Change of plan

Warning: This is a blog post about blogging. No-one would blame you for not being interested in this topic.

When I started my March monthly challenge to blog everyday I quickly noticed that a very easy way to cheat would be to post one or two words of commentary along with a link, video, or quote, alleviating myself of the need to put any effort into composing a post. It would be as easy as clicking a button in my browser to claim that I had achieved my aim for the day. That didn’t seem to me to be within the spirit of the enterprise.

I made a rule to try to close that loophole: I would only count posts of 300 words or more as satisfying my goal of posting every day.

Two weeks later I’m convinced that that rule was a mistake. Most good posts don’t come from thinking about a subject and deciding that it would make a good topic for a blog post. Good posts come from a desire to make a quick post about an interesting subject. It’s only while writing that you can discover that a post would benefit from expansion into something lengthier. It’s much more difficult to decide up front, without writing anything, that a particular topic is worth 50 words, or 300, or 1000, than it is to discover that fact during the process of writing about it.

So a little over half way through the month, rather than continuing ever less successfully with the flawed original plan, I’ve decided to change the rules. From now on I’m removing the requirement that only 300+ word posts count towards my goal of blogging every day. Instead I’m replacing it with a more flexible rule: I will blog every day, regardless of how much I think I can get out of each topic. I will post more than once if I happen upon multiple topics that interest me in a day. If I see something worth sharing, I’ll write 50 words about it with a link. My hope is that some of those posts will spur me to add a few more words, and inevitably some will come out at the length that I originally hoped for all of my posts.

By the end of the month I’ll see if I got more out of this new approach of writing about what catches my immediate interest, or if the original “hold out until you find the one best topic of the day” strategy won out. My bet is on the former.

As Jeff Atwood pointed out on Coding Horror a few years ago, quantity always trumps quality. I’ll produce more good work by writing badly often than I will by writing well occasionally.

Blog every day!

I don’t have a bike so in lieu of riding bikes every day, for the month of March I plan to blog every day. My previous monthly challenges have been about not doing certain things, so I’m excited to start one that has a more positive aspect to it.

I went to an event during Social Media Week entitled “How Blogging Has Changed My Life”. The panel—made up of high-profile bloggers from Londonist, Going UndergroundDomestic Sluttery and Tired of London, Tired of Life—talked about how they had got their start in blogging and what kinds of positive impact it had on them. This ranged from ful-time jobs and book deals to friendships, personal fulfillment and meeting the queen.

I don’t intend to turn into a full-time job but just being around those successful bloggers and the many others who attended the talk made me want to put more effort into it than I have done in recent years. Social media, whether you’re talking Twitter, Google+, blogging or anything else, is just more fun when you contribute instead of just consuming.

I started blogging nine years ago, in January 2003. Initially I blogged every day. Back then creating a post meant manually updating a static HTML page to add new content to it and uploading it to my university internet society’s FTP server. Paradoxically, as the systems I used to edit and host my blog got faster and easier to use, my posting frequency went down. My hope is that blogging every day for a month will give me some momentum that will carry on after the month is over.

This challenge is different from my previous ones in one very important respect: it requires me to actively do something that I wasn’t doing before. I’m happy that I can phrase this one as a do rather than a don’t do rule. Hopefully it will stop people from asking me, “What are you giving up next month?” But I’m also aware that it will have a significant time cost. Writing a blog post that’s more than just a few lines long takes time, especially if I take care not to completely disregard quality.

But I choose to look at this a good thing. If I can manage to spend 30 to 60 minutes a day writing then when the month ends, as it inevitably must, and I scale back the flow of posts I can put some of that time to other uses. Maybe even to other challenges.

To prevent myself from copping out and posting nothing but link posts and quotes, I will only be counting posts that contain at least 300 words of my own writing. That number pretty much came out of the air, but it seems like a reasonable length for a short blog post, and it means the final total for the month is likely to be near or above 10,000 words.

If you want to follow my output for the month you have a few ways you can do that. There’s an RSS feed, which is probably the best option if you use a feed reader. In case that’s not your bag I’ll also try to link from Google+ and Twitter whenever I post something new. I have Twitter set up to post to Facebook automatically, so that’s another way.

Whatever way you choose to read, I hope I manage to make it worth your while.

No meat

This being the first day of a new month, I’ve just completed another monthly challenge. Due to its relative brevity, I chose February to be the month in which I would try something that until recently I would have considered impossible: to go a month without eating meat.

I very nearly managed it.

Out of the month’s 29 days—I was cursing the leap year right from the start—I eschewed all meat (including fish) for 27 of them.

My first failure as previously noted was a result of health concerns. I’m now quite convinced that the lack of meat had little or nothing to do with that incident, but it was reasonable to take precautions anyway.

My second day off was during the week of Valentine’s Day. I took Eileen to a Japanese cooking class at Atsuko’s Kitchen in Shoreditch. There was an option to prepare a vegetarian menu, but as my herbivorism was only temporary I thought it would make more sense for us to learn some dishes we’d be more likely to prepare in the future. We still only had fish, so some people would consider that a partially successful day.

The rest of the time I found the challenge to be easier that I expected. Certainly it was much easier than it would have been for me only a few years ago.

It was sometimes hard to just keep in mind the restrictions I’d placed on myself. During the first few days I had a tendency to come very close to picking up some meat in the café in work without thinking. Even during the last week I nearly lost another day when I twigged only at the last second that the paté I was about to eat was (duh) made from an animal.

But when I was able to keep the rules in mind it was pretty easy to always find a food option that I was happy to eat and that was allowed. Sometimes that meant I couldn’t have exactly what I wanted, but on the other hand it also made choosing what to eat a lot more straightforward.

I’m reminded of a part of A.J. Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically when he asks a Rabbi why orthodox Judaism has such restrictive rules about how to live your life. The Rabbi answered that the rules exist to determine the answers to all of life’s unimportant decisions, so that you have more time and energy to devote to more noble persuits. I felt like having my restrictive rule in place made choosing what to eat easier, and freed me from a lot of unimportant decison making. I was fighting against what author Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice.

One of my aims going into this challenge was to expand my food horizons by ocassionally being forced to choose between edging out of my comfort zone or going hungry. It’s amazing how much better some foods can taste when you’re hungry. Hunger is the best sauce, as my father always tells me. He’s clearly never had Belgian samurai sauce, but he’s nearly right.

As it happens I’ve been consciously training myself to appreciate more foods for some time. I like to identify a popular food that I don’t like and make myself first tolerate it, and eventually even like it, through progressively increasing exposure. If I look at a dish and think, “that would be great if it weren’t for (some ingredient),” that’s a clue that I should be adding that ingredient to my list. In fact, without a few years of this kind of effort I would never have even considered trying this challenge.

I’m proud to declare that the most recent addition to my “foods I don’t hate” list is mushroom. I think I’ve had more mushroom in the last four weeks than in the rest of my life combined.

Sadly it wasn’t all positive. Frequently the most appealing vegetarian lunch option was a sandwich, and you wouldn’t believe how many restaurants’ only vegetarian meals are pasta. I ate a lot of carbs, and I put on a few kilos. It can’t have helped that I was directing my willpower at avoiding meat, and had little left to apply to the goal of eating healthily.

If I could overcome that tendency to eat carb-heavy foods I might be inclined to do this again, though maybe for a shorter time. But even without doing that, I think I’ve got something valuable out of the experience. I will no longer just skim over the vegetarian options on a menu, now that I’ve learned how good some of them can be.

I’d encourage others to give it a go too, if only for a short time. See how much your diet is really centered around meat, and maybe get a better understanding of what life is like for real vegetarians. And if you’re as picky an eater as I was, forcing yourself to eat things you wouldn’t previously have considered may end up paying off for you in the end.

