2014: An Objective Year

I just re-read my 2013 review. What a year. It was by far the best year of my life… until 2014. I think 2015 can be even better. Who needs regression to the mean, anyway?

I like the object-level + process-level + meta-level structure I used last year, and I don’t have an obviously better structure to use this year. So here it goes again.

(FYI: I am both the maker of and a power-user of a productivity app called Complice. To help make things clearer, I’m going to use “Complice” to refer to the business or the app-with-me-as-maker and “complice” (lowercase c) to refer to the system-with-me-as-user. In most cases it’s obvious from context, but it’ll be helpful to know that I use it two ways.)

Object Level

Object level is just like… stuff. Stuff I did. Accomplishments, or events I attended. It’s the “what”.

Rebranding

The first big thing that I was focused on was redesigning my site. This is a great example of a tangible goal that complice helped me achieve. A year ago, my site looked like the left/first image, below. *shudders* As of last February, it looks like the one of the right! So much more me! And with a new logo 🙂 I have new business cards too, that I get lots of compliments on.

oldsitenewsite

Brain Game

As our 3rd year design project, some classmates and I built a neurofeedback platformer game that works with the NeuroSky consumer EEG headset. Which has terrible fidelity, good lord. But it was still pretty cool! It measured your brainwaves and we used the “calmness” reading to allow you to jump higher (or levitate at super high calmness values) and the “focus” reading to allow you to blast at enemies. One of our profs pointed out that blasting enemies was potentially not appropriate for a game designed to increase calmness; in retrospect, speed might have been a better thing to vary.

Complice

Complice, my productivity app, technically existed in 2013, but barely. It was still basically just a server that sent out emails. In 2014, I built a fully fledged web app for it, including:

  • the Today Page, which I affectionately refer to as “the most productive page on the internet”. It has a very simple todo list for the day, a pomodoro timer, and a mode that looks like nowdothis.com
  • user accounts & signup, SSL, payments
  • free trial month
  • accountability partners
  • weekly & monthly reviews, both as pages and as emails
  • milestones as a more generalized version of enddates
  • a yearly review page, including per-goal reflections & planning, as well as the areas from Alex Vermeer’s 8760 Hours

This summer, for my final co-op term, I decided to work on Complice instead of doing an internship somewhere. However, I didn’t do nearly as good a job as planned at getting new paying customers, leading to me having to take out a line of credit for my final year of school. But I’ve gotten a lot better at marketing and have cleaned up the onboarding flow a lot since then, and have a new strategy for how to become ramen-profitable by the time I graduate this spring. One key aspect was to split my “Complice” goal on complice into “Complice Product” and “Complice Marketing”, so that my complice daily reviews ensure I’ve worked on both.

Out West for August

One of the pros of working for myself was that I could take the time to go to San Francisco for the month of August, which was a fantastic decision. The day after I arrived was the Effective Altruism Summit, which was full of people talking about how to make the most positive impact in the world. The coolest highlight was telling Luke Nosek (PayPal founder) about my intentional community, which is related to a bunch of things he’s interested in.

Then there was the CFAR Alumni Reunion. It was really amazing to be in a room of a hundred people who were all really interested in this particular flavour of personal development. The event was unconference-style, with all attendees invited to create their own events. My friend Ethan and I ran a few sessions on Constructive Developmental Theory.

Then… Burning Man. I don’t even know where to start with that, but it’s definitely an experience that contributed to me having a greater appreciation for how large actionspace is. People know me to be very adventurous and uninhibited, but in contexts like Burning Man, I realize that I’ve also often been holding back, just in different ways than others. I’m psyched to go again next year—I think I have a much better sense of how I want to navigate it now. Shoutout to my camp, Paradigm.

Sharing Thoughts

“Sharing thoughts” is the title of my blogging goal on complice.

