I write almost every day. My goal is a thousand words a day. That’s almost three pages of single spaced text. I journal everyday as well. I’m still trying to find the journal I really like the most. So far I’m using a simple journal from Amazon, one from BestSelf, and another from Monk Journal. All work in their own fashion but just not quite how I’d like a journal to be for me.
The one thing I’ve come up with in my journaling is three very distinct things that I concentrate on every day. My top three priorities. These are a running theme throughout my cancer journey. They are:
These simple themes can have a multitude of meanings and are meant to cover a broad range of topics. They are my reminders for where I need to be spending the majority of my time. I, like most people, get sucked into many distractions. Social media being one of them. I can’t say that I really love it but it always draws me back in. I prefer Instagram and will briefly scroll facebook as my instagram posts cross over to that platform. These specific distractions generally (not always) have nothing to do with my three priorities. Sure, it would be easy to say, well I can learn something from social media or I can create and put something on social media. Let me explain why that’s not the case for me.
To create something, for my own priorities, is not something that’s as simple as an Instagram post. I want to create something that requires some type of deep work. Mindlessly posting to the internet doesn’t fulfill a need. Since being diagnosed with cancer and being unable to work, my deep work, my meaningful work, was inaccessible to me.
As a personal trainer, I would work with as many as thirty clients a week. Each would have a certain issue or goal that they were working towards. If we were concentrating on better movement, then I needed to assess and treat certain deficiencies and imbalances. This took a careful measure of where a client was and what they needed to do. If a client’s focus was fat loss then we needed to make sure that the time we spent together was utilized both in an effort to work them hard enough to elicit such measures but also the time was spent talking about actions that they could take outside the gym to help insure that what we were doing was going to be maximized. Another example would be if a client were solely interested in strength training and getting read for a powerlifting meet. How many weeks out were they? What was the weak point in each of the lifts that needed to be addressed? There were constant variables that needed to be taken into account in order to best create the most appropriate plan for that individual to compete at as high of a level as they could.
It was a welcomed challenge to try to meet the needs of individual clients. That’s why I loved personal training. I loved the personal aspect of it. I never took to boot camps or group classes quite as well because it lost that personal touch. It was running people through a system. I didn’t like systems. Every one person had an individual requirement that needed to be met. This for me was the deep work that gave me meaning. Not to say that it was the only important thing in my life but as far as work goes, it was fulfilling and there was immediate gratification. It made me feel good to hear a client say at the end of a workout, “thank you!” It meant a lot to me to have clients leave the gym often feeling better than when they had walked in. Whether it was physically, mentally, or emotionally, I wanted my clients to have found value in the time they spent with me. They were paying for it after all but it was also self-serving in that it made me feel good as well. It was an extremely gratifying mutual experience.
When my cancer had progressed to a point where the doctors didn’t want me to be around other people (in part due to physical fatigue and also immune worries), I was left with a bit of a void. Not that my life didn’t have meaning but I was no longer doing meaningful work. I needed something to at least supplement that void until I can get back to training. I started just by journaling and writing quotes out of the books I was reading. I found little things that resonated with me and wrote them down. I put these things everywhere. I would make notes in my phone. I found sticky notes and left them in the books or wrote them down in a notebook that I may or may not have lost. These quotes turned into my own thoughts and these thoughts got longer and longer.
I graduated myself from simple quotes and little thoughts to writing down more focused articles or blog entries. I started to organize my thoughts and saved them on my computer, making sure they were backed up and saved. While I had some original ideas, I was still standing on the shoulders of giants. I was borrowing ideas and elaborating on them in my own terms from my own perspective for my own situation. These would be thoughts to share or just to use as a springboard to build into a better article that could be used by a broader audience. The idea was to create something, to challenge myself, to push to have something that I could give to others, that forced me to “work” to create. It was my deep work.
