In January of 2008, I was walking through my university campus’s student centre and passed by a table for the UW Campus Response Team, whom were recruiting volunteers for the new semester. I doubled back, chatted with the team members, and signed-up to participate in their interview process. I had taken first aid courses periodically during my cub scout and army cadet days, plus I had ran some basic first aid courses while abroad, so it felt like a good fit.
In retrospect, my “experience” was quite paltry, but I had shown the team managers that I had enough of the “right stuff” that they invited me to join the team and participate in the weekend training course they put on for new recruits. It’s an intense crash course in first aid skills that were well beyond my experiences and the training spanned several hours Friday night and all days Saturday and Sunday, before you perform your final scenario test to qualify as a secondary responder.
The material covered was largely derived from emergency first responder courses, along with some material covered for pre-hospital trauma professions (e.g. fire fighters and paramedics). The training was designed to create heuristics in the responder’s mind to quickly flow through critical details while gathering as much information as possible and start treatment momentum. The last thing you want is for a responder to have to intentionally think through what steps they should follow, because it shunts cognitive capacity away from situational awareness and into operational procedures.
In an effort to automate one’s thinking, you end up doing a lot of mock scenarios and skill drills. As a responder, you end up creating a script in your mind to follow. The script is based on a common set of things to attend to, which you follow according to handy mnemonics and other memory aids.
Despite the mnemonics functioning to provide mental triggers for actions, you still need to learn the process to go along with the mnemonics, and from the start of training weekend, you only have precious few hours after training concludes for the day to encode the information out of your working memory and into longer term storage.
I needed a way to quickly drill myself and aid in recall. The system I settled on was to get some window writable markers and write out my mnemonic devices on the bathroom mirror. Every time I used or walked passed the washroom, I would attempt to fill in as many of the mnemonics as I could remember, and note where I made mistakes. Through constant repetition, I was able to turn:
Mechanism of injury?
Count the casualties
Signs and Symptoms
Past medical history
Last meal/beverage intake
It was a quick and dirty way to give myself quick feedback on these concepts that I could readily apply to my first aid treatment during training and eventually on shift. Any time I lost momentum or felt nervous about the judges evaluating me, I would mentally go back to my bathroom mirror and fill in the blanks. I haven’t been on the first aid team in almost a decade but these concepts easily come back to me, even during my crazy nights at the bar. It’s a testament to the stickiness of the ideas and the effectiveness of the drills.
I’ve noticed something about myself: as time goes on, it’s getting easier for me to make “good” choices. I’m not sure if everyone shares this and it’s a common thing as we get older, but I’m finding it easier to do things that I struggled with when I was younger. Through some combination of experience, changes in my living conditions, and physiology, my ability to adopt certain habits and mindsets has improved. Here are a few examples I’ve noted.
First, sometime around turning 30, I found it easier to start going to the gym and exercise. Maybe it was the tail-end of the quarter-life crisis, but going to the gym (and paying for it!) seemed like a more important thing and it was easier to embrace. The trick is to make the habit stick.
Also around the time I turned 30, I found it important to stop pirating media content. Instead, I sought out legitimate sources for content, such as the library, paying the $1 for song and app purchases, paying for Spotify, renting movies on my gaming system, etc. I’m not perfect – I still pirate foreign shows from fan sites that subtitle the content and I make liberal use of an adblocker, but overall I have shifted away from feeling entitled to content to valuing paying for it.
Recently, I found it super easy to start flossing. This might also be an existential issue, where my teeth aren’t going to get any better, so it’s important for me to take care of my gums.
Even turning down junk food is getting easier. I appreciate that my body is changing, and it no longer has the resiliency to allow me to eat whatever I want. In my 20’s, I could eat anything I wanted at any time and I never felt sick because of it. Now, I find that those same poor choices lead me to feeling off or ill in the hours that follow. The food was never good for me, but in my 20’s I didn’t experience the short-term negative feedback that told me it was bad to consume junk (instead, it was just hurting me long-term through slowly accumulating body fat and other bad stuff).
