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How I gained 5lbs in one week

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I love making bets with delusional people. This usually means my younger brother or my female Indian friends, who insist, implausibly, that they’re not getting married until their thirties. Listen — I have two Indian sisters. I know how quickly things change when you get to be of “marrigeable age.” No, I don’t care if you’ve never had a relationship. I strip away personality and just go by the stats: On average, women marry at 26 and men at 27. You could be a social mutant and I’d probably take that bet.

That’s why there’s a moment in your life when you open your Gmail account, look in your “bets” folder, realize that all the bets with friends you’ve made equal $8,000 over the next 13 years, and whisper “Oh dear god.” As these bets come due, I’m either going to have many gigantic blowouts in Vegas, or things are going to go horribly, horribly wrong.

gmail-screenshot-bets-folder.png
I’ve previously written about how food and personal finance are similar. Today, I thought I’d write about how a recent bet I made to force myself to achieve a specific goal — and how you can use them to get started managing your money.

You may have seen me write about my Indian frailty on this site before. So when I bet my friends a few hundred dollars that I could gain 15 lbs within 3 months, they were already used to my antics. “It’s about time,” one of my friends said, noting that I was considered ectomorphic. I decided to set a goal of working out and eating right to hit that goal by December 31st. No, I’m not a psycho about my weight, but I had already decided to bulk up, so I thought throwing in the bet would be fun. Along the way, I learned a few things that are directly applicable to personal finance.

First, everyone has a god damned opinion. “What!? You can’t run! You’ll lose too much weight!” more than a few people shrieked upon finding out my strategy (working out, running, and eating more — as usual, there are no secrets). All I could do was point out that it seemed to be working within seven days, as I completed 1/3 of the . There’s not much they could say about that.

Other people told me I would get fat (as if I would let that happen for a few hundred bucks). And of course, everyone had theories about what to eat, drink, and even what combination of weights to lift. It was like my minutiae article was happening in real life.

I ignored every one of them.

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I picked one person to help me: my co-worker, Brian. No, he isn’t a huge bodybuilder. And no, he doesn’t read Men’s Health every day or bring a giant jar of creatine to work every day. But out of all the people who offered advice, Brian is the only person I know who consistently goes to the gym almost every single day. I’d rather learn from the person who is boringly disciplined rather than someone who has sexy ideas. (My favorite quote of his when he asked me what I like to eat. “Do you like eggs? Peanuts? Mexican food?” I spent 5 minutes describing what I liked, and Brian sat there thoughtfully for a second. “Yeah,” he said, “you just need to eat all of them.” THANK YOU)

Then, I set up a PBwiki and invited all the bettors to get notified every week when I updated my weight. I then proceeded to talk an incredible amount of trash to psych out my bettors:

weightchallenge wiki_1197363340046
Using psychological principles to crush my opponents
This also uses the psychological principle of commitment to force myself to win my bet. (For example, how do you think I’ll be affected by the fact that this blog post will be read by 40,000+ people?) For the two best books on practical applications of psychology, check out Influence: The Science of Persuasion by Cialdini and Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion by Pratkanis and Aronson.

As I’ve updated the wiki every week, I’ve noticed how tracking is the most effective mode of persuasive technology there is. For example, while I was on vacation, I thought I went a couple of weeks without updating the site. Looking at the data, it turns out it was nearly a month. The same is true for my gym attendance, which I thought was much higher than it really was. Read more about tracking in Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do (Fogg).

What I learned

  • Getting feedback from other people is important, but all that ultimately matters is long-term results. People warned me that I had to understand how lipids and carbs and fatty acids worked before I started. That’s such nonsense. What if I just started working out and ate more? Could I learn all that fancy stuff later? You don’t have to be a genius to get rich — or gain/lose weight.
  • Thinking long-term is critical. It would be easy to start using all those weird weight supplements, which I equate to get-rich-quick schemes, but is that really the point? Brian once reminded me to pick a weight that would let me finish all my sets. “Not finishing is very demotivating,” he said, noting that lifting less — but making it sustainable — is more important than maxing out. I wrote about this in Set smaller goals: impress friends, get girls, lose weight.
  • Using systematic techniques like public commitment, tracking, and even betting can help you get started and sustain your changes. And if you can get a friend to motivate you, all the better. Imagine if you emailed your entire family and told them that you were going to have a Roth IRA open by the time you see them for Christmas. Would you have enough self-induced pressure to do it?
  • Writing down your incremental achievements keeps you honest. We’re not cognitively wired to accurately remember how often we went to the gym or how much we spent last week. Use technology to help you.

How my bet relates to personal finance
It’s easy to think that personal finance or gaining/losing weight is this abstract concept that we “should” do. Whenever the S word comes out, this means we’re never going to do it. Instead, we’ll just keep feeling guilty and plan on doing it tomorrow.

Give me a break. It’s December 11th today. Did you start this year by promising that you’d finally start managing your finances this year? If so, I recommend getting your basic personal-finance infrastructure set up by Saturday, December 22. Pick one thing: Setting up your bank accounts with no-fee, no-minimum checking/savings accounts, get a high-interest savings account (I like ING Direct, now called Capital One 360) and transfer $100 there, set up your credit cards, or set up your investment accounts.

Not sure where to start? Read this site from the bottom up, check out a few of my favorite personal-finance blogs (The Simple Dollar, Get Rich Slowly, and FreeMoneyFinance), or pick up a book on personal finance (here are 50 books I recommend).

Everyone’s got an opinion about what you “should” do with your personal finances. But the truth is, most of them are full of hot air and you can get it done using a few simple steps. What if you picked a specific goal and forced yourself to do it? Would it be worth it to get one major part of your personal-finance infrastructure completely done before Christmas?

