That Was Fun
Perception of space is a strange thing.
The man smoking in front of me is only about 10 meters away, but there’s three physical barriers and one change of elevation.
I’m sitting outdoors at a cafe — normally I’d sit indoors, but I just finished working out. Squat, bench, deadlift. My right knee — the healthier of the two — felt slightly balky during squats, so I only did a single set of deadlifts at low weight. Bench press, of course, was uneffected.
My body temperature somewhat higher after the gym — fast-paced workout on the exercise bike before lifting — the air conditioning in the cafe was oppressively cool. I sit outside.
I’m reviewing some records, making notes. I’ll be formulating a bunch of new policies today, and there’s not a particularly obvious next thing. I’ve got 4–5 very good options. I could “sell out” and go hard on any one thing, or could I guarantee solid progress across two things, or I could try to hit all five options and then get erratic results. I won’t do the latter. One thing? Two things? Maybe two-and-a-half things?
The smoking man. He’s actually quite close; if we were indoors, it would feel like we were very much in each other’s space.
But I’m sitting on the far end of a table — the table is between us — and then there’s the hefty wrought-iron railing separating the cafe from the complex’s walkway, and then there’s a large row of potted plants separating the strip mall from the parking lot.
He’s standing in the strip’s parking lot, which is quiet enough, smoking. He’s also two single stairs lower than me in elevation.
The end result of all of this is that we feel very far away from each other; we’re non-entities to each other. If I wasn’t in a philosophical searching perceiving type mode, I wouldn’t have noticed him.
He’s chain smoking. I notice the nicotine gum in my mouth has gone stale, and swap it out. We’re both enchaining rapid nicotine consumption, and neither of us are really thinking about it — or at least, I wasn’t until I noticed him.
I get it without the tar and tobacco company additives, which I think is wise. I did a lot of research before I started taking nicotine some years ago, and it was all favorable except for the addictive properties.
I reckon nicotine was +15% to +20% for a very short period when I started taking it, and now it’s around +10% for me still. But nowadays, if I don’t take it, I get a -5% as well as a feeling of…….. self-pity is the wrong word, but I don’t have a better word. “Incompleteness,” maybe. The effects of indulging that incompleteness and brooding over it means serious damage. I can perform without it, but I need to make myself forget I’m not taking it and not feel bad for myself to not get deleterious effects.
Anyway. +10% is no joke. But I nevertheless always advise people not to do it — first, because there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit that most people aren’t seizing, without any real downside. Just a single round of deadlifts per week is worth much more than nicotine.
Actually, I wonder what would happen if someone made a weight-training program that was only deadlifting. Like, warm up and do deadlifts 2x/week or even 1x/week, and nothing else. I bet it would give you around 1/3rd of the physical gains and 70% of the mood gains of a full strength training program. I should investigate that. Deadlifting is just lifting heavy shit off the ground. There’s some good form needed, but it’s not particularly technical and the weight is never above you, so it’s pretty safe. You could, I reckon, do it anywhere with some decent improvisational construction skills. There’s always heavy stuff you could pick up, if you could balance the weight.
But — nicotine. I recommend against it. Not for the obvious reasons. But rather, because it adds a new class of thing you need to attend to every day, if you do it regularly. We have to eat food, drink water, and sleep every day. The vast majority of us will also look to brush out teeth, bathe, and keep our clothes clean, etc.
Nicotine consumption adds another thing to that class. Before, the minimum stack of daily consumption was: food, water, sleep. Now, it’s: food, water, nicotine, sleep.
Caffeine does this too, incidentally, but caffeine is ubiquitous in almost all parts of the world. Nicotine is only sold in specific places, with different brands and dosages, and different form factors of consumption. You can get coffee just about anywhere. Nicotine is more of a hassle to manage. I think it was worth it for me, but just barely. You don’t want to add too many things you need to do every day to stay at your baseline of performance. (This is without even mentioning that tobacco gives back all of the gains of nicotine consumption and then some, and if there’s any chance ever you’d start using tobacco, then you should never touch it ever.) (That’s obvious, right?)
