One day last week I drank too much tea too late in the day. Instead of going to bed at my normal 1:30-2am time, I went to bed after 3am. The next morning I woke up around eleven, feeling a bit slothful for sleeping in. Usually I make some nice green tea in the morning, but I skipped it that day, half because I had overdosed on tea the day before, and half because it was almost the afternoon. I sat down at my computer, but instead of doing my daily planning, I started researching Persian rugs.
By one in the afternoon I was still sitting at my computer in my skivvies, having done nothing more substantial than gain a comprehensive amateur understanding of what to look for in a Persian rug, and maybe answering a handful of medium-priority emails.
The day was off to a bad start. Not a horrific start, like the kind where you lose your arm in a grain combine, but the kind where you've gotten such a slow start that the day begins to feel like a waste.
I opened up Google Calendar to plan my day, but then closed it. What's the point, I thought, when I've already wasted so much time? There was no chance it was going to be an excellent day, so my brain was trying to steer me towards just writing the day off and refocusing on the next one.
Somewhere in the back of my head, a small warning bell went off. It reminded me that this sort of situation is the exact situation where I can't afford to lose a day. Not because of the time and productivity, but because it's losing territory to the lazy part of my brain. And once you lose part of that territory, it's really hard to get it back.
I'm not naive enough to think that I control my brain. The relationship is much more complicated than that. Sometimes I have pure dominance over most of my brain and can bend it's capacity to my whims. Other times it gives me barely enough processing power to recognize that it's screwing me over. You know, like when you have a ton of important work to do and you're seriously considering buying a hundred year old Persian rug because it has a high KPSI (knots per square inch). I know that a rug isn't the highest priority in my life, but there I am, clicking away.
The human brain thrives on patterns. In many cases, we can identify them faster than computers can, and in even more cases, we can identify them when they're not even real. In a gross simplification, you could even call our brains pattern machines. They're that good at it.
Besides being a pattern machine, our brains are also lazy. If you're feeling charitable, you could just call them efficient. Conscious thought will be allocated to a problem only if the subconcious doesn't already have a pattern for how to solve the problem. When I first learned to play Musette on the violin, it took all of my brainpower to squeak out a really unpleasant rendition of the song. But as the pathways strengthened in my brain, the burden of playing that song was shifted to my subconscious. I still don't play it amazingly or anything, but now it all happens automatically. My fingers just move and the song comes out.
The switch from conscious playing to unconscious playing didn't happen in an instant, because my brain thought, "You know... the subconscious chunk of me could really handle this better." It happened because I repeated it so much that a pattern was built.
Building these patterns is one of the best features of our brains, but if mismanaged, it can also be really harmful. So whenever I'm doing anything that seems like it might be important, I ask myself if I'm building a pattern in my brain, and if I really want that pattern to exist. This, by the way, is a large part of why I've never tried drinking or drugs or anything like that-- I don't want to have even the faintest pattern of associating those things with pleasure.
Back to my poorly started day. When I'd wasted half a day and my brain was urging me to forget about it and regroup for the next day, I recognized that this was extremely dangerous. It's building a pattern of wasting half of a day yielding some rest for the second half of the day. My brain would love to have that rest, so it tries to build this pattern. It's up to me to use my will power to break it, so instead I forced myself to plan my day and have NO breaks or fun. This action builds a much better pattern of wasting half a day and then having to work uncomfortably hard for the second half. Having that pattern in place will make it much less likely for my brain to push me towards laziness early in the day.
Another example: yesterday around seven pm I was face down in my bed, in the very early stages of drifting into taking a nap. But as I lay there and thought about it, I realized that I got a full night's sleep the night before, had enough water and food for energy, and by every other indication should have been awake. Why did I feel so tired that I was about to take a nap and screw up my sleep schedule? I thought about it and realized that it was only because I was frustrated with the bit of work that I was doing, and my brain saw a nap as an escape. I forced myself up and decided that I would only take a nap if I finished that piece of work and was still tired. I finished it and was no longer tired.
Most people in this world are slaves to their brains. Comfort is suggested by some cluster of neurons somewhere up there, and without really even thinking about it, the rest of the brain latches on to the idea an begins moving towards that comfort. Pushing yourself away from comfort requires constant vigilance and negotiating with that little part of the brain that tries to sabotage us. A big part of that vigilance is using the pattern matching part of your brain to recognize when a course of action may create subtle bad habits, and stopping it before that happens.