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36 Comments

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  1. As someone who has learned a lot about how a body works with regards to weight *loss* over the past few years (and as someone who has more personal finance discipline than weight loss discipline), you’re pretty much right on: controlling your weight (in either direction) is not rocket science by any means. Just as with finance, there are bits of information that you learn on the way that help you to your goals, but at root, it’s a simple input/output formula.

    I do have one tip (not necessarily for you, as you’ve covered this step well on your own, but for anyone else reading this), I’ve used http://www.physicsdiet.com to track my weight loss efforts (though there’s no real reason you couldn’t use it to track weight gain, it’s just not geared for that). I put in my weight, body fat %, and caloric intake in daily, and it gives me a moving average of where I’m sitting. It’s a great way to keep track of where you are, where you’ve been, and what to do to get where you want to go. I keep track of my exercising separately (basically just a dated journal of what exercises I’ve done and what intensity level I’ve done them at. Combine those two things, and the input/output equation becomes really obvious.

    Anyway, keep at it. I finally opened a Roth IRA last week after 3 years of planning to do so. You’re so right on that both of these things can just get people paralyzed and keep them from starting, when it’s just so easy to just start, just get moving. Momentum is the best tool we have to accomplish our goals, and the biggest enemy of momentum is standing still.

  2. Recommended book on strength training – methodical, clear, and based on the author’s decades of coaching experience: “Starting Strength” by Mark Rippetoe. Cuts through the minutia.

  3. Hah, you’re funny. You don’t look that skinny btw — just an average Indian guy. And I’M considered ectomorphic — having stayed a steady 110-115 lbs at 5’9″ for the past 7 years (I’m almost 26) despite trying everything. And I mean everything — one semester in college, I ate fast food for lunch and dinner everyday for 4 months. I lost weight that semester.

  4. I wrote about this awhile back. It’s completely true that the two activities compliment each other.

    I’ve also been down the same road you are now (up 14 lbs in 3 months), so feel free to email me and pick my brains about gaining weight. There’s some simple, non-minutia things that can up the momentum a bit.

    It’s true you want to simply eat everything in sight, but it helps your goal more if you go for the items with the highest interest rate, so to speak, more protein. Shoot for body weight x 10 in grams of protein a day. Once you hit that, in general, you’ll have eaten enough other stuff with it to get the huge caloric intake you need to make your goal.

    If you really want to gain, you must not miss a session in the gym. The recipe is simple, eat a lot + lift heavy things, but, like investing, it relies on a steady input over time. It’s part of my routine, I lift, without fail, MWF.

  5. We’re using the same sort of thing to improve poker playing: stat tracking, journaling, simple cognitive performance stuff (very simple, like getting enough sleep and keeping sessions within reasonable time limits.), emphasis on regularity, automating high load processes with memorization, tilt avoidance, “telling back” games, etc.

  6. That’s hilarious. Don’t you just love how everybody has an opinion based on nothing but an education based on TV commercials telling them what is good for them.

    You’ll get a lot further in life if you can use your own brain and ignore all the nonsense that everyone else is crowing. Alternately, simply learn who is worth listening to… based on their own experience and success as well as you own insights.

  7. Frugal, are you kidding me? “You’ll get a lot further in life if you can use your own brain and ignore all the nonsense that everyone else is crowing.”?! The fact that you are reading this blog says that you don’t follow that approach yourself! You are here trying to learn from someone else :o)

    How about being wise and learning from others’ experiences? Before you go ahead with trashing me, let me tell you that I am 5’11” with 190 lbs of pure muscle, and 10 years of gym and 7 years of pro kickboxing behind my belt (pun intended).

    Piece of advise on working out – do what you would with personal finances. Pick a good old all-time true book or two (try Joe Weider (for those who are lost, he is the guy who trained good old Arnold S.)), read about a basic workout routine or two and some basic eating tips, and just get started nice and easy while kepping your eyes and ears open to learn new things as you go. Same approach as you’d take with the personal finance (get some basic core knowldge, get started while not dumping your whole farm into one stock, learn along the way, adjust as needed based on experience).

    The trick is being able to filter out all the BS out there while holding on to what is true. And one learns that by, among other things, talking to folks who already walked that road, got their bruises along the way, and are willing to help you.

    I wouldn’t read the “become 200 lbs of muscle in a week” book, but I highly appreciate an advise from a guy working out next to me who is 200 lbs of muscle.

  8. @Jeremy – Did I read this right…your weight x 10 = grams of protein intake per day? So, if you’re 200lbs…and 1gm of protein is 4 calories…200x10x4=8000calories of protein per day…

    I love how everybody has “THE Answer.” I think some people missed the point of this post.

    Ramit, after reading this article, I am commiting to open a Roth IRA this week.

  9. Hey, thanks for the kind words!

    BTW, I KNOW I could gain 15 pounds without much effort. I’d rather have your “problem.” 😉

  10. # Using systematic techniques like public commitment, tracking, and even betting can help you get started and sustain your changes. And if you can get a friend to motivate you, all the better. Imagine if you emailed your entire family and told them that you were going to have a Roth IRA open by the time you see them for Christmas. Would you have enough self-induced pressure to do it?
    # Writing down your incremental achievements keeps you honest. We’re not cognitively wired to accurately remember how often we went to the gym or how much we spent last week. Use technology to help you.

    Ramit, you should check out stickK.com, a soon-to-be-launched website developed by 2 Yale professors which lets you sign up for “commitment contracts” to meet any goal. It’ll go live later this month. (Full disclosure: I’m writing about stickK for the Yale Economic Review).

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