Missed a day? Don’t overreact.

I’ve failed at creating habits in the past. I’ve failed a lot, I should say.

My most common trigger to fail a dietary habit would be overestimating my mistakes. I’ll explain.

A few years ago I decided to try removing sugar from my diet: my goal was to not eat refined sugar at all for 30 days. I wanted to see the health benefits that some people praised so much, and the key there (in my mind) was to do it 30 consecutive days.

Things were going relatively fine, but at day 3 or 4 (during the famous “keto flu”), I ended up eating a piece of chocolate cake at a party. At that time, my immediate reaction to cases like this would be one of these two:

  1. “Damn, I failed! 30 days is too much anyway. Screw this!”
  2. “Damn, I failed! Since I already screwed up today, I might as well eat a little bit more and drink some soda. I’ll get back to the diet tomorrow.”

Neither of them is helpful. What’s the problem? Well, they are binary: if I ate chocolate cake, I failed; there’s no middle ground, it’s either failure or success.

What I do now when this happens (and it still happens most times I’m trying to create a new habit) is to intercept those reactions and immediately think the following:

“It’s OK, but it doesn’t mean I have to make it worse by doing more of it. What can I do to decrease the odds of this happening again?”

Try to notice those reactions and try to replace them with something more rational and less absolute, less “all or nothing.” This is not about success or failure, it’s about learning and improving – even if it’s just a little bit.

What if I’m wrong?

I used to curse a lot while driving. “Why is this idiot driving so slow? Can’t they move to the other lane?”, I’d complain.

On the other hand, there were occasions in which I’d be showing someone around town, and someone would scream or use their horns at me, and I’d think “Wow, what a douche! If you’re in a hurry just drive past me.”

I’m ashamed to say it took me quite a while to realize the irony there.

We are in a period of presidential elections here in Brazil, and this election has been extremely polarizing, much more than any other I’ve ever seen. This has triggered some extreme and visceral emotional reactions from me, and it is quite surprising the sheer amount of effort I have to take to respond rationally.

When I see something or talk to someone about it, I’m trying to intercept this automatic anger response and ask myself: “What if I’m wrong?”

I get angry because all these people can’t see what this candidate represents: the violence, the fascism, the prejudice! “Why can’t they see? Why can’t they understand?”

But what if I’m wrong?

What if this is not as bad as it seems? There are smart people making the opposite choice, so what’s their perspective? Since I’ve caught myself in this emotional cycle, I’ve been trying to follow and talk to people with the opposite opinion, and it can be quite enlightening.

If you feel very strongly about something, it helps to stop, breathe, and try to think from the opposite perspective. Whether or not you change your mind, you will at least learn something about yourself, and learn more about the idea you’re defending.

What’s the next step?

When we want to achieve something, it’s easy to get so focused on the end goal that sometimes we get paralyzed.

“I want to lose 30 kg and exercise 3 times per week!”

Well, that’s great! What are you doing about it?

“Oh, uhhh… next week I’ll sign up for a gym.”

And then life happens, and we forget. Or we remember, but we leave it for later because we still have to find a good gym anyway, or maybe because next week there’s that work trip we have to take… In the end, we make no progress and get demoralized again.

Here’s an alternative. Instead of focusing on the end goal and finding a perfect solution, ask yourself: what’s the smallest step I can take right now? Not tomorrow, not next week: right now.

If you want to lose weight, maybe start by going through your house and throwing (or giving) away from all the junk food you have.

If you want to write a book, maybe start by writing 100 words right now, even if you don’t know where to start.

What about you? What’s the next step you can take right now to get closer to what you want?

Minimalism and games

In the ongoing quest to simplify my life, I have been thinking about what other “hidden to-do lists” I have. I trimmed down books, apps, and even my goals and plans, but I still felt some “open threads” running in background in my head. Then I remembered games!

Ever since I broke up with Skyrim I bought more games and even went back to some of the older ones. That’s fine: the point is not to avoid adding anything, but to constantly curate (more on that on a later post).

The problem is that I filled my Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo Switch with games again: games that were there as constant reminders of things that I “should” play (after all, I spent all that money!) I decided to try a different approach: I deleted all games from both consoles (I only own digital titles), put them in their boxes and stored them in my closet.

The purpose of this experiment was to find out:

  1. If I missed playing video games at all.
  2. If I did miss it, which games I actually wanted to play (as opposed to games I felt like playing to avoid sunk costs or whatnot).

In the first few days I instinctively looked at the place where my Switch used to be every time I went to the living room, but told myself it was OK: I could just do something else. I replaced the time playing games with walks, fiction books, and writing, and felt great about it.

Even though all my games were digital, and I didn’t kept tons of boxes or physical stuff, removing them and hiding the consoles made me feel free.

It’s been over a month, and although I do miss playing video games a little bit, I don’t feel excited to play any particular game right now; I know that if I unbox the consoles, I will play something, so for now I’m keeping them hidden from sight.

I have no idea how long this will last. I read somewhere that Diablo 3 will be released for Switch, so I’ll probably buy that and play it, but until then I think I’ll keep things this way.

Video games are not bad, and I’m not doing this to be “productive” or to do “better” things with my time: the point here is to ensure that I’m not doing things just out of habit. I want to do what I actually enjoy doing, and to achieve that yes, I might give up on a few things.

If you’re happy playing those games, keep at it! If you think you might be going through a similar situation with dopamine-hungry habits, just try this experiment and store your console away; you might be surprised with the results.

Blocking websites

I love keyboard shortcuts. I enjoy doing things efficiently, and I don’t like using a mouse or trackpad because my wrists hurt, so I end up learning tons of keyboard shortcuts for the software I use on a daily basis.

A common shortcut is Cmd+t on a web browser; that opens up a new tab. The problem is that I don’t stop there; right after Cmd+t, I type:

  • “h”: my browser autocompletes to “hckrnews.com”
  • “f”: “facebook.com”
  • “t”: “twitter.com”
  • “i”: “instagram.com”
  • “r”: “reddit.com”

If I’m even slightly bored with what I’m doing or feeling somewhat lazy about a particular task I need to finish, I’ll type Cmd+t and one of those letters, and spend a couple of minutes in one of those websites. It’s always for short periods each time, but it’s still enough to make me lose focus, pay attention to things I should not be paying attention to, get outraged with crazy Brazilian politicians, and more. Also, I do this dozens of times per day.

… well, I used to do that many times per day, but that doesn’t happen anymore.

What did I do to fix that behaviour? I installed Focus.

Focus is a great application that blocks certain websites and redirects distractions to a blank page with a message you can customize. You can click and start a 25 minutes timer, for instance, to do a task in a focused way; if you try to open Twitter, you’ll be redirected to a page saying “Go to work!” or something like that.

To fix my behaviour, though, I didn’t use small timers: I went nuclear. I set up Focus to block every distracting site I could think of (social media, news, YouTube, etc.) between 8 am and 11 pm every single day except Sundays.

It’s been over a month, and this has been a fantastic change for me. I feel more focused, less prone to mindless browsing, and the message I put on the redirect reminds me to be present.

It’s just a single word: “now.”

Every time I see it, I take a deep breath and think about what do I want to be doing now. Not what my dopamine-starved brain wants, but what I want; then, I go to that instead of scrolling Twitter or Reddit for the 90th time!

There are different (free) options that you can try on your browser, extensions like StayFocusd; you can use those to do a small test.

Can you go through a single day – a full day – without giving in to distractions? How do you feel about that? Try it and find out!

Minimalism and to-do lists

I’ve been learning more about minimalism, and the more I apply this concept to different areas of my life, the happier I become. It’s impressive how simplification and minimalism can make things clearer and lightweight.

One recent area in which I applied minimalism was my to-do list… or, rather, my to-do listS.

I love making lists. I love planning and I have lots of lists related to goals, things I want to do someday, projects I started, projects I want to start, ideas for posts, ideas for projects, plans for things I want to do in my personal life, ideas on how to improve my wife’s business, and so on.

I also tend to have bookmarks on my browser, articles in Pocket, and books in a “to-read” folder.

Recently, while minimizing my physical possessions, I experienced a feeling of clarity and freedom. It felt like all that stuff was waiting for me to do something with them, or clean them, or enjoy them more. Now, I felt free!

After that (ongoing) experience I remembered a quote from Bruce Lee’s “Striking Thoughts“, one of my all-time favourite books:

To live now you must die to yesterday.

That resonated with me. I was getting rid of physical possessions that made sense in the past, but didn’t make sense anymore; by removing those, I felt more present, freer, happier. Then I thought: “wait, why don’t I apply this to my to-do lists, goals, and projects?

And I did.

I created a backup and stashed it in an online bucket, and then proceeded to delete all my bookmarks, all my Pocket files, all the books from my Kindle, all the project files in my computer, all my to-do lists, all my goals, all my ideas.

Now I had a clean slate.

As a result of that cleanup, I felt free, excited and ready to do something. I no longer felt the burden of all those things I “should” be doing, “should” be paying attention, “should” be getting back to.

Instead, I wrote. I wrote three posts in one day, and immediately scheduled them for publication; I did that after several months without publishing anything. I don’t have a list of ideas now: I simply write, review, and post.

I also wrote code. I wrote some small utilities and got back to a project I had abandoned in the past. I don’t feel burdened by hundreds of directories under ~/code; now I only have a single project there.

Analysis paralysis, the paradox of choice… these things are real. They overwhelm us, paralyze us, and make us unhappy.

Removing physical clutter made me feel less burdened and overwhelmed by all the things I should be using or cleaning or doing with those things.

Removing ideas, goals, and projects made me feel free to actually do something instead of following resolutions that I made in the past, in different circumstances and mental states.

I still write 1-3 work-related items in a to-do list every morning, and I break those items in small and granular tasks to make myself productive; however, this is not about tracking: it’s about processing and thinking. I delete that list at the end of every day.

So, get those lists of ideas and goals and throw them away. Burn them. You’re not the same person you were yesterday. If you want to do something, just do it; if you don’t want to do something, don’t make yourself miserable.

Remember: “To live now you must die to yesterday.

Mobile minimalism

I used to spend a lot of time looking at my cellphone refreshing Slack, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, Gmail, WhatsApp, Telegram… During conversations, during meetings, when I was watching movies, at any time, I’d be “just checking something real quick“. It was boring but also utterly addictive.

I have a much healthier relationship with my phone now; in fact, I barely use it. This is what I changed:

  • I deleted my Instagram and Facebook accounts.
  • I uninstalled Twitter, Reddit, and Gmail.
  • I uninstalled Slack as well, but I install it on my on-call shifts (and remove it again afterwards).
  • I deleted every social media, game, or general time-sink from my phone.
  • I muted/silenced most people and groups on WhatsApp / Telegram / Messages, and I check those things once per day or so.
  • I set a Do Not Disturb schedule from 8 pm to 9 am. During that time, only my immediate family (wife, parents) and a couple of friends can reach me; other than that, I get no notifications.
  • I cleaned up my home screen to focus on what I want to reinforce.

This is what my home screen looks like:

phone

I have no other apps. With this configuration, I help myself do three things:

  1. Read (Kindle)
  2. Listen to podcasts (Overcast)
  3. Listen to music (Spotify)

Why do all of this?

Because I want to be in control of my attention. The decision to engage with something or someone should come from me, not from anyone else.

Most apps are designed to make you use them more and more; in contrast, I designed my phone experience to be boring, silent and focused.

I’m optimizing for non-engagement, and it feels great! I’m more focused, I pay more attention to the people around me, I can focus on what I’m reading or watching, and I’m more mindful in general.

I highly recommend spending some time thinking about what relationship you want to have with your phone, and making changes to take more control of your attention and your life.

Reading for mood vs reading to learn

For most of my adult life, I read non-fiction books to learn something new, to get advice, or to get better at something I was already doing. I’d focus on reading new books every time, take notes, and (in some cases) try to apply what I had learned in my work and life.

Then, a few years ago I read this quote in “Fooled by Randomness” by Nassim Taleb:

I do not know if it applies to other people, but, in spite of my being a voracious reader, I have rarely been truly affected in my behavior (in any durable manner) by anything I have read. A book can make a strong impression, but such an impression tends to wane after some newer impression replaces it in my brain (a new book).

That prompted me to think, and well, sure enough, every book sets up a new mood. Depending on the book I was reading I might get inspired, or analytical, or want to write, or want to hack on something, and so on: it would change my disposition, at least for that day or week while I was still in contact with the book.

I decided to take that lesson and use it to my advantage: by re-reading a book (or my notes about it) I can now manipulate my mood on any given day!

I can make myself feel calmer when I’m stressed, reduce my spending habits when I want to buy something expensive, get more analytical when I’m thinking about a problem emotionally, and so on. It’s a really powerful thing, and it works like a charm for me.

I cycle through different books to achieve different moods, but these are some of my favourites:

  • To get calm and relaxed: “Striking Thoughts” (Bruce Lee), “Fuck It!” (John C. Parkin).
  • To reduce my desires ($$$, career): “Life Nomadic” (Tynan), “Goodbye, Things” (Fumio Sasaki).
  • To get analytical: “The 4-Hour Work Week” (Tim Ferriss), “The 4-Hour Chef” (Tim Ferriss)
  • To feel like reading even more: anything by Nassim Taleb, but especially “Fooled by Randomness” and “The Black Swan” (lots of great recommendation and love for books in those two).
  • To feel like writing: “On Writing” (Stephen King), “2k to 10k” (Rachel Aaron)
  • To feel like hacking: “Masters of Doom” (David Kushner).
  • To just do it: “The Obstacle is the Way” (Ryan Holiday), “Ego is the Enemy” (Ryan Holiday), “Crushing It!” (Gary Vee).

Usually, I don’t need much: just 5-15 minutes reading or just skimming a book (with highlighted content) is enough to change my mood and disposition. Some days it takes longer than that.

In any case, this is one of the reasons why I now spend almost as much time re-reading books as I do reading new ones!

Reading devices

I used to love paper books! I fondly recall a copy of The Lord of The Rings that I read and re-read multiple times. I enjoyed collecting books from my favourite authors (such as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett), and proudly displayed them on my bookshelves.

I don’t like to read paper books anymore. They’re usually heavy, awkward to hold, and end up hurting my wrists (already damaged by programming-induced RSI) if I try reading them for long.

About collecting and “proudly displaying” them… let’s be honest: no one cares. Caring about what other people will think when they see your bookshelf is a recipe for bad incentives: you’ll end up reading books you think you should, or just purchasing (without really reading) books that convey you in what you think is a more favourable light.

sigh 🙄

Like I wrote before, now I only care if a book is:

  1. Enjoyable
  2. Useful

Reading paper books is not enjoyable for me (because of the reasons I already mentioned), and displaying them is not useful; this is why I sold or gave away all my paper books and comics.

After a lot of experimentation over the years (hell, I began trying to read digital books on a Palm TX 10+ years ago) I reached my ideal state, and now I use a Kindle and a laptop to read books.

The Kindle’s single purpose is to read fiction. I only read fiction there on purpose: I know that when I sit or lay down with my Kindle, I’m gonna relax and enjoy something without thinking about the usefulness or writing down notes.

This is the same reason I don’t play games on my computer or my phone, by the way: I like having separate devices for separate purposes. When I want to play games, I want to sit on the couch and relax, just playing. I don’t want notifications or unrelated subjects to pop up.

So, I read fiction exclusively on the Kindle. I do read a lot of non-fiction though, and I do that on my laptop, using Kindle Cloud Reader on the browser. A laptop might sound like an awkward device to read, but it has some advantages over something like a Kindle:

  1. It’s faster to move around, skim, skip chapters, go back, etc. I don’t necessarily finish non-fiction books or read them in order anymore: I focus on learning something useful.
  2. It favours active writing: I can write notes as I read, jot down ideas, research something, get information from other sources in order to understand (or confirm) something, and more. If I don’t write about or apply what I’m reading I’ll forget everything about it in a week or less.
  3. It’s more awkward to read laying down, which favours a more active mood and also provides an incentive for a shorter reading session. Shorter sessions are important for me when reading non-fiction books because it makes it more likely for me to write down and apply concepts, and also to properly “digest” what I’m reading.

I find that having different devices really help setting up different “moods” and habits related to reading; for example, I noticed a big improvement in retention and “usefulness” when I stopped reading non-fiction books lying down, and focused on applying instead of finishing.

Anyway, this is what works for me! Hope you find it useful.