I feel like a military academy

I’ve taken an unplanned break from my monthly challenge (of eating no meat) today. I’m reluctant to break a successful streak, but when it comes to playing with your diet there are always going to be health concerns to keep in mind.

This morning I took the tube to work during rush hour. Usually I’m in late enough in the morning to miss the biggest part of the rush, but on Thursdays I play football before work so I end up on a packed tube with all of the other commuters.

I’ve just started listening to the audiobook of Chuck Palahniuk’s “Haunted”, which is a collection of short stories or a dark and horrific nature. The part I was listening to today was particularly disturbing, to the extent that I won’t even try to give you the gist of it. I started to feel nauseous. At the time I attributed this to the writing being especially evocative, but in retrospect I’m pretty sure it was just a coincidence. This was somewhere between Camden Town and Euston. I switched off the audiobook in favour of some less disturbing music and decided to take a few minutes at Euston to get some air before I switched to the Victoria line to continue my journey.

(Scene missing)

Then I woke up on the floor of a tube carriage with a crowd of people looking over me. Well I can tell you that’s one heck of a disorienting experience. I’ve complained before about Londoners’ ability to ignore each other, especially on the tube, but I take it all back. If you ever want to interact with your fellow Londoners, passing out in front of them is an effective way to get some attention.

I don’t know for sure what caused my impromptu nap. Maybe the book really was that gross. Maybe I’m coming down with something. My guess is it was a lack of blood sugar, or a lack of iron.

I skipped breakfast at home this morning so I could get some more sleep. That’s not at all unusual for me, but since I’ve given up meat I’ve found myself much less able to go for long periods without eating than I normally can. Note to self: no more skipping meals. Lack of iron would be pretty easily explained: it’s hard to avoid iron in meaty foods, but easy to miss otherwise.

I bought a few cookies from a cookie stand in Euston to give my blood sugar a kick, and then took a bus the rest of the way to work to avoid being in a crowded, poorly ventilated tube. I got in in time to get a cooked breakfast, so I had a pile of bacon and sausages and scrambled egg. I’ve been drinking cans of Coke all morning too, as that’s what they give you after you donate blood to stop you from fainting. I’ll get some steak for dinner today just to make completely sure I’ve replaced all the missing nutrients.

Once I feel completely sure I’ve addressed everything that’s wrong, I’ll restart the challenge, with a new awareness of the importance of certain nutrients, and a hard-and-fast no skipping meals rule.

February’s challenge

Yesterday I talked about how my monthly challenge for January—giving up alcohol—had gone. I finished by saying that, “next month will have a much tougher challenge.” Now that a day has passed, that “next month” is this month, and the tougher challenge has begun: I have given up eating meat.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from talking about this with friends and colleagues it’s that everyone is sure they know exactly what that means, but many people are wrong. So here are some clarifications:

  • Poultry is meat.
  • Fish (including shellfish) is meat.
  • So are insects, although giving up eating those won’t be a stretch.
  • Eggs are not meat.
  • Gelatine is not meat.

Those last two are important. I’ve deliberately stated this challenge as not eating meat, as distinct from going vegetarian. I don’t want to spend a month reading ingredients lists looking for gotchas. I just want to push myself into exploring new food options by denying myself the ones I usually tend towards.

One day in, I’m feeling optimistic. There’s a risk in the first days of the month that I’ll forget about the challenge while on auto-pilot at the cafés in work, but if I manage to pay enough attention to stop myself grabbing some meat out of sheer habit I think I’ll manage with this one just fine.

Prohibition repealed

It’s the last day of January and as such it’s the last day of my self-imposed prohibition. At midnight tonight I’ll be “allowed” to drink alcohol again. It’s been an interesting month for me.

The first week or two could nearly have convinced me that the universe was trying to tempt me to failure. I had more impromptu pub outings in the first week of this month than I would expect in a whole month usually. Someone new joins the team at work? Let’s welcome him by going to the pub. Feeling a bit of January blues? Let’s have some fun down the pub. Got half and hour to kill? Pub. (OK, maybe not quite that bad.)

