Flash Talk: Working Remote Saved my Life

Every year at Automattic’s Grand Meetup we’re required to give a flash talk of up to four minutes on any topic. This past year I gave mine on a subject related to my post “How Working Remote (Probably) Saved My Life“. I’m actually developing a much longer talk to dive deeper into what’s been involved with my successes and failures. Until then, here’s my flash talk for your enjoyment.

Bicycler’s Quiet

Bicycling is my meditation. I use it as part of my toolset to calm my brain and to train my mind to take in a lot of input and focus on important things. I recently realized that there’s a moment that doesn’t happen very often when biking. It sometimes takes an entire summer for me to have it occur. I call it the Bicycler’s Quiet.

IMG_0178

Bicycler’s Quiet is the sudden loss of wind noise in your ears when you’re cycling with the wind. It doesn’t happen very often because you need to be cycling at roughly the same speed and direction of the wind. Biking on days with very little to no wind doesn’t do it because your movement creates wind across your ears.

I love when it happens. Everything specific to the bike becomes quiet and you hear the world around you like it’s the first time. Super surreal and it’s a moment I live for. 🙃

How Working Remote (Probably) Saved My Life

Before Working Remote

In July 2013 I started working remote at Automattic working on the WordPress for iOS app. I was pretty happy with my life at that time and the transition to the new job was not for reasons of disliking my previous job. In fact I loved working for Red Arrow Labs in Milwaukee and it was incredibly hard leaving them. I only left Red Arrow because it felt like Automattic was my unicorn of jobs and I had stumbled upon it by sheer luck. It turns out that I really wasn’t entirely happy with how things were going in my life at the time even though the job was great.

I don’t believe single data points like body weight can gauge happiness. It is, however, an indicator of my overall health and satisfaction with my daily life. In 2010 I had dropped to 235lb/106kg without much effort except eliminating bad foods and walking around the neighborhood a lot. Life changed a bit and within three years I was back up to the 280lb/127kg range.

I was admitted to the ER in 2011 when my heart rhythm freaked me out. I was diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation (aFib) which is when the electrical signals around your heart freak out. The major risk associated with aFib is stroke because while your heart is beating all weird blood has the chance to pool causing a clot to form. I ended up being put on two medications and regular checkups with an electrophysiologist. Something had to change.

Weight Loss Failures

I’ve learned over time that major self change only is successful when done in super small increments. Drastic short term changes, while satisfying to the impulse buyers in us, end up failing for myself because I miss the old way. Riding my new bike to work was a great success for me and made me feel really good – but it took a lot of effort. Instead of continuing with the biking to work I dissuaded myself by convincing myself it was too cold, or I had an early meeting and couldn’t be sweaty, or my knees hurt a little. Turns out I was doing too much too fast.

I didn’t really find out how to let myself be successful until I left my office job and starting working remote at Automattic. Almost immediately I realized I really did have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and couldn’t ignore it any longer. My level of success as an Automattician depended on me being able to focus and alter my environment to remove distractions. I immediately changed everything in my office and set up all these tools like using the Pomodoro Technique, notebooks, standing at my desk. I felt super successful at first but in the end none of these techniques helped because I got overwhelmed.

In October 2013 I realized I needed help. I ended up seeing a counselor who specializes in both substance abuse and ADD. She helped me work through some of the issues I was having with my attention and got me to realize how I was able to succeed in the past and why I was failing now. The nature of working in an office with the multitude of distractions worked in favor of the ADD. Removing those distractions made me entirely in charge of my workday and my brain spun out of control. For around four months I was on Vyvannse to help let me see how my brain could operate with the focus I was looking for. Ultimately I took myself off of the meds because of some behavioral changes that were too drastic of a change. What I discovered pretty quickly though is a daily regimen breaking things up into chunks made a big difference in my ability to do work.

Combating the Change Aversion

I started biking again mid 2012 after buying my first “real” bicycle made by Trek. I had no excuses any longer to biking – I finally had the comfortable seat, full range of gears, and a proper fit. I recorded all of my trips in RunKeeper for future analysis (like this post). I wanted to go for longer bike rides but excuses like being sweaty or its a bit chilly got in my way.

I started working out over my “lunch hour” to help break up the day. Your brain chemistry changes during exercise and I discovered it helped reset my thoughts. I found a bunch of great step aerobics videos on YouTube from Jenny Ford. A small investment in a step bench allowed me to work out right in my office with a minimal mental barrier. I can shower after I’m done and there is zero commute to the gym. Over time I went from one day a week to around three days.

