I N S TAG R A M : A PA R A BL E

As much as we’d like them to, healthy snacks and lunches are unlikely to pack themselves. Enlightened organizations like Google take pride in supplying as many healthy treats as unhealthy ones for their employees, but the majority of us must fend for ourselves if we hope to stand a chance against the cookies and granola bars.* is poses a serious problem. When I polled my Twitter followers about the biggest challenges for eating healthy food at work, a popular tech writer replied with an answer that echoed what I heard from dozens of others: “All the reasons can be translated into this one sentence: ‘I’m a lazy fuck.’ ” Planning ahead so that you have the resources to eat well on the job takes effort, and effort for distant goals like health and weight loss is more than a little hard to come by when work takes center stage. To get a sense of what it takes to overcome these obstacles in a high-pressure office environment, I sat down with Instagram’s founder, Kevin Systrom, and its first engineer, Shayne Sweeney. Instagram is a mobile application for taking and sharing photos that launched in October 2010. By December 2010, it already had one million registered users, and maintaining and scaling the app became the number one priority for the company’s small team of five. “We never ate healthy at the release,” recalled Systrom. “At least in the beginning, we’d be so into our work that crafting a salad out of arugula and radicchio just wasn’t going to happen midday.” Instead, they’d opt for the local food trucks or burritos near the office. Without their even realizing it, weight started to creep on: “We were looking at old pictures from Instagram, and people were like, ‘Oh my God, you look so young,’ and I was like, ‘What does that mean? Do I have gray hair? at was like six months ago,’ ” Systrom explained. “After that I kept telling myself, ‘I’ve got to get healthy again,
* Don’t kid yourself, granola bars are glorified candy.
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I’ve got to get healthy again.’ So I bought a scale one day and realized my weight was up to 235, and I had never been this heavy in my life. I used to be 210, and I was like, ‘ at’s not okay.’ But I knew I was not going to pull a sorority girl and just eat salad, because I love food. I can eat less, but I’m not going to stop eating food I like just to lose weight. at would make me unhappy.” For Sweeney the weight gain had an even deeper implication. “I had tipped the scale at 300 pounds five years ago, then lost 125 pounds. When I saw an interview I did a few months ago and I looked terrible, it was a big wake-up call. I knew I could get to a point where I was incredibly unhealthy, so I had this motivation. I thought back and tried to remember what I was doing when I lost weight before. Exercise was the first thing we talked about, so Kevin and I went back to running,” recalled Sweeney. e two started waking up a half hour earlier each morning and running on the treadmill at the gym. “It was hard for the first three weeks, but then it got really addictive,” said Systrom. “We’d compare how many calories we burned at the end of it, and I realized you could actually map how much you exercise to how many calories you burn.” Healthy eating came as a direct result of this observation. “What’s interesting is we started with exercise, but we were seeing results by understanding that you spend this amount of time and you burn this many calories, so we would make a conscious effort to eat healthier,” Sweeney recounted. “We didn’t go into it with the mindset of dieting.” Systrom agreed. “Now I get angry when I see someone eating greasy potato chips, because I know that is a forty-minute run, and a forty-minute run is hard. So eating healthy was a consequence of starting to exercise.” Once healthy eating became a priority, convenience and foresight became the name of the game. Systrom found that stocking yogurt in the office fridge and picking up soups and precut carrot sticks from Whole Foods was the secret to staying on track. “ e key for me was finding tricks so you’re not starving, but also so you enjoy eating
