOW that if I force myself, I will be better for it. But I’m also a clever child and I can come up with all sorts of reasonable-sounding counter arguments.

    Having a partner in your attempts helps a lot: you’ll each want to mirror the other’s success. You may not even have to push that person or them push you because there is “I want to make them proud” mentality that I think is attached to many of us imposters. I don’t even think it requires the partners to outwardly encourage one another; simply DOING is enough. You can just tag along.

    My wife and I have been pushing ourselves on monthly challenges such as what you’re trying now. Some months are complete failures (I think I only exercised 4 days in October) but others are successes. This is the brew that life is made of. What we’re probably missing is a more established way of TRACKING and REWARDING.

    Anyway, best of luck with November.

    • Trixter said

      Some of this I knew, but it’s nice to have it confirmed, since I’m never really sure if I’m right about anything :-) We’re lucky to have partners to bounce things off of; she and I are going to try to eat better as well, since we know from the past we feel better when we eat better.

      Amen about burning neural pathways. If only we could fill in the pathways we don’t want (bad habits, trauma, unfortunate memories, etc.). I suppose that’s what cognitive behavior therapy is. Not ready for that yet.

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