As time has progressed I’ve mixed in riding my bicycle almost every day during the summer for an hour (roughly 15 miles) with exercising in my basement. On bad weather days I stick with the routine because I now consider exercise just a regular part of my day. I don’t need to overdo it to get benefits from it. For the last year I’ve been also using a treadmill under my desk walking on average of 6-10 miles a day. I absolutely love walking and working especially in the morning.

All of these changes to my exercise regimen happened super gradually. Any time I started something new I would come in at the ground level with no expectations of success. If I didn’t like something, I stopped doing it. There was no need to try to fool myself with doing something like just because it burned a lot of calories.

Automattic

Working remote is a big part of my success but the other part is specific to Automattic. A subset of us have banded together to encourage fitness routines and providing support when things go wrong. We have a Slack chat room dedicated to fitness that is full of awesome praise and discussions. RunKeeper friends from work also provide that boost of support when we have that tiny success finishing a workout. At our grand meetups every year we also encourage physical activities to connect us together doing something active and fun. Automattic even recently bought everyone a Fitbit device of their liking to let us be aware of our activity levels.

Before working at Automattic I always thought of fitness as a specific set of things – things like P90X and powdered drinks/supplements, talking about your current weight lifting levels and competition meant to boast not encourage. Turns out none of that is the truth here. We have a bunch of people doing weight lifting, Crossfit, and running but its all ego-free. We all have our own approach to fitness and no judgement is passed only encouragement. It’s super awesome.

Where I’m at Today

My weight has dropped to around 225lb/102kg and remained relatively plateaued over the past year. Recently I’ve mixed in weight/resistance every other day which I am really enjoying. My goal isn’t weight loss but rather increasing my focus with the side effect of increased stamina to do the fun things like biking or walking. With the weight loss and greatly improved active lifestyle I’ve been able to stop the aFib medications and just have biannual checkups with my electrophysiologist.

Having both the flexibility of working remote and the support of my coworkers going through similar challenges has helped a lot. I am a better person for combating the physical health issues and establishing a framework to counteract the ADD. While I don’t believe I’d really be dead today if I had continued on the path of the unchecked body weight, I do know I am healthier and much happier.

Thirty Days of Sweaty Moobs

I’ve taken on a challenge to do 30 days of cardio and weight training exercises. The challenge was put on by Jenny Ford, an avid YouTube home workout producer. So far I’m at day 11 and absolutely loving it!

The challenge consists of a mix of cardio one day and weight training the next day. There are six days of workouts and then one rest day. Generally the sixth day is more laid back doing yoga stretches. The only required equipment for the challenge are hand weights (I have 3lb, 5lb and 8lb weights), a step aerobics board or a surface to step up on, and a balance ball. None of the equipment is really required however – you can adapt any of the exercises to use soup cans for weights or just the floor if you have no board.

My goal for this challenge is not weight loss. I want to commit to six days of working out but really what I’m looking for is familiarity with adding in strength training to my normal workouts. During the winter I primarily only do cardio – step aerobics (to Jenny’s videos) and my treadmill desk. Adding strength training should help me get past my weight plateau I’ve been at for about a year.

Jenny encourages people to post sweaty selfies on Instagram and Facebook, tagging #jennyfordfitness. She takes a very active approach in involving herself over social networks to bring encouragement and a sense of community.

Jenny Ford’s 2016 30 Day Fitness Challenge

In case you didn’t know, moobs are “man boobs.”

My Signal-to-Noise Ratio

I’ve mentioned before on this site and other places that I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and that I’ve been doing a lot to manage it. I didn’t really connect the dots until I started working remote for Automattic almost two years ago. It’s a continual process for me and I’m continuing to make adjustments over time to combat it. I have good days and I have bad days.

Medication

After I got diagnosed with ADHD by an accredited counselor and my primary physician, I started on medication to help. It was my goal at that point to not be on the meds long term but rather use them to show me where I could be. It’s hard to see the destination without an idea of where you’re going or even why you’re going.

The medications worked pretty quickly. Within the first week I started seeing things in life I always ignored. I went to a museum in Houston with family and discovered myself reading the signs around exhibits and actually taking in what I was seeing. It was amazing. Within a couple months I realized I wasn’t eating food regularly any more (it’s a common side effect) and my personality was changing too. We also increased the medication a few levels to figure out what was the right level to be at. I ended up taking myself off of the medication a bit earlier than I had wanted to originally but I could see the longer I was on it the harder it would be to come off. I wasn’t addicted per se but the clarity I got from it was hard to give up. Really hard.