Where was I? Oh right, I was studying the man in front of me. He’s maybe 45 years old, somewhat of a “hard face” — tough, rugged, maybe a little pissed-off. Probably something of a leader. Very strongly built shoulders; he either lifts weights or works in construction. He’s chain-smoking.
A pretty-ish woman, mid-30’s, joins him. She’s got sunglasses pushed up above her forehead onto her hairline, wearing something like a heavier-duty warmer sun dress. He leans forward as she whispers something to him, they talk a bit, and then he takes a couple steps back and she poses for a photo. She puts her weight on her right leg, tips her head to the left in a pose, and giggles a little as he takes the photo. I didn’t notice whether it was his smartphone or hers taking the photo. Guess: hers. Confidence: 85%.
My mind seems to work like this. For a long time, I didn’t understand it. Maybe I still don’t, but I’m getting there.
I’ve got more “mental RAM” than most people. That’s not a boast. I’m not particularly proud of it. It’s just a fact. My joints are somewhat balky and I injure soft tissue easily; that’s a negative to performance. I have a moderately higher pain tolerance than most people; that’s a positive to performance. I have more RAM than most people; that’s… mixed, actually.
I’ve learned, over some decades on this planet, that this RAM is always wanting to be used. It’s really very far below the volitional level. In the absence of something to mentally work on, my mind can start thrashing and running in circles. I’m linearizing this writing piece somewhat — you have to linearize to some extent in writing — but it’s happening even slightly more chaotically than I’m putting down. Thoughts about deadlifting, nicotine, the strong smoking guy, etc etc, these swirl together, gradually rising or falling, sometimes coexisting, sometimes one thought getting rapidly cut and disappearing into the ether, sometimes one branch of thinking coalescing and taking over my mind for a while.
It’s highly productive when I can get all this horsepower pointed in the same direction for problemsolving; it’s neutral-to-positive when I’m broadly searching out interesting ideas — like today; other times, it’s rather extremely unproductive when I ought to be doing a single thing and my mind is working in different directions. In those cases, it’s like a chariot being pulled by six horses who are going in different directions. At a minimum, it’ll be a lot of work to control; worse, a crash; worst of all, a large crash.
You can’t even really write about how you manage effects like this — gifts that can become curses — because to even write “I’ve got more mental RAM than most people” seems like a boast or self-congratulatory or swagger. There’s no swagger. It’s just a thing. It’s good or bad, to the extent I deal with it.
So yeah, February was fun. That’s why I set out to write this piece, actually. I promised I’d report back after February completed with how it went.
Long story short, I decided to see how far I could push my limits in February. I set a target of 12 focused hours of work per day, every day —
“Now, this isn’t the sort of thing I recommend doing casually, and maybe don’t recommend for most people at all. It takes a lot of supporting structures in place. But for February, my policy means I’m aiming for 12 hours of focused work per day every single day, and doing literally only two things this month — Work, or Rest.
If you do some math — I did some math — you realize that’s actually quite tricky to do:
“Notably though, I want to talk about operationalization. To hit 12 focused hours a day, and while sleeping 8 hours on average, that means I’ve only got 4 hours per day for everything else.
Say that ~2 hours are out for eating, chores, the very short commute I do each day, and such. That’s 2 hours left.
What this means, in practice, is that there’s 2 hours left — 120 minutes… and so losing even 20 minutes to a random activity is costing me 1/6th of my free time on a day.”
So yeah, it was intense. The month’s over. How’d it go?
I ran the policies for five weeks total — the last few days of January, and the first two days of March. Here’s the hours-per-day stats, days under 12 hours are marked in bold —
Week 1: Jan 27 to 2 Feb
-> 12, 13, 13.5, 13, 12, 12.5, 13 -> Avg: 12.7
Week 2: 3 Feb to 9 Feb
-> 12.5, 7.5, 12, 12.5, 12, 12, 12 -> Avg: 11.5
Week 3: 10 Feb to 16 Feb
-> 13.5, 16.5, 18.5, 12, 13, 12, 9 -> Avg: 13.5
Week 4: 17 Feb to 23 Feb
-> 12.5, 14, 12, 13, 6, 12.5, 1.5 -> Avg: 10.2
Week 5: 24 Feb to 2 Mar
-> 12, 11.5, 8, 12, 12, 16.5, 12* -> Avg: 12
[*] It’s March 2nd right now, and I’ll stop at 12 exactly today.
