January 9, 2016

Instead of new year’s resolutions in 2015, I looked at different ways to do behavioural changes. The idea was that, when making resolutions we are only thinking about the destination and not about the journey [1]. We look more at the goals and less at how we get there. It seemed interesting to look at things very much the opposite way - to think only about habits, how I had been spending time, and how I could improve that. Going into 2016, it’s a good time to review that approach and to look forward.

Each of us does some things that are not beneficial to us over the long run - usually this is because these things give us a more immediate payoff. For me last year, one of these things was my TV-watching habit. I planned that, instead of watching TV, I would spend more time doing things like writing, drawing, and meditating. As it turned out, that was a partial success: I did indeed spend more time writing, drawing, and meditating. But, I didn’t reduce my TV watching by as much as I intended, and in some periods it wasn’t much reduced at all.

To make consistent progress, you need to make things measurable and track them

The theory was that, if these activities were intrinsically more rewarding than my previous activities, then there would need to track progress - progress would naturally take care of itself. I also had a feeling that holding myself against some target would be a kind of extrinsic motivator which would decrease my intrinsic motivation [2]. This was a bit of wishful thinking - yes, metrics should not be reified, but they are helpful. No-one is always rational, but in our calm and rational moments, it’s sometimes helpful to have the evidence to use to reflect on and think carefully about what’s working and what’s not [3].

Everything is social

There was another problem, which was a gap in the substitutions that I made. I thought very carefully about the different reasons for watching TV and tried to address the different things that I was getting out of that. But, there was a gap [4]. Well, there were two slightly different gaps:

  1. Watching TV is a social activity - part of the reason to watch TV is to hang out doing something that entertains a group of people/is the default when you’re not really carrying on the conversation. It’s sometimes a compromise activity, it might not be the favorite of each person individually, but the best intersection of everyone’s likes
  2. Watching TV alone is a social activity - especially in series and sitcomes, the characters are like our friends: we hear their gossip, they make us laugh, we see them fight and make up. It appeals to our social instinct; we are a member of the group (just a silent one). Especially when we are tired this kind of easy comfort stacked against the output and ups and downs of real company might seem appealing

Having not recognised these motivations, it was found it hard to address them. This is one of the things I would like to work on for 2016.

Allow your energy to reach others; increase your output

I think that when it comes down to it, there are two types of right action that we take in life. We can work on things that benefit other people - this is what we would hope to achieve in professions like science, engineering, politics, law. We create and run institutions that give as many people as possible access to water, food, knowledge, etc. If you are a slightly geeky or just a career-minded individual, this might be what you consciously spend most of your effort on.

However, there is an equally important seond type of correct action. This is in making direct positive impact on those people around us. Through our acts of love and acceptance we can spread positivity [5]. People are social animals and everyone is seeking validation and seeking acceptance most of the time. This is a pretty complex thing - it is not really about saying nice things. It’s something thats difficult to intellectualize, it’s about what you feel and whether thats coming from a good place [6].

Whatever the structure of it, after travelling a month or two ago in Costa Rica, I found this coming more easily. It occurred to me that some of the things I have done in everyday life were hindered my ability to connect to the people around me. I was more used to meeting people and was more relaxed. Less focused on individual achievements and more focused on being. Being at home and not on holiday now, I have more responsibilities to cover, but that is no reason to turn into an automaton [7].

Unplanned successes in 2015

  • I don’t remember exactly when I made the change, but I switched from doing a zazen (mindulness) meditation by default to doing a metta (loving-kindness) meditation. Why should you do this? Well, it can be difficult to bring the proper lightness of spirit to the zazen practice and for relative beginners, the explicit focus on inculcating this feeling is helpful. For me this has been helpful in improving my mood, especially in those times where people or events have caused stress or frustration.
  • I started focusing on getting enough sleep as my number one priority (almost) every day and stopped struggling with getting up in the morning. This is probably one of the most important things that you could do to feel like a real person everyday and not a zombie. Obviously, feeling like a real person also has associated productivity benefits.
  • Professionally, in the first three-quarters of the year, I made a lot of progress. Arguably this came at a cost to overall quality of life, but there’s no denying that my understanding of current developments and computer science fundamentals is much stronger now than it was at the start of the year. I’m pretty well-placed to invent and to build some of the kinds of things that I want to [8], and to move into a senior development role in the next year. However, it did become clear during the year that, while I’m certainly better than i used to be, I have much more work to do in order to sell myself effectively. Of course, there is always much more substance for me to learn also.
  • Anki (spaced repetition) - I started doing this in the second half of the year to consolidate knowledge and it has cetainly been effective in that - even though I have not been as consistent with it as I would have liked. Noticeably, it has been more successful in learning some topics than others. In particular, I have struggled with memorising type signatures and items on French vocab, which I have not needed to draw on freqently or at all in my everyday work. I need to do more work next year to try and get more things into Anki, to rework difficult items into more intuitive forms and also to review things slightly more frequently.
  • Diet and exercise - I had an initiative at the start of last year to look for vegetables that I enjoyed and leverage that enjoyment to eat more vegetables. This had largely been successful, although in the last couple of months I have slipped a little; I have been cooking less and as result, eating less vegetables. On the flip-side, I have been doing more exercise.

