I Will Not Rest Until…

It recently struck me that only one sort of person makes statements of the form I will not rest until X: politicians. Usually in the context of some sort of holy-warrior mission like reforming healthcare, killing all infidels or exacting revenge. It’s a mark of a pursuit motivated by priceless values.

For the rest of us, there are what engineers call duty cycles: patterns of work and rest, uptime and downtime. It’s a pattern of work that doesn’t really include a sense of deadlines at all.

We get to an uptime/downtime understanding of how we’re working by lying to ourselves about the messy nature of effort and relaxation. We do this by marking out arbitrary thresholds that we can consciously detect. Then we lie a little more to club different effort levels together under “work” (in the worst case, calling all effort levels 1 and all relaxation levels 0). In the final stages of habit formation, we ritualize the threshold crossings into start/quit rituals (with warm-up/wind-down rituals before/after that we may or may not count as work).  Once the ritual scaffolding is in place, we allow ourselves to relax, letting the effort range shrink and smoothen into the comfort zone. The approximation created for understanding turns into the legible reality used for managing work . Here’s a picture:


Through such quantization, binary-ization, ritualization and comfort-ization, we get to an approximate and tractable understanding of how we’re working, and when it hardens into a prescription, we get to a passably effective approach to sustaining effort over indefinite periods of times, with predictable outcomes. This is what a habit really is: a ritualized way to sustain work that is not optimal with respect to the work itself, but with respect to the overheads of effort monitoring, feedback, etc. This is why habits have inertia: they are defined in terms of behaviors optimized for minimal meta-work.

When it’s really entrenched, the politician’s lie becomes a sort of truth. When we say something like “I will not rest until,” we really mean “the steady duty cycle will be focused without interruption on this objective.” We don’t really mean we won’t take downtime off. We mean, “this will be top priority within the duty cycle” or possibly “the only priority.” We don’t (and can’t) mean no weekends or evenings.

It’s a fairly harmless, if rather hypocritical/postury little lie.

But this understanding falls apart as we get closer to a deadline. There are times we actually cannot-rest-until something happens because our duty cycle unravels and our mind won’t let us relax until either a new one is in place OR an objective is achieved. Duty cycles are really the mind protecting itself against its own obsessive-compulsive demons. Or to put it another way, your mind is fundamentally atemporal: if time is nature’s way of ensuring everything doesn’t happen at once, OCD is our mind’s way of ignoring time and trying to force everything to happen at once. Duty cycles are how we artificially import a sense of time into our fundamentally atemporal brains. Possibly we are this way because we are fundamentally visual creatures and visual perception is an all-at-once kind of deal. When failure looms, it looms in an all-at-once way. When success is visualized, it springs relatively fully-formed into our minds, with no real hints of how to get there. We try to get around this at an intellectual level by translating time into space (otherwise known as a “having a plan all at once”) but that doesn’t actually work. It merely moves our OCD desire for an all-at-once anxiety-relief pill to a meta-level. Now we can’t rest until the plan is perfect.

As our sense of having a functional duty cycle unravels near a deadline, we are forced to reverse the quantization and binary-ization in order to understand what we’re doing, give up the rituals, and allow anxiety to creep back in, taking us out of our comfort zone. To those with low self-awareness and low tolerance for anxiety, this feels like the world falling apart. To more stoic people, with a more gritty, sisu temperament, this is just a period of learning and leveling-up to a more effective habit.

Perhaps this is why the advice smart people give for this sort of situation is just breathe, take it one day at a time. They key is to get back to living in actual time rather than the horror of spatialized time.

This is sort of an addendum note to this piece and this piece. I’m moving that line of writing from ribbonfarm to the tempo blog.

When is a Year not a Year?

