On Shitty Days

When muscle soreness wakes you up at 3am, when the day is gloomy and cold and wet, when you are brain-tired and body-tired and possibly also soul-tired if that is a thing…how to reclaim the day?

As with many things, it helps to prepare for such shitty days in advance.  If you knew the night before that you had worked out without properly stretching and foam rolling*, or if you’ve generally been having an exhausting time of things, then go to sleep early.

Before you go to sleep though, write down all the things that need to be done tomorrow (star the bare minimum you can get away with completing), and write down exactly when (to the 15min or 30min increment) you are going to do them.  Write the breaks and rewards in as well.  Make sure you build in plenty of buffer time, because you’ve had shitty days like this before and you know that odds are you’re going to be moving slothfully unless galvanized by some crisis (yay!) and you’re going to need a lot of tea to get through the day.

Then when you wake up the next morning, it’s fine if you’re in zombie mode.  Just look at your time table and follow instructions.  Easy peasy, no need to think about it b/c Past You has already done all the mental work.

If you get off track or if you just can’t even move out of bed, don’t beat yourself up.  Everyone will have days that are unusually productive and efficient when all cylinders are firing at 120%, and everyone will have shit days when the cylinders are just dead.  Take breaks, try to reset, and try again.  And if worst comes to worst and you can’t even do menial labor (e.g. ironing clothes, laundry) then just go to sleep early and set yourself up for a better day tomorrow.

Hope you are not having a shitty day, but if you are know that you are not alone.  Thankfully, if you’re working in the US, you most likely have Monday off.  So let today be shitty and make up for lost time on Monday.

 

*Note to self: stop being half-assed about this.  Be more OCD about proper stretching and massaging out the lactic acid buildups after an intense workout.  MAKE time for it because you KNOW you’re just accruing debt and pain and lowered productivity in the future.

Action, not Emotion

A reminder for yourself: action, not emotion.

The typical chain of events is:

1. Stimulus – some event happens.  In this particular chain, it is usually a negative unexpected setback.  Some idiot almost ran you over because he wasn’t paying attention while driving.  Some insecure person got mad at you for trespassing on their territory or not showing them due deference.  Some well-meaning person asks you to jump through extra bureaucratic hoops during crunch time, “just in case” (and to CTA–cover their a**).

2. Instinctive reaction – usually an emotion, but in the case of physical danger could just be a reflexive movement.  You jump back, heart rate spiking and then scowl.  You get annoyed, stressed out, angry, frustrated.  If you get derailed here, you’ll keep dwelling on it, complaining about it, feeding off the negative energy and making it a bigger deal than it needs to be.

3. Reasoned action – your response to the stimulus after your brain realizes it’s a problem to be solved.  You take action, do something about the problem, and/or take away a lesson to implement in the future.

All the times I’ve gotten derailed at step 2 have been unnecessary wastes of energy.  My emotional response does not help me think better about how to solve the problem.  It does not help me negotiate better or persuade better to get people to help me.  It destroys trust and relationships and reputations.  It makes me an irrational complainypants.  It does not solve the problem faster.  It does not make the problem less likely to arise in the future.  In fact, it doesn’t even properly salve my ego (who cares?).

So, a lesson to learn again, closer to the bone this time.  When you hit some unexpected obstacle, focus on taking action.  The faster you can get out of that emotional response stage, the better.  Don’t dwell on it.  Just observe (hey I’m feeling angry) and then troubleshoot (can I do something about this now?  What?  Oh, I can’t be effective until I stop being angry?  How can I stop being angry faster?  How about going and making a cup of soothing herbal tea?  How about running up and down the stairs a few times?  How about looking at cute animal pictures?).

Invariably, when you’ve cooled down and done all that you could to mitigate and turn the situation back to your advantage, you’ll see that it was no big deal.  Not worth getting upset about at all.  Things that seem absolutely catastrophic on first glance (as if the universe was delivering a personal f*ck you) are mere blips on second or third glance.  By the next day, everything is resolved and the water is as smooth as if no pebble was ever cast in it.