Health is wealth. Sometimes it is hard to understand that until you don’t have your health. I want to say that I never really took my health for granted. I strived to maintain my health and did what I thought were all the right things. I ate well. I drank lots of fluids, mainly water. I exercised frequently with a relatively high intensity. I was thankful for my health and used it to do things with my family. I preached health, wellness, and longevity to my clients, friends, and family. I wanted people to share with me the joys of being able to do the things you love with the people you love. And to be able to do it for long periods of time.
Cancer made things difficult for me. Slowly how I felt started to progressively get worse. I had more bad days than good. I increasingly spent more time resting as well as more time at the cancer clinic getting either treatments or doctor visits. I still had time to train and I tried to but it was downregulated to walking or body weight exercises. I didn’t have the stamina for heavier lifting and my body was not able to recover as well from the heavier training sessions. If I did decide to lift heavy one day, it often had repercussions that lasted over several days. I altered my approach to my own training and started doing more volume work and working to build my stamina. While I had always recommended to most individuals that cardiovascular training was a necessary evil, I hadn’t always been an advocate for cardio in strength athletes but over the few years prior to my diagnosis I had increasingly been pushing more and more of my clients and training partners (myself included) in doing more cardiovascular work. In light of recent events and my current struggle, I found myself doing more and more cardio to make up for the lack of strength training that I could no longer endure.
As my training changed, my outlook on fitness didn’t. I still viewed it as a high priority but now I started to think more of it as a complete package. I started to get more precise in the amount of water specifically that I was drinking. I would not count caffeinated drinks like coffee towards my daily total. I continued to focus on protein as the main source of my caloric intake. I knew that protein would have the most protein sparing effect and while calories in general are necessary for recovery, protein was the mainstay for my caloric needs. I continued to exercise. While I no longer viewed my workouts as training, I still was very specific in my plan to exercise. That is to say, I made a plan and did my best to stick to it. The plan altered based on where I was in treatment and what I was capable of, but I always had a plan.
Like I said, health is wealth. Those with few wants are richer than those with more desires, regardless of what’s in the bank account. It’s a loosely paraphrased stoic quote. Sometimes, just being able to get out of bed and take a walk is worth more than anything else in the world. My goal is to continue to train. My goal is to get back to competing in powerlifting. My goal is to be 80 years old and still kicking ass in the gym. I won’t get there by rushing the process or ignoring my doctors’ warnings. I’ve come a long way but have a longer way still to go. I have to focus on the overall aspects of being healthy in order to be able to reach those goals. I have to focus on my health, not just my strength or nutrition, but all of it. So each day I write down “health” as one of my top priorities to complete that day. Daily focus with longevity in mind.
I would constantly tell people, “try to learn one thing everyday.” It could be something as simple as a useless fact. You’re forty seven more times likely to die from a lightning strike than a shark attack. My goal these days is to learn something specific about something that pertains to me. It could be something to make me a better writer to something that can make me a better personal trainer. The idea is to learn something relevant to my deep work.
Knowing that I was going to be out of work for an extended amount of time, my initial thought was that I would have all this free time to learn all these new things. My daughters take French in school, so I wanted to help them learn. I also at one time had been pretty fluent in Spanish. My thought was that I could learn French and rekindle my understanding of Spanish. All while picking back up the guitar, writing 1000-1500 words a day and reading a book a week. Oh yeah, and doing my cardio and exercising, and anything else that I thought might strike my fancy.
You can quickly see how I was starting to spread myself too thin and what started to happen was that I quickly became very disappointed in myself and my ability to complete a task. “Like butter spread over too much,” in a classic line from Tolkien. It took me several months of constant disappointment to eventually come to the conclusion that I needed to narrow my focus. A piano player doesn’t get better by practicing the violin. Sure it might be a nice distraction but at some point that piano player has to return to the piano and spend more time playing the piano to get better at the piano. See where I’m going with that? Piano, piano, piano. Repetitive work on the work that matters. I gained a good initial understanding of the basics of French and my Spanish got a bit better but at the expense of me not learning other things that might be of more beneficial use.
I narrowed my focus to more of my direct areas of learning. What were going to be the things that I needed to know? It was with some resignation that I pushed French to the back burner. I had a laundry list of books I wanted to read but narrowed those down to just a few specific books on topics that had more carry over to the topics I would write about. I even went so far as to cull my social media to only seeing the things that were relevant to what I wanted to learn and not just a whole host of random topics that I enjoyed. By narrowing my focus it gave me a greater perspective. It seems like a contradiction to say that but when we talk about the things we don’t know, there’s also a deeper layer of things we don’t know that we don’t know. There’s a knowledge black hole that we seemingly can’t look into because we’re still blinded by trying to learn the immediate things that we know we don’t know. Like trying to learn quantum physics before physics.
When digging into the realm of biomechanics and physiology, there needs to be a deeper understanding of neuroscience. One can’t talk about training and reward without understanding the science behind the chemical makeup of the brain along with pain and reward chemicals. While not critical in order to train yourself or your everyday clients, it certainly helps to better understand why people do what they do to help promote better habits. Digging past the first bit of understanding of any subject starts to peel away the layers revealing deeper and deeper subjects and areas that were previously unknown.
Einstein said, “once you stop learning, you start dying.” I think that’s a pretty significant quote. It might be associated with life but I’ve also heard a paraphrased quote that said, “if your business isn’t growing, it’s dying.” As a writer, a personal trainer, or anyone else for that matter, when you have some skin in the game you have to keep digging deeper. You have to keep learning. Whether it’s learning more about business strategy, more about your topic of expertise, or more about your customers. You can’t stop learning. As a cancer patient, I have to keep learning about my disease, it’s cure, and my life’s philosophy. Learning is a cornerstone for recovery and every nook and cranny needs to be explored in order to best shine a light on anything that could prove useful in my recovery. In that sense, Einstein’s quote has a much more literal sense. My life could depend upon my ability to learn.
Regardless of what I have to do each day. I write these three things down everyday. They are constant reminders of what I’m supposed to focus on. They are my guiding light. They have evolved through multiple iterations but in the end these are the most basic of a reminder that I can give myself. Each day may consist of some type of subset of each of these. Currently for Create I have reminders to write 1000 words every day. For Health, I have it boiled down to eight ounces of water every hour. Finally, for Learn, it’s as simple as needing to read twenty pages a day. I may write more. I may read more. I alternate days where my focus of Health is exercising or nutrition. But every single day I write down the main tenets of my overall focus which is Create, Health, and Learn.
These overarching concepts weren’t developed overnight but instead over months of journaling. Writing down my thoughts over and over, every day. There were a few days in the hospital where I missed it but overall I wake up every morning and write those words down in my journal. There may be days where I don’t write anything else down. More recently, however, there are more and more days where my journal keeps getting flooded with new ideas. I don’t force it in the journal like I do my writing. My journal is a springboard for my writing. The things I write may never see the light of day. They may never leave my computer but I write. My writing is my deep work that currently is some form of replacement for my real work until I can get back to personal training.
My journal is a reminder that my health is important. I have two young daughters that need their dad to be healthy and strong as they continue to grow up. I have a loving wife and I won’t let her go through this by herself. By reminding myself to take care of myself, I’m reminded of what I need to do to be healthy.
My journal is my reminder to never stop growing. By learning, I keep growing. I keep myself from dying across several different meanings. Learning brings a broader understanding to the world I live in and the areas where I feel I have the most productivity. The desire to learn, the curiosity of subjects, is akin to passion. Where passion wanes, curiosity flourishes. Curiosity drives the learning and continues to give meaning to my topics of learning.
Journaling itself isn’t enough. Journaling needs to be a journey of self-discovery. Let journaling bring out your own tenets. Write down what’s important and keep writing it down. You may discover that what’s important is actually something deeper or actually the opposite, you’ll discover that what’s important is something broader. Getting to basics or down to the bare bones takes time. It surprisingly doesn’t take much time out of the day but it may take several weeks or months. Don’t get discouraged with the outcome but enjoy the process. Find the joy in sitting down for only five minutes to reflect on your values. Let that process guide you and find your own compass.