The 40-Hour Work Weekend

I’ve experimented with focus blocks before, where I’m working a large percentage of the time and when I’m not working I’m only engaging in distractions that are centering, rather than divergent. Following in the footsteps of some other entrepreneurs that I admire, I decided to make this entire weekend a focus block. I closed out my email inbox friday afternoon, and didn’t open it again until sunday. And I got a lot done.

The video!

Like the others, I made a timelapse video. I’m kicking myself now, because I didn’t confirm that I had a functional system on Linux for recording my webcam and then turning it into a timelapse. Meaning it took me way longer (read: several hours today pulling my hair out while staring at my screen) to create this video than would have been reasonable, and it’s not even sync’d the whole time. But I know how to do it better next time, and can probably push out a video with 30mins at most of post-processing, provided I set things up well at the start. I learned a bunch about the ffmpeg and sed tools though, which was helpful. I’ll post my scripts once I fix the aforementioned problem.

The stats!

TagTime

An app that pings you at totally random intervals and gets you to tag what you’re doing. The pings are on average every 45 minutes, but sometimes will be within seconds, or hours apart, so you never know. tagti.me »

How I’m reading 2× as much as last year with a smaller goal

In 2013, inspired in part by this post by Julien Smith, I decided to try reading 52 books over the course of the year. I was doing really well for a number of weeks, but then I fell behind, and ended the year with only 21. For 2014, I tried something totally different, and it has worked amazingly well: we’re now halfway through 2014 and I can count 15 books that I’ve finished. More importantly, I can count 61 that I haven’t.

What gets measured, gets done

Or, whatever you measure, you will optimize for.

The problem, in 2013, was that I only got points when I finished a book. I had started keeping track of all of the books I finished in a spreadsheet. I wish I’d done this sooner. If you haven’t done this but you wish you had—do it. The feeling won’t go away, and you’ll just feel sillier when you finally do start. If you have kids, start one for them. My old system looked like this:

  1. Objective: read 52 books in 2013 (a book a week, don’t get behind)
  2. Tracking: record finished books in a spreadsheet with a rating and remarks

I remember distinctly one book I picked up in 2013 that was not for me. It was called “Slack”, and I was excited at the possibility that it might help me with introducing more slack into my life, but it was extremely focused on management and it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to get much out of the book. I made a new tab in my spreadsheet called “Dismissed”. Slack is the only book in there, but it was a start.

The problem was twofold:

  1. I would avoid starting books because they didn’t look like they’d be worth reading in their entirety, and I didn’t want to waste reading time on books I couldn’t count.
  2. If I found a book wasn’t interesting me, I would typically try to finish it anyway so I could count it.

Laid out explicitly like this, my old tracking schema was quite obviously problematic. » read the rest of this entry »

Habit Models: Routines vs Reflexes

I feel like it’s valuable to distinguish between two types of behavior change: routines & reflexes. Both of these are based on creating a new pattern of action given a certain trigger. The distinction I’m making is that routines occur with a very predictable frequency (usually daily, also weekly/monthly) and so they have a kind of cyclic nature. Reflexes, by contrast, are conditioned responses to triggers that might show up dozens or hundreds of times in a given day, or sometimes not even once.

The reason I think it’s valuable to disambiguate between them is that I find that they are nearly polar opposites in terms of what approaches are effective for intentionally changing them. I’ll explain those approaches in the second part of the post.

Lexical/semantic note: I had been using “habit” to refer to reflexes, but it turns out that many people also use “habit” to refer to daily routines, so that would be immensely confusing. I think there can be value in redefining words, but in this case I’ve opted to concede “habit” as a more general term for behavior change, which includes both sporadic, frequent habits (reflexes) and cyclical habits (ie. routines). Edit: I originally published this as “Routines vs Defaults” instead of “reflexes”, but Brienne proprosed “reflexes” and I like that word better.

Examples

The follow examples are designed to help you map out the clusters of concepts, if you don’t already have an intuitive sense of the distinction I’m talking about. While not exhaustive, they might also be helpful starting points for brainstorming some habit changes you’d like to make.

Kinds of routines

  • morning routine: probably starts with waking up; from there, varies widely
  • breakfast routine: for some people, this is tightly coupled with their morning routine… for others,
  • commute routine: the route / mode of transportation, as well as what you typically do during it (read, listen to audiobooks, etc)
  • when-I-get-to-work routine: what you do when you arrive at the place you work/study… not everyone will have one of these
  • lunch routine: where and when you eat lunch, how you acquire it
  • supper routine: etc
  • » read the rest of this entry »

Mindfulness Field Training 2: Motivation

This post is a followup to my previous one on mindfulness field training, which talked mostly about againstness and filler words. This post is also about how to intentionally shape the direction your thoughts go, but it’s more focused on the act of motivating oneself: grit, persistence, zeal, perseverance, roundtoitiveness and so on.

In mindfulness meditation, typically one does not expect to sit down for a 10 minute mindfulness practice and actually be mindful the whole time. The work is actually in (A) noticing you’re not mindful and then (B) bringing your attention back to your breath or heartbeat. Similarly, if we’re going to apply a generalized mindfulness skill to grit and perseverance, my thought is that it makes sense to model the relevant skill as (A) being able to notice when you’ve pushed away from your work and (B) being able to motivate yourself to return to it.

The fork in the motivation road

Last night I was studying and at one point I just sort of turned away from my standing desk and flopped onto my stomach on my exercise ball. I found myself thinking, “Okay, this is interesting… I definitely didn’t make a conscious decision to do this… I just found myself here.” Why, I wondered, had I spontaneously pushed away from my work? Was it unpleasant? Or just, being work, was it more challenging than felt comfortable at that moment?

At that point I had a few options of what I could do, and I thought back to an experience I had on Monday, when I was bringing back about twice as many groceries as the 15lbs I usually carry back from the grocery store. (The main reason being that I’d just learned of an interesting DIY meal-replacement shake that required me buying a ton of broccoli, frozen blueberries, and protein powder.) The grocery bags were really heavy. In the past, I had sometimes paused to rest once or twice on the way home, but this week I was pausing every hundred meters.

There was a pervading sense of “I can’t do this,” I noticed. » read the rest of this entry »

YES! I noticed!

This is a response to Can You Condition Yourself? on Slate Star Codex. Upon hearing about the “Propagating Urges” technique taught by CFAR, Scott was doubtful that humans could indeed successfully train themselves using operant conditioning. This is my response, which was also posted as a comment. I agree with him for some things but note that the technique has still been personally valuable to me and could be much more so.

I don’t know about big complex tasks, but I tried this once for a bad habit, and it worked impressively well. I used to pick my nose as a kid… and then I didn’t stop when I grew up. When I heard about the inner pigeon idea, I thought I’d give it a shot. Every time I noticed an inclination to reach my hand up, or that I was anywhere in the process of nose-picking, I would pump my fist and go “YES!” (this is my happy gesture-button).

You can’t stop a habit you don’t notice

The idea was to reinforce my own noticing. Since this action is generally considered gross and/or shameful, my brain generally tried to avoid thinking about it, which meant I definitely would never notice I’d done it until it was too late. By rewarding myself for noticing (whenever it happened) I taught my brain that it was a good thing to think about. When doing the opposite (cringing when noticing) we train our brain not to notice because it produces discomfort. This is likely punitive justice: it teaches people not to get caught.

I think perhaps this functions in a slightly different way than Skinner’s pigeons though. It’s almost like I’ve made a game out of noticing my brain’s urge, and I get an (uncounted) point every time I successfully do so. Regardless, this made me more aware of these urges, which meant I started noticing more and more when it was just my nose feeling itchy or my hand moving up. I would then reward myself and not bother actually doing it.

Within the first day, this almost completely eliminated the habit, although I forgot to go back for vaccines 2 and 3 so I confess that it’s not quite gone. However, during this comment I noticed once during the act, and YES’d. Then, not a minute later I noticed beforehand and YES’d again.

Noticing urges

I believe this could work for a number of these sorts of impulses, although I haven’t yet tried (upon reflection, this would be really valuable; adding near top of queue)

  • the urge to open Facebook/Twitter/HN/reddit/etc in a new tab
  • the urge to go on the internet if not already on
  • the urge to switch away from this tab where I’m writing a blog comment and go check my email (has happened twice thrice four times so far)
  • the urge to grab a snack when I’m already full
  • the urge to click on a link that is linkbaity but that I don’t anticipate actually being valuable.

Noticing thoughts

In addition to helping notice these urges, it could also be valuable for noticing thoughts to the effect of “this may not be a valuable use of my time” or “I’m doing something I don’t want to be doing”. Normally, my brain shies away from those, because if that’s true, it means I’ve been wasting my time. However, like being wrong, the only way to fix that is to admit it (to yourself, at least). This ranges from:

  • “Why am I still reading this site?”
  • “I’m not really sure what I’m getting out of this video…”
  • “This conversation/person-I’m-talking-to isn’t really very interesting…”
  • “Gah, I was going to submit that form this morning and I forgot…”

… and of course any ugh field or thought about a belief that’s generally aversive.

How to actually use this

Since there can be a fair bit of cognitive overhead to this at the start, I would recommend starting by focusing on only one type of thought or urge at a time, but it’s fun to do. I had to leave for a few hours in the middle of typing this and my attention to it while writing made it really easy to apply it to both the original unhygenic habit mentioned and also to the email-checking impulse when I came back.

Writing this post has made me realize that there’s a lot of really low-hanging fruit for me here, and so I’m going to try adding a new noticing every few days for the next while. Will report back in later this summer with results. I suspect this can work with positive urges too but I’ll look into that later.

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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