The first thing that most people do after waking up in the morning is check their phone.
I do it too.
But after scrolling through the twittersphere and seeing yet another coffee consuming startup company raised another gazillion dollars in their series gamma, I make my bed.
I haven’t always made my bed. In fact, I only started making my bed within the last couple of months. And although it may seem like the most menial and pointless of tasks, (I mean you’re just going to mess it up again not too long later) it has strangely added a sense of structure to my life.
I’ve talked about habits on a couple different posts before, and what strikes me about making my bed is that it’s a ritual that follows another ritual every morning. (there are very few times where I forget to sleep)
That way, by the time I get up to start my day, I know that I have gotten at least one thing right. A neat bed means I can start and end my day in an organized way. No matter how good or bad my day was, it always feels good to crawl into a neatly folded bed at the end of the day.
In fact, so many things pertaining to life is just like making my bed, because most things in life can be broken down into simple routines that are executed over and over. With just a little effort, so many of the little things add up to make huge differences.
It’s the little things in life, that when done right, contribute to the bigger picture. It’s the small wins that make up the big wins. You can’t run a marathon without learning how to take the first steps, just like you can’t get a degree without going through the first day of school.
I’ve noticed that there are a few areas personally for me to regularly maintain to keep myself at my best condition.
- Food and Water
- Creative Expression
What are your most important rituals?
I read a lot of content every day, but one of the few that I revisit often is Paul Graham’s “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule“. Essentially, Paul writes about the difference between how a maker schedules their time and how a manager schedules their time.
The reason I found that article so memorable and fascinating is because I found myself able to relate to both sides on a fairly deep level. Sometimes I work well on hourly divisions of my day, and sometimes I just need to focus in on one thing for a whole day and not be interrupted.
But most days, it’s a combination of the two. I’m generally a maker by early morning and late at night, and a manager by day and afternoon. In fact, I generally feel more productive in the mornings and evenings much more so than the afternoons. I call this “bookend productivity”, the reason why I have lost so many afternoons to unproductive slumps.
I’ve tried a lot of things to be as productive as possible, but somewhere along the line I realized that I was looking at time management all wrong. Connecting it with Paul Graham’s ideas, I realized that to be effective at time management, I had to learn how to be effective at energy management. In other words, it’s not so much about dividing up my time as it is dividing up my energy in a way to get over the humps of the days, weeks, months, and years.
That simple shift in thinking changed almost everything. I began paying more attention to where my energy was going, and what kind of energy certain activities were using. For example, I found that listening to podcasts and reading books work best for me late mornings / early afternoon. I also found that since afternoons seem to be too difficult to get any work done, I generally use that period to meet with people / do more social things.
In the past couple months that I’ve been paying attention to where my energy goes, I’ve found that there are a couple different areas:
- Social energy, the energy that I expend when I’m around people.
- Cognitive energy, the energy used when I’m working on a problem, writing code, etc.
- Linguistic energy, the energy used when reading, writing, or listening.
- Physical energy, the energy used when exercising.
- Emotional energy, the energy used in personal relationships, movies, or other forms of entertainment.
And instead of looking at these energy sources as a reservoir that gets used up, think of it as a muscle that needs to be trained. The more you work on one of these, it will feel good but drain you in the short term, but work you up to be more capable in the long term, and if you work any one of these too hard at any given time, it can drain you to a point where you can’t do any of them.
I’ve found that my most satisfied, productive, and fulfilled days are days in which I have a good combination of all areas and aspects of life.
I’ve done a lot of thinking and experimenting with time management over the past couple of years. I’ve tried everything from unorthodox sleep schedules to different diets and techniques. I’ve read and listened to experts talk about time management and how to most effectively squeeze the most out of each day.
However, in implementing these various tactics, I’ve realized that I was seeing time management wrong the whole time.
Most people think of time management as managing your time, but a more effective way is to think of time management as energy management in a time conscious manner.
