Sunday, April 07, 2019

Creating a Better Self

Atomic Habits is an outstanding book. It is clearly written, inspiring, actionable, and insightful. It contains information that is new to me – and I have read many books on self-development over many years – and states those ideas in a way that feels like I could do something with them. I want to do something with them! I very highly recommend it.

I'm restarting it, to incorporate more of the suggestions, and today I was struck by the identity concepts. "Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become." Isn't that beautifully stated? And it's central: who do I want to become? What goals would that person have? What habits would she practice to reach those goals and to express the person she is?

One of my very first posts here was that I am more of a net than an arrow. That was an identity statement. I believe I am a generalist. I like to spread my efforts among multiple goals. I enjoy having more than one focus for my attention, over the course of a day, over the course of a week, over the course of months or years, or over the course of a lifetime. However, all these statements are identities, and I could change them.

Here's another meta-belief: I believe that the likeliest way to change a value is to adhere more strongly to a higher value. In a class recently, someone asked me if my values had changed. It's an excellent question. I stopped and reviewed my history.

There is a bias for humans to think we thought the same way in the past that we think now. We don't remember how we thought before we changed our minds without an extra effort to do so. Knowing this, I looked first at how my behavior had changed, which is easier to observe. And I could see: I used to have a much stronger belief in having everyone follow the same rules than I have now. I've gained a value for diversity that now ranks higher than what I might previously have called a value for equal application of the rules.

That may be because I have a higher value for kindness, for treating humans well, than I have for fairness. Or it may be because I now spend more time around people who value diversity than people who value lawfulness.

When I made a mission statement, that was a clarifying effort to discover and enhance what is most important to me. In many ways, it was a discovery or creation or strengthening of identity.

James Clear, in Atomic Habits, inspired me to take the next step and ask, "What frequent actions would someone who valued this mission take?" I can think of a few. And I'll write more about them another day.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Building up Practices

While it irritates me to have too many practices dictated to me, especially when they are all supposed to happen "first thing in the morning," there are things I'd like to get done. So I've been trying to improve my habits.

One hack in the kit is to chain practices. Only one can happen first thing, but it could lead to another, and another, and another. Then another could happen, say, just after breakfast, and it could lead into another.

I had a few good days of chaining four practices before breakfast, then breakfast leading into three more daily practices – four if I count brushing my teeth.

Then I had a horrible backlash.

This is normal.

With all these practices in rubble around me, I have a good chance to review them, decide what is really important to me, and which ones were really helping.

I feel some urgency. I've had a couple minor but continuing health concerns that would yield to better self-care. And with Doug and I both out of work, I see a date when our savings will run out that gives me a deadline that feels heavy. So it does feel like very slow addition of practices, which I would normally recommend, isn't sufficient to meet current needs.

Slow additions would reduce those backlashes.

Nonetheless, here I go again.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

I Feel Better about Myself When I Write

I've been working on re-establishing some of the good work procedures I had in place before we moved. It's surprising how many of them were made easier by the surroundings I had carefully set up in my home, which was also my office. I've set my laptop up in a smaller, less central place (as Stephen King mentions doing in On Writing) and made a variety of other adjustments to my space and schedule, and I've been getting into the book and making progress on it much more regularly than I was two weeks ago.

That feels better. I say kinder words to myself when I am writing, and say fewer unkind things. I feel in accordance with my work in the world, and feel like I am serving. I have a sense of accomplishment upon completing even a paragraph that outweighs the accomplishment of spending hours on more laborious actions like massive housecleaning or someone else's editing.

While he was writing Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (a work which has my highest recommendation), Eliezar Yudkowsky talked about how writing an immense fanfic might seem a quixotic use of his skills. Then he sent us to a comic of which the punchline was, "I tried not doing it, and that didn't work." There we go. I've tried not writing. It doesn't work.

Whether that's because writing itself is the necessary action or because my current writing project is on the critical path to the difference I want to make in the world remains to be seen.

Marcus Buckingham gives a revisionist definition of strengths and weaknesses. He says that a strength is what strengthens you and a weakness is what weakens you. This is an interesting change of perspective on the more usual understanding that a strength is what you are good at and a weakness is what you find difficult. His definition is completely uncorrelated, at least to start, with the standard definition. Over time, it seems likely that practicing what strengthens you will also give you skill in it.

