Experiments in Wellbeing – Alcohol

It was not my intention for this story to be the next public step of my wellbeing experiment, but I feel like it needs telling, so here we go.


A Creature of Habit

I like a drink. Occasionally I’ll have a drink every day during a week, though I usually go without for two or three days. Regularly, two bottles of red wine are on the weekly shopping list, and regularly they get emptied down my throat during the course of the week. Regularly. I’d guess this is a habit I’ve develop and persisted with for almost thirty years. It feels odd to write this and in so doing, look back over such a long trail of empty bottles.

I’ve never considered myself to be dependant on alcohol in any way, and yet clearly, I drink pretty often. Data published in The Guardian in 2013 indicates that men in my age group are putting away over 30 units of alcohol a week, and around 75% of men exceed the daily recommended amount. It’s always struck me as odd that something so intoxicating has a ‘recommended daily amount’ – we don’t apply such parameters to ecstasy, LSD or cannabis, despite them all apparently being much less harmful than alcohol. I know there’s the small matter of legal v illegal, but still…

Which Drugs Are Most Harmful

I digress. Back to the booze, and in particular, the habit. As part of my wellbeing experiment, I decided to do without alcohol for a while. We met friends for a belated Christmas get together in a country pub on January 3rd, Carole drove and I had a few drinks. After lunch had finished, so had my relationship with alcohol, for a few weeks at least. I decided to see if I could get to the end of January without having another drink. I was nervous about this part of my experiment – how would I, as a regular drinker, cope with no wine or beer?

On The Wagon

It feels a bit odd to write and tell you that I found the next four weeks easy. For some reason I worried that taking away something which had become such a frequent part of my life would be tough. It wasn’t and I am grateful for that. Aside from the ease with which I abstained – what else did I learn?

1 – I’m sleeping better – and there is an unsubstantiated rumour circulating this house that the frequency and volume of snoring has drastically reduced.

2 – I’m waking better – I still feel tired after a late night, but once I’ve woken up I’m sharper, ready to go.

3 – I don’t appear to have lost any weight – I can’t prove this because our scales are broken, but the mirror doesn’t lie and my current chubbiness persists.

4 – Social events often centre around alcohol. I decided I would not seek to avoid going out as part of this experiment, and when I did go out – I observed that almost everyone I was with was having a drink. At one event I went to – an enjoyable one I hasten to add, I was offered a beer on arrival, which I refused. Then wine – politely declined that too. Next came Fanta. Seriously? No thanks. Finally we got to water – yay! It came in the teensiest glass I’ve ever seen and I spent the rest of the time perfecting my pour, drink, pour, drink technique.

Back in the Saddle?

As night follows day, so February 1st follows January 31st – and in 2015, February 1st was SuperBowl Sunday. My team – the Seattle Seahawks were in the game as defending champions, competing against the New England Patriots. We lost the match in the dying seconds, I don’t want to talk about it. Prior to the game – I had convinced myself that beer would be a required accompaniment, and I had ordered in some Nanny State beer, brewed by Brewdog. This beer is marketed as alcohol free although it contains 0.5% alcohol by volume. Over the course of the three hour game, I think I drank four bottles. It tasted OK and it made me want to pee a lot!

The following night Carole and I went to Koko in London to see Prince play live at a secret charity gig. The gig was excellent, and I had a bottle of Heineken. One was enough, particularly at £5.50 ($8.40) a bottle. On Thursday I poured myself a glass of wine and I had two or three sips and threw the rest away – I wasn’t enjoying it. On Saturday night I had a bottle of beer.

What happens next? I’m not sure, but I’ve learned a lot from this period of absence and I’m really enjoying my current approach to drinking. If you’ve tried a similar experiment recently, I’d love to know how you found it/are finding it?

Experiments in Wellbeing – Step by Step

How would you feel if your employer offered you a FitBit? Not as a means of gathering data about you, or seeking to monitor you, but simply as an invitation for you to explore the concept of physical wellbeing in more detail.

This was one of a number of lines of enquiry John Sumser and I pursued in a recent conversation on wellbeing – which has led me to write this post.

Being Active Is Important

I’ve always considered myself to be reasonably active, getting out and about matters to me. In the past I’ve cycled a lot and run a bit. Currently I walk a fair bit, and cycle occasionally. I enjoy my walks – whether they are to and from the station, or further afield, for me they are useful not only for the physical exercise, but also for the time to think. Often, rather than trying to carve out time in a busy schedule specifically for walking, I try to integrate my walks into my day, particularly during the week. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to my walking, and here is some of what I’ve learned so far.

