Or: how to temporarily put your head down to focus, on different timescales
(Also, lest it’s unclear: I don’t think everyone should work this way, or that anyone should work this way all the time. There’s something to be said for defragmenting your attention, but there’s also something important about improvisation and fluidity.)
There’s a very famous productivity technique called the “pomodoro”, named after the Italian word for “tomato” because its inventor used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. There’s a lot of subtlety to the full technique, but here I’m going to mostly refer to the basic elements:
There’s something profoundly relieving, for many people, when they first try the pomodoro technique, where a big question goes away: should I be doing something else?
This should I be doing something else? applies to:
The internal conflict that comes from evaluating these questions every minute or two while trying to work or rest burns a lot of energy without really producing anything meaningful. It’s not to say that those aren’t important questions to consider, just that by default most people can’t usefully consider them every minute.
So instead: pomodoros: a license not to think of anything that isn’t relevant to the task at hand, for 25 minutes. And people regularly discover that they’re able to get more done in a few hours of this method than they usually achieve in a day.
Seriously, if you haven’t tried the pomodoro technique, and you have trouble staying focused on a challenging project… It’s a classic and my go-to #1 productivity technique recommendation. Doesn’t work for everybody or every situation, but when it does work the ROI is huge.
Justification—ie a normative explanation, as opposed to a causal one—is sometimes necessary. But, for many of us, it’s necessary much less often than we feel it is.
The reason we justify more often than we need to is that we live in fear of judgment, from years having to explain to authorities (parents, teachers, bosses, cops (for some people)) why things went differently than they “should have”. This skill is necessary to avoid punishment from those authorities.
We often offer justifications before they’re even asked for: “Wait I can explain—”
With friends, though, or in a healthy romantic partnership, or with people that we have a solid working relationship with, it is quite apparent that this flinch towards justification is actually in the way of being able to effectively work together. It is:
And yet we keep feeling the urge to justify. So what to do instead? How to re-route that habit in a way that builds trust within the relationships where justification isn’t required? How to indicate to our conversational partners that we aren’t demanding that they justify?
There are lots of ways to do this—here’s one. » read the rest of this entry »
Most people have had the experience of being able to articulate advice that they themselves do not follow, even though it applies to their situation as well. Usually this implies that there’s some sort of internal conflict present—a competing commitment that gets in the way of doing the thing that the person might consider reasonable. I have written much on transcending and untangling internal conflict (see these posts) and I will write much more.
But transcending internal conflict can be a lengthy, complex, and non-monotonic process, and in the meantime you’re still sitting around with a bunch of great advice you’re not taking. A bunch of untapped potential.
There’s a really straightforward technique that can help with this:
make an appointment with your saner self.
Put an event on your calendar, and treat it with the respect you’d give any other appointment. Which is to say: show up. Or, if for some reason it turns out you can’t, then reschedule for the nearest appropriate time.
Then, when the time comes, take your own advice. You can do this literally—consider what advice you’d give a friend in your situation, then do that—or you can just do the obvious thing. You can do this with specific object-level situations, eg “I need to get around to submitting that application” or with more abstract things like “I really should take more time to reflect on my life.”
Or perhaps you’ve got a technique that you know really helps you, whenever you do it, but you never seem to do it. “If I actually used the CFAR techniques, my life would be way better,” said almost every CFAR alumnus ever. Well, make an appointment with your saner self (the one who does the techniques) and then show up and do them.
Make sure you’re clear on what the appointment is. It’s okay to leave it open-ended when you make the appointment, but once the appointment starts, don’t take more than 5 minutes to figure out how you’re going to spend it. Or decide “I’m going to spend it prioritizing”. The key is not to let the time slip by while you wonder what the best way to spend it would be. Which of course you probably know on some level. The point of this technique is to tap into what you already know about how you can have a better life.
If you don’t have enough self-trust to show up for an appointment if there isn’t someone else who’ll be left stood-up, then make an appointment with someone else. Feel free to arrange this in the comments below. I’ve done this with strangers and also old friends I hadn’t talked to in years (which was cool!). I recommend just trying a half-hour skype call, with a minute or two of “Hi, this is what I’m going to work on,” then a 25-minute focused work period (aka “pomodoro”) then a minute or two of “Here’s how it went.” Then if both of you want, you can continue for more pomodoros, but you’re not committing up front to doing it for hours.
Even better, you can make a calendar where people can schedule such calls with you, using Calendly or youcanbook.me, share it with your friends, and then little sanity blocks will just automatically appear on your calendar. I did this for awhile and it was great. Each time a call occurred, I just asked “oh, what’s some thing I’ve been putting off?” and I would get started on it.
