Practice Makes Habit with Michael Levan (1/2)

Welcome to episode 183 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 1 of an interview with Michael Levan, discussing his background in fitness, deep work, focus, nutrition, and how we can all learn to build habits incrementally.

Original Recording Date: 07-15-2022

Topics – Meet Michael Levan, Fitness of the Body and Mind, Iterative Approach to Deep Work, Building Habits Takes Practice, Finding Focus Amidst Distraction, Benefits of Fasting

3:40 – Meet Michael Levan

  • Michael Levan focuses in the cloud native applications space, focusing on Kubernetes and containers. Most of what he does right now focuses orchestrating these types of environments.
    • Michael works to create practical technical, educational content and acts as a consultant for customers.
    • And remember to check out Michael’s podcast, Kubernetes Unpacked on Packet Pushers.
    • Find Michael on Twitter (@TheNJDevOpsGuy).

5:33 – Fitness of the Body and Mind

  • Before getting into technology, Michael was a personal trainer and went to school for it. He loved fitness and was into powerlifting when he was younger.
  • After getting out of school, Michael realized he was more interested in doing personal training as it relates to bodybuilding than what personal training in general was at the time (helping people who might not be very fit gain mobility / get out of bed in the morning, etc.).
  • Today Michael works out 5 days per week.
    • Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday are primarily for push-pull style workouts.
    • Wednesday is primarily for cardio work.
    • Sometimes he will do more bodybuilding style workouts, but for now he is sticking mostly to push-pull.
  • Michael receives benefits from working out like:
    • Reducing stress
    • Mental clarity gained after a workout / increased focus
    • Bodybuilding style workouts that involve pushing yourself not only push you physically but also mentally. In a way, this takes your mind to the next level.
  • What you put into your body will determine how you feel later. Michael encourages people to try an experiment in eating clean for 2-3 weeks and then go back to eating the way they were.
    • You will feel a noticeable difference.
  • There is a combination of how you feel mentally and physically and what you put into your body.
  • Michael does not consider himself a health nut.
  • Michael is a big fan of meal prep. He likes to eat the same thing each day for lunch meals.
    • An example meal for Michael = whole wheat wrap with BBQ chicken and cheddar cheese inside
    • Instead of chips he will use whole wheat Cheez-Its (for a nice something crunchy).
    • Dinner is a bit of a variety of things depending on Michael’s schedule – grilled steak / hamburger, turkey sandwich on whole wheat with cheese maybe with some Cheez-Its
  • Eating clean is…
    • Think about what goes into your body.
    • Reduce heavy carbohydrates and fast food.
    • Keep sodium intake low as it may lead to fatigue.
    • Focus on high quality proteins like grilled chicken, steak, turkey breast / turkey meat from the deli (without the preservatives).
    • Just being conscious of what you are putting into your body will make a big difference from a mental standpoint.
  • John was once a pretty serious road cyclist, finding that one could eat just about as many calories as desired with the ability to still burn through them all due to activity level.
    • However, you start to be tuned into the feedback cycle based on the food you eat. Poor food choices make you feel worse while trying to do cycling (i.e. going the same distance might be significantly harder), and this can bleed over into every day life (encouraging cyclists to eat healthier / cleaner).
    • If Michael eats poorly one day, he does not feel well the next day and is notably at less than peak performance (something feels off).
    • Similarly, Michael does not drink alcohol during the week because he knows that he will feel like garbage the next day.
    • There is a certain way to live to get that peak performance, and this can be very rewarding.
    • If you don’t feel off each day due to poor diet it may be because your diet is consistently poor.
    • You don’t realize how badly you feel without having a good peak to compare the two.
    • It’s easy to notice something is off when you’re at the top of a hill and can go in any direction.
    • John describes the "meh" feeling that makes it easy to sit and scroll on a device for hours.
      • Michael says sadly this feeling describes 90% of the population. This is the normal feeling.
      • Once you introduce a change into the daily routine / constant feeling, you can clearly see when you’re off.
      • Michael has times when he realizes he’s spent too much time on a device. He’s human like all of us and doesn’t always change the situation, but he does recognize something is off, knowing it needs to change.