Tactics to help you out of these amygdala hijacks:

  • As a preventative measure, practice meditation, get regular exercise, eat right, and sleep enough.
  • Observe your emotions.  Turn to curiosity.
  • Practice negative visualization–pre-emptively imagine all the bad things that could happen, happening.  How will you respond?
  • Re-read stoic texts periodically because you only remember 1% of what you read (in fact, a particularly salient quote from Meditations [public library]: “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”).
  • Write down your response instead of saying it out loud.  No one ever regrets NOT airing their dirty laundry and litany of woes.
  • Keep a sticky note or written reminder of “action, not emotion” or some variation thereof where you can see it frequently throughout the day.
  • Be grateful.  Your body is flooding your endocrine system with a chemical cocktail to help you respond to some stressor.  You can channel this productively to focus, build relationships, and learn more from hardship.  Read about it in The Upside of Stress [public library]

Against More Meetings

Something I have noticed about coworkers’ schedules: some of them spend more than 80% of their week in meetings!  If that is actually the case, how can they do their job on 20% of their available time?  Either they know some magic productivity tricks that I don’t (in which case I should ask them to share), their job descriptions are different (possible–managers might rightfully be expected to meet all the time to tell people what to do and get status updates?), or they’ve lost control of their schedule and are merely reacting to work rather than prioritizing and proactively getting the right getting work done.

I am not a productivity guru.  My job description does not include having meetings all the time (although it does include “building relationships with crossfunctional partners” and “influencing without authority to launch crossfunctional projects”).  And I hate the feeling of a day lost (wasted) to unnecessary meetings.

There is a communication problem in big companies.  Facts: there are more people in an organization, problems tend to require solutions implemented in tandem by multiple teams, most organizations have terrible communication systems or no formal ones at all.  All of these lead to a host of productivity and morale slaying poisons, such as: lots of unnecessary meetings, email overload, snails-pace decision-making, snails-pace execution, bureaucracy and red tape, and the appearance of busyness with no results to show for it.

Take one example: manager A volunteers his team for a small project that is not on their priority list for the quarter.  The project could be completely owned and run by 1 person.  Instead, he schedules multiple meetings with the entire team.  The person who is the de facto project lead (and there is always someone who volunteers through their actions) continues this trend of multiple meetings to get “consensus” and “feedback”.

What is wrong with this scenario?

  1. If a team (or even one person) is to be effective, it/he/she must be able to prioritize and focus on completing the most important projects.  Taken to an extreme, if a request comes up that is NOT on your list of most important projects, you must reject it.  Yes, it might be a trivial or small task, but THAT DOESN’T MATTER.  Anything that distracts you from your larger goal, even for a second, is not moving you towards progress on the real drivers of success.  Learn the power of saying NO.  Managers–it is your responsibility to protect your team’s valuable time from distractions.  Minions–it is your responsibility to push back and tell your manager or equivalent that working on this small project means not working on the most important projects, and which is higher priority for them?
  2. Competent managers should be able to scope out projects and only staff the minimum number of people to complete it.  This is especially true if it is not a prioritized project.  If the project only needs 1 person, don’t staff 5 just because you can and it might be nice to hear what others think.  This will only lead to inefficiency and zoning out and frustration.  (The person who is doing all the work feels like the others aren’t pulling their weight, and the others feel like their time is being wasted.)
  3. If you are the de facto lead of a project, or even the formal lead, ask yourself: do you need these other people on the project?  Are there actions you need them to take?  Is there specific feedback you are looking for, and do they have a history of being able to give you that feedback?  If the answer to any of those questions is “no”, for the love of god release them from the project.  Tell them “hey, thank you for offering to help me on this.  I’ve got it for now, but I’ll let you know if I need your help in the future.  I’ll give a heads up to the manager so you can get back to your most important projects.”

The most productive non-managers I’ve ever worked with eschewed meetings, focused on their most important projects, and built time in their schedule for brainstorming and learning and exploration and deep work.  They were domain experts who didn’t let themselves get yanked around by low priority asks from other people.  Instead they allotted a certain amount of time to helping others, pushed back to request that longer projects get prioritized, delegated where possible, and were generally polite but firm.

One of my work-related areas of improvement is to be like this.  Prioritize properly, develop a laser focus on completing the most important projects, and decline or batch meetings like there’s no tomorrow.  Time is to be protected and hoarded like it’s more precious than gold!  Don’t let yourself be distracted and do your best to roundhouse-kick bureaucracy in the face.

