Why CrossFit Works


At the beginning of the year, I made the classic New Year’s resolution to “Get in Shape”. And as everyone who’s made that resolution knows, keeping with a new workout program for the first few weeks is easy. The hard part comes in sticking with it month after month as the enthusiasm fades and the year drags on.

But miraculously I’ve stayed with the same program three months into the year and I’m still (mostly) looking forward to the workouts every Mon, Wed, and Fri morning. Not to mention, I’m probably in better shape then I’ve ever been (sorry I don’t have any before and after pics for you).

The secret is a program called CrossFit.

What is it?

So what is CrossFit? Wikipedia (as usual) gives the best definition:

CrossFit has been “variously portrayed as a fitness company, a grassroots health movement, a nascent sport, a fad, a publishing business and sometimes, disparagingly, a cult.” Classes at affiliated gyms typically include a warm-up, a skill development segment, and a high-intensity workout that lasts around ten to twenty minutes. Affiliates create a new workout each day called the “Workout of the Day” or “WOD”. Affiliates often use scoring and ranking systems to transform workouts into sport. Some affiliates offer additional classes which are not centered around a WOD, such as Olympic weightlifting classes.

By the way, I love the fact, that detractors call it “a cult”. It definitely is a workout program that people get really into. That said, I would like to highlight a couple of the positive aspects that drew me in:

  • Full Body Movements: I like the fact that it’s not just doing 20 curls or isolating one specific muscle. It’s all about doing full, natural body movements like squats and pull-ups. It just feels more natural to me, and it builds functional strength rather than beach muscles.
  • Used By Military & Police: There’s something special about the fact that the men and women serving our country use this workout to get in shape. You get the feeling that you are training with them. The crossfit site highlights this by showing pictures and dedicating daily workouts to fallen soldiers.
  • Online: Each day the crossfit website posts the daily workout (more details about that below) and hundreds of people comment on what they thought of it and their time to complete it. If you have questions on how to do the workout, you can watch videos on the site of other people doing it.

They also keep the barriers to starting very low. You do not need a lot of equipment and the site even gives you tips for creating a garage gym or working out when traveling.

For many months, I worked out in my garage following the online site to participate in the slated workout each day. This was pretty good, but to truly take it to the next level I joined a local crossfit affiliate which gave me access to additional equiment and skilled trainers.

At first, I was reluctant to shell out the cash, but I find my workouts are even better when completed at the gym because the trainers push me harder than I would on my own.

Why Does it Work?

So why does it work so well? I think it boils down to the following key aspects of Crossfit:

  • WOD: Every day there is a Workout of the Day (WOD) which helps keep it fresh. It’s not like Wed is bench day for the 200th time. Instead they keep it interesting by making workouts like fight gone bad.
  • Whiteboard: All workouts are timed and each day your scrores are written on the whiteboard. This has a couple of effects. First off, to paraphrase Drucker, you get better at what you measure. Something about writing your time down makes you want to improve it. There are also some key benchmark workouts (like Fran) that you will do every few months to mark your progress. Having a time, gives you something to beat.
  • Diet: No workout program can be successful without a diet component and CrossFit is no exception. They are full bore into the Paleo diet which consists of the following simple philosophy: “Don’t eat anything that you can’t grow or kill”. In other words, your meals consist of avoiding processed foods, most carbs (because you can’t grow or kill bread), and sticking to Meats and Veggies.
  • Community: When you are getting up at 5:45 AM to workout, it helps to know that you will be meeting others at the gym to do the same workout. And that if you skip out, they will give you a hard time.

So the only remaining question is could it work for you?

The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.

-Vince Lombardi

Everything I need to know, I learned from the Stoics

The Stoics get a bum rap.

There’s just no other way to say it. They seem to be remembered by history as the Spocks of the Roman Empire — all logic and no emotion. But they stood for so much more.

For those of you that don’t remember your high school history class, the Stoics were a group of Roman philosophers with the most famous being Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.

Reading them today is like reading a positive psychology textbook. They seem to know all the tricks to make you happy in a stressful world.

In fact, I think that pretty much everything I need to know, I can learn from the Stoics.

I recently finished “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” by William B Irvine. It is a fabulous introduction to the Stoics, and helped me to realize how relevant the philosophy is to our lives today.

