my-desk

A New Life

Recently, I made the leap into complete self-employment.

This is something I have been working toward, and for, for the better part of the past 3 years. I have fretted and struggled and worked many, many hours to make it happen.

And, like so many things, when it’s finally here – it isn’t quite as I expected.

Almost immediately, I felt myself slipping into a semi-depressive state. Shiftless, unsure of what to do with myself, bored, anxious – these are very familiar symptoms. I know this place, I’ve been here before.

I recognized that, without the structure provided by a regular job, the amount of time in the day can absolutely smother you. My wife has commented before how she gets nothing done on the days when she has the most time. Extend that idea outward, to encompass the entire day, and you see the problem.

No schedule, no structure, no plan.

So I made a plan. This is something I’ve done before – it’s a process I went through when I first transitioned from full-time employed to part-time. Knowing how each day is structured, even if that structure is absolutely loose and forgiving, is critical if you want to get anything done. It’s certainly been that way for me.

I thought I’d write my process down here.

Step 1: Personal Priorities.

I admit, this sounds extremely cheesy. However, knowing – and stating, out loud or on paper – your priorities helps you to prioritize your time and actions. It’s far, far too easy to get sucked into the whirlpool of urgent actions, losing track of the long-term in the process.

My priorities, for example, start with my family, and then my personal development, and then making money. That is the order of importance they should play, ideally in my life, and that helps immensely when deciding how to break up the day.

Now, of course, I need to make enough money to survive – but I know I have enough hours in the day to do that, if I’m smart about it. But I also realize that I need to leave time each day to pursue other projects, ideas, or skills; and if something work-related starts to impinge on that, without providing a massive amount of value, it needs to get pared back.

Your priorities, or mission statement, or whatever you want to call it, is like an algorithm for making life decisions: do I meet with the client, or go visit my wife’s family? Do I work on music, or hang out with friends, or go work out? There are an infinite number of ways to spend time, but you only get to spend it once. Having a systematic way of deciding how you go through life is a huge help.

Step 2: Ideal Schedule.

Just that – sketching out your daily ideal schedule. What’s the best way to spend a day, if everything went according to plan? Of course, this schedule should be based off your personal priorities, and should reflect your long-term goals, not your short-term needs.

Mine is below:

——
7am – Wake up with Thao. Coffee / Read news, articles.

8-9am – Get dressed. Go to work. No email!

– 90 uninterrupted minutes focusing on important client work, set the night before. Then,

– New client outreach.

– Short break. Then,

– Urgent emails, urgent work, etc.

12-2pm – Lunch. Relax. OR
Go to gym. Break fast with protein shake. Shower. Sauna.

2-3pm – Continue work. Loose ends. Assorted email.

3-4pm – Personal projects. Learning. Long-term Marketing. Music.

Rest of day is free for whatever you choose.

Fridays are dedicated entirely to personal projects – business, music, etc.

Saturdays and Sundays are off.

I must leave the house every day.

——

“Get dressed” and “leave the house every day” may seem odd to some, but over time I’ve found that both of these things are very strongly correlated with my mood. If I don’t change out of my PJs and force myself to go out to do something, anything, I will without fail feel like a horrible, horrible asshole.

I like this schedule for a few reasons: it prioritizes certain actions and things I care about. It slots things like email – always distracting – into specific times, which prevents me from wasting time on it. It leaves several slots open to whatever needs to get done in the moment, allowing me to take care of things that pop up.

However, it also deliberately limits the amount of time I have to work on “work.” This means that I want to meet my income goals and live the lifestyle I want, I need to focus on high leverage activities – things that make me the most with the least amount of time put in.

This is a very specific mindset, and it’s already affected how I run my business, handing off my client hosting to another company (it never made that much money, but required a lot of time spent). This decision technically cost me money, but since my priority is time, not money, it’s the right decision. Now it’s up to me to use that time in a more profitable way.

Step 3: Review.

Surprisingly, it is hard to follow a schedule, even your own. The tendency will always be to slip off track, or to let temporary emergencies derail your longer-term efforts. To prevent this, I need a simple, lightweight system to continually review and modify my schedule.

My own process is four-fold:

  • At the beginning of very work day, I open up an Evernote note with my personal priorities and daily schedule. I read it to myself, out loud, nodding along and reinforcing my intention to follow the plan.
  • I set timers on my phone to the amount of time allotted for each portion of the day, including intervals for breaks. This removes the effort required to monitor my own time, and lets me focus on the task at hand (I use the exercise timer Seconds, for the iPhone, but even an egg timer would do).
  • I use IDoneThis.com to keep track of what I did each day. Every evening, IDoneThis sends me an email – I simply respond with some things I did during the day. IDoneThis also periodically reminds you of things you did in the past, helping you to focus both on what you did during the day, but also how far you’ve come.
  • Every night, before bed, I make a short list of things I need to do tomorrow, particularly the one big, important thing to spend my first 90-minute block on. This lets me prioritize my next day’s actions when my head is clear, and I’m not distracted by any “emergencies” or immediate problems. For me, the night before is the time I’m best able to think long-term, before I get caught up in the next day’s work.

All of these things are extremely fast to do and are very non-invasive. I don’t have to think about them, they just happen. Together, they provide both motivation to stick to the plan and a way of tracking how effective I’ve been.

And that’s it. We’ll see how this plays out over the next few months. So far, I’m happier, more productive, and in general feeling pretty good.

If you liked this post, you should sign up for my very, very infrequent email list. I have a project in the works.

permanent-war

Permanent War

(photo credit: http://williamcromar.com/)

I posted earlier on my struggles with weight and weight-loss. Processing that – and going through the often tedious and difficult process of changing my eating and exercise habits – has made me think about certain underlying themes to the way I view the world.

One of those has been of particular value to me, and that is the idea of Permanent War.

I wrote in my book that will power is a finite resource. We get a certain amount each day, and use that amount by pursuing tasks that don’t give immediate pleasurable feedback: working, avoiding unhealthy food, sticking to a schedule. All these actions, great and small, deplete our store of will power by a certain amount. Once that store is used up, we are listless, unable to focus, and likely to give into temptation.

Our stores of willpower can be improved over time, like any muscle growing stronger when deliberately used. But increasingly, it seems that my store of willpower is not enough to do what I need to do – not enough to manage dietary restrictions, and work, and not snap at the dogs when they misbehave, and be emotionally available to my wife, and work on long-term marketing projects, and write music, and on, and on, and on.

Increasingly, doing all these things means I will end the day exhausted, or moody, or both. More often than not, something gives way – often the diet, or the work – and I’m left frustrated and angry at myself: why can’t I deal?

I can compare myself to my heroes, people from history who accomplished great things, and I have no doubt that my will is weaker than theirs. I’m not exactly meant for the world stage, nor would I seek it out. But shouldn’t I be able to navigate my own life competently? Am I that weak?

The truth of the matter, however, is that my time is not my hero’s time. This world is not that world – and this world, the one I live in, is literally designed, from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to bed, to aggressively sap my willpower and manipulate my actions.

The average American sees 250 to 1000 advertisements a day, each of which leverage decades of research by world-class psychologists seeking to define the ways in which our actions can be manipulated. The foods we eat have been molecularly crafted by science to trigger deeply-rooted survival instincts that encourage continuous eating. The possibilities available to us are so vast that huge amounts of cognitive power are required simply to plot a course between variables: do I get my regular coffee, or the new brand? Do I use milk, or half-and-half, or fat-free half-and-half? Do I answer the text message, check my email, check my Facebook, log in to Twitter, or call someone?

The victory condition for these thousands and thousands of brilliant people dedicated to overwhelming our sense of reason and will power, the goal of the most powerful economy on earth, is simply to get us to consume things. When we consume, we trade value in the form of currency, and the aggressors are, in turn, able to trade that value to consume other things. Every bit of space, every flat surface, every radio wave and piece of telecommunications spectrum, every sound and taste and smell for miles and miles around us in every direction is perfectly focused on a single goal: deplete your will power. Overcome your defenses. Make you buy.

We are in a state of perpetual war with our surroundings. They want you to be weak. They want you to lack the will to not eat, not buy, not consume. It was natural, and inevitable, that the capitalist and scientific systems would inter-marry in such a way that the “art of the pitch” would essentially become a form of subliminal, psychological warfare. We are being attacked at all times.

But our drives to accomplish anything beyond the immediate gratification of our basest desires – to hone our physical shape, create art, start a business, stay with a loved one, anything – depend on our being able to resist. On our being able to keep some of our cognitive surplus for ourselves. To have something left over at the end of the day that we didn’t spend just surviving. To have the will to do things that are painful, and hard, and unpleasant – things that will make us great someday. Just not today.

If you know this – if you can feel that fact, feel the weight of all these pokes and prods and outright attacks on the integrity, the wholeness of your consciousness and will – it can motivate you. It motivates me. I straighten my back a bit.

I don’t want to give them the satisfaction.

sea-of-hate

The Sea of Hate

I have long thought that people will only change – only improve – at the very last, very final moment, the moment just before which the Unimaginable happens. Change is uncertain and all people despise uncertainty, even they try to tell you otherwise. So it’s in that final moment that change happens, no matter how many people will benefit, or the world improved.

I’ve thought that forever because, of course, it’s true for me. No matter how badly I want something, I’ve always found it nearly impossible to shake off the weights of habit and do anything about it. That’s what I’ve had to build systems and blogs and post publicly and so on. I’m the person that needs that shit most. The least likely. The least motivated.

It’s very common, when you feel like this, to be filled with dislike for yourself. There is the ideal version of yourself, the things you want to be and do – and then there’s this worthless, present version, the one that can’t bring him or herself to get up and work at it, give up the things that limit you, etc. It’s depressing. It’s frustrating. It’s infuriating. Everything feels so close, but so far away.

I go through this every few months or so, a circadian rhythm I can’t seem to break out of. A few months ago, it was my weight, an issue that comes up over and over again when my insecurities conquer the better parts of my nature.

Over the past year I’d been working from home more, giving me more stationary time than my previous job at a school. I’d been going to the gym and working out, but infrequently – sometimes 3 times a week, sometimes twice, sometimes once. I’d also (so slowly, I’d barely noticed) begun to eat larger meals, while also consuming an extra cup of coffee (with cream and sugar) each day.

As with all habits, the immediate effects are negligible, and the long-term effects are drastic. My weight drifted upwards over time until plateauing at 199 lbs, the heaviest I’d been.

Since I’d been working out, I fooled myself into thinking that I was gaining weight due to increased muscle mass, which may have been partly true – I did have period where I looked more “muscley.” But I was never muscular, never actually looked like I was in shape.

When I stepped on the scale one morning and saw the inevitable “200” on the digital display, I suddenly felt awash in feelings of disgust. I’d been told a week before that I had a condition that made me more susceptible than average to dying of a stroke. I felt out of control. I didn’t control my body – my body controlled me. It had decided. I was powerless, weak, and dying.

That moment was so intense, so over-powering, that it’s stayed with me ever since. It has driven me to drastically change what I eat, how I eat, how I work out, even how I think about food in general. I changed dozens of daily habits and rituals in order to align with a better sense of myself – essentially, to pull myself out of the sea of hate, and on to dry land again.

What follows is a break down of the tools and methodology I’ve used to lose 13 lbs. over the last month, and what I’m doing to continue more gradually downward towards my goal of 180 lbs.

The most important take-away for me, however, has been that initial feeling of disgust – the sea of hate. I still remember it and carry it around with me each day.