 

For more on anti-bureaucracy/meetings/corporate life and prioritizing your most important projects, see DHH’s entertaining and true rants on the Signal v. Noise blog, and Cal Newport’s Deep Work [public library].

Brave Enough Book Notes

This is a short collection of feel good rah rah quotes and aphorisms by advice column queen Cheryl Strayed.  A quick read and possibly a good (easy) intro to her work, this is a consolidation of quotes from her various other works.  If you just want to read the best of Cheryl Strayed, read Tiny Beautiful Things [public library].  It is a collection of her advice column replies as Dear Sugar, and it is raw, beautiful, empathy-teaching, realistic, and possibly the best primer on how to be a good person in our day and age.

From Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough [public library]:

“You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success.  You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life.”

 

“Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore.”

 

On accepting suffering:

“You do that by simply looking at what pains you squarely in the face and then moving on.  You don’t have to move fast or far.  You can go just an inch.  You can mark your progress breath by breath.”

 

“There are some things you can’t understand yet…it’s good you’ve worked hard to resolve childhood issues while in your twenties, but understand that what you resolve will need to be resolved again.  And again.”

 

“Stop asking yourself what you want, what you desire, what interests you.  Ask yourself instead: What has been given to me?  Ask: What do I have to give back?  Then give it.”

 

On jealousy and bitterness: let go and try to be grateful and hopeful

“There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart.”

 

“Hello, fear.  Thank you for being here.  You’re my indication that I’m doing what I need to do.”

 

“The useless days will add up to something.  The shitty waitressing jobs.  The hours writing in your journal.  The long, meandering walks.  The days reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries…”

 

“The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker.  It is not fragility.  It’s strength.  It’s nerve.  And ‘if your Nerve, deny you–,’ as Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘Go above your Nerve.’”

 

“Some facts of your childhood will remain immutable, but others won’t.  You may never make sense of the bad things that happened to you, but with work and with mindfulness, with understanding and heart, you will make sense of yourself.”

 

“Don’t do what you know on a gut level to be the wrong thing to do.  Don’t stay when you know you should go or go when you know you should stay.  Don’t fight when you should hold steady or hold steady when you should fight.  Don’t focus on the short-term fun instead of the long-term fallout.”

 

“Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out.  You don’t have a career.  You have a life.”

 

“We do not have the right to feel helpless.  We must help ourselves.  After destiny has delivered what it delivers, we are responsible for our lives.”

 

“Accept that their actions hurt you deeply.  Accept that this experience taught you something you didn’t want to know…Accept that it’s going to take a long time for you to get that monster out of your chest.”

 

“It is folly to measure your success in money or fame.  Success is measured only by your ability to say yes to these two questions:

 

Did I do the work I needed to do?
Did I give it everything I had?

Walden Book Notes

Still experimenting with the format and layout of how to share my book notes and where/how on this site they will be organized, but here’s the first one:

Walden, by Henry David Thoreau

 

Man goes out to live by self for 2 yrs in the woods.

 

Stoicism/on the shortness of life themes

Basically, be a minimalist, stop trading your time and happiness for money to buy material luxuries that you don’t really need and won’t make you happy.  Go out and live in the woods, be self sufficient.  Don’t be like other people and don’t do things b/c everyone else is doing them–don’t be a lemming.

Some beautiful passages describing the scenery.  It reminds me of my journalling when I go out in the woods to observe nature.  Maybe this was partly meant to act as a naturalist’s journal and partly as a philosophical treatise.

 

“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them…Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciate in the market.  He has no time to be anything but a machine.”

 

“Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.  What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.”

 

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

“A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.  There is no play in them, for this comes after work.  But it is  characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

 

“No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.  What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion…what old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can.”

 

“We might try our lives by a thousand simple tests…”

 

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

 

“We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us!”

 

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but to so love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.  It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

 

“When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.”

 

“And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.”

 

“But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools…we now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven.”

 

“No doubt they can ride at last who shall have earned their fare, that is, if they survive so long, but they will probably have lost their elasticity and desire to travel by that time.  This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet.”

 

“It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.”