Resolutions for 2016

  • Do more physical activity - I will do some kind of physical activity at least 75% of days
  • Note down all “calls to adventure” [9] / “new beginnings” / opportunities noticed
    • What did I do to accept each call?
    • What did I do to reject each call? The initial aim is just to notice these things. I will of course want to become more open, accepting of the opportunities that come my way as the year goes on, but the first step is to develop awareness
  • Do more interesting (and social) activities. I will do something at least 50% of days. The idea is that my desire to watch TV might sometimes indicate an additional latent need for varied social contact. Equivalently, since opportunities tend to come attached to people, this is to maximise the amount of opportunities I encounter
  • Above all else, be present, accepting, open and sharing & caring. To encourage this mindset, meditate every day

Kinds Of Things I will be doing this year

  • Yoga. My practice has really become more joyful and I’ve been enjoying doing all different styles of yoga recently.
  • Climbing
  • Surfing
  • Tech meetups/conferences. As I am moving towards senior positions, I want to also start thinking about how I can demonstrate thought leadership through presentations etc
  • Writing - mostly about technology, but about other things as well (business ideas, art, decision making)
  • French conversation exchanges, also practicing by listening to “News in Slow French” which should be sufficiently easy to do whilst I am half-asleep on my commute in the morning
  • Acting/dancing classes
  • Business idea validation and (hopefully) some PoCs. I want to look at least at the ideas I had for tracking an inentory of food, and at how to count the number of words you say in a day
  • Volunteering - though I’m not sure what I could do that I would be helpful at. Maye first talk to people, find out what they do/try to get referred to something interesing?
    • The Happiness Museum was asking for volunteers - that would be good
    • Choosing a charity for fundraising for the marathon
  • Running the marathon in Paris
  • Some trips like this
  • Join a theatre group, be an extra in some production
  • Climb kilamanjaro
  • Playing at acting games
    • Character analysis
    • Spend the day being X. I already tried this with “forthright” and it was enlightening, in thinking about the immediate reactions a person who was different to my normal self would have to the things happening around me. It is a difficult exercise so I didn’t manage to stay in character for most of the day, hence more work needed!
  • Learning more about algorithm design for NP-complete problems and Machine learning. Also need to learn more about microservice platforms, functional and reactive programming.
  • Doing a new (team) sport
  • Making art, and maybe going to art classes
  • Transitioning my reading towards more specific, interest-based reading (I’m going to start by joining more mailing lists)
  • Anki reviews, putting more of what I learn into Anki so I retain more of it

Notes

[1] Although it seems sensible to have some sort of lifetime or next few years bucket list of things you want to do or achieve, I really had no idea which of those things I would be able to get to do - and I thought it might be better to do this as I went along.

[2] This is a real thing - economic studies show in some cases, offering external incentives in the form of money can actually disuade a person from doing an action. E.g. Likilihood to donate blood was decreased when a small amount of money was offered as compensation. Also: difficult task performance can be inhibited.

[3] This is similar in principle to the ideas in lean continuous improvement, where one of the most important activities is to set up feedback loops and to allocate effort from every worker to udnerstand how processes can be improved.

[4] What I missed was not random. It was, perhaps, predictable. Focusing on the self, I missed out on how my actions are driven by other people. Strangely, the nature of the question asked (“What am I getting out of this?”), lead me to give a biased response to that same question.

[5] We don’t always find it easy to be positive to some people. Thats OK. As the light from the sun shines on some planets more than others, our light will shine more brightly on some people than others.

[6] Think about, for example, microexpressions - even if you dont say anything, and you try to hide your emotions, negative microexpressions make people feel uneasy. People can sense whether all the signals you’re giving off are coherent or not.

[7] Like this guy.

[8] I also have more appreciation of the work that goes into even relatively simple new startups - while I might have enough skills now to create an MVP with a very minal featureset it is much more than one person’s effort to build out a compelling, rich and polished platform

[9] This piece is a nice piece about the call to adventure, the following quote seems especially insightful:

All fears are rooted in the same place. While traditional wisdom (both eastern and western) would likely tell us that the greatest fear we have is the fear of death, there is a deeper, more pervasive fear even beyond that: the fear of disconnection or aloneness. True disconnection is the greatest fear, as it leaves us isolated from everything that we know, everything that we love or have loved and everything we believe ourselves to be. Disconnection leaves us lost within the void. It renders us without a lifeline or anchor to all that vivifies us. As social creatures, humans are hardwired to need connection with others in order to maintain their wellbeing. Without it, we suffer greatly both physically and emotionally as disconnection leads to apathy, boredom, stress and anxiety which are at the root of much disease in our population. These days, to try and stifle this debilitating disconnection we have numbed it by becoming the most medicated, addicted and overweight adult cohort in human history (Brown, web).

The disease of disconnection is systemic within anyone who remains gripped by fear. The two go hand in hand. The remedy is to discover the source of connection from within. The folly of fear is that it leads us away from our innermost bliss point—the core connectedness of our being. To journey back into this inner state is to realize that disconnection is actually an illusion and that there is a part of us that is always connected to a source, no matter what we call it—our ancestors, our soul, collective unconscious, the universe—there is a place within us that is illimitable and ever-sustaining. If we can only make contact with it, we will have alleviated the greatest fear of all and realized that the power of our aloneness exists in infinite connections to the world around us.