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Task-Managing Series, Part 2: Optimal Method

20/09/2009 1 comment

Tasks2 copy

It has now been three weeks since I started the task-managing experiment and I have mainly been focusing on when and how to set my tasks. Here are my experiences, so far:

Ongoing List vs. New List Every Day

When I work with an ongoing to-do list, I simply have one list with all the tasks that need to get done and I add tasks and tick tasks off as I go along. If I don’t get a task done today, it will simply still be on the list tomorrow. Similarly, if I have a task I know I need to do in two days time, I simply write it down now, together with all the other tasks.

Stats:
Using an ongoing list and ta-da lists, I completed 17 out of 19 tasks during the course of one week. That is a good ratio, but as you can tell, I didn’t set very many tasks. This is mainly because an ongoing list gets crowded pretty quickly. It’s no real help if you have a list of 20 unsorted tasks in front of you, so with the ongoing list, I only wrote down the most essential tasks. This method required an average of 47 seconds per completed task.

Pros:
This method is very flexible and takes up a minimal amount of time. There is no re-writing of tasks and no scheduling involved. It’s probably the easiest method to follow and the fact that it encourages you to set only a few essential tasks per day can be a blessing.

Cons:
The downside of this method is how chaotic it is. There is no sense of priority and if I set a task today that is meant for a few days later, it will just sit there with all the other tasks for a few days. It makes it difficult to decide what needs to be done first and I rarely got the satisfaction of completing the entire list.

The alternative is to start a new list for each day. Following this method, I re-write any unfinished tasks to carry them over to the next day. I update the list as I go along, when new things come up, but I also set aside a specific time during the day for organizing the tasks and setting new ones. I wanted to test doing this either in the morning or in the evening, but I was useless in the morning. In the evenings, I can think clearly about what needs to be done the following day and make a decent task-list. Early in the mornings, my brain just doesn’t want to do this kind of thinking. I can be productive early in the day, but apparently not the planning kind of productive.

Stats:
Following this method (also with ta-da lists), I completed 32 out of 35 tasks during the course of one week. Again, the ratio is good, but this time, I set and completed way more tasks than with the ongoing list. I spent an average of 44 seconds on each completed task, slightly less than with the ongoing list. While the difference is small, it shows that focusing on what tasks to set once a day is probably more efficient than just adding them as they come up.

Pros:
In short, with this method I got more done in slightly less time (per task). That’s certainly a good thing. I found that it really helps me to take a few minutes in the evening, before I turn off the computer for the night, and plan the important tasks for the next day. Since I start with a clean slate each day, the list never gets too crowded and it’s easier to prioritize, even though I didn’t use a system to set priorities. Another positive aspect is that completing the whole list by the end of the day gives me a nice feeling of accomplishment. Plus, re-writing left-over tasks for the next day is like making a renewed commitment and that can help to complete them.

Cons:
I really didn’t find any major drawbacks for this method.

Preliminary Conclusion

My experiment is still ongoing and I am currently testing out different media for managing my task-lists. So far, I can conclude that making a new list for each day is definitely better than using an ongoing list. An ongoing list is extremely simple, lacking structure, prioritization and scheduling. This might be a good thing if you have the tendency to over-organize and want to categorize every minute detail. An ongoing list could help you focus on just what’s relevant. For any other situation, I recommend taking some time evening to plan the tasks for the next day.

While I set and completed more tasks with a new list each day, keep in mind that not all tasks are created equal. “Take out the trash” and “work out” both count as one task, but one of them is completed in under a minute while the other takes about an hour. Also, not every task is equally relevant. In this early stage of my experiment, I have not yet done anything to prioritize my tasks, but I will be looking into that later on.

The findings of this first part of my experiment aren’t particularly spectacular – I’m aware of that. Stay tuned for my next update, when I will be reporting on the different types of task managing software I have used.

This post is part of a series.
Part 1: Introduction to the Experiment
Part 2: Optimal Method

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Flexibility Experiment, Part 3: Method and Benchmarks

04/09/2009 1 comment

(Total reading time: <3 minutes)

After illustrating my issues with common stretching exercises (they don’t work) in the first part of this series and introducing the new method I will experiment with (Resistance Stretching) in the second part, it is now time to lay out how I will test the new stretching method and how I will measure it’s effects (or lack thereof).