People only change at the last possible moment.

Fasting

I switched from a “regular” eating schedule of breakfast, lunch, dinner, with some snacking in between, to “Intermittent Fasting” – a fancy term for not eating outside of an 8-hour window each day (for me, falling between 12 and 8pm).

Not consuming any calories until Noon each day has noticeably improved my blood-sugar highs and lows – something that was very marked for me, before. I would get very shaky and hungry before meals. Often, eating a healthy breakfast would be followed by a huge lunch, something that just doesn’t occur any more.

I’m hungry a lot less often now. I feel the desire to eat, but only in a vague way – it has more to do with just missing the act of eating than it does being legitimately hungry. I have more energy and feel lighter in general.

I still eat three full meals, mind; they just fall between 12 and 8. This has three main effects, as I see it:

  • It is harder to eat excess calories when your eating window is constricted;
  • It prevents eating too late in the day;
  • Eating within a constricted window makes you feel that you are eating a lot, even when on a restricted-calorie diet.

In any case, there are supposed hormonal benefits to fasting that I don’t have enough expertise to vouch for; suffice to say, it’s worked well for me so far, and is applicable to any diet, whether for weight loss or maintenance, making it a useful framework for approaching eating patterns.

Diet

It’s often said that 90% of any weight loss plan has to address diet, and I think that’s true. The vast majority of calories must be eliminated by restricting intake, even on an extremely active workout schedule; exercise just doesn’t burn off the amount of calories people think it does. Losing a pound of fat requires a deficit of 3500 calories; it’s a lot easier to simply not intake those calories than it is to burn them off after the fact.

To this end, I deliberately set about a systematic restriction of my overall calorie intake, as well as my carbohydrate consumption.

Carbohydrates aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re connected to fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which over time can cause a higher percentage of sugars to be stored in the body (known as insulin sensitivity). Insulin sensitivity can be lowered over time by a strategic elimination of carbohydrates from the diet – in my case, over the course of a month, with the gradual reintroduction of carbs back into my diet over the course of the following two months. The goal of this is to decrease the impact of future carbohydrates on my body fat levels.

The main component of the diet, however, was lowered caloric intake, which benefits significantly from a lack of carbohydrates (which are calorically dense). After estimating my body fat percentage, and from that number calculating my resting metabolic rate (how many calories I burn each day just by staying alive) and lean body mass, I then set my daily caloric goals as 700 calories below my resting rates.

From these numbers, I could then pull the requisite numbers of grams of protein and fats I would need to consume to hit my caloric goals without carbohydrates.

It’s important to note with these numbers that, though I’m saying “no carbohydrates,” almost all vegetables (excepting starchy ones like potatoes) were considered “free.” This meant that I was supplementing my meals with a good amount of spinach, broccoli, etc.

Calculations from the first month.

Calculations from the first month.

I used the fantastic website EatThisMuch.com to get customized daily menus based on my macronutrient requirements. I then bought a food scale and literally measured out my food each day. After a while, the most common foods became second nature and I didn’t need to measure everything out, but in the beginning the weighing process was a revelation.

I really think that the major problem we have with eating is our insane portion sizes. The suggested portions of food are so much smaller than what we eat on average that portioning out our food using a scale is truly eye-opening. It helps to reorient you to appropriate serving sizes, and by extensions to gauge how much of anything you should eat. While a bit of a pain in the ass, the benefits far outweigh the costs in time.

Cheat Days

The Cheat Day is simply one day of the week in which the dietary restrictions no longer apply – and, indeed, the point is to spike your caloric intake dramatically. This has two major benefits: psychologically, knowing that you have a cheat day coming up makes it easier to abstain from foods that give you pleasure. Secondly, the spike in caloric intake helps to limit the release of hormones that restrict fat loss, produced when the body senses a caloric deficit (an amazing evolution in terms of keeping a starving human being alive; a huge pain when trying to deliberately lose weight).

