The Unnatural World

Seaside.JPG

The modern world is unnatural. Edifices of stone and steel and glass and concrete surround us. Electricity comes with the flick of a switch, water at the turn of a tap. Food is superabundant, and the only predators we need fear are human. Everywhere safety is engineered into every facet of daily living.

Life is good. Life is safe. Life is convenient. But it is unnatural.

You are a human. You are biologically engineered to survive the harshest of terrain on Earth. Your ancestors walked the savannahs of Africa, the plains of Europe, the jungles of Asia, the deserts of Arabia. You were designed to resist disease and starvation and injury. Your brains gave you the smarts to live the life you are living now. But this life, this modern world, stay in it too long and it rots your brain and entropies your ability to live as your body calls you to do.

Reclaim your humanity.

Embrace Discomfort

Barbell

Walk proudly under the sun and bathe in its heat and light. Saunter through a storm, feel the rain on your skin, hear the crash of thunder and track the flash of lightning bolts. Seek regular, hard physical exertion; measure your labours by the pounding of your heart, the rivulets of your sweat, the fatigue in your muscles, and your ability to push beyond and achieve greater heights. Make your personal records a point of personal pride.

Fast wisely and intermittently, and feel your senses sharpen with hunger. You won’t start melting the moment you cease supplying yourself with nutrients. Cut off everything that harms you. Eat only enough to give you strength, shun all foods laden with sugar and hidden calories, and refuse to eat when you are full. Gird yourself against the inevitable social pressure to eat and eat and eat: you are a human, not a goose to be stuffed for foie gras. Develop a nutrition plan, be aware of what passes between your lips, and cease consumption when you’ve hit your goals.

Take cold showers. Sleep without temperature control. Skip unnecessary suppers and desserts and tea breaks. Do not chase the taste of good food, the feel of luxury fabrics, the ease of sedentary living. Take softness and hardness, heat and cold, dryness and humidity, when they come with equal indifference; treat them as forces to be adapted to, not fodder for complaints and grumbles. Whenever the world tempts you to overindulgence, smile and say no. The world cares nothing for your wants and needs; every so often remind your body that you, too, can throw back at the world everything it throws at you.

The Green and the Blue

Horses.jpg

Strike for the forgotten corners of the Earth. Seek the places where the green of the Earth marries the blue of the sky. Witness nature first hand and remember when you were a hairless ape. Observe the frolicking of animals and wonder at their instincts, their rituals, their behaviours, their societies. Notice how they interact with other species despite the lack of a common language. Study them at life and play, and wonder how you can return to that state of innocence.

Climb a hill and feel the contours of the earth beneath your feet, the wind in your hair, the sun in your face. Remember and reconnect with the world that made you. This is the world you evolved to live in, not the four corners of a dreary cubicle or the air-conditioned sterility of a modern home.

Cliffs.jpg

Stand before a cliff and study the patterns of erosion and plant growth. Before you is the story of a billion years. Cast your mind through time and visualise the forces of erosion, propagation, climate and rainfall combining to sculpt the rock. Before them, what are you? If even the hardest and most enduring rock can change before the inexorable might of time, how can you avoid change? How can you not be shaped by time? All you can do is recognise it when it comes, and shape your evolution to reveal your truest and innermost self.

Beach.jpg

On spoiled beaches observe the infinite variations of waves crashing against the shore. In flooded pits and holes spot the hidden contours of the world and reconstruct the natural rhythms that created them, and the face of the world to come. Know that the litter you leave behind lasts for tens or hundreds of years, but the ocean has been here for millennia and will last for millennia to come. Recognise that the world is greater and older and more powerful than you, and recalibrate your mind to embrace the vastness of reality.

You are but one human striding across the face of this world. You are but a dewdrop in the face of four and a half billion years. You are indivisible yet interdependent, an actor yet acted upon. Have you honoured your body and tempered it to face the realities of a world indifferent to your wants and needs? What role do you play among your family, your tribe, your groups, your nation? What came before you to place you where you are, and what will come after your role has ended?

Depart the unnatural world for the natural, if only for a while, and remember who you are and where you stand in the great dance of eternity.

How I Wrote a Novel in 12 Weeks

laptop.jpg

135456 words. 12 weeks.

A full novel in 3 months. By pulp standards it’s sluggish, but it’s the fastest I’ve ever completed a novel of this length. And I was juggling a full-time work schedule and regular blog posts alongside it.

If there’s one thing I understand about the writing industry, it’s that if you want to make real coin from writing, you need to churn out lots of high quality work fast. To even come close to the success of the pulp greats, you need to write as much and as often as you can. Here’re the principles I applied to write a novel in 12 weeks.

Planning

Well before I wrote a single word of the novel, I had planned everything out. I knew the characters, the major plot events, how each scene led to the next and the long-term ramifications of significant events on the story and the series. Errors and plot holes and inconsistencies had been caught and fixed before they were written, saving time and energy and frustration. With knowledge of the entire book, all I had to do was show up and write.

I planned my writing schedule and stuck to it. I set aside a block of time every weekday and many weekends to write. Before I sat down to write, while I was busy doing other mundane things, I planned the day’s work. I would visualise the actions and the dialogue, putting myself in my writing frame of mind. When it came time to write, I already knew what to do, so I didn’t have to waste time wondering what would happen next. I just had to do the work.

Planning is half the battle. If you know what you have to do, you won’t waste time correcting yourself or wondering what to write next.

Focus

The secret to success is to blind yourself to everything but what you need to achieve your goals. I set myself a goal and refused all distractions.

My goals were, to me, modest but ironclad. One hour every weekday. Five thousand words every week. Minimum. If I couldn’t hit that target I kept going until I could. If I had free time on weekends I spent it writing, effectively doubling my average word count per week.

During planned writing sessions, I focused solely on writing. Not editing, not researching, not chatting with people. Writing. I placed myself in a state of flow and rode it all the way to the end of the session. If I absolutely had to research something, I set hard limits for myself, restricting the time and topics to look it up, and then went back to writing immediately. If you’re not writing, you’re not getting closer to your goal.

Inevitably, I thought of many ideas to improve the story. I didn’t allow myself to get distracted or caught in the trap of endlessly polishing incomplete copy. Instead, I left notes for myself inside the text and continued writing. In doing so I maintained the momentum, keeping the story going while honouring the ideas that could make it better later. Likewise, when I had ideas for other stories and universes, I pursued them only when I wasn’t busy writing.

When you write, write. Keep your eyes on the prize and entertain nothing that leads you off the trail.

Personal Care

You can’t write if you’re bedridden. You can’t write well if you’re sneezing all the time or feverish and miserable. Thus, taking care of your health is paramount.

I maintained a regular workout schedule, and used the time to develop the story further. I pushed my body to the limit, in preparation of stretching my mind further. I made sure to eat right, drink plenty of water and sleep as well as I could.

An important side benefit of personal care is discipline. You need discipline to stick to an exercise regime, a nutrition plan and a sleep schedule. That same discipline spills over into writing, allowing you to stick to your plan and focus on writing.

A healthy body leads to a healthy mind. You need both to succeed at the writing game.

Adapt, Adapt, Adapt

Don’t stick slavishly to plans and regimens. If you develop an idea superior to the current plan, roll with it. If a block of time suddenly frees up, use it for writing or writing-related tasks if you can. If you find that deviating from a plan leads to a superior outcome, do it.

While writing the novel, I came up with a number of new ideas on the spot. They deviated from the plan, but they fleshed out the antagonists, created a new one, and added a deeper layer to the story lore. I changed the location and circumstances of the climatic action scene, making it even more awesome and explosive than before, and altered the planned ending to inject tragedy, humour, hope and sequel hooks.

Have a plan, work the plan, but don’t be afraid to branch off and do something else if doing it will lead to superior outcomes.

Conclusions

Know what you are going to do before you do it. When you start, commit fully and do not stop until you have achieved your goals. Look after your mind, body and spirit. Deviate from your plans if doing so will achieve a superior outcome.

These principles allowed me to write a massive (by modern standards) novel within a short timeframe. While nowhere near close to Pulp Speed, I believe continued application will allow me to quickly produce the quantity and quality of content my readers demand. And I’m only getting started.

image

If you’d like to see the novel that preceded the one I mentioned here, you can find NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.

7 Writing Lessons from Wonder Woman

WW 3

Wonder Woman doesn’t suck.

After reading all the rave reviews and the recommendations about the movie, actually seeing it felt like a disappointment. Wonder Woman isn’t a terrible film by any measure, it’s just that I have a high bar for entertainment. Indeed, it accomplished what it set out to do: tell a straightforward superheroine tale filled with courage, battles, charisma, and spiced with romance and humour.

The story begins with Princess Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons, discovering a man on the beach. The man is Steve Trevor, an American spy, who discovered a German superweapon factory and was shot down while attempting to flee on an airplane. Trevor speaks of the War to End All Wars engulfing the world, and Diana believes that Ares, the god of war, is responsible for instigating the conflict. Having sworn to defeat Ares once and for all, she teams up with Trevor to end the war once and for all.

It’s a simple story, competently told. But it could be done much better.

The Negatives

I am a pessimist, so I shall start with the negatives. The major knock against Wonder Woman was the presence of two major plot holes.

When Trevor makes his great escape, Germans intercept him and shoot him down. A squadron of ships chase him to the island of Themyscira, penetrating the mysterious veil that keeps it hidden from the outside world. The ships send a landing party to hunt for Trevor on the island, and the Amazons beat them back.

As a set up for a fight scene, it works. But what happens after the Germans are beaten?

Nothing.

Consider the situation. The Germans pass through a strange barrier and discover an unmapped island. They send a landing party and see a band of female warriors kill them…with bows and arrows and swords. The logical thing to do would be to rake the beaches with naval gunfire, massacre the defenders, and send in a second landing party to claim the island for the Kaiser and the Reich. Indeed, this scenario could have provided an impetus for the Amazons to act: realizing that their home is now threatened by the implacable machinery of modern war, the Amazons are forced to flee (or are wiped out), and Diana is driven to stop Ares and avenge her people.

Instead, after the beach sequence, the ships simply cease to exist.

Here is the first lesson from Wonder Woman: always track your villains and give them agency. Bad guys cannot simply vanish from a scene without good reason, more so if they possess the advantages the Germans did in this scene. Like heroes, believable villains have motives and agendas of their own, and will do everything in their power to meet their goals. By giving them the chance to interfere with the protagonists, the villains will be seen as a powerful, threatening foe and a significant player. Reintroducing the Germans would have added emotional impetus to the rest of the story. Instead, the following sequence is the same tired tale of a child rebelling against a parent by going her own way.

