Category Archives: Lifehacks


My Trial of the “Geek to Freak” Weight Training Technique

I’ve learned a lot from a guy many people love and many others love to hate. There’s no question he does things in controversial ways, and I don’t doubt the reports of his ruthlessness when it comes to his business ends. Nonetheless, he’s dispensed a lot of sound (if not always original) advice.

The guy I’m talking about is Tim Ferriss. He wrote a blog post a little while back called “From Geek to Freak: How I Gained 34 lbs. of Muscle in 4 Weeks”. I found that post at a time when I’d been struggling to figure out how to weight train correctly. I thought surely there must be some good scientific information on weight training, but what I found online (I later found a pretty good book) was a massive mish-mash of pseudoscience and mythology.

What I wanted was to build some muscle mass to improve my strength and appearance. The only thing that’s ever worked for me before for that purpose was lap swimming, and it took a ton of time and a nearby pool. I have neither of those now, so I decided to give Tim’s technique of lifting large weights for only a few reps a try. It promised significant improvement in only about 30 minutes per workout, twice per week. I was skeptical, and my wife was doubly skeptical.

To avoid as much bias as I could, I logged my progress in a Google Spreadsheet and published it here. I logged other observations on Think, Try, Learn’s new “Edison” platform, also publicly visible: Attempting the “Geek to Freak” muscle building technique.

The short version: it worked splendidly! Both my wife and I were pleasantly surprised at the results.

Long version:

It was very important to keep my protein and overall calorie intake up to the level I was burning. Using whey protein I maxed out my safe weight training protein allowance every day, and I used to track all of my nutrition (which I do when losing weight anyway). I noticed that whenever I didn’t eat enough calories I stalled out pretty badly. If I hadn’t been tracking my nutrition and my lifting stats I probably would have been mystified as to the reason for my trouble, or just frustrated that I wasn’t making progress. I’ve had that problem before, and realized in retrospect that I was able to gain muscle well while swimming because I was eating things like two steaks or an entire wok of home-made General Tso’s Chicken every night for dinner. (Sort of a ‘duh’ thing now, right?)

At first I was trying to both lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. That worked for a week or two, but then I quickly stalled out on the muscle gain. I read a bit about this and it seems that when you first start a weight training regimen, there’s a ‘honeymoon’ period where your untrained muscles grow to meet the new load. After that period, I had to give up on losing fat simultaneously. However, now that I’m taking a break I’m finding it’s easier to lose weight as my increased muscle mass burns more calories per day even at rest. (I injured my leg stepping over a baby gate and then had to travel a bit. I’m planning on getting back to the weight training soon.)

I tried another one of Tims’ ‘hacks’ to improve my reading speed and found less dramatic results. His metrics for that technique are biased in favor of finding an improvement, even if there isn’t really one. I also logged my results carefully there and abandoned the technique after a few trials.

In the end, the Think, Try, Learn treat-everything-as-an-experiment approach worked well for me in vetting suggested lifehacks. I’m going to continue using both the weight training technique when I want to gain muscle, and the TTL experiment approach for trying new things.

Have you tried any experiments like this?

Review: Where the !@#% did my day go?

I’ve been using daily planning techniques, in the form of “big rocks”, since October 2007. In fact, I left a comment on Matthew Cornell’s blog about it about a year ago (his post is here).

Matt’s been testing and honing his ideas on daily planning as an addition to a GTD-like system, and I recently had the pleasure of reviewing the results: his new eBook on daily planning, Where the !@#% did my day go?.

Despite having practiced daily planning paired with GTD for almost two years (and GTD for nearly four), I found several new gems in the book. In particular, the practice of inserting everything into the daily plan, including calendar and inbox-checking tasks, is new to me and will help streamline my current process. I opted to skip the ‘getting started’ phase of the book and the one-week challenge, given my experience, but I found that they really covered the nuances of the practice well. Furthermore, every pitfall that I’ve encountered in daily planning was addressed by Matt later in the book.

Matt also detailed a number of experiments to try, to help hone the system for one’s individual needs. These covered every single experiment and metric I’ve run on my daily planning, and added several more that I’m considering trying. Ultimately he suggests trying for a “touchdown” — finishing all of the tasks on the list. This is the rule for me, rather than the exception. It provides a really nice feeling of satisfaction at the end of the day, a feeling I couldn’t get from looking at my list of remaining, actionable tasks in PHPMyGTD (20-80 normally, I prefer to keep it below 40).

I found very little to criticize in the book, and most of it can be traced back to personal preference. For instance, Matt mentioned the use of an accountability partner for holding to one’s daily plans. For me this makes a massive difference in my discipline, enough that I created, a site for finding accountability partners. (It’s unfortunately not really active at the moment.) I also find it really helpful to estimate the time required for each task explicitly and then write it down, reporting back to my accountability partner each day how the actual times matched up to the estimates. On the whole, however, the book is nothing short of an excellent introduction and manual for daily planning practice. If only this book had been in my hands two years ago when I started this practice, I could have saved myself months of tinkering and lost time.

Did You Do It?

Inspired by Matthew Cornell’s post on combining daily planning with an accountability partner, I had been doing the same for a while. I found that it worked really well. I telecommute, and most of the day I don’t directly interact with anyone, much less people from work that might hold me accountable. Just knowing that at the end of the day, I had someone to report to on how I stuck to my plan, made a huge difference in my discipline. However, it didn’t work out for my partner — he wasn’t getting the same benefits that I was.

As a result of some conversation in the comments of another of Matthew’s posts, I decided to get a domain and start up a simple site ( for finding accountability partners. It took a little finagling to get an Italian domain name, but I owe one of my fellow graduate students a case of beer for the effort he undertook to get the domain for me. It seems you must be a European citizen to get an Italian domain name, and they require arcane things like faxing signed forms and so on. I think the name has a nice ring to it.

So far the site hasn’t really gotten much traffic. One guy found it via my Tweets on the subject and we just started the accountability partner thing today (yay!), so in a sense it’s been a successful venture. On the other hand, I had grander visions for the site. I wonder if I should broaden the focus a bit from productivity-related accountability partners to any accountability partners? There’s a major Christian accountability scene, and I didn’t really want them to dominate the board, but maybe it’s not worth worrying about.

Have you ever thought about working with an accountability partner? If you want to, and you feel like you’ve got a good grasp on your productivity otherwise, come post something at If you want a little more coaching, I understand that Matthew does a telecoaching series on daily planning and accountability. It might help get you off to a good start before you find your own accountability partner.

Death Stats

Inspired by this blog post by Tim Ferriss and the letter “On the shortness of life” by Lucius Seneca contained therein, I created a “death stats” script to help remind me to make good use of the time that I have left.

Of course, I could die in a car accident any day, but we have to think of these things practically and probabilistically.

The script runs in Bash — you’ll need a Mac or Linux machine, or Cygwin on Windows I suppose, in order to run it. I have it running on my webserver and emailing me each morning via a cron job. The math should be pretty self-explanatory, and you could easily add your own metrics. Note that I’ve changed my exact birth date for the posted script here, since in some situations that could be considered confidential information.

The estimated death date I got using the “Normal” mode of the Death Clock.

# Prep
SECONDSLEFT=$((`date -d $DEATHDATE "+%s"`-`date "+%s"`))
SECONDSTOTAL=$((`date -d $DEATHDATE "+%s"`-`date -d $BIRTHDATE "+%s"`))
# There's probably a nicer way to format the percentage but this works
PCTOVER=`echo "scale=2; (($SECONDSTOTAL - $SECONDSLEFT) / $SECONDSTOTAL)*100" | bc | sed "s/\.00//"`
# Output
echo "Percent Over: $PCTOVER"
echo "Days Left: $DAYSLEFT"
echo "Years Left: $YEARSLEFT"

The output looks like this (the numbers are made up):

Percent Over: 29
Days Left: 19002
Years Left: 51

I do hope and think it reasonably likely that Ray Kurzweil is right, and that my life could be substantially extended, but I’m not counting on it, and I don’t think I should — it would kind of defeat the purpose here. Read the letter by Seneca in Tim Ferriss’ post to see what I mean.

Suggestions for improvements to the script are welcome.

NB: This doesn’t work on OS X, because the date command is different.