 

“…for my greatest skill has been to want but little…”

 

“…the man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready and it may be a long time before they get off.”

 

Arguments for living a minimalistic life–don’t be a slave to work, don’t be a slave to the news, travel/wealth are not goods in themselves

 

Don’t listen to other ppl or old ppls’ life advice or experiences, it’s not true by the time it gets to you–better to observe for yourself and make your own opinion

 

“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

 

“We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new values for each other…we live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another, and I think that we thus lose respect for one another.”

 

“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society”

 

People’s worries color their perceptions of a thing:

“The old and the infirm and the timid, of whatever age or sex, thought most of sickness, and sudden accident and death; to them life seemed full of danger…”

 

“Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

 

“…for I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days…”

 

“Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures.”

 

“Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport.  Enjoy the land, but own it not.”

 

On traveling/self awareness:

“One hastens to southern Africa to chase the giraffe; but surely that is not the game he would be after…I trust it would be nobler game to shoot one’s self.–

‘Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find

A thousand regions in your mind

Yet undiscovered.  Travel them, and be

Expert in home-cosmography.’”

 

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.  Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

 

“It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.”

 

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.  He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary;  new, universal and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of being.”

 

“In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

 

On one-track minds and lemmings/tradition:

“It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you.  Neither men nor toadstools grow so.  As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them.  As if Nature could support but one order of understandings…As if there were safety in stupidity alone.”

 

“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?  If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

 

“No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth.  This alone wears well.  For the most part, we are not where we are, but in a false position.”

 

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.  It is not so bad as you are.  It looks poorest when you are richest.  The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise.”

 

“Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends….things do not change; we change.  Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.  God will see that you do not want society.  If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me.”
“Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.  Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”

Greasing the wheels

Have you ever had days where the stars aligned, you felt amazing, and you were executing on important projects left and right?  Have you ever had days where you’re left with a tension headache at the end of the day wondering wondering where all the time went?  Today let’s talk about the difference between these two types of days, and how you can maximize your probability of experiencing the former.

Generally speaking, what happens to you NOW is a function of what your past self did (plus some random/external effects outside of your control).  Since we can’t control those external or random factors, let’s just focus on what is in your control.  In particular, let’s talk about the major factors that influence how much energy you have to do things in the day.

#1. Sleep

This should be a no-brainer, but so many “high-functioning” type A individuals pride themselves on working 16+hr days on only 5 hrs of sleep.  Now, there is a certain small % of the population that actually can do this and be OK.  But the odds are, you are not one of those special snowflakes.  Most people need 8-9 hrs of sleep, maybe less as you get older.  To achieve optimal sleep, make sure that your room is completely dark (unplug electronics and get blackout curtains if you need to),  lower the room temperature so that it’s a bit chilly (or get a cooling pad underneath your sheets), invest in a comfortable mattress and pillow, and minimize loud noises (e.g. by playing a white noise soundtrack).

If you really want to see the impact of sleep on your energy levels and mood, run the following experiment: for 1 week, make sure you get 8-9 hrs minimum of uninterrupted sleep.  Don’t do anything else different.  Record your daily energy levels and accomplishments.  Then for the next week, set your alarm clock and limit yourself to 5 hrs of sleep each night.  (Don’t do anything else different.)  Record your daily energy levels and accomplishments.  Odds are, you’ll see drastic reductions in your productivity and turn into a stressed out shell of your former self.

#2. Food

Output is a function of input.  If you put junk food in your body, it’s hard to expect top notch work product from your brain.  Relatedly, most people will find it hard to concentrate if they’re starving, dehydrated, or fighting off a food coma.

Experiment with subtracting different food groups from your diet and record the impact on your energy levels.  Different people might be genetically predisposed to digest and react well or poorly to different food groups.  For example, my focus is strongest and my mind clearest when I follow Tim Ferris’s Slow Carb Diet* and when I don’t stuff myself to excess.  As my grandma would say, eat until you’re 80% full.

#3. Exercise

I never believed what a big influence regular exercise has on your energy levels and mood until I started doing Crossfit.  Before that, I had dismissed exercise as a thing jocks or body-image-insecure people did to show off.  I thought that I didn’t need it and was functioning just fine.  I wish I could tell my younger self to stop being such a judgmental pansy and go lift some weights.

