Building a Daily Routine

If you're trying to build good habits, a daily routine is very helpful. By setting up a list of triggers and responses that you do every day (read: habits), you've already begun constructing a routine. Fit them into the existing structure of your day, and BAM, you've got a routine. Let's walk through the process.

Say you start with the following habits:

  • Meditate for 5 minutes.
  • Quit drinking soda.
  • Couch to 5k.
  • Floss.
  • Turn all screens off by midnight.
  • Plan your schedule for the day.
"Plan your schedule for the day" obviously should be toward the beginning of the day. At the latest, you should do it after you're done with your static morning routine. "Turn all screens off by midnight" and "floss" are bedtime habits, so those go at the end of the day.

"Quit drinking soda" is about breaking a habit, not building one, so it's all-day everyday. We won't worry about it for planning the daily routine.

That leaves us with "meditate" and "C25K." There's a lot of flexibility with those. Really, though, you should meditate as soon as you wake up, as soon as you get home for the day, or both. C25K has to happen during daylight hours since it's outside. I get home at different times every day, so I meditate when I wake up. Then, let's say you do C25K in the evening so you don't have to wake up early.

You'll often be interrupted in the middle, so don't set times for the routine. That allows you to just pick up where you left off with no problem.

My daily schedule looks kind of similar, but I used the same process to figure out how to build it.
  1. Wake up by 9AM.
  2. Drink half a liter of water.
  3. Meditate for 5 minutes.
  4. Eat a light breakfast.
  5. Plan my schedule for the day.
  6. Write a blog post.
  7. Work out (I'm doing YAYOG. More on that later.)
  8. Drink a protein shake.
  9. Shower, shave, brush teeth.
  10. Start work for the day.
  11. Lunch.
  12. Work through the afternoon.
  13. Make and eat dinner.
  14. Perform various personal chores, like cleaning the room and doing paperwork.
  15. Turn screens off by 11PM.
  16. Floss, brush teeth.
  17. Read for a bit.
  18. Sleep.
It's a pretty rigid routine, but it works for me. The more I change it from day to day, the more I struggle to focus on the task at hand and the more time I waste figuring out when I need to do everything.

If you haven't written out at least a shell of a routine, I highly recommend it. At least try it. See if it works for you.

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I've been knocking out a lot of exercise recently. I feel the strongest I've ever felt in my life.

If You're Losing, Change the Game

Don't bother playing head games with yourself. You can practice focusing with meditation, remove triggers for bad habits, and put money on the line. Those are all good things. But when the time comes when some persuasive part of your brain really wants what you refuse to give it, don't bother trying to psych yourself out of wanting it.

Instead, change the game entirely.

If you are sitting at your computer, trying to get work done, and your brain really wants you to go on Reddit, don't just sit there trying to work and ignore your brain, because you're going to lose. If you fight it out with your brain in your brain, you're going to lose. Your brain has home court advantage. So, change the playing field. Go outside, go talk to someone, or turn your computer off until the urges pass.

If you don't mind going on Reddit in general, but you just can't do it at the moment, you can ride the urges for a few minutes before they get the best of you. "Changing the game" is more for when you are trying to break the addiction completely and never want to go on Reddit again.

In the case of a non-addiction that you want to practice building willpower over, play the "act on the third urge" game. It's pretty self-explanatory. Watch your urges and act on the third one. As you play it over and over again, the urges should become less frequent and your willpower should become stronger. Obviously this doesn't work with alcoholism, porn addiction, pot addiction, or any other addiction that you should break cold turkey.

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I've been working through Leo Babauta's The Little Book of Contentment lately. I highly recommend printing it off and working through it if you don't already read Zen Habits. Which you should read also.

How to Finish a Century with Too Little Preparation

I rode my first century in August, 2011. Josh Chen and I started training for it only two months earlier. We trained intermittently, haphazardly, and insufficiently, but when the race day came, we finished. The course was much hillier than we expected and the country roads were often poorly paved, but once we clipped in that morning, it would not occur to us once to stop. Did we deserve to be able to finish? Probably not, but we finished anyways.

How did we set up ourselves to be so determined that our lack of preparation became meaningless? In a few ways.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is


Whatever the problems with living in a capitalist economy, one huge benefit is that we value money very highly. More highly than we probably should, but we can harness its value to convince ourselves to succeed in non-financial ways.

