A January recap and some personal experiments
Over the month of January, I've achieved some major goals that I would have been happy with in three months. Instead, I've been able to get them done in one. I'm really excited about them, but before I share how I got there, I wanted to share what I knocked off the list:
- Read 7 books
- The Four-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
- The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
- The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
- The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
- The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
- Love and Math by Edward Frenkel
- Executed 50 pullups and 100 pushups in the same workout (starting from 30/50 at the beginning of the month)
- Squatted 235 pounds for 5 repetitions
- Leg pressed 460 pounds for 5 repetitions
- Wrote five chapters of an e-book I plan to release on uWSGI
- Knocked out an optometrist and a dentist appointment
- Watched 20 TED talks
I did all of this while working a standard workweek in a month where we launched a major project, while keeping my caffeine intake to a daily average of ~50mg (less than half of an average cup of black coffee).
So, how'd I pull this off? I certainly didn't run myself into the ground to do it. I also didn't set goals (with the exception of going to the dentist). Instead, I made small changes to my daily activity and set up systems to keep myself on track. Here's what that looks like.
I followed the exact same pattern almost every morning of the month, including on weekends. I use Sleep Cycle to track my sleep patterns and wake me up at the optimal time. This is a zero-effort tool that I love. All you do is tell it the latest possible time you're willing to wake up, flip your phone face-down on your bed, and go to sleep. Sleep Cycle takes care of the rest. Here's a snapshot of the stats it produces:
The part of those statistics where I wake up at 5:30 isn't an accident. I've been waking up before 6am almost every day of this month (I bump things back to 7am on weekends). I thought this would be a much rougher proposition than it actually is. I'm generally in bed by 11pm, which clocks me 7 hours of sleep each night (more than the American average).
At the beginning of the month, I started off with three days operating on the simplest food I could subsist on. In my case, that was brown rice and the cans of black beans I had accrued in my cupboard but never gotten around to opening. It was an eye-opening experience. It taught me gratitude for the things I have, and it also taught me that there was a lot in my life that was extremely wasteful but I kept around out of habit. After the three days, I started incorporating other foods into my diet, but have not deviated much from those staples. As a result, my breakfast each morning consists of sweet potato, black beans, egg whites, salsa, and tea.
I track all of this in an app called Lifesum, selected because it integrates with Apple's HealthKit. I focus on tracking my carbohydrate, my protein, my water, and my caffeine intake in HealthKit. Here's what Lifesum looks like:
That was an easy day to top off on protein - my cousin's wedding had an oyster bar as part of the reception, and oysters are perhaps my favorite way of getting protein.
Once breakfast is wrapped up, I meditate for ten minutes. This is accomplished by setting my phone's timer and closing my eyes for ten minutes, pondering on the day ahead or nothing at all. In the past, I've also leaned on the Calm and Headspace apps. I liked both of them, but I previously struggled to stick to their prescribed programs and then felt guilty when I slipped up. I also felt guilty if I got distracted in the middle of a meditation session. Going program-less means I think a lot more while meditating, but I also am far calmer and excited to take part in it each day.
After meditation, it's time for the gym. On an average day, I'm walking to the metro by 6:45am, which puts me at the gym around 7:10. I alternate between the following two workouts:
- Pullups/pushups. Start with a 10 pullup set and a 20 pushup set, and try to maintain that momentum per set until hitting 50/100. In the earlier parts of this month I scaled down my per-set requirements in line with what my maximum pullups and pushups were. By the end of this month I started my pullup sets off with 25lb additional weight attached to my waist.
- Squats, 5-rep sets starting from 135lb and incrementing upwards 10lb with each set. On days when the squat racks are full, I do an incline leg press starting from 90lb to warm up and incrementing up 50lb with each set, followed by 3 20-rep sets of 90lb calf raises.
After the gym, it's on to work. If I've got enough time and the temperature isn't miserable, I'll walk from Gallery Place to the Watergate. Otherwise it's back on the subway.
I feel that the most significant habits have come in my style of working this month. I read Tim Ferriss' The Four-Hour Workweek in the first days of the month after listening to several of his podcasts on my vacation drives. There's a lot of material in there, and I did not try to implement everything all at once. I did, however, heed his admonition about batch processing during the workday. There is a switching cost each time your brain has to change its focus from one task to another and you lose a lot of the momentum your brain picked up while knocking out the past task. In my line of work, my primary distractions are email, social media, and Slack. To that end, I experimented with checking email at certain times of the day and switching off Slack notifications. That turned out to be a bit too aggressive of a shift. I instead dialed it back to checking personal email once a day and flipping off Slack's notification system unless my name is directly called out in a message. This has really helped my focus and I've plowed through a lot more work as a result.
I also put myself on a media diet, another trick from The Four-Hour Workweek. That means zero news. I've been off Twitter completely over the course of this month, deleting the app from my phone and never signing on the desktop version. I haven't signed into Hacker News once, my primary source of technology news. I've picked up some political coverage given the nature of my job, but I've had to ask a lot of questions to reporter friends because I just don't know what's going on. I only found out who won the NCAA national championship just yesterday. This has been an extremely significant change for me. My head is a lot clearer, and I'm able to focus on code, books or writing in times when I would have normally flipped through news articles or my Twitter feed. I don't feel the compulsive need to distract myself.
This month, I organized everything around a focus on physical well-being. The waking up early and going to bed early was a huge step in that direction, as was the working out, the meditation, the lack of drinking, and even things as simple as flossing. (seriously, I have to track that or I'll never remember to do it) I'm tracking all of these daily habits in an app called Way of Life that looks like this:
I'll continue that focus on physical well-being in February. I may take on projects here and there, but my focus is on my health. Nothing else before that. I also plan to embark on another series of three days where I eat nothing but rice and beans and spend as little money as possible to focus on what I have in life. I found that experience to be incredibly rewarding (though tough) and definitely something I should do regularly. If you're reading this, I'd love to hear about how your year started off, and what's up next for you in February!