So let’s see. That’s 35 days. I missed six days total. So I hit the 12 hour target on 83% of days.
That squares with what I predicted — “From past experience, I estimate I’ll probably hit 80%–90% of days on that standard…”
And note there was one day there I ended at 11.5 — just sloppy counting on my part — had I gone 30 minutes more that day, it would have been 86%, or dead-on in the middle of the range I’d predicted.
Week 1 was perfect, and easy. Everything is easy when it’s new and novel, and you’re ready for it, and nothing unexpected has come up yet.
Week 2 I only missed a single day — incidentally, that was watching the Super Bowl. I’d originally planned to multi-task the Super Bowl with answering email and doing boring stuff, just leaving it on in the background, but I got engrossed. Towards the end of the day, I had the choice between cutting sleep hard for 4.5 more hours of work, or choosing discretion as the better part of valor. I chose discretion and took the ‘L’ on that day.
Week 3, on the day I missed, I was somewhat exhausted. I took a “short nap” that became a 4.5 hour nap; I took this as a warning sign and called it early, taking the ‘L’ again.
Week 4 was the objectively hardest week. (Week 2 was the subjectively hardest week.) There were a lot of pressing time demands; a few big opportunities came up and came due at the same time, and I had to run my schedule in an odd way. I wrote off a half-day mid-week and took an entire day off at the end of the week.
That carried over into Week 5, with the sloppy 11.5 hour miss on Monday followed by the short day on Tuesday. But once I hit mid-week, the end was in sight, and I ran it out.
I learned a lot, but it’s somewhat hard to convey.
Here’s, let’s see — there’s an excellent commentary on the Tao Te Ching by Stan Rosenthal. The most noteworthy point in there, for me, is the distinction between cognitive and conative knowledge —
“Consider a thing such as a strawberry. If we wish to find the word ‘strawberry’, we look in a dictionary; if we wish to find a description of a strawberry, we look in an encyclopaedia. But if we are hungry, we do not go to the library, but to the field where fine strawberries may be found. If we do not know where there is such a field, we might seek guidance as to where fine strawberries may be found. A book on the Tao is like such a guide. […]
Although we cannot understand Tao [roughly, “the totality of the universe” — SM], we are not prevented from having knowledge of it, for understanding stems from one of the two forms of knowledge.
It stems from that which is called cognitive knowledge, the knowledge born of words and numbers, and other similar devices. The other form of knowledge, conative knowledge, needs no words or other such devices, for it is the form of knowledge born of direct personal experience. So it is that conative knowledge is also known as experiential knowledge. Cognitive and experiential knowledge both have their roots in reality, but reality is complex, and complexity is more of a barrier to cognitive knowledge than it is to experiential knowledge, for when we seek cognitive knowledge of a thing, that is, understanding of it, the knowledge we gain of that thing is understanding only of its manifestations, which is not knowledge of the thing itself.”
Over the last few days, I’ve had a number of friends inquire as to how the policies went, did I learn anything?, etc.
The short answer is that they went great, I had a ton of fun, and learned a lot.
But when I try to recap the lessons, there’s a certain disappointment in whoever I’m talking to. I explain some concept that I understand much more profoundly now, but it sounds like something that everybody already knows.
For instance — the actions you take today effect how tomorrow will go.
We all know this. If you eat some really gross junk food heavily tonight before you go to sleep, you’re likely to be just a bit worse off in the morning.
That’s obvious, right?
But most people are only aiming for 10–40% of their maximum possible utilization on any given day, so being 30% worse off at the start of tomorrow isn’t even really noticeable.
When you’re aiming for 12 hours a day — and again, this was a wholly arbitrary target I set — well, starting the day feeling 30% worse is actually a really big deal.