If you don’t believe the magical energy-raising, stress-slaying, natural happiness drug that is exercise, then run the following experiment for a week: for 30 minutes each day, do a high intensity interval workout or yoga or weight lifting session at the gym (or running, if that’s more your style)*.  Change nothing else about your schedule.  Record your energy levels and accomplishments for the week.  Once you get hooked on that natural high, you’ll never look back.

#4. Mood/Stress

Sleep, diet, and exercise all influence your mood and stress levels, which in turn influence your energy levels.  You might get more frantic frenzied energy from the stress of a deadline or seething range at some perceived injustice, but in the long run your energy levels are better served if you are generally happy (but not distractingly so) and eustressed**.

This means that if you know that you’ll be heading into a busy time, or have to deal with unsavory characters or situations, be nice to Future You and plan for some pick-me-ups in the day.  For example, blocking out time in your calendar to take a walk outside to smell the flowers.  Stake out an empty conference room and watch some cute cat videos.

#5. Priorities

Sleeping well, eating well, exercising regularly, and hacking your environment to improve your mood are all well and good, but at the beginning of the day you don’t know what your priorities are and what you need to work on, you’re still dead in the water.

So be nice to Future You and prep a list of the top 3-5 daily priorities to work on the night before.  I’ve also found weekly priority/goal lists useful.  If I know what I need to do by the end of the week, I can plan for some flexibility/wiggle room for what gets done on a daily basis.  It’s much easier to wake up and just follow the instructions that your past self wrote down.  Some days (some of my best days) I’ll write down to the half hour what should be done in each 30 minute increment.  Then all my future self needs to do is just read and execute.

#6. Distractions

The last thing you should watch out for while setting your future self up for success is predictable distractions.  If you know that your coworkers like to IM you throughout the day, or if your cube-neighbors talk loudly right after lunch, you should plan to circumvent these distractions from messing with your focused work time.  For example, perhaps turn off IM for certain times of the day (your most productive times), create “no meeting” blocks of time in your schedule, and relocate to a quieter working space or put on headphones.

If you know you’ll find distractions for yourself (e.g. by surfing the web), consider downloading apps and extensions to block certain websites (or even the Internet entirely).  It might also be effective to delete or avoid certain apps or sites entirely.  (For example, Facebook is the only social media site I joined, and I consciously chose not to install it on my phone.)  Also schedule break times for yourself so that you know you’ll be able to indulge in some constrained web surfing to zone out.  You might find that as you minimize distractions and train yourself to focus on doing one thing at a time, you’ll be able to concentrate for longer periods of time and get more done.

To summarize, success tomorrow is dependent on greasing the wheels today.  Be kind to Future You and set him or her up for success.  Your future self will thank you.

What other “grease the wheel” activities do you do?

 

* Tim Ferris’s 4 Hour Body [public library] goes into different diets and exercises for exercise noobs and nerds.  I’ve also been following the Minimum Viable Fitness protocol.

** Read Kelly McGonigal’s The Upside of Stress [public library] for a discussion of where stress can be useful in your life.

Hack Your Environment to Avoid Addictive Behavior

Sometimes there are days when you fall into addictive behavior of the unproductive variety.  This means different things for different people, but it’s the form of escapism you indulge in most often.  Watching TV, playing video games, lurking on Internet forums, etc.

One of my vices is reading (or re-reading) books.  Not the non-fiction ones where you can learn something useful, not the “high” literature ones where you can learn something about the human condition, not the science fiction ones where you can think about the world a different way.  No, I get lost down the rabbit hole of fantasy and children’s fiction, where there is a pretty clear line between good and evil, and at the end of the day you end up with a Happy Ending.

Some of these books are plain unrealistic.  But one could argue that the characters set an example for ethical and even heroic behavior, even if the plot is oftentimes simplistic or derivative.

I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with liking what you like, even if it doesn’t seem to have any practical use in life.  I’m not saying that it’s bad to completely disconnect from your current state in life and immerse yourself in a different world.  I’m not saying it’s bad to take a break and escape.

What is unproductive is when you use this escape as a crutch to numb yourself into forgetting about why you need to change your current situation.  What is unproductive is when you overindulge to the point where the entire day has been frittered away, and you would have been better off making something or improving your life in some way.

