The chart diet

Or a sedentary life as software developer

May 08, 2016

On my last job as software developer I had a very sedentary life. Long story short, my weight increased from 72kg to 82kg. I do not have an athletic body but I have always been a kind of sportsman: I'm a paragliding pilot, always liked hiking and I practiced surf and mountain biking when I was a kid.

There are some things I can point my finger. First, I had a long daily commute. In addition to the 8-hour working day, I had 3 more hours of a mixture of walking, train and car. I left home each day before 7:00 and return home after 18:00, tired as hell. Second, I always had a lot of social routines - I play trombone on two bands and one orchestra, work with local associations, have a side project and I do some contributions to open source. This routine was very tiring and I started having trouble sleeping. Finally, sitting all day in front of a computer screen did nothing good for my health.

Although better than many jobs out there, the life of a software developer is not an easy feat. Instead of stressing your physical muscles, you stress your brain for eight hours straight. The brain is not made to be stressed like that! I have never seen anyone go crazy by stressing their muscles. Tired yes, crazy no! And unlike a street sweeper, who drops the broom at the end of the working day, or the factory worker who leaves the machine at the factory, the software developer carries his work home in his head.

In rough terms, software development is nothing more than having ideas and finding ways to put the computer to execute them as efficiently as possible. And someday when you think that you have your thoughts neatly organized around an algorithm or a feature, your project manager comes and says that she forgot this little detail that changes everything. Then you will have to redo everything from scratch in your head, and that does nothing good for your mental health. If people start taking these "mental" things too seriously and do not learn to distance themselves, they can get crazy! Before working as developer I used to be a school teacher and once I heard a colleague giving a lecture to his students in the bathroom. The problem was that there was no one else there except me sitting on the toilet.

Back to the topic, I got bored with my job and I decided to quit two months ago to try to monetize my side project while doing some freelance work. In the meantime, unhappy with my low fitness, I decided to put myself in shape and try again what I call the diet chart. The chart diet is not my invention. I don't know if you have ever read The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss, but there's a chapter called "Pragmatic laziness - how one graph beats expert advice" where Ferriss talks about an experience made by the Evernote's ex-CEO Phil Libin. It's a very simple idea and it was its simplicity that caught my geek attention: Phil weighted himself everyday before breakfast and would wrote the result in a spreadsheet.

This is not the first time that I've run this experiment on myself, so I know it works, but it is the first time that I do it with a very significant change: I reduced most of my sugar intake. I've been running this diet/experiment for the last month and so far and, without much effort, I managed to lose about 4kgs, which is 40% of my target of 10kgs. This is the graphic from my LibreOffice Calc's spreadsheet:

I started with 82kg on the 4th of April and my goal is to lose an average of 100 grams each day until I reach my target of 72kg. While the blue line is my daily goal, the yellow lines are the maximum and minimum values with a distance of about 1kg. As long as my weight is between the yellow lines, I'm fine. If it's below the blue line, I relax a bit, but if it gets close to the upper yellow line I start to worry.

So far, my biggest changes have been the following:

  • My breakfast used to be coffee with milk, two slices of bread and two or three tablespoons of sugar. Now I just take one slice of bread and no sugar.
  • I used to drink one or two glasses of fresh orange juice at lunch. Now I only drink water, much less fructose, a natural sugar.
  • I used to eat about two slices of cake per day and now I only eat one after dinner. Sugar is addictive, and although I am able to resist the temptation to eat a slice of cake at lunch time, I'm too tired to resist it at night. Besides, I am no saint!

Things that I did not change or didn't change as much:

  • I still eat the same amount of food for lunch and dinner. I eat healthy food - soup, meat, fish, salad - and the amount was never a problem for me. However, I may have to reduce it if the graphic starts to plateau later on.
  • I have not increased my exercise levels by much. I do the same 3km daily walk I did when I had to walk from the train station to the office.

So, in a nutshell, things seem to be working out so far. I expect to hit some kind of plateau pretty soon, but I still have a lot of leeway. Although you have to have some discipline to force yourself to measure your weight every day, this technique gives you instant feedback (and quite some noise) on how the little things you do reflects on your health. I consider it to be a very simple approach and quite good for engineers and those used to extract information from graphics. It also gives you some peace of mind because you know that if you continue to do things as you have been doing, you will reach your target around a certain date.

But the most important message that I would want to get across is that we as developers should be much more careful about our health, both physical and mental. If you have the misfortune to slip, which happens more often than we'd like, it's good to know that you can fix it. The other message that I would like to pass is that sugar seems to be really bad for our health and we should moderate its consumption. Sugar can be found everywhere nowadays, and just by reducing its consumption somewhat, I lost 4kg in one month.

Take care!