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I've been asked a lot recently about how I manage different priorities and how I translate those priorities into day-to-day actions. It's always a good question, but with many of us finding ourselves less distracted with travel and entertainment, the question is more relevant than ever.
Let's go through a quick exercise to help solve this problem in real-time.
First, write down the areas of your life that demand your attention or those in which you would like to make progress. A simple version might be
4. Social Life
You could have more or fewer categories, but those five are a decent start. Now, next to each of them write either "maintain" or "grow". You may be tempted to write "grow" next to each of them because... who wouldn't want to get better at everything? Remember that you have limited time, effort, and mental bandwidth, though, so think of each "grow" as diluting the others. It is generally better to make progress serially rather than in parallel as well, because your "date of earliest goal completion" will be earlier and you can start enjoying the benefits associated with it.
Here are how I would rate mine:
1. Work - growth
2. Fitness - maintain
3. Relationship - growth
4. Social life - maintain
5. Learning - growth
There's really no right or wrong answer here, except that you should probably have a mix of both growth and maintain. If everything is growth you will burn yourself out and not execute well, but if everything is maintain you are not pushing yourself enough (or you are leaving out major life areas from the list).
I chose work as growth because I'm working on a bunch of stuff right now and I have a good environment (stuck at home) in which to make progress here. If I was on a trek across central asia or something, I would have to switch this to maintain.
Fitness is in maintain mode because I'm happy with where I am with it and am not trying to gain muscle or cut fat. My biggest priority here is to keep the gains I already have.
Relationship is growth for the same reason as work. My wife and I have more time together now than usual, so it's a good opportunity to grow. I'd think of it more as "slow growth" than the other ones. My goal isn't to revolutionize our relationship, it's just to make sure that in general every month is better than the previous one.
Social life is on maintain because the same factors that make work and relationship easier make social life harder (being stuck at home). My friends are very important to me, but if I can make progress in other areas now that will free me up to focus more on social later.
Learning is really only growth for me now because I'm really into Japanese tea ceremony. I have a small Japanese tea room in my home and am stuck here (as I may have mentioned...), so I'm using that as an opportunity to 15-30x my learning speed (14 tea ceremonies per week instead of 1, plus the additional benefits of drilling individual aspects and having <24 hours of elapsed time in between ceremonies).
For each of the maintain areas, I figure out what I need to do to maintain them. Maybe counter-intuitively, I think of these as higher priority than growth areas. The reasons for that are that I have put a lot of work in to build them, so I don't want to lose them, and because they will only take up a small defined part of my day.
For fitness I have a very strict diet (small bowl of nuts at 4pm, Chipotle at 6pm, sometimes fruit later) and I work out every other day for 30-35 minutes. I no longer increase my weights or reps.
For social life I don't have a very fixed routine, but I chat with friends and try to initiate contact to be proactive.
Your maintenance items shouldn't compete with your growth items. Clearly I have plenty of time to do those things in a day.
Next I think about my growth items. Specifically I think about the leverage I have and how much improvement there is to be gained. This isn't a list of "how important are these things to me", but rather "how aggressively should I be trying to grow in each one".
Based on those criteria, I would order mine like this:
Learning is the top one because I am a beginner at tea ceremony but think I could go very far in it and have a uniquely ideal situation for improvement. I know that as soon as travel becomes normal again this will drop in priority and ability, so I want to capture the opportunity now.
Next is work for many of the same reasons as learning. I feel I have a lot more to do, and have a good opportunity to do it.
Relationship is last because we already have a great relationship and though now is a good time to work on the relationship, I think the next 12+ months may offer even better opportunities.
Now that we have good priorities, we can think about our actual days. First, we add our maintenance items. I've always written about how mine fit into my day above, but now is the time for you to think about what you need to do on a daily or weekly basis to make sure than you maintain those items. You can see why I say they're more important than growth items, as we schedule the rest of our days around them.
Next we think about how to fit in our growth items. Life is complex so you can't just allocate hours to each, but you can think about how to fit them in and that fit should reflect your priorities.
In my case, I do my tea ceremony twice per day. It doesn't really conflict with work or relationship, so this one is easy. I do it once in the early afternoon and once in the evening. In both cases I use it as an escape from work, so it actually helps with work. No need to make things harder than they have to be.
Work and relationship, on the other hand, are somewhat in conflict. When quarantine first started I made the error of not prioritizing my relationship, and things felt off. Since then I carved out two hours every evening as a minimum spend-time-with-my-wife time, and about once a week I take off almost a whole day so that we can spend time together on the lake. We also have dinner together most nights and tea together a couple times a week or so.
The rest of time, with very few exceptions, is work. You don't necessarily have to fill up your entire day with your priorities but I enjoy it.