Under most circumstances, the goal of time management is to be more productive with the hours that you have. The idea of being more effective with your time is so that you can accomplish more.
Under a time-centered paradigm of time management, it makes sense to try to cram as many activities as possible into as little time as possible, using various lifehacks and other techniques to become more efficient. While there’s nothing wrong with this approach and it can easily be implemented to achieve a higher rate of productivity, it only goes so far.
No matter what time management system I attempted, I would find some days where it worked extremely well and other days that were a struggle to remain productive. It was a strange phenomenon that perplexed me until I realized that I should be managing my energy instead of my time.
Under an energy-centered paradigm of time management (or energy management), it’s about structuring your day in way in which you can take advantage of peak mental performance, rest, and leverage the highs and lows of the day to your advantage.
Instead of asking how much time a certain task will take, it becomes equally if not more important to also ask how much energy a task will take, and what the nature of the energy expended will be. That way you can plan the proper rest and recovery as well as lay out your day in a way that matches the type of energy to your state of mind.
For example, I’ve found that mornings are a good time for me to read, as I seem to process things the best between 1 – 3 hours after I wake up. I’ve also found that the act of reading in the morning helps jump start my brain into an active mode for the rest of my day. I’ve found that toward the end of the day is when I write the best code, so my evenings and late nights are usually dedicated to programming.
I’ve also found rest periods to take walks and clear out my mind have been extremely helpful in separating tasks, resetting my mental state, and regaining energy for the next task at hand.
Of course, your schedule will be unique to yourself, and it may even change as time goes on. What does your schedule like and how do you manage your energy?
I’ve thought about education a lot in the past couple years, especially when it comes to my own.
Most people enter college expecting the institution to hand them everything they need for their future on a silver platter. After all, college students followed all the rules in order to get into school, so the thinking is that if they continue to follow all the rules they will find themselves in a good career.
However, through my journey in learning over the past couple years, I realized I was responsible for my own learning, whether school is a part of it or not.
Strangely enough, this term used to refer to someone who is taking charge of their own learning is a “hackademic”. As if somehow learning isn’t supposed to be done apart from an institution, and you have to hack it in order to get take control of your learning. The other issue is that many hackademics think that being in college is somehow incompatible with being a self directed learner. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. In fact the whole point of this post is to show how college can be used within a self directed education.
Don’t get me wrong, college is a great experience to meet professors and peers, as well as open yourself up to a wide variety of perspectives and subjects. Being in school can be one of the best decisions you can make if you have reason to be in school. And even for me, I plan to finish up my Computer Science degree unless an opportunity of a lifetime presents itself before I finish. I am grateful that I have the means to attend a four year institution, and do not mean to belittle the privilege of being in school.
But by no means is college the end to learning.
Around the beginning of my undergraduate career, I began thinking about how I could fully take advantage of college while also fully being self directed in my learning. I wanted to figure out how to remain in the system in order to be relevant to my peers while also exemplifying how it was possible to have autonomy in education.
I had support from many mentors to bounce ideas off of as well as a few peers in the same boat to process things with along the way, and I am eternally grateful for their support.
I soon realized that the very core of being a self directed learner was having your own personal reason to learn, and things that you want to achieve.
I began pondering how to integrate college into self directed education by establishing a list of things I wanted to learn. As a list, I wanted to:
- Learn how businesses operate, how to go from an idea to a profit and value generating company.
- Learn how people operate, how to interact and network with people to add the most value to others.
- Learn as much as I can about technology, and areas that I can apply technology to industries such as agriculture and education in a significant, paradigm-shifting way.
The next thing I had to do was figure out the best sources to learn these different subjects, what college was good for that I could extract from, and what I needed to get around.
The good is that college is a great hub for networking and meeting people, especially being able to leverage my age and my status as a student to meet alumni and industry professionals. This power to network that comes with being a student is one that few people understand how to leverage, and fewer people actually do leverage.