Let’s take a look at some of their key principles: * Focus on what you can control: Set goals around what you can control and ignore the rest. This often relates to people as well. You can’t control other people so just accept them for who they are and focus on yourself. * The fates control much of life: Accept the role you are given in life, but play it to the best of your ability. Accept the past as destined by fate, but work to improve the future. * Appreciate what you have: Many people are unhappy because they are focusing on the wrong things and always wanting more. The Stoics recommend imagining your life without your friends and family as a way to remember how precious they actually are. * Live for yourself and not others: Don’t live according to others notions of success — choose your own. Don’t let insults disturb your happiness. Instead consider the source. If it’s from a good one then take it as an item to work on, if not, then simply ignore it. * Don’t chase after wealth:  It’s not the amount of money that matters, but the state of your mind.

If you haven’t read the Stoics for a while, take a look. I think you’ll be surprised at how relevant they still are today.

Should You Be Standing At Work?


I spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer. That’s just the brutal truth of being a programmer. It’s exacerbated by the fact that, more and more, I spend my leisure time in front of a computer as well (curse you internet!).

So I’m definitely not happy to see that amount of time sitting is now being associated with shorter lifespans according to the American Journal of Epidemiology:

The time spent sitting was independently associated with total mortality, regardless of physical activity level. Public health messages should include both being physically active and reducing time spent sitting.

In other words, even though I exercise regularly it’s also important that I don’t sit so much. Along with the increased mortality rates, many report back issues after spending years hunched over computer desks:

I began working standing up a few years ago to help alleviate a back issue I was having, caused primarily from sitting too long with bad posture in an unsuitable chair. Sure I was in decent shape, stretching, and running 3.5k every other day. But back muscles aren’t meant to be frozen in an unnatural, hunching, curving position for an extended period of time (even in a good chair, like the Aeron I was using).

I think I’m heading down that route…Recently, I spent a whole day working at a client site hunched over my laptop because I didn’t get a chance to hook up to an external monitor which would allow my posture to be better. That evening my back was screaming.

So, what am I doing about it? Well, I’m not going to take this sitting down! 😉

A Standing Desk?

After doing some research online, I’ve discovered that there are many fancy adjustable desks that allow you to stand or sit at regular intervals. This seems like an ideal solution, but I’m not quite ready to drop $600 on this little experiment.

So, for now (just to test out the theory) I’ve rigged my home office as a standing desk. I completed this magical feat by stacking boxes under my monitor and then adding books under my keyboard until they were both at the correct standing height for me. It isn’t pretty, but it works.

My home office is now a permanent standing desk, and I’m not sure yet whether I’d actually want to stand all day – it seems best to sit for part of the day and stand for part of it (everything in moderation).

But given that I have very little control over my office desks (I work at various client sites). This, at least, allows me to test it out for a few hours in the evenings.

Others have tried this little experiment for much the same reasons and another benefit that they mention of working while standing is increased focus:

A few months ago, I fired my chair and brought in a stand-up desk. This move has made a huge difference in my work day. My back isn’t so achy. I’m taking several thousand more steps each day. I feel more alert, especially in the afternoon, and it seems like I am getting more done each day.

I think this will be especially true for my home office work in the evening when I’m more likely to be sleepy. I’m currently writing this standing up and I’m definitely able to focus better standing even though it’s late (10:39 pm), but it’s too soon to tell what impact this is having on my back or my general health.

At least it’s nice to know that I’m that I’m in good company–apparently Jefferson, Hemingway and Churchill liked to work standing. But then so did Donald Rumsfeld, so I’m not sure how that ends up on balance…

Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up.

-Ernest Hemingway

Why the Pomodoro Technique is Worth the Time


At first glance the pomodoro technique just sounds like timeboxing (an old standby of time management) and in many ways it is. But pomodoro’s real secret sauce, and its key to effectiveness, is adding a layer of methodology to timeboxing.

Why Timebox?

Let’s start at the beginning. Timeboxing refers to the concept of taking a set amount of time to do a specific task. It’s often mentioned as a technique to fight perfectionism.

For example, I have a bad habit of spending way too much time looking for the perfect digital devices. I don’t want any camera. I want the *perfect* one! So a few years ago, in the stone ages before everyone had a camera on their phone, I went looking for a digital camera. I probably spent 8 hours over a weekend looking for just the right camera. I read all the reviews and obsessively compared each feature. At the end of it all, I got a great camera, but I have to wonder if it was worth all the time I spent.

In the language from  The Pardox of Choice, I’m a maximizer (as opposed to a satisficer)– I need to compare *all* options before making a decision. For people like me, timeboxing is very useful and prevents us from wasting too much time analyzing everything.

