Paperback Writer

Last week, I wrote about how I’m trying to focus on just one thing at a time in my professional life. Instead of tackling many projects at once — preventing me from giving my full attention to any of them — I’m instead devoting my attention to a single job. It makes me happier and more productive.

This new productivity method doesn’t keep me from dreaming, however. I still have lots of ideas on the backburner, and I’m eager to get started on each of them.

One idea that really has me excited is a return to writing fiction.

You see, I never set out to become a personal-finance writer. I stumbled into that career. And as much as I love it, there’s a part of me that still wants to write poetry and science fiction and literary short stories.

I wrote a lot of poetry during high school and college, but this urge has faded in adulthood. I think this is the last poem I wrote myself (in March 2005):

Like a Lion

The coming of Spring is a violent thing:
The tulips proclaim their riotous hues
While peas and then carrots have thrust their way through
the crust of the earth (swollen and muddy).

The apples and cherries and plums are now budding.
The camelias are flinging their petals en masse
Bright-colored habits for shaggy-haired grass.

The Earth’s in rebellion! Again has grown bold!
Has dethroned Old Winter, destroying his hold
On daylight and sunshine and the world out-of-doors.
Spring has arrived: Hear how she roars!

As my poetical self has diminished, a different sort of writer has emerged. I want to tell stories. For several years, I took writing classes intermittently at the local community college. As a result, I produced half a dozen short stories like this one [DOC file].

I used to think my writing sucked. I don’t think that anymore. I’ve been writing full-time for nearly a decade, and I’ve had a lot of practice. Sure, there’s more improvement to be had, but that’s why I’m constantly reading writing manuals, and that’s why I want to take another writing class when January rolls around.

This time, I want to try something different. This time, I want to write a novel. Perhaps a children’s novel.

I’ve always loved a certain type of book, one that describes the adventures (and/or misadventures) of a group of smart kids living in a small town. Examples include The Mad Scientists’ Club by Bertrand Brinley (holy cats! look at those Amazon reviews — 61 five-star, two four-star, and one three-star!), The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (another five-star book at Amazon!), and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I think it’d be fun to tackle a similar world, although I’m still not clear on what sort of conflict/plot my story would involve. (I do have some characters and scenes in my head, though. And because Kim also grew up in a small town, I listen to her stories with great interest!)

So, my goal for 2014 is to return to writing fiction. I have a lot of other things that must get finished first. I have to finish my ebook. I have to start a digital magazine. I have to help Kim launch her website. I have to start a new website (or two) of my own. And I have to begin organizing a retreat with Harlan and Jim. But after all that? Yeah, I’m going to write a novel.

One Thing at a Time


I wrote recently that I’ve begun the Scrawny to Brawny fitness regimen. After ten days, I like it — but I also find it a little frustrating. I want more to happen NOW! but instead must wait patiently as the program guides me through gradual change.

You see, the folks who designed Scrawny to Brawny are clever. Instead of giving participants a basket full of changes and asking us to implement them all at once, they instead ask us to modify one thing at a time. After we’ve had time to build one habit, they add another. And another. They want us to get fit slowly.

Intellectually, I recognize that this is the right way to do things in order to achieve lasting change. Research indicates that both attention and willpower are depletable — each of us has a finite supply of them. If we try to do too much or try to make too many changes at once, we’re less likely to succeed than if we make small moves or tackle only a few things at a time.

So, it makes sense for the Scrawny to Brawny system to first ask participants to get in the habits of going to the gym and drinking three “super shakes” every day first before diving deeper into the program.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to apply a similar principle to my own life.

Every January, for instance, I choose one major goal for the year. Instead of creating a list of resolutions, I pick one thing that I’d really like to improve, and that becomes my focus for twelve months. That’s how 2010 became the “year of fitness”. (To be honest, I’ve actually found that I can handle a few things at a time — as long as these goals are from different domains. In other words, I can handle one fitness goal, one finance goal, and one professional goal simultaneously, but not three finance goals.)

In 2012, I tried something a little different. It worked.