Why do some people seem to achieve so much more than others in the same amount of time? I think it has to do with continuously developing a capacity for operating in narrative time. An easy way to understand this is to translate the effects into clock-time units. Since narratives evolve on multiple time scales at once, you can do the translation by using time scales. I made up this handy guide to thinking on single time scales versus multiple time-scales:

First, clock time is lost when you get more abstract in time, so you get this kind of outcome for clock-time thinking.

  1. If you prepare for a day at a time, you get 365 days in a year
  2. If you prepare for a week at a time, you get 182 days in a year
  3. If you prepare for a month at a time, you get 91 days in a year
  4. If you prepare for a year at a time, you get 45 days in a year

On the other hand, narrative time gains with such temporal abstraction, so long as you layer on the time scales bottom up instead of switching.

  1. If you prepare for a day at a time, you get 365 days in a year
  2. If you prepare fora day and a week at a time, you get 730 days in a year
  3. If you prepare for a day and a week and a month at a time, you get 1460 days in a year
  4. If you prepare for a day and a week and a month and a year at a time, you get 2920 days in a year

This is just an approximation of course, and you can abstract much more smoothly, without arbitrary calendar boundaries. You can add in intermediate layers and get similar doubling effects.

I am not kidding or exaggerating. I really do think there’s almost a Moore’s Law like exponential potential in how much narrative time you can unpack out of a given unit of clock-time. It’s like the fractal length of Norway’s boundary gets bigger and bigger as your ruler gets smaller and smaller.

Notice, I said prepare not plan. Planning at any time scale is more often harmful than helpful: planning activity subtracts in a zero-sum way from clock-time. Preparation adds in a non-zero-sum way to narrative time. The specifics of what preparation entails differ from person to person and context to context, but they all involve being more mindful of multiple time-scales at once.

What I called narrative time in Tempo is really what one might call mindfulness time. While clock time is something you look up on a clock, mindfulness time is something you develop like a muscle. For most people, the dynamic range of the muscle goes from a day to a year in clock time. Attempts to expand the range beyond a year tend to fail. Attempts to expand the range downwards into hours and minutes tends to work better, down to perhaps 25 minutes (the Pomodoro technique), but below that, it takes serious effort.

So if you find yourself running out of clock-time, don’t add more clock-time. Deepen the narrative time somehow.


The Four Seasons of Lifehacking

Seattle is the farthest north I’ve ever lived, at 47.61 degrees. At this latitude, the longest day is about 16 hours and the shortest is about 8.5 hours, a range of 7.5 hours. Late summer months can get quite hot. Previously, the farthest north I’d lived was Rochester, NY (43 degrees). There, the day length varied from 15.5 to 9 hours, a range of 6.5 hours.

The extreme variation in day length makes it hard to stick to a single routine through the whole year. That extra hour in the variation range, coupled with my completely flexible schedule, make it significantly harder than even Rochester, where having a regular job made it much easier. Global warming hasn’t helped either, since that seems to have added to the unpredictability of the weather variations around seasonal norms.

I am sure it’s even worse further north in Canada and Alaska. A routine adapted for a harshly lit 16 hour day, with several hours of blazing heat simply does not work six months later for a gloomy eight hour day.

So one of the adaptations I’ve had to make, since moving to Seattle, is becoming a very seasonal creature.

Surprisingly, being forced to adopt a routine that varies through the year has made me much better at lifestyle hacking overall. High day-length variations force you to actually think and solve your routine problems. Fumbling through with an unchanging all-year routine might work at lower latitudes, especially if you have a fixed paycheck job schedule. But sufficiently far from the equator, with a sufficiently flexible schedule, life becomes impossible if you don’t go consciously and intelligently seasonal.

Over the last year, I’ve been making a special effort to go consciously seasonal in my lifestyle (or rather, consciously recognize and fine tune my instinctive adaptations), so I figured I’d share what I’ve learned so far.

[Read more…]

Time, Money and Bandwidth

The NYT has an interesting piece on the psychology of poverty, No Money, No Time:

My experience is the time equivalent of a high-interest loan cycle, except instead of money, I borrow time. But this kind of borrowing comes with an interest rate of its own: By focusing on one immediate deadline, I neglect not only future deadlines but the mundane tasks of daily life that would normally take up next to no time or mental energy. It’s the same type of problem poor people encounter every day, multiple times: The demands of the moment override the demands of the future, making that future harder to reach.

When we think of poverty, we tend to think about money in isolation: How much does she earn? Is that above or below the poverty line? But the financial part of the equation may not be the single most important factor. “The biggest mistake we make about scarcity,” Sendhil Mullainathan, an economist at Harvard who is a co-author of the book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much,” tells me, “is we view it as a physical phenomenon. It’s not.”

“There are three types of poverty,” he says. “There’s money poverty, there’s time poverty, and there’s bandwidth poverty.” The first is the type we typically associate with the word. The second occurs when the time debt of the sort I incurred starts to pile up.

Worthwhile perspective on time, decision-making and scarcity of cognitive resources. Similar in spirit to the research on decision fatigue I reblogged a while back.

The Rumsfeld Behavioral Landscape

I made up an interesting way to visualize habits, routines and larger behavioral complexes in terms of Rumsfeld’s famous known, known-unknown and unknown-unknown typology.


Here’s how it works. Your basic building block is a habit, and these are either built around attractors or repulsors (the green and red contour sets respectively, with the green representing valleys and the red representing hills). Your behaviors are decision patterns that may orbit one or more habits in complex ways.

Here’s how you read/use the map (you can build a real one around your own habits of course, this is just an illustration).

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Reboot Travel vs. Pause Travel

I find that traveling is one of the most disruptive things in my ability to keep my workflows in reasonable order. Over the years, I’ve oscillated between two modes of travel, which I call reboot travel and pause travel.

Reboot travel in the ideal case involves getting to Inbox Zero, clearing all pending time-bound work at your home base, achieving zen mind, and then rebooting into a sort of minimalist “travel mode.”

Pause mode involves doing none of the above, but just taking care of any urgent red-flag home-base items that you are already aware of, mentally hitting “pause” on everything else, and heading out, relying on Internet connectivity to keep you going with only minor interruptions and delays and breakdowns. In pause mode, I don’t even bother to set an out-of-office (OOO) message.

In recent years, I’ve found myself increasingly favoring pause mode. I haven’t used an OOO autoresponder/voicemail message in 5-6 years. It’s slightly risky, since hitting pause without assessing the  state of your workflow means you could suddenly find yourself on the hook for doing things you can’t do on the road. But the subset of tasks that fits that description appears to be shrinking every year. If your trips are short, and you can get to a scanner, you’re covered for 99% of cases. The set of things which can’t wait till you get home and require non-digital actions is pretty small. And increasingly, you can live with the cost of delay.

I’ve come to view my workflow as a patient who is always on the brink of a medical emergency and must always be stabilized to some extent to be moved. But the patient has been slowly improving in health over the last couple of decades, thanks to better tools (not to me getting any wiser or better at staying away from the edge of chaos). So it takes less work to stabilize the patient, and the consequences of being sloppy are getting less dangerous.

Packaging-Heavy Projects

I posted earlier about discovery-heavy projects that are front-loaded with input firehoses. The complementary kind of project is one that has a lot of messy complexity near the finish line. I call these packaging-heavy projects. An example is writing a book. The hard work from the 0-90% mark is relatively clean and easy to structure.

Then you hit all the packaging work: getting the cover design, figuring out formatting needs (fussy conversions to specific print and electronic formats), uploading stuff to various websites, putting information into databases, and of course, copyediting, proofreading and all the rest of it.

Cooking certain kinds of meals is another example. The actual cooking may be tricky and complex, but limited in behavioral scope. But when you have to do the finishing touches: plating, laying the table, garnishes, serving sequence, keeping stuff warm and coming out at the right time… things can get packaging-heavy.