Nowadays when I go to buy a new gadget, I timebox it to a couple hours of research and tell myself that I will make a decision after those few hours even if I haven’t done all the research. As the classic Patton phrase goes:

A good plan violently executed today is better than the perfect plan tomorrow.

Another useful aspect of timeboxing is that it focuses the mind. If I tell myself that I have only a half-hour to write a blog, I’m going to make a lot more progress on it then if I have all day and intersperse it with other tasks.

And that’s where the pomodoro technique comes in. It builds on the idea that timeboxing can help focus your mind and adds a specific set of rules around timeboxing. Timeboxing is a little too vague by itself to help in day-to-day life.

As I’m learning from the book Switch, we sometimes need very specific guidance to make a change in our life and the pomodoro technique provides that specific direction.

Enter the Pomodoro

The pomodoro technique was invented by Francesco Cirillo in 1992 when he was a university student struggling to concentrate. In order to track his 25 minute time blocks he used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato (or pomodoro in Italian) and the rest is history.

The technique consists of the following rules:
1) Plan out what you want to accomplish
2) Break your tasks into 25 minute chunks
3) Take 5 minute breaks between each chuck
4) If a distracting thought or another task comes along while you’re working within your 25 minutes try to continue working and just log the task for later processing (similar to GTD).
5) After completing 4 work sessions take a longer break of 15-30 minutes

So, as you can see, it’s essentially structured timeboxing in 25 minute chunks.

Some other major takeaways and recommendations:

  • Use a visible timer – There’s something about the clock ticking in front of you that helps you to work harder.
  • Don’t use pomodoro for free time – It’s intended to be used for cranking out work and you’re trying to build up your ability to concentrate.
  • Breaks are a GOOD thing! – You can concentrate better when you give yourself mini-breaks rather than trying to concentrate for 8 hours straight.

Real World Experience

I’ve now been consistently using the pomodoro technique for the past few weeks and it has made a huge difference in my ability to focus. I feel like each time I consistently work through a 25-minute pomodoro, I’m not only knocking out work but increasing my ability to concentrate.

There is definitely something about that ticking clock that helps to focus the mind. I’ve been using a free digital pomodoro timer and it’s been wonderful.

Like anything else, your mileage may vary, but I think pomodoro is at least worth trying especially for those of us who have to focus to get our work done and are too easily distracted by other tasks, emails, Wikipedia entries and, of course, twitter…

5 Lessons from Rework


I recently finished the book Rework by the 37Signals founders. The book was a quick read and is definitely written for the blogging generation with illustrations and quick, scannable pages. In fact, it’s more like a collection of one page essays than a book, but even so, there is a lot of knowledge in those short paragraphs.

For those that don’t know, 37Signals run a web development firm here in the Chicago area and have created some phenomenal web products – most notably Basecamp.

Their mantra has always been keep things as simple as possible, and even though they work on technical web products, I think their lessons could apply to many other industries. Here are the ones that stood out to me the most:

  • Inspiration is Perishable: So true. If I’m excited about getting a project done, I try to carve out as much time as possible right then to work on it because I know that time will be very productive. Inspiration should be used immediately.
  • Planning is Guessing: They decry the long-term business planning as nothing more than guesswork and the harm is that they prevent you from being nimble. In Me, Myself and Bob, Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales, describes how all their long-term projections showed double-digit increases so they would easily have the cash to self-finance a movie. Unfortunately, those double-digit increases didn’t happen and VeggieTales went bankrupt. Don’t lock yourself into long-term plans that have no bearing on reality.
  • Make a Dent in the Universe: Do something that matters. People are happier when they feel like they’re making a difference. You don’t have to cure cancer, but you’d hope that people would miss you when you’re gone. You don’t have forever.
  • Start Making Something: Their section on this topic focuses on what I discussed in one of my first blog posts on the myth of the great idea. Ideas are cheap. It’s execution that matters.
  • Meetings are Toxic: The true cost of a meeting is often overlooked. If there are 8 people in the meeting then you are actually using 8 hours of company time, not just one. For that hour, there are 8 people who can’t be working and moving the project forward. So if a meeting’s going to happen, it had better be important.


The one point from their book that I disagree with is their denial of the workaholic.

Not that I think you should work all the time, but I’m a big believer in the fact that the hardest workers are the ones that win. If you look back through history at successful people, you will see that they were obsessed with their one thing – whatever it was. And they didn’t just do it from 8-5. The fact of the matter is, the more you do something, the better you get at it.

That said, overall it’s a great book and highly recommended!