Category Archives: Self-Optimization

The First 20 Hours – Josh Kaufman

“In my experience, it takes around twenty hours of practice to break through the frustration barrier: to go from knowing absolutely nothing about what you’re trying to do to performing noticeably well.”

Would you like to play an instrument? Do yoga? Play Go? Parasail? Decide what you want to be able to do; deconstruct it into the smallest possible sub-skills; learn enough about each sub-skill to practice intelligently and self-correct; remove the physical and mental barriers that prevent practice; and practice for at least 20 hours.

Anders Ericsson was the source for Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that it takes 10,000 hours to master an activity, whether chess, piano, or otherwise. The actual research is a little more nuanced, and focused on deliberate practice, but never mind. Kaufman’s argument is not that you can get world-class in 20 hours, but that by spending twenty focused, intentional hours on something, you can get to a reasonable standard, such that you can at least enjoy doing it.

The key, he says, is that when you try to learn something new you’re not competing against others. Instead, you’re competing against your own previous lack of ability, and any improvement is a win. In that respect, it speaks very much to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset; the idea that the key to success is to realize and appreciate that you can improve, and are not fixed the way you are.

Josh Kaufman wrote the Personal MBA, an excellent introduction to business concepts. This book is less successful; most of it is case studies of his attempts to learn yoga, programming, touch typing, go, ukulele, and windsurfing. Some of them are definitely interesting, particularly if you’re considering taking up the skill yourself, but having only 20 hours experience, he also doesn’t always understand the activities that well. I can’t claim expertise either, but there were several observations that didn’t sound correct to me. Still, an easy beach read, if not as strong as his first.

Smarter Faster Better – Charles Duhigg

“Productivity, put simply, is the name we give our attempts to figure out the best uses of our energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort.” – Smarter Faster Better

Google, being Google, spent considerable time trying to crunch the data on what makes teams work. Their results were surprisingly useful; that it is not who, but how, that matters. In the best teams members speak roughly in proportion, and members feel safe in contributing ideas and making mistakes without worrying about status or being criticized. Though it sounds trivial, it led to an extensive retraining for managers, who are now expected to model these behaviours, calling on quieter members and acknowledging mistakes of their own.

Smarter Faster Better’s broad point is that there are general strategies we can adopt to make ourselves and our teams more productive, whether it’s generating motivation by finding a decision we can control to start with, using clear mental models of how the work will be done, setting SMART and stretch goals, or learning to forecast the future better (that last one we learn by studying world class poker players, who, I must admit, do spend a lot of time thinking about how to predict the future).

The most compelling chapter for me was the one on agile management; Duhigg tracks the evolution of the management style, which involves decentralizing solving problems to those closest to the problem, through Toyota to Silicon Valley and even, in 2012, to the FBI’s design of their Sentinel IT system. Though it’s not a complicated concept, I think it has some principles my own life and work could benefit from. In an appendix, he also shares his application of the strategy to his writing of the book, and that was probably the most interesting part of the entire book.

Duhigg wrote the excellent Power of Habit, and this book takes much the same approach. It attempts to illustrate through anecdote conclusions he has drawn more generally. This book is not as strong as his first; it lacks the same clear organizing principle, and some of his productivity advice applies to firms, some to teams, and some to individuals. That isn’t bad, but it makes it feel a little more disorganized. That said, his first book was also particularly strong, and this one, though a little more light on content and perhaps more of a holiday read than the last, is still entertaining.

Disclosure: I read it as an advance reader copy. You can preorder Smarter Faster Better here. It comes out March 3rd.

Focus – Daniel Goleman

“Focus is not just selecting the right thing, but also saying no to the wrong ones. But focus goes too far when it says no to the right things, too.”

In order to avoid feelings of lust, Buddhist monks were traditionally taught to see other people only as bags of bones: by focusing on the biology of the person, they were distracted from other features. The modern interpretation, advanced by Walter Mischel, is that to resist tempting cookies, you focus on seeing them as a picture, or otherwise abstract yourself from the hot cues that lead us to temptation.

Goleman points out that one of the key things we don’t achieve today is focus: the ability to pay attention to a single thing for an extended period of time. If we don’t manage this, however, our reflections almost inevitably become shallow. Whether we focus on our inner world, on other people, or on the world at large, being able to tune in and out of things at will is essential to self-actualization. This ability to focus, to really immerse ourselves in an activity, is essential to flow, that feeling of happiness in an activity, and to expertise and self-development.