This is not to say that I’m now perfectly virtuous. I can’t get the gym habit to stick quite yet, I binge on Nibs and Netflix when the opportunity presents itself, I enjoy my craft beers, and I never go to bed on time. I’ve been experimenting with systems to help stem my poor self-control (such as intermittent fasting or connecting my router to a timer) in order to give my rational brain a leg up on my monkey brain. It’s a slow, steady, incremental slog towards progress, but I keep at it.
I suppose a common thread that runs through all of this is that the short-term downsides that come with bad decisions are finally manifesting themselves, which provides near-immediate feedback. Rather than putting off the negative outcomes to some indeterminate point in the future, my body and attitude are giving me early signals that bad choices have consequences – consequences that can be mitigated if you address it now (exercise, good nutrition, and flossing are all forms of preventative maintenance, which Jim and I talked about on our podcast a few years ago).
This reminds of an exchange between Socrates and Cephalus from Book 1 of Plato’s Republic, when Cephalus is talking about what it’s like to be old and free from the passions of youth. Being in my 30’s is a far cry from “being old,” but I think we can derive wisdom from the speech:
“I will tell you, Socrates, (Cephauls) said, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says; and at our meetings the tale of my acquaintance commonly is –I cannot eat, I cannot drink; the pleasures of youth and love are fled away: there was a good time once, but now that is gone, and life is no longer life. Some complain of the slights which are put upon them by relations, and they will tell you sadly of how many evils their old age is the cause. But to me, Socrates, these complainers seem to blame that which is not really in fault. For if old age were the cause, I too being old, and every other old man, would have felt as they do. But this is not my own experience, nor that of others whom I have known. How well I remember the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, How does love suit with age, Sophocles, –are you still the man you were? Peace, he replied; most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master. His words have often occurred to my mind since, and they seem as good to me now as at the time when he uttered them. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many. The truth is, Socrates, that these regrets, and also the complaints about relations, are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men’s characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden.”
Last week, I reflected on the grading process and the tendency for us as faculty to sometimes judge that a student’s performance is more tied to internal motivation issues rather than external issues and a lack of experience. When you think of a cohort of students, you can group them into three categories – the group that “gets it” and performs well, the group that is motivated but has knowledge gaps, and the group that lacks the motivation to want to meet the course outcomes. Of course, these are simplistic categories, but I think it’s a useful illustration of how faculty approach their class, because how we choose to define the middle category impacts how we think about students and their performance. If you frame the discussion around a group of students who want to be helped (are motivated to succeed), then you are more likely to want to extend yourself to help the student. However, if you frame the conversation around whether the student should bootstrap themselves to catch up, you might be less willing to take extenuating circumstances into account.
When we assume that students are the sole reason for their failure, it’s possible for us to close off other considerations that questions whether we are dealing with a level playing field. I don’t mean to say that students should not be responsible for their performance (and by extension, failure). We as teachers must hold students accountable to their performance. Yet, when a student fails to meet an objective, we should ask ourselves a number of questions:
Was the assessment fair?
Was the assessment clearly communicated?
Should the student have worked “harder” or “smarter”?
Is there something I could have done to better prepare the student?
Was there factors that influenced the student’s performance?
It is this last bullet point I’d like to discuss, because I think there is something really interesting going on that we often miss.
Engineering programs share a common trait – the problems are hard and the only way you will get the material is by slogging through the practice problems. Many of the concepts are difficult to master, and the only way you can see the internal logic is to grind through problems, get feedback, and understand where you go wrong so that you can fix your methodology. Some students appear gifted and grasp concepts easier, but most engineers will tell you stories of how they spent huge chunks of their time on manual computation.
Setting aside discussions about learning styles, this way of learning how to be an engineer is a good reflection of how the brain works. The brain really hasn’t changed much in the last few thousand years, and we haven’t found genuine shortcuts to get around this limitation. Structured education, being the only systematic way that allows you to efficiently teach advanced concepts, is the best approach to bringing someone to proficiency.
