The human question that all of us must answer is “How do we structure our time and energy”?
Historically, overbearing families, corporations, governments and religions have answered this question for us. You go to work Monday to Friday, Church on Sundays and if you step out of line then either the family or the government will pull you to heel. The cultural zeitgeists that have swept western society have washed away many of these historic processes. We are now required to order and structure our inner lives by ourselves, without the same degree of help.
In several of my posts I have made mostly joking references to the way I try to personally structure my time and attention. I call it “The Regime”. This Regime, individually tailored to my personal goals and idiosyncrasies, is a collection of habits, routines and systems that I have developed for myself over time to mitigate the worst excesses of unordered attention.
It is not a morning routine.
It is not something that I cram into an already overcrowded life to “conquer the day” or any other such marketing bullshit.
It is not an exhortation to wake up at 4am and do all manner of crazy things.
Instead, it is how I live my life in order to make it the best possible in light of my known vices and mental states.
My regimes draws from the research that I’ve done into personal psychology, habit formation, relationship building and nutrition. It is designed to be holistic, to integrate the different components into a coherent whole. The standard study driven approach is often reductionist, seeking to isolate a specific cause and effect while missing the forest for the trees. I have tried this approach, optimising individual components. It doesn’t work for me as it doesn’t take into account my individual personality and constitution.
My default mental state is not a happy one. I am prone to depression, anxiety and status envy. Left unchecked, these demons will throw me into an endless mental loop of self pity and guilt that can take days to recover from. My mind will rapidly churn backwards and forth on the same topic, feeding off itself, the predominant emotion during this period is numbness. My depression is characterised more by the absence of feeling than any feeling in particular.
Coupled to this unpleasant mental default I have an addictive personality type, the colloquial adage “Meth, not even once” applies to a huge range of potential vices and virtues for me. I have never been known for moderation. I am all or nothing in my pursuits.
That is not to say it is a cure for depression or other unpleasant negative emotional states. It helps to avoid the dark spiral in the first place. It is the ounce of prevention rather than the pound of cure. When I follow the regime I am happier than when I don’t. Depression seems to rip through me when I have nothing to work towards, nothing to do. I crave a degree of structure in my life, it keeps the demons at bay.
Self enforcing structure onto your life isn’t easy, there is a reason why we have historically outsourced this to our culture. To do it personally, it requires sacrifices and trade offs that many of us are unwilling to make. Going out on that late night bender with colleagues from work every Friday is off the menu, it’s counterproductive in the long run although the self destructive element may give cathartic pleasure in the short. On the other hand, a dinner party with close friends that runs into the early morning and is filled with great conversation is encouraged. Building strong interpersonal relationships and making good choices lies at the heart of the matter.
My regime is about prioritising what is truly important in my life and eliminating the rest. It is the core of the “Slow Living Revolution” for me personally.
In discussions with others, the chief objection to the regime seems to be that it seems like “no fun” or “too much work”. There’s an internal view, that may be okay for you but I am too busy to find time for exercise, meditation, healthy food, sleep. I need to always be in contact with work due to my importance and I must be always on the social pulse by browsing the never ending feed of trivialities that bombards our attention. Of course, these people are right. They don’t have the time because they haven’t tried it or made it a priority in their life. It’s easy to wallow in our own self destructive habits and hard to affect positive change. Ordering psychic energy is difficult.
The question that I must ask in this situation is the following; can we afford to not do these things? Can we afford to not be healthy? Can we afford to be rushed off our feet constantly? Can we afford to get very little sleep? These costs, though initially invisible, are high.
In aggregate, I have found that by focussing my attention on my health and eliminating distractions that I have more time than before. I’m less busy and less stressed, but I get more done. I’m better off physically, mentally, socially and financially. I have found myself in a virtuous cycle.
I find that when I’m well rested I exercise better. I am more productive and I tend to eat better quality food. When I’ve been eating better I tend to exercise more which leads to looking better and increased energy levels. When I spend time in meditation each day I calm my mind, improve my sleep and am more productive. As a cumulative consequence, I tend to set more ambitious goals as well as increasing the likelihood of achieving them.