13:36 – Iterative Approach to Deep Work

  • What is the iterative, modular approach to refactoring one’s lifestyle so the changes are not quite as extreme?
    • We need to realize the "normal" way of doing things is not the right way of doing things.
      • For example, scrolling on your phone for 6 hours a day on social media / getting sucked into doing that is not normal.
      • Michael thought for a long time he was the crazy one for wanting to focus. As he progressed in his career he later realized the crazy was on everyone else for not taking time to focus on highly valuable activities.
    • We need to learn to incorporate some type of deep work into our routines.
      • We should seek to practice deep work, understand what it is, and seek to understand what true focus is.
      • See also our deep work series starting with Episode 141 and ending with Episode 147.
      • Michael recommends listeners read…
      • Read the books, but understand you will not be at each author’s level when you start trying to do deep work.
      • Michael likes Cal Newport very much, but Newport is an academic researcher and makes some assumptions as a result. But suggestions like staying off social media, getting time away from your phone, etc. are extremely important.
      • Another great read is The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner.
        • This book is centered around staying in the present. What is the last time you drove in your car with no music or any other form of media turned on?
      • The techniques / ideas discussed in these books takes practice. Michael is still practicing and probably will be for the rest of his life.
  • You may read the books and think to yourself "that’s not realistic for me" based on your job function, demands, or other environmental factors.
  • Michael agrees the books do not address certain realities.
    • For example, Michael is a single guy and goes on dates. He cannot close himself off from the world.
    • The authors of some of the books suggest focusing on career, certain friends, and their families.
    • Some of the advice may need to be tempered based on where you are in life.
    • We need to take in information and understand the context in which it was written.
    • Cal Newport, for example, is a high performing academic. Some of the recommendations have to be generalized and may not be exactly applicable to your type of work.
    • In order to get paid well, we will have to do hard things. If we are doing hard things, it will generally require a great deal of intense focus / concentration. This will necessitate the ability to overcome distractions.
    • This reminds John of what Michael mentioned regarding the ability to work out and strengthen the mental fortitude which allows you to push through barriers in other areas.

20:48 – Building Habits Takes Practice

  • As discussed, this takes practice.
  • Michael says there are days when his mind is so strained that he will, without even thinking, login to Twitter. Usually he will catch it, stop himself, and close out of it. It’s a defense mechanism.
    • Michael is very into cognitive science and psychology.
    • Our bodies and brains are set to save as much energy as possible. When you’re in deep work you’re using a lot of energy. Our bodies naturally want us to stop.
    • "The working out, the eating certain things, the staying focused, the deep work…that’s the key to success." – Michael Levan
      • People ask Michael often how he is able to accomplish what he does without burnout and how he is able to focus on so many things.
      • That’s the formula that enables Michael to do what he does.
  • Take adding in deep work to your schedule in increments (a lesson from James Clear’s book mentioned previously).
    • The biggest mistake people make is going all in from the beginning. Michael gives the example of someone signing up for the gym going several hours per day for a few weeks and never going back (due to the mere fact that the person did not build a habit).
    • You can build a habit for anything. Michael gives the example of turning on a light switch when we enter a dark room being something we do without thinking. We can make any habit like this.
    • Back to the gym example…a more successful approach would be to go to the gym a couple of times per week for 15 minutes. Do that for a couple of weeks, and then go to 3 days a week. Then extend the time a little bit maybe to 25 minutes. Build from there.
    • With deep work, you won’t be able to do 3 hours of it at a time starting out. But you could try it for 15 minutes for a few weeks, then 20 minutes, then 30. Eventually you might be able to do 3 hours of deep work per day without really giving it much thought (i.e. just something you do).
      • NOTE: This is also a way to build up bad habits.
  • For any habit we need to start in small increments. This goes back to the fact that our brains are designed to conserve energy.
    • The things that take cognitive and physical load off our bodies (sitting, staring at a screen) are easy to continue doing.
    • Getting more activity, concentrating on a really hard problem, and other activities can be tough because the inertia is in the opposite direction.
    • John likes the combination of fitness, deep work, and Atomic Habits.