My friend Castle told me she’d started a new project. Each day, she tried one new thing. Maybe it was a new food. Maybe it was a new exercise. Maybe it was a new TV show. One day, she decided to try making more eye contact with people. “It was amazing,” she told me. People responded much more positively to her.

“I don’t keep all of the changes I make,” Castle explained. “The goal is just to try something new for one day. If I don’t like it, I don’t need to continue. But it doesn’t hurt me to try anything for just one day, right?”

In 2012, instead of doing one new thing each day, I decided to focus on doing one new thing each month. But I tried to make these changes bigger.

  • In March, I had lunch or dinner with a different friend every day. This let me reconnect with some people I’d been missing.
  • In April, I embarked upon an Extreme Dating Project. My goal was to date as many different women as possible. April was a fun month.
  • Then I made it a goal to go to the gym every day in May.
  • In June, my aim was to eat “no junk in June”. I focused on my diet, which helped me to lose five pounds and two percent body fat.

Perhaps my most successful month-long experiment came in January of this year, where I went “chemical-free”. I gave up caffeine and alcohol for thirty days to see how I felt. I felt great — something I’ve been reminding myself lately as I feel run-down. (Maybe it’s time to try that experiment again?)

Lately, I’ve applied the “one thing at a time” idea to a different part of my life. In general, I tend to take on too much work. I’m usually juggling several projects at once. As a result, I don’t do any of them to the best of my ability.

Kim was listening to me list the various things I want to do — write an ebook, write a real book, produce a conference, hold a retreat, start a new blog, start another blog, start a third blog, start a consulting business with friends, and so on — when she offered a suggestion: “Why not just do one thing at a time and then move on to another one?”

Obvious, right? Not to me.

Since returning from Ecuador, I’ve put Kim’s advice into practice. I’ve been focusing on a single project: an ebook about money. Even with this constant focus, the work has taken longer than I’d hoped (and anticipated). I’m not sure what would have happened if I’d allowed myself to try to tackle several things at once! Still, I know I’m doing quality work, and that offers solace. If I’m focused on only one thing and I’m doing the best I can do, there’s not much more I can ask of myself.

I’m now a convert to the “one thing at a time” approach to my work.

A few weeks ago, Kim gave me a small stone into which was carved a single word: Balance. Kris used to urge me to find equilibrium too. I have a tendency to be “all or nothing”, as many people have noticed — even blog readers. The “one thing at a time” method is a sort of lifehack to force me to stay balanced when my natural tendency is to take on too much.

Ideally, of course, I’d find a way to integrate a couple of ongoing projects into my life at the same time that I tackle a single major project. To an extent, I do this. I continue to write my weekly column at Get Rich Slowly, for example, and I’m doing my best to make it to exercise every day. But I’m only able to do these things because they are habits, deeply ingrained into my daily life. I don’t have to think about them. They don’t add much to my mental burden, don’t deplete my attention or willpower in the same way a second or third major project would.

In time, maybe I can incorporate another blog (or two) into my daily routine in such a way that they don’t seem like major projects. Or maybe I can make it one of my major projects to set up systems to “harvest” information about Animal Intelligence and Awesome People efficiently so that writing these sites doesn’t take too much time and attention.

For now, however, I’m going to stick with what’s working. I’m going to tackle one thing at a time.

Scrawny to Brawny: Hydrostatic Testing

At the start of 2013, I vowed to re-dedicate myself to a focus on fitness. After two-and-a-half years of exercising and eating well, I’d let my attention to health and well-being slide a little, and I didn’t like it.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. I said fitness was a priority but my actions showed otherwise. I didn’t make it to the gym as often as I wanted and I rarely went for runs. After a one-month detox at the start of the year — no caffeine, no alcohol, low sugar, and so on — my diet became mediocre. It was never bad, really, meaning I didn’t fall into eating junk food on a regular basis, but it was never great either.

I’m not willing to keep coasting along, so I recently signed up for the one-year Scrawny to Brawny program. Though its name is funny, my research indicates that this coaching program (which is based on a book by the same name) is based on common sense and sound methodology. Because I do well with structure and feedback, this seems like a good choice for me. I’m going to give it a shot. My new fitness regimen starts today.

As part of that, I need to have accurate measurements of my body composition.

