Small Health Improvements

At some point in one’s thirties, you become aware that you cannot rely on your body to bounce back as it once did after your poor decisions. It becomes harder to ignore the signals from your body telling you that not sleeping enough, not maintaining healthy maintenance habits, and indulgences cause harm to the body. It’s as if your body used to quietly repair the damage but now it makes sure you know what you are doing is stupid and bad for you in the long run.

In response to these signals, I started making small adjustments to my day that aims to improve my health in targeted areas. Here are a few that I’ve tweaked recently.

Sleep

After my wife noticed I was snoring really badly at night, I scheduled a sleep study through my doctor. It was a long process because of the pandemic, however I was eventually diagnosed with sleep apnea and I was prescribed a CPAP machine to improve my sleep quality. I am currently in the trial period, so it’s too soon to have an appreciation of the fix, but the stats from the machine are showing a dramatic drop in my nightly breathing issues, and I generally feel less tired during the day (though I still feel groggy in the morning). I still have a problem with going to bed too late at night, but getting my sleep quality back on track is a first step.

Physical health

I am among the people who picked up some weight over the last two years of being at home. Between having a toddler and trying to maintain some semblance of work and life balance, I’ve found it difficult to keep a regular exercise routine – it just becomes too easy to put it off to tomorrow. I took a leaf out of BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits book to shrink the action of exercise down to slowly build up a regular practice. I’ll have more to say on this topic in a few months after I give it an honest try, but so far I have kept my commitment through the experiment.

Dental health

I had poor dental habits through my twenties. While I always brushed my teeth at night, I was terrible at morning brushing and never flossed. While my dentist has noted I have good teeth generally, because of my sleep apnea, they’ve noted some effects of grinding my teeth at night. And I have a tendency to brush too hard, causing damage to my gums. Also, I chipped one of my front teeth while biting my nails – turns out 30 years of grinding the teeth together to bite my nails will eventually wear the corner out. During my last visit, the hygienist asked if I used an electric brush. I didn’t realize it would be a gentler option for my gums, so I asked for their recommendation and bought a Philips Sonicare unit specifically because it will alert you when you apply too much pressure while brushing (this is not an endorsement; it just happens to be what my dentist recommended to me). So far, the novelty of the electric brush has been a good change in my routine, and I’m more diligent with brushing. I also combined the wisdom of Fogg (see above) and John Call (Jujimufu) and addressed my flossing habit by buying a better quality floss (a stronger but softer floss that hurt less to use), and put it right next to my electric brush instead of the drawer as I used to do. I enjoy using the electric brush, so I’ve used it every night. And because I see the floss next to the brush, I grab it first and floss before brushing. I even tried using a mouth wash, though stopped when I noticed that it really dried out my mouth in the night.

Lessons

These aren’t perfect solutions, and they won’t undo all of the damage of my neglect. They also aren’t fast solutions, but I see them as sustainable changes. I didn’t get into this problem overnight – it was years (now decades) of steady poor choices that lead to issues in my health, and so it will take small steps to correct these issues.

The lessons learned so far that have helped:

  1. Be ruthlessly intolerant of friction points. If something is causing you problems, if something in the behaviour you want to change is making it difficult to stick with it, sit down to define the problem and make an adjustment to address it, whether it is a physical change (like moving the floss out of the drawer to beside you brush) or a financial change (like buying an electric toothbrush instead of thinking you’ll do better).
  2. Shrink the change. Fogg’s book is probably the best I’ve seen on the topic of habits that actually sets out a plan for change. It’s the most comprehensive but comprehendible book I’ve seen on the topic. Instead of making grand sweeping changes, focus on the tiniest thing you can change towards the positive.
  3. Look for resources to support your wellbeing. I’m fortunate that my Province supports people with sleep apnea. If you are in a position to take advantage of these supports, make sure you do it. Get the doctor’s referral, commit to the trial period and sleep studies, and get the financial support to buy the equipment you need. Not everyone is in a position to do this, but do it if you can.
  4. This will take time. Don’t look for overnight solutions, and expect to not see results right away. Trust the process and give it a fair chance to work.
  5. Be kind to yourself. You can beat yourself up over past bad choices, but it won’t help change your behaviour. Start fresh on a new day, forgive yourself, and try again. Try different things; see what sticks. Treat it like an experiment. You aren’t a failure, you are just testing what works best for you.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

It Can Be Fine to Fail

We are involved with an initiative at work that is running dangerously close to missing its deadline. It’s a national initiative that aims to take a stance on an equity issue, and the marketing behind the initiative put the deadline for a time once long in the future that is now rapidly approaching. Folks in industry have individually worked to support the initiative’s aims, but it’s a big, hairy, unwieldy problem that will take everyone to solve.