Plot hole number two comes near the end of the film, during the showdown with Ares. (Spoiler ahead!) Ares is revealed to have taken the form of a minor character who helped Diana and Trevor reach the frontlines. Which suggests that Ares himself helped Wonder Woman travel to the front, allowing her to defeat him.

Why would a supervillain be knowingly complicit in his own destruction?

This is lesson number two: Villains should not help the heroes unless it benefits them.

A superhero story demands constant conflict between superhero and supervillain. One would expect Ares to do everything in his power to stop the Diana and Trevor: sending military policemen to arrest them, having Allied command brand them as traitors and spies, dispatching the entire German Army to stop them. These maneuvers would have forced the duo to overcome these obstacles and set up Ares as a terrifying enemy. Instead, Ares allowed Diana to discover his weapons factory, derail his plot to continue the Great War, and knowingly meets her, a woman of a race Ares knows Zeus created to defeat him, face-to-face just to have a cliched We Can Rule Together speech. Instead of being a superb and subtle manipulator, Ares comes off as a cardboard character who exists only for Diana to punch out. If a story must have a villain aid the hero, the villain must believe he will benefit in some way, ideally leading to the hero’s destruction. That would make for a more clever and complex story, portraying the villain as smart and Machiavellian, and give the hero a chance to shine by reversing the scheme.

WW 5

Central to the movie is a German superweapon, a new chemical weapon that its developers believe will allow Germany to triumph. This Wunderwaffe is seen as an ominous orange gas destroying gas masks and breaking glass, killing all it touches. And just what is this Wunderwaffe called?

Hydrogen-based mustard gas.

This is utter nonsense. Mustard gas isn’t a gas; it is a liquid. It is deployed as a fine mist of clear droplets, not a thick billowing colored cloud. Further, mustard gas is composed of sulfur, chloride and, in a couple of formulae, oxygen. ‘Hydrogen-based’ mustard gas would yield, among other things, hydrogen sulfide (which was actually used by the British as a chemical weapon and later discarded) or hydrochloric acid. The only reason ‘hydrogen’ comes up would be to justify the final major explosion, which is ridiculous. Having hydrogen atoms does not automatically make something explosive: water, among other things, will not ignite.

This is the third lesson: if you must use technobabble, it must make sense. If you have to use technobabble in a story, then the properties of said technobabble must be employed in some fashion later on. If you encounter a reader who actually knows something about the science you’re pretending to employ, you’re going to annoy him. For the purposes of the movie, it would have been easier and quicker to simply call the Wunderwaffe an improved version of mustard gas, or just refer to it by some ominous-sounding codename, and have a character note that it is highly flammable. This achieves the same effect without having to delve into eye-rollingly bad psuedo-science. If you must use technobabble, it should either be clearly fictitious (i.e. made-up science like Minovsky Particles) or suitably and convincingly complex (like everything by John C. Wright).

Like every good superhero story, Wonder Woman has plenty of action. Like every Hollywood blockbuster I’ve seen, I turned off my brain when the action began and tuned it out. The action scenes are competent…for Hollywood…but I hold my entertainment to much higher standards of realism.

A critical action scene takes place at the front. Diana hears of the Germans occupying a town and catches sight of refugees somehow being allowed to linger in the Allied trenches. She is outraged, but the army won’t help her. She leads a one-woman charge across No Man’s Land, plows into the German lines, inspires the rest of the Allies to help her, and single-handedly liberates the town.

This scene establishes Diana as an idealistic, driven and impetuous woman. If she can’t get what she wants, she simply plows straight through the obstacles, heedless of the consequences. There were just so many things that could have gone wrong.

The Germans could have fired on her from so many angles she couldn’t block all of the bullets. Shells could have detonated against her armour instead of being deflected. She could have stepped on a mine. She could have run into a cloud of poison gas (and she never has chemical protection). A nearby blast could have blown her off her feet and showered her with shrapnel. Even if she makes it all the way across, the rest of the Allies are mere humans–and the German defenses would have cut them down. The Allies would support their hasty offensive with machineguns and artillery, and she could have been hit by friendly fire.

This could have been a scene where Diana discovers that her training was woefully inadequate to prepare her for the horror of modern industrial war. At the very least, Diana could have unleashed her superpowers, justifying her survival. Instead, she survives all this because the plot demands it , and because in Hollywood, Strong Action Females are more powerful than men and never pay the price for brashness.

Here is lesson number four: action scenes must make sense. The protagonist cannot survive simply because the plot demands it; her victory must be justified. On the flipside, the enemy must be believably threatening, and an enemy as powerful and dangerous as the Imperial German Army must act in a manner consistent with their portrayal. This means proper defensive tactics and measures designed to defeat an attack they were expecting.

Fixing this sequence is simple. Diana tries to cross No Man’s Land. Trevor holds her back, and explains to her in graphic detail what happens to idiots who try to make a frontal attack across No Man’s Land. She insists on going, convincing him that liberating the town is a worthy cause, and he in turn convinces her to launch a night time raid. Our heroes sneak across No Man’s Land, infiltrate the enemy lines and knock out the defenses, allowing the rest of the Allies to overrun the Germans and liberate the town. This scene would have satisfied the demands of characterisation and action while not being suicidal.

