2021: How I Unlocked My Potential

At the start of March 2020, I made a very conscious choice. I needed to get in shape. In the short term, my risk of serious consequences if I caught Covid was vastly increased by the fact I was 19 stone. In the medium to longer term, I was a year and a half from 50. And I kept seeing articles that said what you do in your 50s determines how you function in your 70s and 80s.

me lifting a kettlebell, weight 19 stone
How it started: 19 stone in March 2020

I also felt that I had my biggest challenges, and my biggest achievements, ahead of me. But with a body that creaked when I walked, that was becoming more and more like a lie I told myself rather than a dream to aim for.

So I set out to make changes I could stick with for the rest of my life, get in shape, and set myself a goal: my “One Day” challenge — to run 100k, lift, speed row, memorise, create, and speed read — all to the highest standard possible; all in a single 24 hour period, in the summer after I turned 50

Me standing against a wall, weight 13 stone 2 pounds
How it’s going: 13 stone 2 for the last 3 months

2020 was always going to be the easy part — building a foundation, making relatively simple gains from a low starting point. 2021 was always going to be the hard part — when I had to make those changes stick, to start to specialise a little more, to consolidate habits for life.

This is a short reflection on how it’s gone — what’s worked and what hasn’t; and where now — in the hope it might inspire other people to join me on the ride.

And in the hope it might start to encourage people to adopt the very particular approach to training I’ve developed in the last 21 months. I call it the “jacquard” approach, after the weaving process. It involves keeping a lot of different things ticking over all the time but focusing really hard on just one or two things during any one 3 month period before moving on to another area. So far it’s seen me not only make consistent gains, but avoid injury for the first time in my training life.

2021: a year in figures

  • Weight — I started 2021 weighing 15 stone 10lb. I end it having been 13 stone 2lb for the past 3 months. That’s the weight I wanted to reach. The idea is to hold that weight while very slowly decreasing body fat and building muscle.
  • Memory — I started 2021 having just completed my first successful memorization of a deck of cards — in 4 minutes 41. I end with a time of 2.25.04, just under my target of 2.30
  • Cubing — slightly less progress than I would like. I started the year with a time of 1 minute 59 seconds and end it with a best of 1.09.16. Getting under a minute and then under 30 seconds is very high on my list for 2022
  • Lifting — I don’t really know where I was at the start of the year. It wasn’t until March this year, when the outdoor gym at Iffley Road opened, that I was able to add compound moves like bench and squat to my kettlebell training. But despite losing 2 stone, I have slightly upped the weight I can lift. They’re hardly impressive figures but a foundation for next year: bench 62.5kg; squat 90 kg; deadlift 92.5 kg
  • Endurance — it’s been a year of log walks and slowly adding running back in as I’ve lost weight and my joints have gone from creaking when I move to not noticing when they’ve been pounded. Along the way I beat my PB for 50 kilometres which stood at 8 hours 17, back in 2017. This year I managed 7.39.
  • Speed — Not being able to use an indoor gym has limited my ability to train for speed, and I don’t have a row time, but I lowered my 1 kilometre run best from 5.25 to 5.02
  • Mind Sports — after missing 2020, I was back at the (virtual) Mind Sports Olympiad this year. As I reported, I bombed the speed reading completely, and although I picked up bronze, was slightly disappointing in the Creative Thinking World Championship. But I was delighted to end the competition by winning the Quizzle in a large field — a delightful combination of logic puzzle, general knowledge, and lateral thinking.

