Does technology support self improvement?

I just finished Reclaiming Conversation, by Sherry Turkle. Turkle worries that the rise of technology has weakened our ability to develop as individuals, to interact with others, and to participate in society, whether at work, at home, in politics, or in love. Today, we tend to turn to technology for everything, but it makes me wonder: does technology support self improvement?

Among other things, Turkle suggests that the always-available nature of social media and cell phones means we have an easy way to avoid dealing with the hard things in life. When we avoid the hard things, however, we don’t grow.

I’m struck by this, and think there is truth to it. Technology is a powerful tool, and applications like the quantified self movement have much potential to help us measure and improve ourselves. But there is danger, too. Sometimes, we grow through accepting and overcoming difficult things – the bitter. Meditation is hard, for example: there are no shortcuts. Only through acknowledging and working through that difficulty do we get better at it.

Siren call of entertainment

Does knowing that there is an endless world of entertainment available at our side in the form of a cell phone make meditation harder? I suspect it does, as do the patterns of behaviour we form when we constantly search for the next TikTok or Instagram post, shaping our very brain patterns to crave instant gratification. 

Turkle goes further: she suggests that the anxiety that is increasingly observed among young people is because they are never forced to reflect or look inside themselves, because they always have a phone to focus on instead. Absent that time spent looking inward, they struggle to build a strong sense of self or self-narrative, which means they have little to fall back on in times of stress. 

It’s an interesting idea. The fact that most of the people involved in building these technologies don’t let their kids use them has always unsettled me. The answer is surely not to stop all technology use, but to be intentional about it. To use it as a tool, not a crutch. But doing that is harder than saying it. I certainly find it hard to settle in to deep work, a profound book, or a meditation session, and I wonder how much of that has to do with how much technology I use in the rest of my time.

Do you use technology to support self improvement, NT? Do you worry it also interferes with your journey?

Making your own Rituals

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I sometimes struggled to get started with work in the morning. Prior to the pandemic, the start of the work-day was clearly delineated by walking into my desk at the office. The end was marked by the walk out and arrival at home. With the change to working from home, these delineations faded and the line between work and home life blurred, sometimes to the detriment of one or the other.

My solution was to come up with my own delineation, a set of actions I would take to start the workday and another set I would take to end it. The workday began with me brewing tea, taking vitamins and medication, and a quick 5-minute meditation. The workday ended with me making a to-do list for my tomorrow-self, taking a warm shower to decompress, and changing into more comfortable clothing. Most of the individual tasks I find pleasant, and thus in the morning I look forward to starting the ritual which inevitably leads to getting work done.

I recently realized that in creating these rituals for myself to create new boundaries separating work and personal time, I had also begun to classically condition myself to work. Now, my morning tea or vitamins almost immediately begin the process of bringing my mind towards focus for work. And my evening shower and new clothes are almost always associated with a release from the stresses of the day and diffuse / creative thinking. By making the first step in each of these rituals a pleasant one, it makes these quite useful mental modes more readily accessible.

Could this system work for you? Are there any rituals you can use to achieve certain mental or physical states, initiate long-desired habits, or build towards productivity goals? How can you start them with a pleasant or luxurious first step that you will look forward to each time? Let us know in the comments below if you discover something that works for you or already have a ritual that brings joy to your day.

Building a Morning Routine

We’ve talked a lot about habits on this blog already. One of the best ways to start building habits I’ve found is to set up a morning routine. When I first get up, I have a series of activities I do: the fact that I do it every morning makes it far easier to stick with it, and doing it in the morning rather than another time of day means I have a clear cue to prompt me, and rarely have a conflict or other excuse for not doing it.

A morning routine is my way of keeping a steady dose of exercise and other daily activities in my life, and frankly also getting them all done at once each day – I like the sense of having ticked a bunch of key items off my list before turning my mind to other things.

So what is my routine? It’s evolved over the years–I usually add about one new activity per year–but for now, it consists of:

  1. Two rounds of Wim Hof breathing (new this year – I read a book about breathing and was curious to try it)
  2. Five minutes of meditation
  3. 50 pushups and 50 sit-ups
  4. Stretching
  5. 200 strokes on the rowing machine

After that, my day really starts, and I shower, have breakfast, brush my teeth, and start work. I’m sure that’s not the right routine for everyone, and Wim Hof in particular has mediocre evidence for it at best, but it’s what is working for me. 