The Positives

WW 4

Despite the issues mentioned above, Wonder Woman isn’t all that bad. What sets it apart from other similar films is the character interactions.

Diana is a brave, headstrong, stubborn, rash and naïve woman who was raised on an isolated island. She is utterly ignorant about the outside world beyond knowing how to speak multiple languages (a convenient plot device to justify how everyone can talk to each other and how she can read a coded notebook). This shows throughout the story: she doesn’t know anything about fashion, she is filled with curiosity about the outside world, and she operates under the childish-yet-believable assumption that stopping Ares will stop the war. Despite all this, she acts in a consistently heroic fashion, fighting for the weak, the innocent and to end the slaughter of millions.

This is lesson five: heroes must be heroic. Heroes are memorable because they are larger than life. They have ideals they fight for and lines they will not cross. They will go the distance and commit themselves to their cause. Every aspect of their personality is magnified and consistent throughout the story, and their behaviours flow organically from their backstories and personalities. Diana walks with an aura of charisma because she lives and acts with honour and integrity, and Gal Gadot convincingly portrays this on the silver screen.

Wonder Woman might be Diana’s story, but Steve Trevor plays a significant role too. He helps her navigate the modern world, fills her in on critical details, and fights alongside her in the action scenes. At the climax, he gets a big action scene all to himself, stopping the mundane threat so Diana can concentrate on Ares. Throughout the film, the duo enjoy a respectful relationship. They may have their differences, but instead of sniping at each other or wasting time on pointless bickering, they solve problems and support each other, building each other up all the way to the end.

Lesson six: supporting characters must support the protagonist and the story. If a supporting character does next to nothing in a story, then that character can be deleted and his actions handed off to other, more important characters. If a support character does not support the protagonist, then there is no reason why the protagonist keeps him around. This is especially important for stories about superheroes and high-level violence professionals: such people will not tolerate the presence of people who could drag them down and potentially undermine the mission. Instead, they will keep around people who build them up and help them overcome problems, and Steve Trevor fulfils this role magnificently.

As an aside, consider this: how did modern culture reach the point where having a male supporting character contribute significantly to the plot and action scenes in a female-led story without being denigrated by the heroine become a noteworthy novelty?

Women are Wonderful

WW 2

The main flaw running through Wonder Woman is the assumption that Women are Wonderful. Diana makes no major mistakes and does not pay the price. She walks around with a sword in wartime London and nobody bats an eye; she wears her sword in the back of her dress at a fancy dress ball and nobody notices or cares. She leads an Allied army on a suicidal attack across No Man’s Land but it somehow makes out unscratched. Ares conveniently comes to her instead of making her fight to find him. As an Amazon she is destined to defeat Ares, so instead of having to work for her victory all she has to do is pour on MOAR POWA until he is defeated.

This is the Women are Wonderful trap. In fiction, women cannot be seen to make mistakes so women get away with making stupid decisions. In reality, the police would have hounded her, the Allies would have taken horrendous casualties to support her solo charge (and every death would be on her), and Ares would have opposed her every step of the way and forced her to find him. At every critical juncture, the Hand of the Director intervenes so that Diana need never suffer the consequences of her actions and never has to work hard or change her perspective to accomplish her goals.

This is the final lesson: actions have consequences. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. Charge in recklessly and you get killed, or your allies get slaughtered. Slip up and the enemy will exploit it. Diana survived this adventure and remained an idealist simply because she suffers no consequences for any of her actions. As a writer, you must make your characters reap the bitter harvest of bad decisions. Only then can you have a believable story.

Wonder Woman could have been great. Instead, it is distinguished from other Hollywood blockbusters only by virtue of the characters. Learn from Wonder Woman, and craft better stories.

image-5

If you’d like to see how I applied these lessons to my writing, check out my latest novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon or the Castalia House ebook store.

How I Deadlifted Twice My Bodyweight in Half a Year

Barbell.JPG

Having done all manner of bodyweight exercises for the past eight years, I wanted to try something new. My gains had tapered off, and doing more of the same wouldn’t help. I decided to sign up for a gym and try weightlifting. My plan was to run StrongLifts 5×5 and see where it took me.

That plan was scuttled on Day One.

The StrongLifts program requires power racks and barbells. Every time I entered the gym, every rack and barbell would be in use. There would always be someone else waiting in line to use them.

I had to make do with what was left.

Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

I took stock of the situation. The other gym goers didn’t just take the racks and bars. They grabbed the benches and occupied the machines. Without fail, there would always be people on the equipment, and more people waiting for their turn. The one thing I could count on to be reliably available were the fixed barbells.

Fixed bars became the foundation of my new program. My goal was simple: gain muscle by lifting heavy. I wanted to go for big compound lifts: I only had between 45 minutes to an hour at the gym, so I had to maximise efficiency. I played around with the lifts for a while, eventually settling on squats, bent over barbell rows, clean and press, and of course, deadlifts.

I started with 30 kilos. Lift five reps, rest, then lift again. I did one exercise at a time, moving on only when I completed my five sets. I timed each rest session for twenty deep breaths, longer I needed it, shorter if I could get away with it. As it transpired, 30 kg was the bare minimum I could do. Coming to the end of the workout, I couldn’t even hit five complete sets. The day after I completed a proper workout, I awoke stiff and sore everywhere.

But it was progress.

The plan was to work out three times a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The rest of the week was for recovery and light workouts. At that time, rest was absolutely critical: my body just wouldn’t handle heavy exercises two days in a row.

My initial goal was to hit five sets of five reps of 30 kilos for all four exercises. With each session, I aimed to lift more reps than the last. If I could only do three sets of five reps the last time around, then I aimed to do three sets of five reps, plus one more rep. I built on that foundation, steadily working my way up to 5×5. If I couldn’t meet the day’s objective of lifting more reps, that was fine: I stuck to the old number and kept trying until I could. Within the first month, I had hit my target.

StrongLift’s approach of five sets of five reps of ever-increasing weight sounded good, but since I couldn’t count on the bars and adjustable weights being available, I had to be very careful about increasing weight. The fixed bars came in increments of ten kilos. Not insurmountable — it just required care.

After clearing 5×5 of 30kg, I picked up the 40kg barbell. It was noticeably heavier than the previous weight, but I was committed. I began with the modest goal of three sets of five reps. The extra weight piled on me fast: rest breaks took longer, and near the end I could barely squeeze out that many reps. The following day, the aching muscles returned.

I decided I would stick to my original goal of 3×5 until I could lift the bar with good form. No failed weight, no stumbling, no loss of balance, just good clean lifts. When I met that goal, I slowly worked my way up to 5×5. I spent a week doing 5×5 of 40kg, ensuring I could take the strain, before moving on to 3×3 of 50 kg and working up again.

Every increment is a new challenge. At lighter weights you might be able to muscle your way through. But at heavier loads, you have to start paying attention to form, or you will develop debilitating injuries. More than a few times I had to scale back to a lower weight or stick to smaller sets until I was ready. I learned to listen to my body, to pay attention to how I reacted to weight, and adjust accordingly. When in doubt, I fell back on lighter loads and lower reps: a man can always try for heavier weights at a later date, but he can’t recover so quickly from torn tendons, crushed bones or blown joints.

Do the Work, But Don’t Be An Idiot

No matter how busy I was, I made time for the gym. The weather didn’t matter, the time didn’t matter, how tired I was didn’t matter, I showed up and did the work three times a week.

If I showed up late, I adapted. If I was really tired and I couldn’t lift big, I toned it down. If I had something to do on a regularly scheduled gym day that I could not avoid, I made certain to show up on the following day. No excuses, no whining, just show up and do the work.

That is the secret to success in everything you do. You have to keep working at it, and keep getting better. You will always be tempted to slack off. Know that to succumb to temptation is to sabotage yourself. Be it writing, martial arts, gym or whatever else you do, if you want to get good at it, you have to show up and do the work.

Of course, the flipside is that you shouldn’t be an idiot.

If you’re struggling to finish a rep, you shouldn’t recklessly muscle through it if it means compromising your form. You’re there to get stronger, not to risk injury. If you’re sick, you shouldn’t show up. Working hard will only delay the recovery process, and it is rude to pass on your disease. Two months ago, I was bedridden with severe conjunctivitis for almost a week. I couldn’t even exercise: trying to run, jump, do push-ups or other activities drove up the blood pressure in my eyes, leading to throbbing aches. I simply rested until I had recovered. When I returned to the gym, I started off light, then worked my way back up.

Work hard. Give yourself no excuses to slack off. But respect your physical limits and stay safe and healthy. You’re going to the gym to get stronger, not to give yourself lifelong injuries.

Building Back Up

The iron tears your muscles down. Rest and nutrition build them up stronger than before.

I can’t advise anyone on pre-workout supplements, protein shakes or sports drinks. I’m allergic to everything on the market. I had to figure out nutrition the old-fashioned way: clean eating.

There are plenty of formulae and guidelines out there to calculate your optimal nutrient intake. The general principle is to consume plenty of protein and nutrients, moderate your carbohydrate intake, and have more saturated fat. Thanks to my dietary restrictions I’m practically forced to eat clean anyway. The one major change I made was to reduce rice and other sources of empty carbohydrates, and substitute them with chicken, tuna, eggs, and huge amounts of vegetables.

My current diet revolves around oats, white rice, white meat, eggs, the occasional fruit, pork and mutton where possible, and all the vegetables I’m not allergic to. I don’t presently have the time or inclination to measure every little gram of nutrient that goes into my diet. I just make sure that at least two-thirds of what I eat every day contains vegetables and protein, and the rest takes care of itself.

My hydration plan is equally simple: lots of water every day. Tea if the occasion calls for it, fruit juice if it’s available, but absolutely no soft drinks and coffee. This is less a lifestyle choice than a dietary requirement, but I have no issues with it. The body, after all, is 70 percent water, and you need to keep yourself topped up.

For me, the critical factor was getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is the bane of modern living, and a roadblock to getting stronger. You can’t keep abusing your body and expect it to get better without giving it time to recover. While my current schedule requires a workweek that fluctuates between 50 to 60 hours of work, I still take time out to get at least 7, preferably 8, hours of sleep. It’s not always possible, but I try my best.

Putting Everything Together

Barbell 2.JPG

As I grew more comfortable with the iron, I experimented with other exercises and inserted other workouts: pre- and post-workout jogs, dumbbells, variations of my preferred lifts, other lifts, heavy bag work. I mixed and matched to meet my schedule, sticking to my core lifts and keeping track of my performance. I keep my workouts between 45 minutes to an hour long, but every now and then I test myself by going the distance, stretching to 75 minutes by incorporating additional cardio work.

