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  • Writer's pictureTom W

How Algorithms Changed My Life (experiment #1)

I have lost one and half stone in weight in the last six months without going to the gym or doing a crazy diet. I had tried to lose weight on and off for years with limited success but this time it was easy, all due to my learning how to simplify how I programmed my behaviour.

Our brain is programmed similarly to any other computer, in basic repeated language, which is predominantly done through a part of the brain called the Basal Ganglia. It is like our own internal computer.

I learned that we could easily change desired and undesired behaviour by learning to speak the language of the brain, which works in a similar way to computer algorithms.

For example, lets consider our central heating, say you have it set to come on when the temperature drops below 19 degrees. This is programmed into the system with a simple algorithm:

If > temperature drops below 19 degrees < then > heating will click on <

I started to experiment with algorithms to live by, a set of rules or principles to encourage me to avoid bad habits and create new healthier ones.

We may not realise it but lots of our behaviour is performed on 'autopilot' where we have programmed our brains over the years for example:

If > I get in the car < then > I put my seat belt on <

This method of a trigger followed by an action was researched by Professor of Psychology at the New York University, Peter Gollwitzer who coined this practice as Implementation Intentions.

So using this method I started to create healthy routines that lead to me achieve a healthier lifestyle.

1. Sleep

The first area of my life I knew I needed to improve was my sleep. I can sleep anywhere at any time and fall off in the blink of an eye. My issue was that my sleep patterns were not consistent. If you have read Matthew Walkers Why We Sleep you’ll know that “Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day.” Understanding the importance of sleep and how it can set your day up right is now a priority item for my health. Now there is a lot more than just setting your sleep environment, like finding the right mattress for you and ensuring black out blinds are fitted and all other disturbances are kept to an absolute minimum. I had previously worked on setting my room so now it was time to set my algorithm.

If > it is 9pm < then > I start my night-time ritual <

You can read more about night-time rituals in our free elearning course here.

This algorithm triggers a sequence that gets me into bed to start my wind down before my next algorithm comes into force.

If > it is 10pm < then > Lights off and sleep time <

This time would be different for everyone but my wake up time is at 6am so it is the time that works for me. There is one exception to this rule;

If > I have something out my control that occurs < then > I can extend my alarm to 7am <

Life happens, you might have to pick up a family member or the neighbour has a party.

2. Exercise

I had been a gym member for years and went frequently all with the intention of losing weight and maintaining my health. During this time as a frequent gym goer I actually put on weight and I was actually working out when I was there. Over the years I had read plenty about what exercises to do and what way I needed to work my body but I just lost interest, I was putting in the work and the opposite effect was happening. Was it me or the gym? I didn’t enjoy it, they often were in large windowless buildings and often too loud with the same music.

Time for a change! So I cancelled my gym membership and went on a mission to seek an alternative way of movement. I started with a smart watch to see how much I was moving during my normally daily tasks.

Inspired by the The Joy of Movement by Kelly McGonigal my new target was set to achieving 5649 steps per day. The book explains in more detail about a study carried out to record the effect of our wellbeing and how it is linked to movement. That means that the difference between feeling great or not is down to how much I move my body. With all this in mind I was ready to set my new exercise algorithm.

If > I wake up < then > that day I will move a minimum of 5649 steps <

If I wake up, YES, that means the only reason for me not to complete this daily routine is if I do not wake up.

3. Food

Eating for me has always been an issue. I would overeat, snack throughout the day, finish everything on my plate and help myself to anyone’s leftovers at the table, I would be OK with a midnight snack and I engaged in emotional eating. Looking at my attitude towards food growing up I noticed my parents set the common implementation intention for me of;

If > your plate is clear < then > you can have dessert <

This was drummed in and I had a sweet tooth so I did as I was told. I knew that over the years I had learnt about eating healthy and getting the right balance of nutrients but I was still over eating and at all times of the day. After reading the Circadian Code by Dr Satchin Panda I learnt about the rhythms our body go through every day and how key it is to eat during a certain period and the knock on effect it has on the body. I needed to change the window of when I ate so my primary food algorithm had to focus on that;

If > it is 8am < then > I can have breakfast <

This signalled the start of my food window.

If > it is 6pm < then > No more food can pass my lips <

This algorithm has made the biggest impact on my losing weight, improving my sleep and increasing my joy through movement. For me the food aspect of this experiment still could face challenges so I had to make sure I included other supporting algorithms which are;

If > I have finished the food on my plate < then > I do not help myself to other left overs <
If > it is between 8am and 6pm < then > I can eat anything I chose <

If > I do not buy sugar snacks < then > this will reduce my snacking at home < *

If > I organise my meals when I order from the supermarket < then > I can make healthier choices <

If > I have to eat something later than 6pm < then > my breakfast is moved to later < **

*This algorithm does allow me to eat sugary snacks if someone else has bought them for me which is really rare.

** This again is a super rare exception like if I am travelling or something out of routine but never ever more than 30 minutes over. This is to make sure my body knows I am finished processing food and can prepare for its nightly routine.

6 months later

After 6 months of implementing these new algorithms, I’ve tracked my progress to give me gentle nudges and reminders to help me maintain this new healthy way of living. As a result I have had to buy new clothes that actually fit and I weigh less than I did 7 years ago. The weight loss was never a primary goal but my body is now returning to a healthier size, improving my overall fitness and wellbeing. I have moved my body making sure I reach those steps at least, now frequently moving more than 15,000 steps with a large portion of moderate exercise all from walking. My sleep is hugely improved by being strict and sticking to my algorithms and sleep routine.

What algorithms could you implement to make healthier choices in your life?

What we do

Helping people set their own algorithms is just one of the many ways we can help you change your life. This isn’t just goal setting, this is making life changing habits that stick, one sentence at a time. Contact us here to book a session.

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