Start of Intense Run, Some Lessons

I’m not one of those people who believes that things are worth doing just because they’re hard.

But you sure do wind up learning a lot about yourself when you’re doing hard things, eh?

At the end of every month, I put together some policies I’ll run for the next month. Sometimes these emphasize getting the fundamentals right; sometimes they’re experimental. Sometimes they’re in the spirit of consolidation; sometimes they’re very expansionary.

February’s policies are hyper-expansionary.

To recap,

  1. Aiming for 12+ hours per day of focused work.
  2. Attempting to only do two things in February: (1) Work, or (2) Rest.
  3. Attempting to complete a set of well-defined projects that would take ~4 months at normal pace and 2–3 months at fast pace… this month.

I always institute new policies and systems changes on Sundays — it keeps my records clean — so with February 1st falling on a Friday, I was either going to start on 27 January or 3 February. Feeling somewhat inspired, I started a little early. It’s been six full days now.

Here’s my stats so far —

(A breakdown of my stats and how to calculate your own is at this link.)

Has this been hard? Well, honestly, yeah. But rather than wait until the end of the month to recap, I thought I’d share some initial lessons now. Some of the lessons have been incredibly insightful — and would have been incredibly elusive outside of a context like this.

Lessons Around Opportunity Cost

The first and overwhelmingly largest set of lessons I got are around opportunity cost. I think this is such a critical think to get one’s mind around, but it’s so very hard to learn.

For my very specific case here, I’m aiming for a minimum of 12 hours of focused work every day this month. In this (admittedly entirely arbitrary) conception, doing 10 hours one day and 14 hours the next would not count as hitting the target.

Doing it this way brings out a hyper-awareness of opportunity cost.

For instance, a few days ago I left some browser tabs open when I went to bed. One of them was to a long article on First Round’s website about hiring. When I woke, by accident, I spent the first 30 minutes at my computer reading that. It was, let’s see, 7:30AM-8AM.

Given that I don’t work 12 hours straight — there’s breaks in there — reading from 7:30AM-8AM implicitly “signed me up” for working from 9PM-9:30PM.

By “buying” some article-reading at 7:30AM, I was “selling” time I’d have to work at 9PM.

Which was bad.

I wish I could get across the depth of this lesson… how do I put this into words… hmm… hmm…

Let’s try an example — say you’re working on your PhD thesis.

You wake up one day at 10AM. You think, “I’d like to make progress on my thesis.” But for whatever damn reason, you don’t actually work on your thesis, and wind up surfing the web all day.

If you’re actually going do your thesis, you’ve just sold one future day of your life to buy that day surfing the internet today.

You see, normally we don’t see the relationship between time ill-spent now, and how whatever we’re committed to do has now been pushed into the future and is taking up future time.

I feel like I’m failing to quite get across the significance of this.

Like, look, I’m doing 12 hours a day. If I mess around for an hour earlier in the day, I’ve got to put in another hour later in the day. It’s almost always harder to work later in the day. And it means less freedom and less optionality.

Doing these policies made me acutely aware of how that hour I was messing around right now turned into a future hour that had be done.

This is less obvious when it occurs across multiple days, and not at all obvious when it occurs over multiple weeks.

Like, how long do you want to be in your PhD program? Five years? Seven years? Ten years?

If you don’t drop out, every day you don’t make progress means another day you’re in the program. Every week you don’t make progress means another week in the program. And so on.

It adds up.

A lot, actually.

It’s obvious within artificial constraints like the ones I’m running, but it’s always happening.

And it’s a really big deal.

I think I’ve failed to accurately communicate how salient and important this is, but you should think about it.

It’s really important.

Lessons Around the Relationships Between Days

Let’s see. Yesterday I could have gone to bed at, checking my records… 9:20PM. I instead stayed up until 10:45PM (an hour of leisure, and a half-hour impromptu business conversation with my brilliant cofounder Kai).

Today I was up at 7:05AM. I had a meeting at 9:30AM. I just barely didn’t finish a project deliverable when the meeting started.

All else being equal, had I hit the hay at 9:20PM, I’d likely have woken at least an hour earlier, that deliverable would have been hit, and the whole day would have run smoother.

When max-scheduling one’s days, these connections start to really stand out. Stay up a little later today, tomorrow runs a little differently. I mean, that’s obvious, no? But again, this type of things brings out a hyper-awareness of it.

I’ve started paying a lot more attention to how a block of 2–4 days runs together. How an intense day effects the next day. Things like that.

In the past, I used to often have “letdown days” after a huge day of work. If I did 16+ hours of work one day — perhaps due to an urgent deadline — the next day would be almost entirely a write-off. Given that that’s not an option if I want to adhere to this month’s policies, I’m studying the next day and saying, “Hmm, okay, tomorrow will likely start a little rough. What do I need to do? Easy work at the start of the day? Some calls or meetings which are business-related but easy and enjoyable? Hit the gym first thing?” And so on.

Again, rather small margin of error here, which is bringing a sort of forced awareness of how the days fit together.

Put simply, one’s general pace and intensity and health levels today will surely have an effect on tomorrow. These effects aren’t actually that surprising if one simply looks to anticipate them.

Studying how days fit together — this is under-rated and under-explored.

Lessons Around Food and Biochemistry

We’ve been rather abstract so far. Let’s get into something much more practical and actionable.

Small meals = good, very little biochem penalty.
Large meals = okay, take all the penalty at once.
Medium-sized meals = the worst of both worlds.

Paying attention to ability to focus, I’ve found it advantageous to either have small meals (say, under 400 calories or so) or very large ones (1200+). In the former case, it seems like the blood sugar and digestion penalties are rather small; almost not noticeable. With large meals, you take all the penalty at once and don’t need to eat as often that day.

I’ve found 200 grams of brown rice (I mix quinoa in since I find it keeps better if you batch-cook it, like two-thirds rice and one-third quinoa keeps well) along with a tablespoon of olive oil — I find this takes the edge off hunger but no really penalties to thinking.

That’s 330 calories, 16g fat, 8g protein, 48g carb, 6g fiber.

So I’ll typically have a small meal like that early in the day, and then hit the gym and have either a large 1,200 calorie lunch or a very large 2,000 buffet meal. So either two small meals and one large one, or one small meal and one very large one.

Maybe this sounds like a small thing, but I actually think it’s worth trying out. I typically used to eat in the ~600 calorie range for meals, 3x or 4x per day depending on if cutting or not, but I now think that’s probably the worst of all worlds for mental performance.

Small as this sounds, I think it’s the practice I’m most likely to keep after the month is over.

Lessons Around the Gym

A happy accident of this month’s policies is that I count working out towards my 12 hour total. It’s the only “sort-of non-work” thing on the list.

So I’ll be sitting there 7 hours into the day, maybe I’ll be feeling a little blah, and I’ll ask myself,

“So what do I do?”

Of course, the answer occurs to me immediately: oh, right, work.

But then a funny thing happens. An almost sneaky sort of thought. “Ah, but I could sneak out to the gym…”

So anyways, I’m working out a lot more.

I’ve heard this experience is actually common among people who make a “whitelist” of allowed activities. You don’t have to have any particular hardcore target, but you could say, “Alright, the only things I’m going to do this month are work on my thesis, read books, or play the piano.” I’d guarantee you’ll play a lot more piano and read a lot more books than you otherwise would have.

Second gym lesson — it really wipes out fatigue, amazingly. Even just 10–30 minutes of messing around at low intensity really wakes you up. I guess everyone knows this already, though.

And a Big Lesson Around Fatigue

I’m not reading much this month—which is too bad, books really are one of my favorite things in the world. (I am, however, doing an immense amount of product development, systems building, recruiting, hiring, growth, etc, so I’ll happily take the trade.)

But knowing I wasn’t going to read much this month, I wanted to pick out a couple books that’d be supportive of the target. I wanted inspirational but boring, if that makes sense. There’s not too many books that fit that mould — something that’s really quite uplifting to read, but which you feel really content just reading a page or two of at a time.

Enter: Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, High, and Fast

Of course, Mark Twight’s more famous book — Kiss or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber — is a page-turner. Exceptional work. Can’t put it down.

Extreme Alpinism, though… it’s just, it’s great but it’s boring. Lots of things about refining your mountaineering technique. I don’t even climb. It’s just great for a page or two.

But this paragraph set off a wave of epiphanies —

“I experience a more insidious, subconscious level of predetermined failure in the mountains. When a route is 500 meters high, I’m tired after 500 meters — but when a route is 2,000 meters high, I’m not tired after 500 meters. I subconsciously decide beforehand where I will become tired. It’s difficult to break this habit.”

(!!!)

I’m not sure I would have quite caught the significance of that in a different month, but I feel like Twight discovered an extremely well-hidden secret to greater human performance there.

Viz — there was a day when I spec’d out three major project milestones to hit. I was working on the third of them at, let’s see… 1:50PM. I had expected it would take me until 7PM or later to complete. I was geared up to fight with this — it was a bunch of small technical pieces that needed to work well together, where any little thing could break the whole thing, and there were some edge cases I had to think through.

So I start putting down blocks of work, not quite sure how it would take to complete, and… at ~2:50PM I was basically done with the stuff I knew. I set out to do some testing, fully expecting 3–4 things to be broken…

…and nothing was broken. It all worked smoothly.

I almost didn’t believe it, so I checked again. But no, everything was working.

And I was done. 3:40PM, I was wrapped, and I’d been prepared to fight with this until 7PM+.

Huzzah, eh?

I got lucky.

Or did I?

I promptly felt exhausted. I didn’t want to do anything else.

I knew the next little things to do on my to-do list — it was getting up the registration page for a systems event happening in February (you should come, it’s going to be great) — but I’d been planning to do it the next day.

Oh man, I really didn’t want to get started. Which is strange. I’d been geared up to fight 3–4 hours with some finicky technical work. It completed. I now had something relatively easy and enjoyable to do, but I felt totally exhausted.

“When a route is 500 meters high, I’m tired after 500 meters — but when a route is 2,000 meters high, I’m not tired after 500 meters.

Again —

(!!!)

I really can’t quite get across the magnitude of experiencing this, and noticing it for what it is.

I took a very short break and had some ice-cold water, and then I was like, “Okay, how am I actually feeling?” I kind of “mentally swept” the systems of my body, and no, I was totally fine. I wasn’t actually fatigued physically, but rather, there was some sort of mental, “I should be done now because I hit three milestones.”

By any standard, it was already a good day. That was a solid 8 hours — I’d built a better spreadsheet design for measuring OKR’s in the morning, and made final touches on my February OKR’s, and did some team-related work in the early afternoon—it was like, “Well, that’s a good day. I should be done now.”

Something like that.

It’s hard to put into words.

It was like, I was relating to the work I was doing as, “This will be hard, and I’ll be exhausted when I’m done.” It wasn’t hard and I was done… but I was exhausted.

And I can tell you with near-certainty, in the counterfactual universe where I was still battling with getting everything to work correctly, I wouldn’t have felt tired yet.

The mind is a strange thing, eh?

I don’t quite have operational guidance on it yet, but my guess is that one should be skeptical of self-assessments heavily tinted with “emotional” content.

It’s certainly possible and step back and ask, “How are my eyes doing, have I been looking at a screen too long? How are my legs doing, should I take a walk? How’s my nutrition and hydration, should I grab some water or food?” It’s not so hard to survey oneself, and figure out if one needs to shift gears, eat something, drink something, move around, whatever.

But there’s some sort of… I don’t know how to put it… some sort of… flawed interpretation layer… overlain on to…

It’s hard to explain.

“I experience a more insidious, subconscious level of predetermined failure in the mountains. When a route is 500 meters high, I’m tired after 500 meters — but when a route is 2,000 meters high, I’m not tired after 500 meters. I subconsciously decide beforehand where I will become tired. It’s difficult to break this habit.”

← that.

Probably difficult to break that habit, yes — but of critical importance.

Be tired if you’re tired. Don’t be tired if you’re not tired.

Something like that.

Fun month so far. Six days in. Didn’t quite ship a month of project work this week — but it’s been a damn fine first week.

In any event, I don’t recommend doing something like this casually. It’s been in the works for many months, and I was building off a very stable base.

But if you’re curious as to the mechanics of it, here’s the details.

76 focused hours of work in 6 days. Strange. It’s enjoyable, but not how I expected. There’s no euphoria or hype — it’s more like, “Well, this is what I’m doing.” There’s a very matter-of-fact quality to it.

I don’t recommend you try it casually! But hopefully you’ve got some things to think about re: opportunity cost, the relationships between days, experimentation around meals and gym for greater mental clarity, and — perhaps I’ve managed to call to your attention Twight’s very important point.

When a route is 500 meters high, I’m tired after 500 meters — but when a route is 2,000 meters high, I’m not tired after 500 meters.