The specifics of this initiative isn’t important for the purposes of this blog post. What is important is that there is a ticking clock that is creating a sense of urgency to act. To be completely honest, if we fail to reach our target, it won’t be the end of the world; it’s not an outcome that has immediate returns, but instead is about shifting culture and making things better for people in the long term. However, failure to reach the target will come with a certain amount of embarrassment and potential loss of good will.

I had a conversation with a colleague to discuss the initiative and the proposed action plan that’s up for consideration. A lot of work has gone into the current iteration, but some folks feel it is missing the mark in ways that can’t be ignored. The plan is being pushed forward so that work can begin and the worry is by not taking time to appropriately address the issues with the plan, we run the risk of either achieving nothing meaningful or we will cause real harm. By treating the problem as a pipeline issue, you focus your efforts too narrowly, where an “ecosystem” approach of seeing the problem as a multi-faceted set of interconnected issues that require careful consideration will require a lot more work.

It would be useful for us to understand what the cost of failure will be. The consideration must be that it’s better to fail to meet the deadline (and have a little egg on your face) than to push forward for implementation and potentially cause harm. We are dealing with people, and people will feel the deadline urgency mix with the sunk cost fallacy. If we push forward, we’ll want to ensure we do so deliberately and take responsibility for the outcomes.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Defaults

I’ve been thinking about habits lately. It mostly started when I would reflect or review on my weekly productivity output – or more specifically the lack of output – and realized that I tended to procrastinate a lot in fairly predictable ways. My behaviour of choice to avoid work is to allow myself just a small indulgence on YouTube in the morning before I get started on tasks for the day, and then I look up and it’s been hours.

It’s not that I’m unaware of the time passing me by. I fully accept that it’s a choice I’m making. It just so happens to also be a choice that is hard to make to stop yourself from continuing when the cost to switch to work is so high (objectively less enjoyable than watching a video).

Somewhat coincidentally, I just read BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits. I didn’t choose it with the explicit purpose of fixing my work productivity; it just happened to be a happy coincidence. I have read a fair number of the self-help books centering around habits. In 2016, I read Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, Deep Work from Newport, and 7-Habits from Covey; in 2019 I read Atomic Habits from Clear, Mastery from Greene; and in 2021 was The Practice by Godin. At this point, I think I have a pretty good grasp on the common understanding of how behaviour works in the mind, at least as distilled by pop-psychology.

Having said that, I thought Fogg’s book was pretty good. It’s been a while since I read Duhigg and Clear’s books, but while I finished those books feeling like they laid out a decent explanation of a process for changing habits. I felt that Fogg covered the topics in greater depth with more actionable steps. On top of that, Duhigg is a journalist and Clear is a motivational/productivity writer, whereas Fogg is a behavioural scientist. It was super refreshing to have a book entirely based on his work. He avoided having an animated bibliography of summarizing all the work of other people and rehashing old ideas. The anecdotes he included were samples from his own students, which helped give context to the topics he covered.

Finishing this book (especially his section on replacing habits you want to discontinue) made me think of something Ali Abdaal discussed in a recent video on intentional defaults. A lot of my bad habits seem to stem from poor default choices. For instance, when I don’t want to start work, I’ll indulge procrastination by seeing what’s on my YouTube feed. Or when I have a night off, I’ll default to watching television.

Despite these not feeling like a choice, I am still making a choice to do these activities because they are the defaults I have set in those instances. ~When I feel the anxiety associated with work, I default to soothing myself with YouTube.~ Same with downtime at home. Rather than doing something productive, I passively consume because it feels better.

I don’t mean to say that we should maximize productivity at all times. That is a toxic attitude to take.

What I am suggesting is that I should question the process by which I choose to fill my time. When I want to do something productive, say knock off small tasks on my to do list, I approach it as something that needs to be scheduled. That is, I have to think about my time as something I’m earmarking to get stuff done. For instance, my Saturday is free, so I’ll do the laundry, bake some banana bread, etc. I fill that time intentionally.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I can flip it around and think “I have free time until the next planned thing to do, so what small thing could I do that will help me out?” It might be the case that sometimes I just want to zone out and not think about anything. However, when I do this every time I have free time, it suggests that I’m not choosing how to fill my time but instead am just falling into whatever action will make me feel good in the moment.

I should take the time to reflect meaningfully on my defaults and see if there are better, more fulfilling ways I can occupy my empty time.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Food For Thought – Illusion of Safety

Last week, I shared the insight that brakes enable a car to go faster. This week is a reflection on the issues inherent in progress. I generally assume progress to be a good thing, but it’s important that we critically examine the consequences when we break through barriers.

Brakes allow us to go faster, but this increase in speed means that accidents are likely to be more severe due to the increased forces of collisions. Even when not driving recklessly, the instances where collisions happen means the damage is amplified as a result of speed.

Brakes, and other safety measures, provide an illusion of safety. Because we can brake at greater speeds, we feel safer going faster. Because seatbelts save lives, we are more willing to trust them in a collision. Because helmets protect heads, we are less concerned with impacts during collisions.

I’m only referring to legitimate features that make things safer – there is a whole other conversation to be had around safety theatre (measures that pretend to make us safer but have little actual effect relative to the cost). Things like brakes, airbags, seatbelts, and helmets, are all real ways we can increase safety when we go faster. They are all valuable guardrails to impose to allow us to leverage progress to scale added value. But we must also be mindful that the increases in speed (or other benefits of progress) have commensurate scaling of harm when things go wrong.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Food for Thought – On Self-Discipline

Michael Sugrue recently posted a series of one-liner observations on his YouTube Community page; one of them grabbed a hold of me, and I wanted to share it.

“Brakes make a car go faster: self-discipline produces freedom”

While it reminded me of Jocko Willink’s Discipline Equals Freedom mantra, it still gave me pause to reflect on this quasi-koan. There are two paths for speed – you either are able to control it, or you give over to speed for its own sake. Unless you disregard all safety and practicality, there is little benefit to unrestrained speed or freedom. It is through imposing limits (or the ability to control the forces at play) that you are truly able to take advantage of what speed (or it is a proxy of) has to offer. It is narrow-minded to believe in absolute freedom without guardrails. To believe we should live without restraint is to place yourself and your needs above everyone else. You might win on a few games, but it is a poor strategy in the long term that hurts everyone.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Forced System Growth

It’s been a busy few weeks between work and a sick kiddo at home. Sorry for missing the last two posts.

The changes I’ve recently experienced at work has inspired some thinking on this post’s topic. While I typically have a good mind for keeping track of projects (with some liberal use of a notebook), the updates to my job and the sheer scope of accrediting an engineering degree has proven to be more than my current organizational and productivity systems are capable of managing. Tasks were rapidly multiplying and open-loops weren’t being migrated for tracking; there was no translation between meeting notes and what was getting scheduled into my calendar.

I functionally hit a crossroad. One path was to keep trying to do the same thing and fall further behind, and the other was to force a systems growth to accommodate my new workload. What got me here won’t get me there, if you will. Put another way, my outputs were optimized to how I managed my workload, so if I wanted to change or improve my output, I would have to change the system. Changes in work forced the system to grow.

On one level, I want to deny this – why do I have to constantly adapt the system to new work? Can’t I find one universally applicable approach to managing my workload? Sadly, no. This is the pipedream sold by productivity wizards who claim their one system will take care of everything. The reality is that those systems are often tweaked to meet the unique cognitive needs of the person. If you want to use those prescribed systems (GTD, Building a Second Brain, etc), you will need to adapt it to how your mind processes information. And it makes sense that as you grow in your career, you will need to grow the systems that you use to keep on top of things.

