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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
While I have recently joined a new gym in our new city after the move, I have used it once as of writing. I have yet to work out a schedule that allows me to easily pick up the habit of exercising. This is, of course, a terrible excuse to not exercise.
Exercising at the gym will either be something I do before work, or something done after work. Each of these options have complications that provide just enough friction that implementing them is stopped by my slothful lizard brain.
In order to exercise at the gym before work, I’d have to wake up earlier. This is hard for me for a few reasons:
Because I work at the bar a few nights per week, my sleep schedule is variable, so keeping a consistent bed and wake-up time is challenging.
I’m a heavy sleeper, so finding a way to wake me up without disturbing my partner is difficult.
I’ve developed a habit of snoozing when my alarm goes off.
Being late to work is bad, so if I’m late to get to the gym, it throws things off for me.
In order to exercise at the gym after work, I have a few barriers that I’d need to overcome. Ideally, I’d go straight from work, but:
On days when the dog is at daycare, I’m usually the only one who can pick him up before they close since my work is closer.
On days when the dog is at home, I need to go home first to take him out to relieve himself.
Because I’m the first one home, it makes more sense for me to start dinner.
I have the habit that once my “pants come off,” or if I sit on the couch, it’s hard for me to get up and go again.
Exercising after work is challenging if I’m tired from work.
I wouldn’t be able to workout on days after work when I also work at the bar or have board meetings (mornings are more likely to be clear of other scheduled activities).
I value spending time with my significant other over going to the gym.
These are all excuses. They are in no way real impediments to going to the gym. Instead, they provide just enough friction to stop me from making a change.
Another option would be for me to workout at home. Until recently, we’ve been limited in what we could unpack while the renovations were ongoing. However, now that the renos are done, we are in a position to reclaim more space in the basement. The disassembled elliptical was buried behind boxes of stuff, and there was little extra floor space that could be used to set up the machine.
Last week, I decided that I wanted to finally set up the elliptical so that I had no excuses for skipping some form of exercise. I wanted to take back some locus of control for my fitness. Everything listed above is coded in language that suggests I have no control over my situation. There’s always a reason outside of myself that prevents me from committing to exercise – “if only things were different, I’d exercise.”
But this is wrong.
In truth, there is nothing stopping me from exercising. I’m making excuses on why I’m not modifying my behaviour. Instead of whining and whinging about why I can’t exercise, I need to address the nagging feeling that I am drifting about in my day to day life. I don’t feel in control of things, but this is false. I tend to react, without intention. I act as if I don’t have an active agency in how I spend my time. By not making decisions about how to fix my behaviour, I’m still making a decision – only now I’m pretending to be a victim of circumstance and pushing off ownership of that decision to do nothing.
And so, last week I decided to take back some locus of control and re-assemble the elliptical and go for a run. This is not a behaviour change, but merely a first step. (Or several steps according to my FitBit…)
This is it! I’ve finally hit the end of the sleep challenge and I can finally look back at a year of data and see if I can spot anything interesting from the data. This post will give the quarterly update from October through December, and then I will look at the results from the entire year.
For those just coming on-board with this post, in 2017 I set out to track my sleep each month with the target of sleeping for at least 7-hours. I used a Fitbit Charge HR to track my sleep and I gave monthly updates on my progress. I also used a few quarterly updates that looked at data over longer periods of time to see what sorts of trends and patterns I could extract from the results. While I wanted to try and maximize my sleep, in truth I am terrible at keeping a nightly routine, so at the mid-point of the experiment, I set the goal of trying to get at least 10 nights in each month where I hit my target of 7-hours.
To see a recap, you can go to the individual posts below:
First, let us look at the fourth quarter’s results.
Fourth Quarter – October through December
The fourth quarter results fall in line with what I’ve been seeing over the course of the year. Sundays prove to be the most consistent night of 7+ hours of sleep, followed by Saturday. Monday usually gets a high number of hits, but this time around it appears that I’m not sleeping as well when I transition from weekend to work week. I don’t have an explanation for this, other than I probably am going to bed too late (as opposed to lost sleep due to anxiety of going to work the next day).
And now, time for the final reveal!
Sleep Results for 2017
The grand total for the year are:
January – 4
February – 8
March – 6
April – 7
May – 4
June – 7
July – 11
August – 11
September – 9
October – 8
November – 7
December – 10 Total: 92
Out of the 365 nights of sleep for 2017, I hit my target 92 times, for a 25% success rate. This is a very strict number, which reflects poorly on the overall experiment, but one bit comfort I take from this is that, as I have pointed out a few times over the course of this challenge, the data is skewed when we look at the time I spent asleep, versus the amount of time the Fitbit tracker tracked me as asleep. Any amount of sleep disturbance or restlessness meant that the device wasn’t counting it as sleep time. So, while I might have been asleep for over seven hours if I had any kind of restless sleep, the quality sleep tracked came in under 7-hours.
Is there another way of seeing the data to determine if the 25% rate is overly skewed?
Time spent Sleeping
We can adjudicate this by looking at the actual time I was asleep, versus the target sleep. This way, any nights where I slept more than 7-hours would pull my averages up and cancel out some of the nights where I slept less than 7-hours.