26:21 – Finding Focus Amidst Distraction

  • We have to force and train ourselves to focus for 10 minutes (not the case many years ago). We have been trained to pick up a device for entertainment, to get food or other package deliveries quickly, etc. The instant gratification is messing us (as humans) up.
    • Go look at Stanford or Harvard research studies in these areas for further reading.
    • Go search for social media is hacking your brain. Companies are designing their products to make them addictive.
    • See also The Social Dilemma. We’re not equipped to beat the algorithms on social media.
    • When we do a Google search for something, we start to see what we wanted in different places. Google is building a profile on us by design.
    • Michael says our brains have not evolved in 5000 years (since the cave man era). We’ve learned and adapted, but things like the way our right frontal cortex works and how neurons fire are no different.
    • Our brains are not meant for so much information coming at us.
      • Walking outside your house and noticing the trees, birds, and surrounding area is about how much information our brains are meant to take in.
      • Once you open up an app like Twitter and swipe, swipe, swipe you have consumed an immense amount of information all at once and after a while start to feel differently (not in a good way).
      • Many advances in technology make it even harder to focus than it is now.
      • Michael is concerned for his 5-year-old son and what will happen as he grows up but has set boundaries for screen use and tries to help his son learn to improve focus.
    • Many believed television would rot our brains when it was released. John makes the point that what we have now isn’t the same.
      • When cartoons started being shown on television they could be watched after school and on Saturday mornings.
      • This schedule is no longer a barrier for people. Instant gratification can be taken advantage of 24 hours per day every day of the week.
      • More content is being uploaded than any human can consume.
      • Having a site like YouTube open is not the bad thing for our minds by itself. It’s the context switching between platforms, instant gratification, and multitasking.
      • John was watching a YouTube video about building an application on top of Graph databases. It was hard to follow unless you were really paying attention. Even pausing the video to switch over to his own environment to tinker and then come back was a little much. He had to watch the video, try to internalize it and process it, and then come back to trying to put it into practice.
      • Deep work is possible using YouTube, Twitter, or some of these other platforms. But these tools can easily deliver content that acts to distract us.

33:06 – Benefits of Fasting

  • Michael had back surgery just over 2 years ago, and his recovery time was 6-7 months. He could do very little during this time, gained a lot of weight and did not feel great.

  • Michael started going to the gym but wasn’t seeing results or weight loss like he was used to seeing before the surgery. The combination of the surgery and getting older means the body and metabolism are changing.

    • At this point Michael started researching intermittent fasting as a way to lose water weight and still hit the gym like he did previously.
    • Intermittent fasting helps with weight loss and also energy.
    • Once you pass a certain period of time without eating, your body starts metabolizing more energy.
    • If you have a bagel for breakfast for example, you’re taking in a large amount of carbs that will weigh you down for the day.
    • It is much easier for Michael to focus in the morning if he does not eat than if he does eat.
    • Michael has been following an intermittent fasting regimen for about a year now.
      • In some cases Michael will break this regimen for a day to take his son out for pancakes on a Saturday, for example, or while on vacation.
    • Typically Michael will stop eating around 7 or 8 PM and won’t eat again until the next day around 11:30 AM or 12 PM.
  • Michael speaks to the ketosis state a bit. Our bodies use carbohydrates for energy.

    • Ketosis allows the body to use fat for energy when carbs are limited.
    • Michael makes the comment that this process also burns through muscle tissue.
    • It’s important to take in enough protein, carbohydrates, and fats as part of a diet.
  • For intermittent fasting specifically, you are not taking in for 16-18 hours, and your body is in a light starvation mode.

    • You can lose weight.
    • You can also gain a massive amount of energy.
    • To dig deeper on this topic, check out The Complete Guide to Fasting by Dr. Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore.
    • Michael compares this to being really busy all day, realizing you have not eaten but also that you have a lot of energy.
    • Michael admits he does not know the exact science here, but it may be worth researching for listeners!
  • Episodes mentioned in the outro:

    • See Episode 127 with Tom Hollingsworth and the discussion on goal setting so you avoid burnout.
    • Check out the deep work series of episodes starting with Episode 141 and ending with Episode 147.

Contact us if you need help on the journey.

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