chronic condition | productivity
In 2007, Mark Leavitt found out at 57 that he had heart disease, like his father, uncle, and grandfather. In this talk, he shares how he uses data to hack his habits and what he learned from the experiment. The results of his data helped him change a majority of his lifestyle habits.
Mark Leavitt Hacking Habits
My name is Mark Leavitt, I’m going to share the results of a habit – to change major lifestyle habits. This is something I did not take on out of curiosity I would like to tell you that, but I took it out of necessity because in 2007 I found out I had the same things my father my uncle and my grandfather all had. I had heart disease at the age of 57. So that was the motivation for this experiment. There’s no shortage of motivation.
Here’s the experimental subject then, same person, and if you read these statistics you’d probably come to the same conclusion as any doctor would, this looks like a candidate for heart problems, and I was. I never liked athletics. I was always the last one chosen as a team, I didn’t like getting sweaty. I liked to work with my brain and my head. I was sedentary and ate a typical American diet, didn’t do any workouts.
Can I change this with Quantified Self techniques? It wasn’t called that in 2007, I just called it applying what knowledge I had. I had a kind of a four prong approach, not rigidly in this order, the four principles; understand it, model it, track it, and then hack it and I’ll kind of explain each of those.
First comes learning. I actually thought I had a lot of learning. I actually trained as a physician and practiced medicine for 10 years, so I thought gee I know everything there is to know about this. It turns out that medical science has a gapping big hole when it comes to self-mastery. Because the whole medical model is about you come, I diagnose you, I give you a pill, you get better and all the prophets are behind that to.
So I had to start reading other stuff, and the popular literature is sometimes better. So here’s three books I found helpful; I seem to like books with yellow covers.
Then I modeled my brain and you can imagine how challenging that was. So I kept it real simple; two control loops. An inner loop which is like the colonel and operating system, it handles stuff in the background. That’s where your habits live. It’s the reptilian brain. It want’s food and it wants sex and it wants it now.
Then there is an outer loop which is the frontal lobe, its more advanced, it’s only in higher animals and that where you decide to go to college and get a Ph.D. and you pause and you plan. But how do you make these two interact more affectively?
So my model for that is tracking brings visibility of that unconscious stuff, that habit behavior up to the advanced level, and hacking let’s your advanced brain stick a screwdriver in or a wrench in or a probe an change the way that primitive brain works. And it’s not perfect but together you kind of have the two operating more corporately. Rather than having your primitive brain sabotage the plans of the smart brain.
So let’s look at those three habits and what kind of progress I made. So the big one was weight, nutrition, eating. So I had a lot of motivation. I went on a low fat diet, a American Heart Association diet and boom, the weight went down to like 195 to 155. But then the typical next thing is the backslide. The weight starts slowly creeping up and so slowly know no one notices and you don’t notice.
So I was tracking it with an Excel spreadsheet and I saw it but apparently I didn’t like it and I retired in 2010 and it looks like I quite tracking to. So let’s score this a big hashtag fail. But the good thing about failure is that’s the best way to learn, so I tried it again.
Better visualization. You can see there’s a green bar when the weight goes down and red when it goes up. I went completely vegan. Now, I don’t have to decide at the dinner table kale or chocolate cake. The chocolate cake doesn’t come in the house, only healthy foods get bought at the store. You have willpower in the store because you’re not about to eat. Once you are sitting down with a fork in your hand, that red primitive brain, that’s in charge. Very hard.
So you can see what my weight did as a result; it stabilized. This is the bicycle thing, this is because I love computing and I wasn’t willing to give up my seat time. So I hacked it so that with the keyboard and my arms and my knees could move, so I attached a mini-elliptical exerciser that goes through a micro-processor and gives it real time feedback, with a little light that goes red or green or yellow, depending if you’re peddling of loafing and then it all gets tracked into my tracker so I can actually graph it. so this is sufficiently crazy probably and anything but a QS conference would get me kicked out.
So here’s a graph; the purple is the revs and the blue is actual steps because I have a Fitbit that I use to track steps. You can see here that the goal here is to have a composite so you want to be actually active with the Fitbit. Fitbit doesn’t measure the peddles, but sometimes I get some boost from the seat, especially when I’m working on a computing project. And apparently I had a major project back then which was actually building the tracker, so it’s kind of self-referential. You get some exercise building your exercise equipment.
The final habit was strength training. You know lifting weights was actually just as important as aerobic exercise to improve heart health. So I got motivated from the heart problem. I started lifting weights and you can see I got up there. Those are weekly total strength time reps, so like total weight lifted I a week and you can see again the backslide, and I started missing times and you can see the dip where I’m only doing it twice a week or once a week or skipping the week, so I had to hack this.
This to me was very much a willpower thing; when you miss a session its willpower. So I was doing it before and after my aerobics, and that’s where you’re willpower is lowest because you’re physically exhausted. Your will power is highest in the morning so move it to the morning. Your willpower is highest when your glucose is rising – not when it’s high; when it’s rising. So eat an orange, do a workout, reward yourself with breakfast. And as you can see, look at the compliance rate it’s then. It’s basically 96% compliance and more strength.
That little gap, I wore out my gym. I broke the cable and I couldn’t get a replacement cable so that gave em a little hole in it. so that’s the results and to summarize, my weight down from 190 down to 147 pounds. From sedentary to averaging five miles or 10,000 steps a day, still not an athlete but at least not a slug, and from basically no strength training to three workouts a week with good compliance.
So what have I learned?
Well first I learned that my lifelong habits can be changed. I’m not telling anyone else whether they can or they can’t, but choose to use my experience and in my case I now have confidence. I can change my habits and I can maintain good ones.
Science is great and it helps to understand what’s going on, but beware it’s limited because science has not been motivated to study the sorts of things that many of us are doing. Like in the talk of diabetes, there’s insufficient research going on the patient side of it. You know for me I’m a kind of a geeky guy, this mental model is very important. So if you’re going to hack something you need to understand how it works. So understanding what you’re doing is way better than just someone giving you a cookbook or a formula and telling you what to do.
So the last two things are expect your first attempt to fail, treat it as a learning experience and go through track, hack, iterations and as in every case you saw my first attempt wasn’t so good, but then when you learn from it you can hack in there and change it and make it much better. So my message is basically one of encouragement to all of you. I don’t know what’s applicable from my work to yours. If there’s anything, grab it, take it. I’m happy to talk to you. I’m actually going to be in an office hour tomorrow with Ester Gokley, because we’re working on some posture hacking things together. Or you can catch me anytime because I love to talk about it and it’s also up on my website; marklevitt.com. so I’ll stop there and I’ll take your questions thank you.