For the past few years, I’ve been using a scale with a body-composition monitor. This device, which provides accurate and consistent weight measurements (always a good thing in a scale!), uses electrical impedance to estimate body fat.

At the moment, I’m forty-four years old. I’m five feet, eight inches tall (173 centimeters). When I started using the scale in April 2010, my weight was 213 pounds (96.6 kilograms) and my body fat was 35.0%. My body-mass index (BMI) was 32.3. At my leanest in June 2012, my weight was 163 pounds (73.9 kilograms) and my body fat was 17.5%. My BMI was 24.7.

According to my scale, I lost fifty pounds and half my body fat in just over two years.

Today I weigh 176 pounds (79.8 kilograms) and my fancy scale says I’m 23.3% body fat. My BMI is 26.7. Over the past year, I’ve softened. I’ve exercised less and discovered a love for beer. This isn’t a great combination for a fitness-minded fellow!

For a while, I’ve understood that the body composition numbers from my scale probably aren’t accurate. Electrical impedance isn’t the most accurate method of measurement for this sort of thing. I’m okay with that, though, since the scale is cheap (as in, I already own it) and if I use sound methodology, I can at least get a good idea of how my body composition changes over time. That is, if I measure myself under the same conditions and at the same time every day, the variation in results will give me a good idea of what’s happening to my body.

Still, I’ve always wanted to get an accurate test from a trained professional. When I heard that Portland’s Adventist Medical Center offers body-composition testing, including the very accurate hydrostatic method, I scheduled an appointment.

I dropped by at noon last Friday to be tested. It was quick and easy.

First, the nurse measured my body composition using calipers. She pinched my skin and measured the thickness of the folds at seven different locations, including chest, belly, thigh, and so on. Next, she had me fully immerse myself in a tank of water four times. I brought a camera to film the process:

Sorry about the funky audio…

While I changed back into my street clothes, the nurse punched numbers into a computer. The results startled me. Kim teases me that I have some sort of body dysmorphia (and Kris would be inclined to agree with her, I’m sure), but I’ve always just laughed it off. Maybe she’s right. I feel f-a-t right now. I don’t like the way I look. And if anything, I believed my scale’s 23.3% body fat numbers were low. Well…

“Your results are remarkably consistent,” the nurse told me when she sat down to review the results with me.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, usually there’s a large variance between the results of these tests. Three to five percent is normal. Your results only vary by one-and-a-half percent. And if we leave out the least accurate method, there’s no statistical difference between the other two.”

Based on her measurements, here’s my current body composition:

  • I’m 5′ 8″ and weigh 176 pounds (which is what my home scale says).
  • Using the three-point skinfold method (which is a subset of the seven-fold method), I have 17.0% body fat. This method isn’t as accurate as its big brother, though.
  • Using the seven-point skinfold method, I have 18.5% body fat.
  • Using the hydrostatic method, which is most accurate, I have 18.3% body fat.

The nurse and I chatted about the results.

“Your results are fine,” she told me. “You’re within the healthy range. You have some extra fat in your belly, but I’d guess that’s because you drink too much.” I laughed because she’s right. “If you cut back on your drinking, that should go away.”

She asked why I wanted to get my body composition measured, and I told her that I was starting the Scrawny to Brawny program. She nodded. “That sounds like a fine idea,” she said. “But be careful. Most of my clients are athletes, and I see all kinds. Some use steroids; some don’t. When you go to the gym, give up the idea of ever looking like the guys with lots of muscles. For one thing, that’s not how you are built. For another, the guys who are ripped get that way artificially. When I measure powerlifters, the guys who get strong and build muscle naturally still look a little ‘soft’. That’s just how our bodies work.”

All of this is fascinating. I have no desire whatsoever to use steroids, so that’s not a concern. But I think the nurse sensed some of my body dysmorphia and was trying to set me up to have reasonable expectations. That’s a good thing.

Ultimately, my goal is to be happy and healthy. That means eating right and exercising regularly. I’ve seen that I’m good at this when I make it a priority and it becomes a habit. I’ve just let that lapse. Starting today, however, it’s back to the gym!