In either definition, writing is one of my strengths.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Deep Frying

French fries. Doughnuts. Fried chicken. Some of the most crave-able, iconically American foods are deep-fried.

When we lived in Bend, there was a man who was an absolute artist with a deep fryer. I just checked reviews and Hardy is still making wings and burgers. Deep-frying is an art, and it can create wonderfully hot food with rich flavor.

And at some point I decided I would not deep-fry at home. It takes a lot of oil, a deep pan, a thermometer or the experience to judge the heat of the oil, and it spatters grease. I could trim a set of equipment and a body of learning and an extra cleaning project from my life and lean into someone else's skills. When I have a relatively infrequent desire for deep-fried food, I let someone else make it.

In miniature, this is an example of what it looks like to specialize. Others deep-fry well. I let them. I buy their art when I want it. We are both better off.

I'm glad to be a member of a civilization where someone else can do the deep-frying.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Treasure Hour

Here's a partial list of actions that various authorities have recommended I do first thing in the morning:

  • Meditate
  • Check blood sugar
  • Drink a quart of water
  • Write down my dreams
  • Write a morning pages brain dump
  • Practice yoga or stretch
  • Visualize a safe zone
  • Practice gratitude
  • Drink water with lemon or vinegar
  • Make the bed
  • Eat 
  • Fast
  • Sing
  • Step into the sunlight
  • Blog
  • Work on a book
  • Check my to-do list
  • Write my to-do list
  • Look myself in the eyes in the mirror and say, "I love you."

My cats, of course, think my first action should be to feed them.

Only one action can be my first. The high competition among the possibilities suggests there is a lot of power in that first action. It's the one most likely to happen. It comes when I have willpower available and it sets the tone for the day. I have chosen several of these and continued them for months or years – sometimes, I've even set up a series of first actions arranged into a morning routine and continued that an extended period without a break.

I broke the string of my daily first actions when we moved. Since then, I haven't re-established a consistent first-in-the-morning priority. I do better when I have one. The feeling of accomplishment, and the molding of my life into a chosen form, gives me a boost. I start each day as a success, and that helps in many ways, some more obvious than others.

At this point, it seems rude to me for anyone else to decide what I do with that treasured first hour of my morning. I've heard a lot of arguments for competing priorities. Now it's mine to judge and feel my way into the choice that is best for me.

So I offer the same consideration to you. It may improve your life to choose and stick to one practice as the first action of the morning. To keep it for one week is a good foot in the water and for three months is a very solid trial.

What would you like to be the first thing you do each morning?

Monday, February 11, 2019


Saturday, while playing video games, I became curious about why I like this.

Of course there are colors and movement and story. All those items are give me pleasure, yet I am barely attracted to watching television. A recent theme of several personal growth teachings I've encountered is that we seek a feeling when we choose our goals and activities. So, how does playing games on my phone make me feel?

I feel competent, engaged, focused, and happy. No wonder I seek this activity and its feeling out. The games I like best feature frequent leveling, many small goals that I need to apply a little strategy to achieve, and rewards for achieving them. They often have some humor to make me smile. There's some competition against other players (which is the most challenging mode of play since humans remain more creative and flexible and insightful than game algorithms) but not so much that if I don't go all out to win that I will fall behind. Games where only those who spend the most receive any rewards quickly turn me off. And there's a small (but again, not critical) social element so I can cooperate with others.

In short, the games I like create an ideal work environment for me.

Here's the next question: could I maintain that feeling state while playing life? I've found that question productive already.

Monday, January 28, 2019


Today we played Bias Jeopardy at a class at the unemployment office.

As a veteran of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, as well as someone who interned at Decision Research in the 1980s and has kept up with the field, I did well at it. Plus, poker tends to illuminate a good number of them.

All the categories were types of biases and all the answers were specific biases chosen from a list we had names and definitions for in advance. All in all, we had a good time becoming more familiar with them.

I do recommend studying biases. It's fun, and helps make better decisions. I suspect a human cannot become entirely bias-free – there are too many, and we have inherited a legacy of fast, imperfect decision-making. Yet each one known gains a little more freedom and accuracy. And those benefits add up.