Specifically, the hardest days I had were days were it took 2–3 hours to “get into gear” and start working.
So, let’s do some math. Say I wake up at 7AM, and the day starts slowly. Maybe I just start slowly, maybe I read a book in bed for a bit, maybe I surf the internet a little.
It’s now 10AM.
With the 12-hour-a-day target, I’ve now signed myself up for working from 7PM-10PM to hit the target.
Worse yet, I’m not going to work nonstop — throw a couple hours in there for meals, transitions, whatever — and I might be working until midnight.
So, instead of working from 7AM-10AM and taking leisure from 9PM-Midnight (or sleeping earlier), I’m now working 9PM-Midnight.
This all seems very abstract at best, or obvious at worst, but I actually think everyone’s life looks like this. If there’s something you’ve decided you must do this week — say, your taxes — and you don’t do it now in deference to being distracted, you’re signing yourself up in the future to do it.
This is non-obvious when it occurs across multiple days, and very obvious when you’ve got an arbitrarily high, low-fault-tolerance low-slack setup like I was running.
In my case, it signed me up for working at night instead of in the morning, whenever I wasted the morning. But really, with anything you’re going to do soon anyways, whenever you don’t do it now, you’re signing yourself up for doing it later.
Again, this sounds kind of obvious. But, though I can’t quite explain it in a way that gets the point across, I really got a very penetrating insight into the nature of passing time and personal engagement from it. I dare say I’ll never look at time in quite the same way again.
I mean, it’s not a total epiphany or anything. I just really, firmly understand how being distracted now… sells out the future.
I think that’s the biggest one. There were assorted other things — I learned to a much better extent what work benefits most from high-cognitive states, mid-cognitive states, and low-cognitive states. Certain types of meetings are possible to do easily after 10 hours of the day are already in the books — I can start work at 4AM, take a couple hours of breaks in there, and finish with meetings or most calls from 6PM-8PM, easily.
Other types of work benefit most from mid-cognitive states — email, for instance. A waste to it when maximally awake and engaged, slightly too painful and boring to do it when maximally tired.
Obviously, hard system design work typically best happens on max energy.
I see a greater distinction now between the immediately on waking energy and the when fully awake energy — in the past, I called them both “morning energy,” but there’s a subtle difference between them. I learned that whenever a day was going to end particularly hard, it would be good if there was an easy call or two at the start of the day 10 minutes after waking. Just getting on a call snaps me to attention, and I’d be fully awake by the end of 1–2 calls. (I’d typically drink coffee while talking.)
Transitioning from there into work without being scattered was important, but I largely managed it.
The only thing I counted as “focused work” that wasn’t 100% clearly work was going to the gym. I figured, as I drew up the policies, that I didn’t want to be cutting fitness to hit time targets.
This had an unexpected side effect. When somewhat tired, my mind would sometimes suggest to me, “You should sneak away and do something else…” and I’d think to myself, “No, I’m working” — but then my mind would say, “Yeah, but you could go to the gym…”
That sneaky tempting voice that prompts one to eat junk food or surf the web was tempting me to go the gym! I worked out a lot more this last month than I normally do, often doing 60–90 minute workouts which is unusual for me.
What else? All the anti-distraction stuff worked pretty well. Towards the end of the run, I had some free time here and there, and tried surfing the net a bit to see if I’d missed anything.
Mindless internet surfing is worthless. You’re not missing anything when you cut it. Anyway, that’s always really clear after you haven’t been doing it for a while.
Oh — this was really hard. Probably the hardest mid-length thing I’ve ever done. I’ve done acutely harder things — a hard few hours or hard couple days. But this is the hardest thing I ever did for a whole month.
There were days it was sheer brutality, where I was thrashing hard, when it felt incredibly unpleasant — the worst of it was in Week 2, when the novelty had worn off, the perfect streak had been broken for the first time, and the end was nowhere in sight.
But it prompted a lot of insight. Around focus, around recovery, around sequencing one’s day, around my relationship to time, etc.
Unsurprisingly, I also got a lot done.
The final verdict?
That was a ton of fun.
I’m probably never doing it again.