So, how to avoid getting sucked into addictive behaviors and generally avoiding your vices?  This depends on your personality and temperament, and sometimes on the type of vice, but there are generally two ways to go about it:

  1. Go cold turkey completely.  Never do the activity again, and completely remove all access and reminders of the activity from your life.  Remove or replace all triggers for the activity, and prepare a substitute activity or reward that you will do instead of your addiction.  This strategy is more useful when you aren’t able to control yourself, or when the addictive behavior is particularly bad for you (e.g. recovering serious alcoholics or drug addicts shouldn’t engage in even recreational drinking/drugs).
  2. Limit your time to indulge in this addictive behavior to a scheduled window and have very strong rules/triggers/habits/rituals in place to enforce that the behavior will ONLY be done during this window and no over time.  One thing that works for me is having a cheat day for meals when I can eat all the sweets and junk food I want (unless I’m training for a race or some such).  Similar to strategy 1 above, when the cheat day window has ended, you must remove access and triggers for the activity until the beginning of the next cheat day.  This strategy works better if you are the kind of person who has the discipline not to relapse on non-cheat days/times, and if the addictive behavior can be sometimes useful (e.g. it’s easier to eat with other people if you don’t have any strange dietary restrictions).

Generally speaking, hacking your environment to make it easier for you to stay disciplined is the best way to build habits to become your best self.  Structuring your environment in a way that helps you build healthy habits and avoid bad habits decreases the amount of willpower you need to spend following your good habits.  And it makes it that much easier to avoid falling into addictive behaviors.

People call me disciplined, but really I’m not.  I know my vices and I know that I am not capable of saying no to them at all times.  So I just remove the temptation.  I set rules for myself and tweak my environment to make it easy to follow good habits.

And then sometimes despite the best of intentions, despite the best habits and knowledge and environment, you relapse.  The important thing is to acknowledge your failure, identify the trigger for bad behavior, and iterate on your surroundings and habits to fix it.  Turn it into an experiment and don’t beat yourself up about it.  The only thing worse about wasting time on an addictive spiral is feeling bad about it afterwards…and then going even farther down into it.

Found Things

This week on the Internet I…

…was amused by this snarky cartoonist’s take on flowers for Valentine’s day

…put this pumpkin pie variant on the list for testing and cheat day indulgence when I next have free rein in a kitchen

…remembered, re-read, and re-fell in love with this Konigsburg children’s classic [public library]

…learned that my favorite flower means “chivalry”

…and found a hobbit hole type home that lets in a surprising amount of sunlight (filing this away as a potential future “experiment”), and was reminded that even conventionally successful people get lost, flounder, and then find their way out by following their curiosity and making things.

 

On Prestige

I am revisiting Paul Graham’s old posts, in particular one about doing what you love.  His general argument is that people should do what they love*, and that while it is difficult to find what that thing is, it is a worthwhile endeavor in the long term.

There are 2 tidbits that resonate with me most deeply.  One is a quote that I have on the wall above my desk at eye level.  It is a reminder not to drink the kool aid, because I know that I’m still particularly susceptible to this kind of influence.  The quote reads: “[Prestige] causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.”

You should re-read that line again.

Even if you generally don’t care about the opinion of strangers (or think you don’t), if you are ambitious, want to make a difference in the world, want to make good money, want status, to be admired, etc. etc. etc.  You will fall into this trap.

Sometimes external influences are so insidious and so messy that it’s hard to separate out what you really like from what you think you like.  And when you do, maybe what you really like is so socially risky and “not like you” that you suppress that knowledge and live in denial.

For example, in college, a good friend of mine spent a long time thinking about what she wanted to do, vs. what her parents had taught her to want for her entire life.  When I first met her, she was gung-ho set on becoming an accountant or auditor, definitely some kind of white-collar office job involving math.  But then she struggled in her accounting and higher level math classes.  She rediscovered art (she had done art as a side hobby in high school) and then videography and comedy.  She grappled with an identity crisis–which of her wants and desires and likes were truly hers, and which were fed to her by the external world?  By the media?  By her well-meaning parents?  By her peer group?  By society?  By “them”?

