Towards Better Understanding Ourselves

A key difference between my 20s and my 30s is my increased understanding of myself. I have a better sense of what brings me joy, fulfillment, and motivation. I know what my values are and I have experienced how acting against them, even if pleasant in the long term, can lead to long term stress and unhappiness. I have some idea of which foods improve my health and mood and what tools improve my sleep quality. In general, I find it easy to be happier in my 30s as, by knowing myself, I can more easily follow your advice of focussing on the important and eliminating distractions.

I’m still not done in my journey of self-understanding and I hope that in my 40s I’ll be even better equipped to “be me”. In this post, I’d like to take a moment to reflect, though, on the tools I’ve used in the past and to try to systematize them to help myself and others in the future.

1. Learning from others

The design space of “who you are” is truly huge. It encompasses your values, your motivations, your hobbies, your health, your mental models, etc. It helps that you have your whole life to make incremental progress on each of these areas, but how do you even start? How do you put words to some of these concepts? 

I think one of the best ways to explore this design space is to find role models that you can emulate for different aspects of your life. These can be people that are present in your life or people you’ve only learned about through reading. Perhaps you have a friend who you admire as the “kindest person you know”, or someone who always knows what to say at a party. Perhaps you’ve read about Frank Gehry or Justice Ginsberg and have found something you wish to emulate in the trajectory of their life. In either case, the habits and practices of the people you admire can start helping you form templates and hypotheses about yourself. Not all of these will prove to be true to you, but by experimenting and reflecting we can keep what works for us and discard the rest.

2. Design Experiments

Once we have a list of hypotheses about ourselves, sometimes we need to experiment to discover what holds true. It’s never true that your life, values, or motivations will exactly match any of the individuals you admire. To discover what’s uniquely you, you’ll have to be willing to experiment.

The key to successful experimentation, though, is a willingness to fail. It’s far easier to falsify a hypothesis than to prove it, and so it’s often our failures that teach us the most about who we are. This is perhaps easiest to see in the exercise domain. You don’t really know how much you can squat until you’ve tried a weight that’s a little too high and you’ve failed to lift it. Similarly, it may be that, if we’re testing the hypothesis about what motivates us or whether a certain career path is for us, we may have to try and fail before learning our truth. My only caution with this is to set up your experiments in ways that avoid catastrophic failure. Just as you wouldn’t start testing your physical limits by jumping to try to squat 1000 lbs, you may not want to test your values by irreconcilably hurting those closest to you. Experiment with caution, but do accept that failure from time to time is part of the process.

3. Reflect 

We’ve talked in the past about the importance of journaling. As you experiment and discover truths about yourself, it’s important to capture them down in written form. This will prevent you from going in circles with your experiments, might help you see larger patterns in your life, and will also help you build the skill of articulating who you are.

Another good way to reflect and capture your experiences is to tell others who you are. Share your beliefs, habits, and values. Sometimes, this will lead to great opportunities – someone may want to help you test your belief about your next career step. Sometimes, this will lead to arguments as you encounter folks with different values or experiences than your own. As long as you can argue respectfully, it’s an invaluable opportunity to be forced to discuss your differences with others, where your values might differ from there’s, and how you resolve the natural tension between values differently. This, in turn, will help you develop a deeper vocabulary by which to understand yourself.

4. Maintain a growth mindset

I’d like to end with a caveat, which is that, even as you discover more and more about yourself, do not fall into the trap of having a “Fixed Mindset”. Do not believe that your talents and abilities are pre-ordained and avoid statements like “I am not good at X”. Instead, treat experimentation as an opportunity to explore a “Growth Mindset”. If you could learn anything with enough effort, where would you like to spend the effort to be the best version of yourself?

So, NC, what do you think of this little system to learn more about ourselves? How have you gotten to a place in your 30s where you know yourself well? Are there still things about yourself that you’re trying to figure out?

The Role of Emotion (Pt. 2)

Part II: Overcoming Challenges

In my last post, I discussed some of the ways to achieve a positive emotional state to boost your productivity. I often find that if you’re able to find joy or curiosity in the work you do, you’ll do better work and be more productive overall: a win-win. However, in most professions, it’s important to be productive even when things are more difficult. Sometimes personal or professional factors combine to make us particularly high stressed and anxious or low energy and demotivated. Below, we will explore a few tips for still achieving productivity in these low energy days.

Document Everything

This requires a bit of proactivity, but I find it very helpful to carefully document as much of my work as possible. At the end of each day, I write down the most important pieces to be done the next day. When I do a piece of work, especially if it’s new or I need someone’s help to complete it, I document each step and any questions I had in a FAQ document I write for myself. When I complete a project, I’ll write a couple of sentences about what was accomplished in a document I can revisit when I encounter a professional evaluation. By keeping such careful documents, even on my worst days I usually have a sense of what needs to be done and can muddle through the tasks using the steps and checklists I’d created earlier. As I mentioned in a previous post, by treating the future versions of yourself as potentially less competent than you currently are, you build in a bit of a safety buffer for low motivation days.

Reward Yourself

As humans, we are hard wired to respond to rewards. Indeed there are neural structures specifically connecting components in our brain related to cravings, euphoria, and positive reinforcement. When we’re feeling low, we can try to take advantage of these structures for a bit of a short term boost. To do so, simply think of a simple small reward you would like and set some rules on what you have to accomplish to receive it. Depending on how tough the day is, you can make this game as easy or as hard as you need it to be. For me, on particularly bad days, I might reward myself with a square of chocolate (or a whole bar) for just opening a work document or responding to a few e-mails. As with many things, just getting the energy to get started is the most difficult part, and you might end up surprising yourself by exceeding that initial goal. Although, it’s totally fine if you don’t, just play the game again with another task and another reward. I’m sometimes able to get a fair amount of work done just through this repeated process.