In addition to gym time, I did other exercises. Filipino martial arts, minimum of two hours a week. Yoga, at least once a week. High Intensity Interval Training, on occasion or when pressed for time. With my Individual Physical Proficiency Test (Army fitness test) coming up, I swapped out one gym session a week to train specifically for the IPPT events.

Put everything together, and in the past half year, I gained 3 kilograms of muscle, going from 57 to 60 kg. For my last gym session, I did the following:

  • 3 sets of 6 dips
  • 5 and a half minute run at 13 km/h
  • 1 set of 15 reps of deadlifts, bent barbell rows, clean and press, and squats with 40 kg barbell
  • 1 set of 5 reps of clean and press with 80 kg barbell
  • 4 sets of 5 reps of bent barbell rows and squats with 80 kg barbell
  • 1 set of 5 reps of deadlifts with 110 kg barbell

In half a year of training, I deadlifted almost twice my bodyweight…at the end of a grueling workout.

This program is not and cannot be for everyone. I started with a baseline of physical fitness, having spent 8 years doing bodyweight exercises and 2 and a half years of martial arts training. Absolute newbies might have to go at a slower pace. I’m also certain there are other ways to optimise this program: split training, precise nutrition intake, more rest. On the whole, though, I’ve achieved what I set out to do: get stronger fast. Since the gym doesn’t offer anything heavier than 110 kg fixed barbells, I imagine I shall have to find a different goal soon.

Discipline, body awareness, and exercise and recovery plans. These were the tools I brought to the gym. Going forward, I intend to continue to employ these tools to meet new challenges. Regardless of how fit you are now, these tools can help you get stronger, fitter and healthier. If your goal is to get stronger, then make a plan, work the plan, and hit the iron.

The Art of Preventing Procrastination

pocket-watch-2036304_960_720.jpg

I’ve been told procrastination is a major hurdle people have to overcome. I wouldn’t know about that: I never had a problem with procrastination.

I’m not going to discuss how to overcome procrastination. There are plenty of articles out there that teach you how to do that. What I am going to articulate here is how to structure your mind so that procrastination isn’t an option. Productivity becomes your default setting, and you’ll never catch yourself putting off to later what must be done now.

Get Motivated and Organised

Why do you do what you do?

Examine everything you do in your life: the books you read, the events you attend, the hobbies you pursue, the work you do. Why do you do them? What benefit do they bring to you, and what costs must you bear? What do you want out of life and how do these actions bring you closer to fulfilling your life’s work? Create your life goals and keep your eyes on the prize.

Goal orientation is critical. You must know why you do what you do. If something does not take you closer to your goal, you must discard it. This mindset prepares you to eliminate unnecessary tasks ordinary people use as excuses to procrastinate.

You have limited time and energy. Spend them doing things that benefit you. This is an investment: sink time and energy into something, and that something returns greater value to you. Put in eight hours a day at work and receive a salary, spend an hour exercising every day and get fitter, and so on. If you do something that doesn’t bring your closer to your goals, something that won’t help you in some way, you are burning time and energy on nothing.

Arrange your life around two kinds of actions: what you want to do and what you need to do. The former are things that give you meaning, inspiration and energy: your hobbies, spending time with your family, building a business, volunteer work. The latter are things that you must do so you can get on with the former: taxes, chores, difficult training, tedious but necessary administrative work.

Discard everything else.

If something does not bring you closer to fulfilling your dreams and ambitions, it does not serve you and must be discarded. Every little thing, be it puttering around the kitchen during crunch time, dropping work to sweep the floor, daydreaming of your next meal when you’re studying, must be identified, stopped and discarded. This frees time and energy so you can focus on the things that you love and the things that must be done.

Focus and discipline is paramount. Leave no room for distractions. My work table holds my mouse and computer — nothing else. When working, I open only the programs and tabs I need — nothing else. Energy goes where your attention goes, and you want to pour your energies into doing things that offer a return on investment. Channel your attention accordingly.

Act Resolutely

Once you know what you want and need to do, resolve to commit a hundred percent of yourself. It doesn’t matter how small or large a task is: if you can commit a hundred percent to the smallest job, you can commit a hundred percent to the largest. Resolve yourself to never work half-heartedly and to accept nothing less than excellence, if not perfection. Leave no gap for excuses and distractions to wear down your will and steal time and energy through little acts of procrastination.

Recognise that nobody else will do the work for you — especially the unpleasant things that need to be done. Resolve yourself to tackle the most pressing and most difficult tasks to the utmost of your ability. Once you’re done with them, you’ll be left with the things you want to do, and doing the things you do want to do will re-energise you.

This is not to say that you should recklessly attack your labours. Working smart is as important as working hard. Sort your tasks by deadlines and difficulty, then break out the large tasks into smaller, manageable chunks. Set measurable goals and realistic timeframes for yourself. Unpleasant work never ends, but if you can complete enough of it every day to keep you afloat and keep yourself aligned with your long-term goals, you’ll have the space and energy to do the things that inspire you and fulfil your dreams.

Embrace the Suck

It won’t always be sunshine and roses. You’re not going to like everything you do. Inevitably you’ll have to do something you hate, and the emotional reaction that arises will present a convincing case to shun the task. In the face of such feelings, there is only one acceptable course of action.

Embrace the suck.

When you see yourself facing an arduous but necessary task, calm yourself with deep, regular breaths. You may feel disgust, annoyance, displeasure or some other negative emotion. This is perfectly natural, but these emotions won’t help you. As you breathe, acknowledge the existence of these emotions on the inhale, then release them on the exhale. If you need help with this, as you breathe, think the following statement:

I acknowledge that I am feeling angry/sad/unpleasant/disgusted/afraid/(insert emotion here). Nonetheless, I must and I will complete this task. I release this emotion with my breath and commit myself fully to its completion.

If you need to, say it out loud. Recognise what you are feeling and let it go. That emotion is a message from your ego, pointing out how unpleasant something is. It is a useful message, but only so far as it is a reminder of what you dislike. It does not help you with the task at hand. By calmly but resolutely discarding the negative emotion, you are freeing yourself to bring the full weight of your talents and intelligence to bear on your task without inflicting unnecessary psychic harm on yourself.

As you grow more proficient, you can do this faster and more smoothly. At a high enough level, you can sense the emotion and discard it in the space of a breath. Without this emotional pain, you have no disincentive to put off needed work.

Alternatively, let the negative emotion fuel you. Let it fill every cell of your being, becoming the fuel that lets you power through the task. Recognise why you dislike doing something, and use that reason to give yourself motivation to do it properly. Here’s an example:

  1. I hate doing my taxes.
  2. I hate doing my taxes because it is tedious and time-consuming.
  3. I hate doing my taxes so much, I’m going to get them done right now so I won’t waste more time than I have to, and so I’ll be able to do the stuff I like later.

This probably works best if you experience powerful energising emotions like anger when you encounter that task. If a task makes you feel repulsed by it, amplifying that emotion will simply give you a greater disincentive to not do it.

Regardless of the tactic you choose, you must tackle the task NOW. Accept no excuses from yourself. The only reason to hold off doing something is if doing so will put you in a better position, such as getting friends to help you, getting information from elsewhere, or letting an adversary wear himself out before meeting him in the field of battle. If you will not gain an advantage by waiting on it, attack the problem immediately and decisively. Commit yourself fully to the task and keep going until it’s done.

Re-energise Yourself

Attacking difficult tasks will expend more energy and willpower than easy tasks or things that you enjoy. At some point you’ll run out of energy. It’s impossible to keep a fire burning when all you have left is ashes. When you’re burnt out, it’s easy to keep pushing back tasks. This isn’t procrastination so much as legitimate exhaustion, but procrastination sprouts from the seed of exhaustion; it’s easy to tell yourself you’re still tired even if you’re ready to go again. Thus, you must keep yourself in a state of high energy.

There are two ways to maintain high energy. The first is to restore yourself by taking breaks. The second is to do the things you love, the things that create energy for you and maintain your momentum.

Understand what helps you recover your energy. Sleep, quality time with your loved ones, your hobbies, whatever it may be. Some blessed people can perfectly align their interests and work, so the things they do keep them motivated all the time. If you can’t reach this rarefied state of existence, it is perfectly fine. Simply schedule triggers for breaks.

There are plenty of articles that advise working in bursts of 30 to 45 minutes and taking time off to recover. If this is how you work, do it. I’m not like that.

My mind operates in two modes. In regular mode, doing things I don’t particularly enjoy or actively dislike, short bursts of maximal concentration do help. Working at a task for 45 minutes to an hour will trigger a stop for a break, at which time I’ll walk away from the computer and do something else for a while.

But when I’m engaged in a flow state, like when I’m writing or doing something that requires my utmost attention, time loses relevance. If I stopped at regular intervals I would merely be breaking my flow and reducing productivity. Instead, I set an event trigger: the completion of a goal, such as completing a chapter or an article, triggers a stop for a break, not the passage of time. Once set, I ride the flow state all the way to the end, regardless of how much time it takes. And even so, if I’m still in the zone when I hit the trigger, I won’t stop. I’ll maintain the momentum and keep going until fatigue takes over. Or until I’m done for the day.

Victor Pride wrote about this phenomenon in New World Ronin. Everyday tasks, what he calls black and white work, are boring but necessary, and can be dealt with through multitasking. But full color work, creative work, demands your complete time and energy; you have to keep at it, keep the momentum going, and ride the wave until you are done. No matter how long it takes. The work itself energises you, so you don’t have to take a break.

Energy–physical, mental and emotional–is the fuel of life and the necessary ingredient to success. The secret to success is to keep yourself in a state of high energy. If you have to do work that you hate, take time outs regularly to keep up your energy. If you’re doing work you love, work that keeps you energised, maintain the momentum and do not stop.

Productivity is a Mindset

Procrastination is human. But so is productivity.

Understand yourself. Understand what keeps you going on and on and on. Understand what you despise, what makes you feel like you’re being dragged through the mud. Set in place habits that allow you to maximise the former and manage the latter. By taking away distractions and temptations, and keeping yourself in a state of high energy, you allow no room for procrastination to seep in.

Productivity is a state of mind — and with the right mindset, success becomes an inevitability.

Notes On Navigating An Overwhelming World

cover

The developed world is harsh on people with hypersensitive senses. The screeching of brakes and tooting of car horns, dazzling and ultravivid colours in every direction, audiovisual assaults from televisions and speakers and screens, the constant demands for attention even as the world wears you down. It can’t kill you. It only makes you feel you’re losing your mind.