Getting Into A Habit

Last November I joined up with a small group of people based in the USA to take part in Runner’s Week Run Streak, or #RWRunStreak for short. Thankfully for the eyeballs and sanity of my neighbours, this was a challenge to take part in regular exercise rather than a commitment to run naked down the street every day. *Shudder* The idea was to commit to running at least a mile a day, every day between Thanksgiving (November 27th) and New Year’s Day. I opted to walk rather than run, and despite having manflu for a few days in December, I got the job done, covering 111.1 miles over the duration of the challenge. It took discipline to get out each and every day, I enjoyed doing this, and the motivation of knowing other friends were taking part helped a lot too. You can read more about how I experienced the challenge here.

Data Data Everywhere

Part way through #RWRunStreak I began to find the process of logging all my distances a bit tedious. I was using an app called Strava, which although it records data very well, you need to remember to switch it on before you start your exercise, then off at the end, and sync it. I wanted something which made gathering the data easier, so I asked Santa for a FitBit. He duly obliged, so on December 27th I charged up my new FitBit and put it on. I’ve now accumulated a months worth of data so I thought I’d share a few things with you.

FitBit Data 27 Dec 26 Jan

I use a FitBit Flex – this particular model does not measure going up and down steps, which is why ‘floors’ shows as 0 on the chart. I’m also not currently entering any data about what I eat, or how much water I drink (though I am definitely drinking more water) so the calories count is a best guess by the software, and I am currently ignoring that too. As you can see, I’ve notched up over 150 miles in a calendar month. That distance really surprised me, I thought the 111.1 miles I covered during #RWRunStreak was a lot, and I had anticipated taking a break, not going further.

FitBit Sleep Data

You can log data about your sleep with this FitBit – tapping in when you go to bed, and tapping out when you wake up. It is supposed to log sleep, and any periods of being awake and restless during the night too. So far, I’d give it about 4/10 for accuracy in the awake/restless department. You can log your weight – either manually or via wifi scales, you can input nutritional information and you can keep note of specific exercise activities too. I’m currently just scratching the surface.

What’s Good?

The FitBit Flex is unobtrusive – I don’t know I am wearing it. It’s easy to use – you just put it on your wrist and apart from remembering to charge it every few days – that’s it. If you are interested in logging your sleep and you forget to tap in and out, you can manually input the timings later. I feel a little fitter, and more motivated – and I am getting better at sequencing and prioritising stuff. I’ve noticed that as I walk more regularly – I pay attention to the little things. Nerd alert – how I do up my shoes matters much more now than before. Tight enough to be comfortable over a reasonable distance, not too tight to pinch. I used to walk at a considerable pace, over 4 miles per hour. I’ve slowed down a little – focussing more on feeling comfortable rather than hot footing it from A to B, and I have thought much more about my posture, and eased into a more relaxed way of walking. As well as taking ideas for a walk – something I’ve done for years, sometimes I am just walking, with as clear a head as possible. A more meditative approach perhaps?

What’s Not So Good

When it comes out of the box, the FitBit is set to give you a congratulatory buzz on completing a daily target of 10,000 steps. I’ve noticed myself paying too much attention to that – on a few occasions when I’ve found myself close to 10,000 at the end of the day, I’ve gone for a short walk round and round the kitchen to make the target. And there are badges handed out too, both for specific and accumulated distances. Nice, shiny badges. It’s interesting how I’m allowing myself to be gamed – who is in charge here? I have also joined a FitBit group, something I chose to do as part of looking at how to maintain motivation, a bit like how our small group interacted in the #RWRunStreak. I knew everyone in the #RWRunStreak group well, and we encouraged one another, whereas I know hardly anyone in this larger group, and I seem to be currently using it competitively rather than cooperatively. What is my motivation?