My friend is brave and clear-sighted.  She got through her crisis and realized that the accounting office job was not what she really liked, not what she was good at, even if it had more “prestige” than a creative job.  She fell in love with comedy.  She took improv classes, did open mic nights, and worked a day job waitressing while she honed her craft.  And now she is doing comedy shows in NYC.  The future is not clearly defined, but I know for a fact that she is so much happier and more fulfilled on this route.

What if you don’t know what you really like?  What if you are more risk averse and unwilling to dive into the unknown?  I am in this boat.  I don’t know for sure what I really like (although I have a few suspicions), and I am much more inclined to work in a lucrative day job that gives me a cash cushion for experimentation than to bounce around entry-level low-paying jobs.

My approach is to (1) hold true to a general value of excellence in everything I do (even if it’s not what I like), (2) work whenever possible with amazing high caliber people who I can learn from (osmosis), and (3) to keep running side projects and studying/testing/exposing myself to different areas and types of work until I do find something I really like.

This third principle is the other quote I really liked from Graham’s essay: “‘Always produce’ is also a heuristic for finding the work you love. If you subject yourself to that constraint, it will automatically push you away from things you think you’re supposed to work on, toward things you actually like.”

If you listen to yourself and how you truly feel about something before you repress it (see cognitive dissonance below), you will figure out through trial and error what you like and dislike.  Making things, testing out different roles and career options, observing your energy levels, getting feedback from others, observing what you naturally choose to do/learn in your spare time, observing what kinds of people you admire, all of these things will tell you what you like and dislike.  And if you’re getting mixed signals, then you just need to collect more data points.  Over time (as the number of observations approaches infinity), distinct patterns will emerge (the average will approximate the expected value).

The most important thing as you go through this process of discovery and experimentation is to tell yourself the truth about the results, even if you don’t like them.  What you are fighting against is one of the most powerful forces in psychology–cognitive dissonance.

For example, let’s say you have been working a few years in accounting.  You are bored out of your mind and miserable when you go to work, but it’s a steady decent-paying job and you have job security.  You don’t think you’re an irrational person.  If you don’t like your job, it only makes sense to quit and find something new.  Except…if you know that, and you’ve known that for more than a year, and you haven’t done anything yet, maybe you actually do like your job.  Because you’re not an irrational person.  You wouldn’t stick with something you dislike.  Maybe you’re actually a good fit for accounting–your boss loves you, your clients love you, you’re going up for promotion…maybe this is what you were meant to do.

Doing something you know you don’t like causes you cognitive dissonance, and people hate cognitive dissonance.  They will contort their thinking until it goes away.  So, you’ll have to be on guard against your own mind when you’re trying to figure out what you like and dislike.  This, on top of being on guard against the siren-calls of prestige and everyone else telling you what you should like and dislike.

It’s not an easy path, but the alternative is to lie to yourself until one day you wake up, miserable and a shell of what you could have been, wondering what you did with your life.  When/if this happens, be grateful.  Use your crisis and make a change.  If you know what you really like, go do that instead.  If you don’t, start making a list of what you think you might like and run experiments down the list until you find the thing that makes your heart sing, even when you’re bad at it, even when you can’t see the money in it, even when no one’s watching.

Here’s to fighting the good fight.  Onwards and upwards!

 

*This is a variant of the follow your passion advice, which several people (most notably Cal Newport [public library]) argue is misleading and plain false.  I’m not going to dive into it here, but I will say that liking something sometimes isn’t enough to warrant working on it (full time at least).  It might be a necessary condition (and some might even argue against that), but it’s not a sufficient one.

 

On Time Wealth

If you (1) describe yourself as having a type A workaholic obsessive personality, (2) worship at the altar of productivity and GTD (systems FTW!), and/or (3) are often stressed out or burned out because THERE IS JUST NO TIME TO DO IT ALL, this post is for you.  (Slackers who like to laze about and watch TV, you can sit this one out.)

 

Introducing Time Wealth

First of all, time wealth* is a mindset and a way of thinking that is triggered by doing a set of actions or activities.  It’s similar to mindfulness and anchoring yourself in the present, but I use it as a weapon against stress and overwhelm.  It is an enjoyable, forceful reminder that disrupts your busy day to make you think: huh, life is long, let me slow down and notice all the beautiful things around me and revel in the fact that I have time for this because I control my life and my time and I choose to make time for this.  