Method

I will be doing the Resistance Stretching exercises as described in the book The Genius of Flexibility by Bob Cooley. I will do the exercises once a day, at least six days a week for the next 30 days. I’m allowing for one day off per week in case I feel like it might be too much to do the exercises daily, but I assume that won’t be the case. During these 30 days, I will continue with my usual training routines (weight-lifting and martial arts training) and I will not make any major changes to my diet, sleeping schedule or anything else that might affect the results. I also want to emphasize that I will be doing all of the exercises described in the book and only the ones described in the book. In other words, I will not do just the exercises that could improve the benchmark-results (see below).

Benchmark: Objective Measures

I want to be able to objectively measure changes that Resistance Stretching might cause. For this, I picked out a few easily measurable stretches as benchmarks. The stretches were performed after a very light warm up and were measured as seen on the pictures. I didn’t pre-stretch or do any heavy exercise before measuring.

Split

Benchmark 1: Split

The split, classical representation of Kung Fu-flexibility, has to be a part of this, of course. It also happens to be a special weakness of mine. Even with the most intensive stretching I’ve ever done, I’ve never come close to a full split. To avoid underpants-related variations that might occur with a crotch-to-ground measurement, I measured from the inside of my hip joint to the ground. Result:  46 cm /  18.1”

Sideways Split

Benchmark 2: Sideways Split

The sideways split is a good measurement of leg and hip flexibility, as it involves many different muscle-groups. Here, my current flexibility isn’t quite as abysmal as with the central split. Measured from the inside of the hip joint to ground, I got the same result for the sideways split facing either way: 21 cm / 8.3”

Toe-Touch

S3

This is done with completely straight legs and as a benchmark, I measured the distance from the lowest point of my head, when it was hanging down in a relaxed way, to the ground. On the picture, I have my head lifted slightly, so it doesn’t exactly represent the position that was measured. Distance: 36 cm / 14.2”

Joining Hands Behind Back

Hands behind back

Here, I didn’t take any measurements. I simply tried to get my hands as close to each other as possible, without pulling on them. I particularly wonder if I can correct the apparent asymmetry visible here (my right hand can’t reach upward as far as my left hand).

Measurements (overview)
Centimetres Inches
Split 46 18.1
Sideways Split, left 21 8.3
Sideways Split, right 21 8.3
Toe-Touch 36 14.2

Subjective Impressions

Of course, not every effect of a stretching routine can be measured objectively. Not that I expect it to positively influence every aspect of my life, as Bob Cooley claims it should. But I will take note of and report on what the stretching routine feels like, whether it is easy to keep doing daily and any side-effects that I experience that might be caused by the stretching. Depending on how much happens during the experiment, I will publish one or more posts before the end of the 30 day period.

This post is part of the Flexibility Experiment series.
Part 1: The Problem with Stretching
Part 2: Introducing Resistance Stretching
Part 3: Method and Benchmarks (currently viewing)
Part 4: Q&A with Anne Tierney, Resistance Stretching Expert

Flexibility Experiment, Part 2: Introducing Resistance Stretching

03/09/2009 3 comments

Photo by Sir_Robin12

(Total reading time: 5 minutes)

There are two names most widely associated with Resistance Stretching: Bob Cooley and Dara Torres. Bob Cooley is the guy who came up with the technique of Resistance Stretching and Dara Torres, the famed American Olympic swimmer, is arguably the one person who gave it the best PR. According to Torres, Resistance Stretching played an important role in her training and she claims it improved her swimming performance (see this interview). She has even said that Resistance Stretching was her “secret weapon”, implying that it played a very important part in her training.

How Resistance Stretching Works

The principle behind Resistance Stretching is quite simple: You need to be contracting the muscle that you are stretching. Usually, when you are stretching, you get yourself into a position that elongates a specific muscle or muscle-group and try to relax those muscles as you are stretching them. In Resistance Stretching, you will be contracting the muscle while you are stretching it, meaning that the muscle is constantly under full tension as it is being stretched. If it sounds like contracting a muscle while stretching it must be painful, I can tell you right away that surprisingly, it isn’t. It can be pretty complicated, though. Doing Resistance Stretching on your own, you will sometimes have to get into very unusual positions in order to be able to contract a muscle while stretching it.

