In high school, I was a model student, straight-As, valedictorian, and student body president. That was in spite of living in severe poverty and struggling with an absent father who had serious manic depression, which also led to frequent bouts of homelessness and stints in mental institutions. He was also dealing with being an HIV-positive, gay man in early 1980’s.
I managed to survive my childhood and graduated with bright prospects; however, limited guidance, a few bad choices, and making the decision to go to a college with one of the toughest residency requirements in the country forced my hand and resulted in my early withdrawal from college.
At the age of 29, I found myself in financial turmoil, degree-less, and in the midst of a personal crisis. That’s after struggling in my twenties, working two or three jobs simultaneously, and trying different approaches to achieve professional success. After numerous failed attempts at business and the stock market, I had the misfortune of earning a real estate license during the height of the housing crisis. By mid-2006, I found myself bankrupt and looking for options. That’s when I made the decision to go back to college.
I didn’t have the luxury of being just a student; I had to work two full-time jobs while going to school full time and maxing out all of my financial aid options. At one point, I was working on three degrees concurrently while working three jobs. During that time, I also volunteered both in education and in science.
Six years, five degrees, and two graduate degrees later, I had significantly beefed up my resume. I managed to land a post-doc position as a research scientist working on a NASA, grant-funded position at the University of Hawaii.
At that point, I thought I had it made and that the rest of my life was on track. That’s when everything started to fall apart. The budget crisis of 2012 put extra scrutiny on NASA funding and grant money in general, and in April of 2013, I learned that my position would no longer be supported. Fortunately, my masters degree in education allowed me to find a job as a science teacher, but not before the gap in pay depleted my already meager savings. It seemed, though, that things had settled down and I was on another promising career path, climbing my way out of financial hardship.
During 2013, I also had some wonderful successes. I managed to write my first book, then a second, and in January of 2014, a third, which won the 2014 silver metal of the year by Readers' Favorite for best fantasy book. I landed a respected literary manager and agent, Peter Miller, at Global Lion Management, which is why my personal crisis came out of nowhere.
Fast forward to early 2014, and a major personal crisis once again rocked the foundation of my life. For the sake of the parties involved, I won’t trouble you with the details, but let’s just say that it’s a very common challenge and one that many people deal with, especially in mid-life. On the same day I learned of this crisis, I also found out that my niece had been shot. She was in serious condition, undergoing surgery, and had to have parts of multiple organs removed. That’s when my recent challenges began.
For a short time after the same-day, one-two punch, the thought of suicide danced through my head. While I had no real consideration of following through on the thought, if only for the sake of how my family and friends would be negatively impacted by it, I did feel deeply saddened. I had accomplished so much, and I had so much promise, yet by own personal standard I had failed at some of the most basic parts of life.
After January of 2014, I went through one crisis after another, most of which, were in large part precipitated by the prior two. During that time, I was trying to finish my fourth book, Everville: The Fall of Brackenbone. I found it more than challenging. My prior book, Everville: The Rise of Mallory, I wrote in six days, but this book was proving more difficult.
Moving twice, working full time as a teacher with 150+ students, and dealing with multiple crisis, any one of which might cripple anyone, may have been a good enough excuse for only writing 100 pages in a year. I just didn't believe that allowing myself to wallow in my own self-pity was constructive, so in October 2014 I made myself an action plan.
I wrote the plan with specific goals and objectives and steps on how to achieve those objects, in typical teacher fashion. I didn’t bother to look at it again until after winter break. That’s when I took the big leap. It wasn't my desire to finish the book that pushed me forward, but rather stepping on the bathroom scale at 198.8 lbs.
I come from a family of morbid obesity, and I was always the skinny one. I told myself a long time ago that if I ever got close to 200 lbs I would take the necessary measures to get my weight and lifestyle under control.
One of the goals in my action plan was to continue working on professional development. That included searching for different forms of continuing education and training for specific skill-sets. After topping out at 198.8 lbs, I happened to stumble across an article on MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Learning Course). I am a voracious reader and learner, and this concept drew me in.
One organization mentioned in the article was called Coursera at www.coursera.org , and while browsing their courses, I came across a free, at-your-own-pace MOOC called Learning How to Learn, which was offered by UC San Diego. I devoured the entire course in six days, and I put into place a couple of the strategies discussed in the class.
One of the strategies was called the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a daily timed exercise of 25 minutes (or whatever time one chooses to select). The idea is to set aside all distractions and focus for that time on a specific goal or task. At first, there will be a little mental discomfort, which will soon fade away. At the end of the time, one rewards oneself with a small reward. It might be tv, a piece of chocolate, or anything that one can construct. This trains the brain to release dopamine after the timed exercise is complete.
The second technique was to have a daily to-do list, being careful to put only what can realistically be accomplished given the time frame. Part of the exercise was to review the list the night before and put the tougher things on the list first.
I decided to implement both strategies and put a few things on my daily to-do list that were also on my action plan. One of those things was a daily journal, which was also suggested in the course. At that point, I decided that I did not want to diet or go to the gym. I figured I needed to make some lifestyle changes in order to achieve my personal goals. The two key choices I made were to abstain from alcohol and fast food.
Making the decision to completely abstain from both alcohol and fast food was the most critical decision, and it laid the groundwork for my eventual success. I added doing push-ups and set-ups at home about a month into my new strategy. While I did change my eating and drinking habits, I did not starve myself or join some dieting plan. I even continued to occasionally eat out at a restaurant, just not fast-food.
I lost 11 lbs the first four weeks and an additional 13 lbs the following eight weeks, dropping from 198.8lbs to 175 lbs. At the moment I’m writing this, I’m 38 and 5’10”, in case you were trying to calculate my BMI (Body Mass Index). My cholesterol dropped from 225 to 156 and my blood pressure dropped by ten points as well.
Part of the reason why my health was a focus of my action plan was because I believe that having a healthy body can facilitate a healthy mind and better decision making. Along that front, I managed to write the other 100 pages of book #4 in my series during my one week off of spring break. My new book, Everville: The Fall of Brackenbone, will be released the first week of May 2015.
To those people that are interested in losing weight [or any personal goal], my suggestion is not to diet or take some pseudo-scientific weight loss supplement with dubious benefits. I recommend taking a hard look at one’s personal lifestyle, and then deciding on what permanent change is doable within one's life. Make the decision to change and support that decision by 1. Writing down the goal, 2. Keeping a daily journal to monitor progress, 3. Tell supportive friends or family, 4. Support that strategy with A. The Pomodoro Technique and B. A daily to-do list.
I should also say, that one should not get hung up on a daily defeat. My first week failed miserably, and I had a slip-up or two the first few weeks in. Don’t let a temporary setback prevent you from realizing your existing gains. Also, don’t wait until New Years, make your decision to follow through with your goal today, because if you wait until tomorrow, you may be waiting for the rest of your life.
Finally, check out Coursera and more specificially, Learning How to Learn. You just might be surprised at what wonderful free courses are being offered that could enhance your personal or professional life.
Roy Huff, MS, MAEd