It’s a fun book. I’ve never seen meditation compared to video games, for example, but Goleman makes a good case that both can be used to help train your attention (though video games may be more open to abuse). It’s a survey book written by a science journalist, but does a great job covering key issues, from Herbert Simon’s advice that information consumes ‘the attention of its recipients…a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention’ to Singapore’s introduction of self-control into the national curriculum for all children. An important and still emerging topic, but one with a tremendous potential for impact. Definitely recommended.

The Procrastination Equation – Piers Steel

Procrastination = Expectancy*ValueImpulsiveness*Delay

As a loyal reader, I’m sure you never procrastinate anything. For those of us in less lucky circumstances, however (no more than 95% of the world, I’m sure), procrastination is ever-present. The average American employee sends 77 texts per day: the total cost of responding to those annoying pop-up email notifications while at work uses up – per person – about a month of productivity a year. Some distractions may be unavoidable, but good workspace design, careful planning, and removing access to easy temptations can make a big difference.

Piers Steel introduces what he calls the procrastination equation: the greater the expected value of the activity (probability of occurrence*value of the activity), the less likely we are to procrastinate, while the more impulsive we or our environment is, and the longer the delay until the results are felt, the more we do.

He makes a number of good points: he wisely differentiates laziness from procrastination, for example, pointing out that the lazy never want to get a task done, while procrastinators do plan to get it done, just not immediately. I’m not sure I find his central procrastination equation quite satisfying, though: it’s not structural, as an economist would say. Does value mean the reward from doing the activity, or how unpleasant the activity is to do? Does delay mean the delay in reward, or delay until the task needs to be completed? He fudges a number of concepts for the sake of simplicity.

He has some good suggestions, beyond just the usual turning off email notifications. Creating a separate computer user profile with a completely different background and icons for work, for example, can help you reduce access to tempting distractions and clearly delineate when you’re supposed to be working. You can also try to create success spirals, racking up small victories that can inspire you and lend you strength when you face harder tasks. Hardly revolutionary, but a solid addition to an extensive literature on procrastination.

Daily Rituals – Mason Currey

“One’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism.”

Beethoven believed the perfect cup of coffee had 60 beans in it: he would count them out personally to make sure it was correct. Franklin believed in air baths, sitting in his room naked for an hour, reading or writing, to reinvigorate his constitution. Victor Hugo, in contrast, would give himself ice water baths on his roof, in full view of both passersby and his mistress, who lived a few houses down. B.F. Skinner, practicing what he preached, had a buzzer to get him to start and stop working; Hemingway tracked his daily word output on a chart. Buckminster Fuller was a polyphasic sleeper, napping for thirty minutes every six hours.

There are a couple of lessons you could draw from those daily rituals. One is that most of us aren’t eccentric enough to be famous. Another is that there is a surprisingly large amount of variation in the routines of the successful: some got up early, some slept late. Some worked every waking hour, others would work a few hours and then take the rest of the day off. Some ate little; others ate lots. Some preferred solitude, others company. There are a lot of possible routines that can support a creative and productive lifestyle.

Daily Rituals is a quick and engaging read: Currey has done a great job gathering anecdotes and ideas from various successful authors, artists, and others. The book isn’t long on concrete take-aways, but it’s definitely entertaining and rich with anecdotes for use at cocktails parties. Who doesn’t want to hear about how geniuses did their thing? My only complaint would be the book is heavy towards creative types: not that they aren’t great, of course, but a few more scientists, politicians, and businesspeople might have been of interest to provide contrast. Perhaps in the next one!

Vipassana Meditation Retreat – Dhamma Dipa

I’ve just gotten back from a 10 day silent meditation retreat, and thought I’d provide some initial thoughts for those considering it. In brief, it was 10 days on the Welsh-English border learning Vipassana meditation – the organization that runs it has centers all over the world. Discipline is strict: no communication of any kind with other meditators or the outside world, no reading or writing, no killing of anything, no intoxicants, about 11 hours a day of meditation. The idea is to work as if you were in isolation.

In essence, the philosophy behind Vipassana is that unhappiness is caused by craving things. Unfortunately, that’s an unconscious reaction; when we feel something, we either want more of it or less of it depending on the sensation. The only way to break the cycle, it argues, is to use meditation to train your unconscious mind and build a habit of not responding with craving when you feel something.

