We should make mistakes

You finish your post, NT, asking me if I know myself well. I’ve definitely learnt some things about myself, though as I grow and evolve I find I often need to learn those things anew. I do, however, have a far greater stock of mistakes under my belt than I did when I was younger. I’ve learned a lot as a result. So maybe that’s my biggest learning; we should make mistakes. Our growth is the sum of our mistakes.

Mistakes lie at the heart of all of the strategies you mention. We can learn from the mistakes of others, which is particularly important in contexts where making a mistake could have catastrophic consequences; we can learn from experimenting and making mistakes ourselves; and we can learn by reflecting on mistakes we have made in the past and drawing lessons from them. Through it all, we need a growth mindset to realize that those mistakes make us stronger, not weaker, as long as we let them.

For fixed mindsets, as Maria Popova points outs, mistakes are ‘a sentence and a label.’ For growth mindsets, they are ‘motivating, informative input–a wakeup call.’ You can either take a mistake personally or learn from it and do better. 

It has taken me years to realize I don’t enjoy large parties, for example. Now, if I go to a party, I’ll try to stick to conversations in smaller crowds. For the same reason, when I want to connect with others I do so over one-on-one coffees. I am at my best then, and we can take the time to explore ideas and learn from each other more deeply than in a crowd, which I prefer. The only way I learned that, though, was going to parties and realizing they are not for me. In other words, making mistakes. I could have become frustrated at my large-party experience, condemned myself for not finding it easier to connect with people there. Instead, I seek to shape my environment to suit me. 

…as long as we can survive them

Of course, mistakes can have costs. So there is an art to making them in a way that doesn’t sink your ship. If you’re thinking of making a high-risk investment, make it a small percentage of your net worth. Ensure your mistakes don’t cost you or others more than you are willing to pay. As long as a mistake is survivable, you can learn from it and improve, but some things shouldn’t be gambled with. Your health, the happiness of others, your integrity, might all be beyond the pale. But beyond that, take risks! Invest some fraction of your time in moon shots and wild cards, things that likely won’t work but will teach you a lot either way. Try new things even if you expect not to like them. Win or lose, you will learn.

So there’s my takeaway for this week. We should make mistakes! Go forth and take risks. Figure out how to do them in a survivable way. Partway through my thirties, I don’t know if I am wiser, but I am better equipped with mistakes, and that feels like progress. The biggest missed opportunities in my life are those where I could have made more mistakes and learned more, I think.

And then here’s my question for you: do you cultivate moonshots in your life? What bets are you making, and what are you hoping to learn from them, win or lose?

What not to do in your thirties

It was my birthday recently, and as someone partway through my thirties, I took it as a chance to self-assess how I was doing. Was I making progress on my goals? Were there things I would like to do that I wasn’t?

What to do you in your thirties

As part of that, I did some googling on common goals for people in their thirties. The lists I found were all pretty similar:

  • Save for retirement (a topic we’ve posted on)
  • Eat healthy
  • Sleep well (including having a regular bedtime and wake up time)
  • Connect with and invest in family
  • Keeping growing and learning
  • Exercise
  • Avoid competing with others and figure out what matters to you

All good advice – I found Mark Manson’s list particularly good. One list in particular, though, said in your thirties you should start following the news, because you never want to be the one at a party who hasn’t heard that [famous person X] has just died. I totally reject with this. I aspire to be the person who hasn’t heard the most recent irrelevant pop news, not the first to know.

It strikes me that a better way to think about it is that your thirties are about what you choose not to do.

What not to do in your thirties

What do I mean by that? Strategy, the management guru Michael Porter famously said, is choosing what not to do. In your teens and twenties, there are a lot of things you may want to get done: get a degree, land a job, find a life partner, travel the world. Your twenties is a period of exploration where you do new things and find out what you like or don’t like.

That’s still true in your thirties to some extent–you should never stop exploring and learning!–but the thirties are also a time to figure out what you want to exploit, not just explore. Hopefully you’ve figured out the right sleep, diet, and exercise routine. Stop doing other ones! Be more intentional about how you spend your time, and devote it to things you find meaningful. Identify what gives you value and who you want to spend time with, and then stop doing the rest. Prioritize.

If that’s following pop artist funerals, then you do you. But for a lot of people, I don’t think tracking minor news on Facebook is where happiness lies. I want to spend my thirties surrounded by the people I love, working to leave a dent in the universe, and to achieve that I want to stop doing other things. Of course, I still want to take risks, learn, and evolve. I’m not stuck with what I’ve tried so far in life. But where I can choose what not to do, I am happy to do so.

Have you found a transition between your twenties and thirties, NT? Either in how you think about your life or where you spend your time?

Where do I start with personal finance?

As I mentioned in my last post, it can be tough to know where to start with personal finance. If we stick with a basic definition of making sure that our wants don’t outstrip our means, though, there are a few good first steps. Ultimately, personal finance is just that, though – personal. These are often the best places to start, but everyone’s circumstances are different. 