  • I launched the Complice Blog, currently with 5 full-length articles and a few other shorter posts.
  • I published 26 blog posts on my personal blog (basically just since april)
  • Just a few weeks ago, I launched The Mind’s UI a joint blog on metacognition and motivation with my friends Brienne and Nate
  • I shipped 2 maniac weekend timelapse videos (one and two) – screencaps and webcam shots of me working nonstop all weekend.)
  • I took a public speaking course and gave a few speeches, which I thought were pretty good. Would link to videos if they were up.
  • I gave a talk at Ignite Waterloo on growth mindset. The video isn’t up yet, but will be soon…?

I tripled my blog and facebook subscribers, and have had people say things like:

your blog is one of the primary sources for me on metacognition.

Speaking of which… in 2013 I think my blog didn’t really have much of a coherent theme. Now it does, and it’s stuff in the union of metacognition, comfort zone expansion, and cultures. That’s still broad, but it’s less broad than “stuff Malcolm is interested in”. Part of the fun thing is that if I have technical things or productivity hacks, I can post those to the Complice Blog.

Other stats

A lot of the blogging section was numeric. What other numbers do I have?

bookantt2014overviewAccording to my Bookantt Chart, I spent over 13,000 minutes on book consumption, split almost perfectly between fiction and nonfiction, despite fiction being mostly read in binges of many hours over the course of a day or two, and nonfiction almost always being 10-40 minutes per day. I had a commitment to reading a least a page of each every day though, which was critical.

According to beeminder, I did…

6014 pushups last year! Wow. I hit 6k literally on Dec 31st, and I wasn’t even looking the whole time. I’m going to aim to do 10k next year, which (thanks to beeminder being beeminder) is as easy as turning the dial up from 20 pushups/day to 30.

I did over 3000 sittups, and over 200 pullups or equivalent, though I only started counting in October, so it was probably more.

I did a few thousand Anki reviews and added… a bunch of new cards to my deck. That number is hard to figure out since I remove some school cards after the course ends if they aren’t particularly useful information outside of the class context.

I wrote 160 journal entries! This is exciting, but I’m also noting that I haven’t done much going-back-and-reading of these, and it’s not clear how much they really add to my introspective process. I need to look into this before I spend probably an average of an hour a week on this again.

I did 782 pomodoros!

Oh, and complice isn’t super numeric, but it does collect some stats. I did 784 things towards my health goal, mostly napping and my runmea which I’ll describe below. I did 1031 things towards my Complice goal. I did 900 things towards my growth and relationships goals, and 279 things towards my blogging goal. I also had some streaks— for instance, until Burning Man I had done something towards Complice literally every day since January.

I also installed 13 habits, and had some limited success with dozens of others.

Process Level

Process level reflects the manner in which I approached my life this year. Techniques I used, or strategies, or habits of thought. It’s the “how”.

And did I ever have a lot of “how” this year.

I just mentioned habits. For 2013 I had a new structure for habit installation, based on the premise that rather than trying to change 50 things simultaneously at new years, I’d change one habit per week. I made 47 total attempts, of which 13 are still around. This process worked really well, and inspired some other attempts, most notably what Brienne is doing this year. I have more to say about this but it’ll get its own page/post. Oh, but if you’re interested in getting some guidance for trying this yourself, email me. I might be doing a thing.

I had probably used commitment contracts before 2014, but I started using them a lot more this year. That’s how I finally got my blog redesign shipped. I told my friend Tess I’d pay her $50 if I didn’t get the new design live by Tuesday at 10pm. And it was live! Still very much imperfect, and I wasn’t trying to send people there. But the difference was that now I could just fix the problems that actually mattered, rather than fretting over little details perfectionistically. I definitely recommend these.

I started just attending events a bit more, perhaps, than I used to. Some leadership conference put on by the school, which was mostly full of vague platitudes = fail. GottaBeGood by Sebastian Marshall / Give Get Win = well, win. First of all, they had some really impactful 20 minute presentations—some of the best I’ve ever seen, including interview advice, which I thought had been done to death. Second of all, it prompted…

A pact between me and someone I’d met there, to each write a thousand words daily. If we failed, we had to cough up $100. This worked fantastically for a bit over a month, until… he stopped writing and stopped responding to my emails. Oh. Thinking back, it occurs to me that when undertaking any pact like this, it’s a good idea to have a plan for what to do in the instance where the other person doesn’t respond. Because I stopped writing at that point.

I learned a bit about this person from the experience of him quitting without notice. I think this thing we did, which we might call Pact Partners, is closely related to the Project Partners idea that I blogged about with my friend Kai Rathmann… which, in fact, emerged from Sebastian Marshall’s talk at GottaBeGood. I started trying to work with people more often, which I definitely recommend.

Although… I don’t necessarily recommend hiring people. The Enterprise Co-op Program I did this summer had a thing where you could get two first year engineering students working for your startup for 5 weeks, full-time, for just $600 total. I figured, well, even if they aren’t that productive for my business, $600 for a hands-on managing course sounds like a great deal. I hadn’t considered the possibility that managing them would be sufficiently taxing that I would accomplish substantially less towards Complice. Even once the $600 was randomly discounted to $150, I still think this was a net drain on my business. But I did learn things.

Anyway, I did a lot of processy things that were really helpful for my productivity. One of them was focus blocks. I started setting up 2-4h chunks of time where I would only do things conducive to work. That is, working, or convergent distracitons like stretching, playing guitar, dancing, getting a glass of water, meditating. No email or facebook or browsing unworkrelated websites. It worked really well.

I took this to the next level with a couple of Maniac Weekends, when I would prepare a weekend’s worth of food and basically hide away in my room all weekend working wake til sleep. I got a ton done this way on some really high value Complice deliverables.

I also started experimenting with tracking the duration of time I spent doing various tasks. I had a spreadsheet where I’d put in the task and estimate the amount of time it would take, then I’d start a little stopwatch, hustle, and then log the completed time. I consistenly underestimated, but in many ways I view this as challenging myself to complete tasks quickly. It was really good for helping me focus rather than being distracted by other bugs I felt inclined to fix midtask.

Another technique I got was frogs—doing my most important, often most aversive or daunting task first thing in the day. I didn’t always manage to do this, but when I have it’s been really effective.

Obviously, of course, my base productivity system also evolved, since that system is in fact: complice. I’ve talked a bunch about the product already, but the system, quite simply, is this: (description is of a typical workday, which I spend at home)

  • Before I go to bed, I make a list of the important things I intend to do tomorrow, in a rough order, with each item indicated with which goal it goes towards. For most goals, I try to do something towards them every day.
    — I will usually decide on a frog at that point.
  • When I wake up, I already know what I’m planning to do that day, so I start on the first one (ideally the most important one)
  • I spend my day getting things done, either from my list or other opportunistic things.
  • At the end of the day, I note which of the things I did and didn’t do. Then I submit my intentions for the following day.
  • If I find myself wanting to breakdown something into subtasks, I use workflowy. I also take notes and keep non-urgent lists in Workflowy.
  • If I need to send a reminder to my future self, I use FollowUpThen, which lets me email my future selves with really convenient aliases like “tuesday4pm@fut.io” or “march21st@fut.io”
  • I’ve also been experimenting with using flowcharting software to diagram out plans. It seems to work fairly well to note dependencies and bottlenecks, but still has the staleness problem that almost all plans have.

Bottlenecks, as I learned this year, are really important. At the CFAR Alumni reunion, my friend Oliver Habryka remarked to me that he’d heard:

Good companies, when they have a bottleneck, divert some resources from other areas to eliminate the bottleneck faster. Great companies, when they have a bottleneck, divert all resources they can possibly spare to eliminate the bottleneck as fast as possible.

The nature of bottlenecks is that they make all of the other things you could work on be less valuable. So get rid of them. I think if I had fully internalized this attitude a year ago, I might have been a lot more strategic last summer in getting more users onto Complice (instead of avoiding mentioning it because the signup flow was broken. Awks.) Nate Soares points at something similar with “moving towards the goal“.