You can reevaluate any time, usually every few months or if circumstances change. For example, if travel opened up and my wife and I could go on some trips together I would drop learning and possibly even work to maintain mode. If my wife went to visit family for a month I wouldn't worry too much about pushing our relationship forward.
More than anything this exercise is useful to understand what your priorities are and in which areas you're actually trying to grow. If you find that your day-to-day actions don't reflect the results of this exercise, you have to really reevaluate whether you correctly identified your priorities and whether or not you are acting on them appropriately.
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I've been studying Japanese tea ceremony for a little over a year now. The way you learn is by watching people who are better than you, trying to imitate them, and then receiving corrections from your teacher.
There are dozens of types of tea ceremony, but the simple ones you do as a beginner last for about 15-25 minutes, depending on how many guests you have and how quick you are. In that time you perform dozens of steps, and most of those steps have a lot of nuance to them, so you may have gotten a certain amount of water from one container to another, but you may have done it all wrong.
In that way, it reminds me a lot of ballet. There is a precisely correct way of doing everything, and even if you do it for years there is still room for improvement on even the most rudimentary movements.
At first I thought that I was great at it, because I received very few corrections. Then as I got better I realized that teachers usually only correct a couple of the biggest mistakes so that you have something to focus on. Like so many other subjects, you constantly realize just how incompetent you were just a few weeks ago.
As I mentioned in my last post, one of the things I did recently was move Sett to a new server. This is a task that I had every reason to do five years ago, but had been dreading and putting off. It was never that urgent, wasn't moving me closer to any major goal, but most importantly it just sounded like a miserable project.
The most daunting part of it all was that all of the software that Sett relied on was horribly out of date. I was two major versions of PHP behind, and each of its 5-10 dependencies was certainly either obsolete or out of date. Of course, as time went on this disparity became even greater, making me even less likely to want to do it.
At first this cost me about $170 a month, then I finally downgraded our server (but used the same image) to save about $40 a month. Overall, it probably cost me about $10,000 to not move servers! Even greater than this cost is the constant burden of knowing in the back of my head that I should move it and having to make the decision of whether or not to do the work.
Finally, in quarantine, I decided to take a stab at it. I resolved to spend half a day working on it and reassessing from there. If it was going to require too much of a rewrite I would try something else. It was hard to know exactly how long it would take, but it felt like a 5-7 day project to me.
I've been quarantining in Las Vegas for four months now, so I thought that it would be fun to write about how I've used that time so far, especially because I've done a few projects that wouldn't have gotten done if I weren't here for so long. Presented in roughly chronological order:
1. Rewrote lots of CruiseSheet
I'm not sure how other people do it, but when I create a new project I tend to just jump in and start making it. That means that some of what I start out with wasn't exactly suited for what the end result was, so I get a little bit of accumulated kludge. I had noticed that it seemed like the number of available cruises would slowly decrease over time, which didn't seem to reflect reality, so I took a deep dive on the data import section and found the error. While I was under the hood I also fixed a bunch of other minor things that had been bothering me for a while.
2. Got back on a perfect gym / eating schedule
I see a lot of people struggle with motivation, especially those who are already doing well. That represents a big loss of potential, as those who have already achieved some level of success are demonstrably able to channel motivation into output. I have some ideas on why this happens and also how to combat it.
While I think that it's important to be able to work with as little motivation as possible, there's no point in making things harder than they have to be. Working is easier and more enjoyable when we are properly motivated, so learning to motivate ourselves is a valuable skill.
It is possible, and maybe even preferable, to be motivated by work itself. I wrote a whole post called Love Work about this many years ago. If you are not able to love your work and be motivated by it, you are definitely in the wrong field. However, all of us go through periods of time when our immediate tasks are not overly motivating. I spent the last two weeks totally rewriting code I had already written, which is really hard to get very excited about.
Think of external motivation as the starter to your productivity engine. Work is usually most motivating when you're in the zone and in the middle of an interesting problem, but sometimes we need a push to get there.
A reader emailed me recently and asked how I'm able to have such a great group of friends who are so adventurous and into crazy ideas like buying an island and other properties around the world. I certainly don't take my friends for granted, but because I'm surrounded by them constantly I do sometimes forget just how unusual those types of people are.
I've said it a million times, but I do feel as though my greatest assets in life are my friends and family. This is, or at least should be, true for almost everyone because no other part of your life has the potential to bring as much joy as other people.
And yet... people don't really think much about friendships or put all that much effort into them. Think about how much proactive time and effort people spend on their careers compared to the people around them. Career is important, but not as important as people, and yet most people are far more eager to work on their career.