To quickly try out for yourself what Resistance Stretching feels like, you can try this simple stretching exercise for the shoulders:

Resistance Stretching exercise

Position your arms as shown on the left in the image above and use the lower arm to pull the upper arm into the stretch. All the while, push against the direction of the stretch with the upper arm. Now, for this stretching method, you don’t need to hold the end-position for a long time. Instead, release the stretch again after one or two seconds and repeat the process several times. Try to resist the stretch as much as possible, contracting the muscles in your shoulder and back. It takes some getting used to, but this exercise can give you a feel of how Resistance Stretching works and what it feels like. Take a few minutes to try it out now, before moving on to the next section.

Claims and Doubts

I want to point something out, to avoid misunderstandings: I am not a fan of Resistance Stretching. That is not to say that I have anything against it, either, I simply haven’t decided yet. That’s why I am doing an experiment with it. I want to find out whether I can benefit from it or not and whether I like it or not.

I must say, though, that it’s a bit of a strange coincidence that I even got to know about Resistance Stretching. I was randomly browsing shelves in a bookstore and because I had previously spent some time thinking about stretching and flexibility, Bob Cooley’s book The Genius of Flexibility, immediately caught my eye. I went ahead and bought it practically without looking at it’s contents (it was the only book on the subject of stretching on display in the bookstore). Had I skimmed through the contents of the book, I probably would have left it behind and here’s why: Cooley makes many fantastic claims, all of them unreferenced. For example, he claims that “Flexibility increases your self-esteem, self-worth and self-respect” and also that “Flexibility shows you how to be more conscious of what you truly desire”. Those are just two among many, many such claims in the book. Now, I wouldn’t mind so much if these claims were based on anything non-anecdotal. I just like my wild claims to come with references to controlled trials, I guess. It’s also worth mentioning that Resistance Stretching is also referred to as Meridian Stretching and that it’s built around an elaborate system of different stretching exercises connected to your body’s energy meridians as defined by Traditional Chinese Medicine. Again, I don’t principally have anything against TMC or making such connections, I just don’t like to see them simply made up by someone rather than based on solid research. In short, what I dislike about the book is it’s woo-wooiness.

Still, I have the book and I might as well try it out before dismissing it. I believe that the techniques described can be very effective, even if the theory behind them is off-track (so there shouldn’t be much of a nocebo-effect going on when I do the experiment on myself).

Why Not Solid Science?

You might be wondering now, why I don’t do a stretching experiment based on more solid scientific claims, if I have such a problem with the esoteric aspects of Resistance Stretching. On the one hand, I have been doing all kinds of other stretching exercises for years and they don’t work for me, as illustrated in part one of this series. The other reason is that I have so far not found any particularly helpful research on the subject of stretching. Generally, the research focuses on health benefits of stretching, mostly injury prevention. If you’ve ever read a fitness-magazine, you’ve probably seen articles quoting studies as either showing some benefit of stretching or as showing no effects or negative effects of stretching. Your typical fitness-magazine will basically run these two stories alternately – “The Five Best Stretching Exercises” in one edition and “The Truth Behind Stretching: Why it’s actually bad for you” in the next. For some examples, see this article claiming stretching to be beneficial for muscle growth and this article claiming stretching to be detrimental to performance.

A systematic review done in 2003 came to the interesting conclusion that: “Due to the paucity, heterogeneity and poor quality of the available studies no definitive conclusions can be drawn as to the value of stretching for reducing the risk of exercise-related injury.” [italics mine] You can find the abstract for this review here.

So, in short, this self-experiment is not based on available scientific research because I could not find any really helpful scientific research on the subject of stretching. Suggestions welcome.

Why Stretch at All?

If stretching may do little or nothing to prevent injuries and it doesn’t even make you flexible beyond after an initial boost, should anyone bother with it at all? The argument can be made that if you have a “normal” range of motion, you should just ditch stretching all together. I certainly know a few people who are fairly athletic and never or almost never do any stretching and it doesn’t seem to be doing them any harm.

For me personally, there are two reasons for stretching: First, many stretching exercises, especially those derived from Yoga, just feel good to do. During the exercises and for a while afterwards, it just feels like I’ve done something good for my body. It’s possible, of course, that this is just an illusion, but that doesn’t really matter as long as it’s a pleasant one. Second, I hope to become more flexible for martial arts, specifically for kicks: My current flexibility just barely allows me to cleanly execute many types of kicks up to about hip-level. Anything above becomes problematic, because I start hitting the limits for one or more muscle-groups. Of course, high kicks aren’t a necessary ingredient for martial arts, but I’d like some in my repertoire anyway.

