Self-Improvement Case Study

When I first conceived this post it was very different from how it turned out. What was originally going to be a reflection on some past events became a look into the thought process that goes into my own process of self-improvement.

I started by looking at a unique experience I had a few years ago. As adults, very few of us have the freedom to do whatever we like whenever we like. We’ve got to make enough money to make ends meet, and for most of us that means having a job. That’s certainly where I am in life. I’m salaried, paid well and charge customers by the hour.

But a few years ago, I had a chance to experience “the dream”. I had just finished grad school, and because I got a research job, I didn’t spend the money I had saved to get me through school. I also had a chance to live in an oceanfront house for a couple of months, rent free, on my own. I had to pay for gas for my car, my cell phone bill and my food, but otherwise I had no expenses for the duration. I moved in a week after I got my masters degree.

I spent the next 10 weeks living exactly how I wanted every moment of every day. After a few weeks, I settled into a routine. I woke up at 7 AM, stretched, did some exercises in the basement, then went for a swim in the ocean while the beach was empty. I ate breakfast, and took a shower at 8. At this point I’d run any errands that needed doing. I’d then settle in to spend the rest of the morning working on some sort of project. When I got hungry, I’d take a break to have lunch. Then I’d go back to working until 4PM. I’d mix myself a cocktail, make a small cheese plate and go out to the deck overlooking the beach and enjoy a solitary cocktail hour with a splendid view. I’d then go for a walk a mile or so along the beach. I’d come back, make myself dinner and relax with a book until 11 or so, then I’d go off to bed to start afresh in the morning.

I underwent a couple of big changes in living exactly as I wanted to, with very few limits. First is diet and exercise, two things that I normally have to expend willpower to maintain, came entirely naturally and without trying. Eventually, I just felt like doing them more than I wanted to sit on my ass eating junk.

I also barely watched TV, surfed the internet, played video games or otherwise “wasted time”. I lost the desire to do any of those when I could be working on a project or reading instead.

I found I had a natural desire to be doing something productive. I had all sorts of projects. I learned programming languages and web design. I practiced writing. I did academic research. I did yard work and fixed things around the house.

Eventually, I got tired with that and I was itching to start my job and work on bigger, tougher problems. So after 10 weeks I went home and got started at the job I had lined up.

This got me thinking about the “Perfect Day” from Gorilla Mindset. I talked about the book extensively a few weeks ago.

I was originally going to write this article about all the benefits I had from living like that, but then the question struck me: why am I not still living like that?

 

The answer is complicated. For one, once that summer was over, I wasn’t going to be living at the beach for free again. I was going to need a source of income eventually. And, as I said, I had a desire to get back to my career, new degree in hand.

So, rather than try to jump back to that place, I’ve asked myself: “how can I make my life more like that?”

I was struck by my ability to effortlessly live a productive, healthy, happy life. I thought back to that summer at the beach and I realized that while I was being productive, I was choosing where my focus would be. When there was something interesting me, I worked at it. When I needed a break I moved onto something else. That’s not the way things are at my job; I’ve got a piece of a large project to work on over a long period of time that I’m supposed to be focused on for half of my waking hours every day without switching to another task for very long, if at all.

When I hit a plateau, I need to step away from a problem and accomplish something else before I come back to it. If I can’t do that, I spend an equivalent amount of time futilely trying to make progress on the problem while struggling to maintain focus. In an 8 hour workday, I don’t have a chance to step away from a task and do something else long enough to reset. The fact of the matter is, I can’t shift from programming to yard work and back again when I need to switch gears. When I was at the beach, that’s exactly what I would do.  Taking time off of project A and focusing on project B makes me more efficient at project A when I return to it.

That gave me a hypothesis for why my life now is not like my life at the beach: trying to maintain focus on a single problem all day causes me to lose energy and willpower. When I can switch focus between many different things, I accomplish more in aggregate. I just finished Scott Adams’ “How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big”, and my personal energy levels are something I observe very closely.

Now that I had identified a specific problem, identified a time when I didn’t have that problem, and identified a potential cause of the problem, I was ready to brainstorm solutions. So far, I’ve come up with a pair of items I can use to try and improve things.

First, is, I think the situation I am in at work is reflective of my current position. Looking back, these problems started as I started to rise in my career. I am not so junior that I’m constantly given small bite sized pieces to do. Nor am I managing a big project with several large parallel tasks. I tend to work in a serial manner, doing whatever seems most relevant and important at the time. I need to start setting aside time to become my own manager so that I can create tasks I can perform in parallel. This will give me the opportunity to switch focus when I need to while still working on my project.

Second, is I have realized I use my limited supply of willpower to stay focused on my job while I’m at work, and it leaves me feeling drained when I get home and I am not motivated to work on side projects until late at night. However, I always have lots of ideas and energy to tackle side projects when I first get up in the morning. I normally wake up and drag my heels as I get into work. However, I don’t work in an office with set hours. So if, when I wake up, I feel like working on side projects, I will allow myself to do so before going into work. My hope is this will allow me to spend more and higher quality time working on my various side projects. I believe that this will lead to me spending less time on an unproductive morning routine, and make it easier for me to go to bed earlier since I’ll already have worked on my side projects before coming home.

Notice, that these are systems, not goals. I’m going to change my process, not going to seek a new goal. If you haven’t read Scott Adams’ “How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big” yet, that’s how you succeed in bettering yourself.

Now, I’ve got to go and give these ideas a chance and see if they are improvements over what I normally do. I’ll update this post with how successful they’ve been.

 

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