Category Archives: Life Hacks

Health, personal development and productivity tips

Sugar cubes, pudding tax, ‘New Year New You’ marketing and simplification

The first full week of each new year is when I actually begin any planned improvements. I’m such an introvert that I need time after the holidays to process and set my focus. For those starting their resolutions on New Year’s Day, this is the tough week. This is where it gets real. I’m just starting out and there is something nice about that, even if it means tough is still lying ahead, waiting for me.

It’s no surprise that the first week of the new year has been filled with health related stories designed to tap into people feeling guilty for their holiday gluttony and determined (again) that this is the year they’re going to turn everything around. 

It’s interesting to see that sugar has largely replaced fat as the demon in the headlines. When I first began looking into the benefits of a sugar-free lifestyle in 2015, saturated fat – indeed any fat – was still public enemy number one. The change has been swift and is getting less subtle. 

That Public Health England are now focused on reducing sugar intake as one of the key ways of reducing the obesity epidemic is the main driver behind this. I’m under no illusions that this is an altruistic gesture. Obesity simply correlates to more occurrences of diabetes and heart disease (amongst many things), all of which cost the NHS money to treat. Regardless of the motivation, it’s good to see that finally people are starting to be told the truth about how much sugar is added to our foods by manufacturers.

Of course, depending on the media outlet involved, the presentation is different. Nanny state and tax threats drive some clickbait headlines, others provide a more balanced view. But the truth behind the message is the same across the board – we need to reduce the amount of sugar in our diets.

What none of it seems to want to focus on is how hard it is to actually make that happen. A few foods get targeted here and there as extreme examples,  but that doesn’t really help people with the everyday foods that have sugars added to them. The unexpected ones – those often labelled as ‘diet’ and ‘low fat’ – that catch people out.

More importantly, none of them seem to offer any insight on the simple fact that there is something addictive about sugar. Something that makes it hard to cut out sweets and chocolate, no matter how much information we have or how good our intentions are. This is the element that trips people up time and time again, myself included. Just one little taste, one bad day, can get us reaching for a sugar-based snack before we’ve even had chance to think about what we’re doing. Time and time again I’ve done this since the baby was born, eating in some sleep-deprived haze and having very little memory of when or how. This lack of intentionality is something I absolutely must address this year, hopefully with the addition of an extra hour or two asleep each night.

I’ll be experimenting with general simplification of my life to do this and if it works well, that will be something I share throughout the year. There is a certain attraction to achieving more by doing less, but it will be interesting to see if the promise lives up to the theory.

So below are some of my favourite headlines of 2019 blitzing those with resolutions to think about. Where there isn’t a link it’s because I simply refuse to give clicks to certain sources. That’s another 2019 resolution for all of us. Let’s not feed the trolls.

Children are getting targeted in the blitz, with the story that children have already exceeded their entire childhood quota of sugar by the age of 10. That’s 8 whole sugar free years they then need to do just to break even. A scary thought. But I loved Matthew’s sugar experiment with his family – this is the kind of visualisation that you don’t get from simply reading the labels and doing the calculations in your head.

Are we going to get a pudding tax? Some progress has been made with other foods but I think a pudding tax is silly. Target the misleading foods and the everyday foods first.

And of course, the thought that our government would be together enough to order anyone to do anything is implied by the Sun’s headline ‘KIDS will be ordered not to eat Frosties and Coco Pops under tough new government guidelines’. The actual story is about a set of simple recommendations, but why not get people in a defiant and self-destructive mood instead? See earlier comment re: trolls.

If you’re more interested in the information behind the headlines, including some practical and actionable tips on how to eliminate sugar from your life, then my book is a steal at only 99p on kindle. It won’t break the bank and may change your approach to diet and healthy living forever. I’m re-reading it now to remember my own lessons!

 

Not interested in changing your diet but itching to make other improvements this year? Then take a look at my book on Resolutions instead. Goal setting doesn’t need to begin January 1st. Why wait for tomorrow to become a better version of yourself? Not just for the next week, but with a strategy that lasts.

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Sugar bans and freakshakes – consciously cutting down on sugar

Last week it hit the news that Action On Sugar was calling for a ban on milkshakes that had an obscenely high amount of sugar. The Unicorn Freakshake on sale at Toby outlets was highlighted in particular due to it’s 39 – yes 39! – teaspoons of sugar per shake.

Image from Toby Carvery

Whilst banning a treat that contains over six times the amount of sugar recommended for seven to 10-year-olds seems like a good idea, it of course prompted reactions along the lines of ‘nanny state telling us what to do’ amongst many. There will always be people who will deliberately do something rather than have someone else tell them they can’t. But is an outright ban a good idea anyway?

To ban or not to ban?