Most of my systems have developed “organically.” I would implement new features on an ad hoc basis in response to specific needs. This is one of the first times that I’ve had to make large changes by first thinking through what I needed and how I wanted things to play out. As weird as it is, it reminds me of Stephen Covey and seems to combine two of his principles – begin with the end in mind, and sharpen your axe. By knowing where you want to go, and by spending a lot of front-loaded work setting things up, you have a better chance of dealing with bumps as you go.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Optimizing, Values, and the Right Answer

Engineers love clear problems with delineated right and wrong answers. Data, especially quantified data they think, is objective and clean. Without painting too strong of a stereotype, they don’t like to muck around with soft skills, or social/political factors in problems. They like to keep engineering pure.

The problem with this view is that it’s not correct – it makes an underlying assumption about what makes something a right or wrong answer to a problem. Most problems that engineers deal with when designing a solution are not value neutral. When we think of problems with clear right or wrong answers, we think of problems that are purely mathematical or having discrete binary solutions (e.g. “will the object handle the forces that it will be subjected to under normal conditions?”). The secret is that all problems have “right” and “wrong” solutions based on the underlying values you are trying to optimize for.

An engineering problem that is optimizing for maximizing return on investment might have different solutions than one that optimizes for addressing systemic inequity for particular people. The tradeoffs are not just opportunity costs, but instead are tradeoffs on which values inform the vision of the final outcome of your solution. When you seek to return on investment, to maximize profit, the answers are pretty clear – drive down expenses, raise prices as high as the market will bear, communicate the value proposition to the customer, and produce enough goods at the right rate to meet demand without excess goods sitting idle. When you seek to address systemic inequity, your solutions will have decidedly different considerations – your expenses will go up as you pay fair wages, prices might not maximize your margins, you will be more candid with your customers, and your manufacturing and distribution will be likely slower and more intentional as you make ethical considerations in your processes. You will also consider all sorts of other externalities that pop up as a result of your solutions, boosting the positives while capping the downsides.

This is not to say that all solutions will be equally easy to implement under any one set of values systems that you choose. However, it’s fallacious to believe that the same answer will always be given for “can we build this?” and “should we build this?” if you aren’t also examining the underlying values that you set in your assumptions.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Getting the Need for GTD

I seemed to have hit an inflection point in my job recently that I’ve been struggling to overcome. While my work has had multiple buckets of concern, I’ve been able to managing things fairly well using my memory and jotting notes and to-do’s in my notebook. However with moving into a position that requires managing complex, long-term, and poorly-defined processes, I’ve been increasingly finding it difficult to keep everything straight in my mind. My tasks aren’t are clearly defined, and I’m required to be more independent in how I manage both my own personal workflow and the various areas under my responsibility.

Simply maintaining a to-do list doesn’t seem to cut it anymore. There is too much to keep track of, too many legacy pieces of information that has accumulated over time, and the pace at which things are added or change is steadily increasing in velocity. Add to this the need to keep on top of things in our personal life at home, volunteer work, and activities that I find gratifying, and I’m feeling slightly paralyzed in knowing what I should fix my attention to.

In an effort to get a handle on things, I’ve picked up David Allen’s Getting Things Done. It’s the first time in a while where it feels like the text is speaking to me. I went into the book a little leery of going after yet another gimmick or shiny new toy. GTD is a seminal system in the productivity space, and so it sometimes carries with it some baggage from some of the more problematic areas of the space. Yet, I’ve found it helpful so far in thinking through my problems. At its core, my problem is in two areas: the meaningful transformation of input, and in execution.

I suppose GTD will eventually help me with the latter (I don’t know – I haven’t finished the book yet as of writing), but it’s been incredibly insightful in tackling the former. I tend to take notes and capture to-do items all over the place. However, what I’ve been lacking is examining each of these pieces of input and doing something with it; processing them into their buckets. The list has grown so large and unwieldy that I am having trouble finding stuff when I need it. I have tried popping items into information systems like Notion, Trello, or using tags to help me find it later, but most of these systems have lacked the context to help make the inputs useful later. Instead, they sit in whatever capture system was used to grab them at the time – physical notebook, email inboxes, Trello, tags in OneNote, calendars, or tasks in Teams.