1. Do a budget.

Measurement helps! Just knowing what you spend on is an important first step, and is usually the best place to start in personal finance. I think people find this stressful because they feel guilty about how they spend the money, or think that their budget categories should be targets. Not the case. A budget is an exercise in information-gathering. It tells you where your money is going. Whether you want to change that or not is up to you, but the place to start is to keep track.

Budgets don’t have to be fancy. Some people swear by YNAB or Mint. I’ve never felt comfortable sharing my bank login information with another app, so I use an excel sheet where I record what I spend, and it calculates the totals. Find something that works for you. Then, do it for a month or two, so you have a sense of where your money is going. No judgment or self-criticism at this stage. Just track the money so you can be aware, in the same way that when you meditate, you stay aware of your thoughts without judging yourself for them.

2. Build an emergency fund

Now you know where your money is going. Next, you need to be ready for the unexpected. Too often, people plunge into investing or tax planning, without getting this basic step right. If your car broke tomorrow, do you have the cash available to fix it? If not, set up an account and start saving up until you could. Otherwise, small problems can snowball. If your car breaks, that might mean you miss work, so your income drops too, and suddenly you are really pinched. 

Common advice for an emergency fund is about 3-6 months of expenses, so if you spent $2000 per month, about 6-12k. That way, if you lose your job, you could be unemployed for a few months while you look for a new one. That might sound like a lot. If you’re starting from nothing, focus on getting the first thousand saved up to start, to cover broken cars, emergency home repairs, or other short-term expenses. My wife and I keep about 6 months of expenses available across the two of us in a savings account. That might be more we need, but it helps us sleep at night.

3. Pay down debt (at least high-interest debt)

Now that you have the basics down–a budget and an emergency fund–there is a bit more flexibility on what you might choose to do next. If you have an employer-match retirement fund, where for every $1 you save they save the same, then you might want to take advantage of that. If not, paying down debt is important.

Debt isn’t always bad: borrowing to pay for education can be worthwhile, and sometimes borrowing to meet a critical need is unavoidable (though better to have an emergency fund!). Borrowing costs money, though: you pay interest. If you’re trying to save more, reducing how much you pay on interest is a great way to reduce spending.

To do that, you have to pay down the debt. Not all debt is equal, though. Low-interest debt (such as student loans), may not cost you very much, and so may not be a priority. High-interest debt, though, such as credit card debt or car loans, is much more expensive.

There is no silver bullet for debt repayment, but two strategies to consider. The financially best strategy is the ‘debt avalanche.’ There, you pay down the highest interest debt first, while making minimum payments on the others. This shrinks your most expensive debt first, reducing your costs.

Equally valid though is the ‘snowball’ method. For this one, you pay off your smallest debt first. The idea is that lets you reduce the number of debts you have fastest, which many people find motivating. That may not be financially the best option, but it can be psychologically the best option. If that’s what helps you get out of debt fastest by keeping you motivated, then it may be the best option for you.

I had meant to cover more about where to start in personal finance in one post, NT, but I seem to have talked a lot already. I’ll break here, but tune in for another post to come on what to do after you’ve got your budget and emergency fund established, and at least your high-interest debts paid off.

What is personal finance and why does it matter?

When you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or Maslow’s mountain as I charmingly heard it called recently, you typically start at the bottom and work your way up. Without food, water and warmth, it can be hard to focus on prestige or fulfilling your full potential. For me, that’s why personal finance is so important: it gives you the space and freedom to focus on the rest of the mountain.

So what is personal finance?

A lot of people get intimidated by finance. It can seem technical, with a lot of knowledge of markets and business needed. I’ve heard people say they wish they could get into it but find it too hard, or that it’s not for them. If we think of personal finance as a proxy for freedom, though, I think it gets a lot easier. For me, personal finance is just that; it’s about trying to build up enough of a surplus that we are not subject to the vagaries of life’s fortunes. 

If we accept that definition, then two things follow: successful personal finance is about increasing how much we have in reserve, or reducing our needs. Neither of those needs to be complicated. There are plenty of complicated details à la tax optimization, interest rate deductibility, etc., but you can get it 90% right without much effort, and then decide if you want to put the time in to get the final 10%.

It’s more than just money

That definition also means it isn’t just about money. Personal finance is intertwined with ideas of environmental sustainability and reduced consumerism. It isn’t just about making as much as you can, but also about making sure you’re focusing on what’s important, prioritizing the things you care about.

Today, it’s trendy to talk about retiring early. That’s fine if that’s what you want, but that has never had much appeal for me. What I want is the option to retire early; the option to leave whenever I want. If you can’t leave, you are shackled. In contrast, if you know you can leave, then you can choose to stay for all the right reasons.

So much for the philosophy of personal finance, though it’s a topic I could wax on about at length. When you’re trying to get better at something, though, it pays to have concrete steps you can take. Implementation intentions, as they are sometimes referred to in the literature. Given this post is already a bit long, tune in to my next post for just that. You can expect talk of nest eggs, paying down debt, plugging leaks, budgets, and more! 

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?

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!

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.

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.