Suggestions for a Morning Routine

If you’re looking to build your own morning routine, I have a few suggestions:

  1. Start small. I have added about one activity per year for the last few years. I did 50 pushups and 50 situps for a year before gradually adding stretching, rowing, meditation, and now Wim Hof.
  2. Don’t worry if you miss some. For some people I think having a streak is very motivating, but I’ve found I inevitably break the streak at some point, and then my motivation plummets. This is something I want to do for the long term: if I miss one or two mornings, it happens. Underscoring Charles Duhigg’s arguments about cues and habits, it’s very much an all or nothing affair: either I do the full routine, or I do none of it. 
  3. Find a time that works for you. I’m a morning person: I get up early and I enjoy mornings. If you’re not, maybe you need an evening routine, or some other time of day. That said, find a time where you are consistently available. Even aside from my affection for mornings, the fact that I am sometimes out in the evenings would make it harder for me to stick to an evening routine. Find a cue that appears every day in your life, and tie your routine to it. 

Your routine might be totally different. Maybe you want to drink a glass of water, do some yoga, and then write in your journal. Up to you. But figure out what things you want to do every day, that will help you get better and better over time, and build your routine accordingly!

Contain Multitudes

“I am large, I contain multitudes” – Walt Whitman

I have often found it useful not to think of myself as a single individual with a single lifetime, a single set of goals, and a consistent level of competency and motivation. My favourite mental hack is to instead think of myself as a multitude of people, a myriad army of past and present me’s, one for each unit of time. Like a family or a community, this multitude benefits from helping each other progress and succeed, but we are heterogenous, and different versions of myself might well have different energy levels, different desires in the moment, or even a different perspective on the world. In this post, I’ll explore a few different ways this mental model helps me be more motivated, productive, and empathetic.

Motivation: Favours for Future You

Have you ever found it’s more motivating to help a friend or family member than to do something towards your long term goals? If your best friend had a flat tire, you probably wouldn’t have to overcome procrastination to go over to help them. However, if you want to get into shape, you might have to fight enormous inertia to get yourself into the gym those first few times. I find thinking of the future version of myself as a separate person is a helpful trick to find the energy (and even joy) in doing those chores that might otherwise be taxing. Cleaning the apartment, going to the gym, studying for another hour, etc, are all favours to future me, and since I’m a big fan of future me, it’s easy to do him favours.

Gratitude: Thank Past You

The converse of the previous point is that it helps to thank past you for the things they’ve done. Wherever you are in life, there’s usually something that some version of you from the past has done to be helpful. Perhaps you have a job or a degree thanks to the hard work of past you. Maybe you have friends you can talk to because past you put in the time building those relationships. Maybe past you read a good book or played a great game that gives you happy memories. Whatever it is, try to take the time to thank past you for what they’ve done. Building this kind of gratitude practice towards yourself can also help make it easier to be kind to the future versions of you.

Productivity: Be Your Own Boss

One thing I know I can’t always count on is the energy or motivation level of future me. Sometimes I feel like I can take on the world and sometimes it’s a struggle to even do the simplest tasks. Knowing this, every day I try to give my future self a leg up by outlining the most important things for him to do that day. That way, even if he wakes up not feeling very motivated, he has a clear path to follow and usually can make progress on the list. And, often, by just taking that simple first step (one he didn’t even have to think of himself), he’ll remember our collective goals and find the motivation to do even more. Or perhaps not … but that’s ok if most of us are working together to push the ball forward.


To sign off, I’d just like to encourage you to give it a try! Explicitly think of yourself for each future day and each past day as a different person. And do your best to help that community of people succeed. You might be surprised with the tricks you come up with to help them all.

The Different Types of Self-Improvement

NT, your post about foundational habits made me think about the different types of self-improvement. I tend to think of my growth in six categories. They aren’t mutually exclusive – self-improvement in financial health may reduce stress which helps physical health, for example – but it’s how I break down my goals, and I try to make sure I’m thinking about how I want to improve in each area. In another post I may share how I think about sub goals for each category, but for now, let’s just focus on the categories.

1. Physical Health

For me, this is the most basic of the types of self-improvement. Good physical health is a platform on which we can build. Exercise, diet, and sleep are the big three, but a lot of our choices affect our physical health. I think this is where a lot of people focus, but sometimes improving in another category can also help our physical health. A strong meditation practice, for example, may make it easier to stick to your gym routine or diet. It’s hard to silo self-improvement.

2. Intellectual Health

Another big one. Am I reading? Staying intellectually active, and not just playing video games or watching junk TV? Working to make sure I’m taking good decisions? This can be taking a class or just setting aside some time to listen to a podcast or talk about big ideas with friends.

