Closing Loops, Sleeping, and PhD Failure. A Look at Some Priorities.

Every three months I take stock of how my life is going and figure out some statements I can use to guide my behavior and decisions. The structure of these statements, something I learned from Holacracy, take the form of “Good Thing #1 even over Good Thing #2.” we tend to throw the word “priority” around with abandon without actually attaching much meaning to it. But if something is truly a priority then it means you are willing to give up other good things in order to pursue it.

A Recap of My First Quarter Priorities

1. Sleep even over feeling productive

Near the end of 2015 I developed a new appreciation for the power of getting enough sleep. I decided to explicitly focus on getting enough sleep for the first three months of 2016 even over feeling productive. I have gotten into situations in the last where I would stay up extremely late and/or get up extremely early in order to “be productive.” No more! At least 7 hours of sleep per night is what I need to feel good and I couldn’t let things get in the way of that requirement.

According to my sleep data I averaged just over 7 hours for all three months. This is mostly a function of doing a decent job at going to bed on time and having a job where I have leeway in terms of when I get to the office. I explored using a sleep mask in order to have total darkness but I discovered I hated the feeling of something on my face while I slept. I also tried using blue light blocking glasses in the evening which I’m not sure helped. I also tried to do a better job of winding down in the evening by not looking at devices right before bed and drinking sleep inducing tea. My adherence to that routine was kind of hit and miss so I’m going to keep playing with it. Overall, I’d give myself an A in this priority.

2. Nutrition even over convenience

When I moved to NYC I quickly learned about the glory of Seamless. Even though I love cooking I got sucked into the convenience and allure of simply tapping a couple buttons and having delicious food delivered to my apartment. My lazy side came out in a big way. I realized I needed to nip this habit in the bud especially since I had consciously decided not to worry about working out for the next few months. If I kept that routine going I would have easily gained some serious weight.

The goal was to cook more and use Seamless and eat out less. My success with this was hit and miss. Looking through the history on my Seamless app I see I ordered food 14 times between January 1st and March 31st. That’s roughly once per week. From September through November 2015 I ordered food 21 times. The other relevant metric, weight, also went in the right direction. I started January 1st at roughly 204 pounds and finished the three months at 200 (even getting as low as 194 in early March — some business travel later in the month got me headed in the wrong direction again). Considering I went to the gym a grand total of 0 times the past few months and ran 0 miles the fact that I’m not 220 pounds right now is a win. Overall, I’d give myself a B on this one.

3. PhD even over all other extracurriculars

This was the big one. I needed to truly prioritize my PhD work over other fun things. This meant saying no to cool opportunities in order to buckle down on my PhD responsibilities. I did a pretty good job on the saying no part. Eric and I paused The File Drawer on my request (although we are restarting it soon!), I turned down some requested coaching, I punted some decisions to April, and I said no to a handful of interesting projects. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate into meaningful PhD progress. I received a draft of my thesis from my advisor in January with many comments and I still haven’t finished responding to all of them and resubmitting the draft. This is a pretty monumental failing on my part. One thing I did well, though, was scheduling a PhD retreat away from the city where I intend to finish my thesis. Overall, I give myself a D on this one.

My Second Quarter Priorities

1. Closing loops even over indulging curiosity

I go through a basic cycle where I get excited by all sorts of things and start doing and trying a whole bunch of different stuff. Before too long I start to feel like I have too much going on and I go through a period of focus. I’m currently deep in the midst of one of those expansive periods and it’s time for me to do some pruning. For the next few months I’m going to focus exclusively on finishing things I’ve already started.

I’m also going to focus on closing as many “infinite loops” as possible, too. An infinite loop is something like email or a social media feed that can never actually be truly finished. It’s always replenishing itself. I think a key part of my mental health resides not only in closing the discrete open loops like a project or a video game but also in limiting the number of infinite loops I allow as well.

2. Consistency even over spontaneity

I deeply admire people who create productive and useful routines for themselves and then stick to them without fail. That kind of discipline seems both otherworldly and incredibly important. For the next three months I’m going to explore a variety of different places in my life where I can install automation, routines, and rituals that can become habits. What I eat, how I dress, how I work — every area of my life is ripe for experimentation.

3. Clean lines even over integration

I have a hypothesis that not creating clear distinctions between work and leisure is profoundly draining. I’ve particularly noticed this with my PhD work. I haven’t created a distinct place for it to live in my psyche or work routine so any time I’m not actively working on it I have a low-level sense of unease or guilt permeating everything I’m doing. I go back and forth between work-life balance and work-life integration. For the next few months I’m going to walk down the path of separation and balance instead of integration: Normal and sane work hours, active and deliberate leisure, and heads down work when I’m actually supposed to be working.