Uses At Work

If you Google ‘wellbeing at work’ you’ll find tons of stuff that links the two subjects. For example, This ACAS report published in 2012 states that:

The key factors that can determine whether workers will have a positive or negative relationship with work are:

the relationships between line managers and employees
whether employees are involved in organisational issues and decisions
job design
availability and acceptability of flexible working
awareness of occupational health issues

The report recognises that wellbeing is something employees and employers share responsibility for, and though a lot of the published research talks about the productivity benefits for the business of having healthy employees – I haven’t yet found anything that speaks of the human benefits. I think it is worth reusing a piece from a recent New York Times article, which despite referencing a study showing benefits of regular lunch break walks, also noted:

…tellingly, many said that they anticipated being unable to continue walking after the experiment ended and a few (not counted in the final tally of volunteers) had had to drop out midway through the program. The primary impediment to their walking, Dr. Thogersen-Ntoumani said, had been “that they were expected by management to work through lunch,”

This says to me that wellbeing is OK as long as we can derive productivity benefits for the business, but we’re much less keen on reciprocally doing the right thing for people.

I would be interested to see what we could learn from employers optionally offering their employees devices such as a FitBit, in order to encourage more physical activity. Care would need to be taken to ensure this wasn’t seen as ‘nanny state/big brother’ behaviour, so I don’t think it would help if the employer then tried to gather any direct data from people using these devices. But, if the employer simply made the offer and left people to get on with it, then based on my experience so far, some genuinely mutual benefit could arise. As always – it’s less about the tech, so much more about the behaviour.

In summary – two months into taking more regular exercise, I feel fitter, more motivated, and even a little more productive in my work. I also feel conflicted about motivation, given my responses to the gamification elements of the tech.

Next time I write on this subject, I will focus more specifically on my current experiences with mental wellbeing.

Experiments in Wellbeing

Integrating wellbeing into a productive working life.

Wellbeing is a subject which interests me, it’s something that gets a lot of airtime, and it’s a broad brush heading under which sits lots of different stuff. I first realised this when I was asked to give a talk on the subject for Morgan Lovell and their clients back in 2013. As part of my preparation, I asked people on Twitter: ‘When you hear the term wellbeing what pops into your head?’ The answers were many and varied, and included words like ‘belonging’, ‘balanced lifestyle’, ‘flow’, ‘good health’ and much more besides.


At the event we discussed the subject of presence, and found that over two thirds of people in the room read and responded to emails whilst away on holiday. Overall, people didn’t think that working while being on holiday was a good thing, yet they felt compelled to do it. We talked about other aspects of work life balance and flow, and a strong feeling emerged that busyness gets in the way of wellbeing. I can relate to that notion and yet it also feels a bit like an excuse to me. ‘I’m too busy to look after myself’. Really?

‘Our People Are Our Greatest Asset’

Rarely does an annual report and accounts get published that doesn’t make some grand statement about the importance of ‘our people’. Do we really mean it? The prevailing culture and behaviours at work often have a lot to do with how, and even if we can weave wellbeing into our day to day habits. I’ve always found it odd that we persist in being OK with taking fifteen minutes out of the day at regular intervals to kill yourself, sorry – I mean smoke a cigarette, but the notion of going for a walk for the same amount of time, to clear your head, or think through a few ideas, is somehow seen as skiving on company time.

Maybe this recent piece in The New York Times, which talks specifically about some of the benefits a group of volunteers (for a study at the University of Birmingham) derived from regular 30 minute lunch time strolls, will help persuade the more cynical among us? Maybe, and yet it is worth noting that:

…tellingly, many said that they anticipated being unable to continue walking after the experiment ended and a few (not counted in the final tally of volunteers) had had to drop out midway through the program. The primary impediment to their walking, Dr. Thogersen-Ntoumani said, had been “that they were expected by management to work through lunch,”…

Is it only me smiling at the thought of management expectations being described as an ‘impediment’?

It’s Easy For You To Say…

By now you might well be thinking, ‘it’s easy for him to pick holes in the way we work, he doesn’t have to actually do this stuff on a day by day basis’. And to some extent you are right. I appreciate that as a consultant, I am not bound so tightly to the hamster wheel of seemingly endless back to back meetings, and some of the other things which become expected in a larger workplace, and I also appreciate, from my own experience both in corporate life and beyond, that there are times when work is really busy. I like being busy. I like deadlines. I like getting stuff done, just not all the time. I simply can’t be useful, and productive, and good company all the time, and I don’t think you can, either, can you?

What Next?

In the Autumn of last year, I came to a decision. I will make a conscious effort to integrate the practice of wellbeing into my life through a series of small experiments, and see what I can learn from this. I will share my learning openly, and you can ask me anything you like about the experiences I share. My intention, in addition to understanding and hopefully improving my own wellness, is simply to explore the idea that wellbeing, and meaningful, productive, even busy work, are not mutually exclusive. More to follow soon…