Oh, almost forgot: I started using a standing desk! That’s definitely a process thing. Research suggests that sitting is really bad for your health, and you can often make a makeshift standing desk using boxes and/or books. In addition to mere standing being good for my health, the standing desk also makes me more likely to do handstands while pondering something, or to dance while working.

While I’m talking about fitness, I renewed my running minimum enjoyable action (aka runmea) for 2014: I had committed to, first thing every day, going outside and lifting up my legs. The idea was that many days this would be nothing, but on any day I did have the slightest inclination to go for a run or do a little (7 minute!) workout, the fact that I was already going outside would be enough to push me over the edge. And it was! But less towards the end of the year. For 2015, my plan is the same, except instead of being “first thing after waking” it’s “the first time I go downstairs”. As in, I can stay in my room and work for an hour or two. I think this will be good, because I’m more limber when I didn’t literally just get up. And because focused work first = good.

This is a long post. My last process thing is that I started offering things more often, being less afraid of rejection in that sense. Prime examples:

  • I held some mini-sessions at the EA Summit. I figured even if nobody signed up for mine, that was no worse than if I hadn’t made them. And it would still be information! I ended up getting 1 person at each, and had some great conversations.
  • As mentioned, I co-hosted some events at the CFAR reunion. These were actually quite well-attended.
  • With just hours left in the year, I made a promotion: a discount for a year of Complice! When I started writing this post today, I honestly figured probably nobody would go for it. Midway through writing, someone two people did!

I think I can do a lot more of this next year.

Meta Level

Meta level is the “why”. This section is designed to illuminate changes in my paradigm, or the general frame(s) I use to understand the world. Or perhaps, changes in how I go about making changes at the process level.

I’m done with school

Technically, I still have a few months left. But I had a moment this year where I realized that there was a lot of me that was thinking of myself as “still in school” as a kind of crutch for “not ready yet” or “not playing for real” or “not responsible yet”. I recalled hearing several people remark that they had expected that when they graduated that [a feeling something like this] would finally go away and they would feel adult. But that it didn’t. Using these outside views, I assumed I’d be no different, and that therefore I might as well start thinking of myself as being done school already.

So what I say to myself is “I’m finished with school; I just have a lot of paperwork to do over the next few months before they’ll actually give me my diploma.” Since this work has become sidelined by Complice anyway, this is a great way to think of the deadlines as being important without mentally projecting models of competence assessment onto the school. I’ve already learned that they don’t assess my competence in the domains that matter to me.

Connected with this was a growing sense of response-ability for the sustained well-being of the world. Realizing that almost nobody actually feels like an adult, and that there isn’t actually any coherent plan to save the planet from many potentially existential risks that loom in the next century or so. There’s just 7⅛ billion people, doing whatever seems to make the most sense to them at each moment. And so if we’re going to make it, we’ll need to make the sane choices make sense to the right people. It won’t be easy, but again quoting Nate Soares:

if the chance that one person can save the world is one in a million, then there had better be a million people trying.

Self-Authorship

This blog post is already way too long. You can read about this one over here. The TL;DR is that I’m writing my own story rather than just playing a choose your own adventure book, and part of doing this involves being conscious of my decision not to wake up in Vancouver tomorrow.

Seeing subject and object

I’ve become way more aware of the structure of thoughts. This was already going strong for me by May, when I had a very serendipitous conversation with someone I met in Montreal, about Constructive Developmental Theory, a model for how human minds learn to construct the world in stages, where at each stage they have a new structural way of understanding and making sense of the previous stage. Gaining this knowledge of the map as a whole has made me notice the structure of my own thoughts and those of others much more clearly. Both this specific meta-lens as well as the general class of meta-lens that is [objective consideration of subjective experiences] have been among the most powerful tools for metacognition that I have ever encountered.

I feel like I can see more of the structure of interpersonal interactions, but it’s often really hard to communicate this in the moment, leaving me silently observing without a sense of how to usefully engage. But I’m getting better at that too. Breathing helps.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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