Holding the Line: Week Review #4

The main purposes of a Weekly Review are (a) track the onboarding of new habits and/or mindset changes, (b) get direct feedback on progress towards mid-term goals and (c) a top-down view of how time/resources are allocated each week. See my other weekly reviews here.

How did we do this week?

This week’s spreadsheet:
Total Focus Time: 4.62 hours per day
Work Time: 4.07 hours per day
Training Time: 0.55 hours per day
Work focus stayed essentially the same, but we got some more training in this week. It kind of looks like we stalled, but hours per week aren’t the whole story.
But let’s look at some context.


This week was another hectic travel week: three different airports, hours on run-down Chinese buses, poor internet connectivity (damn the Great Firewall), reunions with relatives, etc. If anything, the theme for this week was to “Hold the line!”
I knew prior to this week that it would be nigh impossible to both keep up training and maintain a regular work schedule. Hell, this country doesn’t even have coffee. I went into it with the goal of “Hold the line!” instead. The goal this week was to try to improve, but be satisfied with status quo.
And, in that regard, I deserve a pat on the back.

What went well this week?

Virtues Checklist

The biggest spreadsheet change from last week was the “Virtues Checklist”. The idea, in brief, was to sculpt personal change by reinforcing certain types of behavior. More on this in another post, but the basics were:
  • Smile – Go out of your way to make somebody (a friend, a stranger, anybody) smile once a day.
  • Spiritual – Spend a block of time every day *not* doing things for personal gain. This means no time tracking, no “studying”, no income generation. Read a good fiction book, go see some friends, look into the sky and enjoy the clouds, etc.
  • Fortitude – Build mental toughness by designing a willpower goal for yourself based on the day’s circumstances. Hungry? Let operating without hunger be your goal. Raining? Get wet and laugh at it. Bored? Deal with it.
These were a fantastic change–the best I’ve made yet! Because I wanted a little green checkbox in my spreadsheet (silly, I know), I found myself going out of my way to make someone smile or reframing a perceived negative event into a positive one. 
These are basic principles that we know make people satisfied, happier and more capable in a variety of situations, but my biggest problem has always been converting knowledge into action. This virtues checklist gives me a way to take knowledge, program it into an achievable set of week goals, and execute to reinforce that behavior.

Garbage Time

I hit a turning point this week. For years and years, my go-to activity when mentally fatigue was some sort of video entertainment. It used to be anime and Japanese TV shows. Recently, it was online streaming of poker and online games.
No matter how much I “willed” it, the change wasn’t happening. I would try to resist, give in, feel guilty, and do it all over again.
Somehow, being present, tracking my wasted time, and adding to my awareness of the little “triggers” throughout the day that would send me down the path of no return has helped. The amount of wasted garbage time has drastically fallen.
And this is a win-win scenario too. I waste less time. This means my brain is less clouded. I have more time to focus on other types of activities as well. My sleep quality increases. This was always the biggest monster for me, and now I can see the light at the end.
Basically, this was a week filled with many small victories. And all the green on the spreadsheet supports that. I’ve come to see the spreadsheet tracking as a form of meditation–it requires awareness of your day to day action and provides direct feedback on the choices you make in a day.

What’s changing for next week?

The only qualm I had with this week’s spreadsheet was how high adherence was. When I start succeeding too much, I start to worry that I’m not setting the bar high enough.
Still, this particular setup worked quite well this week, and I’d like to give it another week of testing under more “stable” scenarios (Thailand next week!). Get some more information about where the leaks are.
I’m did some basic pruning (moving training to another spreadsheet), and that’s it!
Next week’s spreadsheet:
Let’s keep the ball rolling.

On (Not) Being Average

Meet Johnny, our average American.

Johnny is in debt, overweight and unhappy but blames it on his boss (and bad parenting); doesn’t stretch his hip flexors; unlocks his smartphone 100+ times a day to check Instagram photos of his favorite Russian model; can count the books he read this year on one hand (at least he can count!); watches Netflix on the couch after work; sometimes goes to church on Sundays; couldn’t identify a barbell if it bounced off a trampoline and hit him in the face; and has so much free time that he manages to sleep 6 hours some nights.

Regardless of what we might think, most of us are part-Johnny. Most of us are mostly-Johnny, even.

A scary yet obvious thing nobody is thinking about: if you do what everyone else does, you are the definition of average.

And the corollary to that: to be the exception, the un-average person, you need to make “un-average” decisions.

Most humans are on autopilot, look to their peer group (or whoever happens to be famous on TV) for decisions, and make up reasons for doing what they can’t explain (“It’s just who I am”, “It makes me happy”, “I’ve always done that”, “It’s in my nature”).

An easy predictor of somebody’s future life: (a) whatever their life looked like last month and (b) whatever the life of their friends looks like.

Uncommon results come from uncommon action. If you take a peek around you and don’t like what you see, get your ass off the couch, turn your brain off autopilot, and start making some changes people.

I’m writing from China this week. I’m swamped by weddings, relatives and the shoddy Chinese internet system, but I’ll be posting whenever I can. Stay tuned!

Building Steam: Weekly Review #3

This is the continuation of my weekly productivity reviews where I aim to operate at 80%+ of capacity. Also see Week 1 and Week 2.

This was a hectic week traveling in Japan, with typhoons and hours on public transportation most days. 

How did we do this week?

Spreadsheet for Week 3
This Week’s Focus Time: 4.43 hours per day.
Last Week’s Focus Time: 3.56 hours per day.

We managed a 24% increase on last week. However, because of travel, training time dropped dramatically (to around 30 minutes a day). Meanwhile, focused computer time nearly doubled to an average of 4+ hours a day.

What did we learn?

  • I’m more aware of my mind wandering. Spreadsheet tracking seems to function as a kind of mindfulness training. Before it would take hours sometimes to catch myself distracted. And, even then, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself back on track. In the last few days, I’ve had the catch happen within minutes and bring myself back on course.
  • Decisions about food are a HUGE willpower drain. I was on the road this week and spent a lot of energy evaluating food choices, finding good places to eat, etc. This was a huge drain on willpower, and several times I found myself so tired that I wasn’t able to resist. On the spreadsheet, you can see a binge several days this week with 300-400 grams of carbs. 
  • Naming your problem areas does help. After identifying that my biggest problem area is the evening, I’ve been better about not blindly wasting 3-4 hours a night. This is without any significant structure, though I plan to add this in for this week’s objectives.
  • Motivation matters a lot. If I’m not “Hell Yes!” about a project, I might lose focus within 20-30 minutes. If it’s something I’m super-excited about, I find I can focus for over 2 hours at times.
  • Focus power ramps up slowly. My average focus time went up 30 minutes this week. It also went up 30 minutes last week. Not nearly enough to extrapolate, but I suspect that this gradual change will continul (albeit slower). Two reasons for this slow change: (1) the willpower “muscle” of the brain adapts slowly and (2) improvements that come from general lifestyle changes happen gradually week on week.

What’s changing for next week? Why?

Radical results require radical action. While I’m still working on the fundamentals (not spending time on useless activity, planning, outlining, goal-setting, etc.), this week I also want to play with some less mainstream techniques for behavioral change.

“Virtues” checklist.

This is the change I’m most excited about. I’ve been thinking about how to create changes in “character” – something traditionally believed to be innate / unchangeable. The process I’m testing tries to (1) meditate on what virtues I want to represent, (2) make them black and white as possible, and (3) repeatedly make directions that “habituate” us in that direction.
I chose three “virtues” I want to focus on for this week:

    • Spiritual – Being over-rational has some tradeoffs. I’m trying to spend some time doing things without purpose to help balance this out.
    • Smile – Did I make someone else smile today? Hopefully this will protect me from isolation and also habituate me to providing happiness for others.
    • Fortitude – Willpower is a trainable muscle. I’m trying to take negative situations that come across in life and reframe them as a challenge to my willpower.

Three focus sessions instead of two. 

I’ve been doing some research into circadian rhythms and focus cycles. There tends to be a 5-hour dip midday where performance is reliably lower than the other two. This week I want to divide my 16 waking hours into 6-5-5 blocks and see how my ability to do good work fluctuates within these.
I have subjectively felt a dip in energy during the midday, and, if this is something I see happening this week, maybe I can design my midday to build around this fall in energy. I could do less intensive tasks in the afternoon, take some sort of supplement to keep energy levels high, take naps, etc.
But first we need some data, so I’m splitting the day up into triple blocks.

Evening ritual tracking. 

Although we had some winners, I still lost 4-5 hours on my worst nights this week. This continues to be my biggest weakness area. To address this, I’m going to track several positive habits that might increase the chance of evening success.

With those things in mind, this is what the new spreadsheet for Week 4 looks like:
Spreadsheet for Week 4
It’s gonna be another hectic week – I’m traveling more in Japan before flying to China for a wedding. The goal is the same: ramp up towards double-digit focus. 

Designing an Evening Ritual

After tracking time for several weeks now, I find I am by far the least productive in the evening.

Since this is a high impact area (average 3-4 hours lost a day), it needs to be tackled immediately. First, dissect and understand the problem.