If you want to have an excellent group of friends, you must commit to that goal and be willing to work towards it, not just hope it happens (spoiler: it probably won't).
Beginning around high school, one of my major core values was paying the least possible amount for everything. I was always trying to figure out how to get things for massive discounts or to orchestrate some complex trade so that I got whatever I wanted for free in the end. I got so good at it that my first real income-producing business was in high school when I was buying and selling Palm Pilots and Apple Newtons. I started that business with the purchase of a $70 Newton and never invested more outside money into it.
Being frugal can be good. At it's best, being frugal is the practice of deciding whether you actually need something or not, whether it will be worth it to you, and carefully stewarding your money. Most people should probably be more frugal.
Over time, however, I realized that my frugality had turned into something different. I felt as though I didn't win unless someone else lost. When I went to a buffet, it was important to me that I ate so much that the casino lost money on me. Either I was the sucker or they were the sucker, and I didn't want it to be me. One of the best things at the Bellagio buffet was the pesto mashed potatoes, but I would only allow myself tiny amounts of them because I didn't want to fill up on cheap potatoes.
My business immediately after the Newton trading business was professional gambling, which was very much a win-lose situation. The casinos were trying to force me to lose and I was trying to do the opposite to them. The experience of being a professional gambler was very valuable to me, both financially and mentally, but I wonder if it helped ingrain into me that idea of not wanting to enrich companies.
I don't keep very close track, but last year I went through emails and discovered that I had purchased about 100 plane tickets for that year. Many were short hops to reposition and sometimes one trip would be three different tickets, but still-- that's a lot of travel. And now, I've flown twice in the past three months. Once to help my mom move across the country and once to visit some quarantining friends in Florida.
If you'd asked me a year ago what the chances were that I would fly only two domestic trips in three months, I would have said about zero. And yet... here we are.
It's rare to get such a big change in behavior, so I thought I'd write about a little bit, as much for future me as for you.
The biggest surprise is that I really like it. The first week or two was novel. The next two weeks had me searching the map to see if there was anywhere I could justify going, knowing that the answer was no. And since then I've been loving it. Paradoxically I can't wait to travel again and know that I will as soon as I can, but I also sort of hope the lock down keeps going for a while.
Before getting into this post, I should come clean: there was actually one friday about 450 days ago where I thought that I had already done the day's puzzle but I hadn't. So far that reason I haven't actually done the puzzle 800 days in a row, but rather 800 days with one day missing. Ok, it feels good to get that off my chest.
Three years ago my family came to visit me in Budapest. My younger cousin, with whom I tend to be both cooperative and competitive with on just about everything, had printed out a few crosswords to do on the plane. I immediately felt that if she was getting into crosswords I should also get into them, so we started doing puzzles together. The New York Times puzzle ranges from Mondays (easy) to Saturdays (hard). We were doing Tuesdays and Wednesdays with some difficulty, but it was a fun challenge.
Fast forward a few years and we both do the puzzle every single day (except that one Friday) and we share our times with each other. The rules are simple: no cheating, no using the built-in check or reveal feature, and the puzzle must be done before midnight EST. At first my extra ~15 years of experience on this earth played to my advantage and I would beat her almost every day. Now her intelligence and quickness has overcome that advantage and I win 1-2 times per week average. Some weeks I don't win at all.
Even if I'm not able to beat my cousin, I'm pretty good at crosswords these days. The last time I wasn't able to solve the daily puzzle was over two years ago, and my median times range from around 3 minutes for a Monday to 10-15 for a Saturday (lots more variance there, so I'm not sure). Besides being a lot of fun to do the puzzle (just like my daily Chipotle, I look forward to it all day), I've learned a lot through doing the puzzle.
There was a time in my life when I was singularly obsessed with output. I rated my days in terms of how much output I had produced that day and tried, within reason, to limit anything that did not produce output. It felt great to do this, as I had previously not been particularly good at producing output, and it was completely within my power to make any day into a good day.
Over time, both in myself and others, however, I noticed that high output didn't always lead to achieving goals. It was certainly better than not producing output, but I had a persisting feeling that my results weren't as good as they should be. I now have a more balanced approach and I my results towards goals now seem disproportionately good compared to my output.
If you don't feel like your results reflect your output or you are trying to figure out how to get started at being more productive, I have some suggestions based on my own experience.
It's important to realize that what you create when you are at your best will be many times more valuable than what you create at average or worse. Sometimes work created can even be a net negative. For example, if I force myself to write a blog post when I'm not at my best, maybe it will be unclear and actually turn people off from reading future posts. If I write some crappy code, maybe I'll have to spend hours in the future chasing down a bug that could have been avoided in the first place.