Serial Habit Rebooting and The Power of Less

A few months ago I received a review copy of Leo Babauta’s book The Power of Less, and promptly lost it under a pile of magazines that had colonized the northeast quadrant of my dining room table. The pile grew majestically in size over the next 3 months, absorbing small electronic gadgets, mail, balls of cat fur, and exotic Asian cookie boxes, until one day I had need of something I thought might have been in there. So, I started disassembling the pile, and that’s when I came across the book package from Leo’s publisher. It was fortuitous timing, as I’d been feeling under-productive in my creative and business endeavors since finishing the Holocaust Museum project a few weeks prior. Leo’s site, Zen Habits, had been on my mind because I’d noticed a trend from my periodic visits: the number of readers seemed to double ever time I looked. And it seemed to me, after doing a brief dive through his site that it was due to his focus on delivery quality thoughts consistently with an honest humility. It was quietly inspiring. After reading through The Power of Less, I was impressed anew by the straightforwardness of the writing. It’s not a flashy book. And it is not even a radically original book–an acquaintance of mine, with all the authority his 20-odd years of experience on Earth could muster, declared on Facebook that it was a book that merely contained stuff we already knew, which I found deeply insightful and amusing. What I like about the book is that it concisely details a number of habits that have led to ongoing, purposeful achievement, the story of Leo told from his personal perspective.

This past week I’ve been following one of the habits that had jumped out at me: work on one habit at a time. I knew that the productivity-inducing habits that I’d adapted over the past two years had disappeared as I had gotten caught up in the last weeks of museum project, and my attempts to restart them all at the same time were going nowhere. This week, I decided to just focus on a chain of habits that I wanted to redevelop, one after the other, to bootstrap my way back to the place I once was.

a matter of faith and determination

Working on one thing at a time is a powerful concept that’s been detailed many times by other writers, so I believe in it. My greatest hurdle in adapting this idea is two-fold: having faith that it works, and being able to maintain focus to completion.

  • Having faith, for me, is probably more about stemming the negative thoughts: You know what I’m talking about, that slippery feeling that time is slipping away, which leads to thoughts of oh no I’m falling behind to I need to be faster and better to omg I’m not good enough to do this followed by this thing I’m making is sucking crap crap crap. It’s not a good place to be, and its self-defeating. It’s understandable, though; our society puts a huge premium on speed and instant gratification, and as uninformed consumers we tend to expect that the creative process should be just as fast. I should know better, being skilled with a number of arcane digital media production methodologies, but I still fall prey to this kind of thinking because, well, I want to be awesome :-) To implement One Thing At A Time, I remember that I value craft and design, and that such endeavors take time. It’s ultimately worth the wait, I believe, if it’s done right. There are some situations where speed is more of the essence, but I am making an executive decision to not seek those situations. Still, it’s important to carve out just enough time to not be rushed, yet not dawdle. “Do not hurry. Do not wait”: this is a lesson I’m learning anew. I am also taking inspiration from John Carmack’s game development philosophy when asked when his next gaming work will be available: “When it’s done”. My corollary to this philosophy is that taking time to learn is going to be part of it.

  • Maintaining focus to completion is probably the harder task. Certain tasks lend themselves to focus; writing and graphic design are like that for me. Other tasks that involve a variety of media and mental hats (e.g. developing interactive multimedia, establishing a design business) tend to become diffuse because they call on different parts of my brain to pay attention to different parts of the world, scattering my focus by necessity. Additionally, I’ve trained myself to see every interaction with the world as a jumping off point for investigation, so keeping unintended flights of inquiry under control is a challenge. The various Printable CEO forms are, in some sense, attempts to create systems that naturally attract my attention so it’s harnessed to the desired task at hand. They’ve also helped solidify certain principles of productivity over time, which is perhaps the greater payoff. What I need is to maintain discipline. One means to maintaining discipline is to require less of it. The statement goal is to “maintain focus to completion”, so defining meaningful intermediate deliverables is helpful. It’s also good development practice. Most importantly, being happy with smaller steps to begin with is a key mental outlook, otherwise I’ll always be dissatisfied. The perspective I’m cultivate in myself these days that when anything happens at all, that’s pretty damn incredible. You can interpret that statement as being extremely cynical or really positive, so it is compatible with a wide range of moods :-) I choose to celebrate the small achievements, most of the time.

the weeks ahead

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p>This week I’ve been focusing just on waking up every day at the same time. From my prior experiments in waking up early, I know this habit has led to feelings of well-being and productivity. I’ve been doing it for about a week, and the habit is still pretty wobbly, but I’m noticing how each violation of the sleep cycle has discernible effects on the following day. This encourages me to maintain the habit. I’ll do another week of this, and with luck the habit will be set firmly enough that I can move to the next habit on my list: returning to a regular gym schedule.

This is the chain of habits I’m trying to recreate, roughly in the order I’m thinking will work:

  1. Regular Sleep Schedule: Up at 6AM, Eat by 6PM, Showed by 9PM, Bed by 10PM.
  2. Regular Gym: 30min Cardio 3x week, expand to 60min Cardio, expand to Resistance Training alternate days.
  3. Drinking Water at Regular Intervals: When I’ve been drinking more water, I’ve felt great. I keep forgetting to do it.
  4. Eating Regular Healthy Meals: I’ve never done this, so I have no methodology for this yet.
  5. Regular Home Chores: I suck at doing chores. Yes, I know about The Fly Lady, so I will pay them a visit.

Each of these habits, I am thinking, will take two weeks minimum to establish themselves. I’ll only move to the next one when I am convinced it’s sticking. I may break up the gym habit into the three stages and interleave them with the other habits so it’s not so massive.

I also need to figure out are the recovery protocols for when the habits are disrupted. The gym habit, for example, tends to fly out the window when I’m away from home or have a lot of work to do. Creating an at-home workout that I like, that doesn’t require additional gear, will be helpful. Adding fun physical challenges that can be met only with conditioning will help too. I’m pretty clueless when it comes to sports and stuff like that, so it will be a whole new adventure.

Implicit in this list is the idea that these are prime directives for supporting a high quality life. I am hopeful that working the “discipline muscle” will trickle into other aspects of my life, as my friend Senia [describes].

There’s a different list for establishing a good design practice and social life, but I’ll address that some other day.