What I’ve learned on the way

  • Journaling better. I’ve kept a journal since I was about 6. But I’ve always struggled to use it actively to monitor progress, manage my time, and make adjustments as I go. It’s never really been a tool the way people say it should be. In large part, that’s because my ADHD plays havoc with so many of the things that journaling relies on (that’s a whole series of posts!). This year, I’ve started refining my journaling technique so that it is beginning to work, helping me stay on top of tasks that usually get forgotten, monitoring and recording my workouts, but also helping me make consistent progress in the areas that count. I’ve been using a highly refined version of time blocking — I recommend this video from Ali Abdaal as an introduction, as well as other techniques. I will try to write more about this, because journaling for neurodivergent brains is a subject I know a lot of people want to read about!
  • Have Goals that are Ways of Being Not Moments in Time. The past couple of years I have changed how I think about goals. Instead of specific things I want to achieve, I have focused on areas of my life, and what I want them to look like. I have identified 8 of them, what I call my sustainable life goals. This has been part of what’s revolutionised how I make progress. Instead of some random measurement distracting me from what really matters, I’ve focused on devoting more of my time to things that matter to me. It’s that simple. And it’s helped me develop principles to use my time more efficiently by not getting sidetracked. Again, I’ll be writing a lot more about this.
  • Avoiding unsustainable diets. I’ve always struggled to maintain weight. My life has been a non-stop yo-yo because I’ve never really found a way of eating that I can stick with for a long period of time. What’s changed this year is stopping trying to eat less, and focusing on finding ways to allow myself to eat as much as I want. In short, eating lots of high volume, low calorie food. That means vast plates of vegetables, lots of fruit, lean protein, and getting as many carbs as possible from lower volume sources like potatoes. While losing weight, I ate around 2200-2300 calories a day,. allowing me to lose weight slowly and steadily. And no I am maintaining, I eat around 2500–2600, including a gram of protein per pound of body weight. That has allowed me to maintain my weight without losing muscle, and without struggling to get through my workouts. I am getting all the nutrients I need, I’m only eating the calories I need, and I never feel really hungry.
  • Extracting value from BS tasks. I’ve spent a lot of my life struggling to be motivated in my day job. Being disabled means I can’t get a job that really uses my skills. I’ve spent a long time resenting the fact that I’ve felt I essentially had the best hours of my day wasted by a job that left me unsatisfied. I’m sure many people, disabled or not, feel this. What’s changed this year is reframing all those tedious tasks as opportunities to improve my skills and processes in ways that will help me with the things that really matter to me, and my wider life. One example has been learning more computer skills. But the real one has been honing my journaling. I also realised that I don’t have to keep work life and home life rigorously separate — instead I can use work as a way to learn things that benefit me at home.

What I wish I’d done differently

  • Allowed myself to celebrate. I am very bad at this. As a disabled person, I’m very aware of my privileges. I am lucky to have a body that will do what it does. And I’m lucky to have a brain that, while it spends large chunks of its time suicidal or just downright annoying (like the way it stops me being able to use the phone, or the way as soon as I close a tab on the computer it forgets it was ever open — hence the journaling issues), allows me to compete at an elite level. Because of this I feel I’m not allowed to celebrate anything I do achieve in case it’s unfair on those without my luck. I’ve basically spent half a century downplaying myself, and then wondering why opportunities seem to pass me by and get given to people who promote themselves. I’m trying to work on not feeling like a bad person for celebrating my successes.
  • Talked more about my mental health struggles more openly. This goes with the previous one. While I hate “inspiration porn” (see this post on why), it’s really important for disabled people to have role models. We need to see ourselves represented. We need to see people like us succeeding at things we long to try.

On the other hand, although I’ve largely withdrawn from my social presence for large chunks of time, I’ve learned something really valuable. I’ve learned how to go into the shed, not to be such an oversharer, and actually to build things before talking. I’ve always been bad at this. I’d talk about my plans without actually doing anything to make them happen. By contrast, the past 21 months I’ve essentially gone into a metaphorical hut in the woods and spent the time building — building myself. And I’m ready to start showing what I’ve built!

And 2022?

Well, I’ll be undertaking the One Day challenge. But — in keeping with seeing goals as ways of being not moments in time — it’s already starting to feel more like a benchmark than an end point. As I am about to hit 50, my thoughts are already turning to what I can achieve by 60. You know the saying about achieving less than you think you can in a year but more than you think you can in a decade? Well, I think I’d like to test that one out.

And having gone into the shed to fix the foundation, I will try to undertake the rest of the build in public, because I’m sure there are a lot of people who could benefit from my failures — and successes — and the things I’ve learned — especially things that work for neurodivergent brains where regular advice fails — along the way.

If you are interested, you might enjoy

Lift, my book about strength.

Our Dreams Make Different Shapes, my book about creativity

And do sign up for my very non-spam and infrequent newsletter that offers creative tips and things of interest.

And the following great YouTube channels that have helped me along the way

Natacha Oceane

Will Tennyson

Ali Abdaal

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CEO & founder of Rogue Interrobang, University of Oxford spinout using creativity to solve wicked problems. 2016, 17 & 19 Creative Thinking World Champion.

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Dan Holloway

Dan Holloway

CEO & founder of Rogue Interrobang, University of Oxford spinout using creativity to solve wicked problems. 2016, 17 & 19 Creative Thinking World Champion.

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