Initially I tried to keep a rough count of the number of drinks I would have had had I been drinking. By the 10th day the total was worryingly high, averaging more than two drinks a day. To be fair to myself this was almost certainly an over-estimate. One night of heavy drinking is rarely followed by another, but a healthy person can withstand several nights of heavy non-drinking in a row.

Things have calmed down in the weeks since. I’ve mostly been not drinking wine at home, with the occassional non-glass of wine at a restaurant at the weekend. It has certainly made dining out a little more affordable.

In the first weeks I lost a bit of weight. By midway through the month I’d dropped all of the weight I gained over Christmas and in the weeks leading up to it. About 4kg in total. I’ve hovered around that same weight in the last couple of weeks though, which probably means that I took the drop in calories due to not drinking as an excuse to over-indulge in other things.

I didn’t struggle with this challenge. Even while sitting in a pub surrounded by people drinking it took very little for me to stick to my resolve and order a Coke. That’s notably different from how I felt about giving up caffeine for a month last summer, which was a struggle some of the time.

I have to own up though: I did have two slight infractions this month. The first was early on when visiting friends for dinner. Everyone else was drinking Champagne cocktails, so I was drinking my fruit juice from a flute to join in. Two of the glasses got mixed up and I took a small sip of what I thought was my drink before the taste gave away its true identity.

The second infraction was in Gerry’s Wine and Spirits, the finest liquor store in all of London, where we went last Saturday to restock some of our cocktail ingredients. They had, as they often do, a promotional stand offering tastings of one of their drinks. In this case it was a vodka. Since I was shopping rather than at a pub or restaurant I wasn’t expecting to be offered a drink. My guard was down. I took a sip of the vodka before I realized what I had done.

Between those two errors I must have consumed about a tenth of a unit of alcohol. Somewhat less than my usual monthly intake, I reckon.

So, not too difficult a challenge in all. I flexed my willpower a bit, but not to extremes. I lost some weight, but countered that effect through extra snacking. I saved some money, but was forced to eat Italian food with no red wine accompaniment. Most importantly, I started my year of monthly resolutions with a success. Next month will have a much tougher challenge.

Just a Coke please

Another year, another attempt to reinvigorate my blogging.

Even by my standards I’ve managed to produce an impressively long list of resolutions for this year. I know this is against the best advice of those who study the factors that allow us to keep our resolutions. But this time around I’ve decided to try to give myself the best chance of succeeding by just making so many resolutions that I’m bound to live up to one of them, if only by accident. There’s also the significant factor that I’ve had quite a bit of time off this last week, and so I’ve had all the time in the world to think of things it would be nice to try to do in 2012.

Besides, a half hour into the year it’s going quite well so far, so I may as well be optimistic about the rest of it.

A resolution that I expect to be among the most interesting to try to keep is one that I actually started on during 2011. It is to create a shorter-term resolution for each of the 12 months of the year. This is a slight variation on Matt Cutts’s 30-day challenges. I’ve changed it from 30-day periods to using calendar months mostly so that I can do something a little more daunting in February and only have to keep it up for 29 days (the leap year has unfortunately halved the effectiveness of this scheme).

But that’s a month away. I’d be getting ahead of myself if I revealed already what I hope to do then.

January, on the other hand, is literally on top of us. This month’s challenge is an echo of one I completed in June last year. Back then I went 30 days without caffeine. This time around it’s going to be alcohol. I expect to face a bit of skepticism when telling people about this endeavor. Most of my friends will be familiar with my claims of “giving up alcohol”, a phenomenon that seems to correlate strongly with late nights out and mysterious morning illnesses. So it’s worth pointing out two important facts: correlation does not imply causation; and I made the decision to cut out alcohol this month in state of complete sobriety and un-hungover-ness.

I put my celebratory wine glass down as the clock ticked towards 00:00, and I won’t be picking it back up until February.