Wednesday, January 6, 2010

How decision science helped me get fit

I'm in better shape, and I owe that to my training. No, not my fitness training; my decision science training.

Of course, if all I did was think about what, why, and how I want to get fit, I'd still be disgracefully out of shape. But the five decision science-fueled insights that follow helped me make a plan for getting in shape and motivated me to follow through with it.

Purpose.  Few things are more important, for any endeavor, than clarity of purpose. (That was the reason for the writing of Vision and Mission statements, back when these were useful business documents.) My engineer mind likes specific objectives and my MBA hindbrain wants guidelines, so I came up with both.

When looking for purpose, my first question is what do I want to achieve? A weight target? A body shape target? A physical prowess target? What, coupled with why, gave me a set of objectives and purposes. For example: what = do muscle-ups for reps; why = because that's what I did at 17 and I want to believe I'm still young.

Measurement.  Despite what some analytics apostles believe, key performance indicators did not originate with the web; Peter Drucker put detailed measurement thereof at the center of business in his 1953 book "The Practice of Management." As a previous post illustrates, naïf choice of indicators is rife with pitfalls. For fitness I use indicators like number of reps and weight on bench press, time to run 5 km.

At the gym I noticed an widespread lack of record-keeping. Perhaps other patrons have good memories and remember all their sets, reps, and weights, plus the time and calorie counts of the cardio machines. I prefer to carry a Rite-in-the-rain notebook. (Because if you're not sweating, you're not exercising hard enough.)

Trade-off.  Many fitness programs stall because making consistently good choices requires making trade-offs among different objectives, which most people are loath to do. So they make ever-changing choices based on temporarily salient indicators: Bob gets winded walking up a flight of stairs; Bob decides to go on a salads-only diet and run 10 miles every day; Bob diets for a week, runs 2 miles twice; Bob gives up, eats pizza, plays World Of Warcraft.

I invested some time thinking about the trade-offs I would be willing to make. I have several fitness objectives; but, more importantly, I have two lifestyle criteria: I can't be constantly hungry (since this is both associated with diet abandonment and with obsessing about food) and exercise must be like flossing: it takes up little time and has little interference with the rest of my life. I have had good results with HIT/SS in the past, so that's what I'm doing. Some activities require specific practice, which I do as well. For repetitive activities like running, Audible audiobooks help me make good use of the time.

Heterogeneity.  One foundation concept in marketing is segmentation, understanding and capitalizing on the differences among customers. Disaggregating data is therefore second-nature for marketers. So, when I read studies about calorie consumption and exercise, I always have a nagging question: how relevant can an average be to my case? This was particularly important when considering diet choices.

The only thing I'll say about diets is that I have one that worked well for me. Many years ago I lost over 80Lbs in 15 months without any exercise and with minor changes to lifestyle. In the 12 years since, a steady diet of Ben and Jerry's and large pizzas as snacks helped me recover those 80Lbs and gain a few supplemental ones. What worked for me was the Montignac diet. (A French food-centric low-carb diet.) That's what I'm doing, since I eat tasty food,  don't count calories, and never feel hungry.

Patience.  Having researched hyperbolic discounting, I feel vaccinated against short-termism. And that's probably the most important thing in fitness. Like many things in life, fitness training requires perseverance. The problem is that most people are willing to accept a small sacrifice for later gain; just not right now. So, a little cheating on the diet today is traded off against a promise of better behavior tomorrow; skipping a workout against extra effort next week. But the crux of hyperbolic discounting is that when tomorrow comes, the cheating and the skipping again win.

I discussed my thinking with a friend and she was astonished. Not at my fitness improvement, but at the fact that I used the same knowledge I teach, research, and consult on for lifestyle decisions. But, you see, that's what engineers usually do: they don't separate the work from the lifestyle because there's only one reality. And either you trust what you know about it or you have to live a double life.

There's nothing more practical that the right theory.