For 2017, the Fitbit tracked me as sleeping 2,137-hours. If I assume 7-hours for all 365 days, this would give us 2,555 hours of sleep. Viewed from this perspective, I hit 84% of my target sleep, with only a 418-hour deficit of sleep spread over the 12 months.
The problem with tracking only the successes throughout the year is that it ignored any sleep that falls under 7-hours. Month over month, my progress tended to looked bad and reflected poorly on my ability to set goals and maintain progress. While it’s true that I was failing in hitting absolute targets of sleep, the presentation almost suggested that if I didn’t hit my sleep target it was because I wasn’t sleeping at all.
So, while I was only 25% successful in hitting targets, I was able to get 84% of the sleep the target would imply.
One note of caution – if I’ve learned anything these last two years, it’s that I’ve learned and reflected on what it feels like to be sleep deprived. Running a theoretical sleep deficit of 418-hours for a year might not seem bad, but in practice is something to be concerned about. Sleep deprivation has consequences that affect me in many ways, such as my ability to resist temptation, my productivity at work, the likelihood that I will exercise, and my interpersonal interactions with friends and family. There was one time where in my sleep-deprived state, I let a door swing shut before my dog was fully through the threshold, and it caught him in the rear paw. Despite a yelp of pain from him, there was thankfully no physical damage to his paw. Still, I felt terrible about my carelessness and it was a reminder that my ability to focus and pay attention is compromised when I don’t sleep.
Tracking my sleep for this blog was an interesting experience. I do not plan to continue giving regular updates as I progress through 2018, though I will still be monitoring my progress in my personal notebooks. I found a lot of value in seeing the aggregate results. The monthly updates were mostly in line with my intuition, but it was still good to objectively see how poorly I am with sleep.
It will be an ongoing work of progress to do better. The main takeaways from this experiment are that,
1.) I’m terrible at maintaining a disciplined nightly routines to go to bed at a reasonable time;
2.) working at the bar, even 2-nights per week, dramatically impacts my sleep during the week; and
3.) I need to pay more attention to the things in and out of the bedroom that cause disturbances in my sleep (such a the dog jumping on the bed, evening alcohol consumption, and potential sleep apnea due to my weight).
There are many avenues I can explore to improve the quality and quantity of sleep I get each night. Perhaps, I will explore them in time. However, it’s time to put down the measuring devices and enjoy a bit on unquantified time.
My November sleep check-in fell short of my target of 7-hours, so I was hoping to rally stronger in December to close out the year-long experiment. Let’s see how I did for December.
I managed to hit my target of 10 nights, but only just barely. This is thanks in large part to my time off from work from December 23rd through the end of the year (5/9 nights). One item of note is that I also managed to get 3 nights on the 14th, 16th, and 17th (Thursday, Saturday and Sunday), which is unusual for me.
On the other hand, I still had long stretches of time where poor bed-time habits and a lack of routine caused me to fall short of my target. My lack of intentionality nearly lost me the challenge for another month. This has been a persistent problem with the sleep challenge all through 2017, which suggests a lack of priority in sleep overall (though I’ll leave that reflection for the 2017 Sleep Review).
At the very least, it feels good to close 2017 and kick off 2018 on a positive note.
My stats from the October sleep check-in were below my target, so I was hoping to get things back on track for the month of November. Let’s see how I did.
Not only did I miss my target again, but I did poorer overall than October (8 of 31). Sadly, this is less an issue of poor quality sleep (you can still see a fair number of nights where I was really close to the target line, suggesting I was in bed for at least 7-hours, but I had disturbed sleep), and more a problem of me not having a solid night-time routine. This time last year, my problem was that I couldn’t tear myself away from the internet at a reasonable time (remember when I used to shut-off my internet via timer?), whereas this year my problem is that my partner and I don’t get ready for bed at a decent time, and then stay up chatting passed 11pm.
I know that I will be doing better in December since I’ll have time off from work before and after Christmas, which will make up the bulk of the time I hit my sleep target. Still, I should strive to hit more nights during the work-week, rather than leaving it up to the weekends to catch up on sleep.
After missing my target by one night in September, and doing a quarterly check-in, I was hoping to get things back on track for October in terms of sleeping. Let’s see how I fared.
Yep, I failed another month. This was entirely because I was not intentional with my sleep habits. I didn’t think about going to bed on time, and I didn’t make any effort to structure my evenings around winding down at a reasonable time. It’s starting to show, too. I’m finding that as of writing, I generally feel a bit more tired and groggy during the day.
This doesn’t mean it was all bad or completely negligent on my part. From the above chart, you see many stretches (Oct 4-7, 16-21, etc), where I was consistently not going to bed at a decent time, but you also see instances where I just barely missed the 7-hour bar.
It's so frustrating to be asleep for at least 7 hours, but restlessness keeps me below my 7-hour/night goal. pic.twitter.com/S4SSIHBM03
The restless sleeping seems to be an issue for me, and I’m not entirely sure what is causing it. There are a few issues that could be contributing to it, such as the dog jumping on the bed during the night, or perhaps my weight is giving me some form of undiagnosed sleep apnea. Whatever the cause, it does have an impact on my sleep targets: I am down for 7-hours or more, but I am logging less than 7-hours of sleep.
However, this is shifting the blame a bit to soften the blow. The truth is, for every instance where I just barely miss my target, there are at least two nights where I didn’t have a proper shutdown before bed. Fixing those errors should be my priority, not making excuses.