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.

Mental Agency / Productivity: Weekly Review #2

Since my first public weekly review was such as hit on Reddit, I thought I’d continue putting these up so that the readers can follow (and learn) from my progress.

So, how did I do this week?

This week’s average: 3.56.
Last week’s average: 3.27.

That’s a slight increase that totals to ~3.5 hours of extra focused work this week. But this was to be expected, as I made several changes that I expected would decrease effectiveness in the short term:

  • I started reading, listening to podcasts, attending workshops, etc. that I wasn’t sure how to track (and didn’t).
  • I cut carbs this week to less than half the week prior (losing weight already)! Had the carb flu (lethargy, dry mouth, etc.) for a few days.

What I’m Changing This Week

  • Roughly divided, I see my time spent in three areas (a) high quality, creative time, (b) neutral and/or slightly positive time, and (c) garbage, wasteful time.
    • Last week’s spreadsheet only tracked creative time. This week, I’d like to track the other times as well.
  • I want to see more clearly the interplay between physical training and creative work. This week I’m going to track them separately.
  • My “planned day” and “no screens” checkboxes had essentially zero adherence. I blame this on a lack of rigid rules for entering the process of turning off the screens. This week I will set more rigid, un-fudgeable rules.
  • I tracked morale this week, but (a) it was quite subjective and (b) I wasn’t sure what time of day to use as the metric.

Taking the above into consideration, here’s what this week’s spreadsheet looks like:

  • Moved morale to the top. Want to see how morale upon waking up affects the rest of my day. In the future I will be playing with ways to affect AM morale and keep it up throughout the day.
  • Added more specific rule for no screens (everything off by 8pm).
  • Added “Garbage”—a slot for tracking wasted time (time that neither adds to present nor future satisfaction).
  • Split “Training” and “Work” into separate categories to better see how both fluctuate.
  • Added a “First Carbs” slot for seeing how first carb intake affects output and total carb consumption for the day.

Tangible Goals for the Week

Last week we averaged 2.25 hours of focused work and 1.3 hours of training a day. This week we are aiming for 3.5 hours of focused work and 2 hours of training. That would put us at 5.5 hours per day, and add 14 hours of trackable “doing” for this week.

Review, make changes, test, repeat. That’s how change happens.

How I Spend My Day

However adventurous “traveling the world” may seem, my days generally aren’t filled with adventure. I’m a firm believer that success comes from the daily grind of not-so-sexy things done over and over for weeks, months and years.

Most people don’t know what their day will look like. Which is fine, if you’re chasing average results.

My eventual goal is 4-6 hours of movement-related training and 4-6 hours of intense, creative, focused work on a daily basis. What I’ve been doing is (a) creating a model day and (b) scaling up intensity as my body adjusts.

The current goal:

  • Average 4 hours of focused work per day.
  • Physical training for 3 hours per day.
  • Reduce garbage time (time spent on net negative activities) to less than 30m.

Once I hit a 70%+ success rate on the above, I can scale up to more hours.

Note that this isn’t just a workaholic grind, grind, grind. I do this because I love the process. I want each activity to be driving me closer to my personal goals (physical, social and financial freedom). At the end of every day, I’m always striving to be able to genuinely say, “There’s nothing I’d rather have done. There’s no place I’d rather have been.”

Without further ado, here’s what my days have been looking like:

Morning Ritual (~15m)

  • Wake up. Generally around 7-8am. Toilet. Meditation in the form of breathing exercises. Complete joint maintenance work.
  • Tea. Lately I’ve been experimenting with a morning cocktail of matcha tea, lime, and coconut oil.

Short Movement Block(~45m)

  • Lately this has been (1) handstand training and (2) flexibility work.
  • Follow with breakfast (high protein, no carbs) and standard AM hygiene.

Work Block I (90-120m)
First block of focused work and also the time of day when I am most productive. I try to my “most important task” here. These are high-priority, goal-oriented tasks that I most want to get done for the day.

Lately, this has been:

  • 30-60m of writing (my most important activity)
  • Freelance work for income generation

Core Movement Block (60-120 minutes)
The content of this will vary depending on goals, but typically contains some sort of strength training and whatever skill I am working on.

Currently, this is:

  • General strength. I alternate bent arm, straight arm and lower body days.
  • Mobility. Aiming to get the bridge, front splits and middle splits this year.

Afternoon Reset
Mental reset to recover from cognitive fatigue, refuel, and do a mental reset in the case the morning did not go well. Still experimenting, but recently I’ve been eating a good post-workout meal and then napping for 30 minutes.

Afternoon Work Block (60-120m)
Final work block before I am “satisfied” and call it a day. Typically less intense than the morning session, I will do more freelance work and work on meta things for the blog.

Evenings are more relaxing, focused on the “intangibles”—recovery, social life, spiritual things, etc. My goal is to get most productive work done in the first ~10 hours of the day, leaving freedom for more “irrational” things / activities that contribute to current life satisfaction.

Evening Movement Block (60-90m)
Some sort of relaxing, recovery-focused movement activity. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of yoga. It’s nice to turn the brain off for that 60-90 minutes.

Evening Unwind
Chill with friends. Or, as the introvert I am, this is tea plus a good book on many nights. Trying to stay away from smartphone and computer.

Even if it isn’t this detailed,  give planning a “model” day a try in your own life. I find it is an excellent self-diagnostic for how far I stray from my own goals.

Afternoon and Evening Productivity Resets: A Brainstorm

A reddit post I wrote hit the top of /r/productivity. In it, I mentioned I had some stuff cooking for combating evening productivity fallout, so here it is.

Even while traveling to 9+ countries, my morning routine has been pretty stable: meditate, water, movement, coffee. I’ve purposely chosen things that are available anywhere in the world to minimize derailing.

As a result, 75% of my daily productive work comes in the first 6-8 hours of my day. The other 8-10 hours, however, have been a sticking point.

I suspect several culprits:

Willpower Decline.
Our willpower level (a.k.a HP bar) declines throughout the day. Cognitive fatigue kicks in during the later hours, making it harder to take focused action.

Lack of Habit Chaining.
My morning habit works because it always starts the same way: waking up. Each habit is followed automatically by the next and naturally flows into focused work. In the afternoon, I don’t have the privilege of waking up.

Blood Sugar Control.
Fat adapted individuals don’t get the mid-afternoon tiredness that high-carb eaters do. It seems worth testing a lower-carb, higher-fat approach. (I’m actually already doing this with MCTs in the form of coconut oil in the AM).

Old Habits.
Old, ingrained habits naturally make me want to “relax” or “eat something sweet” in the late afternoon and evening. These have been reinforced through years and years of Pavlovian conditioning—not easy to reverse.

Potential Solutions

Now that we’ve identified some potential causes, we can test and retest with some possible solutions:

  • Afternoon naps. Heavily researched and recommended. This is a double-hitter for me because (a) it gives a platform for starting an afternoon habit chain and (b) it might replenish willpower stores.
  • Carb cycling. I’ve played around with this in the past, with good results. Idea is to eat much lower carb, replenishing your energy stores 1-2 times a week. Your body adapts to run much more on fat and has fewer energy swings throughout the day.
  • Habit Firewalling / Overriding In college, I froze my credit card in an ice block to keep myself from using it. I want to take a similar approach with “no screens” in the evening by “firewalling” the temptation and then “overriding” it with a better habit.
    • Firewall can be done by shutting off smartphone and computer and storing it in a difficult to access place. If you live with a friend, you can ask them to safeguard your stuff in the evening. Maybe make a wager with a friend and pay them $10 if you can’t control yourself.
    • Overriding tries to replace a negative “trigger” with a positive one. Instead of mindless internet browsing, when the desire to “Netflix and chill” comes, I’m going to (a) brew some tea and read a book or (b) go out for a walk. Not sure how well this will work as my willpower stores run low in the evening—just a tentative solution.

Going to be playing with these over the next few weeks in Tokyo. Then flying off to China! Don’t forget to subscribe if you like what you’re reading.