As my mentality has shifted to recognise that this cannot be a temporary fad and that it is more likely to be a permanent change I have begun to look forward to the productivity gains. Instead of sleeping in I’m exciting to start writing or to spend time in quiet contemplation meditating. I want to drink more water and less alcohol, I’m observing a subtle, yet noticeable effect. It seems that I’m retraining the pleasure centres in my brain.
I place a high priority on doing one thing well, on honing my focus onto a single task. I want to enter flow states and reach the level of optimal human experience that this entails. I am not seeking after pleasure. When I flick mindlessly through different contexts I feel scattered, disjointed and lost at sea. I need concentration to feel complete and to structure my thinking. Our society has changed, We are now under a relentless assault for the monetisation of our attention which is destroying our capability to focus. Prioritising time and having a clear focus upon single tasks and the craftsmanship component of doing projects well can act as a soothing balm. Over time, it restores our attention to its pre-scattered state and grants us the ability to enter flow states quickly and effortlessly.
I must confess. I am wary of writing a definitive list of what my (current) regime entails. To write something down at a specific point in time and under a specific mental state can be the height of folly. Prematurely writing something is worse still, it captures thoughts that are not ready to be locked down to the prison of the page.
Thus, I must begin with a warning. My concern is that you, the reader, will look at this and believe that all of these elements must be added to your existing life. Taking your current life and dumping a ton of extra “tasks” on to it is not the way this works, it misinterpretation the spirt of the regime. Subtracting bad processes and systems is just as important as adding the good ones.
- If in doubt - Subtract
- Work on projects that give you joy or meaning everyday
- Meditate every day
- Aim for at least 8.5 hours of “sleep opportunity” every night
- Drink less alcohol, mostly wine (1-2 glasses of wine maximum)
- Do one thing at a time
- Journal every day
- Eat mostly healthy, homecooked, food
- When socialising aim to make the best food and alcohol choices possible
- Exercise 3-4 times per week
- Walk more
- Read books not browser tabs
- Communicate in person
This is not a list of ‘additions’ to your life, at least, I do not believe that it should be. If you take your standard life and simply add a few of these in you’ll be doing better than the average person but you won’t get the full benefit. As these activities can be quite time intensive there may even be a negative rebounding effect which increases anxiety. If in doubt subtract.
To Be Happy - Do Something Productive
It is old news that there is an epidemic of anxiety, depression, unhappiness and status envy sweeping the western world. From a material perspective we have never had more. But internally we have never been unhappier. The psychic revolution and the destruction of the church has destroyed many of our most ancient traditions. Historically, we have bundled our religious ceremonies alongside our cultural norms, rejecting religion has led to the unintended rejections of the hard won lessons across our cultural history.
With the death of religion and the destruction of the collective mentality in favour of individualistic thinking there has never been more opportunity to set your own direction in life. But, this same opportunity is also a trap for many. There’s no longer the safety net of family, church and state to fall back on in determining your life. In a post scarcity world the existential angst can reach epidemic levels.
The harsh truth here is that many of us are unhappy because we don’t actually do anything with our lives. We have no purpose and nothing to fill our time. We never reach a flow state in our personal circumstances and instead we spend our lives in comparison to perfectly manicured photos of wealthy, attractive, individuals on the internet. Instagram and the continuous context of visual propaganda lead to feelings of envy more than feelings of inspiration.
The simplest solution to this is to focus upon work (throughout this section I use “work” in the sense of striving towards a project, not necessarily the poorly motivated jobs that many of us have). Work can be anything, a job, a project, a social mission or a long term goal. It can be practising a musical instrument or polishing a painting. It does not have to define you but it has to have the potential for challenges and skill improvement to be worthwhile. Work is a method we use to structure our time.
As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses in “Finding Flow” one of the happiest men he’s ever met is a metalworker at a factory who builds elaborate landscapes in his spare time and understands how everything works at the factory. Unlike his colleagues who spend their post working hours drinking or an equivalent he has structured his time to give him a degree of happiness. This is the same process that Richard Sennett discusses in “The Craftsman”. The lesson can be distilled as succinctly as:
To feel better, work.
