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

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

Feeling Your Way Into An Answer

I was listening to a podcast late last year where author/speaker Michael Bungay Stanier was on to promote his new book. The podcast host asked him a question, and Stanier prefaced his response with something to the tune of “I’m not sure how I think about that since I’ve never thought about it before, so please allow me to feel my way into the answer.

This really stuck with me over the last few months as it gives me words to describe something I’m somewhat known for. Whether it’s for my work with engineering accreditation or for the research ethics boards I sit on, whenever I’m asked to opine on a matter of interpretation, I’ll often externalize my thinking to help sift through the relevant details or principles at play. I’d like to think I do this as part of teaching the other person how I reason through problems, but I think it’s more charitably the way I test ideas out slowly and give language to thoughts or ideas that are more emotionally based in my mind.

I suspect this is an offshoot of my training in philosophy, where if we cannot deduce an answer through deductive reasoning, then we employ inductive and abductive strategies to generate thought experiments. I craft a set of considerations or scenarios, say them out loud, and evaluate if it satisfies the criteria, and check to ensure there are no counter-examples, counter-factuals, or missing considerations that should be accounted for.

I’m under no illusion that this can be frustrating for someone looking for a simple answer; brevity is not one of my virtues. However, having this phrase to describe how my mind works makes me feel slightly less embarrassed when I’m talking my way into an answer.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Evidence, Credibility, and the Homunculus Courtroom

We should think of our beliefs and the evidence we engage with as if we had a little homunculus tv courtroom in our brain adjudicating whether to admit evidence into the record. Obviously, this is incredibly difficult to pull off in real time, but it’s a nice thought experiment to pause and consider the weight of a claim being made.

This idea came to me while watching a YouTube video covering the recent downfall of a famous hustle influencer, where the presenter made an observation that she (the presenter) would normally not take people’s personal lives into consideration when judging their professional work, but the case that the influencer sold conferences and products marketed as relationship coaching courses under the pretenses of having a great marriage was swiftly undermined by her (the influencer) getting a divorce approximately two years later.

I was impressed with this statement by the presenter – she was right! Under normal circumstances, the personal life of a person shouldn’t bear weight on something like this, but given the fact that the evidence under consideration was whether someone was misleading about their personal life and getting others to pay for her “expertise,” it would be grounds to consider this piece of evidence as relevant or bearing weight. My homunculus courtroom judge ruled that the testimony was admissible.

This is a silly thought experiment to anthropomorphize cognitive thought-processes that are otherwise just a black box to me. I suppose it’s a little farfetched to think that we have this much control over our beliefs, but maybe the next time I listen to a claim (or gossip, or something that doesn’t jive with my experience… or claims that I want to be true…), I will remember my homunculus courtroom and think twice about the claim’s believability.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Initial Assumptions

I was reflecting on Seth Godin’s musings about the number of moons in our solar system. The initial assumptions we use to make predictions about our world can sometimes be orders of magnitude off from truth.

We as humans don’t like to be wrong, but we shouldn’t be overly concerned with our initial assumptions being off the mark. After all, if we knew the truth (whatever “truth” happens to be in this case), there would be no need to start from initial assumptions. It is because we are starting from a place of ignorance that we have to start from an assumption (or hypothesis) in order to move forward.

The problem lies with whether we realize we are making assumptions, and how committed we are to holding on to them. Assumptions made about the physical world can often be value-neutral, but assumptions that intersect with the lived experiences of people always come pre-packaged with history that’s value-loaded. It’s fine to make an assumption that your experiences are shared with others, but that assumption can only be carried so far. At some point, you have to acknowledge that there will be a lot missing in your initial assumptions that need to be accounted for.

The lesson then is this: when working from an estimation or prediction, be careful with your initial assumptions. It’s fine to begin with your own experiences, but always put an asterisks beside it because your experience is likely not universal. We must guess, then check. Test, verify, then revise.

Aiming at truth is a noble goal, but we should settle for asymptotically moving closer towards it as it more likely reflects reality.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – July 31, 2020

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on July 31st:

💭Reflection – Writing Daily, But Posting When Ready | Derek Sivers

I started this blog for two reasons – because I wanted a public way of practicing what I was learning at the time, and to force myself to write consistently. I decided posting once per week was a manageable target, and I’ve been relatively successful for the last few years. Recently, I’ve added the Friday Round-up as a way to force myself to write more and to share interesting content I stumble upon. When I added the Friday posts, I questioned whether it was worth putting in the effort – was I adding value to any part of the process? On some level, I feel it’s worth it, if for nothing else than to force myself to be a bit more reflective on what I consume. However, Derek Sivers’s point about forcing one’s self to post rapidly comes with some trade-offs. I imagine Seth Godin (another prolific blog poster) sometimes feels the same way by posting daily – that most of his posts aren’t what he would consider good. The mentalities are a bit different; Godin posts as part of his process, whereby you have to make a lot of crap to find the good stuff. Sivers would rather keep the crap more private to give him time to polish up the gems. I’m not sure which style is better. Both admit to keeping the daily writing practice, which is probably the more important lesson to draw from their examples, but it’s still worth considering.

*Addendum*

After drafting the above, I kept reading some bookmarked posts from Sivers’s page and found this one written in 2013 after a friend of his died. It’s a heartbreaking reflection on how one spends their time, which included this:

For me, writing is about the most worthy thing I can do with my time. I love how the distributed word is eternal — that every day I get emails from strangers thanking me for things I wrote years ago that helped them today. I love how those things will continue to help people long after I’m gone.

I’m not saying my writing is helping anyone, but the thought that my words will live beyond me touched something within.

📽Video – The Biggest Bluff: Poker as Life | Book Review from ThePoptimist

I’ve known the author of this YouTube channel for a few years, and I follow him on ye ol’ Instagrams (I love his scotch and cigar posts). But I didn’t know until last month that he also reviews books as part of the BookTube community. I wanted to share this link to show him some love, and because it reminds me of one of my roomies in undergrad who introduced me to the world (and language) of poker. While I’m a terrible player, I have fond memories of watching my roomie play online, if for nothing else than the humor of him yelling at the screen.

Oh, and I like Maria Konnikova’s writing, so I think I’ll check out her book. Another good book by a poker player about thinking better – Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets.

🎧Listen – “Your mask questions answered” | The Dose podcast by CBC

With all the anti-mask beliefs floating around, I wanted to do my part to share good information about the benefits of masks and to help dispel some of the dis/misinformation out there.

Wear your masks and stay awesome,

Ryan