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healthy. I love Greek yogurt, because it fills me up, and the stuff is so good!” he explained excitedly. “I just had stuff around so that when I was hungry and angsty for food, I knew where to go, instead of going to the cupboard and getting chips.” Sweeney’s strategy included opting for the vegetarian lunch from the Instagram caterer. “During the week, I only eat vegetarian. It isn’t because I have anything against meat. It just seems like the vegetarian option on everything that comes in is more healthy,” he told me. Systrom doesn’t take it this far, but makes a point to load up on veggies and eat them first before allowing himself a smaller, more indulgent treat that he really enjoys. Both agree that it comes down to value. “To me, lunch at work is nothing special,” said Sweeney. “To go waste a ton of calories and go get a crappy burrito from around the corner makes no sense. I’d rather spend my weekends or one night a week going to a great restaurant where there’s great food.” Systrom and Sweeney began changing their healthstyle in May 2012, shortly after Facebook announced its plans to acquire Instagram for $1 billion. Before this time they didn’t worry much about what they ate, particularly Systrom, who considers restrictive dieting to be far too difficult in a startup environment. “It’s so painful. You get to work and you can’t think. e way we eat now is way more fulfilling,” he said. Sweeney would occasionally try a restrictive diet, but these temporary diversions never made much of a difference. “I once did this juice thing where I didn’t eat at all for a week. It was terrible,” he shared with a tinge of regret. But things are different now. “I don’t feel cheated at lunch. I find things that I like, and I realized, ‘Wow, I actually like vegetarian options.’ And I don’t feel guilty on the weekends when I go have a great dinner.” Finding time to exercise turned out to be easier than they expected. ey realized that they had to work out in the mornings, since their availability in the evenings was inconsistent. So in the beginning they forced themselves to get up earlier and hit the gym. “ e truth is you
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have to give up something. I give up sleep and a little bit of morning work time, and I’m okay with that,” Systrom said. But he went on to explain that what they lose in time, they gain in efficiency, since their morning workouts make them more alert. “I get in about thirty minutes later, but I’m so much more productive and can stay later,” said Systrom. e only time their productivity took a hit was in the early weeks when they weren’t yet adapted to the morning workouts. According to Systrom, “It wasn’t that easy the first three weeks, but I made a deal with myself that if it still sucked after four weeks, I would stop. But it didn’t. It was great.” Despite getting to work a half hour later and losing out on a little sleep that the lazier versions of themselves would relish, their new habits help rather than hinder their work. “We’re actually much more productive in the mornings now,” Sweeney agreed. “Having the structure was actually better all around.” Systrom believes that his newfound confidence in how he looks and feels also plays a big role in his increased productivity. “I feel way more energetic, but I think that’s because I’m more confident. I’ve lost twenty-five pounds now,* and people say ‘Wow, you look good!’ ” He paused briefly as he glanced down at himself, then over to Sweeney. “We can tuck our shirts in finally. Seriously, I can fit into a large now and not the bulky extra large, and that felt really good. And because of that I think I’m more energetic at work.” In the beginning, before they started seeing results and when waking up earlier was still really hard, there were two things that kept them motivated. “ e only reason I was doing it was because we were doing it together. We stopped going to the gym together after a month, but it was necessary in the beginning,” Systrom explained. “I don’t think anyone should have to do it alone. It’s just really hard.” As mentioned in chapter 8, finding the motivation to exercise consistently should be your top priority when starting a new workout regimen. Once you
* It had been three months at the time of this interview.