Invest in structuring your time and placing your psychic energy in the pursuit of a project. Start doing something, anything. The trap that many fall into here is the belief that there is a calling or a purpose in life that we have. That we’ll wake up one day and all will become clear to us. That without such a purpose there is no point to anything. This is arrogance and the narrative instinct taken to it’s full evolution. It is anthropomorphising the cosmos and treating ourselves as God’s, a condition the modern emphasis on self esteem and individual pursuits has made natural.
There are billions of humans in the world and we make up a part of the wider ecosystem of life on earth. We are “special”, but not in the way that there is a manifest destiny for every one of us individually. There is not a special plan for each of us, we can do more than one thing.
Instead we are special because we can use reason to puzzle our way through the world. We are special because we are rational creatures. We are special because we can remove ourselves from the base, instinctual, fight for survival that much of the animal kingdom is stuck in. We are special because we can shift our cognition into a longer running higher state.
For happiness, we must recognise that it does not come for free. To build a meaningful and fulfilled life requires a degree of planning and effort. Ambling along in a vacuum, nothing to hold our attention and nothing to strive for can quickly become the perfect incubator for nihilism and self hate. By focusing on action, on work in a broad concept, we are able to bring greater joy into our lives.
When we think about investments the standard questions are what is the risk? What is the return? Should I place my limited resources into this venture or that? We’re meticulous when it comes to managing our money, looking at complex diversification strategies and consuming the latest news voraciously. What do we not place the same degree of effort into improving our physical and mental health? In terms of the return, it will exceed any financial investment we would ever make.
It is no secret that we are feeling, collectively, more stressed and anxious than ever. The demands upon our life and attention seem to be continuously increasing. We have become a culture of overscheduling and overstimulation. In talking to colleagues and friends there seems to be an expectation that we’re always on, that we can never disconnect from our jobs, social media or lives to focus on healthy habits.
We must, collectively, recognise that we are biological systems and not mechanical ones. We have non-linear dosage response mechanisms. Doing more does not always lead to proportionately more output. At some point, doing more is actually harmful and we begin to deteriorate. There is no better example than this of the abuse we subject our sleep and diet patterns to.
I tend to track some basic information about my life. As a result, I know that if I’ve slept poorly and am running low on energy then I’m likelier to be hungrier, more irritable, less able to exercise at intense levels and have depleted concentration levels. In an always on, mechanical world, the response to this is to ignore it. We see this in claims that the body “lies” (which it can do from time to time) and that the “manly” response is just to power through.
I’m not particularly interested in the conventional wisdom on the subject. I’m interested in being effective. My most important assets are my health, energy levels and motivation. I’ve been burnt out from work and life in general in the past and it isn’t a fun experience. It takes months to recover from. Today, I recognise that tomorrow is always a new day. Things can be put off without them falling apart.
We must work within our limitations as opposed to trying to steamroll through them. You wouldn’t try to run a marathon on a broken foot so why would you do the mental equivalent? Why would you try to operate at a cognitive extreme while exhausted. Humans don’t work that way. We are not machines.
Yet, we should not use self perceived limitations as an excuse to not do anything in the first place. The simple reality is that we’re capable of far more than we realise. We have been conditioned over the years towards mediocrity. The last thing I am trying to achieve is to encourage that.
In our working lives I see two broad states of being:
- Spend a large amount of low quality time on a number of tasks.
- Spend a smaller (but still significant) amount of high quality time on a single task.
I haven’t yet been able to figure out a personal way of spending a large amount of time in a high quality state, at least, not consistently over time (the fourth quadrant, a low small amount of low quality time is worse still). I do not seem capable of working in “crunch” mode consistently. I cannot pull off the 70-80 hour weeks that others claim to and continue to produce meaningful, high quality and valuable output. I feel disgruntled and upset when I produce something which doesn’t meet my own internal quality standards and my quality tends to degrade as I slip further into the depths of exhaustion.