I believe there is a fundamental difference here in the approach required to many other foods. Firstly, I don’t agree with an outright ban (which may surprise you), but I do believe that menus with this type of item should be very clearly labelled. The news presentation is different to a standard menu presentation, for example. 163g of sugar on a menu is hard for someone to visualise (other than ‘a lot’), whereas 39 teaspoons is much easier. That’s why newspaper outlets use the latter to sell their story.

More importantly, whether or not you label a freakshake with all the information available, people know they’re having something unhealthy when they choose it. Admittedly, they might not realise just how unhealthy, but they’re not confusing it with a side salad. It’s a conscious decision to ‘have a treat’.

Unconscious vs conscious eating

In my opinion, it would be better to focus on those foods that are significantly more ambiguous. The foods that people eat because they’re labelled as diet foods, simply because they’re lower in fat. The foods that catch people out.

I know countless people who have gone on a diet so have stopped adding a spoon of sugar to their tea or coffee, oblivious that the low fat yoghurt they’ve started to include with their lunch (must be healthy!) contains 3 teaspoons of the stuff – a net gain of 2 teaspoons for the swap. And you all know where I stand on children’s cereals – if you want to get anything banned there’s plenty out there that should be. Over the course of a week’s breakfast, people give their kids a freakshake plus in terms of sugar, often without even realising it.

So yes, we need to label better and maybe even ban or tax certain foods, but we need to choose our targets carefully. Bigger isn’t always better. The road to obesity and all its associated health risks isn’t a single freakshake every now and again, it’s all the other meals in between, eaten without awareness until it’s too late.

 

You can find out more about how to make more informed sugar choices in  The Realist’s Guide To Sugar Free

5 steps to sugar free – but do they actually work?

You may have noticed the distinct lack of posts lately. That’s because a new baby has descended upon my household and whilst it is wonderful, my carefully orchestrated and productive life now lies in tatters around me.

One of the biggest struggles of all? My physical health. Even with all the knowledge, tricks and tips at my disposal, I’ve struggled to maintain the sugar-free lifestyle. A week spent consuming hospital foyer snack food and sleeping in a fold-out bed broke down my habits and routines.

I’m sharing this because I know so many of you have struggled to maintain a healthy lifestyle, regardless of the food plan you’ve chosen. After three years, I’m back to testing my own strategies to see if they still work.

Here are the five key elements that I’ll be working on.

Plan meals

Honestly, I think this is a must for any new parents trying to stay sane, but if you’re trying to stick to a specific plan, then it’s the only way. Plan out the meals for the week in advance and then when it comes to dinner, there’s no decision making required.

Remove temptation

When you have something to celebrate, people buy you chocolate. A lot of chocolate. Do you know what’s hard to resist when you’ve had 4 hours of fractured sleep? You guessed it, that big mountain of chocolate. Declutter the cupboard, give away anything left over (there’s always someone willing to take treats off your hands) and get rid of the easy dopamine hit.

Drink more water

I’ve been consuming coffee as my main liquid for the past two months. It’s a false sense of security and I know it. If I want to get my body back to a normal state, I know I need to cut down on the stimulants and up my intake of plain old water.

Sleep

I know, I know, this one is out of my control right now. Except that it isn’t, not entirely. I can still choose to prioritise an early night over getting distracted with busy work. I can make sure I prepare better so those middle of the night feeds are as seamless as possible. I’ve always believed that rest is the best thing you can do for yourself, your health and your productivity, but I’ve come to appreciate it in a whole new way.

Keep it simple

When it comes to doing anything difficult, the key is to make things as easy as possible. For a sugar free diet, I intend to do that in a few ways. Firstly, breakfast each morning needs to be quick, easy and consistent. Now is not the time for fancy or for variety. It has to be the quick, nutritious fuel I need to start my day. The same goes for lunch. Yes it might be boring, but I can live with dull for a few weeks if it gets me back on track.

Finally, dinner doesn’t need to be an hour-long preparation affair. Meat, vegetables and digging out the spices from the cupboard can still equal tasty in under 20 minutes.

Will it all work? I hope so, even under these new and uncertain circumstances. If it doesn’t, then it might be time to revise The Realist’s Guide To Sugar Free with a parent specific edition!

Five ways to create a flexible planning system

As you may have noticed, there haven’t been many new posts here lately. It would be so easy to say that life got ‘busy’. In reality, life changed and the systems I had in place weren’t flexible enough to handle it.

Is your productivity system flexible enough to handle change?

Many people from a GTD background spend years getting their system to work just the way they want it to. One of the major strengths of the Getting Things Done system is that it is inherently flexible. There is no preferred tool and you can customise the set up to suit your needs and circumstances.