The bad first.

  • It was unbelievably tough. Just brutal. I wasn’t too worried about not talking for 10 days: I’m pretty happy staying in my head. What I didn’t anticipate was how tough it would be not to hear others talking. For 10 days, I had almost no external input: no new things to see or do, no conversations, no books. Everything I thought about had to come from within me. My mind started spading over the weirdest memories – books and events from decades ago – just in search of something to think about!
  • It could feel vaguely cultish at times. In justice, I don’t think it is at all; it’s just hard to make anything that involves a bunch of people sitting quietly in a room feel totally normal, particularly with a guy chanting in the background. It’s just so far outside our normal experience.

The good: Despite how tough it was, it was definitely worth it, for several reasons.

  • My meditation practice got a lot better. Anyone who has tried meditation knows how tough it is to focus your mind for long. I’m a lot better at it, I felt like I was really progressing and learning every day, and my understanding of how it works has dramatically increased.
  • It was interesting to try the monastic lifestyle. Centuries ago it wasn’t uncommon, but today it’s rare to try such a low-stimulus environment. I think you learn a lot about yourself, and learn to appreciate more subtle things in the world around you. Only by trying very different things, really pushing the envelope, can you find what you yourself enjoy.
  • It was a chance to think about profound issues like what an enlightened person would look like and what makes us happy. There are lectures in the evening on the philosophy behind it all, and it’s a great opportunity to really reflect on the deep issues we don’t have time for in our everyday lives. The lectures are fairly Buddhist, but you can ignore that part if you want.

Bottom Line: Worth it, but not for the faint of heart! I’m not sure they have Truth, but I think there’s definitely some worthy truths in it.

Addendum: it’s a system based on Buddhism, but for what it’s worth, I’m not Buddhist, nor do I have any plans to become so. The retreat center didn’t mind at all, and actively emphasizes they don’t expect conversion or even willingness to consider conversion.

The Eight Gates of Zen – John Daido Loori

“Other religions thus far in history are based on the idea of a self, the idea that there exists an entity call the self. Buddhism says there is no self…My self is my body, my mind, my memory, my history, my experience. But those are aggregates in the same way that walls, ceiling, floor, doors, windows are aggregates that describe a room. They don’t address the question of what is ‘selfness’ itself, what is ‘roomness’ itself…The self is an idea. It is in a constant state of change.”

In the Oxford Bodleian library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe and a reserve library for the UK with a copy of every book published there, there are a series of doors with titles painted over them. They refer to the traditional seven subjects studied in the seven year Liberal Arts degree in Medieval England. One started with grammar, rhetoric, and logic in the first three years, and then moved to arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy in the final four. As you progressed, you could enter more of the doors.

John Daido Loori has attempted to do much the same with at the Buddhist Zen Mountain Monastery, hoping to fuse Western and Eastern Traditions in order to make Buddhism appealing and accessible to Americans. His eight gates are meditation, teacher-student relationship, academic study, liturgy, precepts, art practice, body practice, and work practice. Students at all levels study material from each of the gates, and are expected to progress in each of them as they pursue

Loori has self-consciously attempted to adapt his curriculum to the West, and for that reason I’m not sure this is the place to start if you want to read about Buddhism: I got a lot more about of Aitken’s Taking the Path of Zen. It is, however, an interesting study of how Zen practices have adapted in the US. Given that Zen is not just about climbing the mountain of enlightenment, but also descending the other side and reengaging with the world, there is perhaps justification for adapting Zen practice to the cultures in which it operates.

Taking the Path of Zen – Robert Aitken

“You will have learned how to begin, at any rate, the task of keeping yourself undivided, for it is thinking of something other than the matter at hand that separates us from reality and dissipates our energies.”

How should we meditate, if indeed we want to meditate? Many attempt a rigorous focus on their breathing, or on some mantra. Though this isn’t bad, in The Path of Zen Aitken argues it’s problematic. True meditation, he suggests, is not just about focus: that implies there are two things involved, you and the thing you are focusing on. Instead, he believes meditation is about becoming one with something, a feeling of unity with your breathing comparable to reading a great book where you lose all track of time or space. Posture, hand positions, how to count; these are useful tools to achieve meditation, but are not the point.