When there is a whole lot of packaging, it’s worth asking whether you’re really trying to shoehorn an entire distinct project into the tail of the current one. Introverted maker types who dislike marketing often make this mistake: they turn an entire marketing project into a shoehorned set of short-changed activities.

But that pathology aside, packaging-heavy projects are a real thing. I haven’t yet found a good way to navigate packaging tail-end phases effectively. Sometimes you can outsource packaging activities, but other times, you just have to power through all the finishing touches and polishing. It’s a high-risk phase, because a lot of effort can fail or deliver very sub-par returns simply because you forgot a simple finishing touch.

Running Lean, Running Fat

The term lean has become way too overloaded with complex management ideologies and procedural scaffolding. This is one reason I have come to dislike it. Leanness is a variable in a process optimization model, not an ideology. Cutting the fat is not an unqualified good idea and can actually be dangerous. Lean as ideology often turns into anorexia.

But the core idea is a useful one. In any work process, leanness is simply the amount of work in various stages of completion between input and output. Stuff near the input is raw material inventory, stuff near the middle is parts inventory, and stuff near the output is completed inventory. The sum is Work-In-Progress (WIP), loosely speaking.

I suspect lean became an ideology because of the obesity of 1970s industrial processes in America. Now we’ve come to the other end of the pendulum swing. Anorexia is widespread.

How do you manage leanness without ideology?

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Discovery-Heavy Projects

I don’t like processing huge fire-hoses of complex, poorly structured and somewhat arbitrary information, but I am good enough at it, mainly because I’ve had a lot of practice. I call these discovery-heavy projects. They require three cognitive skills:

  1. Triage Skill: Simple information, such as a shoe-box of family photographs, can usually be categorized rapidly within a simple taxonomic system. Complex information, such as a pile of paper documents that are part of a legal discovery process, tends to require much more thought to codify into usable form for processing. You have to triage the simple and complex, and resist the temptation to find a pigeonhole for everything. Some critical stuff will stay sui generis. 
  2. High-touch processing: Poorly structured implies low automation potential. This means you will need to examine every bit of information that comes in via the firehose.
  3. Data slumming: Arbitrariness of information means you cannot infer it from other information you’ve already processed. For example, the GDP of Great Britain in 1973 is something you just have to look up.

These behaviors can be very exhausting to those who are not naturally skilled at them, or energized by them. So what can you do?

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Maintenance Thinking

Maintenance is action based on past decisions, primarily designed to prevent loss. It is patterns of behavior that by definition require no thinking and bring no new rewards. A double-negative definition. Examples of maintenance actions include:

  1. Brushing and flossing
  2. Keeping work areas clean
  3. Renewing licenses and permits
  4. Keeping certifications active
  5. Spending time in a relationship consistently
  6. Inspecting processes in a workplace
  7. Reviewing performance of investments
  8. Routinely purging filing cabinets or digital storage of things you no longer need

Maintenance must be distinguished from three similar patterns

  1. Consistent creativity behaviors (such as posting regularly on a blog, which I haven’t been very good about lately here)
  2. Testing behaviors (such as audits and probes into the state of operating systems).
  3. Periodic procedures (such as filing taxes, which may involve serious thinking and different actions year to year)

Creative people don’t like maintenance tasks because they are addicted to stimulation from variety. It’s a kind of immaturity.

One reason is that a lot of maintenance is the result of bad planning and decision-making further upstream. If a repeating human behavior pattern is anticipated in the future, it makes a lot of sense to try and make it self-motivating. The best way to do this is to build an element of continuous learning so that repeat instances are not identical, but exhibit subtle variations that the maintainer can learn to be mindful of, and use to improve the process continuously.

If this is not possible, the only two options available are to try and automate that action (codify it sufficiently that a less creative human or machine can do it) or turn it into an act of meditation.

If I could come up with an approach to improving maintenance behaviors, or making them easier to endure, I’d be rich.