But once we find a way of doing things that feels right to us, humans develop an overwhelming resistance to change. The system might be flexible, but we become inflexible. Without realising it, I had found myself in this trap. Setting aside the time for creative thinking and writing of posts fell through the cracks as a result.

So how do we make sure that our systems are flexible enough that changes don’t bring everything to a grinding halt?

Don’t be wholly reliant on a system that isn’t transferable.

Whilst we all have our favourite tools (both digital and analogue), there is an inherent danger in being completely tied into one. It may have the best features in the world right now, but when it stops being supported and you can’t export your tasks and projects, you’re in big trouble. Frictionless access to your next actions is vital.

Separate life and work

For many years, people argued that when it came to life and work, it was all one and therefore only one system was needed. Whilst in some ways this is true, ‘work’ changes at a much faster rate now than when GTD was originally published back in 2001. Not only do we change employers much more frequently, many of us now have developed side hustles to cope with a crazy economy in a crazy world. If your system is all nicely integrated to your day job but that changes every few years or even months, then it can be a painful process to routinely unpick it all. With constant data breaches, companies are getting more and more antsy about accessing different tools on their systems.

Letting go is not the same as giving up

We can become deeply wedded to an idea of something we want – or think we should want – to do. When circumstances change, it may no longer be relevant. Sometimes it can hurt to let something go, or feel a sense of failure for not completing it. The end result is a system full of junk that you once wanted to accomplish, but now have no real intention of taking action on. Over time, this clutter can slow everything down until you stop noticing the things that remain important even once life settles down again.

Attractive tools that are easy to use

It’s a simple fact that the more you want to play with your toys, the more time you’ll spend with them. A task management system you don’t like will be a task management system you ignore. The same applies when things change. It might be that your app worked fantastically with email input at a time when most of your tasks appeared that way. But if it is cumbersome when you have to add a task manually and that becomes your new normal, you’re going to stop looking at and updating the tool pretty quickly.

Don’t be a chronic-optimist

When your circumstances change, the new tasks you need to complete take their toll on other items, even if they are seemingly unrelated. Learning new things and using your day in different ways tires you out in the beginning. This means a task you have been completing in 30 minutes at 6pm for years can suddenly take double that amount of time when you’re forced to push it back to 8pm and your brain is extra tired. Before you know it, you’re in backlog with tasks that you haven’t got round to. Like writing this post, for example…

So, after nearly six weeks of tweaking my system after my third major change in two years, I think I’ve made it slightly more adaptable.

Only time will tell.

The legacy of Roger Bannister

Although it seems a particularly inappropriate time to say it, over the past few years I grew sick of hearing about Roger Bannister. Working in personal and corporate development, it seemed like every book or PowerPoint presentation wasn’t complete without a reference to the four minute mile.

As if getting someone in a suit to reach inbox zero was on par with breaking a time /distance record that had held since man developed accurate timepieces.

That record lasted less than 50 days before it was broken by someone else. The commonly held perspective is that once someone had proven it was possible, others could finally believe it and do it themselves. This is, of course, somewhat simplistic, as a group of runners were all hitting around that mark, but the story does have a nice ring to it.

For me, the real lesson to take away from Roger Bannister’s four minute mile was that he was an amateur. It’s hard to imagine in today’s world of professional athletes, where running or kicking a ball is a career in itself. That famous four minute mile run almost never happened because of bad weather. Harder to imagine is that Bannister came to do it after going to work that day and the success built on a training regime of sneaking in a mere forty-five minutes daily.

It’s not so much about proving something so others can do it. Instead, it’s having the grit and determination to do something yourself, even if it’s not your main priority in life.

 

January Monthly Review: Fear Setting

January is a strange month. Everyone starts out with a higher level of enthusiasm which then fizzles out faster the the New Year’s Eve fireworks.

Now we stand on the cusp of February and it’s easy to wonder where the past month went. For most of us, the lofty goals we had in mind when the calendar ticked over have already fallen by the wayside. That doesn’t mean we should abandon them completely.

Technique One – Monthly Review

Regardless of whether you abandoned your goals back in week one or if you’ve been grinding away on them the whole way through, a monthly review is an essential technique for staying on track.

Before you begin – no judgement. Don’t beat yourself up for not doing as well as you’d hoped, you’re only human. The fact you are taking the time to do a review at all puts you ahead of the rest of the pack.

Look back over January with an honest pair of eyes. Were you realistic about what you wanted to achieve to begin with, or were you just flush with optimism for the future? Do you even still care about those goals you set? If you don’t, then there is nothing wrong with abandoning them and moving onto something else. The real value is progress on what matters, not for progress’ sake itself.

The final question to ask is what you did right / wrong when it came to working on your goals and plans for the month. Learn the lessons so you don’t make the same mistake again. Improve on your strengths to get even more value from them.