Picture is from the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska. Headed back to SF today!
Great stuff, Tynan! Very on point because this is something I am struggling with, right now. One of my favorite talks that Owen Cook ever did had very little to do with pickup. It was the Secret About Success. This is a two hour long video, so I understand if you or anyone else reading doesn't want to or have time to go through the whole thing, but a good excerpt runs from 1:07:49 to 1:16:50.
Chuck, thanks for the post. That's the first time I've heard anybody describe how laziness can be addictive. He also says that taking lots of action can help us get back to reality because we won't be comfortable with the rationalizations that our brain tries to offer up when we don't feel like doing something. I started at 1:07:xx Good stuff.
Just found your blog and happened to be reading this post in the car. We are on an impromptu little road trip (my favorite kind) and just passed through Fillmore. I can happily report that we successfully passed through that little gem of a town (wild exaggeration) without the normal requisite stop for donuts. You see I realized, (as my brain was prodding me not to forget to stop at the little disheveled mini mall where the charming donut/curio shop stands) that I had unwittingly trained myself to crave one or two...or three... of those disgusting (albeit momentarily delicious) blobs of fried fat and dough, drenched in sugar as soon as I saw that giant F on the hill. I guess I have come to associate them with fun and unexpected discovery. You see it all started years ago during a quick pit stop. The quirky Elvis clock drew us in. (my girl had an odd penchant for E.P.) The shop was super funky...in a good way...and the grumpy yet endearing owner gave the kids free samples of his special fritters. One taste and it was all over; we have been stopping ever since. Never mind that now it has a new owner and has been cleaned up... in a bad way. Never mind that nobody in the car really wants those baddies anymore, it's tradition! But this time I was inspired by you to retrain the brain. We didn't turn into the mini mall and pulled out the blueberries instead. No more stomachaches and regrets down the road! As we got to the end of town my daughter noticed a new donut/Thai massage place. Hmmm, Thai massage...now that's a habit we can get behind ;)
So thanks for your post...because of you, there are three happy tummies zipping across the Mojave.
p.s. really enjoying your blog...big cheers for living outside of the box!
Tynan, I like reading your blog a lot and it inspires me. But this post is not just about inspiration, I can immediately change my actions with it. You are so right, and since reading the post I recognize myself creating or strengthening patterns adn habits all the time. It's just choosing which kind of habit I'd like to develop - a productive, healthy one or a dysfunctional one. Many, many thanks for this post!
Thanks for that post Tynan. It is fascinating how our brains like to brandish the stick of guilt and beat us with it -- instead of accepting that what happened basically happened. Which leads to avoidance, rather than facing the guilt. Which leads to more guilt, and therefore more avoidance. Yet let's be honest here, nobody died, so why the guilt? Better to restart the day, and forget about the guilt.
You inspired me to learn about Persian rugs.
Just kidding... great post. It's posts like this that keep me coming back here.
Well, I'm afraid I'm pretty much in the same boat. My girl tells me not to worry. I'm just a "night hawk," and I just need to accept the down time as the price I pay for going and going.
But I do have an off topic question. I was noticing the picture, and I saw the sun in the background with a perfectly exposed foreground and a dark blue sky. It looked to me like a scene with a fifteen stop dynamic range. What camera was that taken with? I can't see that fake look flash gives everything either. Amazing.
Very astute observation! It was taken with a Sony NEX-5N, which has about 13 stops of dynamic range. Truly amazing camera... check in the community section for the post I wrote about it.
I think that everything you say here is true. But you may be just a tad overzealous about the business of building habits/patterns.
You gotta have respite; you gotta have enjoyment. You know that - you sleep every day. But from what I see about your life from your writing, you are trying to squeeze the most out of every minute, every hour, and every day. I remember reading you try to work at least 10 hours a day, every day of the week? Maybe it was 6 days a week, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't 5. I think it could be worth it for you to consider adding more "off time" for your brain.
I mean, you seemed like you were pretty on edge when you went to that puzzle building thing. You were angry at someone for not being able to solve a puzzle, and you let your anger cloud your judgement - you wasted 20 minutes on something that was unnecessary to solve. Could this angry state of mind have come from the stress of running your life as if you were a machine? Even machines break down, bro.