The bad is that most classes bore me out of my mind, assignments often serve little purpose, and grades are often extremely arbitrary and not reflective of how well you actually learned, not to mention the astronomically unjustified price to attend college. Every once in a while you’ll meet a professor who truly knows how to empower their students in a way that is engaging and relevant, but in my experience, those are hard to come by. But when you do find yourself in a class with a phenomenal professor, taking advantage and putting effort into that class is totally worth your while.
Upon realizing that the value of being in school for me personally wasn’t primarily the academic material, but my ability to leverage my status as a student, I began setting up systems to implement the 80/20 rule into my academics. I began figuring out how to chunk course material in such a way that 20% of my effort would generate 80% of the academic result, while also spending time to deeply learn the things that were truly interesting to me.
One example sticks out very clear in the last quarter. I took a software engineering project project class last quarter. This class is based heavily on your team’s ability to build a software product within 10 weeks of the class. As our team was discussing and brainstorming projects to do, the natural tendency was to propose difficult projects that would require large API integrations and other complexities.
But as we thought about it more, we realized that the easiest way to get the best grade possible was to simply fulfill all the requirements. We realized that it would be better to create a simple application that works flawlessly rather than a complex application that barely functioned. At the end of the quarter, we had spent a total of 10 hours to complete our project, while some other teams were working 10 hours a day to get their project working. Our final grade? 100%.
School doesn’t reward people for taking bold risks, it actually often unconsciously penalizes the people who take bold risks. Failure is seen as a negative thing, not because it’s explicitly warned against, but because the rewards only go to the people that have followed all the rules.
Part of applying the 80/20 rule to my academics was learning how to play the game of school without being sucked into the toxic standardization and performance mentality that has been traditionally present. I had to set up the things that I did in order to maximize authentic learning and networking while being as efficient as possible in my studies.
The hardest part I found was keeping focused when my mind simply wanted to wander and not engage in any productive activities. I ran into this issue often as I was trying to be productive, only finding myself wasting hours of my day. This problem went away when I solidified my purpose and began to intentionally build routines and structures that would help me achieve my goals.
I began applying many of the principles from Tim Ferriss and other “productivity gurus” to my daily routines (Tim Ferriss has a great article on the choice minimal lifestyle). For example, my breakfast and lunch plans were a very specific handful of dishes that I would make over and over again to simplify decision making and standardize my diet. My exercise routines were very consistent from day to day. My sleep schedule looked almost identical day to day, and even the clothes I wore were chosen from a handful on a regular basis.
By freeing up my academic as well as streamlining my life errands, I suddenly found myself with more free time to learn, explore, network, and do the things that I knew I wanted to learn. Note that this is different than “following your dream” because I set up a way to systematically take steps toward achieving the things I knew I needed to learn instead of merely being driven by how I feel on a day to day basis.
That being said, this last quarter I was able to accomplish the following:
- 4 CS classes (101, 110, 130, and 140)
- Part time internship (8 hours a week)
- Kept my blog regularly updated (once a week)
- Worked closely with Student Voice
- Did freelance web design work
- Cooked nearly every meal
- Exercised 2-3 times a week
- Had a social life to the extent that I wanted
- Read one book every two weeks
- 7-8 hours of sleep per night
- Had time to spare for spontaneous fun activities
I’m not saying this to brag, but to provide an insight into what is possible with a little bit of structure and motivation. If I can do it, anyone else can.
I’ve found that the core to being able to “self hack” your education isn’t about whether you are a part of a system or not, but it’s about the mindset that you have when it comes to being able to critically consider the strengths, weaknesses, and value of the opportunities around you, and taking the best of what is around.
An illustration that can be used is imagine shopping for a set of wrenches. Not every repair project that you take on will require every single size of wrenches, but most people would rather get a whole set of wrenches rather than just one or two. And sometimes you’ll encounter projects where none of the tools in the set are adequate for what you are working on, and you’ll need to go out of your way to get a specialized tool for that specific scenario.
School, while providing access to a great deal of connections. knowledge, and experience, is much like a standardized set of tools that a person can draw upon when faced with different projects. It isn’t sufficient for solving every problem, and many of the tools acquired in school you will never actually find a use for. Thus, the mindset when it comes to self directed learning is your ability to combine the tools that you personally need, whether it be knowledge, experience, or connections.
The reason why most college students are simply satisfied with the tools that colleges give and rarely go out of their way to learn is because they have no idea why or what they need the tools for. And as I mentioned, the most important aspect of self directing your education is knowing what you want to achieve, and having a purpose for learning.
Self hacking your education in general isn’t simply doing whatever you want, but it’s about having systems that facilitate learning through understanding the value of the opportunities that are around you.
I was so inspired by Tim Ferriss’s post on choices that I felt I had to write my own. Reading over his post, I couldn’t help but recognize instances where I find myself deliberating over decisions.
I began to ask myself how I could not only limit the choices I have to choose from, but also how I could simplify and eliminate regret from past decisions. Upon reflection, I realized that much of my overwhelm when it comes to decision making comes because I have too many inputs constantly open.
For example, while sitting at my computer, I usually have anywhere from 10 to 20 tabs open on Chrome, some chat application open, as well as my email client and whatever else I’m doing. To me, this creates a gaping welcome to an infinite possibility of distractions and decisions to make. And even though I’ve done this practically all my life and am now used to multitasking with my computer, I’ve noticed that it’s contributed to my lack of focus making me seemingly ADD at times.
In a hyper productive culture, it’s easy to think that doing five things at the same time will make you able to accomplish more. And up to this point, this is still a thought pattern that I find myself engaging in all the time. However, the opposite is true. The more productive people are the people that have strong structures based on what they want to accomplish and laser sharp focus to achieve what they’ve set out to do.
While trying to simplify and apply the choice-minimal lifestyle that Tim talks about, I’ve identified two main principles.
- Focus is a function of being single minded, which means limiting the number of inputs while you’re trying to output.
- Focus manifests most consistently within a structure built on your passion and drive, as well as practical and actionable steps.
I’ve been learning to divide my activities into two types that should not be intermingled: input activities and output activities.
Input activities are the activities where you’re absorbing information, whether it be reading a blog, checking email, reading a book, listening to a podcast, etc. The point of absorbing information is not to be overwhelmed or merely entertained, but to give you substance to chew on before you apply it to an output activity. In times of input, be careful to not deliberate extensively on things that are not worth your time.
Output activities are the opposite, where you’re working on something such as writing a blog post, cooking a meal, exercising, etc. These activities are the ones that require more focus, and should be given 100% of your attention to achieve your best.
Of course, not everything is black and white, especially in teamwork situations where you must communicate while you work. These situations can be a little more challenging to focus, but there’s a balance to be structured in order to maximize efficiency.
Here are a couple ways to implement greater focus and division between input and output activities (I will be experimenting with these).
- Turn off your cell phone for a day once a week to focus deeply on something you’re working on.
- Limit the number of windows and tabs you have open on your computer.
- Turn off push notifications on your mobile device.
- Limit reading emails to once or twice a day.
- Limit frequency of visits to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
- Set a time of day to read news, blogs, etc.
Have any other tips or thoughts? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
Practice is the process to mastery. But not all practice is created equal.
Deliberate practice, a term popularized by Cal Newport of Study Hacks, is the process of using uncomfortable, stretching practice to expand your abilities.
It’s easy to pick up the guitar and play the song that you’ve mastered and have been playing for years. It’s easy to cook the dishes that you’ve been cooking since you were twelve.
But in order to improve a skill, practicing must include what is foreign and unfamiliar. That’s exactly what top performers of various practices have in common, that they are always challenging themselves to do the uncomfortable in order to learn and grow.
Learning a new skill will always be uncomfortable and foreign, but improving a skill that you have already learned requires making the decision to challenge yourself beyond what you are already capable of doing.
Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, but practice makes permanent. Therefore, what you practice determines what you become comfortable with.