Josh and I paid a lot of money to be able to ride in that century (the Tour d'Organics for anyone who is curious) and there was no chance we were going to let that money go to waste. In addition to the price tag of the race itself, we rented a hotel room, drove the length of the bay area, and even bought special century bike shorts (they just have extra padding). We made the race into a BIG DEAL and sunk some cash into it accordingly. That made us want to prove to ourselves, however irrationally, that we had spent that money in good faith.

Walk the Walk by Talking the Talk


All summer long as Josh and I trained, we talked it up to our friends and family. Our parents knew we were training, as did our friends from high school and college. Then, even when our legs were ready to give out, our hearts were whining about how hard this damn thing was turning out to be, and every other body part had something to say, it never occurred to us to stop. We would have had to talk for months to come about how we failed after training all summer.

Don't be afraid to brag about whatever you're working on accomplishing. Talk it up. It will hold you accountable.


Race to the Finish


Our race, like all other organized bike events, had a clear finish line. Before you reach the finish line you are not done. Once you reach the finish line, you are done. This doesn't work for lifelong habits like eating healthy and meditating, but it does work for one-time difficulties. Set a clear ending for yourself and push yourself as hard as you can until you reach it.

Then pat yourself on the back and relax.

"I'm [NOT] the decider"


Sometimes it's nice to be able to have the freedom to make decisions for yourself, but the more energy you have to put into making decisions the less energy you have for taking action. When the time comes to take action, as it did when we clipped in that chilly Sunday morning of our race, stop thinking about decisions. Have someone else make them or make them yourself in advance.

Our route was established. We just had to follow the arrows. Nobody would turn the crank for us, and our bodies had to do as much work as ever, but our brain could focus on the task at hand.

If there's no pre-established list of steps for your project, make them yourself and then stop thinking about it. Give yourself a specific, linear, and simple plan so you can devote your mental energy to actually doing the task.

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I'm actually dressed and ready for my first road bike training ride of the season. Josh and I have our plan and we're ready to roll!

Frustration or Forgiveness

Several times a day, I find myself at a psychological crossroads. One road leads to relief, peace, and patience and the other leads to frustration, stress, and anxiety.

The first is self-forgiveness. The second is self-reproach.

I'm going to present an example from meditation, but this crossroads is just as applicable for any activity that requires care and focus.

Picture yourself sitting on the floor. You may look like a monk, sitting there quietly with your hands resting on your knees and your eyes nearly closed with inward concentration, but you probably feel no different than usual, with thoughts of chores, work, family obligations, debt, loneliness, boredom, and worry running through your head. You're not paying attention to your breathing, or at least not exclusively. In some sense, you've so-far failed to meditate. (Though if you're sitting there quietly and doing your best to follow your breathing, you certainly are meditating!) This places you at the crossroads.

You can beat yourself up for how you failed to meditate. It's not just meditation either that you suck at. It's everything. You're not pretty enough for the guys you want to be with, you're not a good enough cook to have your friends over for a dinner party, your grades aren't good enough for getting into a grad school, you don't work hard enough at the office to deserve a promotion. You're a stagnating waste of space.

Or, and this is really the only option if you want to reap the benefits of meditation, you can forgive yourself your failures. Nobody's perfect, but not you less than most. You have just as much going for you as anyone else, as long as there is breath left in your lungs and strength in your heart. You're attractive, you're a good friend, you're intelligent, you work hard. Life is a gift and you intend to appreciate it despite your many personal failings. There, now you can breathe.

Before you can Listen, Wander, or Fight you have to be able to breathe.

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What a crazy weekend! I made Judah Benjamin's Friday Night Chicken with Peppers, went to the San Jose Taco Festival, watched Star Trek: Into Darkness in IMAX 3D, returned finally to the Mountain View Farmer's Market, saw The Girl with the Pearl Earring exhibit at the De Young, and am finishing Memorial Day weekend with the Giants vs. A's game. I don't even want to think about how much it all costed.

80/20 Rule Revisited

Also called the Pareto Principle, Brian Tracy's 80/20 Rule says that 20% of the items on your to-do list account for 80% of your successes in business or life. Pareto applied it to other things, too, like the fact that 20% of people had 80% of the wealth in society. It works for a fantastic number of things if you're willing to round generously.

20% of your life experiences account for 80% of your strong memories, 20% of the books you read account for 80% of the valuable things you learn, and so on.

This is interesting, but is it helpful? Tracy claims you can figure out which items on your to do list (or bucket list or reading list) will fall into the potent 20% and only do those. Insofar as this is identical to prioritizing, I think it makes sense, but I'm skeptical that you can tell which of your projects will succeed and which will fail or that tasks fall neatly into one of any two categories.