This is the second post in the flexibility experiment series. You can find the first post here. In my next post, I will outline my self-experiment with Resistance Stretching.

This post is part of the Flexibility Experiment series.
Part 1: The Problem with Stretching
Part 2: Introducing Resistance Stretching (currently viewing)
Part 3: Method and Benchmarks
Part 4: Q&A with Anne Tierney, Resistance Stretching Expert

Flexibility Experiment, Part 1: The Problem with Stretching Exercises

01/09/2009 5 comments

Photo by Piez

(Total reading time: 4 Minutes.)

I have practiced different styles of martial arts for most of my life and I’ve been a martial arts instructor since 2000. Part of the training regimen of every style I’ve ever practiced was stretching. In all these years of training, I have never become as flexible as I would like to be, so I decided to do a stretching experiment on myself and see if I can learn something new.

What you Expect vs. What you Get

A long, long time ago, when I first started stretching regularly, I knew practically nothing about it, but had certain expectations none the less. I imagined that stretching regularly would make me more and more flexible. Simple enough, right?

I want to quickly introduce two scales going from 0 to 10, in order to illustrate my point:

  • Flexibility Scale: 0 being completely stiff, 5 being able to touch toes and being fairly flexible, 10 being full splits and the kind of flexibility required for acrobats, figure-skaters and the likes.
  • Stretching Intensity Scale: 0 being no regular stretching exercises, 5 being stretching on a regular basis (e.g. Yoga-class several evenings a week), 10 being hours of intensive stretching every day.

Here’s what I expected:

Stretching: Graph 1

I imagined that keeping up a good, steady stretching routine would take me from wherever I was on the flexibility scale all the way to a super-flexible 10, given enough time. Had I thought about this a little more, I would have maybe concluded that I could only reach an 8 or 9 of flexibility unless I stepped up the stretching intensity at some point, but no matter: Both assumptions turned out to be very wrong.

First of all, something initially unexpected but quite natural developed: Over the years of training, my focus changed, my exercise regimens changed and the intensity with which I practiced stretching changed. There were times when I only stretched a few evenings per week, there were times when I stretched every day at home, there was a short period during which I trained Wu-Shu (think of it as Chinese martial-acrobatics) and did very, very intense stretching every day and there were times when I hardly did any stretching at all. Ok, so here’s what that might look like:

Stretch 2

Simple: The higher the intensity of exercising stretching, the more quickly I should become more flexible. When I slack off with stretching exercises, I will stop making much progress, but as long as I keep regular stretching a part of my exercise program, I should keep making progress, right? Wrong. Here’s an approximation of what I actually experienced:

Stretch 3

I was already fairly flexible to begin with. When I first started out with stretching, I made progress very quickly. Within a few months, I went from not quite being able to touch my toes (with straight legs, of course) to being able to firmly plant both of my palms on the floor. I saw the same kind of progress for other stretching exercises as well. After that first burst of progress however, I reached a plateau that has remained practically unchanged for years ever since. Extremely intensive stretching exercises budged my flexibility up a tiny bit and slacking off made me lose a fraction of flexibility. By and large, my flexibility seems to be immune to the amount and intensity of stretching I do.

Doing it Wrong

Of course, there are many different ways to stretch and perhaps I have just been doing it wrong? Well, while I can’t claim to have tried every stretching technique on the planet, I have practiced a fair range of techniques. Most of the time, I did stretching exercises that were a mix of Hatha Yoga and “western” static stretching. During the time of practicing Wu-Shu, I did a mix of static and dynamic stretching exercises as well as specific strengthening exercises that were also supposed to increase flexibility. Mostly, I did some stretching before exercising and some afterwards. I have done stretching as an isolated exercise some time during the day and I have done stretching as a part of exercise routines of various intensities.

Common stretching exercises don’t seem to work. I wouldn’t be making such a bold statement based just on my own example, though. As a martial arts instructor, I have seen hundreds of students of all ages doing stretching exercises more or less regularly and more or less intensely (depending on what style they were training). Almost everyone I’ve seen made a certain amount of progress and then reached a plateau. People go from an inflexible 3 to a fairly flexible 5 or from a flexible 6 to a very flexible 9, but I’ve never seen someone transform from inflexible to very flexible, no matter how they trained. What’s worse: Some people seem to be naturally rigid and they make almost no progress by stretching.