Students aren’t just students. They are also members of this cultural and historical epoch. Outside of the classroom, their lives are informed by culture, technology, and social norms, and increasingly over the last several decades, culture and technology has prioritized reducing friction. Technology and corporations are incentivized to innovate ways of reducing barriers in our lives. The technologies and corporations that achieve this end up shaping culture. We spend less time focusing on basic survival, sustenance, communication, and transportation, because technology, innovation, and scale has reduced the time and resources we need to devote to these tasks.
As an experiment, consider this: when was the last time you had to carry cash? For the average person, you can go weeks without needing to go to a bank. Almost everything in your life can be handled through banking cards, e-transfers, direct deposits, and apps that instantaneously resolve payment upon the completion of service. These services are available to us because they make things frictionless (and this is good for corporations because it helps us spend more).
If you want to buy stuff, you order it online. If you want entertainment, you can find it on-demand. If you don’t know something, a search algorithm will sort and rank answers for you. If you don’t know how to do something, video tutorials are freely available with a few keystrokes and clicks to walk you through it.
Life outside of the classroom is frictionless, and yet we are insulted when students expect their experience in the classroom to conform to every other experience they live through in their daily lives. Students ask for shortcuts to mastering hard concepts because literally everything else in their life operates this way. The surface level encounters they experience have been refined through intentionally designing the user-interface (UI) and user-experience (UX). Students have little grasp of the underlying mechanisms that hold this up because they’ve never had to worry about it. If something breaks, it is either repaired as a service, or we cast away the broken and move on with purchasing new.
I was an undergrad student in the mid-aughts, and when I look at what life is like for students now compared to when I was a freshman in the dorm, I am startled at how easy it was for me to be a student. I didn’t have the distractions that students experience today. My life was less guided by algorithms and the whims of corporations and technology. You may argue that technology has put the world at student’s fingertips today, but I think that the signal-to-noise ratio has shifted from my time. Yes, I had to work harder to get answers, but that’s because there was less distraction clogging my search. And don’t get me started on the attention economy and designing to maximize user engagement…
When we dismiss performance as being the result of “kids these days” not valuing hard work, we miss the fact that there is no incentive for the kids to work hard when life has grown frictionless. I personally now value friction, because I understand what friction does for the learning process. Much in the same way that you have to introduce low level stress to the body (exercise) in order to promote health, the introduction of friction can be a good thing. But without understanding the motivations and lived experiences of your students, your demand for frictioned lives reduces you down to an old person yelling at the clouds.
Last week, I discussed how I felt really good after a particularly productive day. Just as I was drafting the post, I shared my thoughts with my wife. She was happy for my sense of accomplishment and expressed encouraging words about the value of feeling fulfilled, productive, and useful. But, I didn’t just marry her to build me up; my wife is also my best sounding board to check my intuitions.
In her wisdom, she asked if that kind of feeling of satisfaction is a healthy one. I knew what she was getting at right away. She wasn’t expressing skepticism about this one instance, but instead she was gesturing at a longer trend of mine.
I have a mindset and set of expectations on myself that are dangerously close to being unhealthy, to the point where I know I would never try and convince a person to adopt it themselves.
You see, I hate feeling like I’m wasting my time. I don’t mean this in a hustle/grind sort of way, nor does this mean that I don’t waste loads of my time (hello YouTube; you are my true weakness).
I hate napping because I feel like it’s a waste of my time.
I should qualify that a little bit. When I say a waste of my time, I don’t mean that napping isn’t good for me. I know that sleep is good. Sleep will rejuvenate you, help your brain work better, help you feel better, etc.
When I say that napping is a waste of my time, I mean it in an existential sense. When I sleep, I am unconscious, and when I’m unconscious, time slips past me faster. It’s almost like time travel. I go to sleep and wake up in the future. All the time in the middle is gone, and I can never get it back. I have done nothing, and made no memories.
This line of thinking extends to downtime. I don’t handle downtime very well, often feeling guilty to take time to myself to mindlessly indulge in “non-productive” things (the aforementioned YouTube, movies/tv, videogames, etc). When I give myself permission to focus on fun things, it’s always clouded with the knowledge that by taking time to do a fun thing, it’s time not spent on something productive, and no matter how much fun I have, I know that those tasks and projects I need to work on will still have to be done. I’m not trading off tasks; I’m delaying progress because time runs linearly.
My wife (rhetorically) asked if this line of thinking is sustainable, and it is obviously not. Indeed, she rightfully labelled it as a stupid worldview to hold.
The real problem is that while I would never advocate for anyone else to frame their worldview in these terms, I want to (and choose to) do it for myself. I think this is largely because I’m so disordered in my productivity and I’m always battling against my akrasia (a fancy Greek term for making bad decisions due to weakness of the will). It’s my way of punishing myself for not focusing when I want to focus.
The reason why I mentioned that this is an existential problem for me is because when I think about my mortality, I know that every moment that passes is bringing me closer to death. Every moment that I spend watching YouTube videos instead of getting stuff done is non-renewable time that I can’t get back and exchange for time on more important things like my wife, my dog, family, friends, or leisurely pursuits. Realistically, I have finite time, a finite number of heartbeats, and no way of buying more. Instead, decisions like not going to the gym, not sleeping, or eating unhealthily have the opposite effect and are likely shortening my life.
I know this is stupid. I know this is unhealthy. And I don’t have a good solution to address it. This isn’t a case of believing that hustling for the sake of hustling is inherently virtuous. Quite the opposite, I think grinding away should be in service of something higher than itself. This is, plainly, a different flavour of a fear of missing out. I’m worried about missing out on things by not being productive.
I don’t have an adequate response to the charge that my worldview is not good. At least I have some semblance of self-awareness and a great partner in my wife that calls me out on my shenanigans.
I have carried some form of notebook for the last seven years or so. It started back at the tail end of grad school where I felt I needed a way to help me remember important appointments, meetings, and to capture to-do items. I started off by purchasing a Moleskine weekly calendar, which was great, but my cheap student mind didn’t like the added cost of the specialty book, whereas I could make the same book from a regular, ruled Moleskine. For the next two years, I would measure out the spacing and draw in the lines for the year. I appreciated the simplicity of the task and found it almost meditative, however I grew tired of having to do this at the start of each year.
Later, I switched from larger Moleskine notebooks to smaller, pocket books. Over time, I adopted the Field Notes brand of pocket notebooks as my go-to medium to capture thoughts, though I do keep an assortment of notebooks on hand (or on my shelf) for specialty purposes. The early days of Field Notes had me using a notebook until it was full, whether this was notes from a single month or from multiple months.
Eventually I settled on using one book per month, and started a fresh book every month, regardless of whether I fill the book or not. In this post, I’ll show you how I set up a notebook for the month of January, and provide some commentary on my choices.
The first step is to get a fresh notebook. You don’t have to use Field Notes, but I like the brand and the quality of the product. My only criteria when selecting a book is I prefer at least 48-pages that uses good paper and a grid pattern (either solid lines or dots). The paper is important because I use a specific kind of pen (I’ve settled on the Uniball Deluxe Micro as my preferred pen) that can easily bleed or smudge on poor quality paper as I write leftie.
The next step is to go through and number all of my pages. This is important because after I’m done with a book, I use an index (see below) to capture important pages that I want to reference in the future. The index does not capture any of the standard pages I set up at the start of the month, nor does it capture my individual days. Instead, it captures main to-do lists, important notes, or other things that I’ll need to find later. For instance, I use these physical books to remember passwords I rarely need to type. If I update a password, I note the date in my online calendar with a book reference (month, year, and page), so that I can go back and see what I set the password to. This doesn’t work when I’m out of the house, but I find this helps with keeping my rarely used passwords secure (instead of constantly answering security questions to reset the password).
After the index, I titled the second page my dream scratch pad. This is where I can do pie-in-the-sky thinking about things I want to do, accomplish, strive towards, covet, etc. To be honest, I rarely use this page, but I like to keep it on hand in the same place.
Next, any major to-do items get carried over. A lot of these have been on my carried-over to-do’s for some time, but I don’t want to forget about them (things like rolling over my passwords regularly, or little things I want to do around the house. If to-do items can be grouped under a specific theme (say, specific home repairs), they get their own lists later in the book. This page carries over everything else.
Next is my tracker page. This is where I track habits and other regularly occurring items so I can see them at glance. I list the dates along the left side (weekends get doubled-up so I can fit the entire month in), and each category of things to be tracked gets its own column. Some metrics are good things to track, while some of them I want to use to monitor my general health and well-being.
Since the entries per day are pretty short (not a lot of space), I keep this facing-page blank for additional notes on the month, if I need it.
On page 6, I capture my intentions and goals. I track goals and intentions a few ways. First, I have a “soul,” “mind,” “body” theme which allows me to focus on specific areas of my life (soul – social, philosophical, spiritual, etc.), (mind – learning, planning, etc.), and (body – physical health and wellness). I realize you can’t try and change too many habits at once and be successful, so these are just ways of helping me to prioritize things into themes, short-term and longer-term goals, and things I want to change. If page 6 is my capture page, page 7 would be where I would focus myself to a limited number of things. I would pick something from the previous page and devote more time or attention to it with specific plans and actions.
On page 8, I track some specific health indicators – my weight on the scale (left side), and my waist measurements (on the right axis) over time (the x-axis). Static views of single health metrics aren’t very helpful, so I’ve chosen to track weight and my waist as a better indicator of my overall progress in fitness. I’ve also started tracking blood pressure, which I input results for the day the data is collected as the systolic/diastolic reading.
Then, on page 9, I borrow a system I found on Reddit to track excuses. This is where I can measure intentions against action. For instance, if I set an intention to exercise and I skip it, I can capture what my excuse is for skipping it, assess whether it is legitimate (yes/no), and make notes on any ways I can mitigate the reality or implement solutions to keep my intentions.
Finally, on page 10, I start my first entry. Every day that I record in my notebook will receive a new page. I put the date across the top, then fill in tasks for the day, ideas, interesting quotes, or things to remember. Sometimes I’ll migrate thematic lists into this section, such as tasks I need to complete as Board Chair or for things around the house to repair.
This is the system I currently use. It borrows from a couple different sources, such as the original Moleskine planner I began with, elements from the Bullet Journal method, and good ideas I’ve found rambling through sites like Reddit. The notebook set-up iterates over time. I add and remove things depending on how useful I find them. Some of the items discussed above might get removed soon since I haven’t done a good job of keeping up with them, and therefore are no longer useful to me.
It is a little tedious to set up a new notebook every 30 or so days, but on the whole I like the systems I’ve developed and have found it immensely useful in my day-to-day life.
Share with me down below what kind of systems you use to help keep yourself on top of things. I’m always looking to borrow good ideas! I hope you found something here that was useful.
With the turning of the new year, I spotted an interesting trend for my blog traffic.
Starting on the 27th of December, I had a relatively huge spike in traffic for my blog. I’ve written about it before, but this was the first time I’ve seen such a consistent spike for a single article around a specific, meaningful date. In this case, as the new year approached, it would appear that people began searching for health and fitness options and through their searches, they stumbled across my brief review from January last year of the Zombies, Run! 5K Training app. I joked with a friend that since fitness posts generally account for my top posts here, if I wanted to monetize this site I should switch to posting just fitness content – seven of my top twenty posts of all time are fitness related.
I continued to see higher than usual traffic to that post over the week, but now my web traffic has starting to level off a bit, so I suppose whatever actions people intended to take for the new year are (hopefully) well under way. And for those who stumbled across my review, I hope that my words were useful for you. If you have used my post to help you make a decision about using the app, drop me a line in the comments. I’m curious what, if anything, you found valuable, and if I missed anything you were hoping to learn.
In the meantime, I hope your year has kicked off well and you are working hard towards your goals.