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reach a certain level of fitness, exercise becomes its own reward, but before that workouts can be painful and you need to find a way to push through those first few weeks. “If you find a buddy, you keep each other motivated,” continued Systrom. “Social accountability actually matters, and for us it just meant showing up.” e second big motivator for Systrom and Sweeney was having a way to quantify and share their progress with friends. “Nike+ was awesome for us, because you see how many calories you burn and how long you go. It’s infectious too. My girlfriend started running every day,” said Systrom. Modern electronic activity trackers allow you to both follow your progress and share that information with friends, even if you don’t work out with them directly. Being able to see your friends’ activity becomes a form of inspiration and motivation. “It’s not a competition in an aggressive sense,” Sweeney explained. “You get addicted to it, and it becomes fun. We continue to encourage each other.” Systrom believes these subtle psychological motivators are what enabled him and Sweeney to overcome the barriers that make healthy living so difficult in an office environment. “You can’t trust yourself in difficult situations. You have to set yourself up for success,” he says. “Changing small, contextual things in your life completely changes the game.” Tiny actions have the power to change whether you view a task as doable or difficult, and harnessing this power to help you build healthy habits is the key to achieving results. ese actions can be as simple as bringing in yogurt and soup for lunch, sharing with your friends on Nike+, or packing your gym bag before going to bed. “I knew that if I didn’t pack my gym bag with the clothes I was going to wear the next day, I wouldn’t make it to the gym. I also needed to lay out my workout clothes. I’d wake up in the morning and just make myself a deal: ‘Listen Kevin, all you need to do is put on those clothes and you’ll wake up on the drive to work and you’ll be fine.’ Everything is set up for me. But if it’s too much work to get up in the morning, you won’t do it,” he reflected. “ ere have been times when I have literally
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considered sleeping in my running clothes, so all I’d have to do is get up and put on my shoes.” e same is true of food. “Preparation is so key. It’s all about doing things before you get hungry, because once I get hungry I make irrational decisions,” Systrom continued. “You don’t want to be thinking when you’re panicking, and hunger is a form of panic.” Habit usually compels people to choose the most convenient foods when they suddenly find themselves hungry, which is almost never the healthiest or tastiest option. Having an easy, tasty, and healthy alternative is the secret to overriding this impulse. “You need to train yourself to have certain reactions in specific situations. When you get hungry just do this, this, and this, and if you just follow those, it all gets better really quickly. But if you panic, you just go get a burrito. Game-time decisions are never good.” At Instagram, Systrom and Sweeney developed a set of rewarding healthstyle habits that led to rapid and relatively painless results. For most people, the biggest fear in integrating healthy habits into their work life is that it will take up too much time and energy and that their productivity will go down as a result. e team at Instagram proves that this does not have to be the case and that the benefits of upgrading your healthstyle more than justify the initial investment. Moreover, if your job is the main focus of your attention and you’re spending more than forty hours per week in a work environment, your results may be even more profound than those for someone who spends less time at the office, since a larger proportion of your weekly habits will be promoting good health. “ e best thing about this was seeing results—seeing weight go down was awesome, and that’s what kept me going,” said Systrom. Working long hours takes enough of a toll on your quality of life; it shouldn’t negatively impact your physical well-being as well. You owe it to yourself to stop finding excuses and start finding ways to integrate healthy living into your work life.
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T H E BU DDY S Y S T E M

An essential component of Systrom and Sweeney’s success came from their simple decision to start on their journey together. Since the hardest part of upgrading your healthstyle is the first few weeks when your new habits are not yet formed, having a partner who keeps you motivated and accountable can be the difference between success and failure. In an office environment, however, having a buddy for support can have a profound social impact as well. I’ve had many people complain to me that one of the most difficult aspects of changing their habits at work is the social pressure put on them by their coworkers who don’t value health. Healthy eaters are often subject to ridicule and pressured to abandon healthy habits in favor of less healthy ones. In these situations, having a friend who is making healthy changes with you is particularly valuable. Social dynamics completely change when you’re doing something as a group instead of on your own. Instead of being an outlier, you are a team member and your actions are viewed as different instead of just weird. Even if some of your coworkers continue to mock your choices, at least you have the support of someone else to stick to your guns and do what you know is best. In talking to Systrom and Sweeney I was taken aback by the lack of blowback they experienced from colleagues. “It has actually been pretty neat. It started with just the two of us doing the vegetarian option and eating healthier, and now the vegetarian option counts for over a third of our office’s lunch order, because people want to eat a little healthier,” said Sweeney. A few people in the office joined their gym as well. “It’s infectious, and people around you start to notice. People catch on. Everybody wants to be healthy and look good, feel good,” he continued. Whether their coworkers would have been so enthusiastic if only one of them had started making changes is less clear. “I think everyone wants to
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eat healthy, but when they see other people doing it, it seems kind of cool. Like a trend,” Systrom explained. Having more than one person involved makes creating healthy habits a cultural shift rather than a lone mission.

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