Distraction

If I’m having a hard day, not due to low energy, but due to stress and anxiety, I can often use distraction as a tactic to make some progress. For me, music works well, a well chosen playlist on Spotify can calm the spiral of negative emotions that I’m fighting against and I can even sometimes achieve something of a flow state. This tactic works particularly well with a bit of proactivity (if you already have a playlist set up) as well as in combination with the first step above about documentation. With the music playing, I can just follow the instructions that my past self left and push a set of projects forward.

Take Breaks

Finally, I encourage yourself to treat yourself kindly and to recognize if you might need to simply take a break. Sometimes our work and expectations of ourselves build up to the point that the only way to really escape the low energy state is to take some time off. If you have vacation days (or sick leave), consider using them to give yourself some time to rest. Staycations are underrated as a means to regain the energy we need to progress. And if that’s not possible, at least occasionally allow yourself zero-days. Days where you don’t expect yourself to make progress on anything but just allow yourself to accomplish nothing. As with physical exercise, the rest days are just as important as the days where we push ourselves.

The Role of Emotion

Part I: Engendering Joy 

My productivity is frequently tied to my emotional state. If I am approaching a problem with joy, excitement or curiosity, I’m able to pull long hours, push through hardship, and get a lot done without any sense of burden. When my state, by contrast, carries anxiety, stress, or fear, there is a lot more friction and it almost feels like I have to fight myself to get work done. I think it’s important in most careers to be able to be productive in both states and so in this post I explore my personal strategies for engendering the former and in the next for managing the latter.

Curiosity

I find a problem most engaging when I am studying it from a place of genuine curiosity. Many problems can be reframed into puzzles simply by asking questions like “I wonder why things work this way” or “I wonder how we can build x or understand y”. If I’m able to transform the problem like this, I can engage the part of my mind that likes to solve Sudoku or pick apart knots. This little cluster of neurons is surprisingly stubborn in its quest to solve problems, and isn’t as easily repressed when it encounters a difficulty. Challenge just adds to the game of it all, adding a new layer to investigate, learn about, and eventually solve.

Flow

A related approach to finding joy in work is achieving a “flow state”. Flow is a mental state coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and is often colloquially referred to as “being in the zone”. To achieve it, the author suggests three criteria as being necessary:

  • Clear goals
  • Immediate feedback
  • A balance between the perceived challenge and one’s perceived skill

To me, the third criteria manifests as the activity being just at the limit of my skill – where I am confident I can complete the task, but that I’ll have to learn and grow in some way in order to do it. While not all work is conducive to flow, you can often restructure your tasks into smaller milestones that let you achieve flow for some part of the task. In programming, instead of trying to build a whole system in one chunk, breaking the problem into smaller components, each of which can be written and tested separately is often more conducive to flow. In contrast, if you find yourself particularly reluctant to pursue a piece of work, as if one of the three flow conditions is broken and see if you can rescope the work to enable more flow. Perhaps you can ask your manager for more regular input for feedback? Or perhaps you can set an intermediate goal that will better match your perceived skill at the moment? Flow, when achieved, can feel like effortless productivity, and is well worth finding in some part of our lives.

Sensory Engagement

I think in modern life, living so much of it in our own heads as we do, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of our five physical senses (smell, sight, taste, touch, and sound). But when we look back and review our lives, much of our experience and memories are catalogued by these senses – the taste of that favorite pasta, the smell of the ocean, the sight of clouds in the sky. Another aspect of extracting joy from work can come from trying to better engage our senses in our work. When taking notes, I find using a constellation of multicolored fineliners gives me more visceral pleasure than just typing on a keyboard. After lunch, playing a favorite electronica playlist can get me back into the zone more quickly. In the video A Little Joy and Color in an Otherwise Unbearably Bland Life, John Green tells the story of how using a purple sharpie has brought joy to his otherwise monotonous task of signing 250,000 copies of his book. If you can, look for opportunities to engage your senses whenever you can in your day or your work. Light a candle, listen to music, savor a mint, get a mechanical keyboard, do whatever works for you to engage the more physical side of your mind.

Remember Your Why

Ultimately, whatever work we are doing and whatever we are trying to achieve, there is some purpose for it. Whether it’s putting food on your own or your loved one’s table, looking after your pets, or trying to make the world a little happier or a little better, we are striving for a reason. If all else fails, I can sometimes find peace and contentment in reminding myself about all of the reasons I carry the burdens that I’ve chosen. Sitting quietly with those images, for me particularly of the people in my life that count on me, allows me to tap a deep well of motivation that won’t allow me to fail them. It helps to keep an artifact on your desk, like a family picture or favored quote, to make this connection manifest. While not the source of motivation I rely on day to day, it’s a comfort to reach out and look for it from time to time and know it’s there when I really need it. 

These are just some of the tools that allow us to find joy in being productive. Are there any you can think of that I’ve missed? If so, please let me know. It’s also important to learn how to be productive when joy, for whatever reason, can’t be found and in my next post I’ll seek to outline strategies that work for me in those more challenging times.

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.

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.

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.