Three reasons for poor evening performance:

  • Lower willpower in the evening. I am tired from all the decisions made throughout the day, and don’t have much “Mental HP” left to make optimal choices.
  • Deeply ingrained bad habits. I spent most of my high school and college life on mindless Internet browsing. My mind automatically responds to certain triggers in the bedroom, making me want to waste time.
  • Lack of stability. Mornings are naturally stable things. You are always waking up (or, you should be…). You always brush your teeth. Evenings don’t have a stable “start trigger” of equal caliber. We need to be more conniving if we want something reliable here.

Our goal here is to find a way to conquer these problems, eliminating low quality evening time and settings ourselves up for a better day.

Enter the evening ritual.

Why an evening ritual?

Rituals are built on habits. Poor evening performance is based on habits.

By “re-wiring” our evening habits to a premeditated ritual, we can successfully override negative behavior to create high-probability behavioral change.

At its essence, a ritual is a chain of habits – the end of one habit triggers the next:

  1. Reliable Trigger
  2. Habit Chain
  3. Sleep

Choose a Reliable Trigger

Triggers are everything for rituals. Once you’ve adjusted to a new ritual, all you need is that signal and, snap, like a dog drooling to the sound of a can opener, your body will act smoothly, without effort.

I don’t expect to find the perfect trigger on the first try. Ideally, it should be something that works equally well anywhere in the world and in any environment.

Some possibilities:

  • After dinner – use the end of dinner as your start trigger. Works better if you eat meals late enough in the day and at a consistent time.
  • At Xpm – use an alarm set to a certain time in the evening. Works better if most of your days start and end at the same time.
  • Pre-existing habit – use a reliable habit that you already perform. Maybe you take a shower every night. Maybe it’s brushing your teeth. Use this habit as a trigger for another habit chain.

I’ll be playing with each of these over the coming weeks to see what works best.

Make a Habit Chain

This can be as short as zero things (Trigger, Sleep) or much longer (Trigger, Habit 1, Habit 2, … , Sleep).

Each habit in the chain should accomplish an objective.

Some possible objectives:

  • Higher sleep quality. You might decide to dim the lights in the room; reduce blue light exposure; drink some sort of calming tea; listen to music; meditate; etc.
  • Review the day. Look back on your objectives for the day? Did you succeed? Did you fail? Why? What could you do better? This integrates a habit for repeatedly getting feedback on our own performance.
  • Plan tomorrow. I tend to do better when I have a general framework upon waking. By setting up the night before, I am guaranteeing myself this framework.
  • Clean. Humans have a harder time making decisions in a cluttered room. Cleaning helps us relax, too. Maybe doing this in the evening will pay off 2x.

Note that, again, I’m just throwing ideas out there. The idea is to piece together high-probability activities and see how it contributes to our performance.

That’s all for today. I’ll be integrating this during my next weekly cycle. Let’s see how it goes!

How to Use Mini-Emergencies as Spontaneous Decision Training

Today I had a 4-minute layover.

8:44 arrival. 8:48 departure.

Two bullet trains. New station, foreign country. I’m running low on sleep. Haven’t eaten. The odds are stacked.

Automatic response—anxiety, fear, imagination. What if I don’t make it? I don’t have a backup plan. Oh no.

Stop. Reframe. This is an opportunity.

This is an example of a mini-emergency. In the worst case, you miss your train. The natural reaction most people take is to panic, inject stress hormones into their stress phone, and finish the day (late or not) physically older but no more wise.

But we don’t have to do that. Instead, when such a mini-emergency presents itself, take it as a rare opportunity to train your decision-making in high-stress situations.

It will come in handy later.

Some Benefits of Decision Training

So as I wait, muscles quivering, for the train door to open. What skills am I training?
Some that come to mind:

  • Pre-planning. Before the train even stops. What information is useful to me? My train and car number. Departure time. The name of the train. Destination. I should try to remember these things before I get off.
  • Information Filtering. Stations are flooded information. In the moment, can I filter signal from noise to make high-probability decisions under heavy time constraints?
  • Rapid Decision-making. I have limited information. Japanese isn’t my first language. Do I go left or right? Up or down? Any error could cause me to miss my train.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

It doesn’t matter if you actually make your train so much. Rather, what’s important is your ability to take a perceived negative event and reframe it as something positive—an opportunity to level up.

Make a habit out of this and all sorts of adversity—fatigue, boredom, stress, loneliness—transform into positives instead.

Test yourself in the moment. Get feedback. Level up. Then sit back and enjoy the view.

Taken from the train on my way to Kakunodate in Akita, Japan. Prefecture.