I don’t get to write very often about productivity these days. I’m too busy doing things. There’s some sad irony there.
Yet, there’s two points that have been so critical, so valuable, so life-affirming… that I so often see people doing the exact opposite of what’s correct in… that I thought I’d spend my morning writing this up.
Images via Wikipedia article on “firebreak.”
1. Firebreaks: Because When Your Mind Can’t Be Trusted, It Really Can’t Be Trusted
In perhaps 3-5 years of dedicated training in mindfulness (via meditation or whatever else), you’ll be able to start to sometimes pick up when your mind is lying to you and when you’re rationalizing.
It’s hard to do. We’re locked into our thinking most of the time. We often think those thoughts are us.
Whatever, I don’t want to get too abstract here. Let’s put it really practically.
Let’s say you’re dieting to lose weight / bodyweight / fat / whatever. It’s all going swimmingly, you run a sustainable deficit each week and are getting slimmer and fitter.
Then you slip — once.
What happens next?
Well, you know. Oftentimes you go entirely off the rails and start binging, eating everything in sight.
In China we say about that, “Bu hao.”
Likewise, if you’re a writer trying to get into a regular rhythym, it’s of course a very enjoyable feeling when you’re finally in that groove, writing every morning, killin’ it, your book or poems or essays are getting written, and then —
— oh, the flu. Oh, a broken ankle. Oh, a sick family member. Oh, a — whatever.
And then the writing dries up.
What’s a firebreak?
Despite having amazing modern technology — we can drop chemical foam from airplanes to try to put out fires — one of the most reliable technologies for fighting fires is about a bazillion years old.
You dig up and kill off a small line through the forest encircling the fire. When the fire creeps to that area, there’s no more fuel in its path and it burns out.
Bad habits like binge eating, self-indulging in being busy/distracted/unhappy and not writing, and all other manner of failing type behavior require ongoing “fuel” to get there.
I’m a behaviorist. I think Freud made some useful gains to the world, but the idea of analyzing and dwelling on your past to look for answers is a disaster and did great harm to mankind.
If you start eating healthy for a week without any problems, you’re basically back where you want to be.
That’s life, to me — just doing the right stuff that you want to be doing.
Meanwhile, I believe that failure isn’t because of blah-blah-blah bad result blah, it’s because you’re doing the wrong stuff. The analysis can help, perhaps, maybe, sometimes, possibly — but really, you want to stop behaving unconsciously/unhappily/ineffectively and start behaving intentionally/healthily/effectively and you’re good to go.
A firebreak in daily life are pre-built areas that stop you from acting stupidly on autopilot and give you a shot to reboot the behaviors you want.
Every Sunday, I do a weekly review. I look at what I’m failing at. Often — usually — I’m doing something that’s bewilderingly stupid. Often — not always, but pretty often — I’m able to fix it that Sunday.
Thus, a little bad habit monster that’s starting to grow gets killed before it becomes some giant stalking beast.
Here are a few of my favorite firebreaks:
*Weekly review: I do it every Sunday, reliably. I started trying to do this, I think, in 2009 or 2010. It wasn’t until 2013 that I started doing this somewhat regularly. So it took a while to get it to stick. But even prior to it sticking, it was always valuable. Now I do it most of the time, but still sometimes miss a chain of 4-5 weeks. When I notice I did, I reset it.
*Monthly review: In a weekly doldrums? I review whenever the month is ending, too. I take a bigger picture view when I do it. My weekly reviews are somewhat scripted, looking at a few areas. Monthly reviews, I pull out my big list of life goals and see what’s on track, add and subtract stuff, etc.
*Yearly reviews: You get the idea, right? I actually do this twice a year, both at December 31 and on my birthday. There’s no magic, again, it’s just another firebreak. I think two “yearly reviews” feels about right. If you were born closer December or January, you could make your “second” annual review the day you started your company or organization, your anniversary with your spouse, or whatever else. I get two ultra-big-picture type days per year.
*Scheduling multi-hour pomodoro calls with friends. A pomodoro is working 25 minutes on a timer, followed by a short timed break. If I’m in a decent flow, I like 25 on / 5 off. If I’m kind of stuck lately, I like 25 on / 15 off. Troubleshoot and find small actions worth doing by reviewing with your friend on the 15 off. Doing a cycle like this with someone like Kai generally helps me break through. If it was just lazy procrastinating aversion, having Kai tell me to knock it off gets the deck cleared and the work shipped. If it was confusion or lack of skill, I’m able to identify that. If I was doing things more complicated than necessary, I can scope down. These are really good to do. They’re easier to start doing in person than on video, but can be adapted to video chat easily enough.
*Schedule mandatory 4AM appointments. If my sleep schedule is busted, I schedule a 4AM call to someone in a different timezone so I’m awake. Then I don’t let myself go back to sleep. Sleep schedule: normalized.
*Intentionally carefully pull an all-nighter. Careful with this one. But sometimes I’ll do it because I know it gets me 10-15 uninterrupted hours in the nighttime, then sleep early the next day. If I’m stacked wall to wall as a manager, it’s sometimes the only way I can do a really deep working session to troubleshoot and fix things. Careful because the downside on these is immense if executed poorly, but it does work for me.
