Stress Adaption

Exercise teaches us that to become stronger (read: more capable), you must grow through a process of exposure to controlled stress, recovery, then adaptation, so that you can handle the same stress loads with less conscious, intentional effort. This is a useful metaphor for handing other kinds of stress in our lives. Therefore, to overcome, you must develop your stress-capacity beyond whatever it is that is creating your fear, anxiety, or pain.

There are limitations to this simplification, such as bodily ailments and chronic systemic issues, but as a general idea, this shows an empowering approach that allows you to take responsibility over finding paths forward to good outcomes. You don’t have to resign yourself to passivity; it is possible to be active in redefining what you are capable of.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Sustainable Effort in Work

I reflected in my journal today that, once again, I went through another weekend without circling back on to do’s I had intended to get to when I left the office on Friday. Whether I have a good reason for not working on the weekend (such as us hosting family this weekend) or I just absentmindedly forget to look at my notebook at home, the net result is the same – my good intention effort to squeeze in work was never realized.

The thing is, I keep deluding myself into thinking that I can get all this work done in my downtime. I used to do it all the time, why not now?

But it’s foolish to believe that what worked for me in my twenties, when I was not married, without a kid, and with fewer responsibilities to carry, will somehow magically work for me now through hard work and gritty determination.

Maybe my expectations are wrong. Maybe I just need to accept that when I leave the office, I leave work behind to be picked up on Monday. Perhaps that feels unambitious, but if the work isn’t getting done anyway, maybe I should feel less crappy in disappointing myself.

And at least it’s more honest.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A Burnout Metaphor

I’ve recently been turned onto Van Neistat’s YouTube channel. Van, the older brother of Casey Neistat, is a true pleasure to watch – he’s the DIYer’s DIYer and his style is untainted by modern social media. He’s the best of the Gen X cohort without the pretension or cynicism.

In his video meditating on the nature of burnout, he described slow burnout in terms of a motor with the cylinders breaking down one at a time. I’ve never thought about burnout in this way, but the image struck me hard. I find it to be a very apt description, where a motor can lose a cylinder and still operate, but there will be consequences to continuing to run, such as damage to the motor, inefficiencies of fuel consumption, increased wear on other components in the chain, and vibration in the ride. From a mechanical perspective, if you choose not to fix the issue, so long as you reduce the load on the engine and cut the fuel going to the cylinder, you can get away with running down a cylinder. For a time.

Of course, this probably will be harder and costlier to fix later.

It’s better to fix the issue up front, but that usually is expensive as well – the time, cost to diagnose, and cost to repair.

Work and life burnout seems to function the same way – if you choose to ignore the problem, you can still operate, but you have to accept the knock-on consequences of operating out of balance. At some point, the engine will stop running. Or, you can pause and try to identify the problem up front and fix it then, which can be expensive and uncomfortable.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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

Identifying Areas of Growth

I had my latest performance appraisal last week. I found I had a much easier time identifying areas of growth this time over last year after having gone through an accreditation visit for one of our programs. In the past, I would look at my current skillset, look at the friction points I was experiencing, and project forward a better future based on picking up some new skills or experience. This process is fine, but I realize the flaw is that the path you choose to develop in is not based on experience. It’s a guess about what might be helpful.

Contrast this to going through the accreditation process. To prepare for the performance appraisal, I reviewed the last year’s worth of information (my calendar, my one-on-one meeting notes, and notes I’ve taken about my job) and saw patterns of missed opportunities and under-performance. In these areas, I can reflect and see how if I had more skills or experience in these particular areas, I would have had a better time navigating the issues we faced.

Based on this backwards reflection (rather than guessing or projecting forward), I could more clearly articulate what I’m weak in and where I would gain the highest value in focusing on.

I think this marks for me the formal transition from the “start of career” phase to a more mature “middle career phase.” I have enough work experience and self-knowledge to draw meaningfully from, and that allows me to make smarter choices moving forward.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan