How the 5:2 plan changed my life
A new book suggests taking the 5:2 diet principle and applying it to all areas of your life. Edel Coffey puts it to the test
Sometimes it feels that with each new week comes a new and cruel diet. But every now and then, there's one that really makes an impact, like the 5:2 plan. Its concept is simple. Fast strictly (500 calories) for two days a week and then live your life like every day is a mardi gras for the remaining five days.
The two fast days don't have to be consecutive so you are only really ever 24 hours away from a slice of toast.
For one author, the diet was so successful, that she started applying the principle of the 5:2 diet to other areas of her life to see if it might have a similarly positive effect. It was such a success that Emma Cook has written a book about it – 5:2 Your Life. It's a diet but for your life. And whose life couldn't do with losing a bit of flab?
The book is divided into several categories including drink, fitness, relationships, productivity, screen life, and environment, amongst others. So to 5:2 your drink life, you would cut out alcohol completely for two days a week, then happily indulge, guilt-free, in a glass of wine or two for the remaining five days.
Likewise with exercise, committing to doing a few minutes of high-intensity exercises just two days a week meant you could spend the reast of the week lounging on the couch.
To 5:2 your environment, you simply make a commitment to be more environmentally friendly twice a week. For most people, this is as straightforward as leaving the car behind for two days a week, taking the bus or walking (and this gets you brownie points for your exercise days too).
The appeal, of course, is that you only have to be virtuous two days a week, which makes it all seem manageable. So I thought I'd give it a go.
The idea of introducing a little discipline into my life was appealing. Like many people, I seem to race from one appointment to another until, by the time I get home, all I want to do is collapse in front of the television with a glass of wine in one hand and a carbohydrate in the other. Could introducing a few changes for just two days a week really make much difference?
I was happy to discover I was already doing some things right, like walking or cycling most places.
But I was a real slouch in other categories. I look at my bank statement through my fingers and each trip to the ATM is a game of Russian Roulette.
One tip recommended if you want to 5:2 your finances is to set your internet banking website as your homepage, so that when you turn on your computer every day you will be reminded to check your balance and see what state your accounts are in. I implemented this change and this tiny tweak alone was life-changing.
Knowing what I had in my bank account at any one time meant I spent accordingly. It sounds ridiculously simple but it really changed how I thought about – and spent – money.
By applying the 5:2 principle to any one category, I found it had a knock-on positive effect on another area. For example, walking to work on a 5:2 environment day, saved money (5:2 your finance) and helped get my quota of exercise (5:2 your fitness).
With alcohol, I had got into the habit of having a glass of wine with dinner. Now it's a case of selecting two days a week where I won't drink any alcohol. Simple.
Initially, it is surprisingly hard. There is something comforting about the habitual glass of wine with dinner, especially after a long day at work, but after a couple of weeks, I'm no longer drinking during the week at all, which has a knock-on effect on my productivity (and a surprising side-effect of making me less tolerant of alcohol).
A negative effect is that I found myself living a sort of double life, being almost religiously ascetic early on in the week and indulging as much as I wanted on the weekends.
I found myself cramming my alcohol-free days, environment days and relationship days into Mondays and Tuesdays so that when I was socialising or going to someone's house for dinner I didn't have to be that person, the one who isn't eating carbs that month or the sober person spoiling everyone's fun at the Bacchanal.
I quickly found ways around this. If I had to socialise on alcohol-free evenings, I started going by car so I had a watertight excuse of 'I'm driving'.
The most dramatic effect of trying to 5:2 my life came with the screen-life challenge. Trying to cut out my screen use two days a week (barring work) was going to be difficult.
I can fully empathise with the new film Her, where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his operating system.
I am deeply in love with my technology. I wake up with my iPhone. I check Twitter, Facebook and email before getting out of bed, then after my shower I turn on the laptop over breakfast. I go to work and spend all day staring at a screen.
I come home, have dinner, then turn on the TV – if I don't have more work to do on my laptop – and will watch a few episodes of the latest boxset I'm watching, while scrolling through Twitter on my phone or iPad.
Really, and this is shocking to write, the only time I'm screen-free is when I'm asleep. That's bad, right?
I designate Mondays and Wednesdays screen-free days and also the perfect days to 5:2 my relationship (another category in the book – no life area escapes the 5:2 plan). With phones, laptops and TV off limits, I think it's a good opportunity to spend some 'quality time' together.
The withdrawal is instant and surprising. I have an impulse to reach for my phone about once every three minutes. I've put the phone in another room so I really notice the impulse every time it happens. I feel like a complete addict.
However, the relationship side of things is really positive. With our screens off, my boyfriend and I have more conversations, engaging properly and we are strangely relaxed. I look at his face when he is talking (as opposed to my Twitter feed). Now if I check my phone when we're having dinner, it feels rude (as it should).
The screen ban has another unexpected side-effect. It makes me more efficient during the day – I have to get my work done within a certain time, knowing that I can't just spend half the evening finishing it off at home between episodes of The Good Wife.
The screen ban is so successful that I introduce a one-hour limit on TV for the other weekdays, and again, the result is I'm more productive and life feels a bit more organised.
It's been revelatory that such tiny tweaks change could have such immediate effects. I feel vaguely foolish for not having implemented changes like this sooner. This is one diet I'll be sticking to.
5:2 Your Life by Emma Cook is published by Hutchinson.
5 tips 2 make the plan work
* Make things easy on yourself and incorporate your alcohol-free days into the naturally quiet days. There's not much point in trying to do an alcohol-free day on your weekly social night. Mondays and Tuesdays are a natural fit. For most people, they are not socially active and it feels natural to take a break from the booze after the weekend.
* Make the challenge fun – double or triple-charge your 5:2 days. This can actually become quite fun as you see how many categories you can fit into one day. If you walk to work, that will get you scores on environment, finance and fitness.
* When it comes to screen-time, be realistic. Most of us work with computers all day so if you'd like a full-day break from screens, schedule a weekend-day as one of your screen-free days. Although you may want to ease yourself into this. Initially, without the distraction of Twitter and facebook and TV, I felt like a tumbleweed might blow through my living room any minute but eventually it left me feeling like I had a lot more time in my life.
* Prepare. It's hard to deprive yourself on busy days or days when you are tired, or exhausted. Plan your days around your week. Try to do the same thing every week as it will become habitual – on Mondays and Tuesdays, I don't drink.
* Don't become evangelical about it. If your friends ask what you're doing, tell them. Otherwise, just keep quiet and notice the improvements in your life.