Time wealth is a pattern interrupt, a phase shift, a mini rebellion, a signal of being in control, an amygdala hijack, a little bit of treat yo’self mixed with mindfulness meditation mixed with fuck ’em mixed with mental magic.

Time wealth is a luxury you gift yourself.  It is a balancing force and it grounds you.  It makes you happier, more relaxed, more present, and less self-centered.  It can lead you out of full blown panics and distract you before you spiral down into (unproductive) anxiety and decision paralysis.  When you are stuck, time wealth helps you get out of your head, your problems that are taking over your life, and allows you to change your frame of reference and maybe see a different way through.  It is also helpful to heading off long term burnout.

 

Ironically, you need to create pockets of time wealth in your day when you are the most busy.  This works because it’s a signal to your brain–hey, if I have the luxury of triggering time wealth, then clearly the sky is NOT falling down right now.  The act of making time for time wealth moments also forces you to re-prioritize and re-evaluate resource/troop allocation.  Perhaps you don’t have to do it all yourself.  Perhaps it doesn’t need to be done today (or yesterday).  Perhaps it doesn’t need to be done at all, because you are missing some critical insight that would make a lot of work irrelevant.

OK, let’s see how time wealth works in action.

Example 1:  You am on deadline to prep for a presentation with a director you’ve never met but need to make a good impression on.  You’ve been in the office ’til 11pm for the past few days and your nerves are shot (coffee is not helping).

You’ve had enough.  If things keep going as they are, you will self-sabotage this presentation.  So, you take a little 5 minute break.  You walk outside.  Find a clean bench under a tree.  Sit down and just breathe.  For the first few seconds, just focus on inhaling and exhaling–close your eyes.  What do you smell?  Grass, sunshine, exhaust from the cars in the parking lot?  Roll your head around and relax the tension in your neck and shoulders.  Feel your heart rate return to normal.  Then look up.  What does the sky look like today?  What shade of blue is it?  What do the clouds remind you of?  Let it remind you of your own insignificance.  Just focus on your sensations and the natural beauty around you.  When your 5 minutes are up, get back to prepping for your presentation and kill it.

Example 2: You are working on a long term project that requires fast turnarounds, late nights at the office, and weekend work.  This is a high caliber team with high standards so you need have your A-game on at all times.  You are starting to feel pretty burned out.

Instead of binge watching Game of Thrones or drowning your stress in a 6 pack (or bottle(s) of wine if that’s more your style) to recover over the weekend, you decide to experiment with a new routine.  Even though your weekends are busy, you purposefully carve out time to go on a walk to your favorite coffee shop/bakery every Sunday morning.  On the way there, instead of worrying about everything else you need to do on Monday (or Sunday night), you choose to enjoy the scenery, focus on how your body feels as you walk along the street, feel the sun on your face and the wind through your hair (or the smell and sound of the rain on your umbrella).  As you settle down at the coffee shop with a hot cup and take your first bite of that delicious danish they’re known for, you think to yourself, huh, life is pretty great.  I actually have it pretty good.  And the best part is, I have time to enjoy this and I can recreate this experience in my life whenever I want.

 

Try it out yourself: for the next 30 days, give yourself the gift of time wealth once a day.  Implementation examples:

  • Go outside for a walk in the middle of the day
  • Make a cup of tea, find a quiet nook, and savor your tea sip by sip
  • Lift heavy weights at the gym and don’t skimp on rest time
  • Stay an extra 5 min singing in the shower
  • Take a hot shower.  Or a cold one.  Whichever you normally don’t do.
  • Lay down on the grass and look up at the sky–let that view fill your entire line of sight
  • Play with a dog
  • Read a book to a little kid
  • Cancel a meeting in the middle of the day and take a cat nap instead (just make sure no one catches you)
  • Get a massage

Have you ever come across the idea of time wealth?  How do you implement it in your life?  How has it changed your life?

 

 

*Not to be confused with Rolf Potts’ idea that wealth is having the time to do the things you really want to do, like eat your way through all the night markets in Asia, but related to that.