I’ve found GTD helpful in suggesting organizational structures and parse out what will be meaningful later and what can be archived out of mind. I’m still working through developing a system, but so far embracing ideas from GTD has helped keep things more readily at the top of my mind, which has translated into less general anxiety as I go through the work day.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Cross-Domain Knowledge

I’m a huge fan of cross-domain knowledge. Coming from an academic background in philosophy, I feel my greatest strategy for creating and building a career is leaning in hard to knowledge and skills that are learned in one domain or context, then applying it to a unique area. You get a large confidence boost when you make connections by spotting patterns and connections that map analogical cases to each other.

The first time I truly appreciated this was in my days working for the university gambling lab. We were collecting data on slot machine players by recruiting participants into our study to measure the effects properties of the machine user-interface had in gambler’s cognitive awareness. In other words, did how the graphics and sounds play on the screen help the gambler understand their relative wins and losses over time. In one study, the simulation we were using for participants to play on during the trial had been modified, but on some of the laptops the wrong version of the software was copied over, and we didn’t realize the mistake until the end of the day. Of the three laptops, two had the right software, and one did not. At the end of each session, we uploaded the user data to a secure repository and deleted the local files, which meant that once we were back in the lab, there was no way of knowing which participant file batch came from the defective software.

We thankfully caught the issue early and limited the damage, but afterwards we had an issue with figuring out which files to exclude from analysis. On the face of it, there was no way of knowing from the participant’s biometric data which simulation they used. So instead we had to dig into the debug files that were spit out by the machine to verify that the simulation ran successfully.

All the files were generated in an XML format, however I had neither experience in basic coding nor reading XML files. I had to figure out a way of showing whether the version of the software was correct. To me, the XML files were largely gibberish.

But, I was able to spot a pattern in the files that reminded me of my formal logic courses from undergrad. While I did poorly in the courses at the time, I did retain some of the strategies taught for understanding the structuring of the syntax of formal logic arguments, specifically how nested arguments worked and how assumptions were communicated. I started to see the same structure in the XML code, how sub- and sub-sub arguments were written to call different files into the program, and where those files were being drawn from.

And there it was. At the bottom of one of the debug files, was a list of the files being called on by the simulation. In the broken simulation, the file path to a certain sound that was meant to be played was empty, meaning that when the simulation was supposed to play and auditory cue, there was no file name to look for, and so the simulation moved on.

I compared this with the files we knew came from the working simulators and saw that this was the main difference, giving us the key for finding the bad data points and justifiably excluding them from the overall data set. By finding this, I saved an entire day’s worth of data files (a cost savings that includes the some-30 participant files, their remuneration, three research assistant wages, per diem costs, travel, and consumable materials on site).

I grant that computer programming is entirely built on the foundations of formal logic and mathematics, so it’s not that I was gaining a unique insight into the problem by bringing knowledge from one separate domain into another. However, this was one of the first times I encountered a problem where I lacked the traditional knowledge and skill to address it, so I came at the problem from another angle. It was a case where I gained confidence in myself to be resourceful and tap into previous learning to address new/novel problems.

As I noted above, being trained in academic philosophy has pushed me in this direction of career development. On a superficial level, relying on cross-domain knowledge is a career survival strategy because philosophy doesn’t always teach you skills that are easily applicable to the working world. I have sadly, never once, had to use my understanding of Plato’s arguments in my workplace. But on a deeper level, I think training in philosophy naturally pushes you into this kind of problem-solving. Most of my experiences in philosophy involves approaching a thought experiment or line of thinking, considering what it’s trying to tell us, then testing those arguments against counter-factuals and alternative arguments or explanations. To do this well, you have to reduce a problem down into its constitutive parts to tease out relevant intuitions, then test them out, often by porting those intuitions from one context into another to see if they still hold as both valid and sound.

It’s not all that dissimilar to the processes used by engineers or designers to gather data and accurately define the problem they are intending to design for. Whereas the engineer will apply the tools they’ve been taught fairly linearly to create a design for the problem, my strategy is to adopt cross-domain knowledge to make connections where they might previously had not been apparent. The results can often be solved quicker or more efficiently if I had the relevant domain knowledge (e.g. an understanding of coding), however when I lack the specific experience to address the problem, as a generalist thinker I have to rely on analogical thinking and a wider exposure to ideas to suss out those connections. What I lack in a direct approach, I make up for in novelty and creative/divergent thinking, which has the benefit of sometimes opening up new opportunities to explore.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan