I’ve read before about how willpower and attention are akin to finite resources that get depleted and need to be allowed to recover, and I think that model has helped me realize something about my own cycles of productivity.
My usual behavior around non-work projects seems to go something like this:
Starting from a relatively fallow period, something catches my interest (it could be anything – software, music, art), and I dive in.
I have early successes, and this adds to my general level of energy and excitement, and I take on one or more other projects that interest me, thinking that I’ll ride this wave of motivation.
If I have not been careful or realistic about how much stuff I voluntarily take on, it rapidly gets to the point where I can’t possibly make progress on everything. If I have been careful and realistic, it doesn’t matter, because something else will come along that I must take on, and it rapidly gets to the point where I can’t make progress on everything.
Suddenly I feel like I’m failing at half or more of the stuff I’ve taken on, and things get set aside, sometimes indefinitely.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
This can happen on a time scale anywhere from two weeks to three months.
If you’re a software process nerd (or possibly a general productivity nerd), you may have heard of Kanban, a method of process control. One of its central tenets on Kanban is “limit your work-in-progress“. For Kanban, that’s usually expressed at the task level, but I think for some of us (read: me) it might be wise to look at that at a higher level, and limit the number of projects I try to handle.
This is not necessarily a new insight, in general or for me personally, but I clearly need to be reminded.
There are a few things I find it almost impossible to get through a workday without:
The Internet: This seems so obvious that it almost feels like cheating to include it. SDK documentation, SDK bugs that are not in the documentation, algorithms, computing language tricks, example code, security alerts, third party libraries… And, for break time, everything else.
A good pair of headphones: Music, binaural beats, pink noise, phone calls, Google hangouts… Many days, I spend more time with the phones on my head than off.
A zipper-front hoodie: I’m sensitive to temperature when I’m working. There’s a lot of benefit in being able to regulate my insulation.
The Dvorak keyboard layout: 60% less finger travel. QWERTY is so 19th century.
So, I spaced out on my post for the September writing challenge yesterday. I had a relatively juicy topic in mind that was going to take more than 5 minutes – which was outside the parameters of the challenge, but I’ve been playing pretty loose with that – I was running late in the morning, figured I’d get it done in the evening, then I got home and had a bunch of high-priority stuff to do, and then there may have been some cocktails in there somewhere, then I went to bed.
It occurs to me today: There was no guideline built into the challenge for what to do if I missed a day. Have I blown it? Do I skip a day? Do I write an extra post to make up lost ground? Are the Writing Challenge Police going to kick in my door? All of these things are possibilities.
Well, it’s my challenge, so my rule for a single missed day shall be: I’ll get right back to it (because why not?), I’ll do an extra post to make up (you’re reading it), and I’ll examine what happened (again, you’re reading it). What follows may only be interesting to those currently obsessing about habit formation.
First, the up side: This has been the first time in ages that I’ve written anything but Facebook status updates or the most mundane of work-related emails for 10 days in a row. So, yay.
I’ve highlighted the value of keeping the challenge parameters tractably small. If the thing hadn’t been large enough that I chose to procrastinate, I wouldn’t have missed the day. This affects my thinking about what I’m going to attempt for a challenge next month.
It’s difficult for me to get discretionary stuff done in the evenings. After work, I still have personal and household responsibilities, and on top of that I’m trying to make progress on multiple side projects. Also, cocktails.
Related: I tend to commit near or slightly above my ability to execute. That’s something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can recall. I would like to a) find a way to make some of the important things habitual so that they take less attention and willpower to do consistently, and b) teach myself to set projects aside for later, without feeling like I’m losing or abandoning something.
It might help to have a plan about what to do when I do miss a day (because it’ll happen again). This is a tidbit I picked up from that book by Charles Duhigg that you see around all the time: People in surgical recovery (I believe the specific surgery was a joint replacement) did much better when they had put some thought into what they’d do when they hit problems in their recovery. The therapy to recover from that kind of surgery can be long, painful, and complex; most of my projects are not so physically painful, but I’d still probably benefit from planning for something besides the happy path.
Okay – off to the showers, and then I’ll come back and choose a topic for another (probably shorter) post.
Here are five songs I have been listening to a lot, lately:
Fight to Win by Goodie Mob feat. Cee Lo Green: This is just one of those songs that makes you feel like a badass. Sometimes you need that in the morning.
MVC by James Dempsey and the Breakpoints: One of five songs I’m committed to learning how to play before my next CocoaConf.
Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling by Marnie Stern: Because she can shred, and because it’s a really interestingly constructed song.
Howlin’ for You by The Black Keys: Sometimes I just need some rock & roll. Not prog rock (which I love and listen to a ton of), not pop rock (I have Fun. on my phone just like everyone else), but straight up & down rock and fucking roll.
Oopa by The Orb: I’ve been listening to a lot of ambient & abstract electronic music lately, mostly to listen to how it’s constructed, and to see if I could make something similar.
Today I partook of one of my rare indulgences: I spent a good chunk of the morning in a sensory deprivation tank.
If you’re googling for it, you’ll have more luck looking for “float tank” than “sensory deprivation tank” – the movie Altered States apparently ruined the market for the latter label (not kidding).
I go for two reasons: First, it really loosens up my back and shoulders, which desperately need it. Second, I’ve had my best meditation experiences in there. I mean, sometimes I’m just floating around in a bucket of salt water listening to myself breathe for 90 minutes (which is still relaxing). Other times, though, I completely lose the sense of the boundaries of the tank around me, I get sensations of motion through empty space, and I achieve a mental stillness that I can’t otherwise access without bludgeoning my brain with chemicals. It’s about 50/50 on any given visit whether I get all the way there or not, but it’s still worth the fee, even on those times when I don’t.
If you’re in Indianapolis, and curious, and not claustrophobic, check out Better Being Float Center, and tell them I sent you.
Now that I’m into my mid-40s, a nearly universal topic of conversation with friends and colleagues my age is what I’ve mentally started tagging as MAHB: Middle-Aged Health Bullshit. We all have it, so it’s a great icebreaker.
Anyway, today I’m going in for one of the common MAHB procedures, an upper endoscopy. I’m not so bothered by the procedure – getting drugged into a memory blackout and rudely probed was, twenty years ago, my idea of a great Saturday night. I am irked, though, by the increasing amount of time I have to spend paying attention to my health, and the prospect of more to come.
Even so, I’m fortunate – I don’t have anything going on (knock on wood) that rises above the level of a nuisance, I just have more such things than I used to. And I’m still enjoying my body, and getting it to do the things I need, which is great.
I have numerous started-but-stalled projects, and more queued up, unstarted. I suspect The Zeigarnik Effect weighs heavier on me than most. Some of these projects are important to me, and I’d like to get even half as good at finishing them as I am at starting.
At the suggestion of Jaimee Newberry (and following her example), I’m taking on a 30-day writing challenge. I’m not trying to write a book in 30 days, or a long-form article every day, or even necessarily a fully-finished blog post. The parameters are this:
Write about something for 5 minutes.
Lather, rinse, repeat, once every day in September.
It’s not exactly rocket surgery.
What it is, on the other hand, is a shot at forming a habit. I’ve had good success with BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits method (another tool recommended by Jaimee), and this is an extension of that – forming a habit by picking a target that is always easily within reach, rather than going for something more ambitious and stumbling later when I’m tired or busy. Then, when the habit is there, and you have created a local minimum of attention drain/decision fatigue, you can expand on it.
Or that’s the idea anyway.
To warm up, I set a timer to write the post you’re reading now – and blew by it by probably a factor of three or more. (Besides writing, I was screwing around gathering links and stuff, and editing, and generally indulging in execrable perfectionism.) So maybe I’ll run over sometimes, but anything past 5 minutes will be considered extra credit.
Likely topics will include iOS programming insights, blurbs about software engineering skills and culture, maybe a personal note or two, and whatever else falls out of my brain before the coffee kicks in. Some of it may be cross-posted to my iOS blog (which is just as underused as this personal blog), and/or repurposed for a blog-to-book project that I’m kicking off Real Soon Now.
So… I’m employed in the normal sense, and winding down my other commitments including Moveable Feast (which I still wish a long and lucrative life).
As is my custom, I’m not going to name my employer here. It’s not top-secret or anything, but I prefer to avoid any confusion between my foul-mouthed ranting and the company’s press releases. My words are mine, the company’s are the company’s, and ne’er the twain shall meet, unless I speak at a conference or something.
I will say that I’m almost 100% focused on mobile development, specifically iOS, which is fun for me.
On a side note: I’m hoping to have a bit more time & money for small personal projects now, including (but limited to) revisiting Guitar Cardio (web and mobile), painting, maybe updating this blog more than twice a year, and taking up the Chapman Stick. We’ll see how all that plays out in practice.
If you’re following Tim Ferriss’s many tips and refinements to Occam’s Protocol in The 4-Hour Body, you might be taking glutamine after workouts for recovery, or doing a brief, high-dose regimen for intestinal repair. I went with this part of the program, and to that end purchased some unflavored glutamine powder. What nobody tells you is that unflavored glutamine powder tastes like ass.
I tried a number of flavoring agents, but I’ve only found two solutions to the flavor problem. One is to just mix the powder with water and drink fast. The other was the discovery that one cup of whole milk will neutralize the ass flavor of 5-10g of glutamine powder – which is handy if you’re doing milk-based post-workout shakes or doing LOMAD/GOMAD.
So I’m a month into Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Body, inspired partly by my brother‘s striking success, and partly by some sketchy bloodwork results at my last check-up. Exhibit 1:
Like the guy at the fish counter once told me: “You don’ want none-a dat.”
Part of the bloodwork-fixing process, of course, involves food. Now, food is something I enjoy, but rarely put a lot of thought or effort into. I’m usually either buying lunch out or having some of whatever my wife made herself for dinner. Unfortunately, my wife’s surgically-necessitated, high-bacon diet is not going to bring down my waist measurement nor my cholesterol. It was up to me to find something that tastes good, takes as little time as possible to prepare, and fits within the relatively strict but straightforward rules of the various diet protocols laid out in 4HB.
I’ve hit upon something I call Concoction – the recipe for which has probably already been independently invented by about 50,000 4HB readers, but which I’m going to document here anyway. If you’re doing the 4HB Slow Carb diet (the one for fat loss), you know that each meal needs a lean protein, a legume, and some vegetable matter. For one batch of Concoction, you need 12-14 oz of canned lean protein. I use line-caught tuna or organic chicken, because I’m a hippie. Today’s Concoction started with tuna:
For legumes, I like red kidney beans or lentils. Today, it was lentils, 1 can:
My favorite veggies are raw broccoli florets or raw baby spinach (organic, of course). Today, though, I’m experimenting with 1 cup of chard, which I hand-shredded thoroughly:
If you’re just doing Slow Carb, the ingredient list ends here. If you’re doing Occam’s Protocol (for muscle gain), you get to add in a quality carb like quinoa, brown rice, or a whole grain pasta. I favor the Trader Joe’s brown rice that I can microwave in the bag in 60 seconds (1 bag = 10.5oz):
Recapping the main ingredients:
12-14 oz lean, canned meat
1 can lentils or beans
1 cup green stuff, chopped or shredded relatively finely
(optional) 1 bag (10.5oz) brown rice
This is all very healthy, but only so-so on the flavor, so I also add 2-3 teaspoons (I think, it’s not like I’m measuring anything but the greens here) of lime juice:
And to really make it sing, I also add sriracha:
There are many schools of thought on how to correctly use sriracha in food preparation, but I’m with The Oatmeal on this one:
These are my favored flavors; there are many like them, but these are mine. Add whatever works for you to the main ingredients in a big bowl, and mix.
And the outcome? I think it’s delicious, at least with baby spinach. (The chard experiment did not go as well as I’d hoped – too bitter. Plus spinach has all those sexy phytoecdysteroids.) Prep time is however long it takes you to open 3 cans, cut/shred your vegetables, and stir the stuff together – no cooking (except for nuking the rice), one measurement (the veggies), and if you eat out of your mixing bowl you’ve only dirtied one bowl and one fork. One batch of Concoction is about 600 kcal & 94g of protein without the rice, 1000 kcal & 101g of protein with the rice (if I’ve read all the packages correctly). On Occam’s Protocol, I find I usually eat the whole batch in one (sometimes comically extended) sitting, and with shakes and an eggy breakfast I generally hit my food targets. Slow Carb-ers will likely get more than one meal out of this recipe. YMMV.
Next time I get the writing bug, I’ll share some other one-course meal recipes or random findings about the 4HB experience. Short version, one month in: My weight has only gone down a little, but I’m putting on muscle with a rapidity I couldn’t even achieve in college, which means that I’m losing fat beyond what the scale shows. Based on results so far, I recommend the book (or the Kindle version, which I got). Bloodwork gets re-done in August, keep your fingers crossed.