Post-Medication

Since I’ve been off the medication I’ve been using the tools my counselor and I came up with to help with concentration and focus. Primarily its a mix of the following:

  • Exercise
  • Note taking
  • Music
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness

Exercise

Being active is a huge part of the success with dealing with ADHD. Working at home gives me a ton of flexibility to include exercise in my daily routine. I’ll break up my day around noon with a bike ride, walk or step aerobics in my basement. Since February of this year I’ve been using a treadmill under my standing desk with some good results. I try to walk in the morning and afternoon and then stand in between. I find it gives me some different kind of focus than when just purely standing. I haven’t fully decided if I’m more successful with the treadmill desk but I am benefitting from the activity being more regular health-wise.

Note taking

Taking notes is a huge deal with ADHD. You have to leave yourself a reminder of where you left off on a task or else you will forget. Short notes are sometimes not even sufficient – a few words is sometimes not enough to remind you. It’s crazy how often I can forget to do something even hours later without a note. I haven’t found the perfect single place to leave notes so it’s a combination of sticky notes on my monitor, handwritten notes next to my keyboard and electronic notes in Evernote. I should boil it down to one place but I tire easily of a single solution and then stop using it.

Music

I’m not quite sure how I’d survive without music. I’ve been listening to electronic/trance/techno music since I was 12 years old when I discovered it allowed me to concentrate on tasks. Most electronic music (if there isn’t a lot of vocals) will busy the part of my brain that is trying to derail me. Working in a regular office environment you’d always find me with my headphones on. Working at home I’m using open speakers and I find that I don’t get the same effect. I actually don’t listen to music consistently throughout the day but when I find myself straining to finish a task, I find the right music to assist.

Meditation & Mindfulness

I should practice formal meditation more. Years ago I would set aside time to meditate and I enjoyed it. In the two years I’ve worked remote I’ve only done a full meditation exercise a handful of times. I tend to use short moments of meditation thought to help center myself when I feel like I’m going too many ways. Being mindful of yourself is a big help. Be aware of when you’re started to swerve off course and recognize the signs. Being on the treadmill desk is a little like meditation … it’s amazing how much around me sort of fades out when I’m walking and working.

The Noise

What it comes down to is you have to try to reduce or replace the noise in your head with something else. In radio engineering Signal to Noise Ratio is the amount of desired signal vs the background noise. You want more signal than noise otherwise your transmission isn’t effective. Signal is analogous to the task or idea you’re trying to focus on and the noise is everything else going on in your brain that’s trying to derail it. You have to find the ways that work for you to reduce the noise or improve the signal.

Much like radio engineers there are things you can do to improve signal and reduce noise – some of which I’ve mentioned. Everyone is different. For some the only thing that works is the medication – and it works well. Don’t be ashamed if you are on medication to help. There is such a negative stigma with taking medication for mental conditions which to me is crazy. Find what works for you! Don’t get discouraged if something doesn’t work down the road or if you fail with an experiment.

Walking While Working – Another Step For Focus

Walking While You Work

I’m not going to link to any articles or research about the benefits of walking while you work. I’ve been standing at my desk since I started working at home and to me this is the next progression. I have ADHD and I’m always trying to find ways to hack my brain. I decided to get in on the treadmill desk game.

The First Steps

A couple months back I ended up buying a cheapie treadmill on Amazon to experiment with walking while working. I used it a couple of times with some success but I ultimately felt it didn’t provide much help for my focus. I kept doing research to determine what the issue was and spent time observing myself during a walking session with it. I was surprised it wasn’t obvious why I didn’t like this experiment.

Primarily the treadmill is too narrow for my clown-sized feet. Okay they’re not Krusty-sized but size 11 shoes are not terribly compatible with an 18″ belt. I frequently found myself walking off the belt and then getting jarred out of my concentration. The sides are also not raised up very much so there is no subtle guide for your feet to bump into if you’re not accurate.

I’m just under 230lb and while this is nearly 60lb less than when I started this journey for fitness, it’s apparently the edge for the treadmill at low speed. The motor needs to be a high torque type as slow walking is complete hell on a standard treadmill. I expected the thing to blow up and take my ankles with it in the process.

I didn’t want to spend a boatload of cash investing in a treadmill that I may or may not end up using. This was $200 with delivery and it served its purpose. The problem is I wanted to continue walking which meant I needed to find another larger treadmill or else I’d stop.

The Second Step

I’m sure you’ve noticed the step pun by now.

After some discussions with my coworkers and a bit of online research, I opted to get the LifeSpan TR1200-D3 unit. It’s the middle of the line and doesn’t come with the desk since I already have an UpDesk. My reasons behind picking this treadmill were:

LifeSpan Stats

  • The console unit has bluetooth and connects to my Mac to show the current steps. It also syncs with their online service which does suck but provides a record that’s usable enough.
  • It’s rated to be used for an average of six hours a day and is limited to 4mph or lower.
  • The unit comes with a shock absorbing frame to make my moobs the only thing that jiggle and bounce.

The one downside is that while it has wheels to move it around, it doesn’t have a safe way to lean it up against a wall. I’ve come up with a temporary solution using an old yoga mat but I want to make something a bit more secure.

Observances & Suggestions

After walking for a week I’ve already made a number of observations that I didn’t expect.

  • My original UpDesk tends to wobble when it’s fully raised up. I ended up buying 3″ casters for the feet a while back and those are barely high enough with the treadmill under it. Instead now I raised the keyboard up temporarily with a cardboard box. I find my wrists are now at the right angle for typing although with no wrist support my accuracy has taken a hit. Not leaning on the desk while I type does however have the benefit of not wiggling the screen. My monitor is on an arm and I have it tilted up while I’m on the treadmill.
  • I’m using Things to keep track of ideas/tasks I think of that I can’t do when walking. There are just some tasks that aren’t conducive while you’re walking (like testing apps on devices) and you need a reliable place to put those task reminders. I also like to stick with one task as a time while walking to prevent my brain from getting derailed. So far I’m happy with Things.
  • Don’t overwalk. When you get into something (like me typing up this post) it’s so easy to lose track of your steps. You will be sore the next day.
  • Get good shoes and don’t wear those anywhere except in your house or on the treadmill. Snow, dirt and dust will make your treadmill look ugly and harder to maintain.
  • Buy a good treadmill mat to go underneath if you’re on hardwood floors.
  • Even though LifeSpan tracks activity I’m still logging my walking activity with RunKeeper. I like the social component of RunKeeper and since it has all my exercise activity in it why not keep using it.

Next Steps

I’m just going to keep at this. I need to find the balance of walking time during the day vs productivity levels. Once I come up with a good solution to store the treadmill upright I believe finding this balance will be easier. I do not want to stop doing my normal exercise routine (step aerobics at home in the winter and also going to the gym) so I’ll have to be careful to not burn myself out. In the end I want this to be a good way to maintain focus and to help train my brain to be better at tasking.

I’ll keep posting about my experiences here!

Treadmill Walking

Nerdy Fitness Progress

I posted a while back about what I’ve been doing to lose weight.

WeightGraph

I was my heaviest last year around September 2013 at 277lb (125kg).  I started on my ADD meds around October and stopped taking a medication for my cluster headaches that was causing weight gain as well.  You can see the drop but then around end of January I came off the meds.  The weight hopped back up for a bit but I dug deep and kept my exercise a bit more regular.  So far I’m down 40lb!  I don’t really have any goal in mind other than to reach at least 235lb which the lightest I’ve been for the past five years.

This summer I’ve been able to get on my bicycle and ride with my partner around our campground and neighborhood.  He’s been getting more active as well which is great!  Having the Nike Fuelband and Withings Scale has been great at tracking my progress and keeping me motivated.  I also use RunKeeper still to track my workouts which feeds calories burned into MyFitnessPal.  I’m also pretty consistently doing step aerobics at home during the week using Jenny Ford’s awesome videos.  I recommend taking a look at her work on YouTube and then buying a video or two if you like them. 🙂

On occasion I’ve been taking a picture of myself with Photo Booth on my Mac to track visual progress of my success.

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Nerdy Fitness

Nerds are notorious for being the most disinterested in staying fit – well at least our stereotype.  I’ve definitely yo-yoed in weight over the years, being at my best weight about three years ago.  Job and other life changes got me distracted and I ended up 40lb heavier in a relatively short amount of time.

When I started working at home, I decided change was in order to make me a bit more aware of myself.  I ended up getting a standing desk and a really great Herman Miller chair as part of my office setup when I started at Automattic.  Standing throughout the day, and sitting at strategic points of fatigue and after exercise, has made a significant difference in my attention levels and I believe my overall health.

I also exercise at home fairly often.  I bought a stepper platform from Amazon – the ones used in gyms/clubs – and I do mostly step aerobics over my “lunch” time.  I shoot for 3 times a week and four if I’m feeling frisky.  Since coming off my ADD meds I find that exercise realigns my focus for the day.  I also put yoga into my routine although my goal at the moment is to drop weight so that yoga is easier.  😀

I’m definitely into metrics being a geek.  I wear a Nike Fuelband SE to track general movements, use a Withings WiFi scale to record weight daily, and record calories using MyFitnessPal.  I’m not looking for a highly accurate measure out of any of these devices but they do provide the barometer reading of my activity levels, general level of success, and help with planning the next step.  Since Fall 2013 I’ve been able to drop 30lb!

I’m seriously looking forward to spring/summer so that my partner and I can get out with our bicycles!