I’ve been debating for a while whether I wanted to write this post, as the subject matter deviates greatly from the technical and professional writing I normally offer here. I decided to do so because my recent dive into fitness is intertwined with my professional life and affects how I approach my day, so I think it has bearing on my life as a 21st-century tech worker firmly planted in middle age.
I need to thank everyone who follows me on social media for putting up with my various “war on cubicle body” posts. You have been part of my publicly crowd-sourcing accountability for my fitness-related goals. I’ll dig into that more deeply later on.
I have been somewhat surprised, on social media and in person, to the reception “the war” has received. I expected the reception to be positive, which it has been, due to the supportive nature of the people in my extended circle. I was more surprised by the number of people who have told me it has motivated them to kick-start their own journey. I am truly humbled by that. Finally, I’ve also gotten a good dose of the expected “I don’t know how you do it” and “Where do you find the time?” comments. Because this begins to get at the conundrum faced by many tech and information workers in today’s society, I decided this post may be relevant. Settle in, there’s no TL;DR nor will I split it into parts.
For starters, I won’t be discussing in detail any specific exercises that I do. It’s really the least important part of what I’ve needed to do and it’s also going to be different for everyone. So this is really going to be about one man’s effort to change his mindset to incorporate fitness into his daily routine.
First, let me address “cubicle body.” Since February of 2017, I have worked remotely full-time for Spatial Networks, which is headquartered in St. Petersburg, Florida. I do not work in a cubicle. I have a nice home office in a rural part of Maryland with a view of trees out my back window. Prior to that, however, I spent 24 years as a federal contractor and consultant. The last 15 years were a rewarding experience with a small company, where I was a partner, implementing geospatial systems for various customers, including the US Navy.
I worked full-time on a Navy base, sitting in a cubicle, for several years. It was a very sedentary existence and, in my mid-40s, it was taking a physical toll. When I made the jump to Spatial Networks, the first thing I did was join a local gym. Within 24 hours, I had heard from one of their trainers. I puttered about the gym for a few visits and then scheduled an appointment with the trainer after I was done with some work-related travel.
To put it bluntly, I was not a great customer. I pretty much only went to the gym on training days and did nothing at home in between. I joined some group sessions through the summer with pretty much the same pattern. The summer finished up with two consecutive weeks of travel. The first was a family vacation and the second was Boston for FOSS4G. At the end of those two weeks, I felt like hell and had lost whatever minimal progress I had made to that point. It was at this point that the phrase “cubicle body” first occurred to me. I may not have worked in a cubicle anymore but, as far as my body was concerned, I still did.
I’m not sure if my trainer was surprised to hear from me when I got back, but I told her I wanted to get serious. “Getting serious” meant doing a hell of a lot of mental work, so I began reaching back. Way back.
I have struggled with “my weight” for most of my adult life. As a result, I’ve done everything at least once. I was a gym rat for a time in my early 20s. Later, I did keto back when it was called “Atkins.” I also did Weight Watchers for a time. All of these things worked temporarily, but I always failed at maintenance. It was time to figure out why.
As I mentioned before, I spent most of my career as a consultant. What that looks like in real life is that you are brought in for your expertise and you are given a specific task with a specific deadline. You deliver….and then you’re done. It also means you almost never have ownership of a project and that affects your approach to leadership, negotiation, and time management. It almost always means your time is never really your own and you have to make sure you don’t waste anyone else’s time. As a consultant, you are always the outsider, so the pressure to add value is always there.
After 24 years, the operational tempo of consulting was baked into my mindset. I was great at driving toward a goal but had almost no experience in steady-state operations and maintenance. Sound familiar?
When I gave myself a goal of losing 30 pounds, I could drive mercilessly to it. I’ve lost 30 – 40 pounds several times in my life. But once the goal was achieved, I very consistently lost my way. I didn’t know how to maintain.
There was also a bit of self-honesty to really kick-start my fitness goals. I had become really good at telling myself I didn’t have time for fitness. Why not walk at lunch? They had roads closed for gun testing. Why not go to the gym in the morning? Getting up at 4:00 am every day was exhausting by the end of the week. In the evening? Too many activities with the kids. Bottom line: I had plenty of excuses, but I only had one real reason. That reason was that I kept making up excuses.
So here I was in September of 2017, going to meet my trainer, and basically starting from scratch. I needed a plan. I can do plans. I’m a consultant. I’ve done plans for my whole career. And then it dawned on me.
