Mar 26, 2014

Losing Zen

Every other day, you’ll find me making my way through the morning fog to pick up large, massive amounts of weights and put them back down.

It starts with a rush out the door, a bus ride, walking up hills and under bridges until I arrive to lift weights. I enter, I lift, I leave. The practice never changes, the ritual remains the same. The only thing evolving is myself, the number of weights added or removed that measure my tiny, incremental progress day-by-day. 

This meditation is a constant in my life. Some ask how I can bear to struggle day by day, forcing myself to get out of bed. Truthfully, I can’t imagine the opposite.

Sometimes, as I bend down to begin my final set of deadlifts, I pause and stare past the chipped iron bar. I stare at the black matte rubber beneath my feet and look through it. I imagine that this is something close to the dao — the “myriad of things” that encompasses everything and anything. Perhaps I’m seeing stars from a lack of breath, but occasionally I truly see the microcosm before me, before I challenge myself with what can only be summarized as a very simple activity.

But sometimes, I don’t experience this. My form is off. My knees tremble, my back is strained. My eyes wander, and the ambient noise of the gym pushes to the forefront of my mind, eliminating the balance between myself and it. Perhaps it’s because I’m nervous, daunted by the massive amount I push myself to lift. But sometimes, the weight is light, and yet I falter.

This morning, I struggled. I faced besting a personal record, one of which I’d been unable to vanquish. I was nervous — could I do it this time?

To the left of me, a personal trainer pushed two clients through grueling Crossfit workouts. I sighed, and settled in, pulling 135 with ease. I moved to add on 10 pounds to each side. I saw these two struggling with movements utterly new to them, as the trainer pushed and pushed. I knew how easily new crossfitters received injuries. I worried. I lifted 155, agitation growing.

I loaded up 190 — a number that marked the peak of my progress. Never before had I reached this number. A few days ago, I’d hit four reps and lost the last. Today, I’d vowed to step over that barrier and continue farther.

I settled in, my shins grazing the bar. The two crossfiters performed kettlebell snatches to the left, the girl lifting the weight with haphazard abandon. She’ll break her wrist, I thought. I bent down, back straight, and began to lift. Slowly, the weight rose from the matte floor, but seconds later it slammed back down, having barely reached above mid-shin. I stared — I’d never failed so poorly on the first rep. I recollected myself, and began again. Three repetitions I gained, but the fourth ended in failure. I stopped, and sat down on the rubber platform.

I’d lost it — that perfect moment of calm and concentration. I rested my chin on my knees and felt myself drifting away. I focused on my shuddered breathing as I stared across the massive expanse of the gym. Around me, men and women jogged, lifted, stretched. Slowly, I came together, my consciousness coagulating into a unified, present form.

Today, I’d lost it. But I wouldn’t lose it again.

Mar 5, 2014

Tutorial: Using Macaw to Build a Simple Landing Page

Hi guys —

I posted an updated version of my Macaw tutorial on Medium. This blog doesn’t have the greatest formatting for images :)

You can find it here: Using Macaw to Build a Simple Landing Page

Feb 19, 2014

What I Wish I’d Known: Finding a UX Job

The fall of my senior year, I applied for a lot of UX jobs. 
There are a number of reasons I failed. I knew I had the right set of qualifications for an entry level job, but I had no idea how to create a UX portfolio and sell my skills. And now, having been on the other side of the interview table, I know the skills that employers look for in a UX candidate.

If I could go back and fix all of the mistakes I’d made in my own portfolio, if I could advise the next round of students seeking a UX job… 

Here’s what I’d say.

Spend all of your waking hours working on your portfolio.

Designing your portfolio is a massive time sink. But you’re also trying to juggle your other classes and maintaining your GPA. 
Here’s the secret: your classes don’t matter. Not once has my GPA been a deciding factor for hiring (and this is coming from someone with a 3.9). Attend your classes frequently enough to pass final exams, and skip whenever you can to spend time working on your portfolio. Your employers won’t reject you for that C- in Chinese Art History, but they will throw out your application if your portfolio is a mess.

Focus on your portfolio’s interface.

Your professors have probably said that interviewers spend less than a minute looking at your portfolio. Sounds preposterous? Bad news: it’s true. 
You’re an employer. You’ve got an hour to sort through 50 applicants. You click on the first applicant’s portfolio. The images load slowly. Navigation is a mess — you have to go back and forth between pages to see new work. You can’t find the applicant’s contact information. The scrolling is a mess. 
Now repeat that process for the next fifty candidates. 
Designing an easy to use portfolio interface is vital to making a positive impression on your hiring manager. Regardless of your stylish work, your extensive experience, if your portfolio has a poor user experience, you’re not getting that UX position.

Focus on the process for each project.

Visual design portfolios and user experience portfolios have a lot in common on the surface. But when I’m looking at a UX candidate’s portfolio, there’s one thing that’s absolutely necessary for getting a callback: discussing your process.

Each UX project needs to tell a story. Walk me through the problem. Describe your users and how this problem affects their daily life. Tell me how you approached the problem: what solutions did you try? What worked, what didn’t, and why? What was the final outcome — was it successful? How do you measure success? Most importantly — what did you learn?

The problems you’re addressing don’t have to be world-changing — my friend Andrew did a project called “Shopping for Subjective Judgment Items with Expert Friends Increases Confidence in Making “Correct” Purchases” — it’s a user research study he designed about trying to buy socially acceptable shoes. But he discusses the problem with depth and clarity, showing his the solutions he tried, the inevitable failures, and the final success.

I balk when I encounter a UX portfolio filled with pixel perfect screenshots, and nothing else. For visual designers, that sort of lickable photography is exactly what you need. But UX designers need substance over style.

Feb 19, 2014

The Three Things I Learned from Four Months of Online Coaching

You may have noticed that I’ve eaten copious amounts of chicken for the past four months. You also may have noticed my rippling, svelte biceps that seem to burst through my shirt at any moment (just kidding… I’ve gotten bigger shirts to accommodate them). For the last four months, I participated in a group training session that taught me how to eat well and train hard. Here are the three takeaways from my online education experience.

Community is a tricky thing to master.

When I saw a slice of pizza that looked particularly pleasing, an email from an equally distressed student arrived to let me know I wasn’t alone. But when I struggled with a routine that was a piece of cake for others, I felt alone and isolated. When I was having a tough time, the community fluctuated from lifting me up to pushing me down.

Community acts as an amplifier. Nurture it carefully.

Teach a man to fish.

With nutrition, I was forced to create my own meal plans and rearrange my own schedule to accommodate challenging dietary macronutrient requirements. In contrast, my training was created with such precision that I could tell you how much time I spent deadlifting down to the second.

The result: I can rearrange my diet to accommodate meals with ease while hitting my calorie goals. I can take a look at a slice of pizza and calculate its macronutrients on the fly. But I’m lost when it comes to creating a training plan that complements my fitness goals. I still rely on fitness programs designed by coaches I’ve never met.

Although learning the method of how is quite painful in the beginning, having skill gives you power.

Consistent contact nurtures relationships.

At the start of the fourth month, I was feeling down. I was tired of tracking macronutrients, the training was exhausting me, and I felt alone. Every month, I reported my macronutrients and detailed my progress, but I heard no response from my coach. Was he keeping track of me? I mentioned some back pain — why hadn’t he contacted me for more information?

My coach may have been listening, but I heard nothing. I felt alone. The appearance of neglect felt real, regardless of the truth. Frequent, basic contact would have gone a long way to ease my concerns and build a stronger relationship between us.

Feb 19, 2014

Classic Li Bai

花間一壺酒。   A cup of wine, under the flowering trees;

獨酌無相親。   I drink alone, for no friend is near.

舉杯邀明月。   Raising my cup I beckon the bright moon,

對影成三人。   For he, with my shadow, will make three men.

月既不解飲。   The moon, alas, is no drinker of wine;

影徒隨我身。   Listless, my shadow creeps about at my side.

暫伴月將影。   Yet with the moon as friend and the shadow as slave

行樂須及春。   I must make merry before the Spring is spent.

我歌月徘徊。   To the songs I sing the moon flickers her beams;

我舞影零亂。   In the dance I weave my shadow tangles and break.

醒時同交歡。   While we were sober, three shared the fun;

醉後各分散。   Now we are drunk, each goes his way.

永結無情遊。   May we long share our odd, inanimate feast,

相期邈雲漢。   And meet at last on the Cloudy River of the sky.

Feb 19, 2014

Lift hard, diet hard. A post-mortem.

Here are a few of the observations I’ve made after four months of lifting weights and eating (relatively healthily) at a calorie deficit.

I can taste individual flavor.

I didn’t quite understand how intensely sugar over saturated my tastebuds until I went a month without. For the first month, everything sucked. Food tasted bland, and I could barely devour the massive amounts of chicken I was tasked with eating unless I covered it with some artificially sweetened, zero calorie sauce. 

This afternoon, I ate a one inch piece of a chocolate cookie. It tasted amazing, but the copious scent of butter and sugar overwhelmed the chocolate. Then I realized, a month ago, I would have tasted just a cookie, not a complex mixture of flavors and ingredients. Being able to pick out hints of ingredients or identifying spices is a real joy — and it’s led to a renewed love of composing and cooking my own meals.

Eating copious amount of meat is unsustainable*

It takes time to build a habit, and I can declare that after four months of integrating meat into my daily meals, the protein habit’s been built. But even though eating a pound of chicken a day has become the norm, even easy, it’s completely unsustainable.

To consume 120 to 160 grams of protein every day, this is what I picked up at the grocery store every two weeks: 36 eggs, around 18-20 chicken breasts, a dozen Quest bars, some sort of meat variation (be it 5 pounds of pork butt or some value pack of salmon), a block of cheese, a pack of bacon… and this is eating at a calorie deficit. I simply cannot fathom how much meat I’ll eat while bulking. Imagining the massive quantity of dead animals I’ve eaten has started to make me nauseous.

If I want to make this habit sustainable, I need to find a protein source that is cheap, accessible, and less meaty. I’ve begun experimenting with recipes that utilize whey in creative ways, but many miss the mark on either macros or taste. Yet, it’s a step in the right direction.

Variety (in training) is the spice of life.

In four months of training, I missed one work out. 

To be fair, I was back in Illinois. The roads were iced, and my tires were bald. I tried to complete a circuit in our basement with bodyweight exercises, but one look at me deadlifting a 35 pound bar and you can guess I wasn’t straining myself.

How was I able to maintain such a strict schedule, even while traveling frequently throughout the past four months? I initially chalked it up to accountability — but I stopped logging workouts a month in, even though I fastidiously stuck to my weekly schedule.

However, I think I simply enjoyed it. Every month, I approached each training period with a new schedule filled with exercises I’d never tackled. I felt like an idiot as I did pike push-ups, falling on my face. Struggling to do ten reps of Y-Presses with ten pound dumbbells forced me to re-evaluate my concept of “strength”. But the consistent, scheduled variety kept me entertained and dedicated.

Saying no is a superpower.

My walk home from work brought me through one of the most populated streets in my neighborhood. I’d pass by donut shops, cafes, pupuserias, open air groceries, and one particularly tasty ice cream shop. I’d smell fresh donuts, and think “It’s been a long day, and you deserve a treat.” This daily walk often ended with me carrying a brown paper baggie of some sort of bogus dessert I didn’t need, and certainly didn’t deserve.

For the first month of this challenge, I was not allowed to eat anything that fell outside the realm of meat, vegetables, and the occasional fruit. Processed sugars and grains were totally out — and the only one accountable for my failure would be myself. It was awful. I remember walking to the gym one Saturday morning and glimpsing a McDonalds wrapper poking out from the disgusting muck of leaves underneath the freeway. I immediately felt a rush of desire, and I wanted nothing more than to turn around, find the closest McDonalds, and shove a double cheeseburger down my throat. But I pushed down the desire, despite the heavy depression coupled with exhaustion that seemed to be eating everything in my life.

I planned out my first cheat day to the hour. First, I’d wake up and make cookie dough. I’d bake cookies, and have a rich brunch with friends. I’d eat chips. I’d have grilled cheese and tomato soup for dinner. And then I’d drink all night at a party with an open bar. It should be no surprise that I spent the next morning insanely sick, in tears clutching my stomach as I regretted every single thing I ate.

The incident wasn’t some sort of cautionary tale that swore me off drinking and processed sugar for the rest of my life. I still wanted that sugar and grease in my life. But from that day after, I realized that I could drink and eat whatever I want, whenever I wanted. I had the power to set the playing field. I began to consciously assess my food, determine whether I wanted something objectively good toward my goals, or not, and then make an educated decision. 

Saying no to food was hard, and the hardest part was saying no to other people. When we’d have a team lunch at work, I’d have to say no to pizza, even though I felt the pressure to eat. At a house party, I’d say no when offered free drinks. Interestingly enough, the latter situation had much less social pressure than the former — I wish saying no to food received more social acceptance, but I love the vast amount of social respect received when turning down alcohol.

This quickly devolves into the usual trope, wherein I proclaim “Food no longer has power over me!” But… it was true. I felt like Harry Potter — learning that I had mental control over my own food intake was like discovering a powerful secret, as if Hagrid were saying, “You’re a wizard, Harry!” My wizardry was simply incredible willpower.

The program’s over now — and I can see trace behavior of obsessive eating returning. But now that I know how fantastic it feels to say no, keeping them at bay has been a breeze.

Feb 19, 2014

Lift hard, diet hard. 16 weeks done.

It’s been a while.

I completed a four month protein-rich diet, paired with an intensive weight training program.

I gave no updates the last two months of the program. This does not indicate an easy time on my end — throughout those eight weeks, I dealt with traveling, holidays, and family, culminating in a struggle that created an absurd amount of stress. But I finished, a weary but victorious figure.

Here are the individual stats:

  • I lost 12 pounds, with the scale occasionally tipping in at as much as 14 lost.
  • I lost 5 inches in my bust, three inches in my waist, and one inch on my hips.

I look fantastic, and I feel great. But, the last two weeks were difficult, and I was mentally and physically exhausted.

Here are some cherry-picked notes from the last eight weeks.

Take a break already.

This is a stark difference in tone between the last update. Sometimes, a break is necessary to move forward. I had three parties lined up between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and the difficulty of saying no to holiday treats and traditions became overwhelming. It culminated with a messy Christmas party with friends, and a New Year’s Eve party where I shoveled chips into my mouth, washed down with moscato straight from the bottle. I felt physically awful, but the sorrow brought on by my drunken failure felt worse.

I truly wish I lived in a world where the joy of eating food was independent from the damage a delicious meal could do to your body. But this isn’t the case — so it’s okay to give in and enjoy it occasionally if it allows you to recoup your mental willpower.

Food & friends.

Food is a social experience. Dining with friends is fantastic — sharing a glass of wine over a rich meal builds beautiful friendships. Yet, when you choose to eat well, you choose to say goodbye to these social interactions.

During the last month, I had some great friends visit me for a week. I loved spending time with them, but I was torn when meal time came around. I had to choose: do I compromise three months of built up dedication, or do enjoy a break with friends? I chose the former, and although I maintained my diet and exercise schedule, I didn’t enjoy myself. Worse, I felt like a wet blanket when I left my fantastic supportive friends to go lift, or declined dessert. Yet had I chosen the latter, I would have exchanged my frustration for depression at giving in. There’s no perfect solution.

Listen to your body.

The last month of the program, I didn’t sleep well. I woke up in the middle of the night, my lower back so sore that regardless of the position, I felt an aching pain. The constant pain flowed into every crevice of my life. Even sitting at my workspace, I thought of the dull ache, wishing it to go away.

I knew my training was causing the pain, but I believed I could work through it with more stretching, or greater concentration. What a fool — if your body starts calling, don’t ignore it. Weeks out from the program, I’ve changed my training, and the pain has gone away.

Be attentive. If I’d done so, I wouldn’t have had those sleepless nights of agony.

So, the program has ended. What next? 

Although my initial goal was to maintain strength while dropping into a lower weight class, I’ve still lost strength in my core lifts. I’ll spend the next month doing starting strength to bring myself up to my standards. 
For food, I’ll take a two week mental break. I’ll eat in a similar fashion of high protein, low carb macro distribution, but I won’t track each individual gram. Then, I’ll reassess and eat at a slight calorie deficit. We’ll see how it goes.

Coming up next, I’ll do a post-mortem of the entire program, with some holistic observations

Dec 9, 2013

Lift hard, diet hard. Weeks 7&8, a halfway point.

Well, a certain amount of faith has paid off. I’ve continued cheating, and cheating merrily, and my progress continues with less yoyo-ing than before.

This post is late, and in fear of balking and not writing at all, I’ll summarize the past two weeks thusly: just enjoy it, already.

To finish this up, I’d like to reflect on progressing halfway through the 16 weeks of training.

Before I began this program, I had terrible eating and exercise habits. 

Whenever I’d encounter a food, I’d obsess over it. If I saw someone eating an ice cream sandwich I hadn’t eaten in a few months, I’d think about making an excuse to eat it, until eventually my willpower gave in and my food lust conquered. As I started the program, I experienced this sensation to a painful degree. Three weeks in and I thought constantly about all of the food I wasn’t eating — all the brunches missed, all the free desserts I turned down, the myriad of treats and indulgences I painfully refused. But I severed the restraints of food obsession, and now I refuse unhealthy food because I understand how horrible it makes me feel. Physically, oh god how some of these desserts make me feel, yet emotionally I recoil at eating food that’s actively awful for my body.

Exercise was an exercise — ha! — in facing discomfort. I used to despise gym class throughout school. Running the mile was a particular feat of anguish; the weeks we ran the mile, I would stare out the window and wish daily for rain, just so I could be spared the pain and embarrassment of being one of the last students to cross the finish line. I dealt physical activity only when it was easy. However, this program put me in a state of constant discomfort. I was forced to try new lifts, and lift at a pace that wore me into a disgusting, sweaty puddle of mud. But I kept doing these difficult, bizarre lifts week after week, no matter how much a fool I looked. Each day is still a challenge; now, these challenges I confront accepting the difficulties that lie ahead, no longer shirking responsibility.

These eight weeks have challenged me to grow in ways I hadn’t thought possible. But I have, and I’ll continue.

Nov 18, 2013

Lift hard, diet hard. Weeks 5&6 double trouble.

Ahh, everything had proceeded so smoothy — I thought — why not take a break and post bi-monthly? Oh Em, how naïve you are.

Week 5 ended with the introduction of cheat days, which thrilled my gluttonous heart. However, when a Sunday scheduled with pies, cakes, and brunch actually arrived, I balked. Progress was happening. My willpower was strong, and my body was cooperating. Why reintroduce such chaos into my life? Well, the experiment had worked so far, and if the experiment called for a cheat day, I’d give it a go.

I lifted in the morning and ran home to make some cookies for a brunch at a Hacker House of which I was a former tenant. After mixing and mashing, I had some cookie dough left. I tasted it — rainbows, explosions, stars in my eyes — and downed spoonfuls. After seeing an empty mixing bowl, I panicked and ate a protein bar. But it had begun.

After a night of grilled cheese, endless cocktails, and cookie dough night terrors, I awoke to a food hangover unlike any other. Fasting an entire day was incredibly welcome, and necessary. The concept of Feast and Fast seemed conceptually sound, but as the week progressed, my progress stalled, and my bloated stomach belayed a disappointment and sadness I felt deep inside. "I cheated. Am I always going to feel like this?"

When my body recovered, another cheat day reared its head. This time, I ate modestly, until as host of a fantastic wine and cheese party I, well, partook in festivities. And now I write here, reflecting on the torments and troubles of Feasting and Fasting. Two weeks have past, and progress is at a standstill. And worst: my willpower and resolve have sunken into the gutter. I want cookies and cake. If I’m not progressing, why not eat what I please?

And so, reflections for the week.

Progress does not come prepackaged.

It’s impossible to conceptually separate yourself from the idea of progress in even increments. Each bite is not an ounce lost or gained — it’s nebulous, impossible to pin down. Although correlation appears to be causation, it’s hard to pin cheat days as the root of lost progress. That said…

Give an inch, and you’ll lose a mile.

Yes. My willpower is slowly degrading. I can no longer say “No.” as easily as before to extra barbecue or a piece of candy. An absolute viewpoint of the world is terrifying, but it’s an easier branch to hold onto when the rest of the world is trying to shake you off the tree of progress.

So what now?

I’ll take the next week off — no cheat days, just full-on eating well. Although this doesn’t solve my long-term woes, it’s a small patch that will prevent my willpower from fully seeping away. As the workouts continue to increase in difficulty, I’ll minimize the toll of decisions as much as possible.

Nov 3, 2013

Lift hard, diet hard. One month down.

I’ve been lifting and dieting for four weeks. This is a milestone within my program — next week I move on to a completely different set of lifts. Over the past month, here’s what I’ve learned about making a radical lifestyle change.

Support is the most valuable tool.

When you make a drastic change to your lifestyle, a strong network of emotional support is a necessity. The people you’re around can easily make or break your willpower to continue. I firmly believe in ego depletion. If your willpower is low, and a friend tempts you with pizza rather than supporting your decisions, you may fail. Surround yourself with supportive friends and eliminate the haters.

Eliminate decisions.

The power of choice presents crippling inability to make decisions. Be relentless in progress by eliminating choice. Make your workouts a habit, your meals a predetermined script. Spontaneity destroys routines and creates chaos.

Keep moving forward.

Mistakes happen. The easiest way to atone is to get over it, try harder, and move forward. 

So what’s next?

The next month’s program focuses heavily on strength training. I expect less weight loss and more strength gains. Along comes the introduction of cheat meals (!!!!!) which may prove to be a small willpower disaster. We’ll see how week 5 goes.

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Hey, I'm Emelyn. I design. I cook with a slowcooker. I speak some pretty rough Mandarin. I lift things up and put them down.

See my work on Dribbble, or my portfolio.