If you don’t have enough self-trust to show up for an appointment if there isn’t someone else who’ll be left stood-up, but you can’t/won’t schedule with someone else, then you could also try making a self-trust bet on this. Make sure to set a reminder so the thing doesn’t just slip by forgotten.
If you don’t have a calendar or any other system that you can rely on at all… get one? Assuming you have a smartphone, you can get it to bug you at a time. You then just need to (a) pick a time that you’re likely to be interruptible, and (b) when the timer goes off, actually shift into doing whatever it was you set out to do.
Let’s go meta: maybe you already knew about this sort of technique. Maybe you’ve done it before, or maybe you’ve suggested it to other people. Do you use it as much as you imagine would be optimal? If not, apply it to itself! Make an appointment right now with your saner self, and use the time to try to set up a regular event, or a youcanbook.me like I described above.
If the thing feels burdensome, then… this may not be the technique for you. You want to find a way of thinking about it so that you feel excited to spend time with (i.e. as) your saner self. If you can’t find a way to feel excited or at least engaged about it, then it’s not worth yelling at yourself about it. That defeats the point. Go read my post on self-referential motivation instead, and see if that helps.
For New Year’s last year, my business partner Benjamin and I ran an event called the Goal-Crafting Intensive. It was a five-hour online workshop on setting your goals for the year. Ostensibly, the main value of the workshop was the instruction: presentations I made about goal-setting & planning, a 23-page handbook, and chat-based coaching. Certainly, few people would have paid money for such an event if all three of those aspects had been absent.
And yet… I have a suspicion that the main value of the event was the fact that each participant carved out five hours from their schedule and then actually spent it focused on setting goals for the year.
Which is to say, if I imagine two people…
Who would have a more goal-directed year?
My money is on Barry.
Why? Our goal-setting content is actually quite good, but Allie would probably never actually open the handbook at all, let alone watch the videos. And even if she did, she would be likely to read it partway and then say, “Hmm yeah I really should do these exercises” …but still not actually do them.
Whereas Barry, who only has his own advice to take, is at least taking the time to do the best he knows how to do.
And that’s what counts. That’s why even though the Goal-Crafting Intensive is 5 hours long, only about 10-15 minutes of each hour is presentations. Then I mute my microphone, to give each participant the rest of the hour to focus on whatever seems most important to them—which could be the technique I just described, or it could be something totally different!
We’re running the Goal-Crafting Intensive again this year. So if you think your 2018 could be improved by taking 5 hours to set some goals and design some systems, then come join us on Dec 30, Jan 1, or Jan 7, and we’ll give you both good advice and time to take it.
Click this image to learn more about the 2018 goal-crafting intensive:
I feel so incredibly much better when I don’t procrastinate, and yet I still procrastinate regularly. Why am I so resistant to classical conditioning in this context? What further questions should I ask myself / demands should I make of myself, to attack this problem?
I suspect that this is a paradox that almost everyone has encountered on some level. People want to be productive. It feels good to have a really fruitful day.
This is something we often forget, when we frame our self-improvement efforts as a fight between what we should do and what we want to do.
And note that it’s not just that people want-to-have-been-productive. It generally feels pretty good while you’re doing it too. There are exceptions, of course—some work is a grind—but in general it’s at least satisfying, if not fulfilling, to be doing good work. And even with relatively aversive work, it usually feels better to be actually making progress than to just be stewing in the feeling that you should be working but aren’t.
So here’s the million-dollar question: if it feels good to be productive, why aren’t people productive more? » read the rest of this entry »
For the last few months I’ve been using a remarkably powerful, remarkably simple technique for increasing my effectiveness. It’s called a Captain’s Log.
It’s kind of like a journal, except instead of writing in it reflectively from a historical or archival perspective, the specific purpose of it is to write in it in the heat of the moment, when encountering a feeling of uncertainty or internal conflict. (I realize that the name doesn’t really reflect that distinction, but I don’t care! Perhaps it’s from Invictus: I am the captain of my soul.) It’s related to the concept of interstitial journalling, although I came up with it independently.
How much better would your days be if every time you felt uncertain or conflicted, you were able to have a quick conversation with a compassionate friend? Would that effect be present even if the friend didn’t really say anything but just nodded as you thought out loud? Well, turns out you can basically do this!
And it turns out that it’s a really valuable tool for practicing undividedness as though saving my head from fire.
Thoughts that might prompt me to use it:
I try a lot of things. In the past I’ve forced myself to try things a certain oftenness. There was my 2014 habit-a-week project, and 2015’s #trythings beeminder.
I think I’m presently trying more interesting things, more often, but it’s coming from internal drives rather than external pressures. I reflected that I wanted a place to write about these—things in progress, things that might not work, small things… things that aren’t worth their own blog post at this phase.
So I’ve made a new page on my site! malcolmocean.com/experiments
I first tried polyphasic sleep almost 5 years ago, in summer 2011. About 6 days into my uberman adaptation, I gave up. Two years later, I tried adapting to everyman 3, which I persisted with for several months with some success, but ultimately it didn’t quite work for me. Towards the end of that summer (2013) I tried uberman again, because a bunch of people were trying it all at once and I still aspired to greatness.
The results of that experiment are pretty telling: out of a dozen people, none of them successfully adapted to uberman or everyman. This, despite doing nearly everything right, and being all in a house together where they could ensure each other stayed awake. But within a month or two, all had reverted, and I hear that there were some negative effects in the form of narcolepsy and one or two other issues.
So if you’re planning to adapt to one of these schedules, your odds of success are low.
That being said, I maintain that my polyphasic sleep experiments ended up having one of the most positive effects on my life. Why? I learned to nap and became biphasic, fixing a sleep issue I’d had for as long as I can remember.
When I was a kid, my parents used to insist I had my lights out by a certain time, but I was almost never able to actually sleep then, so I would sneakily read with a flashlight, or othertimes follow the letter of the law by doing things in my room with the lights out (mostly pushups and sittups).
This post was written collaboratively with my friend Kai Rathmann. The reason for this will become apparent very shortly.
The thesis of this post is essentially: make things with people. We want to introduce a new-ish framing for how to relate to people, called “project partners”. A project partner is someone that you are doing (or have done) a project with. The project can be large, but doesn’t have to be. The key is that you have the experience of working together towards a specific, external, common goal.
Doing a small project with someone is great for a number of reasons:
…as I wandered around, downtown…
looking around at all the faces…
trying to… recognize the places
their minds must be—
to generate the shapes I see
simulate them on my own features
the body is my teacher
of how they feel
making these strangers real
So go some of the lyrics in a song I wrote last year, “Lost & Found”. Listen to it here.
I was thinking about these lines again today as I walked down Mission Street in San Francisco, the “downtown” to which these lyrics referred. I just arrived yesterday, back for the first time in over 7 months.
I found myself now, as then, looking at the faces of people I passed, and shifting my own face to match their expressions. In addition to getting a workout for both my facial muscles and my empathy centers, I’ve learned a few interesting things from this easy exercise.
You can walk past 10 different people, and your face will do 10 different things. Some might be similar in various ways, but they’re all distinct, which I find really curious—I got no sense of there being more or less popular faces, particularly.
Growth mindset is a thing. You can read lots more about it elsewhere, including Mindset by Carol Dweck, which has a 4.5 star rating with >500 reviews. I’m not here to explain in-depth what it is or why it matters. Enough people have done that. I’m here to show you how to do it—applied growth mindset. Importantly, this will include examples of fixed mindset that you can practice reframing to be more growthy.
But in case you’re unfamiliar, let’s start with one-sentence definitions, adapted from Dweck:
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities are simply fixed traits, and use their performance to document those traits.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed, and improved upon, which creates a love of learning and a resilience.
But it’s one thing to know how to answer all of Test Your Mindset questions so that you get “Growth” as a result. It’s another to actually operate out of growth mindset consistently.
First I want to note that both growth mindset and fixed mindset have the delightful property of being self-reinforcing. People who have growth mindset will tend to improve, which will reinforce the idea that ability is learnable. People who have fixed mindset will tend to stagnate, which will reinforce the idea that they’re stuck with whatever ability level they currently have.
This is exciting, because it means that to some extent, you can get out of this just by deciding to have the other mindset, in part by recognizing that all of the evidence you currently have is determined by the mindset you have and is thus untrustworthy as evidence of “how things actually, fundamentally work”. That there’s an explanation for the-experiences-that-come-with-fixed-mindset that makes sense in growth mindset too. So you can reinterpret everything and switch mindsets.
And, it takes practice to actually operate from a growth mindset, rather than just conceptually understanding that it’s a good idea to do so. In my experience, a lot of this practice can happen on the level of reframing verbal expression, where you can shift your language from fixed to growth mindset. This in turn will shift your thoughts. That’s what this post is about. The practice of thinking growthily. » read the rest of this entry »