Maintaining a high quality mental and physical state is the primary focus of the regime. You cannot expect to achieve excellence in fitness, business or your relationships with friends and lovers if you are exhausted, run down and miserable. Personally I have found that the inclusion of extended meditation sessions has been the single most important addition to my life. It has done more to improve my sleep and quality of life than any other element that I have consistently tracked. I’m happy going without a little bit of sleep if I’ll get the opportunity to meditate.
When I meditate the cares and worries of the world seem to wash away, I transcend it and reach a less flustered state. I tend to become less anxious, the problems that have been plaguing my active brain seem to loosen up and become plastic. I become more forgiving of perceived social slights and more grateful for the opportunities that I do have. I am still the same person, just calmer and generally happier.
I have been plagued by anxiety and depression over the past 8 years, a substantial portion of my adulthood. I first began to notice its deathly grip in 2011 following a major natural disaster I was involved in. Following this event I became more and more socially isolated. I began to withdraw from the world mentally and emotionally even as my external achievements continued to flow. I was successful in my studies, my career and my physical training. I was successful (sexually) with women and had many enjoyable social nights out drinking and partying. A bit of wit and banter goes a long way. But, throughout this whole process, I was never content. I was never at rest. I was continuously looking at the next objective and the next project. What I had was never enough.
Guilt, shame, arrogance, elitism and anxiety were my primary psychic drivers. I would (and still do) set myself outrageously ambitious goals because I simply believed that I was better and more capable than everyone else. I used the gifts and training that I had received to set myself apart from others as opposed to using them to include others.
When I typically failed to live up to some of my personal expectations, I am only human after all, the guilt and the shame of failure would be used to propagate myself to new heights. Either that, or I would enter a self destructive spiral and attempt to self medicate my feelings with alcohol or a sexual encounter.
Not surprisingly, over time, I began to suffer health problems. The body is not a machine and mine began to kick like a mule, eventually leading to my hospitalisation with what I perceived to be a heart attack. The mind is a cruel mistress.
Sitting down and truly dedicating time to meditation has had a huge positive impact upon my life. It’s helped me to recognise the why of the drivers that have always pushed me. It’s been a better form of psychic self help than any book which may be read or course which can be taken.
The Forest, not the Trees
As humans we tend to have a recency bias. What we have just experienced tends to be the foremost in our mind, this is why when you’re fighting with your lover they tend to know all of the things that piss them off right now but forget all of the reasons they are with you. Those things are in the past, the feelings of upset are in the present. When emotions are heighted the past will never beat the present.
Due to our evolutionary biases we tend to focus upon our feelings in the immediate moment, hugely discounting our future happiness and life. This effect is radically enhanced when we’re in a state of physical, mental or emotional distress. There are studies of poverty where changes in brain chemistry are observed. Being in a place of scarcity and stress tends to destroy your capability to make long term future plans. An example of this from my own life has been the yo-yo dieting that I have subjected myself to prior to beginning the regime.
I have tried to go on diets in the past. I fall off the wagon far too quickly for my own liking as I craved the self destructive emotional release that followed. I have tried to follow strict requirements about what I can or cannot do. I have tried to exercise 7 days per week and massively beaten myself up for not living up to that expectation. I’ve tried to do hours and hours on project work by waking up at ungodly hours before heading in and doing another 8 hours at work. Then, I’ve tried to come home to do more work.
Not surprisingly, I’ve failed many times in the past at these goals. In short, I have failed because I mistook the trees for the forest and focussed only upon the micro conditions rather than the macro outcomes.
Life isn’t about the collection of tasks which make up the day to day, though each moment is important, life is instead about the quality of experiences and the meaning that you obtain from them. It is the qualitative experience and not the quantitative one that is important.
Over the years I have begun to track a substantial amount of data about my life. I’ve tracked my weight and had DEXA scans to determine my body composition. I’ve run a double entry accounting system on my finances and tracked all of my investment returns. I’ve tracked habits that I either want to improve or to remove. Having the measurements available to me has been essential in tracking down when things have gone to hell in a handbasket for me. Now, I am able to determine when I’m starting to have difficulties before they become too large, yet, doing this introduces a major risk.
