Improvements on the margin

In retrospect, it seems obvious that everything would fall apart right as soon as I wrote about how well it all was going.

I accomplished so much in the first two weeks of October. Enough to feel really excited.

Only then I hit a couple bumps, and all that build up momentum came crashing down. The second half of the month was so rocky, that it only balances out the first half. On the whole, October came out average. A disappointing conclusion to a promising start.

It’s like running really fast downhill: it seems easy at first, but one small stumble, and you careen out of control. Serious injury may result.

It basically feels just like this.

Sometimes, you celebrate to soon. And when it all blows up in your face, you just have to pick yourself up again, figure out what went wrong, and try again.

Productivity is an experiment. Sometimes you get further along than others. The machinery starts to whir, you gain momentum, everything starts to run fine. And then one part starts to malfunction, and the whole thing grinds to a halt again. What’s to blame? The design? The parts? What failed first?

There’s one thing I read this month that I think gives a clue. It came from the book Essentialism, by Greg McKeown, and the idea is that if you can identify the slowest performer—the one thing that is holding you back the most—and work on improving that, it will help improve your overall efficiency.*

This is why people tell you to prioritize exercise and healthy eating. This is why “taking a walk” is the first step in my troubleshooting guide when I’m feeling stuck or down.

So I thought about what my slowest performer might be, and it took me a while to hit upon the answer. And then when I did, everything clicked again. Like, oh, duh.

When my October routine first began, I planned to wake up at 6, read for a half hour, then take some time to pray/meditate/think in silence. The first few days, I planned ahead for these activities. I kept a full water bottle next to my bed. I moved my desk chair into the middle of the room to encourage me to get out of bed after my reading finished. I knew that if I stayed in bed, I’d fall asleep.

And then one day I forgot to put the chair into the middle of the room. So I stayed in bed, and I fell asleep. About the time my routine fell apart, I found myself really struggling to stay awake in the morning. My light would go on, I’d start to read, I’d drift off, and when I woke again it would be 7:30. Determined to at least get my reading done, I’d stay in bed till 8. But by then I’d lost a lot of my time.

In order to catch up on sleep, I decided to set my alarm later. But I still fell asleep when I woke up to read.

So my solution is this: once my alarm goes off, I need to actually stay awake. It’s not enough to not intend to fall back asleep: as long as I stay in bed, I will anyway. So that means I need to get out of bed, even if I plan to lie back down to do my reading. In order to accomplish this, I have one (very simple) goal for next month: when my alarm goes off, I’m going to get up and go to the bathroom.

There are a few other things related to this that I’m going to start doing to help me get up—and stay up—in the morning.

  1. I’m not going to watch Netflix in bed. There’s too much of a temptation to keep watching, but more importantly, it’s really hard to close my computer after an episode finishes. I might say “no more tonight,” and then spend a half hour reading news reports online. So now, if I’m going to watch Netflix, it’s going to be at my desk. This will help me get to bed when I mean to.
  2. I’m going to prepare for my morning in the evening. That means pulling out my chair and putting it in the center of the room. It means making sure I have water next to my bed. It means lying in bed and visualizing myself get up and do my routine the next day. I know from experience that all these things help me actually get out of bed and stay awake in the morning, I just usually can’t be bothered to do them the night before, and I justify it by promising myself I’ll still get up and do all those things. Only I should know by now that I don’t.
  3. I’m going to drink a glass of water when I wake up. I hate doing this. Seriously, drinking water when you don’t feel thirsty is actually really annoying. And I don’t really believe that I need the hydration (I’ve heard a lot of people argue that drinking water when you aren’t thirsty doesn’t do anything but send you to the bathroom more often). But it does help make me feel more awake first thing. So I’m going to start doing it.

So there you are. One really simple mission for November. Three ways I’m going to help myself achieve it. Let’s see how far it gets me!

*I don’t think this is a new idea. I believe it is also the idea behind the name of my favorite economics blog. I feel I owe a HT to MR, even though I don’t explicitly reference them here.

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