Now set yourself up for a great February. It doesn’t matter about January anymore. Let it go. Instead, focus on how you can gain the momentum that will carry you forward for the rest of the year.

Technique Two – Fear Setting

Tim Ferriss did a great Ted Talk explaining fear setting better than I can. It’s a great technique you can use if you’re not making progress because something is holding you back. If you’ve struggled to really commit to your goals, then this is a reversal of the process. Instead, you define your fears.

For most people, thinking about their fears is counter-intuitive. Why would you spend so much time and energy thinking about the things that induce anxiety and discomfort? Isn’t that the exact opposite of what we are told to do for a happy life? Mindfulness is a hot topic for a reason.

Fear setting is hard, but by going the extra mile and breaking down those fears, you take away their power. Fear is often a series of unanswered ‘but what if?’ questions. They spiral and debilitate. The power comes in getting to those answers.

Like a monthly review, the process is quite simple. You just follow a series of questions and steps to get to a place where you are able to action the right things.

Firstly, you have to define those fears in the extreme. What is the very worst thing that could happen. Be as detailed as you dare.

This is the point where most people stop in life. This is the anxious point. But what could you do to prevent those things from happening? This is the second question Tim asks as part of the technique and it’s amazing how easy it is to come up with answers. Pre-empting the worst case scenario often prevents it.

But what if that bad thing holding you back actually happened anyway? Before it does, take the final step of working out all the things you could do to get out of the hole. It’s amazing how resourceful you can be. That’s because by doing it up front, the pressure is off. When you’re in that place, the fear is the stronger emotion and it stifles ingenuity and creativity. By fear setting up front, you’ll already have the answers should the worst happen.

So by combining the two, you can guarantee yourself a better February, no matter how the year has gone so far.

Need more help? The Realist’s Guide To Resolutions is a practical approach to goal achievement, no matter what time of year.

Maintaining a sugar-free or low-carb diet: Quest bars review

We’re in the fourth week of January and if you started a weight loss resolution with nothing but good intentions, then chances are you’ve already crumbled. If you have, then remember that making a change for the better is not controlled by the Gregorian calendar. If it’s something you want, then dust yourself off and start again.

Although I believe the best way to live the sugar-free lifestyle is to avoid processed foods, I’m also realistic enough to know that life doesn’t play fair. Travel, long hours, unpredictable schedules – they can all hit your best intentions where it hurts.

Not all protein bars are created equal

One of the easiest ways to ‘cheat clean’ in these scenarios is by carrying a protein bar or two with you for emergency situations. The more prepared you can be, the less likely you are to be forced to have the only options available to you in the heat of the moment.

Although most protein bars clock in between 18-25g of protein per bar, the one thing that can vary wildly is the sugar content. Those that are promoted as ‘natural’ are the worst offenders in the sense of sugar content alone, often with 30g or above. As always, the trade off between sugar and artificial sweeteners is always a personal choice, but if you are aiming for a sugar-free, low carb or full on ketogenic diet, then a protein bar could do more harm than good.

What is a Quest bar?

Quest bars are high protein, low sugar bars that come in a wide range of flavours. Most of those are ‘sweet’ flavours, so if you’re not comfortable with artificial sweeteners then they won’t be for you. Because I avoid sweeteners everywhere else, I can compromise on that fact in a protein bar emergency.

What do Quest bars taste like?

The thing I like most about Quest bars is the range of flavours. Given that they don’t use any sugars to sweeten the deal, they manage to make bars that don’t feel like a virtuous chore to eat. If you’re in the kind of situation where it’s all gone wrong and your only choices are to buy junk food, eat a protein bar or starve, then you don’t want the protein bar to be unappealing. Cookies and Cream is my favourite for this.

Can you lose weight on Quest bars?

Probably, but that’s not the point as far as I’m concerned. They are not an ongoing meal replacement I can promote. But, if you have your diet right the rest of the time, they can certainly help you to maintain when the chips are down. Oh, and Quest bars are not allowed on Paleo, unless you are really playing fast and loose with the rules.

Are Quest bars really good for you?

No, in the sense they contain artificial ingredients. Many people (although I’ve never experienced it myself) have an intolerance to the types of sweeteners that are included in the bars. You’re better off having a wholesome, nutritious diet. Quest bars are great for when that option is removed and, if we’re honest, we’re often more out of control than we like.

So, if you’re on a low sugar, low carb or keto diet, then Quest bars can be a great substitute on the go when low sugar options are hard to find. The protein keeps you full with a blood sugar spike and corresponding crash. By keeping a couple in my backpack, they’ve helped me stay on track – throughout January and beyond.

Interested in a sugar free lifestyle? Check out The Realist’s Guide To Sugar Free