3. Financial Health

Sometimes I merge this with #4, but I generally find it useful to keep it as a distinct type of self-improvement. This isn’t about getting rich: rather, it’s about financial freedom, about the ability to weather the vagaries of life and not stress about having enough to eat. Obviously this isn’t entirely within our control. No matter how financially healthy you are, you can get struck by disaster. There’s a line from Cato that everyone should have ‘an oil and wine cellar, many casks, so that it may be pleasant to expect hard times.’ That’s what I think of in this category – am I laying away oil and wine for the future? Starting a side hustle, increasing your savings rate, starting to invest, might all be worth doing.

4. Work/Career

Sometimes this category isn’t needed, if your goals for work mostly align to financial or intellectual ones. For me, I spend a lot of time working, and my work is one of the ways I try to have an impact. so, I often have goals specific to my career: types of projects I want to work on, people I want to work with, roles I would like to have, impact I’d like to have. Sometimes this can be about promotions or pay increases too, though I tend to focus on those less and try to get at why I would want those things, or what I am going to do to make myself more likely to get them. 

I also include skills I want to develop here, if they are work related: if not, they often fall under intellectual health.

5. Relationships & Community

I want to be a loving husband and friend. This is my category for connecting with the people around me: with my partner, but also with my friends and community. Being more thoughtful, supporting my partner better, calling my family and friends more, or maybe just getting out there and meeting more people all fit on this list. I also often include charitable giving and volunteering here, as a way I connect with my broader community.

6. Spiritual

For some people this category is about religion, and reading the Bible or Koran would indeed fit here. It’s important for the non-religious, too, though: are you taking the time to reflect and connect with the world? Meditation, nature walks, or reading ethical philosophy: all count. Finding your purpose, building self-esteem, or acting more ethically would also fit here for me. 

Depending on your goals, you may find different types of self-improvement works better for you. If you have a lot in one category, maybe it makes sense to break it into two, for example, or maybe charitable giving is more of a spiritual activity than a community activity for you. That’s fine – build your own! Writing this also made me think there are also categories of tools we can use to improve – mental models, apps, habits, probably others. A subject for a future post.

Foundational Habits

One of the frequently encountered challenges to building a productive life is uncertainty over which habits to build. In future posts, we’ll go over how to set short and long term goals for your life and break them down into a series of actions and habits over time. For this post, however, I wanted to highlight a set of foundational habits that should serve well in almost every life situation. These habits are good fundamental tools to have, regardless of the path you’re taking in life, but they also serve as a strong basis for learning how to build habits and can act as hooks to hang future habits on.

Journaling

In order to improve, I need to better understand who I am. It’s for that reason that journaling has become my most important tool in seeking to improve myself. It gives me space for self reflection and to digest the experience of my days and weeks. And because I am forced to articulate them to a reader (if only myself) I am forced to make concrete what was previously just a wash of impulses and actions. Journaling also enables big picture thinking, where I fit my experiences and goals into the larger objectives of my life. Finally, it is a place where I keep track of my progress, whether it be for building habits or towards my larger personal and professional goals. Watching this progress bar increase is a satisfying reward which reinforces virtuous habit cycles.

So, how do you get started journaling? We’ll go into this in more depth in a future post, but the short answer is the exact technique you use doesn’t really matter. I would encourage you to buy a blank journal and use it exclusively for this, buy a nice pen that you like to use, and set up a system in advance that works for you. For a lightweight approach, commit to just writing the date down every day in your journal and writing at least one sentence. Sometimes this one sentence will seem boring or redundant, but sometimes inspiration will strike and you’ll end up writing for pages. It’s from such small commitments that long-lasting habits can be born.

Meditation

Another keystone habit is meditation. Like journaling, meditation helps me reflect and understand myself better, but more importantly for me, it helps reduce the noisy impulse driven part of my mind and helps build focus. This increased focus then allows me to sit down and truly complete tasks to which I’ve set my mind. Reams of papers have been written on the other myriad psychological and physiological benefits that meditation accrues.

Again, one challenge of building a meditation habit is knowing where to start. There are many different schools of meditation, including approaches like mindfulness, zen, and loving-kindness. I would suggest initially picking any school that resonates with you without spending too much time at the decision phase. They all have things to teach and the tools from any are useful in the others. I started with mindfulness meditation and found the Headspace app helpful, although others enjoy apps like Insight Timer or Calm. Like with journaling, start small with just a 1 minute, 3 minute, or 5 minute daily commitment and see where the habit takes you from there.

Exercise

Maybe you already exercise regularly, by going to the gym, playing a sport, or even just taking regular walks. If so, you already know the benefits that having regular exercise can make in your life. If you don’t, let me try to convince you by showing you what you’re missing out on. Exercise is good for the body, yes, but it has also been shown to significantly affect the mind. It relieves anxiety, reduces depression, and improves mental health. For me, when I’ve been knocked out of my habit cycle, the increase in mental health that comes from exercise has made it a great first habit to rebuild from.

Ok, but if you don’t exercise regularly, how do you start? My advice would be to take a broad and shallow approach initially. Try lots of different forms of exercise for one or two sessions and see which one fits you best. Maybe you’ll enjoy the social aspects of joining your local badminton club, or the clarity of thought that comes from a 5 minute run. Maybe you like the measurable progress of lifting weights at the gym or the connection to nature that comes from a short hike. What works for you will depend on a lot of factors, including what’s available in your area. Start small, but try a lot of things, and try to notice which ones bring you feelings of joy that you’d like to have again.

Reading

I stopped reading books for fun in university. I found it hard to keep up a good reading habit after spending my day working through a textbook or academic papers. Youtube and Netflix were just easier ways to decompress. It wasn’t until I’d been working for a couple years that I picked up a reading habit again and rediscovered its benefits. 

Reading is the main way that new ideas enter my life. Reading a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, exposes you to new points of view and new experiences. Because when reading (unlike when watching something) we also have time to reflect, these thoughts and experiences are better integrated into our own experiences and frameworks of thinking. Unlike television, reading also pushes our minds to focus and imagine, growing these skills for our future endeavours.

So, how to get started? After my long hiatus, I set myself the simple goal of just trying to read 4 books in the next year. It was such a small, achievable number, just 1 book every 3 months (that’s like 5 pages a day or so). I didn’t give myself any other restrictions on book length, genre, or even format (audiobooks were critical), but I did start a document where I kept track of the number of books I read and their names. And that was enough. In the first year, I barely scraped by with the 4 books, but every time I added a book to my list, it felt like a huge win. The next year, I set a more ambitious goal of 8 books, and blew through that. Last year, I managed to read 50 books and am aiming even higher. Starting small and building up in any of these habits is a powerful trick.

Best of luck in building one or more of these foundational habits! We’ll dig in soon on a more detailed look at each one and a more holistic set of tips on how to start a habit and stick with it.

On the Nature of Productivity

Hello World!

As we start a productivity or self-improvement blog, an obvious place to start seems to me to ask: what is productivity? Why does it matter? 

As an economist by training, one definition is the economic one: productivity determines how much output will be created for a given amount of inputs, whether that is labour, resources, or other things. If a farm is productive, the same number of fields produce more wheat. 

Productivity as output

The more productive an economy is, the higher GDP will be, even if the number of workers or the amount of resources doesn’t change. As a result, it’s often a fundamental goal of modern economies: getting more productive, whether through using technology or other means, makes a country richer without it having to discover new natural resources or other inputs. Higher productivity means a country is richer, or a business more profitable.

As individuals, we may have goals beyond just getting richer, but we can use the economic definition to draw some parallels for ourselves. Productivity can be about how well we use our inputs to create the outputs we want and achieve our goals. The purpose of life is a big question, but productivity can be about more efficiently achieving any goal we may have. From that definition, productivity is clearly great: it is a sort of generic modifier that takes whatever we want to spend our time on, and makes it more effective. Tools to make us more productive in that sense will definitely be something we talk about on this blog.

Productivity as time management

There are other ways to think about it, though. When we talk about productivity, the conversation often turns to how we spend our time: are we spending it on the right things? This is less a question of efficiency, and more a question of goals: it starts to relate to concepts around enlightenment and wisdom. We’ve all met people who are frantically busy, but don’t seem to get much done. If the first definition is doing things right, the second is about doing the right things. 

The second definition is perhaps closer to traditional ideals, while the first probably wouldn’t have been considered until after the industrial revolution (the whole concept of productivity is a modern one, and wouldn’t have resonated with most ancient cultures). Still, both definitions have value. 

At heart, for me the point is this: as humans, time is our most scarce resource. It is the coin by which we buy everything else in our lives. We can exchange it for money, for impact on things we care about, for shared experiences with loved ones. Productivity is about using our time well. 

Productivity as meaning

Why should we be productive? Well, if we are using our time well, it may free up time for other things we want to do. It may give us more meaning in our lives, if it helps us feel we are achieving our goals. Perhaps it will allow us to help others we care about. The answer is probably unique to each individual, but if you have goals, productivity can help you achieve them. 

From that, much can flow. We can be more efficient in doing tasks. We can prioritize better, doing some things and not others. We can introduce new habits, such as meditation or journaling. We can try to drop old habits that we feel are not a good use of our time, such as watching too much TV. There is no one silver bullet for productivity, but there are steps we can take and practices we can introduce that will help us improve.

More to come in future posts! To start, we’re aiming for about weekly posts, so you can look forward to more next week.