If this sounds a lot like the modern concept of Flow, I’d agree completely, and actually there’s a lot in this book, one of the classic introductory books on Zen, that are echoed by modern themes. The idea of requiring deliberate practice to get good at something, for example, Aitken lists as one of the three concerns of the Zen student: the other two are that being alive is an important responsibility, and that we have little time to fulfill that responsibility. Even Obama’s self-imposed routine and restriction to only blue or gray suits has a Zen correspondence, as Aitken suggests minimizing the decisions you make in life in order to maximize the energy and self you can put in any given activity.

Zen can often be portrayed as an abstract, gnomic art, filled with riddles. To some extent this is fair; students are often expected to interpret the Koans, brief parables that demonstrate some fundamental principle but often seem enigmatic or trivial at first. At heart, however, Zen focuses on meditation, which it calls Zazen, as a way to focus the mind and achieve self-mastery. Aitken’s book, meant to capture the first few weeks of a retreat at a monastery for a new student, does an admirable job presenting the information accessibly and appealingly. It won’t turn you into a Zen master, but it might help you put a foot on the path.

You can get a copy here (or in the UK or Canada) – or just sign up for the Subtle Illumination email list to keep up to date with subtly illuminating reviews!

How to be a Productivity Ninja – Graham Allcott

When you receive an email, you have four options: delete, transfer to your to-do list, transfer to your calendar, or respond. Unfortunately, most of us find a fifth: ignoring it. We have a pile of un-dealt with emails, and we’re overwhelmed by them every time we check. If we can just get to the point of a zero-email inbox, however, it’s far easier to maintain it than create it. Reading a productivity book or going to a seminar can be just the impetus needed to delete all those emails, even though most of us are perfectly aware beforehand that we’d be better off if we dealt with our backlog.

I usually find productivity books collections of fairly obvious points (see my last post), and this one is no exception. Still, I think there is still a benefit to reading them. Doing so forces you to think about your own productivity and practices: even when you could have thought of the suggestions on your own, most of us don’t spend any time on it, and so don’t. Even if you’ve already got some successful techniques, there’s also always room for tweaking. I already, for example, sort my life into broad projects and themes, with individual action items for each project filed separately. What I don’t do is set up milestones for each project, to help me track how each one is going and give me a little boost each time I get there. Seems like a good idea though: I think I’ll try it.

Allcott’s central message is that we need to work through a process of Collect – Organize – Review – Do in our lives: we gather tasks and goals, we organize them, we review the information we’ve gathered and find what we’ve missed, and then we do the tasks. David Allen, the productivity guru, has a similar system. Overall, I’d say if want a productivity book, this is a fine choice: nothing special, but not bad either. Still, I’d recommend you start with the Tao Te Ching or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: the original self help books!

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen R. Covey

In part one of what will be a week of self-improvement books, we turn to a classic: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Published in 1989, it has sold 15 million copies in 38 languages, a serious bestseller. Covey has been tremendously influential, going so far as to having been invited by Clinton to Camp David for a consult.

With all that said and despite an indirect Clinton endorsement, a lot of it seems old hat. One thing I found particular interesting (as well as classical – the Stoics would have been proud): a focus on principles as a way to guide and shape our lives, instead of just techniques or skills.

Covey surveyed the past 200 years of self-improvement literature, and he points out that older self-improvement literature focused on character; readers should aim to improve their courage, humility, temperance, etc. More recently the literature has turned to personality, arguing people should improve their image and adopt a positive attitude. Covey rightly points out the flaw: if you want to be trusted, the correct method is to become trustworthy. Adopting a positive attitude or improving your image can only work for so long before you are found out. I think it’s a point worth thinking about: in the end, quick fixes of modifying appearances or adopting superficial behaviours isn’t the way to self-improvement. Improving yourself is.

Covey also came up with the phrase abundance mentality: if you believe there are enough resources to share with others, you can find win-win solutions, while if you believe only in zero-sum games, you feel threatened by the success of others, instead of enjoying it. Rachman (author of Zero-Sum Game, on the concept of win-win in international relations) would definitely agree.

If you’re interested, by the way, the 7 habits are to be proactive; begin with the end in mind; put first things first; think win-win; seek first to understand, then to be understood; synergize; and sharpen the saw.

Later this week we’ll talk about a more modern self-help book; how to be a productivity ninja!