The very same consulting mentality that had always gotten in my way was the key to getting started. It started with the recognition that my trainer was a professional and, every time I showed up having not worked out since I last saw her, I was wasting her time. In my own consulting career, I had written plenty of ‘shelf-ware’ that had never gotten deployed, but for which I had gotten paid. The money was nice, but no developer ever feels good about writing software that they know won’t get used. There was no way I was going to let myself become shelf-ware for my trainer.
I established a regular schedule that accommodated my work day. I typically worked with my trainer in the morning before my co-workers at HQ were showing up. Step one of the consultant’s playbook was implemented: don’t waste the time of other professionals.
Next, I needed accountability. In my consulting career, this took the form of the ‘in-process review,’ which were interim checks as you were driving toward a deliverable. This is where my first tweets about the “war on cubicle body” began. I was not crowd-sourcing motivation, but accountability. By fighting the war in public, there were witnesses. Another component of accountability was syncing my workout schedule with when I knew my trainer was working with others or teaching a class so that I would be seen doing the things I needed to do.
But there was still one important component missing: milestones and deliverables. So I told my trainer I wanted to run a 5K and I had picked one out in early December. I had my deliverable. I would run that race and align everything around that. My trainer came up with a training plan for running and began aligning our strength and core workouts to what was appropriate for running.
The first morning of training, I had to run a mile. One mile. It sucked and I thought I was going to die, but I did it. And the next one, and the 1.5 miles on Saturday. I had a deliverable to meet.
By the time I ran that 5K eight weeks later, the actual race was the third 5K I had run that week. The body’s ability to respond is incredible. It is exceeded only by the mind’s ability to limit, if we let it.
So I’m done, right? Success story. Cubicle body has been defeated.
As I mentioned previously, I’m great at hitting milestones. What was now needed was the steady-state maintenance that had always eluded me and I could already feel the doubt creeping in. “What now?”
I’ve taught a leadership course for a few years now. I’ve learned a lot during that process, but the most important thing I’ve learned is that you can’t lead others until you first lead yourself.
Now was the time for self-leadership and the self-honesty I mentioned earlier. I examined all of my excuse-making habits and thought about what my mind felt like as I was doing it. I then tried to be aware of it creeping in. That time when my youngest rolls out the door for school and I settle in for a little coffee while reviewing my day’s schedule? That’s it right there.
It’s so easy. Reviewing your schedule is unassailable. It’s an essential part of planning. You have to do it.
Agreed. So do it when you get back from your run.
It was that and a million other little habits that needed to change. This was nothing more than a bit of self-applied cognitive behavioral therapy, but the key was applying it.
I’ve also continued to do what’s worked. So I keep posting about “the war” and I keep a race (milestone) on the calendar at all times. I’ve run three 5K’s and a 10K this year so far. Races trail off here in the summer due to the heat, so I was at risk of losing momentum. My solution was to schedule an ambitious milestone. I signed up for the Army Ten Miler in October. Training for that will keep me focused all summer.
I’ve also stopped doing what didn’t work. I don’t step on a scale very often. I do so occasionally at the gym to measure body fat. Otherwise, no. Weight was a false indicator for me as well as being a demotivator when it wasn’t dropping as I expected. There are a lot of other fitness metrics to work with. If I hit those, the weight will take care of itself.
Victory declared? No.
I’ve been here before. I’ve focused on fitness before and have kept it together longer than my current streak. This time needs to be permanent. My real goal, my real milestone, is to be around and healthy for all of my family’s upcoming milestones.
For that to happen, the real work will be to leave the consulting mindset behind and get better at the steady state. I’m not there yet, so I’ll keep stringing together milestones as long as I need to.
That was the long-winded story of the war on cubicle body to this point. My workouts and my running and my asthma management techniques turned out not to be core. The core of this, for me, has been the mental work required to be honest with myself. I am now in the process of back-porting that into to my professional life to keep getting better there as well. After all, I’m not a consultant anymore.
I’ve never been a big proponent of the idea of ‘work/life balance’ because I think it sets up a false dichotomy. There is just life and all of our endeavors are part of it. What we can hope for is that each endeavor helps us learn and grow in ways that are applicable to the others. Getting in touch with my consulting mindset has helped me address my fitness goals. My hope is that the mental work needed to build long-term fitness habits will help me finally put the consulting mindset to rest and give me new tools to apply to my professional endeavors.
If you’ve stuck it out this long, thank you for reading. If you’ve seen any of my social media posts along the way, thank you for the support and accountability. Even if you didn’t know that’s what you were doing, you have helped tremendously.