More than anything, I find cheat days refreshing. I always overdo it, and by the end I can’t wait to return to my diet and the general healthy feeling it gives me. The release of a day of binging is a big pressure-release from the overall effort of dieting, and helps to keep me on track.

Work Outs

I was already working on twice a week, but I’ve upped that to four. Two of those days I’m stil attending the same fitness class, which mostly focuses on aerobic capacity and general strength. The other two days, I’m working my way through a workout protocol that starts with fat loss as a goal, and slowly builds towards adding muscle mass as the months go by.

There’s nothing particularly unique about what I’m doing, but there is an overall strategy, which I need. Everything is done in circuits, which are far more effective than isolated exercises. Rest times are long, ensuring that you go from rest to energy expenditure as quickly as possibly, increasing the
total amount of calories expended (once explained to me as similar to the way in which a car that is always stopping and starting uses more gasoline).

More important than what I’m doing, however, is the extra workout days themselves, which provide structure and momentum to my sense of self-improvement. I’m also tracking my performance and benchmarking myself against previous workouts, which provides a sense of advancement I don’t necessarily get from the general fitness class.

Tracking

I enjoy tracking progress, and the act of tracking itself can help to root a new habit in your day-to-day routine. I’ve been tracking in a few different ways:

Fitbit Aria

The Aria is a wi-fi enabled scale that can automatically beam your weight to a web app that tracks it and provides some data on progress. Unlike some, I enjoy weighing myself each day, and use my daily weight fluctuations as a way to gauge the effect of different behaviors on my weight. The automatic tracking eliminates an additional step – inputting the data somewhere, whether it be in a computer program or a piece of paper – that had previously kept me from keeping accurate records. This, over time, led to a gradual loss of the weigh-in habit.

Overall, I’m happy with the scale, though it has it’s quirks. It makes things easier, which is important to habit formation.

(I’ve ordered a Fitbit clip-on tracker to record my general activity level and sleep, but it hasn’t come yet).

AskMeEvery.com

Ask Me Every is a fantastic web application with a simple function: It texts you a question, you text back the answer, and it logs it. That’s it.

I use Ask Me Every to track a few important metrics:

– How many drinks I have each night
– Things I’m grateful for (shown to improve overall feelings of contentment)
– Reasons I want to lose weight
– Overall mood for the day

The non-numerical questions (“Why are you committed to losing weight?”) serve as minimally-intrusive ways of recommitting myself daily, or drawing my attention to the things I want to focus on.

I find this way of gently reminding myself what’s important to me to be an invaluable way of keeping myself on task.

Progress

As I mentioned, I’m down to 186 or so, most of which was water weight lost in the first part of the process. I’m now working on losing fat while maintaining lean body mass – something that’s more difficult than it might seem.

To do this, I’m gradually increasing the amount of calories I consume on workout days, while decreasing my calories during the rest of the week. I’m also adding a 24 hour fast following cheat days, to protect against caloric spill-over. I’m increasing the difficulty of my workouts overall as well as increasing the amount of weight I lift between sets.

The specifics aren’t important, however. What’s far more important is the commitment to the ideal – and the drive to eliminate the weakest parts of my self.

It isn’t a fight you really win. I don’t think the ideal exists, except as an ideal. But there is huge value in the ideal as the thing we work towards; we might not ever arrive, but we can die on the road, headed in the right direction.

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Some Activity.

This is just a quick post to note that I’m going to be writing some more in here. You can be forgiven if the cobwebs led you to believe the site was totally abandoned.

Far from it – ESS has been on my mind a great deal, actually. I’ve been more concerned than average with productivity, work, and creativity – especially since I’m gearing up to become entirely self-employed this summer, a deadline which is fast approaching.

In any case, expect some updates, and some minor changes to how the site works (the goal: less – I don’t know – less “blog-y.” More normal). Once I nail down some of the visual things on here I’ll get to it.

Thanks.

d

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