*Travel off the internet on purpose. My preferred way of travel, time permitting, is taking train or ship. Cruisesheet.com is a wonderful site my friend Tynan coded up, you can find cheap repositioning cruises for like $700 one-way from East Coast USA to London on there that includes all food, a decent (not great but decent) gym on the ship, etc. You’re only in port a few hours so no internet. Likewise, I like to take really long train journeys: Shanghai to Taipei via rail and ferry (Shanghai to Xiamen on rail, ferry to Keelung, rail to Taipei), Saigon to Hanoi, Amsterdam to London (Hoek van Holland via Rail, Stenna Line to Harwich, then rail to London), or doing one of Amtrak’s glorious USA long-distance rail (San Francisco to Denver is ultra-beautiful and serene). I bring notebooks, pens, paper, minimal media. Great way to break off from neurotic habits, analyze what’s working, and reset what’s not. Seat61.com is the best site for finding train/ferry journeys between places.
*Infinitely more. I don’t envy much, but I admit to being a little envious of people who have a little cabin or mountain spot a short drive from where they live. That’s a good one. I know people who sometimes book a weird/cool hotel in their own city like SLS Hotel in Los Angeles as a way to reset and plan. It’s why companies have retreats. But you could do a “no internet weekend” or a no computers thing easily enough, or go camping, or whatever. Just anything that promotes reflectiveness and gets one out of a loop of habits.
2. And Then Make Rapid Repairs.
It’s easy to fix things before they get bad.
Firebreaks are intentionally putting time spots on the calendar where you’ll make resets and fix problems before things are out of control. (You can schedule them after things start to get out of control, but by then your judgment is likely somewhat compromised… better to build them into your schedule way in advance.)
But ok, things start breaking. That’s what things do. Now what?
The key is to build a habit and mentality of fixing things rapidly without making a big deal of it.
The behavior behind this isn’t so difficult; I dare say it’s more of a way of seeing the world.
So look, I’ll just say it: unless you’ve already got a proven track record of perfect successes in habit change and meeting new commitments you’ve scoped for yourself, then — no surprises here — you’ll likely slip up and screw up when you try something new.
For a lot of people, they then start telling a story about it and making a big deal out of it instead of fixing it.
For me, I know anything I want to do or install permanently will have setbacks.
The key isn’t trying to chain together perfection without failure, only to fall into a growing gnawing self-hatred when things start getting shaky and falling short.
Failure happens, setbacks happen.
Whenever I start a new project, habit/lifestyle change, or initiative, I plan for things to go wrong and accept that’ll happen before it starts.
Here’s a simple example. I went to a “Water Only” experiment for one year a couple months. Yeah, I’m only drinking water for a year. No coffee, no tea, nothin’.
It screwed up twice. The first time, I ran out of caffeine pills and was surprised that they can’t be bought easily at a Chinese pharmacy when I was in Shanghai. I didn’t want to abruptly go off caffeine, so I started drinking tea and coffee again until I left Shanghai and picked up some 200mg caffeine pills from the pharmacy in the USA.
The second time, I was at extremely low willpower and feeling desperately like binging out on junk food. I picked coffee back up for a short time as a compromise to hold the line on diet. It worked, but I was drinking coffee again.
So what? Once I hit a firebreak (one of those reviews I do), I just calmly reset the protocol. Since then I’ve been on Water Only for around a month now.
Sometimes you can quit something cold turkey and stay quit forever. But often, when people relapse a bad habit or fall off a good one, they feel so much self-hate and disappointment that they don’t even want to look at the area they fell off of.
Again, I conjecture that firebreaks — time periods where you can’t be on autopilot that are designed to get you to think through everything and make adjustments — are a key part of the answer.
But then, you need to just start fixing things.
If you were operating at an advanced level when you fell off, you might need to start smaller.
That sucks. I hate it, personally. But I’ve accepted it.
So let’s say you were running an aggressive 30% caloric deficit, and got it right down to the exact numbers for a couple months in a row. Then you fell off one day, then the next, then fell off hard… and here you are.
Well, you might start trying to run a mere 10% weekly deficit, be flexible on daily targets, and go to the (much more sane in my opinion) flexible dieting protocol.
For me, if I miss two Weekly Reviews in a row, I start looking to do a “hyper-abbreviated” Weekly Review. Takes like 5-10 minutes, just to get going again.
I used to do the opposite — I used to mandate that I go back and get fully up to speed.
Bzzzt, that’s a recipe for failure.
“Rapid Repairs” means start getting fixes in fast. Scope down if you were operating at a high tempo or high complexity when you fell off.
If you go down from 2000 words/day in writing down to a mere 200/day but reliably start doing that 200, it’s easy to crank the word count back up. It’s not writing at all that’s the enemy.
So do whatever you need to put fixes in. The mechanics are pretty simple, really — start habits back up immediately once you notice you’ve fallen off, and do a simpler version if the full version is perhaps not going to work — but the mentality of “getting this going again is more critical than being perfect” is the hard part.
Oh yeah, and stop beating yourself up. Empirically, it doesn’t seem to work.
1. Build firebreaks into your life. Especially when things are going well and you don’t seem to need them.
2. Starting fixing off-track stuff rapidly; it doesn’t need to be perfect or pretty.