I grew up with hyperhearing, hypertactility and synesthesia. Sensory issues have haunted me for my entire life. Skin-on-skin contact has always been painful, especially if someone touches me without warning. Light exerts subtle pressures on my skin–dawn is gentle and soothing; afternoon carries the confidence of maturity; evening light is elderly but accepting; artificial white light is sterile–and when darkness falls it feels like a weight has lifted off me. When someone or something moves within my line of sight I feel a ghost of a sensation creeping across my face, as though my eyes are attempting to mirror the motion. I prefer the harsh but tough texture of 1000D cordura to slick but shallow PVC or plastics of pleather most commercial bags are made of. I have heard phones vibrating over the chatter of a noisy food court and heard the low-pitched rubbery tones emitted by a strand of hair being rubbed between my fingers.

As I grow older, my senses have grown more acute. When I took up kali, every clash of naked sticks was a blinding white blast that left a painful ringing in my ears. When shopping for winter clothing, I ran my finger across a down jacket, producing a high-pitched scratching that bit into my bones. Simply touching the material, much less wearing it, was unbearable. During infrequent trips to cities and malls, I have to brace myself for a constant sensory assault. Sitting in an empty train car offers temporary respite — until the inevitable metallic yellow screeching of metal on metal as the train pulls into a station. I can hear people perfectly well through noise cancelling headphones. My neighbour types on a mechanical keyboard every day, and the only reason I can tolerate it is because he lives a block away. I don’t watch English or other language dubs of movies or anime if I can; the dyssynchrony between words and lip movements is jarring, and many English voice actors are too high-pitched for my ears. I can’t stand ASMR performances; they trigger rage instead of euphoria. I barely even talk on the phone these days: when I do I need to process streams of colours and sounds flowing into complex textured shapes against a flat immobile wall of deepest black, and from this flood of sensory input identify words and phrases, reconstruct sentences, interpret meaning, and construct a reply within milliseconds.

The human brain can only absorb and process so much at a time. In my youth, prolonged exposure to loud noises and tactile sensation led to mental shutdowns and meltdowns.

A shutdown is like withdrawing into a shell and switching off all non-existence-critical life processes. Speech becomes meaningless babble. Emotions run wild, even if body language suggests placidness. Every remaining erg of energy is focused inward on maintaining the remnants of sanity; there is nothing left to frame a coherent thought, to speak a word, to voluntarily move a muscle.

A meltdown is the opposite. It is a lashing out at the world. It is pent-up frustration and dammed-up emotional and physical and psychic pain erupting at once. It is a physical expression of internal turmoil and sensory overload. A gentle breeze becomes a salted knife slicing off your skin; a caress transforms into acidic fire; a whispered word is a deep penetrating bomb delivering a payload of razors and chaff.

During especially stressful periods I logged an average of one meltdown a day, sometimes two. When I was younger I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I was feeling; later, when I did, only a handful of people believed me and even fewer respected it.

I will not spend my days fearful of the next meltdown. I will not be battered all my life. This world will not accommodate me — but I can adapt.

Life on a Wrong Planet

balance

Over the years I developed a number of adaptations to the modern world. To others it may seem eccentric, quirky or otherwise unusual. I don’t care — they help me survive, and that is the highest measure of an adaptation.

I keep my workspace quiet and tidy at all times. When working, the loudest sound I permit is the fan and music at low volume. Usually I work in silence. Spending hours on end without distractions sharpens the mind and concentration, allowing totality of focus on the task at hand.

When shopping for clothing and electronics, I check technical specifications online, create a shortlist of goods, and extensively test the shortlisted candidates in person. I handle them, weigh them, run my hands down them, paying careful attention to sensory input. A single failure in any category is an automatic disqualification. I shun noisy mechanical keyboards, cheap plasticky mice, clothes that offend my eyes, or anything that poses undue discomfort. Usually that means paying for high-end goods, but the price is always worth it.

I talk to people primarily by text message or in person. Phone calls are infrequent and usually to the point, and only if it’s worth the massive energy expenditure required. Long business calls are so draining that I usually have to take time off just to recover from them. I learned not to push myself if I don’t have to, instead taking the time to recover my energy.

When moving through a crowd I utilize footwork from martial arts. It’s more than just practice; it allows me to avoid touching people. Even the slightest brush against human skin is jarring. Timing, distance, weight transfer become extremely important when you have a powerful disincentive against touch. And when you can feel range and motion, integrating that sensation into your movements becomes an exercise in self-awareness and body dynamics.

When the little things define how well you get through the day, you pay attention to the things nobody else notices. I tape down my sticks to absorb sound. I walk on the balls of my feet because the Singaporean shuffle is rough and grating. I pick up and move stuff instead of dragging them and creating painful sound. I strive to speak clearly and use perfect English because Singlish is painful to process. I try to predict areas with loud noises and avoid them if I can.

This isn’t to say I spend my life evading sensory input altogether. The world won’t always respect my needs and desires. So I train myself to face up to it.

I enter arcades and will myself to linger, to function in spite of the razzle-dazzle. I don’t silence noisy children or screaming babies around me if they don’t pose a sanity risk. I attend conventions and conferences if I’m interested in them, and take measures to mitigate sensory input. And when things get unbearable, I break out my personal protective equipment.

ISOLATE