The measurements are not, and will never be, a full representation of my life. Tore precisely, the map is not the territory.
The regime feels onerous and has a lot of moving parts but it is simply a map. It is a methodology to help structure your life and your energy to get the most out. It is not a goal in and of itself.
This means that that the strategy you use to live your life should not make you miserable, a radical proposition I know. Instead, it should be a joy to follow and almost effortless once it has been ingrained. It should be a joy as it is bringing you closer to the things that you truly value and want to do. It is bringing you closer to the life that you actually want for yourself. If your life strategy (regime) is making you unhappy then you have missed the forest for the trees
The second component that is hard to mentally process for many people is the notion of time. A question that get’s asked is is how long do you need to be on the regime for to see results?. When does it end? Bluntly, it doesn’t end. It also doesn’t matter how long it takes. The regime is an indefinite strategy, it has no finite achievable goals and no defined end date. There is no way to win at it, no final boss and no score card. There does not come a point at which you can say; “I can now do whatever the hell I want to.” That is missing the point entirely.
Consider the statement, “The regime is a collection of processes which maximise my ability to do the things I want and achieve the goals I have”, there is nothing in this statement about “being the best sleeper” or “eating the healthiest food” or “doing the most work towards your goals”. These things are all important components but they are not the goal in and of itself. The regime has no goal beyond helping you to achieve other ones. It is the collection of habits that I’ve found work personally for me and I’m attempting to share with you to make you think about a purposeful way to live your life.
At the time of this writing I’ve been following the regime for months. Over time, some elements have come to the forefront as being more important. Others have retreated to the rear. There has been cycles of increased focus on particular areas and cycles of relaxation. Over time, the more I attempt to live my life by the principles articulated above the happier I have become. The irony of calling it a regime is that the increased discipline and constraints have increased my self perceived freedom. I have more time, more energy and am intellectually sharper than I used to be.
This experience was recently laid out to me in sharp contrast following a recent trip involving heavily disrupted sleep, no exercise, too much alcohol, international flights, no meditation and a large degree of family stress. Once I had arrived home it’s been a constant battle to regain my composure following the disruption. I’ve been feeling like shit and it’s been tough to get on the wagon. Over time, I did manage to retain a sense of equilibrium but it illustrated to me the fragility inherent to these processes. I worry that I may be over optimising.
The lesson to me from this experiment and this process has been that the regime is an investment in my current and future self. It requires time, energy, concentration and effort to “do the right thing”. My default state of affairs is a lazy one where I sit around all day eating bad food, drinking and procrastinating. I’m not good at doing the things that I know I should be doing in order to feel better. Yet, every time I make the investment I reap a ten fold reward.
One of the primary challenges in our high resource environment is managing our attention and placing a degree of structure upon our time. Historically, the twin prisons of religion and family duties constrained us. Indeed, the multiple waves of the Feminist movement could be seen as a way of releasing society from the gender roles that forced, without choice, a degree of structure upon both men and women.
Yet, the psyche and ego crave structure, they crave order and focus. When we destroy the existing constraints we live under we must replace them with something else. If we don’t, the consequences are depression, anxiety and a wave of dissatisfaction with life. Without replacement a vacuum exists that will suck us into the void. The resulting void has manifested itself in afflictions that have been sweeping the populace as a whole for the past few decades and in particular the youngest and most mentally vulnerable.
I believe that developing and applying a strategy to structure our attention (in any form) is necessary to the human condition to feel happy and content. This structure needs a degree of balance and must focus upon our physical, mental and emotional needs as people. It cannot be all work and no play, nor can it be all play and no work. Social connection is necessary but so is having time alone to work on projects. Eating well and exercising, taking care of our bodies, can be considered as the base that underpins our ability to reach higher levels of the human experience.
Having a regime is a personal commitment to taking care of yourself. It is a commitment to your own health, happiness and future well being. But please, if you go down this pathway, don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.