You don't want your life to just be a blur of furious working, working, working, then trying to have as much fun as possible for the remainder of the day. What memories are you building, man? What connections with the people around you are you fostering?
What are you going to look back to when you're older? Grinding out page after page of code? An admirable accomplishment, to be sure. But you don't have to immerse yourself in it like that. Isn't life meant to be enjoyed? Relax some time...
I'm definitely trying to squeeze the most possible out of every day (7, not 5 or 6), but that includes relaxing / fun / etc. I'll write a blog post about this, but basically I want all of my time to be spent in a high quality fashion, either on high quality work or REAL fun (not browsing ebay). Besides my work, I play a little bit of violin, have a pot or two of good tea, and read for an hour.
I was on edge at that puzzle thing. It was way harder than I expected and I really wanted my team to win, so I got kind of intense. I made mistakes, of course, but I wasn't angry. The dude had been working on this puzzle forever and was clearly doing it wrong, so without really considering whether we needed it done or not, I offered to take it over and worked on it.
To address your last point, for the past 10 years or so of my life I've been doing nothing but build memories. I've completed pretty much everything on my bucket list, have had a million awesome adventures, made a ton of good friends, etc. I'm still doing a bit of that now (I'm writing this in the Alaska airport after three days of riding around through the woods), but I'm also shifting towards working more, because I want to build something bigger than myself. The truth is that I've found enjoyment in that, and when I got to sleep after 10-14 hours of work, I'm happy and satisfied.
I'd love to see the contents of that bucket list. Was it covered in a blog post at some point, or will it be in the near future? The ultimate goals of an individual as driven as you are intrigue me, and other readers as well, no doubt.
I've never actually written it down. Stuff like running with the bulls, flying a helicopter, dating a model, learning new languages, skydiving, rapping for a large crowd, speaking at sxsw, buying a V12 mercedes coupe / house / rolex /etc, going on the fastest and slowest trains in the world, etc. Mostly unimportant but interesting stuff. Probably most of these things are mentioned in a post somewhere, but never put all together.
Tynan, what you are writing about reminded me of "Smart Habits" as Art Markman talks about in his book, Smart Thinking. You may want to check the book out.
I love napping! Now after reading your post I realize that I have created a HUGE pattern for napping in my brain... crap! I stay up later and later, and then nap in the evening, it's ridiculous. My dilema is... do I force myself to change it, or do I just accept that I'm a night owl, and focus on getting things done in the wee hours of the morning.... hmmm, I love napping :) lol.
If I were you, I'd just adjust my sleep schedule to fit naps. Sleep 6 hours at night instead of 8, take up to 2 naps during the day (make sure they are to recharge, not escape) and work when you are productive.
Checkout polynapping schedules if you wanna get more in depth with this stuff
I took a nap in the middle of my awake period because I was so tired. I woke up and didn't feel better.
BUT - I am hardcore so I continue.
I take my regularly scheduled nap and wake up after only 14 minutes, feeling great. I love it!
I read something that said that it may be best to do easy, repetitious tasks that don't require much critical thinking in the morning to get yourself on track. I have been trying this for the past couple of weeks and it has made me more productive in both the morning and the afternoon. It has definitely made me look forward to going to work more.
Typically, I've had trouble focusing in the morning. I like the "getting ready for work" routine tasks, but that's about it. I've had trouble getting started on complex software tasks until after lunch. I've always thought that I do my best work in the afternoon and evening.
Now, when I can't get started at 9:30 am, I tell myself to find some boring task that's easy to do but may take a half-hour or an hour. At 10:30 I start on a second one. Today I made it to a third at 11:30--basically just doing a code review following a checklist of items to look at. I ended up getting productive stuff accomplished and freed myself to focus on some more interesting tasks in the afternoon. I got those done ahead of schedule as well, thanks in part to the good start and a feeling of achievement spurring me on.
This worked on weekend days as well. I just follow a pattern of straightening up or cleaning in the morning, followed by more thoughtful planning tasks in the afternoon. If I face a complex task in the morning, I don't feel guilt about putting it off until later and jump-starting my brain with some simple, routine tasks.