Right now, I have a job I'm finishing up from the past semester, looking for a job for the summer, running the Lunatic (CU's humor magazine), teaching myself Python, and trying to start a new business. That's five work-related things. Which is the one which will account for more personal success than all the others put together?

I really don't know. One of them well might become a tremendous success, but I can't tell which right now.

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Just got back from Los Angeles last night. Travelling always messes with my habits, so it's going to be a couple days before I get them all restarted.

3 Lessons from Improv Comedy for Making Friends

If you've ever done improv, you'll know it's a lot harder than it looks. You have to be able to react to what your castmates say or do, integrate it with your own ideas, and help weave together a brand new sketch in real time. There are a few simple tricks improv comedians use, not to make the show easier, but to make it work at all.

Any time you're about to be in a position to spend time with new or different people--a job interview, a nightclub, a dinner party, a panel discussion, a book club, a date--these tips, which are so integral to make improv funny, can help you. Let's count 'em off, see why they're important, and understand how to use them in everyday life.

Warm up to get in state


At least 20 minutes before the show begins, improv comedians play warm up games to "get in state." This gives them a chance to transition from all the mishegas of everyday life to focus on the task at hand, primes them psychologically to be funny, and gets the adrenaline pumping. Then, when they go on stage they're in the heightened awareness of the "fight or flight" response, their reticular activating system is on alert for funny ideas, and they're in flow.

Don't worry about all those psych terms. All you need to know is that it helps to warm your body up before doing anything that requires quick responses and focus. If you've ever tried to go to a party and meet new people immediately after waking up from a nap or coming from work, you know what I mean. You won't be able to enjoy yourself and you won't impress anyone with your wit.

The best thing to do is to kick it with your friends for a bit before heading out, but if that's not an option at least get your blood and adrenaline going with some jumping jacks.

"Yes! And..."


When you're on stage trying to create a brand new story in real time, it's imperative that everything you say moves the story forward. To do that, you need to build on what the other people say or do no matter what. Don't question them, try to change what they're doing to fit what you want, or try to go back to an earlier point in the story. Once it's out there, you can't change it, so you need to deal with it. The motto of improv comedy is "Yes! And..."

Apply this to your own life. If the person you're talking with says she hates selfish pricks, you might say, "Yes! And egotistical schmucks, too!" A conversation is kind of like improv, except you're not necessarily creating a story and there's usually no audience. All the same rules apply, though.

At the same time, don't just be a reactive echo for your fellow conversationalist. Bring it to the next level by being proactive. "Yes! And here's why greedy tools are the worst!"

Laugh at your mistakes


Improv comedians are only human, so even the best ones can't get through a show without making a mistake. In a way, making mistakes, more than anything else, is what makes improv improv.

I was at an Upright Citizens' Brigade show in March where one of the comedians entered a scene doing an obvious Jamaican accent but one of the people already on stage thought it was Trinibagonian for some weird reason. Instead of  getting butt-hurt and saying "C'mon, that was obviously a Jamaican accent!", she just ran with it and launched into an hilarious back story on being a Jamaican from Trinidad. The person who made the mistake figured it out and led the charge against himself. Everyone in the audience knew that it was a mistake, but that just made it even better.

Why? Because so many people take things personally that it's a relief to everyone around when someone can laugh at himself. It makes others more comfortable around you and believe me when I say laughing feels better than self-loathing. Life's too short to hate yourself for every little mistake you make around others or time someone makes fun of you.

Book Review: Doing Nothing, by Tom Lutz

The New York Times reviewed the book when it was published 7 years ago and did a better job than I could hope to do, so I won't bother trying to compete with them. Instead, I'd like to highlight some interesting points Lutz makes and discuss what the implications of those are for our time.

Our Values About Work are Subjective and Constantly Changing


The first trend I noticed in Lutz's history of cultural attitudes toward slacking is that any time someone tries to live a radically different lifestyle than someone else, both become personally offended by the other (I tip my hat to David Streitman for noticing that in his own life). Hard workers view slackers as personally attacking them, and vice versa. All the writers Lutz mentions, both the workers and the slackers, were public intellectuals in their time, so what do they do when they feel offended?

You got it! They try to change the attitudes of everyone in the United States to match their own!

And the national attitude does change. At the start of the industrial revolution, factory owners couldn't get their employees to stay in the building for more than ten minutes at a time before they exited en masse to grab a pint. The time of day didn't matter, let alone the day of the week. The idea of actually staying in one place for the duration of the day, five days a week, is a cultural construction Americans have managed to establish as gospel over the last 250 years.

Nor was it a smooth transition. Americans flipped and flopped like Nemo escaping the dentist. This brings us to the next point.

We Suffer in the Extremes, Find Contentment in Balance


Americans taught themselves to work hard, overdid it, called work the enemy, and then erred in the other extreme. Hardly any public intellectuals advocated work-life balance until recently. They would tout either leisure or industry as the purpose of life and demonize the other.

If you're working too hard, you tend to hate your life and if you work too little, you tend to hate yourself. Also, if you find yourself surrounded by people who take the other position from you, there's a lot of social pressure that can make you miserable even if you're happy with your lifestyle, ceteris parabus.

The Kind of Work You Do Matters


I'm not going to beat a dead horse here, because I think it's obvious. Intellectually-inclined people doing knowledge work tend to like their work and value it higher than fishermen who are afraid of water. Duh.

What's the Right Balance?


Lutz doesn't go into it because, as I mentioned, nobody he cited actually thought you could find contentment in moderation. (I think it's selection bias; probably most lay people thought work was good, but only in moderation.) According to the writers in the book who name a figure of any kind, it seems like about three to eight hours a day, four to five days a week, is right, depending on the person. This would seem to contravene Tim Ferriss' "4-Hour Workweek," but if you look at how much the man seems to put in, I'd say his should be called the "Never Ending Workweek." The dude hustles.

Find work you enjoy. Put in those hours. Then enjoy your play time.

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Back in sunny California. I cannot express how excited I am to get back on my bike.

The Paradox of Self-Worth

In my last post I wrote about the paradox of choice. How, after a certain point, having more choices in your life makes you feel worse because it leads you to think about everything you're missing even if you make all the best choices for yourself.

Today I want to talk about another paradox that I've often faced, one I call the Paradox of Self-Worth.

What It Is

  1. You try do something (get a job, make friends, get an A in a class, quit an addiction, etc.).
  2. You fail to do it and blame yourself for it.
  3. You want to improve and not fail the next time, but some part of you believes that you're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world and don't deserve to get better or are not capable of getting better. You doubt your self-worth.
  4. You decide that no, really, you do want to get better and deserve to improve in this area of your life that's really dragging you down.
  5. You look in the mirror, forgive your past wrongs, and tell yourself: "YOU ROCK. LIKE, NO JOKE. YOU ARE LEGIT SO AWESOME. YOU CAN DO ANYTHING YOU SET YOUR BEAUTIFUL MIND TO."
  6. This gets you pumped up to be great so you head to the library or club or SAA meeting or whatever. Finally motivated and high off your improved sense of self-worth, you actually accomplish what you set out to do. You do your homework or talk to that girl at Tchotchkes. Congratulations! You've proven to yourself that you don't suck.
  7. Wait, you don't suck? That's just perfect. Now you're right where you want to be. You don't have to work anymore because you were only working because you thought you sucked. Now you can sit around in your underwear watching every movie in the Avengers franchise back-to-back knowing you totally don't suck.
  8. You realize you totally suck again.
The Paradox of Self-Worth is a specific instance of the 'lapse-response cycle' in which you get cocky and lazy when things are good so you only take care of things once they've started tumbling downhill again. It's just a relatively slippery instance so I thought it was worth pointing out.

What To Do About It


You've got a couple options here and each works better for different things so I'm not going to omit any in the interest of parsimony.

1. View your successes in context of a longer progression.


Successful weightlifters pat themselves on their back when they lift a new personal record, but they still go back to the gym the next day and do it all over again. How do they self-congratulate and then tighten their bootstraps without taking a day's rest?

They understand that their successes, however real and impressive, are nothing more than a step in the right direction. They often plan ahead very detailed "progressions" of what to do next with increasingly harder challenges on and up to basically impossible ones. This gives context to their actions and allows them to view their efforts as a concrete journey.  (Here's an example of the first in a series of progression charts. Even when you finish this one, you're nowhere close to being done, and anyone who tries it knows that.) Nobody would hold a 60 second stomach-to-wall handstand and think they're done because they know the next step is holding it back to wall.

At the same time, nobody would beat themselves up for holding a handstand for 60 seconds against the wall just because they couldn't do 12 freestanding handstand push-ups.

You can adapt this principle to almost anything you do. If you're having trouble getting to class the day after your midterm, make sure you're viewing the midterm in the context of a semester-long class. If you're having trouble doing well the semester after you picked up a 4.0,  make sure you're viewing the semester in the context of a four-year education, and so on and so forth.

2. Ignore your successes completely.


If you read this blog, you know I advocate forgoing goals and desires. Ignoring successes is a similar idea. Basically, you adopt the mindset that your life satisfaction and sense of self worth are not determined by external criteria like how hot your girlfriends are or how much money you make.

Isn't this just another paradox? If you don't pursue or appreciate success, won't you just end up failing and hating yourself for it all over again? I would say, first, you can build good habits that lead to success without needing an external desire for success to drive you, and second, those are two different problems. Failure's not nearly as bad as we make it out to be. It can teach you a lot and even be kind of refreshing. It's good to fail sometimes. Don't beat yourself up over failures.

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I'm en route to the Bay Area where I'll be based out of for the summer. I know I promised an end-of-semester review, but I decided writing self-help theory is more interesting for all.

Divergent Thinking and Making Decisions

Are you better at divergent or convergent thinking?

Convergent Thinking


Take the following multiple-choice question (credit to ASTRO 1102/1104 at Cornell):

Which of the following statements about planetary systems is correct?
A. Giant planets are always found 1 AU from their host star.
B. Planets can have extremely elliptical orbits.
C. Planets orbiting around the same star always have widely separated orbits.
D. All known exoplanets are composed primarily of hydrogen and helium.

How would you tackle it? Some of you, who read Scientific American or who took an introductory astronomy course in college, might go through each choice, run it through your cerebral fact-checker, and see if your brain says it's wrong. You do that one by one, eliminating choices as you go, until there is only one left.

Those of you who don't know how long an AU is, what would constitute an elliptical orbit, or what the hell an exoplanet is, might just look at the qualifiers. Choices A and C have an "always" in them and nothing is always anything, so that's out. Choice D starts with "all" which is the same idea, so that's out, too. Therefore, B is probably be the correct answer.

Both of these methods are "convergent thinking." You take a bunch of possibilities, one of which is right or best, and figure out which it is. We do this all the time, whenever we're deciding between tacos, burritos, and nachos. In fact, we use it every time we make a decision.

Divergent Thinking


"Divergent thinking" on the other hand is when you start with no possibilities and have to make them all up yourself. For instance, if I were to ask you to take a pen and paper and write down all the ways to skin a cat, that would be divergent thinking because there's more than one right or best way. Sure, there might be a best way, but it doesn't matter for this exercise as long as they all work.

We use divergent thinking in real life every time we write fiction or music, make movies, or think up date ideas for that cutie in organic chemistry lab. It's basically synonymous with creativity.

Which Bear is Best?


Psychologists have found that people tend to be better at one type of thinking or the other. If you can think of a million ways to skin a cat -- well, then you likely have some mental health issues you need to sort out -- but can't figure out that multiple choice question I gave you, you're probably better at divergent thinking.

On the other hand, if you just spent the last week taking SAT practice tests for fun even though you got your MBA two years ago, you're probably better at convergent thinking.

Thankfully, being good at one can can help you with tasks that require the other, up to a point. Going back to the multiple choice question, if you're better at divergent thinking, you can think of tons of possible planets and then check if they fit each characteristic. Each one could be disqualified by a counter-factual if you happened to stumble on it, but that leaves a lot to chance. This is called "guess and check" and it's certainly a valid way of solving problems if you're good at guessing and efficient at checking.

If you're better at convergent thinking, your best bet is probably just to ask someone more creative for a bunch of ideas which you can quickly parse through and figure out which is best. Thank God for Google, eh?

Does this mean that it's better to be good at divergent thinking, since it allows for a workaround for convergent thinking? I don't think so. Most of the time we're constantly alternating between the two types so you really need to be good at both, anyways. Here's our process during most waking hours when you're not watching TV, even if you don't realize it:
  1. Think of a ton of ideas for how to go about doing something.
  2. Figure out which is best.
  3. Try it.
  4. Repeat.

How to Get Better at the Type That's Harder for You


In the course of writing this article, I probably used each type of thinking a hundred times. I met a girl last weekend who was on Jeopardy and she was both more creative and better at problem solving than almost anyone I've ever met. But figure out where you're weaker and work on that.

To practice convergent thinking, go practice for the GREs or LSATs or whatever, even if you're not planning on going to grad school. It really will make you better at it. To practice divergent thinking, do something creative. Write jokes, music, or short stories. Draw comics, portraits, or landscapes. I find coding is exceptionally good practice for both.

Set a trigger. Practice every day. Get better.

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The academic year is almost over. I'll post a sophomore year-in-review soon.