Does this simply mean that I and all of my students and peers have been doing it wrong? Perhaps. I haven’t given up hope, though. I recently came across a technique called Resistance Stretching, and it has an approach that is completely different from anything I’ve seen so far. I will introduce Resistance Stretching in my next post and outline the self-experiment I will do with this technique. I, for one, am very eager to see if this will make the crucial difference or if it’s just another fitness-fad.

This post is part of the Flexibility Experiment series.
Part 1: The Problem with Stretching (currently viewing)
Part 2: Introducing Resistance Stretching
Part 3: Method and Benchmarks
Part 4: Q&A with Anne Tierney, Resistance Stretching Expert

Task-Managing Series, Part 1: Introduction to a Self-Experiment

29/08/2009 1 comment

Usually, this is where I would write an introduction on how effective task-management is becoming more and more important in this information-age etc. etc. I hope you don’t mind if I get right to the point, instead.

Goal of the Experiment

I will test out a few different methods of task-management, centred around task-lists or to-do-lists. The objective is to find an optimal method for keeping track of all the relevant tasks in my life. With any kind of task-management, it’s important to find a good balance: A system that leads me to excessive micro-management and distracts me from the big picture is just as useless as one that keeps me focused only on the larger tasks, letting me forget the smaller, maybe mundane but nonetheless important tasks.

The reason I’m doing this as an experiment is that I want to avoid just using the first method that comes along. I suspect that any kind of systematic task-management is better than no task-management at all, so whatever I try first will probably already seem like a fairly good idea. By deliberately trying several different approaches, I wont succumb to laziness and just settle for the first method I come across in a book or on a blog.

Here are the different methods I will test:

  • Having an ongoing list vs. rewriting the list every day (i.e. rewriting any unfinished tasks for the next day).
  • Setting tasks for just one day vs. setting tasks for a few days in advance.
  • Using software vs. writing tasks down on paper.
  • Software I will try: ta-da-list, todoist, OrchestrateHQ

I will try each variation for at least one week to give myself a chance to get used to the method. It’s possible that something seems uncomfortable to do the first few times but then becomes habitual and turns out to be a good solution after all. I wont try every possible combination of the above variations, just the ones that make sense – for example, if I find that using an ongoing list fits me better with one piece of software I won’t test ongoing vs. rewritten lists for every other software as well.

Benchmarks

When it comes to deciding which method is the best one for me, I want to rely on more than just my subjective experience. How I subjectively feel about each method is an important factor, of course, but it’s not terribly reliable and so I want to set two objectively measurable benchmarks:

  1. Tasks set / Tasks done per day.
  2. Time spent task-managing.

The first factor is a bit tricky: Ideally, I want to be completing close to 100% of the tasks I set for myself every day. This is easier when I set fewer tasks, but that’s not necessarily beneficial. The goal is to find a method that helps me set an adequate amount of achievable tasks and complete all, or almost all of them. Looking at the ratio of tasks set and tasks completed for each day should help me adjust accordingly.

The second factor, how much time I spend managing my tasks, is simpler: I don’t want to be wasting time managing the tasks when I should be getting them done. A task-managing method that uses less time is therefore always better than one that uses a lot of time.

There is one final benchmark that I will apply to whatever method I settle for: I will report on whether I stick with it. A few months after I have decided on what method to use, I will report on how it went, whether it was easy to continue and whether I modified anything about the method.

Getting Things Done

Since you are on the internet, you probably know about Getting Things Done by David Allen. I haven’t read this book yet, but I intend to – after my task-managing experiment. The reason I am postponing reading GTD is that I want to come to it having already gathered some experience on the subject of task-management. I think this will make it more interesting to read GTD and I might be able to learn more from it this way. If I find the ideas in GTD convincing, I will test them out as well and post about it here.

I don’t yet know what the focus of GTD is. I do know that my ideas for task-managing are mainly concerned with short-term tasks and less with long-term goals and the big picture. I intend to experiment with methods for longer-term task-managements somewhere down the road.

For now, stay tuned for updates on my initial experiments.

This post is part of a series.
Part 1: Introduction to the Experiment (currently viewing)
Part 2: Optimal Method